Washington — In September 1941 my newspaper sent me out to see what the New Deal was doing to America. I had nine hours to spare in Dallas and went to the big telephone building. For comparison I looked up the directory listings under ''US Government, 1932'' - the year before President Roosevelt took over. I wrote down:
''There was a modest array of entries. Some of them revived old memories, like 'Prohibition - deputy administrator.' '' But this was Sept. 3, 1941. What did I find? ''Columns of entries!'' I exclaimed. ''The list of government agencies is twice as long, in smaller print. Back in 1932 the US Department of Agriculture needed only three phones - now it has eight. The Commerce Department with Herbert Hoover as President had one phone. Now it has five! Others have jumped in proportion. And in addition there are dozens of alphabetical agencies. . . .''
Yes, eight years after Franklin Delano Roosevelt took office, people wondered at the explosion of government. I wrote (in 1941), ''Where is Washington's growth taking America? I find people considering that, not excitedly but earnestly. I have asked dozens of people what they think will happen when the defense emergency (over the European war) ends. 'I just don't dare think of it!' one editor confessed to me. . . .''
Roosevelt took the oath of office from US Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes 50 years ago - on March 4, 1933. I stood watching the ceremony with 100,000 others before the august Capitol. The chill day was cloudy, with occasional shafts of sunshine. The ceremony took place during the worst depression in history; one worker in four was unemployed. (I was lucky; I had a job.) A lot of banks had folded, and Roosevelt closed them all briefly. He mentioned extreme measures; it's startling even now. What would Roosevelt do if Congress failed to support his recommendations? He said that day at the Capitol:
I shall not evade the clear course of duty that will then confront me. I shall ask the Congress for the one remaining instrument to meet the crisis - broad executive power that would be given me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe. . . . The people of the United States have asked for discipline and direction under leadership. They have made me the present instrument of their wishesm.
It recalled President Hoover's warnings in the 1932 election: ''Our opponents . . . are proposing changes and so-called new deals which would destroy the very foundation of our American system.'' Hoover saw the threat of ''mastery by government over the daily life of a people.'' He argued there were some things the government couldn't do; Roosevelt said he was wrong and did them. The crucial test, I have always thought, came after the President reopened the banks. Would there be a panic - lines of frightened people taking out their money? For a breathless moment nobody knew. Then the great negative action was taken - one of the most important nonevents of modern times: People left their money in the reopened banks.
There was something about this man - people longed to believe him. He had a grin and a toss of his head; he said we had nothing to fear but fear itself. The quality of his voice did as much for the country as his policies. You could feel national tension relax a bit - the country heaved a sigh. There was even humor. In the play ''I'd Rather Be Right,'' George M. Cohan cried, ''Bring me another fireside, I'm going on the air!'' People smiled; after that first radio chat Roosevelt seemed part of the family.
In Britain's Observer, James Louis Garvin wrote, ''America has found a man. In him, at a later stage, the world must find a leader.'' At any rate political paralysis was gone. ''The people aren't sure just where they are going,'' a US business journal noted, ''but anywhere seems better than where they've been. In the homes, in the streets, in the offices, there is a feeling of hope reborn.''
In 1932, ''Washington rarely affected people's lives directly,'' noted historian William Leuchtenburg in a recent symposium at the Wilson Center of the Smithsonian Institution. Then, you could walk into an American town, he said, and have a hard time detecting any sign of federal presence, save the post office: ''There were no national old-age pensions, no federal unemployment compensation, no aid to dependent children, no federal housing, no regulation of the stock market, no withholding tax, no federal school lunches, no farm subsidies, no national minimum-wage law, no welfare state.
''In the dramatic First Hundred Days of 1933 this situation was fundamentally changed. . . .''
After the Roosevelt inaugural came a three-month legislative period that transformed America, the so-called 100 Days. It was the greatest social, governmental, and regulatory peacetime change in American history.
Thereafter, the government, through the Public Works Administration, built New York's Triborough Bridge; through the Works Progress Administration, it laid out LaGuardia Airport (and constructed animal cages in the Central Park Zoo). It got into all sorts of odd tasks - it supported writer John Steinbeck, later to be famous, in making a census of all the dogs on the Monterey Peninsula. It ran a circus. The National Youth Administration employed a promising Duke University law student named Richard Nixon, at 35 cents an hour.
That was just the start. Things exploded all over. FDR himself pushed the so-called shelter belt - a plan to plant 200 million trees in a 100-mile-wide barrier from the Canadian border to the Texas panhandle. At a nursery in Towner, S.D., I saw seven miles of American elms, a few inches tall, peeping up like radishes; outside Lincoln, Neb., I saw a forest go in as 13 men piled out of a truck at the farm of Magnus Hauch and left 10 lines of trees and shrubs planted 10 feet apart.
