Becoming a superpower
The latest Oxford history captures the spirit of 17 years that forever
FREEDOM FROM FEAR: THE AMERICAN PEOPLE IN DEPRESSION AND WAR 1929-1945 By David M. Kennedy Oxford University Press 936 pp., $39.95
A news commentator, talking about Slobodan Milosevic, said that the frequent comparisons of him to Adolf Hitler might be missing the audience, since only 2 out of 10 Americans today were alive when Hitler was menacing Europe.
For those two, whose childhood was spent in the shadow of the Great Depression and the trauma of World War II, reading David Kennedy's tome, the latest book to appear in the 11-volume Oxford history of the United States, is to relive their youth. And for the other eight, no other book so vividly captures the spirit of those 17 years that forever changed America.
The dominant character of this epic is, of course, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Kennedy's is an admiring but still critical view of FDR's sometimes enigmatic personality. As the only president I had known almost until I had graduated from high school, it still remains difficult to imagine what those years would have been like without the voice of FDR.
Kennedy has performed an amazing feat in fitting so many varied themes into a single book, albeit a hefty one. The story is replete with cameo histories of the leading figures of the era.
He also steps aside to give us a view of average Americans and how they were living at various periods, beginning with the pre-Depression 1920s. And he mentions many of the books that were informing the public debate. But the main text is given to the social, political, and economic changes wrought by the Depression and the New Deal, and then to the events on both fronts during World War II.
Kennedy accepts the general view that it was not the stock- market crash that caused the Depression. But it may not be as well known that Hoover and FDR basically disagreed on the actual causes of the Depression. It was this disagreement over causes that accounted for much that was different in the approaches the two men took to the crisis. Hoover blamed the generally bad resolution of international issues in the aftermath of World War I. Kennedy portrays Hoover as highly intelligent and well-informed regarding the structure of the American economy, although certainly not an adroit political figure.
FDR, on the other hand, bought into the domestic explanation and at first ignored international events in trying to bring about recovery.
Most of the lasting legacy of the New Deal was put into place during FDR's first three years in office: Social Security and unemployment insurance, the National Labor Relations Board, the Federal Housing Administration, insurance of bank deposits, the Securities and Exchange Commission. These laws brought the government into Americans' lives in a way that was previously unheard of, and provided a new measure of stability to the social and economic structure.
"Before he had finished," writes Kennedy, "Franklin Roosevelt had changed the nation's political mind and its institutional structure to a degree that few leaders before him had dared to dream, let alone try, and that few leaders thereafter dared to challenge."
Kennedy reminds us of the political backdrop to the New Deal. FDR counted on the support of key progressive Republicans to pass some of his legislation; these same senators were largely isolationist, and this hemmed in his ability to prepare the nation for the war he saw coming.
He had to keep the Southern Democrats, still the backbone of the old Democratic Party, in the fold, too; this in turn limited his ability to progress very far on civil rights. And his need to pick up labor votes, as well as counter the demagogy of Huey Long and Father Coughlin, accounted for his increasingly anti-business rhetoric.
How much this rhetoric delayed a full recovery until after the war's start may not be measurable, but Kennedy admits FDR's attitude was due to "some mixture of principled conviction, personal pique, and political calculation."
Kennedy sums up FDR's domestic achievement: "He did mend the evils of the Depression by reasoned experiment within the framework of the existing social system. He did prevent a naked confrontation between orthodoxy and revolution."
The book's second half captures the tensions of the war years - the fight to help Britain while America was still officially neutral; the balancing act between the two wars the US had to fight; the tensions that existed in America's relations with the Soviets, as well as a reminder of the debt the West owed to the Soviets for keeping the Nazi armies tied up on the Eastern front.
At home, the US emerged as the only victor unscathed by war, newly confident, whether or not fully prepared to play the leadership role that history had now cast for it. These were indeed the defining years for the half century that has followed. Kennedy has done a superb job not only in retelling the main outlines of the story but in giving readers a sense of the breathless onrush of events that closed this short era.
*Richard A. Nenneman is a former editor in chief of the
Monitor and the author of "Persistent Pilgrim," a biography of Mary Baker Eddy.