42 of 45 people found the following review helpful
on February 7, 2009
Nothing to Fear is a superb work of narrative. Cohen writes very well, and his portraits of FDR's key advisors during the One Hundred Days are sensitively drawn as well as accurate.
Roosevelt himself seems to take a back seat in the narrative, and to a large extent, this works well, because it helps to explain why the legislation that emerged out of the One Hundred Days seemed so contradictory. The Economic Act, backed by fierce fiscal conservative budget director Lewis Douglas, slashed spending, eliminated thousands of federal workers, and cut off thousands of injured veterans from their disability payments. Yet the National Industrial Recovery Act contained the most massive public works program in US history -- no doubt because those provisions were the brainchild of Labor Secretary Frances Perkins, who had little use for the Hooverism of Douglas.
Nothing to Fear is particuarly useful because it organizes for the reader what was in fact an unorganized storm of legislation. And it does this also by looking through the prism of Roosevelt's advisors. Thus, we can see some of the main outlines by following these personnel: 1) the Banking Act (Raymond Moley); 2) the Economy Act (Douglas); 3) the Agricultural Adjustment Act (Agriculture Secretary Henry A. Wallace); 4) the public works provisions in the National Industrial Recovery Act and the Civilian Conservation Corps (Perkins); and 5) the Federal Emergency Relief Act (Harry Hopkins, who did not show up until the 73rd day). And Cohen's narrative talents are deft enough also to seamlessly weave in other major pieces of legislation such as the Securities Act of 1933 and the Tennessee Valley Authority.
So if you are looking for a riveting narrative of the period, then Nothing To Fear is your book.
Analytically, however, the book falls somewhat short -- thus, 4 stars. Cohen focuses on the advisors, but by the end of the story, it becomes clear that Roosevelt remained firmly in control. Douglas initially won the battle over spending because of Roosevelt's innate fiscal conservatism; Perkins and Hopkins (and to a lesser extent Wallace) eventually won the war because Roosevelt either changed his mind or came to see that the contradiction between fiscal conservatism and vigorous federal action could no longer be papered over. Why? What happened in Roosevelt's mind? While we cannot put the 32nd President on the couch, we can at least review the possible explanations and see which one fits better.
Moreover, Cohen does the New Deal a disservice by looking at it from so high a perspective. He argues that The Hundred Days changed the nature of the federal government because it recognized that economic prosperity was a federal responsibility. Perhaps. But the NATURE of federal involvement was a critical difference. The NIRA's National Recovery Administration, and the AAA's Agricultural Adjustment Administration took centralized planning to a level not seen before -- or since. Instead, the New Deal gradually transformed itself into a more social welfare direction, with the Social Security Act, the Wagner Act, the WPA etc. That is a very different direction from centralized planning. Cohen recognizes this, but it doesn't quite fit into his narrative, so he sort of buries it at the end.
That said, Nothing to Fear is well worth reading. It is hardly a model for 2009, because conditions are different, and just as importantly, the Republican Party, unlike in 1933, has decided to obstruct as much as it can. Today's GOP has already essentially attempted to filibuster the stimulus package -- a path that would have been unheard of in 1933. But it does show how policy evolves by fits and starts, and what emerged by 1936 was not predicted by the pundits in 1933. And that is a lesson worth recalling today.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on August 14, 2009
Even those who believe they are familiar with Roosevelt and the New Deal are likely to be surprised to learn things they did not know from this book. Adam Cohen's "Nothing to Fear" is 318 pages long and is fairly easy to read and deals almost exclusively with the first 100 days of FDR's administration. In many books that cover the 12 years of the Roosevelt's presidency some of the finer details of the beginnings of his administration become obscured, particularly in comparison to FDR's stewardship of the war effort between 1941 and his death in April 1945.
The reader should be struck by the similarities between the current economic crisis and the much more dire situation that faced Roosevelt upon taking office in March 1933. Although not novel, Cohen makes it clear that FDR had few fixed ideas about what to do about the Depression and was willing to try a variety of things to see what would work. Unlike Hoover, however, Roosevelt was not willing to simply let nature takes its course. Many of his initial programs, such as the Agricultural Adjustment Act and the National Recovery Act were aimed at ending the Depression by restricting competition.
