14 • “Dr. New Deal” Runs Out of Medicine: The Last Years of the Depression, 1939–41

(photo credit 14.1)

As he signed the Wages and Hours Act into law in June 1938, President Roosevelt sighed: “That’s that.” Indeed it was. The New Deal’s last major step had been taken. The domestic program for dealing with the Depression had ended. Remarkably, it had done so without curing the Depression.

In 1939, a full decade after the Crash, 9.4 million Americans remained unemployed. This figure constituted 17.2 percent of the work force. Few would have predicted it in the heady days of 1933, or even in 1935 or 1936 (and many people fail to realize it today), but the Great Depression outlived the New Deal. This is certainly not to say that the effects of the New Deal were over in 1939. Roosevelt’s reforms profoundly altered the United States and their consequences continue to be felt most perceptibly a half century later. But, by 1939 the New Deal as a continuing source of innovation was through.

The New Deal did not, of course, wither away in 1939. Large parts of it remained vital and some programs were expanded. A look at the varying treatment Congress accorded to different parts of Roosevelt’s policy in the late thirties provides an indication of some of the fundamental problems in the New Deal approach.

President Roosevelt had proposed in June 1937 the creation of six new regional development authorities, which were quickly dubbed “little TVA’s.” This was perceived as a challenge to free enterprise and the reborn conservative coalition nipped it in the bud, although several more limited federal hydroelectric projects were allowed to be completed. The defeat was unfortunate for the nation, as much good might have been accomplished through these agencies, but it was entirely in keeping with the general rule of congressional disposition of New Deal proposals in the late thirties.

The “recession” of 1937–38 threw a scare into the Congress as well as the White House, and the President’s special message in April 1938 calling for a dramatic return to deficit spending and a rapid easing of credit was welcomed on Capitol Hill. By 1939 most economic indexes had returned to their relatively high early-1937 levels. Deficit spending had proved its efficacy once more, but this did not make it any more palatable to congressional conservatives—or to Franklin Roosevelt.

Once the emergency was passed (which, it should be remembered, left nearly one-sixth of the work force unemployed), Congress began again to tighten the reins on spending. This did not amount to the imposing of unwelcome restrictions on the President. Instead, Roosevelt joined in the new budget-cutting of late 1939 and early 1940. He rejected the advice of economist Lauchlin Currie, an administrative assistant to the President, that more spending on housing, health, and welfare was necessary to avert a new collapse. The only proposal along these lines that Roosevelt made in early 1940 was for a small hospital construction program for depressed areas. Even this modest suggestion was quickly lost in the shuffle.

What President Roosevelt was shuffling in 1939 and 1940 was no longer the New Deal deck, but that of military preparedness. If a balanced budget remained a higher priority than sufficient social spending, defense against the fascist menace was most important of all. The irony, of course, was that FDR and Congress finally began to restore prosperity by spending on military needs at levels they had rejected for social needs. As early as the beginning of 1939, the President signaled that his quest for significant reforms was over. “We have now passed the period of internal conflict in the launching of our program of social reform,” he said in his annual message. “Our full energies may now be released to invigorate the processes of recovery in order to preserve our reforms, and to give every man and woman who wants to work a real job at a living wage.”

What remained to be done, Roosevelt seemed to be saying, was to improve those programs already in place, not to devise new ones. The meaning of this approach, given the sentiment in the Seventy-sixth Congress of 1939–40, was that programs with powerful constituencies or a broad range of beneficiaries would be enhanced, while those that helped only the poor would be cut. Social welfare experts had long maintained that a “program for the poor is a poor program.” This became clear in 1939, when the Senate (in a 47–46 vote) slashed $150 million from the President’s proposed relief appropriation. As soon as it seemed “safe” to cut back on relief, Congress did so. The Relief Act of 1939 also ordered that all workers who had been employed on WPA projects for eighteen consecutive months must be terminated. The old notion that anyone who really tried could find a private job seemed again to be in the ascendancy. The result was the dismissal of more than 775,000 WPA workers in July and August 1939. A survey three months later found that fewer than 100,000 of them had succeeded in finding private employment. The capital sentence Congress passed on the Federal Theatre Project in the 1939 relief bill showed that unpopular programs were likely to go the way of those that helped only the poor. The Senate further showed its growing opposition to relief by launching an investigation of alleged political corruption in the WPA. The result was the passage of the Hatch Act of 1939, which forbade all political activity by federal employees.

The contrast with the fate of programs affecting more powerful interests is striking. Large farmers continued to receive more help from the government than any other group. Just after Congress slashed relief spending in the summer of 1939, Roosevelt wrote to Joseph Kennedy: “The silly Congress gave me three hundred million more than I wanted for farm subsidies.” By 1940—before the impact of the war—farm income stood at $4.2 billion, up from a low of $1.9 billion in 1932, and federal subsidies further supported the income of those farmers who owned enough land to benefit significantly.

