A wholly new approach to the New Deal takes history we thought we knew and makes it even richer and more complex.
In this deeply erudite, beautifully written history, Katznelson (Political Science and History/Columbia Univ.; When Affirmative Action was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America, 2005, etc.) adopts an expansive view of the New Deal, extending it to the end of the Truman administration. He reminds us that, while anxieties and apprehensions attend every age, FDR assumed office at a time when a profound, abiding fear predominated: about the very survival of liberal democracy in the face of economic meltdown and competition from fascist and communist dictatorships abroad. The dread persisted through a brutal world war, the dawn of the Atomic Age and the beginning of the Cold War. By the time of Eisenhower’s inauguration, a vastly different state had emerged, and its architecture would remain largely undisturbed by the first Republican president in 20 years. Katznelson distinguishes his history in two other important ways. First, in keeping with his theme about the survival of representative democracy, he places special emphasis on the role of Congress in helping to forge the policies and programs that came to define the era. Second, he is cold-eyed about the dicey compromises the New Deal made domestically with the legislature’s dominant force, the Jim Crow South, and internationally by associations with totalitarian governments. An especially fine chapter illustrates the nature of these disturbing alliances by resuscitating the now almost forgotten stories of Italy’s intrepid aviator Italo Balbo, the Soviet Union’s Nuremberg judge Iona Nikitchenko and Mississippi’s racist senator Theodore Bilbo. Although he sees the New Deal as “a rejuvenating triumph,” the author unflinchingly assesses its many dubious, albeit necessary concessions.
Some will quarrel with aspects of Katznelson’s analysis, few with his widely allusive, elegant prose.