FDR knew little about economics, had many conservative instincts and his administration included several very conservative personalities in it, most notably Lewis Douglas (also an anti-Semite), the budget director. As Cohen tells the story, there was a battle for FDR's soul won by the liberal or progressive members of the administration, notably Agriculture Secretary Henry Wallace, Labor Secretary Frances Perkins, advisors Rexford Tugwell and Harry Hopkins. Cohen includes mini biographies of many of these figures, as well as one of Raymond Moley, FDR's principal advisor, who fell out with him in the mid-1930s.
One of the most surprising things I learned from Cohen's book is that FDR was very much opposed to Federal Deposit Insurance, now one of the least controversial New Deal programs, and threatened to veto it. Politicians such as Vice President John Nance Gardner and Senator Huey Long forced the program down FDR's throat.
Cohen also highlights the role of Congressional figures such as Senator Robert LaFollette, Jr. (often confused with his more famous father who died in 1925), Robert F. Wagner and Colorado's Edward Costigan (who I'd never heard of prior to reading this book) in initiating and pushing for much of the early New Deal legislation.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on June 25, 2009
Adam Cohen's "Nothing to Fear" is a great read on the the New Deal. When I picked up this book, I expected to read a lot about Roosevelt himself.
What makes this book great is its focus on the characters that really deserve the credit (or blame, in the eyes of conservatives). He brings about the fascinating stories of Francis Perkins, Henry A Wallace, Harry Hopkins, and the lone conservative, Lewis Douglas. Cohen especially focuses on Perkins' role, as the woman whose policies and goals were also seen through during the New Deal. These people were the ones devising policy, as Roosevelt himself was against massive public works projects originally.
A great read, and a clear outline of the New Deal. It also makes the argument that although shifting away from Douglas/Hoover conservatism, it was not the socialism it could have been.
13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on July 30, 2010
I think that there are strong parallels between the depression that began in October 1929 and the depression that began in 2007 and was exacerbated on 15 September 2008. The causes were different, but I think the similarity was in attitude. The prevailing orthodoxy and regulatory environment economically had fixed any reason to worry about anything but blue skies. People predicting clouds ahead were just Chicken Littles. A depression couldn't happen, until one did. Twice.
The similarities also lead into the responses. Hoover waited. Roosevelt's America was in worse shape than it could have been, but Hoover stuck by the prevailing orthodoxy. Luckily, for this writer and the reader, the Bush administration in the twilight of its power acted fairly strongly and this response was carried over by the Obama team. At this time, the stability of the recovery is in doubt, but I for one was heartened to see `Obama' taking action. I say there were similarities because for both responses to depressions, there was a rejection of the prevailing orthodoxies. The attempts to refire the economy were ad-hoc with some parts more successful than others. They didn't seem to have a consistent ideology behind them. But twice Democratic presidents have saved Capitalism from itself.
Saving capitalism from itself was easier this time because of two things. First, we had done it already. Secondly, a lot of the programs needed to soften the blow were already in place. In this political environment I cannot imagine many of the New Deal or Great Society programs being put in place.
_Nothing to Fear_ is the story of how these all started. The book is an enjoyable read and logically structured. Cohen does not try to take a day by day account of the 100 days, but instead looks at each individual player. The book is less about the decisions that FDR made than about the people around him. The chapters are divided into basically pocket biographies of these people, then focusing on their individual accomplishments during the turbulent time. The last couple chapters cover the last 12 years of the administration and then the aftermath and influence of the New Deal programs. I learned a lot about the people behind the work, the reasoning for the various programs, and the conflicts behind the main movers and shakers. I did not know, for example, that Roosevelt came into office looking to cut the federal budget.
