Excerpt From Fear Itself, by Prof. Ira Katznelson

March 19, 2013

“Fear,” one informant told Studs Terkel when the latter conducted an oral history of the 1930s, “unsettled the securities, apparently false securities that people had. People haven’t felt unfearful since.” Another reported how “everyone was emotionally affected. We developed a fear of the future that was very difficult to overcome . . . there was this constant dread. . . . It does distort your outlook and your feeling. Lost time and lost faith.”38 Hope proved elusive. The rumble of deep uncertainty, a sense of proceeding without a map, remained relentless and enveloping. A climate of universal fear deeply affected political understandings and concerns. Nothing was sure.

Over the course of the Roosevelt and Truman administrations, the country confronted three acute sources of fear.39 First was the deep worry that the globe’s leading liberal democracies could not compete successfully with the dictatorships. This period witnessed the disintegration and decay of democratic politics and liberal hopes.40 Parliamentary democracies were widely thought to be weak and incapable when compared to the assertive energies of Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, imperial Japan, and the Communist USSR. At the heart of this concern was a widespread belief that legislative politics, a politics polarized by competing political parties and ideological positions, made it impossible for liberal democracies to achieve sufficient dexterity and proficiency to solve the big problems of the day.

This problem seemed especially acute in the United States, whose government reflected the most radical separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches of government in the world. “If this country ever needed a Mussolini, it needs one now,” Pennsylvania’s Republican senator David Reed declared in 1932. “Leave it to Congress,” he explained, “we will fiddle around here all summer trying to satisfy every lobbyist, and we will get nowhere. The country does not want that. The country wants stern action, and action taken quickly.”41 We will see that a similar call issued by the business weekly Barron’s on the eve of Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency for “a mild species of dictatorship [that] will help us over the roughest spots in the road ahead,” and the claim by the American Legion that the crisis Roosevelt faced could not be “promptly and efficiently met by existing political methods” were neither isolated nor idiosyncratic.42

While competition with the dictatorships created the first fear, exponential growth in sophisticated weaponry proved the second, reflected in an accelerating arms race both before and after World War II, the radical intensification of warfare during that epochal conflagration, and the capacity to kill on a once-unimagined scale. With the global face-off between the two great powers after the war, a confrontation exacerbated by the Soviet Union’s acquisition of nuclear weapons and the standoff in the Korean War, it became impossible for the United States to return to isolation or to disarm, as it previously had done after prior large-scale military mobilizations. By the early 1950s, America’s military was ten times the size it had been in 1939, creating a new political reality “that could not be solved by a return to the happy days of 1939 or 1919 or 1914.”43

Fear about warfare and global violence became a permanent condition. It became an inextricable part of American consciousness, helping to produce an obsession with national security, one that risked political repression. The new nuclear calculus, more than anything else, altered the geopolitics of the world as we knew it. Before, even the most flagrant examples of human suffering could be overcome. Slavery could be abolished. Decolonization could triumph over imperialism. But with radically enlarged prospects of vast and irrational killing fields, domestic and international politics came to be informed by a new and permanent amplification of danger and fear at a moment, ironically, when history’s course held out possibilities of profound human improvement. Everyday politics became the stuff of unprecedented and awful apprehension. “Quite ordinary civilian rulers,” Denis Brogan, a leading British historian of the United States, remarked in a 1956 lecture devoted to the implications for democracy in an atomic world, “are in the position of Milton’s God.”44

“The limitations imposed by the scale, the necessary secrecy, the necessary authoritarian character of the military establishment,” he further observed, made the role of Congress especially problematic. Reporting on a wartime conversation he had had with a leading New Deal Democratic senator who had complained that the White House was bypassing his chamber in making key decisions about military matters, Brogan wrote:

I was able to silence or, at any rate baffle him, by asking a question. How could the Senate be expected to be taken seriously when it kept at the heads of the Military and Naval Affairs Committees Senators [Robert] Reynolds [of North Carolina] and [David] Walsh [of Massachusetts], not because anybody in the Senate or out of it thought them fit, but simply because they had a “right,” by seniority, to these positions of power?45

By contrast, Harry Truman “ran up against a blank wall” when his committee investigating the national defense program “stumbled on the vast, secret enterprise ‘Manhattan Project’ that developed the country’s atomic bomb.” That moment, Brogan acutely commented, “when Senator Truman’s investigators were turned away from the Manhattan Project was the constitutional turning point of no return, not when President Truman decided that ‘it’ was to be dropped on Hiroshima.”46

The racial structure of the South generated the era’s third pervasive fear, a source of worry for both its defenders and its adversaries. Writing for the New Deal’s Federal Writers’ Project, Mississippi-born Richard Wright, later to write Native Son, described “the ethics of living Jim Crow.” Reporting lessons he had learned in “how to live as a Negro,” he told how his “Jim Crow education” had communicated messages confirming unquestioned white control.

