Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time

Ira Katznelson has produced an exceptionally engaging and thoughtful account of the New Deal era. Noteworthy for highlighting its inclusion of Southern Segregationists as a critical ally.

By Terry Hartle

Christian Science Monitor / April 1, 2013

Eighty years ago, with the nation mired in a deep economic slump, President Franklin Roosevelt was inaugurated and immediately launched the New Deal.  Before long, the direction and velocity of American government had been permanently altered. Popular and scholarly interest in the events of that era has never diminished. Indeed, in light of the recent economic turmoil, the nature and impact of the New Deal has, if anything, been a subject of even greater interest.

Columbia University historian Ira Katznelson brings a fresh and thoughtful perspective to this much studied topic in Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of our Time. Rather than focusing on President Roosevelt, the executive branch or the courts, Katznelson examines Congress and its role in shaping the New Deal.  He also uses a wider lens than most other writers – rather than the conventional approach that considers the New Deal as something that took place largely between 1933 and 1937, Katznelson refers to “the New Deal period” lasting from Roosevelt’s inauguration in 1933 to the start of the Eisenhower administration in 1952. "Fear Itself" is insightful, authoritative, and convincing.  It is a well-written model of historical scholarship that draws upon the enormous research on the New Deal and synthesizes it into a careful, thoughtful argument.

Four separate themes are woven together in this impressive volume. The first is the pervasiveness of “fear” throughout the 20 years under consideration. This included the fears surrounding the Great Depression; the rise of totalitarian dictators and the Second World War; and the emergence of the Cold War; and the possibility of economic annihilation.

The second is the extent to which the New Deal, with its expansions of public policies to benefit individuals, depended on the votes of southern Democrats, all of whom insisted on protecting racial segregation.  Another theme is the extent to which the New Deal and World War II dramatically and continually shifted the locus of government policy making from Congress to the Executive Branch.  Finally, Katznelson underscores the rise of the national security state in the years immediately after the war – a development that was largely complete when President Eisenhower took office.

At the core of the book is the New Deal’s heavy reliance upon “partnerships with discomforting individuals” – mostly notably racist members of Congress from southern states.  When the New Deal began, Katznelson notes, the South was by far the poorest region of the country and southern Democrats were quite happy to vote for the economic benefits that Roosevelt sent their way.

But they were unwilling to do anything that might undermine the pervasive racial segregation in their states.  So they made sure that New Deal legislation carved out exceptions.  In the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1937, for example, Southern support was obtained only after agricultural and domestic workers – mostly African Americans – were excluded from coverage.  Later, southern Democrats insisted on returning the US Employment Service (which had been housed in the US Department of Labor during World War II) to the states to permit the continuation of separate offices for black and white workers and to avoid any federally directed movement toward equal employment opportunities.

The language the southerners used is to defend segregation is, to contemporary ears, jarring. Florida Senator Claude Pepper once explained his opposition to federal antilynching legislation by noting “whatever may be written into the Constitution, whatever may be placed upon the statute books of this nation … the colored race will not vote, because in so doing … they endanger the supremacy of a race to which God has committed the destiny of a continent, perhaps of the world.”  And Pepper, at least by the standards of the time and his region, was a moderate on racial issues.

The approach of World War II only increased Roosevelt’s reliance on southern Democrats who strongly supported Roosevelt’s efforts to aid the allies and to invest in national defense. Katznelson cites numerous reasons for this, including the large number of military bases in the south and even the predominately British ancestry of most Southern whites. Indeed, in August 1941 – just months before Pearl Harbor – the House of Representatives voted to extend the military draft by a single vote. Democrats from the south, however, supported the measure overwhelmingly.  Without their votes, the nation would have been even more unprepared when the war began.

Katznelson demonstrates that southern support for the New Deal and the Democratic Party did not suddenly disappear, but instead gradually eroded.  A notable example occurred during World War II controversies over voting rights of soldiers.  While there was widespread support for letting soldiers vote in national elections, southern legislators were adamant that individual states, rather than the federal government, ought to determine who could vote.  The reason, of course, was simple: Southern states had very restrictive voting rights for blacks and they wanted to keep it that way. Mississippi Senator James Eastland (who would later chair the Senate Judiciary Committee and remain in the Senate until 1978 ) claimed that expanding black voting rights was antithetical to the war effort. “Those boys are fighting to maintain the rights of the States. Those boys are fighting to maintain white supremacy.”

The book is persuasive in part because it is a product of extraordinary research – it includes 170 pages of annotated footnotes that are well worth reading.  Taken together, Katznelson has produced an exceptionally engaging volume that is required reading for anyone with an interest in American history.

Terry Hartle is a contributor to The Christian Science Monitor.