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FDR's First 100 Days

by Horst Dippel Tuesday, May. 31, 2016 at 6:05 AM

The Works Progress Administration created 651K miles of highway, 124K bridges, 8K parks and 125K public buildings including 41K schools. In the US of Amnesia, corporate subsidies are called public necessities and public welfare unnecessary Orwell warned us of this inversion of language.


By Horst Dippel

[This reading sample of “A History of the US,” 10th edition, 2015 is translated from the German on the Internet, The Works Progress Administration created 651K miles of highway, 124K bridges, 8K parks and 125K public buildings including 41K schools. In the US of Amnesia, keeping the washrooms open at community centers is like walking on water! The financial sector should be shriveled and the public sector expanded.]


The 1932 Democratic program to overcome the Great Depression was only negligibly different from the Republican program. But the election campaign had its watchword when Franklin D. Roosevelt accepted the nomination with the words championing “a New Deal for the American people.” Roosevelt won – in a landslide victory because he seemed trustworthy and gave the feeling he could master the harsh fate. With him, urban America won over rural America – with the multitude of its disadvantaged ethnic minorities.

The first “hundred days” were marked by a tangled abundance of legal measures to create trust in politics beyond sheer and often uncoordinated actionism. This included a strict bank monitoring, projects to promote the natural heritage, establishment of national parks, building dams and bridges and authorities, credits to maintain apartments and farms, support- and bridging measures on the local plane and plans for energy production and improving the economic structure in neighboring areas.

The most important measures were the Agricultural Adjustment Act and the National Recovery Act that countered agricultural over-production, prevented a further dramatic drop in prices and reduced industrial production goals – while simultaneously observing the rules of fair competition and monitoring agreed wages and working conditions. In addition, unions were legally recognized on the national plane for the first time so business persons could not discriminate against union members. Workers had the right to join forces in unions and unions could negotiate collective bargaining contracts for their members.

The “hundred days” altogether do not show any connected plan; sometimes the measures were counter-productive. However they expressed the sense of the new era about to dawn and made clear life went forward and fate and the future could be taken in hand if people only tackled them and looked forward. Lethargy and future anxieties should be broken and enthusiasm and dynamism sweep along the nation.

Altogether it was a business-friendly policy. Only the most wicked excesses of the economic system should be corrected. The system itself should not be put in question or completely reconstructed. In fact, an economic recovery occurred in the summer of 1933 as a result of the “hundred days” which however proved to be a straw fire. In 1934, the key economic futures remained mostly unfavorable and the New Deal came into a cross-fire of criticism. More and more voices that held the whole National Recovery Act to be unconstitutional mixed in the increasing dissatisfaction, an interpretation that the Supreme Court unanimously affirmed in May 1935. Hardly one New Dealer trusted the decision since the law hardly contributed to economic stimulation.

The New Deal seemed successful in parts of agriculture since the income of farmers rose 50% between 1933 and 1937. However the landless itinerant workers and leaseholders were increasingly affected by the land set-asides. Even the weather seemed against them. A series of hot and dry summers led to disastrous dust storms from the Dakotas to Texas. Many Okies (although they did not all come from Oklahoma) gave up, migrated to cities or the West and were the symbol for the poverty of the rural American population of the 1930s.

Nevertheless the New Deal and Roosevelt remained popular in large parts of the population so the Democrats gained their majority in Congress in the November 1934 election. The sharp criticism from the conservative and pre-fascist side (Father Charles E. Coughlin), ambiguous figures like former governor of Louisiana Huey Long and his successors did not grow silent.

Roosevelt answered their partly abstruse and partly social reformist ideas anticipating the 1936 presidential election with activism and a whole bundle of measures that are described as the second New Deal. Already in January 1935, he announced large-scale social reforms. Millions of Americans received direct state support with the help of different measures with the Works Progress Administration as the most popular. With a billion dollars, public buildings were built all over the country and loyal to the teachings of John Maynard Keynes were financed by a dramatically growing state indebtedness.