The Social Security System provided much-needed assistance for many destitute Americans, but its main purpose was to provide “social insurance” for the vast middle class. Here was a program—as many politicians have been reminded in recent years—with a powerful constituency. While relief for those on the bottom was being cut late in the Depression, programs for the middle class under Social Security were expanded. Payments under the Old Age benefit provisions were moved up to begin in 1939. In that year also, some categories of widows were placed under an Old Age and Survivors Insurance Plan. Many such widows were certainly very poor; some were not so poor. The former probably benefited from the latter being in the program. Other poor people also made gains because of the expansion of certain Social Security programs. The amount of federal matching funds available for state Aid to Dependent Children (ADC) programs, for example, was significantly increased in 1939. The fact remains, though, that by the end of the decade programs for the poor had come to seem once again more expendable than many other types of activity in which the federal government was engaged, and many efforts to aid the destitute were left up to the states. Where that could lead was evident in the grand totals of 104 families in Mississippi and 85 in Texas on the ADC rolls in 1940, five years after the program was enacted.1

   The New Deal had no climax; like the old soldier (or sailor) Franklin Roosevelt had always wanted to be, it simply faded away. This remarkable happening demands explanation. FDR had received the greatest mandate yet enjoyed by an American president in 1936; his personal charm and effectiveness were, if anything, more polished than before. Yet he was unable to accomplish much in his second term.

The most obvious explanation was growing congressional opposition. This is somewhat surprising, in view of the huge Democratic majorities elected with Roosevelt in 1936. Such large majorities can, however, breed factionalism. Congressmen naturally resented the idea that they were rubber stamps; they were jealous of the growth of presidential power. In the 1933–35 period, the crisis was so great that few legislators dared to oppose the President’s program. By 1937, though, the economy seemed better and opposition safer. Then when conditions again grew worse, conservatives believed they had all the more reason for opposing the New Deal.

A second-term president normally begins to lose leverage with Congress, since members of his party do not expect him to be again heading a ticket on which they will run. This process was rapidly accelerated in Roosevelt’s case because of his ill-advised introduction of the Court “reform.” To many on Capitol Hill, already upset at the flow of power down Pennsylvania Avenue, Roosevelt’s attempt to pack the Court raised the possibility of dictatorship in democratic garb. This, more than anything else, explains the remarkable rise in hostility toward presidential proposals from early 1937 onward. Had it not been for the Court plan, it is unlikely that Roosevelt’s subsequent call for executive reorganization would have met so much opposition.

Fears of southern and rural Democrats were especially heightened by what they correctly saw as a dramatic transformation of their party in the thirties. Suddenly their party was a largely northern, urban, labor party, interested to a degree in the problems of minorities. Faced with this change, it was only natural that many southern and rural members of the party rebelled.

Perhaps the most important reason for the dichotomy between Roosevelt’s landslide and his difficulties in Congress was simply that it was far easier to bring together the disparate elements of the “Roosevelt Coalition” behind a presidential candidate—particularly one as politically skilled as FDR—than to get them to agree on specific proposals in Congress. Labor unions, southerners, blacks, Catholics, relief recipients, farmers, and intellectuals might back the same man for president; they were unlikely to support the same legislative proposals.

A second explanation often cited for the ending of the New Deal is the growing American concern with foreign affairs in the late thirties. Although it is undeniable that the-growth of fascism and the power of Germany and Japan, the Ethiopian War, the Spanish Civil War, and the war in China were significant to Roosevelt, there is little evidence that a desire for a more active foreign policy led him to slow down his domestic program voluntarily. While it is true that Roosevelt would need the backing of many of those who opposed his domestic policy if he were to gain approval for an easing of neutrality legislation and the development of a military preparedness program, two facts dispel the notion that he made a trade to obtain that support: First, the New Deal was in obvious decline before foreign policy assumed primacy; and second, the more conservative members of Congress were, with a few isolationist exceptions, generally eager to approve a bolder foreign and military policy. Foreign affairs seem to have offered Roosevelt an almost welcome escape from the increasingly unfathomable socioeconomic problems at home, but international problems did not cause abandonment of social reform. World War II would provide for the American people a release similar to that which earlier foreign questions had given FDR.

It is sometimes asserted, as a third explanation, that the American people had grown tired of the New Deal by 1937. Such emotional exhaustion does occur in a society, as the 1920s, 1950s and late seventies-early eighties periods of American history attest. Yet both opinion polls on social issues and the letters I have reviewed suggest that a substantial constituency for further change remained in 1937 and 1938.

We are left with a fourth explanation as the most important cause of the decline of the New Deal: Roosevelt had played out his hand by 1936. The attempt—if we may change the metaphor—to bandage the economic system without making fundamental changes had reached its limits. It was not until the end of 1943 that FDR said that “Dr. New Deal” had been replaced by “Dr. Win the War,” but six years earlier it was already apparent that the former physician had run out of curative medicine. Large numbers of Americans remained, to be sure, “ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished,” as the President noted in 1937. But what did he propose to do about it?

