PART VII

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THE WPA UNDER ATTACK

A government agency, supported by public funds, has become part and parcel of the Communist party.

—REPRESENTATIVE J. PARNELL THOMAS

I must express my…'disappointment over the very un-American way in which the committee has handled charges against this project.

—ELLEN S. WOODWARD, DIRECTOR, WPA WOMEN’S AND PROFESSIONAL PROJECTS

1. WAR AMONG THE DEMOCRATS

The fury of the New England hurricane was short-lived compared to the turbulence that had been roiling the Democratic Party since the summer, when Roosevelt had launched a battle for its soul and in the process, the New Deal’s legislative prospects. After the failed special session of Congress at the end of 1937 that left him empty-handed, his opponents had trumpeted their new power in a “Conservative Manifesto.” This document, produced by a bipartisan coalition led by southern Democrats with the tacit support of Vice President Garner, denounced the sit-down strikes in the steel and auto industries, called for tax cuts and a balanced budget, condemned federal intrusion on states’ and employers’ rights, and warned that agencies such as the the WPA would lead to a permanent welfare class.

Although the wage-and-hours law and the farm bill had been passed by the following summer, the president remained unsatisfied. As he saw it, an “uncompromisingly liberal” platform had brought about the Democratic landslide of 1936, yet the Seventy-fifth Congress produced in that election had not responded fully to this mandate. In a June 24 fireside chat, Roosevelt had gone on the attack.

“Never before have we had so many Copperheads among us,” he said, alluding to the Democratic appeasers who had opposed the Civil War and urged Lincoln and Congress to give up the fight against secession as the price for peace. They had their modern equivalent, he said, in the legislators who now would cave in to “that small minority which, in spite of its own disastrous leadership in 1929, is always eager to resume its control over the Government of the United States.” Democratic primary voters should ask themselves which side a candidate was on. “An election cannot give the country a firm sense of direction if it has two or more national parties which merely have different names but are as alike in their principles and aims as peas in the same pod,” he warned.

But the protests that flooded the White House after the broadcast ranged from discomfiture to outright anger. A Methodist minister from Kokomo, Indiana, wrote, “No great leader can ever afford to stoop to do what you proposed regarding your opposition. This is a democracy and it is healthyto have a strong opposition. No man is always right. You need criticism for your own good.” A Cincinnatian used a telegram to lambaste the president’s single-mindedness: “I RESENT BEING CALLED A COPPERHEAD BY ONE WHOSE EGOTISM FAST APPROACHES MANIA.”

Obviously, he also received messages of support, but when he set out in the summer and early fall 1938 primaries to campaign against Democrats he considered obstructionist, including Senators Ellison “Cotton Ed” Smith in South Carolina, Walter George in Georgia, and Millard Tydings in Maryland, the voters resisted. There was a racial component in these southern races; Smith was a virulent racist who had walked out of the 1936 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia when a black pastor rose to deliver the invocation, saying, “By God, he’s as black as melted midnight. Get outta my way. This mongrel meeting ain’t no place for a white man.” George and Tydings were less coarse, at least in public, but as implacably segregationist.

In fact, Roosevelt had already conceded to the southerners over race, heeding the warning of North Carolina senator Josiah Bailey early in his first term that “no administration can survive without us.” With Bailey’s words ringing in his ears, he had refrained from strongly endorsing an anti-lynching bill that had been offered by Senators Robert Wagner of New York and Edward Costigan of Colorado in 1934. It followed a rash of twenty-eight lynchings, primarily in the South, the year before. These killings were public spectacles of racist bloodlust. Mobs snatched their victims from jails under the noses of the police and sheriff’s deputies who were supposed to be protecting them, often tortured them before hanging, and then dragged their bodies behind cars or burned them. Photographs of bodies dangling from tree trunks, surrounded by spectators, routinely appeared in local newspapers. The pressure to speak out mounted after a particularly grotesque lynching in Maryland of a black man accused of attacking a white woman; it was followed by the murder of two white men who were taken from a jail and hanged in San Jose, California. Roosevelt spoke up at last, condemning lynching as “a vile form of public murder” and decrying those in “high places or low who condone lynch law.” But this was as far as he was willing to go. If he supported the Wagner-Costigan bill, southerners elevated to power by the congressional seniority system would “block every bill [he proposed] to keep America from collapsing.” “I did not choose the tools with which I must work,” he said in May 1934, and in the years thereafter he kept his silence despite entreaties from black leaders and from his wife to support similar bills introduced in every single session of Congress.

