Hard Bargain

by Christopher Caldwell
Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time
By Ira Katznelson
Liveright, 706 pages, $29.95
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But only seemed to. Katznelson’s book alters our view of the relationship between the New Deal and World War II. FDR lovers have always looked at the conduct of the war as the second great thing the president did. FDR haters have claimed the New Deal failed and the economy was rescued only by wartime production. Katznelson makes the bold claim that FDR’s conduct of the war was an extension of his conduct in the economic emergency. FDR certainly saw it that way, warning in his 1939 State of the Union address, “All about us rage undeclared wars — military and economic.”

In Katznelson’s view, the war gave the New Deal a new lease on life. It permitted a second “radical moment.” The South, the most pro-war part of the country, rejoined the president’s coalition for many of the key votes. FDR, not always constitutionally, created whole agencies by executive order, including the Fair Employment Practices Committee, seed of the entire civil-rights enforcement bureaucracy. He froze prices, capped salaries at $25,000, imposed a “victory tax,” regulated large corporations in ways the NRA had only aspired to, and so extensively stepped up military production that, by the end of the war, the federal government owned 40 percent of the country’s capital assets.

The consolidation of economic activity in World War II appeared to be leading toward a social-democratic “planning” state of the sort Western European countries favored until very recently. That didn’t happen, largely because the coalition that passed the New Deal had booby-trapped it with all sorts of local prerogatives. Parts of the New Deal have endured for three quarters of a century. But much of it has proved possible to undo. That is due in part to the way the New Deal was built. It was, Katznelson shows, a collaboration between a president acting on leadership principles that cannot now be avowed and legislators defending a racial order that cannot now be countenanced.

This book is gripping, anecdotal, erudite, and sophisticated in its deployment of political theory — though Fear Itself is a misleading title. Katznelson invokes “the ambit of a permanent fear” a lot, following worries over communist subversion and nuclear weaponry all the way up to the inauguration of Dwight Eisenhower in 1953. But the book is not about fear. It is about the dark side of the New Deal, for which Katznelson believes we pay a price even today.

Christopher Caldwell is a senior editor at the Weekly Standard and a columnist for the Financial Times.

Ira Katznelson ’66CC is the Ruggles Professor of Political Science and History at Columbia. His books include Liberal Beginnings: Making a Republic for the Moderns (with Andreas Kalyvas) and When Affirmative Action Was White. He is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

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