Employee- and union rights were clearly improved – with the National Labor Relations Act of July 1935 and small farmers and tenants were helped. The 1935 Social Security Act was even more important and far-reaching by taking up German and English social state thinking and introducing pension-, work safety and unemployment insurance. Finally, bank monitoring was intensified and the tax rate on high incomes and businesses was raised.

Roosevelt entered the 1936 election with this bundle of social reform measures. 1936 was the greatest victory ever achieved by an American president since 1820. Roosevelt received 61% of the votes while his republican rival Alfred Landon only gained 36%. In the Electoral College, Roosevelt had the majority of all states except Maine and Vermont, 523:8.

To all opponents of the New Deal, the Supreme Court was their only hope of legally overturning what they could not prevent politically. Whether this hope of the conservatives was legitimate seems dubious even if four of the nine justices were convinced opponents of the New Deal and the court altogether could be seen as antiquated. Nevertheless the court allowed the Tennessee Valley Authority in 1936 and scrutinized the National Labor Relations Act and the Social Security Act in 1937.

Roosevelt did not wait for the two decisions when he submitted a bill to Congress completely out of the blue in February 1937 to reform the Supreme Court. Given the court’s intense work strain, the president should have the right to appoint an additional justice – up to six altogether – to the Supreme Court for every justice over seventy. A storm of indignation broke out immediately over Roosevelt’s court-packing plan that would destroy the independence and integrity of the court, pervert the constitution and boundlessly increase the power of the executive.

The proposal could not be criticized purely constitutionally because neither the number of members nor the supremacy of the court over the other two branches was fixed by the constitution. Still Roosevelt’s plan was politically blind be because it did not distinguish between the public effect of constitutional institutions and their respective officeholders and did not recognize that the Supreme Court in public consciousness was more than nine old men, namely the guarantor of the constitution and the rights and freedoms of citizens. Even hardened New Dealers opposed the plan and left Roosevelt no other choice than to drop it as quickly as possible.

Politically Roosevelt suffered his greatest defeat. As a result, conservative democrats were encouraged to criticize domestic measures of the president with republicans. With that, the New Deal came to an end as a social-economic reform program. The short-term recession of 1937/38 when unemployment skyrocketed from 7 to 11 million (20%) did not bring about any more reform laws. Faith in the future was anchored again without Americans being reeducated or putting American individualism and capitalism in question.

Retrospectively Roosevelt’s assumption of office on March 4, 1933 was the beginning of a new epoch. There were three reasons for that turning point. 1. Franklin D Roosevelt was the first modern president of the United States who carried out the presidential office with a new understanding and a new goal. The dominant role of the chief executive laid out in the constitution and previously practiced by some presidents was systematically and institutionally set on a new foundation by him, the powerfully built executive office of the President. 2. Roosevelt succeeded in continuously changing the political structures of the country by setting the Democratic Party on a new electoral basis of workers, intellectuals and ethnic minorities (the so-called New Deal coalition) and changed it from a sectoral party to a new majority party on the national plane. 3. His policy brought about a new definition of the relation of the economy and society to each other – the establishment of the American welfare state that basically redefined the tasks of the state toward the economy and society and cannot be equated with the European variant.

There was an essential distinction between Germany and other European countries. The Roosevelt policy proclaimed the bold step forward to prevent “the return to the evils of the old order” instead of a relapse into fright and alarm, clinging to supposedly safe values and paralysis from fear. Roosevelt expressed a basic tenor of American politics that was encountered with Kennedy and in a very different way with Reagan. Here policy is not made according to a polished plan or a unanimous political party concept but by testing many possible and even conflicting ways and then presenting the promising ones to Congress and the people.

To this end, Roosevelt surrounded himself with a brain-trust of respected scholars – as in his four years as governor of New York. All his life his wife Eleanor Roosevelt played an important role as advisor. For the first time the First Lady was given a public function that contributed substantially to the social components of Roosevelt policy and did not only bring the concerns of women.

