What experience and history teach is this -- that people and governments never have learned anything from history, or acted on principles.
--George Wilhelm Hegel
The true import of FDR’s legacy is fading from the American consciousness. As the few remaining Americans possessing any firsthand experience of the Great Depression pass away, we’re left with many remarkable written accounts and thorough works on his life, his politics and policies, as well as other aspects of the New Deal, and his presidency.
Last week, I referenced Kenneth S. Davis’s very thorough, as well as remarkably readable account of the New Deal years, from 1933-1937. This week, I’d like to pick up with Davis, and augment it with Nick Taylor’s equally solid account of FDR’s Works Progress Administration.
Taylor’s book, American-Made: When FDR Put The Nation To Work, details the period of time just after the stock market crash, when the nation was plunged into an economic death spiral. I detailed just how severe this was in last week’s HMM post, and Hoover’s inability to move beyond standard Republican, keep the budget balanced measures in addressing record unemployment, and economic devastation.
While Roosevelt relied upon educators to develop his plans for putting the country back on the right track, it was his appointment of practical men, individuals with no university connections whatever, to implement his ideas. Harry Hopkins was one of the latter.
Harry Hopkins: Connecting with FDR
Harry Hopkins was a social worker by training. Iowa-born, Hopkins’ father, David, was born in Bangor, Maine, but the family moved west after the Civil War. While prospecting for gold in South Dakota, he met and married Anna Pickett, a school teacher.
Mrs. Hopkins was a devout Methodist, and became active in the Methodist Missionary Society, in Sioux City, where the Hopkins lived when Harry was born. Later, they would move to Council Bluffs, Kearney and then Hastings in Nebraska, and then, David moved the family to Chicago for two years, which allowed him to have a home base in the center of his sales territory, working for a wholesale harness company.
After David Hopkins was struck by a horse-drawn truck, resulting in a broken leg and lost wages, he sued the driver and won an out of court settlement of $10,000. Half of the award went to Hopkins’ lawyer, and the other half allowed Hopkins to move the family to Grinnell, Iowa, where he bought a harness store to run. As the demand for harnesses, and other horse-related implements waning, Hopkins added newspapers, candy, and sold cigarettes under the counter. He became immensely popular with the Grinnell College students, and it was said that he knew more of them by their first names than did the college president.
Mrs. Hopkins had approved of her husband’s move to Grinnell, because of the exceptional education that the community offered. Harry would later attend Grinnell, graduating in 1912 with a degree in social work. Just prior to graduation, unsure of his future, one of his professors, Dr. Steiner, showed Hopkins a telegram asking if the professor could recommend a Grinnell student to work at the Christodora camp for poor children, near Bound Brook, New Jersey.
Hopkins had no real intention of making a career in social work, but jumped at the opportunity to go east, particularly enamored of settling in New York City.
While Hopkins had known poverty growing up in the Midwest, he was somewhat bewildered by his first contacts with products of the East Coast slums. The poor folks he knew back home had involved the maintenance of a dignity and self-respect that was lacking in the products of the city slums he was to come into contact with. Hunger, squalor, and degradation were new experiences for Hopkins. However, he had inherited his mother’s missionary impulse and it wasn’t long before Hopkins became a zealous advocate for the underprivileged which he’d never lose during his career in government.
Hopkins, rejected for the draft and service in WWI, because of a bad eye, moved to Atlanta, where the American Red Cross as director of Civilian Relief, for their Gulf Division, where he remained for five years.
In 1922, he returned to New York, and became the general director of the New York Tuberculosis Association (later the Tuberculosis and Health Administration).
Hopkins first met Roosevelt in 1928, when the future president was running for governor. It was during the presidential campaign, and Hopkins had been impressed by Roosevelt’s “Happy Warrior” nominating speech on behalf of candidate Alfred Smith. Smith was Hopkins’ idol, and meeting Roosevelt was a bonus for him.
Later, Hopkins’ work was coming to be noticed by Roosevelt’s friends, and in particular, Mrs. Roosevelt, who took an active interest in welfare work.
When Roosevelt set up the Temporary Emergency Relief Administration (T.E.R.A.) as governor of New York, it would be the precursor to many of his future New Deal programs. T.E.R.A. was the largest and most daring program ever set up for the relief of unemployment by a state. Many of Roosevelt’s friends and political confidants secretly believed it was doomed to fail. Roosevelt intended to ask William Hodsdon, of the Russell Sage Foundation, to head up T.E.R.A. When Hodsdon asked friends and advisors about the appointment, they advised him to turn it down, which he did. Roosevelt then turned to Hopkins, and he enthusiastically accepted.
During his two-year tenure at T.E.R.A., Hopkins fulfilled his duties the way that Roosevelt liked best: imaginatively, speedily, and giving the least possible amount of trouble to Roosevelt himself.
Like many in those dark and uncertain days, the return of prosperity was always “just around the corner,” or so everyone hoped. Hopkins, not sure how long his T.E.R.A. duties would last, continued on at the Tuberculosis and Health Association. As he continued in his relief role, he became less sure his new job was going to be “temporary.”
