Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search


How America's social conscience was born

By Joseph G. Harrison / July 16, 1985



A Caring Society: The New Deal, the Worker, and the Great Depression, by Irving Bernstein. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. 338 pp. $22.95. The United States as we know it in 1985 was shaped by three fundamental events. The American Revolution created a national society. The Civil War created a free society (at least in theory). The New Deal under President Franklin D. Roosevelt created what Professor Irving Bernstein perceptively terms ``a caring society.''

Skip to next paragraph

During that economically and socially consequential administration, what we may term the safeguards under which Americans now live -- social security, unemployment insurance, welfare, measures against investment fraud, a more secure banking system, etc. -- were set in place.

Never before in the nation's history, and only rarely in any nation's annals, had so many crucially meaningful steps of a ``caring'' nature been taken in so brief a period. At numerous critical points the whole direction of the nation was altered.

As has been repeated a thousand times, this was accomplished in two ways. First, the New Deal took concrete steps to alleviate the disastrous physical conditions that had arisen with the Great Depression. Second, FDR's administration altered the thinking of the country, convincing an overwhelming majority of citizens that the day had come when government must intervene to establish satisfactory conditions of human life.

This conviction remains the underlying philosophy of the US political system. Not even the more conservative tendencies of the Reagan years have seriously dented it. America developed a social conscience.

From a strictly factual point of view, there is little new in this book. The deplorable conditions that existed in the US when Roosevelt was sworn in as President in March 1933 (for example, an unemployment rate of 30 percent) have been recounted endlessly. So have the steps taken during that famous ``first hundred days'' to meet the crisis. Countless volumes have detailed the great changes wrought in America by that single President and his administration.

Yet, each new book somehow manages to reinforce our perception of the magnitude of what was accomplished. Nor was it a period in our national life, despite the passage of half a century, that we can afford to neglect. Not primarily because such a crisis is likely to occur again (the steps then taken form a kind of bulwark against it), but because the nation should no more forget those steps that helped make America more decent than it should forget those that made America free.

There is a further reason the history of the New Deal deserves to be kept fresh in a nation's mind. This, as a reading of Professor Bernstein's study repreatedly shows, is because nothing in the annals of the US is a greater tribute to ``Yankee ingenuity'' than the response this crisis elicited. With extraordinary speed, plan after plan, program after program, step after step poured from Washington.

Much of this, at least at the beginning, was of a trial-and-error nature. But most of it tended in the right direction. It is not too much to say that never before or since have the innovative energies of the American people been more strikingly galvanized.

Although Bernstein has chosen to concentrate primarily upon the fate of the American worker during the years 1933 to 1941 (when the effect of World War II virtually swept away joblessness), that segment of society was so important that the book can be looked upon as a general study of the nation's overall response to depression. Through this response, much that was best in America was saved, and much more that is good was added. As the author summarizes the theme of this book: ``Ordinary people with no power and lots of trouble believed that someone in Washington with power cared.''

Joseph G. Harrison is a former managing editor of the Monitor.