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Freedom from Fear : The United States, 1929-1945 (Oxford History of the United States, Vol 9) (1999)
...achieving security was the leitmotif of virtually
everything that the New Deal attempted.
...ever after, Americans assumed that the federal
government had not merely a role, but a major
Is it possible that the History of the 20th Century can be explained by simple reference to a change in prepositions? That is the gist of the epiphany that struck me while watching David M. Kennedy on Booknotes (C-SPAN). He and Brian Lamb were discussing the fact that this book is part of the Oxford History of the United States joining James McPherson's excellent one-volume history of the Civil War, Battle Cry of Freedom : The Civil War Era (1988). Suddenly, the switch from "of Freedom" to "Freedom from", in the respective titles, struck me as emblematic of the pivotal change of emphases in the Modern world. The history of America from Plymouth Rock until the Crash was essentially the story of Man's struggle for Freedom, but Freedom in a positive sense, Freedom to do things--to worship, to speak, to gather, etc. Thus, McPherson's book details the great convulsion of the 19th Century, the Civil War and the struggle to free the slaves--a struggle to expand freedom. But Kennedy, charting the great 20th Century convulsion, has it exactly right, the importance of the responses to the Depression by both Hoover and Roosevelt lay in their decision to elevate a negative idea of Freedom, freedom from want, from hunger, from "the vicissitudes of life" above, and against, the traditional American ideal of republican Liberty. This shift from a government aimed at protecting Freedom to one designed to provide Security is the single most important thing that happened in 20th Century America.
You may be surprised to see Hoover's name there, but one of Kennedy's great contributions in this book is this formal recognition by a liberal historian (joining the great conservative Paul Johnson, see Modern Times: The World from the Twenties to the Nineties) that Hoover, far from being a do-nothing antediluvian, was basically a liberal interventionist, who started us down the path that lead to the New Deal. (Of course, the great difference here is that Kennedy concludes that this makes Hoover a more laudable figure, while Johnson lambastes him.) In fact, Kennedy's reappraisal of Hoover's activism, coupled with the quotes above, unintentionally leaves the, I believe accurate, impression that the only achievement of the New Deal--the change in focus from government as a guarantor of individual freedom to a provider of succor in time of want--was not even unique to the New Deal, but was instead a general response to the intractable Depression.
I say "only achievement", because the book makes it pretty clear that the New Deal was completely ineffective, if not counterproductive, in combating the Great Depression. I was actually hesitant to read the book when Brian Lamb pointed out that Kennedy was one of the 400 historians who signed the inane petition opposing Clinton's impeachment. You sort of have to assume that a signatory of that ahistorical reading of history would be too doctrinaire a liberal to write fairly. In fact, Kennedy made clear in the interview and demonstrates amply in the book, that, while he is a fan of Roosevelt and approaches the work from this bias, he is perfectly willing to pass impartial judgment on FDR's shortcomings and failures. This is one of the real strengths of the book. Where Doris Kearns Goodwin basically wrote a hagiography in No Ordinary Time (see Orrin's review), Kennedy, while still obviously an adherent and in basic agreement with FDR's efforts, is willing to portray the New Deal as poorly planned out, even chaotic, willing to conclude that only the coming of War ended the Depression, willing to take Roosevelt to task for his extremist campaign speeches in 1940, willing to condemn his Court Packing plan and, later on, willing to impartially portray his dishonesty in trying to get us into the War and the irresponsibility of both his decision to run for a 4th term in light of his poor health and his lack of any consideration in choosing and preparing a successor.
I have only two real complaints about the book. First, while Kennedy demonstrates great intellectual honesty in assessing FDR's failures, one result of his essential agreement with the concept of the New Deal is that he never really confronts the question of whether it was a mistake in and of itself. Was it worthwhile to surrender our national birthright of Freedom in exchange for a mildly elevated sense of Security? This fundamental question is not addressed. I even thought that Kennedy presented himself with the perfect opportunity to do so. He states that three premises underlay the entire New Deal effort to effect a new economic constitutional order: (1.) "the era of economic growth had ended"; (2.) "the private sector, left to its own devices, would never again be capable of generating sufficient investment and employment to sustain even a 1920's level economy"; (3.) the United States was an economically self-sufficient nation. (This is precisely what I mean when I refer to the West's "crisis of confidence", the failure of belief in capitalism and democracy.) It would seem that since all three of these bulwarks of New Deal reasoning lie in tatters beneath the Reagan Revolution, that some discussion about them would be necessary, but it's not here.
Second, like Goodwin, and virtually every other writer for that matter, Kennedy treats FDR's battle with polio as if it had only beneficial effects. He became more empathetic, more caring, etc.. I know it would be unpopular, but it's high time that someone addressed the issue of whether FDR's physical handicaps rendered him emotionally unsuited to lead a vital and freedom loving nation. It strikes me that it is only political correctness that prevents us from discussing whether his world view was so changed by his crippling disease that he was incapable, at an admittedly trying time in our nation's history, to view the needs of the average American with the proper perspective. Or whether he was so emotionally twisted by his physical needs, that he simply assumed that everyone needed the same extraordinary level of assistance. I would argue that the Social Welfare state that he bequeathed us, by treating people like they were helpless, gave us several generations of people who grew increasingly dependent on government and gradually abandoned notions of self-help and personal responsibility.
These quibbles aside, I heartily recommend the book. This huge (936 page), but eminently readable, history of America from the election of Hoover to the end of WWII should be required reading for all Americans.
-Booknotes: David M. Kennedy (C-SPAN)
-EXCERPT: Victory at Sea (David M. Kennedy, The Atlantic)
-Interview: Our Finest Hours? (The Atlantic)
-INTERVIEW : This year's Pulitzer Prize winner for drama, David Kennedy, discusses his book (Online Newshour, PBS)
-ESSAY: The Price of Immigration: Can We Still Afford to Be a Nation of Immigrants? (David M. Kennedy, The Atlantic)
-REVIEW: Do Something -- Anything! (Barry Gewen, NY Times)
-REVIEW: of Freedom From Fear (Michael Kazin, Washington Post)
-REVIEW: Freedom from Fear by David M. Kennedy (Algis Valiunas, Commentary)
-REVIEW : of FREEDOM FROM FEAR: The American People in Depression and War 1923-1945 by David Kennedy (John Kenneth Galbraith, Washington Monthly)
-ESSAY: A Stinker of a Pulitzer David M. Kennedy's volume can be skipped. (George Will)
Other recommended books in the Oxford History of the United States: