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Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal
Franklin Roosevelt changed the landscape of American politics forever when he reigned in his election with New Deal programs that expanded the power of the federal government and strengthened the presidential position. Although his intentions were to ameliorate the conditions of the people due to the depression, he did not do so without creating turmoil in Washington. His New Deal programs conflicted with the ideals of Republicans and businessmen who preached the concepts of individualism. Because of this, he was faced with many obstacles in enacting his policies and found that, at times, he had to compromise and exercise executive power. Roosevelt and his New Deal have created many legacies that last even today and those active in politics constantly compare contemporary economic conditions with those that Roosevelt faced. They also like to measure how contemporary politicians compare to Roosevelt in tenacity, efficiency, and productivity. Unsurprisingly, they all fall short.
This paper will use Stud Terkel’s “Hard Times” and “The Good War” as well as William E. Leuchtenburg’s “Franklin D. Roosevelt And The New Deal” to expand on how Roosevelt and his New Deal created controversies when he proposed new legislation. It will then describe how the New Deal was successful and flawed. Lastly, it will compare how it would stand today and describe the legacies that it left behind.
One reason why the New Deal was controversial during the depression and World War II was because of Franklin Roosevelt himself. He as president changed the face of politics and the seat of the presidency by centralizing power to revolve around himself. Naturally, his opponents cast a suspicious eye towards him and his administration out of fear that he was attempting to create a new national government that held more power than state governments and the public. In “Franklin D. Roosevelt And The New Deal,” Leuchtenburg writes about how Roosevelt reshaped the president’s position in Washington by stating, “Under Roosevelt, the White House became the focus of all government-the fountainhead of ideas, the initiator of action, the representative of the national interest.”1 At a time when the depression was devastating the nations finances and the people were waiting and hoping that their leaders would step up and ameliorate their condition, and at a time when the nation was fighting an enemy abroad in the fascists who posed a threat to American democracy, the belief that Roosevelt represented the national interest was a cause for turmoil in Washington. For Republicans and those who believed that the business of America is business, Roosevelt’s interests conflicted with theirs. According to Leuchtenburg in “Franklin D. Roosevelt And The New Deal, “Roosevelt himself believed that liberty in America was imperiled more by agglomerations of private business than by the state.”2
Accordingly, the second reason why the New Deal and Franklin Roosevelt were controversial was in their regulations on the corporate world, regulations that instilled fear in his political opponents and pitted many critics against him and his administration. There was a general fear amongst businesses that they were losing control of their operations and that Roosevelt and the government were impeding on their territory. Although this is very true, it was also very necessary if the country was to find itself on firm economic ground once again. In Stud Terkel’s “Hard Times,” he writes about businesses that, “Pressures had been coming from business to get free of anti-trust acts and have business run business.”3 Roosevelt understood that their way of thinking was in the past and that they were partially responsible for the depression. He understood that new methods had to be developed so that corporations and their employees could coexist efficiently and productively for both parties. In Terkel’s “Hard Times,” he describes how Roosevelt ameliorated the tension between corporations and their employees by stating, “Codes of behavior were set up. You couldn’t sell below cost….Labor got collective bargaining rights. It was, in a sense, a prelude to the Wagner Act. The wage increases were worked out between business and labor.”4 For the first time in the country’s corporate history, government threw itself into the seemingly eternal battle between employer and employee. They believed that their place was to mitigate the constant struggle between business rights and worker’s rights. It was in this show of force, especially through legislations such as the Wagner Act, that the New Deal and Roosevelt became controversial.
In my opinion, the most important accomplishments of the New Deal was in the fact that it gave hope to a people who were having trouble finding hope in everyday life, it offered millions of people a chance to find employment and support their families, and it changed the interactions between employers and employees forever. I especially believe that a major success of the New Deal and Franklin Roosevelt was in that he was pioneer, since he was one of the first presidents to take into consideration the needs of the people over the needs of corporations. Having been raised in a generation when behemoth sized banks, corporate greed, and war profiteers dominate the political and corporate landscape, Roosevelt’s words strike an emotional cord within me in that I am able to listen to his speeches and understand the dangers that he warned against and fought against. For example, in a campaign speech that Roosevelt gave on October 31st, 1936 (a YouTube video you assigned to us), Roosevelt states that:
For nearly four years you have had an Administration which instead of twirling its thumbs has rolled up its sleeves. We will keep our sleeves rolled up. We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace—business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering. They had begun to consider the Government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob.