Hopkins: Chief Apostle of the New Deal
Hopkins hoped that he’d receive an invitation to be part of the new administration. Instead, he was bypassed, as Roosevelt assembled his “brains trust” of Raymond Moley, Rexford G. Tugwell, and Adolf Berle. Louis Howe, Roosevelt’s close friend and most intimate advisor was added, as was Henry Morenthau, Jr., another close friend.
The man who came to be regarded as the administration’s most sinister figure, “a backstairs intriguer, an Iowan combination of Machiavelli, Svengali, and Rasputin (from Roosevelt and Hopkins: An Intimate History, by Robert Sherwood), didn’t join the administration until May 22, day 79, of FDR’s famous “First Hundred Days.”
Appointed to head up the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) as chief administrator, Hopkins assumed the task of making sure that relief was, 1) decentralized and local in character, and 2) work, rather than idleness on the dole, was preferred.
The Washington Post headline that accompanied Hopkins first day on the job read, “Money Flies,” stating that “the half-billion dollars for direct relief of States won’t last a month if Harry L. Hopkins, new relief administrator, maintains the pace he set yesterday in disbursing more than $5,000,000 during his first two hours in office.”
When asked about his first day and if he planned to continue like that, he answered, “I’m not going to last six months here, so I’ll do as I please.”
Tasked by Roosevelt to get relief to people who needed it and to have no truck with politicians, that’s exactly how Hopkins proceeded.
Hopkins believed that relief was entirely nonpartisan, and would continue acting on that principle for a long time. Eventually, however, when this initial period of “soaring altruism” ended, and Republican opposition regained a foothold, making elections harder to win, Hopkins had to temper that sentiment.
From FERA, Hopkins then ran the Civilian Works Administration (CWA), and then, the Works Progress Administration (WPA).
The Works Progress Administration became the New Deal’s largest agency. Until it was closed down by Congress in 1943, the various programs of the WPA employed 8.5 million people in its seven-year history. In all, the WPA built or repaired 1.2 million miles of culverts and nearly 600,000 miles of highways, streets and roads, as well as laying 24,000 miles of sidewalks. It constructed or restored more than 110,000 public libraries, schools, auditoriums, stadiums and other public buildings. It build 256 new airports and fixed 385 more, built 880 sewage treatment plants and repaired 395, spanned rivers, creeks, and gullies with some 75,266 bridges and viaducts, laid 22,790 miles of sewerage lines, and dug 770 municipal swimming pools. All of this prompted a congressman to say in 1940 that “…it sounds almost like the accomplishments of King Solomon.” There isn’t a city or county in America that was not touched in some way by the WPA.
While critics abound today, citing the WPA as a case study of big government run amok, it’s rare to find anyone who got a job, and left relief, who speaks poorly of the program. It put people back to work, gave them hope, and put food on the tables of countless American families.
In addition to helping put Americans back to work, The WPA was also an example of Keynesian economic theories in action. When first instituted, the program cut unemployment roles, and helped prime the nation’s economic pump. The economy began to recover slowly in 1935, and well into 1936. However, Republicans, upset by the deficit spending required to meet the needs of WPA, began to dig in their heels, and fight Hopkins’ requests for funding. As cuts were made, the unemployment rate jumped back to 19 percent in early 1937. The unprimed economic pump began sucking air, just as Hopkins and his fellow Keynesians had predicted.
When Roosevelt delivered his fifth state of the union address in January, 1938, he indicated that he had backed away from a balanced budget for the coming year. He indicated that he was “as anxious as any banker, or industrialist, or businessman, or investor, or economist, that the budget of the United States government be brought into balance as quickly as possible, he would not permit any needy American who can and is willing to work to starve, because the federal government does not provide the work (through the WPA).” Roosevelt hinted that the blame for the shrinking economy rested with business, which was preventing expansion, by not investing in new plants, a political strike at his administration, attempting to undermine his programs.
It’s difficult not to see many parallels between what was being debated back in 1938, as a means to move the nation forward, and our current debate surrounding the Obama stimulus package. While it would be naïve to assume that our current economic problems are identical to the country’s 70 years ago, the same kind of partisan rancor and political point making has the same potential to derail our own economic recovery, just as it did back in 1938.
Ideologues make blanket statements impugning Roosevelt, in a weak attempt to tie the efforts of our current president to him. By assigning labels of “socialist,” “tax and spend liberal” and other monikers, these are designed to demonize good faith efforts to utilize stimulus and infrastructure improvement as tools to get the economy back on track. Doing so only reveals their lack of a historical foundation for their charges. Neither is this new. FDR was actually a political pragmatist, and too conservative for the likes of Huey Long, and Sinclair Lewis among others. Father Coughlin, the 1930s equivalent of right-wing blowhards like Rush Limbaugh was first a supporter of New Deal policies, and then, a bitter critic.
Taking the time, the past few months, to educate myself about FDR, the New Deal, and other programs that helped pull America out of its economic darks days, has given me a much firmer foundation about what’s true, and what’s not. It also has grounded me in a way that only happens when you do the work yourself, and don’t rely on demagogues and political hucksters for your information.