Title: Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945
Author: David Kennedy
Categories: Synthesis, Great Depression, World War II, Political History, War, Foreign Policy
Place: United States
Time Period: 1929-1945
David Kennedy writes a synthesis for the Oxford Series in American History that covers the Great Depression and World War II. The book subsequently reads as two volumes. In the first, Kennedy describes the Great Depression and New Deal. His overarching interpretation of the 1930s is that of security - rather than being an incoherent grab-bag of policies, the goal of the New Deal under FDR was to extend security to ALL Americans (not just economically, but socially and civically). Kennedy argues that, despite the New Deal's limitations, its major contributions were its inclusivity and its ability to enact deep structural reform and experimentation within the existing framework of American democracy - an articulation of a new, twentieth-century liberalism.
Kennedy begins from the vantage point of the Herbert Hoover administration and partially rehabilitates Hoover's historical image. Although he made mistakes, Hoover did attempt to tackle the lingering agricultural depression (one of the major causal factors for the broader Depression) by turning towards an individualist ethos based on communal organizations and voluntary cooperation. From 1931 onwards, the Depression was accelerated by the economic disintegration of Europe, but Hoover was hamstrung by a recalcitrant Congress. Roosevelt's election in 1932 was followed by the manically energetic First Hundred Days. Kennedy notes that Roosevelt's forceful action and his forging of a direct, reassuring connection with the American people should not be underestimated, but he is more scornful of several specific policies. The National Recovery Administration, as the face of the New Deal, was a lumbering bureaucratic nightmare resting on a bungling, mercantilist-driven leadership. The Agricultural Administration's zealous emphasis on agricultural revival as the key to ending the Depression was mis-guided, and ends up coddling large-scale commercial farmers often at the cost of the broader rural populace. He also notes the tremendous rise of the labor movement during the 1930s (buoyed by pro-labor legislation like the Wagner Act) and its strong political alliance with the Democratic party. Kennedy argues that 1935 marked the pinnacle of the New Deal and the emergence of a modern liberal ideology based on active government regulation. During the late 1930s, the New Deal came under increasing fire. The Supreme Court struck down several of its measures, Roosevelt faced criticism from both left and right political flanks (ex. Huey Long on left, Reverend Charles Coughlin on the right), a coherent conservative political opposition emerged in Congress, and the economy dipped back downwards after 1937. The passage of the last piece of New Deal legislation in 1938 effectively marked the end of the period.
In the second section on World War II, Kennedy makes fewer overarching interpretations, but does chart a shift from an earlier emphasis on security towards the goal of individual prosperity and more optimistic expansion. Early on in the war, however, Roosevelt faced stiff isolationist sentiment from the American populace stemming from World War I and, Kennedy argues, stiffening after 1935 in a series of Neutrality Acts. In Pearl Harbor, Kennedy argues that Japan made a critical mistake by not fully crippling the Pacific Fleet. After defeat at the Battle of the Midway (the undisputed turning point of the Pacific War, in Kennedy's opinion), the Pacific theater became a war of attrition in which Japan could not compete with the United States' manpower and industrial production. In the European theater, Kennedy argues that the Italian campaign was a costly and needless sideshow. Disputes between the allies centered on Russia's insistence that Britain and the United States open up a second front in Europe to divert Germany's forces. On the home-front, meanwhile, Kennedy argues for the centrality of American military-industrial production. Not only did it particularly suit the nature of the war (emphasis on machinery) and the United States' comparative advantage in production, but it also completely reoriented the domestic sphere (massive migration into cities, gains of blacks in workplace/military, etc.) and turned it down the path for the post-war future based on prosperity and production.
Key Themes and Concepts
- SECURITY at heart of the New Deal
- Partially rehabilitates the image of Hoover
- 1935 as key year of Roosevelt articulating a coherent New Deal ideology based on modern liberalism and social security
- Period of legislative paralysis for New Deal from 1937-1938 (Conservative counter-reaction, downturn in economy)
- Goal of New Deal was economic security in face of stagnation, SHIFTS w/ WWII to goal of individual prosperity in face of expansion
U.S. History Qualifying Exams: Book Summaries
by Cameron Blevins
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