First of all, the ease in which that speech from 1936 transfers into the political and corporate landscapes of 2014 is both frightening and eerie. Secondly, it is because of this speech do I understand why Roosevelt was so successful in garnering national support for his New Deal and administration. Roosevelt spoke to the people’s emotions and how they felt towards corporations and how they treated them. They were feeling abandoned, abused, and alone, and Roosevelt offered them a shoulder to lean on, a firm ground to stand on, and most importantly a helping hand.
Conversely, the biggest failure of the New Deal and Roosevelt’s administration was in ignoring the turmoil that was occurring in Germany and other countries heading towards fascism. As Hitler assumed control of the German government and began to mobilize the German military, the rest of the world, including the United States, sat idly and seemingly hoped that Hitler would stop at some point. In “Franklin D. Roosevelt And The New Deal,” Leuchtenburg writes on how the world acted as Hitler gained power and strengthened his military:
On March 5, 1933, one day after Roosevelt entered the White House the German Reichstag placed absolute power in the hands of Adolf Hitler…During the Hundred Days, while Congress debated farm subsidies and banking legislation, Jews were being beaten on the streets of Germany…all of the New Deal was to be carried on under the shadow of the menace of fascism.5
I believe that if the United States and the rest of the world took the initiative to stop Hitler from rising to power and inhibit his expansion into Europe, World War II could have been avoided or at least less destructive than what it had become. An account by Richard M. (Red) Prendergast in Stud Terkel’s “The Good War” exemplifies perfectly the kind of horrors Roosevelt could have avoided if he took the fascist threat and Hitler more seriously. The account reads:
So we took that apart, and I stood the faceplate up. It’s like a waffle iron, and I lay behind it. One of our second gunners, a kid from Pennsylvania, said, “Can I come over and hide with you?” I said sure. He wasn’t there five minutes and he got his leg blown off. I think he bled to death. That was the way things went.6
As Roosevelt attempted to ameliorate the difficult conditions at home, he failed to foresee the dangers that Hitler and fascism would present for the world in the near future.
In my opinion, I believe that many of the New Deal programs that were controversial in the 1930s and 1940s would still be controversial today. In fact, Ever since we stood victorious after the Revolutionary War, politicians have constantly battled each other over states’ rights versus the federal government’s rights. Also, there has always been a struggle between corporation’s rights and its workers’ rights. With that being said, I believe that the Wagner act, in particular, would be a cause for extreme turmoil in Congress as it had been when it was originally proposed. The Wagner act was the ultimate insult to corporations and posed the most dangerous threat to their power over their employees’ rights, or lack thereof.
The New Deal and Roosevelt’s enduring legacy is how they both changed the face of politics in America. Roosevelt established the expanded and powerful government around the presidency and gave the president the power that he still holds today. Its most enduring legacy, however, is how it changed the way employers, employees, and the government interact with one another. The New Deal created a medium in which all three elements influence and affect each other. This had never been the case before Roosevelt and the New Deal. With the Wagner act, Roosevelt placed more responsibility on corporations to guarantee their workers the right to protest them if they felt like they were being mistreated. Although labor unions have been weakened since Ronald Reagan became president, they are still important parts of the corporate world today.
Franklin Roosevelt changed politics in American history when he proved to the nation that corporations did not, in fact, run the country. He proved to the nation that government was able to wield power so effectively that they could influence how corporations treated their employees. He proved to the nation that government does not have to be an afterthought in Americans minds; he proved that the government could act to the benefit off the public and that the old adage that the business of America is business did not have to be true. Although his New Deal programs were flawed and did not pull the nation out of the depression entirely, he was able to expand the influence of the government into Americans lives so that they were aware of its existence and forever changed how people interacted with their government.
- William E. Leuchtenburg, Franklin D. Roosevelt And The New Deal, The New American Nation Series (New York, United States: Harper & Row, 1963), [Page 327].
- William E. Leuchtenburg, Franklin D. Roosevelt And The New Deal, The New American Nation Series (New York, United States: Harper & Row, 1963), [Page 333].
- William E. Leuchtenburg, Franklin D. Roosevelt And The New Deal, The New American Nation Series (New York, United States: Harper & Row, 1963), [Page 197].
- Studs Terkel, Hard Times (New York, United States: Pantheon Books, 1986), [Page 249].
- Studs Terkel, Hard Times (New York, United States: Pantheon Books, 1986), [Page 249].
- Studs Terkel, The Good War (New York, United States: Ballantine, 1984), [Page 48].
Leuchtenburg, William E. Franklin D. Roosevelt And The New Deal. The New American Nation Series. New York, United States: Harper & Row, 1963.
Terkel, Studs. Hard Times. New York, United States: Pantheon Books, 1986.
Terkel, Studs. The Good War. New Y