While overall I am pleased I read the book, a couple of things troubled me. First is the paralles between that time and the current time. Roosevelt, like our current president, was painted as a socialist by his adversaries. Then as now, that is not true as both administrations were out to save capitalism from itself, and succeeded. As a leftist, I recognize that crisis points are times to imagine something other than capitalism but it is not in the majority party's best interest to do so. Thus, we can see that even though Roosevelt was often painted as a traitor to his class, we know that he was speaking truthfully where he elsewhere is quoted as being the `greatest friend the profit system ever had'. In the context of this book, I feel that Cohen gives too much time to the critics of the new deal on the right compared to the left critics.
Cohen's centrism is found to rise in two places. One is a problem of tone. In a section describing the assassination of Chicago mayor Anton Cermak and the attempt on Roosevelt's life (36), the would-be assassin is characterized by only the word `crazed'. While I can vouch that most people would not shot a mayor or president-elect, Zangara was a committed anti-capitalist and I feel that calling him crazed discounts every enemy of the current economic structure. The second issue is a straight matter of factual error. On a section describing labor relations, he describes the Industrial Workers of the World (The I. W. W., or Wobblies) as the "International Workers of the World." That a simple matter of fact was missed by his research and his editors is troubling, as it calls into question the whole of the other research that I know less about. I tried to contact Cohen, but I could not find the information through either his publisher or employer.
Again, I enjoyed the book in spite of the author's and my own biases. I think its relevance for the current administration may be in the past, but I would suspect that the lessons of the Roosevelt years should not be forgotten.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on September 23, 2009
Nothing to Fear offers accounts of several of the early New Deal's key players such as Raymond Moley, Rexford Tugwell, Harry Hopkins, Francis Perkins, Henry Wallace, and Lewis Douglas. Some would fade from Roosevelt's circle quickly, while others would serve most of his presidency in some capacity or another. Each has an interesting story to tell and through their jobs and views, we see some of the back and forth tensions of the New Deal. The New Deal was not a campaign platform, but rather a campaign slogan that these individuals had to add to. Some of them saw the New Deal as a vehicle for a balanced budget, others saw the need for quick public works projects and immediate relief, and others were looking to establish lasting change with far reaching, permanent social programs.
There were two small shortcomings to Nothing to Fear. One, some of the players seemed to disappear. I didn't actually read Nothing to Fear, but listened to it on CD. So I could not flip back to see if I had missed something with ease. But Administration players like Treasury Secretary Woodin and Ag Department staffer Rexford Tugwell did not receive the same follow-up treatment many of the other players did. Two, the book has a bit of tunnel vision regarding the individuals it has chosen to follow. As a result, it can be a bit dismissive of some other Roosevelt insiders who might have swayed his thinking such as Louis Howe (whom the author seems to really dislike), James Farley, Sam Rosenman, and even Eleanor Roosevelt.
But for the individuals the book does give thorough treatment to, their stories are well told, their beliefs explored, and their goals explained. The book makes a good compliment to other 100 Days books, such as The Defining Moment.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Nothing To Fear by Adam Cohen
This book is a thoughtful examination of President Franklin Roosevelt's first 100 days in office. The author views this tumultuous period from the perspective of five key Roosevelt associates: Robert Moley presidential aid and his most intimate advisor; Lewis Douglas, director of the budget, and another member of the "beside Cabinet", who along with Moley, met with Roosevelt each morning; Frances Perkins, secretary of labor, champion of an ambitious progressive agenda; Henry Wallace, secretary of agriculture, determined to rescue farmers from financial ruin and Harry Hopkins another Roosevelt intimate who became the leading public works administrator for the New Deal.
One of the many charms of this engaging book is the authors' ability to weave several related themes into his text. We are first presented with an informative biographical sketch of each individual spotlighting how their upbringing, education and life experiences prepared them for the Roosevelt vision of a New Deal.
The author then fills in the historical context of the challenges these individuals faces - massive unemployment, deep distrust of the banking system, and disintegration of the family farm. Finally tying it all together we learn how each principle interacted with Roosevelt and achieved there mutually agreed upon goals.
At the end of the book the author provides a capsule biography of Roosevelt's advisors. In one of the ironies of history it turned out that Robert Morley drifted from the progressive Democratic vision of the New Deal and eventually became a strong support of Republican conservative Barry Goldwater in 1964. The other four individuals kept the faith.