During the early months of Roosevelt's administration, historian Charles Beard noted that the President commanded extraordinary public affection. There were jokes about it. In 1928 a couple christened their newborn Herbert Hoover Jones. Four years later they petitioned the court ''desiring to relieve the young man from chagrin and mortification which he is suffering and will suffer'' that the name be changed to Franklin D. Roosevelt Jones. The jokes were cruel to the able Hoover. Even as they were made, there was an undercurrent of apprehension. Was such adulation for Roosevelt safe? After all, by 1941 all Europe was at war; America still hoped to stay out of it. But could FDR be trusted to keep the country at peace?
James MacGregor Burns of Williams College calls the American government with its checks and balances ''probably the most complicated democratic system in the world.'' Germany's first chancellor, Prince Otto von Bismarck, introduced welfare legislation there, and Europe generally had accepted social responsibility by the state for its citizens before Roosevelt. It was almost certain that sooner or later the idea would jump the Atlantic. It made the leap under FDR.
From its beginning the United States was extraordinarily prosperous. The country was a liberal democracy: even though the rewards of cultivating America were unevenly distributed, it seemed that the people as a whole could hardly avoid being rich. The stock market crash of 1929 came with cruel suddenness. It was the conventional wisdom of the time, accepted by President Hoover, that the economic upset would right itself. This was the laissez-faire doctrine, the belief of a dominant school of professional economists, that in a business cycle things must run their course. Hoover would try to prevent cold and hunger for the poor, but he opposed direct relief. On the contrary, Roosevelt accepted the theory of direct responsibility. The question of centralization is still with us.
A second deep-seated belief in the '20s was that business and government were a kind of equal sovereignty; private industrialists like Henry Ford epitomized, for many, the free enterprise that was the basic strength of the American system. The words ''Wall Street'' did not have the pejorative political character that often exists today.
But the crash of 1929 altered national thinking. In less than a month in October stocks suffered an incredible average decline of 40 percent. The depression did not correct itself either, as it was supposed to do. Roosevelt brought in an economic and social revolution in national thinking that continues today.
In another field he was less responsible. He expanded the government amazingly. In most ways he was successful yet always under restraint: He was unable to ''pack'' the Supreme Court or purge Democratic conservatives in Congress like Sen. Walter George of Georgia. Was he slipping? Instead of approaching the end with the customary letdown of most two-term presidents, he ran for an unprecedented third term in 1940 - and won.
War was raging in Europe. The US had passed a quick draft act. We all knew things were moving fast - but where? Century-old perceptions were giving way. I sensed it as I criss-crossed the United States that fateful summer of 1941. We wanted to stay out of war, but isolationism was different this time. We no longer believed that the US was protected by the Atlantic and Pacific, so we could go into wars or stay out. After World War I we turned our backs on the League of Nations. And in 1929 we adopted economic isolationism: Hoover signed the Hawley-Smoot Tariff (June 1930), putting up the highest tariff wall in history and provoking retaliatory tariffs from 25 nations within two years. That was a decade back; what now?
We were moving toward some big event. We weren't sure what. There was little flag-waving, few slogans, no martial airs. There was a subdued mood of realism and sobriety. Hitler's attack on Russia, I wrote, had a profound effect.
Then on Dec. 7, 1941, Japan struck Pearl Harbor. . . .
The thing about Roosevelt, as I look back on it now, was his supreme confidence. He knew when he reopened the banks in 1933 that people wouldn't panic. He had absolutely no doubt eight years later that America would defeat Japan and Germany. You could tell that at an unforgettable joint press conference with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in the President's Oval Office, Dec. 23. For a journalist it was one of those lifetime things that you continue to write about and dream about. On the left was Roosevelt with an uptilted chin and toothy smile known to every caricaturist. Behind him was Mr. Churchill, a head shorter, a blend of cherub and bulldog. We couldn't see him at first for the 200 reporters jammed in front, and he jumped on his chair to cheers. There he was, chin almost resting on chest, seemingly without any neck at all, and a way of snarling ''Nazi'' that made it an unprintable epithet.
The two English-speaking nations at that moment offered matchless leaders. Did it affect history that in private they could call each other ''Franklin'' and ''Winnie''? Fifty years after Roosevelt's first inaugural no one can doubt that his supreme confidence buoyed up his friend and other allies as it had the nation itself in 1933 when he told it that it had nothing to fear but fear itself.