When Roosevelt’s legislative proposals from 1937 onward are examined, it becomes clear that one of the principal reasons few new departures were made in his second term is that few were proposed. Roosevelt was not unaware of the continuing need for progress. “If liberal government continues over another ten years,” he told a reporter in 1938, “we ought to be contemporary somewhere in the late Nineteen Forties.” Yet FDR himself did little more to advance liberal government. Aside from the wages and hours legislation and the two attempts to increase presidential power (the Court plan and executive reorganization), Roosevelt’s second-term program concentrated on modifying what already existed: more relief spending, alterations in Social Security, “little TVA’s,” and a reassembled AAA. The creation of the FSA and USHA were not his ideas. In mid-1939 the President told Treasury Secretary Morgenthau that he was “sick and tired of having a lot of long-haired people around here who want a billion dollars for schools, a billion dollars for public health.”2

It is beyond question that congressional opposition played a significant role in bringing down the curtain on the New Deal. Foreign problems and emotional drain may have served as supporting actors. But the star of the final act was, fittingly, Franklin D. Roosevelt himself.

   Those out of political power almost always seem to find reason to be hopeful. The Republicans’ hopes in 1936 had been groundless, but two years later rain at last fell on the political dustbowl through which the Depression-era Grand Old Party had been suffering. In the midterm elections of 1938, the Republicans won 81 new seats in the House of Representatives, nearly doubling their all-time low total of 88 in the previous House. The Republicans also added 8 new senators (giving them 23), and more than tripled their number of governors by making a gain of 13 that raised their total to 18. This hardly meant that the GOP was healthy. The party lost 24 of the 32 Senate races and still held barely 40 percent of the House.

Signs of life in the previously limp elephant, though, were clearly evident after the 1938 revival. There were new faces that might attract a national following. Thomas E. Dewey, who had earned such a reputation as a crusading district attorney in New York that Humphrey Bogart played a character based on him in the 1937 film Marked Woman, narrowly lost that state’s highest office to the apparently unbeatable Governor Herbert Lehman. At thirty-six, Dewey seemed certain to have a bright future. Even more intriguing for Republicans looking to future national tickets was Harold Stassen, who was elected governor of Minnesota by a plurality of almost 300,000 votes after a serious split in the Farmer-Labor ranks. Stassen, though, could offer no help for 1940. He was thirty-one when he won the Minnesota race and would not be old enough to seek the presidency two years later. A more likely competitor for the 1940 nomination was the new forty-nine-year-old senator from Ohio, Robert A. Taft. The son of the former President immediately assumed a position of leadership in the national Republican party.

Remarkably, the early leader in the polls was Dewey, a man just over the constitutional minimum age requirement and one who had never held an office higher than that of county district attorney. When Dewey formally declared himself to be in the race in December 1939, Harold Ickes noted that the young New Yorker had “thrown his diaper into the ring.” The voters in several states in the spring of 1940, however, indicated that they thought Dewey had been weaned; he won most of the primaries he contested. By the beginning of May, polls showed Dewey to be the choice of 60 percent of all Republicans. But Dewey remained short of the 500 delegates necessary for nomination. Senator Taft seemed to be his only serious rival by late spring.

Some corporate leaders were dissatisfied with both Dewey and Taft. They feared that President Roosevelt—whose name many of them declined to utter, replacing it with “That Man”—might run again. If he did, the Republicans must find someone who would be able to beat him. Perhaps they could take a page from the cynical course of their predecessors, the Whigs, a century before. In 1840 the Whig party had defeated the party of Andrew Jackson by finding a candidate they could recreate in the Hero’s mold. With the help of a depression, William Henry Harrison had ridden the symbols of the log cabin and hard cider to victory over Jackson’s successor, Martin Van Buren. By late 1939 some Republicans were exploring the possibility of using similar tactics to unseat Roosevelt in 1940.

Wendell Willkie hardly seemed a likely—or even a possible—Republican presidential nominee. His father had been a backer of William Jennings Bryan. Wendell Willkie himself had been a delegate to the 1924 Democratic convention and had worked in Newton Baker’s behalf in 1932. The current (1938–39) edition of Who’s Who in America at the time of the 1940 Republican convention still listed him as a Democrat. Herbert Hoover had not been sufficiently Republican to suit many party leaders in 1928, but his Republicanism was not nearly as new as that of Willkie in 1940. It was not that the GOP bosses did not welcome converts who had suddenly seen the light (they could hardly do otherwise, considering their decidedly minority status by this time). Rather, the problem of the Old Guard was well stated by former Senate majority leader James Watson, who told Willkie in 1940: “Well, Wendell, you know that back home in Indiana, it’s all right if the town whore joins the church, but they don’t let her lead the choir the first night.”

If his late rebirth as a Republican was not enough to disqualify him for consideration for the nomination, Willkie was also both a Wall Street lawyer and the president of a utility company. Two more unpopular positions in the eyes of most Americans during the Depression would be hard to imagine. In fighting the TVA, Willkie had nurtured an image as the New Deal’s most prominent innocent victim. Despite all this, he had a reputation as something of a liberal. That just might make him marketable to the voters. And the very Wall Street and utility connections that might make him suspect to many voters provided resassurance to the men who got behind Willkie’s candidacy.

These people who began working behind the scenes for Willkie’s nomination included Russell Davenport, the managing editor of Fortune magazine; Charlton MacVeagh and Thomas W. Lamont of J. P. Morgan and Company; Lammont Du Pont; Joseph N. Pew of the Sun Oil Company; Ernest T. Weir of Weirton Steel; and Edgar Monsanto Queeny of Monsanto Chemicals. It was an impressive board of directors. Joining them in the camp were Republican national chairman John D. M. Hamilton (who, it will be recalled, had in 1936 equated a vote for Roosevelt with support for the “International Communist Conspiracy”), Congressman Bruce Barton of New York (whose fame stemmed from his advertising career and The Man Nobody Knows, and who had in a 1932 letter to President Hoover called FDR just “a name and a crutch”), and the arch-conservative Congressman Joe Martin of Massachusetts, who would be permanent chairman of the 1940 convention.

With such men as these behind him, Wendell Willkie had the inside track to the Republican nomination, even though as late as two months before the convention he did not have a single publicly announced delegate. In addition to his behind-the-scenes support, Willkie benefited from the change in the war in Europe. All of the other major Republican contenders were clearly identified as isolationists. When the Nazis launched their blitzkrieg across the Low Countries and France in May 1940, the stock of isolationists fell rapidly, if not as far as the Dow Jones had dropped eleven years before. Isolationism seemed much less realistic by the time the Republican delegates gathered in Philadelphia late in June. Just three days before the convention opened, France capitulated to German terms and signed an armistice. It was not easy to picture young Tom Dewey leading a nation at war.

By this time, the Willkie operation, while carefully maintaining the outward appearance of amateurism, was working very well. The campaign had gone public in March in an issue of Davenport’s Fortune. In a long article (largely written by Davenport), Willkie endorsed most goals of the New Deal, but indicated that he could make it work by removing its anti-business bias. He asserted that the New Deal Democrats had developed “a vested interest in depression.” This was a politically powerful argument, the more so when Willkie called for going beyond the New Deal to build a “New World.” The Fortune issue also contained a proposed petition calling, in so many words, for the unleashing of free enterprise. Republicans liked the idea, of course—they always have. It was much the same plea that Ronald Reagan used forty years later. Unfortunately for Willkie, the memory of what unfettered free enterprise had led to in 1929 was much fresher in 1940 than in 1980. (Certainly the fact that the incumbent Democrat was far more popular in 1940 than his counterpart four decades later had something to do with the difference in outcomes, too.) In 1980 a majority of voters accepted the argument and so had to relearn the results of Coolidge economics through harsh experience.

The people behind Willkie were busy in other ways. Some 2000 Willkie clubs, largely (although secretly) organized by local electric power companies, sprouted up around the country. When the convention itself opened, the galleries, streets, and hotel lobbies were swarming with young Willkie supporters, chanting “We Want Willkie,” and giving out buttons and pamphlets bearing the same message. A promotion of cigarettes or mouthwash could not have been better handled; the connection of Bruce Barton with the Willkie campaign was not coincidental. Many of the “Willkie Girls” in Philadelphia for the convention were in fact employees of Wall Street firms who had been given a week’s vacation plus expenses to go and cheer for Wendell.

Despite another attempt by Herbert Hoover to redeem himself with the voters, the Republican contest proved to be a three-way-race. Dewey led on the first ballot but faded quickly, and the field narrowed to Taft and Willkie. Taft came very close to victory, but Willkie claimed the nomination on the sixth ballot. He was not an opponent the Democrats could take lightly.3

   If the age and experience of the leading Republican presidential hopefuls in 1940 were a commentary on the sad state of that party at the end of the New Deal, the Democrats seemed to have little more to offer in the way of proven leadership. When the original Roosevelt Cabinet was being assembled in 1932–33, James Farley told reporters: “There won’t be any presidential possibilities in the Roosevelt Cabinet.” He was right, and so it had remained. FDR was the master of his own show and his personality so dominated the administration that others did not arise as clear presidential possibilities. What was true of the Cabinet was also true of the rest of the Democratic party. Franklin Roosevelt was like a sun illuminating the Democratic heavens, and the other stars were not visible while he was shining. Further, the New Deal’s alterations in power relationships lowered the prestige of those who might have been expected in earlier years to emerge as presidential aspirants. The primacy of the executive branch in the New Deal shifted attention from the Democratic leaders in Congress. The ranks of governors, whence many a previous president had come, were overwhelmingly Democratic in the 1930s, but the scope of state activity had become so circumscribed by the expansion of federal authority that few of them were able to gain much national attention.