I would strongly recommend to anyone purchasing this item to first read Roosevelt's first inaugural address. It provides an insightful prologue to the themes and issues discussed in the book. It is readily available on the Internet. In many respects it is an amazing document. Some of the passages must of made outgoing President Herbert Hoover squirm in his seat. It is no wonder he never spoke to Roosevelt ever again.
This is an exceptionally interesting and readable book. I have read several biographies of FDR but until this book I was not fully aware how our social institutions were fundamentally altered as a result of the New Deal nor was I aware of how close our country teetered on the edge of a precipice.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on April 25, 2012
"... the only thing we have to fear is fear itself..." The words, taken from the writings of Henry David Thoreau, were delivered by Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882-1945) on the day he was inaugurated as POTUS on March 4, 1933. The speech had been crafted by the president working in conjuction with his chief aide Raymond Moley a professor at Columbia University. In this book the author Adam Cohen (assistant editorial page editor of "The New York Times") tells the story of Roosevelt's first exciting 100 days in office. Cohen contends that the progressive federal government activism of the New Deal was the third great revolution in American history. The first two were the Revolutionary War and Civil War eras. Cohen's book is a detailed, but readable, discussion of the 15 major bills passed by the Democratic Congress in the 100 days that enabled America to get back on the track in the wake of the Great Depression.
In those first 100 days the following legislation was passed:
The Emergency Banking Act; the Economy Act; Civilian Conservation Corp approved putting over 235,000 young persons to work; abandonment of the gold standard and the adoption of bimetallism; the Federal Emergency Relief Act; the Agricultural Adjustment Act; the Emergency Farm Mortgage Act; the Tennessee Valley Authority Act; the Truth in Securities Act; the Home Owner's Loan Act; the National Industrial Recovery Act; the Glass-Steagall Banking Act; the Farm Credit Act and the Railroad Coordinating Act. FDR was able to achieve passage of these bills due to the Democrat's control of the congress and the need to act fast in an economy in which 1/4 of the labor pool was without jobs.
Roosevelt's first act was the bank holiday enunciated in his first fireside chats. FDR began twice weekly press conferences and demanded swift action to fight the Depression.
FDR was well served by brilliant men and women who came to Washington D.C. to rescue America. The five persons profiled by Cohen were:
Frances Perkins-The Boston born woman who was the first woman to serve in the presidential cabinet. She came from welfare and job safety work in New York where she had served Governor FDR.
Herbert Moley-Head of the "Brain Trust" he advised FDR on economic matters and served as a talent scout for the new chief executive.
Lewis Douglas-Conservative from Arizona who was FDR's first head of the budget. He was disturbed by the growth of the federal
Henry Wallace-The Iowa born Secretary of the Agriculture who worked hard to have the AAA act passed into law.
Harry Hopkins-Another Iowa man who served at the massive relief effort during the New Deal. Hopkins became administrator
of the Federal Emergency Relief Adminstration.
Under FDR the Federal government grew and put in place (for good or ill) the modern welfare state. Critics and supporters of the New Deal will learn much from Cohen's fine book.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on March 1, 2012
FDR is such a larger than life figure, looming impossibly large in American mythology, that anything short of a sprawling 1000 page opus seems inadequate to describe the man's impact. So the idea of just examining a pivotal three months of his life is an appealing one. The author does his best to paint an honest and fleshed-out portrait of Roosevelt, but really the story is about his inner circle of five and their war for the new president's conscience and mind. I think Frances Perkins was clearly the author's favorite, as he spends more time on her biographical details than the rest, and this book made me greatly interested to learn more about her life. Perhaps it's unfair to hold it against the book for ending long before the major battles of FDR's Depression years, only briefly alluding to his battles with the Supreme Court and the fight to create Social Security. This book was great, but still just scratches this surface of this very complex man's story.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on July 30, 2010
I'm rereading this book in the light of the possible appointment of Elizabeth Warren. She is a treasure who reminds me of Francis Perkins. Why Obama is waffling is a mystery. FDR was able to make the right appointments. That was his forte. I'm searching for FDR's genius in handling our crisis then. Trying everything and then if things don't work out, he just tried something else. He was not afraid. He felt he had nothing to fear, and he made us feel that way. In comparison, Obama is just too cautious.In rereading the book, one cannot help but look for answers to the dire situation of today.
