Wednesday, October 21, 2009

For the Survival of Democracy

In this ambitious work, Alonzo L. Hamby provides a comparative history focused on Franklin D. Roosevelt and Adolf Hitler as charismatic leaders in a time of global crisis. Hamby's account will discomfort celebratory liberals and critical New Leftists, while showing conservatives why scholars perennially rank FDR among the top three U.S. presidents. Summarizing the First New Deal as "a humanitarian success, a political triumph, and an economic failure" (p. 147), Hamby revises how we look at FDR, the New Deal, and Democratic liberalism.

Answering the call for comparative history by John Garraty in "The New Deal, National Socialism, and the Great Depression" (American Historical Review 78 [October 1973]: 907–944) and The Great Depression (1986), Hamby asks why FDR's New Deal failed to bring economic recovery, while British Conservatives Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain and Nazi fuhrer Hitler achieved significant recovery by 1935. Historians remember FDR as a great liberal reformer, while we overlook or disdain the records of his conservative and fascist counterparts. Hamby places FDR and New Deal reform in international perspective, finding some striking similarities between FDR and Hitler, surprising comparisons of New Deal liberalism and British Tory socialism, and significant differences among the political cultures of the world's three leading national economies in the interwar years.

I picked up this book a couple of years back which deals with Roosevelt and the World Crisis of the 1930s.


  1. Hmmm..... According to Commanger's review, Schlesinger counters this at least from the economy's perspective. Now from civil liberties and a Constitutional perspective, FDR might be open to these kinds of attacks.

    Might try to start vol 1 tonight.

    I have an old Book of the Month copy, which I hope holds up. Funny how the more I read, the pickier I get about the physical quality of books. I'm not a collector by any definition, but I do seem to have some of the symptoms of the madness.

  2. I tend to buy first editions these days, if I can afford them. I figure if I'm going to plunk down $20 to $30 to have a book shipped to me over here it might as well hold onto its value.

    The Hamby book looks interesting because it offers an alternative opinion. Schlesinger took a very liberal view to the past. Will see if I have the patience to read them both over the coming weeks.

  3. It will be interesting to see what you find in Hamby. This seems to be the common complaint from the right about Obama: Look at FDR. He never "fixed" the economy, it only survived because of Hoover and in spite of FDR, etc.

    A NY Times reporter has a new book out on the economy and even he was willing to give Bush credit for "saving" it, while admitting that his policies got us into the mess in the first place. So you can see history being written already.

    I'm reading a profile of Paulson now (my misguided subscription to Vanity Fair -- what was I thinking?). I'm curious to read how Paulson thinks of himself. The reporter was there in real time.

  4. I take it all back. From the new issue, the book I was just referencing:

  5. It will be interesting to see how it all shakes out, av. The New Deal kept things moving during the Depression, but the economy didn't really pick up until the war started, and exploded (figuratively) after the war with the US being the least affected industrial power.

    I think Hamby's argument is that while the New Deal was not an economic success it was a social imperative,

    "Roosevelt, for all the inconsistencies of his agenda, emanated a sense of purposeful forward direction. However unsound his judgments may have been at critical times, however mixed his record, he had emerged as democracy's most dynamic force in a menacing decade."

  6. Yes, but I've read it wasn't the war per se that turned things around -- it was the extra commitment of funding and resulting jobs that turned it around.

    The suggestion has always been that it took a war to end the depression -- but it's my understanding that it took a commitment to spend more money that came as a result of the US entry into the war. Thus, we need to declare a war on the tanking economy and quit draining needed funds by ending the occupations in the Middle East (although as some pundits have noted -- think of the unemployment rates if all those young people were in the domestic job market).

  7. Avrds, thanks for posting the link to the Vanity Fair article, an excerpt from Andrew Ross Sorkin's book. Haven't read it yet, but looking over it and seeing Paulson's photo reminded me of something.