By 1939 this was clearly a problem. There had long been speculation that Roosevelt might break the tradition begun by George Washington and run for a third term. If he did, though, it would provide the Republicans with a powerful issue. The complaints that FDR aspired to dictatorship would certainly increase; gleeful Republicans would attempt to link Roosevelt’s name with those of Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin. And what if the opposition succeeded? What an ignominious end it would be for Roosevelt’s presidency if he sought a third term and was defeated.

The President looked for a suitable successor. His first concern was that the candidate must be a liberal, someone who was committed to continuing New Deal social and economic policies. Roosevelt realized that there was no assurance the Democrats would remain a progressive party. His two terms had moved the party decidedly in that direction, but eight years were not enough to assure a lasting association. The President’s first choice to succeed him was Harry Hopkins, who met Roosevelt’s requirements but was not popular with Democratic politicians. In an attempt to boost Hopkins’s chances, FDR appointed him secretary of Commerce in 1938. The following year, however, Hopkins’s health deteriorated markedly and the President was obliged to give up the idea.

Others were quite willing to run but were less to Roosevelt’s liking. The President’s longtime political adviser and operative, Jim Farley, hoped to succeed his boss. Roosevelt urged him to run for the New York governorship in 1938 in order to build a base, but Farley refused. Roosevelt began to push the idea that Farley’s Catholic faith would prevent him from being elected. Intent on ensuring that the New Deal not appear to be repudiated, FDR wanted to take no chances on the religious issue leading to the defeat of the party’s nominee.

The only possibility worse for Roosevelt than seeing the voters repudiate the New Deal would be if his own party did so. The nomination of Vice President Garner would amount to just that, and Roosevelt was absolutely opposed to the seventy-one-year-old Texan’s candidacy. FDR was pleased when John L. Lewis publicly called the Vice President a “labor-baiting, poker-playing, whiskey-drinking, evil old man.” Roosevelt was less enthusiastic about the things the CIO leader said about him.

Every time the President went over the list of possible Democratic standard-bearers for 1940, he eliminated all of them. A phenomenon common among people in positions of great authority had been at work on Franklin Roosevelt for several years. In the face of the extraordinary crisis, he had concentrated power in the executive branch. For a time, this worked fairly well. He encouraged his subordinates to be candid; criticism was accepted. But the longer a person is president, particularly if all decision making is focused on him, the more likely he is to believe in his own infallibility. Roosevelt came at times to speak of himself in the third person: “The President thinks …” The general problem grew worse in 1936. By that time, Louis Howe was the only man who would persist in telling Roosevelt that he was wrong. Howe’s death in April left the yes-men unchallenged. This was followed by the election campaign. The adoration of the crowds on his trips and the unprecedented size of his victory seem to have convinced Roosevelt more than ever that he represented the will of the people.

Presidential hubris became more of a problem during Roosevelt’s second term. He spoke for the people; the Supreme Court did not. Neither, perhaps, did the Congress. The frequency of FDR’s vetoes—505 in his first eight years—is startling when his huge congressional majorities are remembered. It is not difficult to believe that by 1940, Roosevelt had convinced himself that no one else could be a good president; in short, that he was indispensable. Such feelings intensified as the world crisis worsened.

Even if one of the Democratic possibilities could handle the growing likelihood of war, Roosevelt had to worry about whether such a candidate could defeat the Republican nominee. The President appears to have sincerely feared for the future of the country if an isolationist Republican were elected in 1940. (On election night when he knew he had won, FDR said to Joseph Lash: “We seem to have averted a Putsch, Joe.”)

It was a delicate situation. If Roosevelt sought the nomination, he might be defeated on the third-term/potential dictatorship issue. If he were to run, it would have to be on the basis of a draft by the party and the people, a summons to duty that he could not reject. So Roosevelt continued throughout the first half of the election year to say that he was not a candidate and had no desire to do anything after January 1941 but return to Hyde Park. Yet the President declined Farley’s suggestion that he do “exactly what General Sherman did many years ago—issue a statement saying [you] would refuse to run if nominated and would not serve if elected.” If the people insisted, FDR told Farley, he could not refuse them.

The President’s failure to take the Sherman pledge kept most other potential candidates out of the race, and his encouragement to several different men prevented any one of them from emerging from the pack as a leading contender. Others might orchestrate the “draft” at the convention in Chicago—the party was left with no alternative if it wanted to win in November—while Roosevelt sat in Washington insisting that he was not interested. God, the President told his chief aides, would provide a candidate. To almost everyone but FDR, this was all an elaborate fiction. He very much wanted to be called by the party and the people to serve an unprecedented third term. It is doubtful that he admitted to himself that he was manipulating the situation to assure such an outcome.

