VOICES OF PROTEST: Huey Long, Father Coughlin and the Great Depression by Alan Brinkley
Kirkus Star

VOICES OF PROTEST: Huey Long, Father Coughlin and the Great Depression

Email this review


For a short time, in 1934 and early 1935, Louisiana ""dictator"" Huey Long and Michigan ""radio priest"" Charles Coughlin loomed large as dissenting, neo-populist voices; they forged an alliance of sorts; and FDR, whom both had initially supported, perceived them as a threat--able to exert pressure for policies (Long's share-the-wealth, Coughlin's cheap money and nationalization of banking) which he had no intention of adopting, but couldn't afford to disown. That much is history: a tantalizing episode abruptly terminated by Long's assassination in September 1935 and FDR's overwhelming victory in '36--after which Coughlin, momentarily silenced, reemerged only as a fringe, anti-Semitic fanatic. And that much MIT historian Brinkley has told to considerable effect. Especially for anyone not versed in Thirties history, he provides a compelling account of Long's charismatic rise to the Louisiana governorship, his terrorizing of the Senate, his calculated move (via tho media) onto the national scene. He also distinguishes, very keenly, between Long's genuinely reformist programs (e.g. . creating an ""infrastructure"" for state development) and his limited challenge to the status quo. (See, in particular, his discussion of Long's ""expedient,"" neither-pro-norcon attitude toward blacks.) But the Coughlin parallelism runs into immediate problems. For one thing, Coughlin, whatever discontents he briefly catalyzed, was nowhere near Long's equal as an American original, a champion of the poor, or a political operative. Here he appears as a mama's-boy opportunist with a mellifluous voice (and some personal magnetism) who lit upon radio as a way to raise money for his tiny church--and succumbed to sheer adulation. The second difficulty is that Brinkley, in setting up the two men as counterparts, specifies Long's populist/radical roots (in anomalous Winn Parish and an ""autonomous"" community) but does not set forth either Coughlin's background as an underdog Irish Catholic in Scottish Presbyterian and Scotch-Irish Ontario (noted by Coughlin biographers) or, until the appendix, the direct link between his guiding light, Detroit Bishop Gallagher, and European Catholic protofascists. The appendix, indeed, is the nub of the book. There, Brinkley addresses two crucial problems: Coughlin's anti-Semitism and the ""fascist"" label attached to both. Though Coughlin may have held anti-Semitic views, Brinkley plausibly maintains, that was not the source of his early appeal; and (to condense a considerable argument) ""the loosely defined social philosophies of Long and Coughlin rested on fundamentally different concerns"" from Italian and German fascism. But the ""decentralized capitalism"" Brinkley ascribes to Long and Coughlin (as against the ""belligerent supra-nationalism"" of Mussolini and Hitler) is undermined by his own prior analysis of the pair's ideological weakness: ""they called for a major expansion of the power of the federal government."" It's an interesting and highly readable reassessment; but there's a disjunction between the historical main-text and what, in theory, Brinkley wants to make of it--and that very disjunction opens both to question.

Pub Date: April 28th, 1982
Publisher: Knopf