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A New Deal for the American People.

Since 1963, William E. Leuchtenburg's Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal has ruled the roost of one-volume analyses of that exciting, consequential era. Despite numerous changes during the past three decades in historians' interpretations of the age of FDR, along with the publication of hundreds of more recent monographs on New Deal programs and politicians, state and local reactions to federal initiatives, and the impact of the New Deal on women, minorities, and the lower working classes, Leuchtenburg's combination of vivid writing, prodigious research, and keen, perceptive assessments has forced the many subsequent competing interpretative overviews to fade out of print. That same fate probably awaits A New Deal for the American People by Roger Biles, an associate professor of history at Oklahoma State University and author of Big City Boss in Depression and War: Mayor Edward J. Kelly of Chicago (1984) and Memphis in the Great Depression (1986).

A New Deal for the American People does have some undeniable strengths, particularly for an undergraduate audience. The text is concise; the quotations are well-chosen; and the prose, free of turgid jargon, is quite readable. Indeed, its simple, straightforward descriptions of the myriad and complex New Deal laws and programs are a model of clarity. Moreover, the organization of disparate materials is admirable. Intelligently blending a chronological and a topical approach, Biles explains the causes of the stock market Crash and the Great Depression, analyzes the First and Second Hundred Days, especially in relation to agriculture, industry, and relief and social welfare, assesses the impact of the New Deal on labor, African Americans, women, and urban dwellers, and recounts the eclipse of the New Deal. Biles's discussion of these matters utilizes the latest scholarship, and his bibliography, although hardly exhaustive, lists all the most relevant and recent articles and books.

Unfortunately, these isolated qualities cannot rescue A New Deal for the American People from its hopelessly muddled interpretative line and inability to breathe life into the decade's main characters and events. Biles fails to convey the tumultuous temper of the times and the drama of such incidents as the Bonus Expeditionary Force, the sit-down strikes, and the battle over FDR's plan to "pack" the Supreme Court; likewise, the personalities of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, among others who had such an extraordinary impact on their contemporaries, are left unexplored and unexplained, despite the excellence of many recent biographies that do so much to relate the particularities of key individuals to the actions and passions of the 1930s. A New Deal for the American People is history without the human element, either of the rulers or the ruled.

It is also unconvincing as an explanation of the meaning and significance of the New Deal. In the guise of a litigant arguing the case for the New Left critique of Roosevelt, Biles minimizes most New Deal programs for their lack of originality and boldness, for retarding recovery and revitalizing capitalism, for being mere palliatives that did not go as far as conditions demanded--or as far as Biles would have liked. Each New Deal measure passed by Congress is accompanied by a quotation from someone to the Left of Roosevelt on the bill's limitations or by a comment on some negative consequence of the program in later decades. Each regressive piece of legislation is said to reflect Roosevelt's innate conservatism while progressive laws are always forced upon him by popular and/or congressional pressures. Whatever good he did was the result of political calculation, never of a genuine interest in humanitarian reform. The striking successes of the Democrats in 1934 in becoming the first party ever to increase its control of both houses of Congress in an off-year election, and of Roosevelt's winning over 60 percent of the popular vote in 1936 while the Democrats increased their numbers in both houses again, are viewed by Biles not as a vindication of the New Deal but as the electorate's demand for more radical policies.

Such a selective and presentist interpretation would be enough to mar this survey of the New Deal, yet Biles muddles it further by layering it with the insights and quotes of historians critical of the New Left's focus on Roosevelt's conservative intent and who instead emphasize the many external forces limiting what the New Deal could accomplish. Thus, Biles both portrays FDR as having enormous latitude to establish the programs he desired and asserts that he was constrained by conservative congressional and judicial opponents, the independence of local and state authorities, the strength of traditional American attitudes, values, and institutions, as well as of vested interests, and the political weaknesses of those most in need. Time and again, Biles faults Roosevelt for being inadequately liberal, and then in the next sentence emphasizes the confluence of forces circumscribing the president. While repeatedly stressing continuity rather than change, Biles then acknowledges that the New Deal transformed the relationship between workers and business, achieved unprecedented advances in the field of social welfare, revolutionized the role of the national government in the problems of everyday life, and yet more.

Similar confusing inconsistencies appear in his portrait of Roosevelt as a cautious, thrifty Dutch Calvinist who nevertheless won the undying enmity of conservatives and a large majority of the financial and business community; in his depiction of unprecedented lower- and working-class support and affection for FDR despite the president's presumed lack of empathy for its needs; and in his claim that Roosevelt should and could have assumed direct executive control of the economy in 1933, while blaming him for contributing to the "imperial presidency." Those of us who teach the New Deal to undergraduates need a better interpretative survey than A New Deal for the American People. My students this year will again be assigned Leuchtenburg.

Harvard Sitkoff is professor of history at the University of New Hampshire. He is the author of numerous works on the 1930's and African American history, including A New Deal for Blacks: The Emergence of Civil Rights as a National Issue (1978), "The Impact of the New Deal on Black Southerners," in The New Deal and the South, ed. James Cobb and Michael Namorato (1984), and "The New Deal and Race Relations," in Fifty Years Later: The New Deal Evaluated, ed. Harvard Sitkoff (1985). He is currently working on an analysis of racial violence in the 1960s.
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Author:Sitkoff, Harvard
Publication:Business History Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1993
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