When the convention opened on July 15, Mayor Edward J. Kelly, the boss of Chicago’s Democratic machine, made a highly unusual welcoming speech in which he told the delegates that “the salvation of the nation rests in one man.” Later, the convention’s permanent chairman, Senator Alben Barkley of Kentucky, read a speech Roosevelt had prepared for him, saying that the President did not wish to remain in office. As Barkley reached the end of his address, the huge amplifiers in the building came on with shouts of “We want Roosevelt,” “Illinois wants Roosevelt,” “America wants Roosevelt,” “Everybody wants Roosevelt,” “The world wants Roosevelt,” and so forth. A reporter traced the voice to the basement and found that the man doing the shouting was the city’s superintendent of sewers, Thomas F. Garry, acting on orders from Boss Kelly. The “voice from the sewer” accomplished part of its purpose. A Roosevelt demonstration was launched on the convention floor, but the delegates did not go on to nominate him by acclamation as he may have hoped. The next evening the President easily won renomination, with 946 votes to 72 for runner-up Farley, who showed his party loyalty by moving to make the nomination unanimous.

The real drama of the convention was yet to come. A new vice-presidential candidate had to be chosen, since Garner was not willing to continue in the position and Roosevelt would not have had him even had Garner been willing. The President had encouraged the hopes of several men, but was intent upon having someone he could be sure would carry on liberal programs. He finally decided on Henry Wallace, but let no one except Hopkins know of the decision until after the President’s own renomination was secured. When word of the choice reached the convention, both delegates and other potential candidates were irate. Wallace was not popular with the politicians, but opposition was derived even more from the desire of the delegates to rebel against Roosevelt’s control. William B. Bankhead of Alabama, the speaker of the House, refused to bow out of the race. Jeers and screams of discontent arose from the floor during the speeches nominating Wallace. The vote itself was close, and Roosevelt prepared a statement of withdrawal in case the convention rejected Wallace. He meant it, at least to the point that he would withdraw in order to force the convention to redraft him—and Wallace as well. Wallace narrowly won, though, and Roosevelt was able to lead an unhappy party toward the November showdown with Willkie.4

   President Roosevelt’s strategy for the 1940 campaign was simple: he would act as president, not as a politician. It is, in fact, one of the most remarkable points about the 1940 election that both candidates attempted, at least initially, to act as nonpartisans, men “above” politics. It proved to be an easier task for the President than his challenger.

The first step in FDR’s plan was taken before either party had chosen its nominee. Four days before the Republicans convened in June, the President appointed two prominent members of their party to his Cabinet. Henry Stimson, who had been secretary of War under President Taft and Herbert Hoover’s secretary of state, again assumed leadership of the War Department. Frank Knox, Alf Landon’s running mate in 1936, accepted the post of secretary of the Navy. It was a master political stroke as well as a solid administrative move. Roosevelt was forming a bipartisan government to deal with the war crisis in Europe. It was a sign of things to come. Throughout the campaign, Roosevelt used his position to the fullest advantage. “Mr. Roosevelt can act,” journalist Turner Catledge pointed out, “while Mr. Willkie can only talk, and talk for the most part about the President’s acts.”

As Willkie talked—to the point of completely losing his voice—the President continued to act. Roosevelt toured military bases and new defense plants, emphasizing both his efforts to bolster the nation’s preparedness (making clear that the goal was to keep us out of the war) and the creation of new jobs that resulted from military spending. While on such tours Roosevelt made “non-political” speeches and allowed news photographers to take pictures of him beside tanks, ships, and bustling assembly lines.

When the Republican nominee talked during the campaign, it was usually extemporaneously. The only major exception was his initial address at his hometown of Elwood, Indiana, a carefully planned statement of his campaign themes. In this speech Wendell Willkie came out firmly as a liberal. He explicitly accepted most goals of the New Deal. Any assessment of the impact of the Depression and the New Deal on American values must take note of the fact that the Republican party, including some of its more conservative elements, determined that their only hope for victory in 1940 was to endorse Roosevelt’s goals and nominate a candidate who would identify himself as a liberal. Willkie condemned the pre-1929 business structure and monopolistic practices. He endorsed regulation of business, government-protected collective bargaining, minimum wages and maximum hours laws, social security, and unemployment insurance. His chief difference with Roosevelt was to charge that the New Deal inhibited enterprise. “I say that we must substitute for the philosophy of distributed scarcity, the philosophy of unlimited productivity.”

