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Dominic Sandbrook

Between Bilbo & Balbo

Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time
By Ira Katznelson (W W Norton 665pp 22)
Italo Balbo's ticker-tape parade in New York, 1933

On 23 March 1933, three weeks after Franklin D Roosevelt had been sworn in as 32nd president of the United States, the liberal journalist Walter Lippmann was invited to speak at Berkeley. These were unhappy times. The American economy was sunk in depression; the banks were tottering; millions were starving and out of work; abroad, the far right was on the march. The day before, in the little medieval town of Dachau, the Nazis had opened their first concentration camp. And even as Lippmann was getting ready for his speech, the Reichstag was debating the notorious Enabling Act, which handed unlimited power to Adolf Hitler.

At the time, the consequences were still unknown. But when Lippmann rose to address his audience, his message was grim. This, he said, was a world of extraordinary uncertainty. Reason was giving way to populism, as 'the masses of men', with all their fears and prejudices, flexed their political muscles. At the same time, the power of the state itself was reaching unparalleled levels. 'Never before', Lippmann said, 'has government been on so vast a scale, touching such numbers of men in the vital concerns of their lives.' Where would it all lead? Lippmann did not know. 'The fixed points by which our fathers steered the ship of state', he said bleakly, 'have vanished.'

Ira Katznelson's rich, clever and enormously stimulating new book takes us back to this age of fear. I have to confess that my heart rather sank at the prospect of ploughing through yet another book on the New Deal; there can be few people outside the academic world who relish the byzantine intricacies of Roosevelt's alphabet agencies or the interminable, miserable descriptions of the Dust Bowl. But Katznelson's Fear Itself is different: more focused, more argumentative, more ambitious. He stretches the parameters of his period, arguing that the New Deal really ended in 1952, when the American people elected the Republican general Dwight Eisenhower to succeed Harry Truman. And he argues that its guiding principle was not optimism, as Roosevelt's early academic admirers claimed, but a pervasive sense of fear: of the Depression, of fascism, of communism, of black Americans, of the nuclear bomb, of the enemy within. All this, Katznelson argues, drove Roosevelt and Truman to build a new kind of state, a liberal democracy that wielded more raw power than any democratic polity in history. The New Deal, he claims, was modern history's 'most important testing ground for representative democracy', and its impact was 'almost on a par with that of the French Revolution'.

Yet Katznelson's account of Roosevelt's New Deal is more nuanced than the original hagiographical histories. As he points out, ethical compromise was built into it from the very beginning, since FDR depended on the support of the intensely racist southern Democrats in Congress. One of the 'most effective evangelists' for Roosevelt's welfare reforms, for example, was the populist senator from Mississippi, Theodore Bilbo. But, as Katznelson notes, Bilbo was also 'the Senate's leading unashamed crusader for racism', forever thundering against the 'New York kikes' who were trying to get better conditions for Mississippi's black population. When Eleanor Roosevelt spoke in favour of civil rights, Bilbo even claimed that she wanted to force 'Southern girls to use the stools and the toilets of damn syphilitic nigger women'. As a result, Bilbo and his southern colleagues kept the New Deal in what Katznelson calls a 'southern cage', leaving it unable to tackle the appalling segregation in the old Confederacy. The irony, though, was that by supporting the New Deal at all, Bilbo was effectively preparing the way for the Old South's destruction - not just because its rhetoric of rights and freedoms played into the hands of the civil rights movement, but because its vastly expensive programmes, such as the electrification of the Tennessee Valley, were transforming the nation's most backward region. As so often, the story of the New Deal was one of unanticipated consequences.

The grand compromise with the segregationist South was only the most obvious of the New Deal's moral concessions. During the early 1930s, the New Dealers maintained surprisingly close ties with Mussolini's Fascist regime, and when Il Duce's close associate Italo Balbo flew across the Atlantic in the summer of 1933, the Roosevelts hosted a White House lunch in his honour. In Chicago, an estimated one million people packed the streets to applaud the Fascist aviator; in New York, a further two million cheered his ticker-tape parade. Barely two years later, Balbo's planes were raining death on Ethiopian tribesmen. Yet even then some of Roosevelt's aides remained keen admirers of the Italian regime. As late as 1936, Charles Merriam and Louis Brownlow, two of FDR's advisers, visited Rome to pick up tips on making the American government 'up-to-date, efficient and effective'. Presumably invading Ethiopia was not among them.

The romance between American do-gooders and Italian Fascists did not, however, last long. By the early 1940s, Roosevelt was building the institutional framework for a warrior state on a colossal scale - its reach, for Katznelson, greater than 'that of any prior national state or empire'. Perhaps nothing symbolised it better than the vast Pentagon complex, designed in the summer of 1941, months before Pearl Harbor. Eleven years later, when Eisenhower was elected to the presidency, the United States was spending a staggering 14 per cent of GDP on its military - another reflection, as Katznelson points out, of the climate of intense fear that had governed its affairs since the beginning of the Depression.

Although Fear Itself is a model of provocative popular scholarship, it is surely less groundbreaking than its author thinks. Historians have known for decades that the New Deal depended on the support of racist southern congressmen, just as they have often noted the (frankly sometimes overblown) parallels between Roosevelt's administration and Mussolini's Italy. Plenty of other books, too, have remarked on the paradox of the New Deal's commitments to welfare and warfare. As for Katznelson's biggest claim - that the New Deal's worldwide impact was comparable to that of the French Revolution - I am afraid I find it absurd.

To take an obvious example, when Labour came to power in Britain in 1945, did they model their welfare reforms on Roosevelt's New Deal? No, for the obvious reason that Britain's existing welfare state, established by the Liberals in the 1900s and extended by the National Government in the 1930s, was already more generous than its counterpart across the Atlantic. I appreciate that American historians, however much they might protest to the contrary, are conditioned to see their own country as the centre of the universe, and to see world affairs through an American lens. In this case, though, Ira Katznelson is surely going much too far.

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Dominic Sandbrook has just finished filming a new BBC Two series on Cold War Britain.

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