Wright recalled one incident that occurred when he had worked as a teenager in a clothing store:

The boss and his twenty-year old son got out of their car and half-dragged and half-kicked a Negro woman into the store. A policeman standing at the corner looked on, twirling his nightstick. . . . After a few minutes, I heard shrill screams coming from the rear of the store. Later the woman stumbled out, bleeding, crying, and holding her stomach. When she reached the end of the block, the policeman grabbed her and accused her of being drunk. Silently I watched him throw her into a patrol wagon. . . . No doubt I must have appeared pretty shocked, for the boss slapped me reassuringly on the back. “Boy, that’s what we do to niggers when they don’t want to pay their bills,” he said laughing. His son looked at me and grinned. “Here, hava cigarette,” he said.47

Southern politics was an integral part of such performative racism. Even the section’s white racial moderates, such as the historian and Chattanooga newspaper publisher George Fort Milton, thought that the South’s political order, including its restricted franchise and racial segregation, was “the fruit of the grim necessity of Reconstruction,” the “means for redemption of a prostrate people.”48 In all, organized politics below the Mason-Dixon Line before the civil rights revolution not only functioned within a white-dominated society but served as the means to ensure it.

The role this system played in national politics is the most overlooked theme in almost all previous histories of the New Deal. Of course, a system of racial hierarchy was not limited to the South; race was embedded as a mark of division in every region. “The Negro problem is not the sole property of the South,” W. E. B. Du Bois convincingly noted.49 Much of the country outside the South marginalized and isolated African-Americans, practiced de facto segregation in housing, schooling, and employment, and looked the other way when antiblack violence proceeded.50 The non-South, in the main, also was unconcerned about Jim Crow, unresponsive to black demands, and ignorant about the major works of social analysis by African-Americans and a few white scholars, including Du Bois, Charles Johnson, St. Clair Drake, Horace Cayton, Allison Davis, and Gunnar Myrdal, who chronicled America’s racist matrix.51

Make no mistake, though. The South was singular. There, a racial hierarchy and the exclusion of African-Americans from the civic body were hardwired in law, protected by patterns of policing and accepted private violence, which created an entrenched system of racial humiliation that became everyday practice. No more than 4 percent of African-Americans could vote as late as 1938.52 Buttressed by this limited franchise and protected by a one-party political system, rigid, fiercely policed segregation below the Mason-Dixon Line seemed like an unalterable fact of nature. “The further South one went,” a shrewd historian of the era observed, “the smaller the impact of the New Deal in reshaping the political order.”53

Reciprocally, the farther South one went in the United States, the greater the influence in shaping the content of the New Deal. We will discover the central role played by the once-slave South in Congress, where representatives from the seventeen states mandating racial segregation were pivotal members of the House and Senate. Democrats nearly to a person, they were the most important “veto players” in American politics.54 Both the content and the moral tenor of the New Deal were profoundly affected. Setting itself terms not just for their constituencies but for the country as a whole, these members of Congress reduced the full repertoire of possibilities for policy to a narrower set of feasible options that met with their approval, or at least their forbearance. No noteworthy lawmaking the New Deal accomplished could have passed without their consent. Reciprocally, almost every initiative of significance conformed to their wishes.

Crucially, the South permitted American liberal democracy the space within which to proceed, but it restricted American policymaking to what I call a “southern cage,” from which there was no escape. We will see how during the midpoint of the New Deal era, especially during World War II, southern politicians became increasingly obsessed with what they rightly perceived to be growing dangers for their racial order. This fear resulted in important changes to their political behavior in Congress. This historic shift within the Democratic Party, in which southern representatives were increasingly willing to team up with Republicans to create what later came to be called the “conservative coalition,” was yet another fateful contribution the South made to the character of modern American politics.