Comparable to the new beginning in domestic policy, Latin American policy was set on the new foundation of a “Good Neighbor policy” with Roosevelt’s assumption of office. In this sense, Roosevelt withdrew the last American troops from the Dominican Republic and Haiti and convinced the New York National City Bank to cede its control of the Central Bank of Haiti to the Haitian government. However the consequence was that the United States contributed directly or indirectly to supporting the dictators Trujillo (Dominican Republic), Somoza (Nicaragua) and Batista (Cuba).

The American reaction to the increasingly threatening European fascism and Japanese nationalist militarism was very different. In a growing anti-war mood, the American Congress responded with a series of neutrality laws. To the broad mass of the American population, fascists appeared more comical than dangerous. First, there was astonishingly much tolerance, even a certain goodwill toward Mussolini and Hitler who it seemed were efficient, anti-communist and concerned for order.

Roosevelt made allowances for this domestic mood but proclaimed in 1937 that aggressors had to be quarantined to stop the epidemic of state lawlessness in the world. In this sense, Roosevelt and the American public approved the 1938 Munich Agreement that seemed to preserve the peace. Compared with the 1920s, the situation was not better for great gestures and powerful acts in East Asia as in Europe. Therefore concentrating on domestic problems seemed very realistic.

A sudden change of mind occurred after the Nazi surprise attack on Czechoslovakia in March and Albania’s occupation by fascist Italy three weeks later in April 1939. However the points were set earlier on the political plane. A few weeks after Munich, Roosevelt asked Congress for an additional $300 million for defense measures and another $1.3 billion in January 1939. At that time 80,000 Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany were already admitted in the US. Still the general public and most politicians rejected raising the immigration quotas for German Jews despite “Reich Crystal Night” and increasing persecutions. The situation changed with the Nazi surprise attack on Poland on September 1, 1939. With all neutrality, the spirit and conscience of the country could not remain neutral for Roosevelt. Soon the Cash-and-carry law created the possibility for selling weapons to warring powers if the material was bought with cash and taken away on ships of the allies. In this way, the country marched into war through the backdoor as in the First World War.

In view of the war escalation in Europe, Roosevelt right before the beginning of the Democratic Party convention in July 1940 declared he would accept the nomination for a third term. This was an unparalleled breach with American tradition but there was hardly an alternative for anti-New Deal Democrats. As a complete surprise, the industrialist Wendell L. Wilkie prevailed at the Republican Party convention though he was never a political actor. He urged greater aid for Great Britain and gained the support of internationalists and the business wing in the party. As a reaction, Roosevelt sought a broader political base and brought leading republicans in important offices, enormously increased the defense budget and sent Great Britain 50 old American destroyers but stressed he would keep the US out of the war. He won the election with around 55% of the votes.

Great Britain was now given full support. Universal conscription was ordered for the first time without the US being directly in a war. In January 1941 Roosevelt proposed the Lend-lease law as a revision of the old Cash-and-carry law since Great Britain could no longer pay for the war material. With wide support of the general public, the law took effect in March 1941 and was immediately extended after the Nazi surprise attack on the Soviet Union. American protection was arranged for British ships and Greenland and Iceland were occupied to prevent their occupation by German troops.

The postwar time required different answers than after the First World War. Principles of collective security and disarmament were central, not only democratic principles, national self-determination and condemnation of aggression when Roosevelt and Churchill met on a warship before Newfoundland in the middle of August 1941 and the Atlantic Charter was signed.

Despite the mounting support for Great Britain, the war for the US began in the Pacific, not in the Atlantic. The Japanese expansion in Southeast Asia should be stopped to protect American economic interests. The trade agreement with Japan was not extended and the export of more military goods to Japan was prohibited up to the total trade embargo against Japan in the summer of 1941. The American government knew war was immediately imminent given the declining Japanese oil supply after the Japanese code was successfully cracked at the end of November 1941. Then Japanese bombers on December 17, 1941 without any resistance destroyed the American Pacific fleet in Pearl Harbor in Hawaii and the American air fleet on the nearby air force bases.

The United States found itself in the middle of a global war without being adequately prepared. Within a short time, the American war machine revolutionized production and the country. The conversion from peace to war production occurred with breathtaking speed. The whole economy was put under the control of the Office of War Mobilization in May 1943. The country became the biggest arms merchant of the world and produced more war material than all the axis powers.