3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
The title Nothing to Fear is based on Franklin Delano Roosevelt's famous statement about the years following the 1929 depression, "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself." "Nothing to fear" is not exactly what FDR said and he did not invent this most famous presidential statement; but like most else about FDR, it is attributed to him.
Cohen's book, as its subtitle says, focuses on "FDR's Inner Circle and the Hundred Days that created Modern America." Many people think that FDR developed the solutions to the great depression on his own. But Cohen shows that he entered office with no idea of what to do next, and it was five members of his inner circle that formulated the solutions that changed America with fifteen major laws enacted within his first hundred days as president.
Roosevelt took office as president on March 4, 1933 when thousands of banks closed, a quarter of American workers were out of work and farmers and military veterans were openly rebellious.
Herbert Hoover, a republican, was president before him. Hoover recognized the horrors of the depression, but his solution, based on long-held and highly respected American political theory, was passive and callous. His "free-market ideology taught him that private enterprise should be the source of all solutions, and his near-religious commitment to `rugged individualism' convinced him that giving aid to the Depression's victims would morally damage them."
FDR turned the country and its philosophy around. His was the third American revolution. George Washington was president during the first revolution that created the United States. Abraham Lincoln headed the government during the second revolution that determined that the states were indivisible. FDR's third revolution turned Hoover's ideology on its head and introduced a concept of governmental duty that is still accepted today.
While Hoover was convinced that the federal government should not aid people, FDR initiated the idea that government is responsible for the people, to help them when help is necessary and, as with preventive medicine, do all that is reasonable to assure that the American citizens do not reach a stage where help is necessary.
FDR did not seem to be the person who could accomplish this enormous liberal task. He could not stand unaided because of polio. He had been a grade C student in college. He looked and acted like an aristocrat. Hoover was a conservative, but FDR was not a liberal; he was a pragmatist. His cabinet was composed of people with diverse ideas. Only three of the five people who made his revolution were liberals.
Cohen describes each of these five people with interesting details. He tells about FDR's "New Deal," a term he did not invent, in which he introduced the three Rs: He gave Relief to the unemployed and badly hurt farmers, Reformed business and financial practices, and promoted the Recovery of the economy. Congress gave FDR every chance it could during the hundred days; it granted every program that FDR submitted to them.
FDR's first challenge was the country's banking system. There were runs on the bank to make withdrawals, the banks had inadequate funds to meet the demands, and they had to be closed. The Emergency Banking Act was the Roosevelt administration's first dramatic triumph, and it was accomplished in just eight days. Part of the success was due to FDR using Republications from the prior administration in developing the solution, and part was the result of his first short calm fireside chat where he assured the people and won them over to his ideas. In fact, the day the banks reopened, there were more deposits than withdrawals.
The Banking Act set the stage for Roosevelt's New deal, and the acts that followed had similar effects. Virtually all of them were first opposed by Roosevelt. For example, one of the most important innovations of the hundred days was federal deposit insurance. Roosevelt was adamantly opposed to it and warned that he would veto any bill that included it. However, Congress saw matters differently and FDR accepted their view.
The most radical change that FDR presented to America was the abandonment of the ancient notion that people are poor because of their own character faults, their laziness and refusal to work. Remarkably, Roosevelt agreed with these notions when he became president. Adam Cohen shows how and why he changed his mind.
The work of the hundred days helped alleviate the depression. The country's economy improved each year. FDR's administration saved many people, but the depression did not end entirely until the Second World War.
Today, close to eight decades after the hundred days, Franklin Delano Roosevelt is considered by many to be the third greatest president, after Washington and Lincoln, because of his innovations and achievements, his third revolution, but few people know the names of the five who invented and advanced the ideas and who implemented them.