Yet this deference had not paid the desired dividends. The bipartisan “Conservative Manifesto” signaled a newly cohesive resistance to the New Deal’s push to make the central government a regulator and protector. The Liberty League had spoken for the bankers and industrialists starting in 1934, and the Republican National Committee for the party faithful rendered powerless by the elections of 1932 through 1936. But neither had been able to do more than express anger and frustration until the manifesto. It was different; it erected a bulwark against the kinds of progressive laws that had swept through Congress in the president’s first term and, with Hugo Black now replacing Willis Van Devanter and the moderates moving to the left, were being upheld by the Supreme Court. Indeed, it was this southern and rural conservative strain, with racism as its subtext, that waved the flag of individualism, sided with business against unions, and favored states’ and property rights over government controls. It was to animate the political divide into the next century.

Whether or not Roosevelt foresaw saw the depth and tenacity of these divisions, he clearly felt an urgency about advancing his agenda. He had asked his fireside chat listeners for “all the help I can get.” They should reject “outspoken reactionaries” who “have fought against progress with tooth and nail.” Instead, they should favor liberals who saw that new conditions required new, government-provided remedies. Thus the battle for primary votes was not to be restricted to the South or aimed solely at southerners. He did urgently want to lift wages in the South and erase the economic disparities between the region and the rest of the nation—he had called the pittance southern farm workers received an example of a “feudal economic system.” But he took aim at all Democrats who had joined Republicans in opposing New Deal reforms, or who promised to do so when running against New Deal supporters in Democratic primaries.

As Roosevelt was stumping against his party’s conservatives in and out of the South, longtime anti–New Deal fanatics were in full cry. Among the loudest, as usual, was Robert McCormick, publisher of the Chicago Tribune, who opened the 1938 midterm election season in September by running a scurrilous attack on the WPA in a sixteen-part series that mixed vitriol with thin reporting.

“In a little more than three years the Works Progress Administration has grown into a vampire political machine that has engulfed three million Americans and their families,” it began. “More than 12 million people are dominated by this monster of the Roosevelt government. It has grown vast and powerful on their hopelessness and in many cases their shiftlessness.” The series voiced the usual complaints: that the president was using jobs to buy votes; that social workers, not businessmen, were in charge of the vast spending program; and that corruption and malingering were rife.

Three years into the WPA, these accusations were of course old hat. But this time the Tribune went further. One article claimed, according to its headline, that “Green Pastures of WPA Entice Negroes to City,” and lamented that boatmen along the lower Mississippi River could no longer hire black freight handlers for a quarter. Clifford Blackburn, the author of six of the articles, charged that the WPA had created an American peasant class. “The peasant of Europe is a hopeless, beaten fellow,” Blackburn wrote. “The deadening influences that have made him what he is now have been brought to bear upon his American cousin.” The influences to which he referred boiled down to “the evils of the dole” and “dumb and hopeless poverty.”

Blackburn, it turned out, was a former WPA worker who, according to an extensive rebuttal released by Howard O. Hunter, the agency’s regional administrator in Chicago, had been fired “after repeated reprimands and suspensions for intoxication and inefficiency.” It took twenty-five pages for Hunter to deal, almost line by line, with the allegations in the series. His response, after an investigation, charged that aside from “editorialized gossip and vicious propaganda…'every statement published by the Tribune was found to be false.” Every single one.

