Why the New Deal and Its Enduring Legacy 10-23-09

Why the New Deal and Its Enduring Legacy!

October 23, 2009

Richard J. Garfunkel


As to the New Deal it has remained popular because it basically worked and brought stability to an unstable environment. That Depression era destroyed democracy all over the world. Countries that had elected parliaments or at least had nominally representative government failed in wake of the economic cataclysm of WWI. In the United States our democratic ideas of representative government endured. By the late 1930’s, even with the set back of the recession of late 1937, world wide events were catching the attention of the public. The emergence of a powerful and dangerous Germany, the Spanish Civil War, Italian invasion of Ethiopia, Japan’s aggression first in Manchuria and then in China started to change perceptions in the American populace. FDR was seen as a stable world level leader. But the country was overwhelmingly isolationist and becoming more and xenophobic and race conscious. That is why it opposed immigration, especially of Jews or Eastern Europeans. Its attitude towards Japan and Japanese-Americans or Japanese resident aliens was fraught with racial fears and hatred. American sympathies toward China exacerbated that hatred towards the aggressive Japanese warlords. This attitude would foreshadow the Japanese internment.


Therefore the regulation of the New Deal, and the concerns over foreign problems and military defense started to take over the thinking of the public. In fact, the WPA and the CCC employment strengthened the physicality of many Americans who had been malnourished during years of the depression. The building up of public works, though both the PWA and the WPA all over America, which included airports, the railroads, the roads and the airline and the automobile industries allowed America to eventually become “The Arsenal of Democracy.” In fact, without the New Deal we would have never been prepared for the build-up needed to equip a modern army, build a vast naval fleet and prepare to win the greatest war in history. That is one reason why the New Deal is remembered with a high level of positive nostalgia.


As to FDR, his leadership of America, the United Nations, and the free world was unprecedented. His military appointments were considered, by all historians, as second to none. He put excellent and sometimes controversial people, like King, Marshall, Leahy and Arnold as his top leadership corps and staff, and his support for successful theater commanders deserves and gets high marks from history. The next level of commanders, Nimitz, MacArthur, Eisenhower, Clark, and Stillwell were not all loved, but respected and that success translated down to Halsey, Spruance, Hodges, Patton, Bradley, Eaker, Doolittle, and many others.


FDR was re-elected overwhelmingly in 1936, and faced a greater electoral challenge in 1940. It is true, if there had not been the threat of war, most feel that FDR would have retired. There was no legal inhibition against anyone running for a third term. It was just tradition. Most American presidents were elected in their late 50’s and the toll on their health was always an issue. But remember, no president had served out two consecutive terms other than Wilson, who became quite ill and disabled in his last two years in office since, since Andrew Jackson 100 years earlier.


As to FDR’s popularity, on a personal level it was always quite high. On a political level the conservatives and Wall Street did not like him. But as to respect, he engendered high levels in every poll with almost every demographic group. He still remains to the seminal figure of modern history. James MacGregor Burns, the well-respected and renowned historian called him in his two great biographical books, “The Lion and the Fox,” and “The Soldier of Freedom,” and little has changed regarding that view. He was called the “Indispensible Man” by his idolaters, and later said in a well-known speech that there was no “indispensible man.”  But to many of us that was just sheer modesty, and in fact, he may have been just that “man.” The world has never seen his type of leadership since. His premature death at 63 was as great a loss to the world as Lincoln’s. I am sure, as a student of FDR, that had he been healthy he would have served out his term, seen to the nurturing of the UN and would have retired to work on the issue of world peace and reconciliation.


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