One of The Things Is Not Like The Other

“The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.”


— Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Oglethorpe University Commencement Address, May 22, 1932.

According to Harold Ickes, FDR’s interior secretary and one of the most important architects of the New Deal, Roosevelt himself privately acknowledged that “what we were doing in this country were some of the things that were being done in Russia and even some of the things that were being done under Hitler in Germany. But we were doing them in an orderly way.” It’s hard to see how orderliness absolves a policy from the charge of fascism or totalitarianism. Eventually, the similarities had become so transparent that Ickes had to warn Roosevelt that the public was increasingly inclined “to unconsciously group four names, Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini and Roosevelt.”

— From Jonah Goldberg’s 2008 book Liberal Fascism, quoting from Ickes’ 1953 book, The Secret Diary of Harold L. Ickes: The First Thousand Days.

That word — “dictator” — had been in the air for weeks, endorsed vaguely as a remedy for the Depression by establishment figures ranging from the owners of the New York Daily News, the nation’s largest circulation newspaper, to Walter Lippmann, the eminent columnist who spoke for the American political elite. “The situation is critical, Franklin. You may have no alternative but to assume dictatorial powers,” Lippmann had told FDR during a visit to Warm Springs on February 1, before the crisis escalated. Alfred E. Smith, the Democratic nominee for president in 1928, recalled with some exaggeration that “during the World War we wrapped the Constitution in a piece of paper, put it on the shelf and left it there until the war was over.” The Depression, Smith concluded, was a similar “state of war.” Even Eleanor Roosevelt, more liberal than her husband, privately suggested that a “benevolent dictator” might be what the country needed. The vague idea was not a police state but deference to a strong leader unfettered by Congress or the other inconveniences of democracy. Amid the crisis, the specifics didn’t go beyond more faith in government by fiat.


— From NPR: “Author Reconstructs FDR’s ‘Defining Moment,'” an interview with Jonathan Alter of Newsweek, July 1st 2006.

Stuart Chase, too, would work on articles and a book about Russia, aimed at capturing the attention of the leaders in the established political parties. Interested in the future of cities, he was also imagining a new style of federal government far more ambitious than what had been before. The volume, published a few years later, would open with a reference to Keynes, the English economist who had approved of Hoover: “John Maynard Keynes tells us that in 100 years there will be no economic problem.” To get to that point, though, Chase reiterated, the United States would indeed have to depart from free-market models. Once again, he sketched limits. “Laissez faire rides well on covered wagons; not so well on conveyer belts and cement roads,” Chase wrote. Whatever the change that was happening, “it is going in the direction of more collectivism.” Chase argued the key to the change was Russia. It might be a dictatorship, but it was, just as Steffens said, the future. “Russia, I am convinced,” Chase said, “will solve for all practical purposes the economic problem.” Someday, the United States might begin its own experiment in central planning. The conservatives were having their day, and the planners would get theirs. After all, as Chase would ask in his final sentence, “Why should Russians have all the fun remaking a world?”


— From Amity Shlaes’ 2007 book The Forgotten Man, quoting Chase’s 1932 book, whose title, A New Deal, inspired the signature phrase of Roosevelt’s administration.

President Obama, yesterday: “FDR, contrary to myth, was actually pretty fiscally conservative.”

Update: Related thoughts from Bryan Preston at the Tatler.



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