Needless to say, the paper did not acknowledge Hunter’s countercharges. There were, however, other accusations being made against the WPA that were more credible than the Tribune’s. These had to do with the use of the WPA as a political machine. Hopkins had always insisted that this was not the case, but from time to time events occurred that seemed to contradict him. In June, soon after Roosevelt’s call for a Democratic Party shakeup, deputy administrator Aubrey Williams had made headlines with a speech to the Workers Alliance, the WPA union. He had praised the president’s remarks and was quoted as urging union members to vote to “keep our friends in power.” He later denied he had said exactly that, but the Senate Committee on Campaign Expenditures called his words “unfortunate,” warned government officials against “unwarranted political activity,” and threatened to set the Justice Department on the union if it tried to raise campaign funds from its members.

Hopkins and Roosevelt both spoke out against soliciting contributions from WPA workers. “What they need to do is spend their money on food and clothing and shelter,” said Hopkins. But this restriction was harder to enforce at the local level than at the national level. The hotly contested Democratic senate primary in Kentucky was an example. In this race, majority leader Alben Barkley was trying to fend off a challenge from the conservative governor, A. B. “Happy” Chandler, who accused the WPA of allowing its 70,000 workers in the state to be pressed to contribute to and vote for Barkley. (Chandler’s own campaign, in turn, was accused of manipulating state records governing Social Security eligibility to buy votes for his side.) Hopkins’s investigation showed that one district director had turned over lists of WPA workers to the Barkley campaign, and said publicly that he was “deeply grieved to find even one such case.” Nevertheless, it was charges like these, and the extent to which Hopkins and the WPA had become a lightning rod for conservative outrage, that prompted Jim Farley, the Democratic strategist, to pull Hopkins off the campaign trail.

And indeed, when the primary votes were in, across the Democratic spectrum the New Deal had managed only the barest of victories. Kentucky’s Barkley had withstood Chandler’s challenge. Elmer Thomas was renominated in Oklahoma, as was Senator Robert Bulkley in Ohio. In Texas, the liberal young congressman Lyndon Baines Johnson won his renomination race. New Deal Democrats prevailed in New Mexico after Hopkins fired that state’s WPA administrator for allowing local politics to intrude in the agency’s business. But in the races where the president himself had stumped, his candidates failed. He had gone to Maryland six times to campaign against Tydings, but Tydings won handily. In Georgia, which Roosevelt called his “adopted home state” because of the time he spent at Warm Springs, he had said he and George did “not speak the same language on most issues” even as George looked on in shock. George responded by comparing the president’s campaign to Sherman’s ruthless march from Atlanta to the sea, and he won without breaking a sweat. “Cotton Ed” Smith won his primary in South Carolina. Back in Texas, liberal stalwart Maury Maverick—whose grandfather’s refusal to brand his cows had given the dictionary a new word for stubborn independence—was defeated for renomination after two terms leading the progressive bloc in the House of Representatives.

Roosevelt’s intervention in New York did manage to defeat conservative House rules chairman John J. O’Connor, a Democrat, in his bid for renomination to his House seat, but under the contorted election rules of New York City that allow candidates to run on multiple party lines, O’Connor won the Republican nomination.

And on November 8, the midterm elections reverted to their customary results, with losses to the party in power. A week after the underdog Seabiscuit bested Triple Crown winner War Admiral in a horse-racing matchup that captivated the nation, the once lowly Republicans performed a comeback of their own. The GOP gained eighty-one seats in the House, eight seats in the Senate, and eleven governorships. Roosevelt’s sole face-saving consolation was the defeat of O’Connor in New York.

In the aftermath, the Democrats still held large majorities in both houses, and the president remained vastly popular among the rank and file of voters. But arrayed against Republicans and conservatives of their own party, the party’s progressive wing no longer had the votes to put the reform agenda forward. There had been advances. The worst abuses of unfettered laissez-faire were neutralized. Homeowners, factory workers, farmers, the unemployed, the elderly, child laborers: all had reason to thank the urgent experiments of the New Deal for injecting order, safety, and security into their lives by way of government. But apparently the taste for reform had soured now, and the nation chose to catch its breath. It was certainly clear beyond all doubt, if it had not been clear already, that the New Deal was at an end. Now the new power of the conservatives would be arrayed against, among other targets, the WPA.

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