The New Deal navigated each of these three indefinite sources of fear. A central goal of this book is to establish how these distinct fears became entwined. Manifestly present from the start, the contrast between democracy and dictatorship became an ever-more-visible theme of American politics and rhetoric. Questions about might and the conduct of war were different. Sometimes, those issues generated passionate debate; increasingly common, though, was a growing zone of secrecy and insulation from the normal give-and-take of political life. Southern racism in the early years was mostly taken as a given, but during World War II the combination of acceptance and invisibility became untenable.

The need to contend with the dictatorships to protect liberal democracy required alliances and arrangements that paradoxically violated widely accepted moral norms, a precedent that continues today. A striking example of such Faustian bargains is the “Darlan deal” of 1942, in which American officials, hardly excluding Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, recognized the authority of Vichy’s Adm. Jean-François Darlan in French North Africa, despite his paramount role in rounding up Jews for deportation, in exchange for his cooperation with the impending Allied invasion.55 Such transactions could no longer be avoided as the United States entered the globe’s center ring.

It was Machiavelli who famously first argued that political leaders cannot simply follow traditional ethical prescriptions, because they cannot assume that their enemies, or their allies, will do the same. The path of virtue is the path of defeat. To promote the common good, Machiavelli claimed, it is necessary to perform ethically dubious acts. The New Deal could not but face this dilemma. The vaunted “Citty on a Hill,” the phrase John Winthrop borrowed from the Sermon on the Mount’s Parable of Salt and Light in 1630, could no longer luxuriate in its self-imposed isolation. Faced with such challenges, key issues were posed. When, and with whom, should Washington engage? How would the balance between the benefits and drawbacks, the good secured and the cost paid, be assessed? How, and to whom, should these actions be made accountable?

The United States recurrently compromised its liberal principles to make common cause with its ideological adversaries in Fascist Italy during the 1930s. It did so as well with unmistakably brutal Soviet Russia during World War II, and with postwar Germany, when a veritable army of Nazi veterans—political, administrative, and scientific servants of Hitler’s regime—was enlisted in the Cold War.56 These problematic partnerships were provisional. Treating Fascist Italy as a respectable government, despite its harsh treatment of many citizens at home and its horrific incursions in Ethiopia, was motivated in part by a wish to learn economic and administrative lessons about how to find a way out of the economic collapse and modernize the federal government. Making the Soviet Union a well-armed ally, despite Stalin’s murder of millions, was far more than a desirable strategic consideration. That country’s stalwart resistance, battlefield victories, and immense casualties were indispensable. Without them, the fight against Nazi Germany could not have been won.57

Far more enduring was the New Deal’s intimate partnership with those in the South who preached white supremacy. For this whole period—the last in American history when public racism was legitimate in speech and action—southern representatives acted not on the fringes but as an indispensable part of the governing political party. New Deal lawmaking would have failed without the active consent and legislative creativity of these southern members of Congress. Here lay an acute incongruity. The New Deal permitted, or at least turned a blind eye toward, an organized system of racial cruelty. This alliance was a crucial part of its supportive structure. The New Deal thus collaborated with the South’s racial hegemony as it advanced liberal democracy at home and campaigned to promote liberal democracy abroad. In pursuing these purposes, the New Deal did not just tolerate discrimination and social exclusion; its most notable, and noble, achievements stood on the shoulders of this southern bulwark, all the while ultimately creating conditions for their amelioration.

In rejecting idealized versions that trivialize or conceal the era’s morally ambiguous and sometimes heinous features, I aim not, as critics from the Left and the Right sometimes have wished, to diminish or make less legitimate what was accomplished during the New Deal. Rather, my lasting affinity for the New Deal is tempered by a kind of realism best expressed by the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who noted, in 1932, how “politics will, to the end of history, be an area where conscience and power meet, where the ethical and coercive factors of human life will interpenetrate and work out their tentative and uneasy compromises.”58 Even though the New Deal shimmied up, tantalizingly so, to the dictatorships, it did in the end keep faith with liberal democracy. Even though the New Deal patently ignored the South’s violations of black rights and worked closely with many who were prepared to go to any length to protect the system of racial domination, it kept the South inside the Democratic Party, and thus inside the ambit of democratic politics. In contrast to the 1860s, a united republic ultimately held fast to its constitutional order. But this course was less assured, less definite, less pat, and, in some pivotal aspects, more damaging than historical portraits typically depict.

—Reproduced with permission from W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

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