This was a campaign theme with some potential, but Willkie’s attempt to be a Republican as well as a nonpartisan candidate led him to move in an increasingly conservative-isolationist direction as the campaign progressed. His tongue grew more loose as he traveled around the country. After a particularly intemperate Willkie attack on the President’s foreign policy, the challenger’s press secretary, Lern Jones, produced what was to become the Willkie campaign’s most unfortunate legacy. Jones put out a statement saying that Willkie had “mis-spoken himself.” The phrase was to be heard again often following the campaign statements of another Republican challenger forty years later.

By mid-October, Willkie seemed to be gaining strength, principally by exploiting fears that Roosevelt might lead the United States into the European war. It was time for the President to enter the struggle personally. Nothing, in any case, could keep the old campaigner in Franklin Roosevelt from taking to the hustings in the final two weeks before the election. It proved to be one of Roosevelt’s most effective brief political efforts. The President ignored the third-term issue, hoping the voters would do likewise. (Most of them did.) He reminded the nation—and particularly the more than one-third of it that remained in poverty—of what he had done for it. In a brilliant speech in Philadelphia on October 23, he pointed to apparent Republican hypocrisy: “The tears, the crocodile tears, for the laboring man and woman now being shed in this campaign come from those same Republican leaders who had their chance to prove their love for labor in 1932—and missed it.” He went on to tick off the list of items that Willkie claimed to favor but that Republicans had tried to prevent over the past decade.

A few nights later, at Madison Square Garden, Roosevelt introduced the most famous line of the campaign, ridiculing the arch-conservative backers of the putatively liberal Willkie with the rhythmic repetition of the names “Martin, Barton, and Fish” (the last named being New York Congressman Hamilton Fish). Roosevelt and his supporters used this cadence throughout the remainder of the campaign, always to good audience effect. His best speech, though, was saved for last. Closing the campaign in Cleveland, the President recited the accomplishments of the New Deal, his vision for the future, and his allegiance to the working class: “I see an America where factory workers are not discarded after they reach their prime, where there is no endless chain of poverty from generation to generation.”

Although both candidates had started out portraying themselves as liberals and each had sought the support of workers, by the end of the campaign the class division was at least as sharp as it had been in 1936. Many workers came to resent Willkie’s attack on a President who they believed was their friend and champion. When Willkie toured working-class areas he was greeted with boos and not infrequently found himself the target of projectiles ranging from tomatoes and eggs to light bulbs and rocks.

When the votes were counted it was clear that a solid majority still backed the New Deal President. Willkie had done considerably better than Landon four years before, but he still took less than 45 percent of the popular vote and only 82 electoral votes to Roosevelt’s 449. Nor was there any doubt about the continuing political division along class lines. An American Institute of Public Opinion survey conducted after the election found that 80 percent of those on relief had voted for Roosevelt, as had 60 percent of those who said they would be able to survive without relief for one month or less if they lost their jobs. At the other end of the wealth scale, those who said they could survive without relief for from three years to forever split 61–39 percent for Willkie. Political analyst Samuel Lubell found even more striking evidence of class-based political divisions. In every city in which Lubell interviewed voters, Roosevelt received an overwhelming share of the vote in wards with average rentals below $45 per month. In areas with typical rents above $60 per month, the Democratic vote dropped sharply. A UAW member in Detroit put the reason succinctly: “I’ll say it even though it doesn’t sound nice. We’ve grown class conscious.”

So had the more well-to-do (although they had always tended to be more class conscious than workers). As Henry Steele Commager once noted of Roosevelt’s four victories, “On each occasion, the majority of the wise, the rich and the well-born voted the other way.” The continuation of this political split between rich and poor in 1940 helped immeasurably to assure that the New Deal coalition that had coalesced in 1936 would continue to dominate American politics for years to come.5

   The military buildup of 1940–41 did more to revive American industry and reduce unemployment than had any New Deal program. This is not, though, the reproach of Roosevelt’s policies that it may seem. It simply means that the deficit-spending, “demand-side” approach that the New Deal had used timidly was shown to work when employed boldly. Rather than representing a reversal of the New Deal prescription, the military spending of 1940 and subsequent years represented a much larger dose of the same medicine.

The cure did not come quickly. The 1940 average for unemployment was 8.1 million (14.6 percent of the work force), and even in 1941 as the defense industries moved into high gear, the mean unemployment rate was 9.9 percent, representing 5.6 million jobless people who wanted to work. Industrial production, which had surpassed its 1929 level just before the 1937–38 recession, soared 30 percent above its 1929 level in 1941.

All of this might be taken to indicate that Adolf Hitler was more responsible for ending the Great Depression in the United States than Franklin Roosevelt was. In a roundabout way, such an argument is correct. The Nazi threat induced Roosevelt at last to let go enough of his insistence on trying to balance the budget so that the Keynesian prescription was finally allowed to work. The last irony of the Depression era is that Hitler, in a very indirect sense, saved the reputation of the New Deal and the Roosevelt presidency. Without the military boom in response to the German war machine, Roosevelt’s presidency would probably have been remembered as compassionate and helpful but ineffective in solving the fundamental problems of the Depression. This in no sense means that the Depression could not have been solved without the threat of war, but that it took the danger to convince Roosevelt and the Congress to spend at the level necessary to bring about recovery.