    While I was still working at a major law firm last year, I occasionally worked for a partner who was involved in GM loan agreement and some other related matters. Someone (probably the partner) posted photos outside his office door of the partner and Paulson with the caption "separated at birth." The partner looked like a slightly younger version of Paulson. (The guy still had some hair around his head.)

  8. I haven't read it yet either -- I have the new issue but haven't gotten to it yet. I'm still trying to finish the Paulson profile, which is good. I'm interested in both now after seeing Michael Moore's film.

    Also read the first chapter of Ghost Wars which is my paperback to carry around with me in case I need something to read. Not sure why Paulson made me think of American foreign policy, but in the chapter he shows how we were giving missiles to Afghanistan to kill the Russians and then had to go back and try to buy them back at inflated prices so they wouldn't be used to kill us.

    Oh, yeah, I bet it was this: they carried around suitcases literally full of cash -- 1/2 million in one case -- to give to these guys.

  9. I think I have that issue of Vanity Fair with the Paulson article. I have the one with Jackie O. on the cover. Will dig it out. I bought it just before going to a movie and started reading in it while waiting for the film to start.

  10. Marti, that's the issue with the Paulson profile. It's interesting to read Schlesinger while I read about Paulson. Sometimes you wonder what these people are really thinking (although it's clear when it came right down to it Paulson didn't have a clue).

  11. I started reading Hamby's book last night. Not as good a writer as Schlesinger, but he takes an international view to the Depression, appearing to look at the financial crisis from paralleling British, German and American views. He has pretty much the same view of Hoover as did Schlesinger and appears to view Roosevelt in largely favorable terms, maintaining the vanguard of Democracy, while other nations fell to autocratic leaderships. Will see how it goes.

  12. I read a very good account of the collapse of the Weimar Republic in Richard Evans' The Coming of the Third Reich. Hamby covers much of the same ground, but also shows how the British and other European governments struggled during this time as well. You get a very good perspective on the economic crisis in Europe as compared to that in the US. He goes into the various approaches and how they each seemed saddled by and unwillingness to support each other. So, each country pretty much found itself on its own. He notes that where the US failed was in forcing Germany to pay reparations to Washington, where in turn it was swallowed up by the banks, rather than being used in Europe, where it was sorely needed in the 1920s. Greed. Greed. Greed.

  13. I'm finally getting back into the book. Sorry it has taken me so long. I just haven't felt like reading at night lately, although I'm thoroughly enjoying it -- even if it's slightly enraging.

    I have always assumed that some of the European issues had to do with the cost of the war, most of which the US seemed to escape. So there were in essence two or three different collapses that fed each other. But that's strictly intuition and guesswork. I haven't read much about this period before, other than sweeping overviews.

    Initially Hoover believed that the depression was caused by "uncontrolled speculation in the securities market" but later tried to pass the blame to other countries as he became obsessed with gold etc. Schlesinger doesn't seem to give him much credit for that idea though.

  14. Hoover did push for a moratorium on Germany paying reparations for the war and Congress granted him one year. The aim here seemed to be to try to stabilize Germany, which badly needed capital to get industry going again. Unfortunately, the American Progressives who held Germany largely to blame for WWI were against it, and reinstituted reparations. Hamby notes that this had a calamitous affect on Germany and may have helped usher in the Third Reich. Evans also noted this in his book.

    Hamby felt that all the countries concerned were too narrow minded. He seems to be more forgiving toward Hoover than other historians in noting that Hoover did have an international view of events where the American Progressives did not.

    I'm not a big fan of Hoover, but he wasn't blind. Like many politicians of the time, he was bound by a certain set of hard and fast rules which he couldn't break away from. Hamby notes that his dogged determination to maintain the gold standard didn't help matters at all. Money needed to be freed up during this time of crisis, not held to a standard, but he was so worried about inflation, especially the German hyperinflation that had previously occurred, that to him the gold standard was paramount.