STEPHEN SMITH: FDR's Role: Did He Rescue Us, or Did It Take a War?
Did FDR pull us out of the Great Depression, or were Hitler and Hirohito our economic saviors?
That seems to be the question every talking head on cable news wants to answer.
"FDR saved us by initiating the New Deal and putting people back to work," says an economic analyst on MSNBC.
"FDR's domestic policies only prolonged the Depression," says a resident expert on Fox News. "The economy didn't recover until our entry into World War II required American industry to produce war goods."
They're both emphatic, absolutely convinced -- or absolutely intent on convincing us -- that Roosevelt was either our economic messiah or the antichrist of the 20th century. If we answer that question, perhaps we can predict the effectiveness of President Obama's economic policies.
I wasn't born until after the Depression, but I've been diligently reading up on the 1929 economic disaster. A year or so ago, I happened upon a paperback copy of Jim Powell's "FDR's Folly: How Roosevelt and His New Deal Prolonged the Great Depression" and gave it a careful read.
Powell is very persuasive. He maintains -- the blurbs on the dust jacket say Powell "proves" -- that the Depression was actually prolonged by FDR's New Deal. Gene Smiley's "Rethinking the Great Depression" takes the same point of view.
In college, I read William E. Leuchtenburg's "Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal," which was reissued in paperback last year. Since the book was a reading assignment in an economics course, I recall only that it was an evenhanded assessment of the New Deal, giving grudging credit to FDR for the positive difficult decisions he made.
On the other hand, there's Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.'s "The Coming of the New Deal, 1933-1935," which is supportive of FDR's New Deal programs. A few years ago, I read Jean Edward Smith's masterful "FDR," another decidedly sympathetic view of the 32nd president.
My most recent foray into Roosevelt's life and times is W.H. Brands' "Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt."
Brands is decidedly fair-minded and his view of FDR's New Deal is also sympathetic, taking into consideration the various woulda-coulda-shoulda theories concerning FDR's attempts to restore prosperity: "He (FDR) gave Americans what most of them agreed the country required during the emergency of the depression, and they sufficiently liked what they got that they retained it after prosperity returned."
In the '30s, when much of the world fell under the sway of fascism, socialism, or communism, America had FDR. And there's no arguing that the American economy exploded after World War II. The middle class expanded, poverty was less pervasive and the rich got richer. Anyway we figure it, we were better off than most countries. And it's obvious, too, that the post-war recovery was the result of FDR's economic policies -- as are many of the economic problems we now have to confront.
All of this matters only if we believe that there's such a thing as predestination. Of course, there are aspects of the crash of '29 that are analogous and consequent to our present economic downturn, but any political or market analyst attempting to find exact equivalents is merely manipulating his audience to his own advantage. I don't trust any of them. They might as well be reading chicken entrails.
I do trust the word of loved ones I knew who'd lived through the Depression. My sainted grandparents were unequivocal in their belief that FDR's New Deal saved them. My grandfather worked for the railroad, and there were periods early in the Depression when he was employed only three or four days a month. As FDR's programs took hold, he began to get more work. Soon they bought a house and a washing machine and a Dodge.
They saved every cent they could get their hands on -- and they lived out their lives scared to death there'd be another depression.
Contact Stephen Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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