Although 1941 was a year dominated by the concerns of war abroad and the growing likelihood that the United States would be drawn into the conflict, it was also very much a year of the Depression. While people were encouraged by the trend back toward prosperity, they generally remained fearful that it would not continue. In response to a national survey in the summer of 1941 that asked if the respondent was financially “better off or worse off than last year,” only 30 percent answered “better,” 20 percent said “worse,” and fully one-half said “the same.” The source of the boom, after all, was clear for all to see, and it appeared unlikely to outlast the military crisis. The nation seemed to be faced by the horrible choice of war or depression.

There was no longer much talk of reform in 1941. More immediate problems had to be faced. This did not mean that there was any significant change in the Depression-era values. Certainly there was an increase in patriotic themes in popular culture in the last years of the Depression. But the American values that were emphasized in such successful films as Sergeant York (1941) were, in important respects, similar to those of the earlier social films of the thirties. Gary Cooper as Alvin York has a religious experience that leads him to oppose greed and violence and return love to those who wrong him. York opposes war and seeks conscientious objector status when he is drafted to fight in World War I. After a long talk with an officer who tells him that pacifism is a good thing, but sometimes it is necessary to fight to protect what we believe in, York decides to join the Army and becomes a hero by saving lives. Sergeant York does not abandon Depression-era values, but marks a transition by showing viewers that under some circumstances war may be compatible with those values—in fact, fighting may be necessary to defend them. Nor was there any decline in the popularity of movies with a direct social message, such as the previously discussed Grapes of Wrath (1940) and How Green Was My Valley (1941).

It is clear that the Depression-bred moral economic values remained strong in 1940–41. A Gallup poll in May 1941 found that a cross section of Americans believed by more than a 2–1 margin that “there is too much power in the hands of a few rich men and large corporations in the United States.” If those values declined in the early 1940s, it was after the Depression had ended. And there is no imprecision about when that took place. The Great Depression is one of the most neatly demarcated events in our history. It began in New York City on a series of days in October 1929, and decisively ended on December 7, 1941, near Honolulu.

American participation in World War II began in the frame of reference of the Depression-era values, as our entry into the First World War had taken place in the context of progressivism. If the first war was fought with idealist expectations that led to rapid disillusionment, the second war was fought in a way more in keeping with the “practical idealism” of the Depression. Expectations of bringing about the millennium were lower in the 1940s, but there was a much more certain feeling that we were on the side of right, on the side of the values that had reemerged in the 1930s.

This meant that there was an attempt to keep the spirit of liberalism alive during World War II, as exemplified by Harry Hopkins, Vice President Henry Wallace, and such congressional liberals as Senator Robert Wagner, in the hope that the values of the thirties could be revived after the conflict ended. Some liberals, such as Rex Tugwell, in fact, hoped that the war might help to advance their cause. Perhaps it would lead to a greater sense of cooperation, a further decline in individualism, and greater government direction of the economy. It did. Some redistribution of income was achieved during the war as a result of full employment and high taxes on the upper income brackets. The economy was brought under more government control than at any other time in American history. Maximum prices and rents were administered by government agencies. Unions became more powerful than ever before.

But just as World War I had killed the Progressive Era’s spirit of sacrifice, the second war stretched beyond their limits the capacities of most Americans for selflessness. Although the cooperative spirit of the war led some liberals to be more self-assured than they had been before, conservatives were becoming more prominent in Washington. Such men as Henry Stimson, James Byrnes, Edward Stettinius, and Dean Acheson were far less concerned with social issues than had been the New Dealers of the previous decade. Various New Deal agencies—the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Works Projects Administration, and the National Youth Administration—expired during the war. In order to promote efficient production, big-business leaders were given a voice in policymaking that they had not enjoyed since the early thirties. Some liberals remained hopeful, but Archibald MacLeish spoke for many when he wrote in 1944: “It is no longer feared, it is assumed, that the country is headed back to normalcy, that Harding is just around the corner, that the twenties will repeat themselves.”6

It was not to be that bad. Harry Truman, not Warren Harding, was just around the corner, and a few more reforms were added in the later forties. The Employment Act of 1946 committed the American government to a Keynesian countercyclical policy. But it took the turn of only one more corner to find Richard Nixon and Joe McCarthy. If the fifties were not the twenties reborn, they were certainly a new age of materialism and egoism. As with previous eras of reform, though, the Great Depression left a legacy that could not be wiped out in the subsequent period of reversion to self-centeredness. It remained an inheritance for America that endures into the 1980s.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!