The war accomplished what the New Deal never achieved. The American economy and the unemployed were revived at full speed. The result was one of the most significant changes in American income distribution in the 20th century. The share of the richest 5% in the total national income declined from 26% to 20% while the poorest 40% rose from 13% to 16% and the American middle class doubled. The war also had radical repercussions on American society in another regard. It mobilized women who wanted to be in a better position and provide for the rest of the family and not only 15 million soldiers (nearly 11% of the total population). The centers of war production, particularly in the Pacific states, attracted millions. Around 6 million Americans left rural America to settle in the industrial centers of the Middle West and the West coast. The war not only uprooted millions of people. It made many more open, lonelier and more frustrated and changed their habits and lifestyles thanks to a fundamental influence on the American culture through the great upswing of the mass media.

The lives of women and families changed permanently. A third of all workers were women who were mostly married, had children and many took over male-oriented professions. However the majority of the population rejected jobs for wives and felt confirmed by the five-fold rise in youth criminality and the mounting divorce rate from 16% to 27%. Notwithstanding all the discriminations, the war gave millions of women a new self-esteem and a new independence.

Perhaps the war opened doors even more for African-Americans. The war for freedom and against fascism was domestically a struggle against racial discrimination. The Congress of Racial Equality founded in 1942 was much sought after, not only the NAACP. For the first time since the Reconstruction, the government passed laws against racial discrimination. Millions of black persons came to cities and industry and joined unions and the armed forces. Everything contributed to those far-reaching changes on which the movements for civil rights and racial equality later built even if the way was long and discriminations and racial unrest were not removed for a long while.

To the darker sides, 112,000 Americans of Japanese descent were interned from February 1942. Two-thirds were born in the US in camps though not a single one of them was guilty of espionage, riots, sabotage or other disloyalty. They had to sell land and houses and were crowded together – out of pure racism and war hysteria. In 1982 the American government first officially apologized to the victims. In 1988 each of them received a compensation of $20,000.

The foundations for a permanent postwar order marked by the US were laid without entering into the crucial military role of the United States in the Second World War in the Pacific and in Europe. The Atlantic Charter had already addressed some things. From an American view, the US military strength supported by the late4st scientific technological developments with the nuclear bomb being the most spectacular manifestation was the basis of the new order, not only the overwhelming economic potential of the country. Given these goals and supported in the political solidarity of the country, Roosevelt ran for a fourth term in office in November 1944 and won with 54% of the votes – his weakest result despite the clear victory.

Before the election, the foundations of the postwar order were laid down in two decisive conferences that both took place in the US – in contrast to the war conferences of Moscow (1942) and Potsdam (1945). In July 1944 representatives of 44 states gathered in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire to work out the future world economic order. It was an order conceived by America even if the Soviet Union was not present and all American proposals were not accepted in the agreement. As a condition for preserving the Lend-lease support during the war, the allied nations committed themselves to remove all discriminations in world trade after the war, to grant free access to markets and raw materials, to secure stable exchange rates and make their currencies fully convertible on the basis of their strict bond to the dollar. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) was created to carry out and control the currency negotiations and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) was crafted to control trade negotiations. An International Bank for Reconstruction and Development was established for the reconstruction of the war-destroyed countries. The modern World Bank was dominated by American capital and led by Americans up to the 1980s. American capital was enough – since credits of the World Bank are tied to conditions – so debtor countries pursued an economic- and financial policy that did not run counter to American capital interests. American capital was not only a dominant influence in the European reconstruction. More than any other agreement, the Bretton Woods agreement was the basis of the Pax Americana after 1945.

The second conference occurred in August 1944 in Bumbarton Oaks in Washington D.C. with a follow-up meeting from April 25 to June 26, 1945 in San Francisco. Its goal was political-military. An international group should be installed to settle disputes with a multinational troop to scare off aggressors. In this way, an instrument for collective security should replace the old balance-of-power politics. The result was a UN originally dominated by the United States that could only carry out limited global tasks in the sign of the Cold War.

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