44 of 53 people found the following review helpful
on September 24, 2011
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
Highest recommendation! "The New Deal: A Modern History" by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Michael Hiltzik is an excellent, complete, thorough, fair and balanced history of the New Deal. The writing is easy to read and at times gripping.
Besides the Pulitzer Prize, the author previously won the Gerald Lobe Award for excellence in business and finance reporting, and he was awarded the Silver Gavel from the American Bar.
I think this history is the benchmark book on the Great Depression and New Deal, because I have read many books on the World War II and Great Depression era. The book is strong at detailing the energetic and multifaceted response by the Franklin Roosevelt administration to confront the economic disaster that had put millions of workers out of work before FDR took office, making history (with some messiness) as they went along.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt's response to the Great Depression was pragmatic, sometimes experimental, sometimes borrowing from Republicans and sometimes from Democrats, sometimes messy, sometimes very politically charged, and occasionally contradictory. The New Deal was formulated by New Dealers like Frances Perkins, the first woman cabinet secretary and an architect of Social Security, Harold Ickes, a progressive Republican and leader of infrastructure investments, Harry Hopkins, a social worker and relief administrator, and others in the so-called "Brain Trust." All the New Deal initiatives are described exceptionally well in this book.
One word of caution: If you are looking for an easy read about Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal, I suggest first starting with a good FDR biography, such as the award-winning and outstanding biography FDR by Jean Edward Smith, because "The New Deal: A Modern History" does go a bit into the economics and policy details of the New Deal. It's easy reading for me, a history buff, but an FDR biography is more exciting for general readers, since his complete life was so fascinating (being rich, contracting polio, Eleanor, etc.) Then read this benchmark book on the New Deal.
This book explains how the policies, sometimes messy, came about, which was experimenting and trying to lift the stricken nation out of three long years of Depression under Herbert Hoover. After taking office, FDR said, "The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation." Hiltzik shows that some of the New Deal policies were created in a hectic way by the Roosevelt administration in response to the years-long national economic crisis and political winds, but the landmark long-term reforms were enacted carefully and have served America well. The New Deal permanently transformed the American economy and the relationship of government to the people.
Enduring legacies of the New Deal include Social Security, Security and Exchange Commission, FDIC, tens of thousands of infrastructure investments, unemployment insurance, rural electrification, FHA, Fed Reserve Board, Glass-Steagall Act, Fair Labor Standards Act, ending a flawed version of the gold standard that was strangling the money supply, and other landmark successes (and I would add FDR's GI Bill that came later in FDR's presidency). Hiltzik also details the mistakes FDR made, such as the price fixing as part of the National Recovery Administration and a gold buying scheme. This is a fair and thorough history.
The New Deal put 3 million people to work building extensive infrastructure projects. FDR said, "The only thing we have to fear is -- fear itself." Roosevelt built a close bond with Americans through his fireside chats over the radio, and the American people reelected FDR by massive landslides. Rarely has a president connected with so many Americans. FDR's first reelection was the largest electoral landslide of the 20th Century (as a percentage of total electoral votes) and the largest landslide ever except for George Washington and James Monroe. The American people approved of Roosevelt.
FDR was not an ideological socialist that some critics would have you believe today. He was pragmatic. FDR told the American people that they had to be careful not to give out dole and diminish hard work and the work ethic, and so he emphasized putting people to work. He was leery of government wasting money and, in one of his first actions, slashed the Federal budget. Ronald Reagan idolized FDR. Hiltzik says that FDR did not fully accept deficit spending as a way to stimulate the economy until the approach of World War II, because FDR was conservative about budgets and wanted only work projects that made business sense and gave people work until the crisis passed.
Hiltzik, a business news correspondent, explains the economics of the Great Depression in a way that is easy to understand. He cites the economic statistics for the years of the New Deal. After FDR took office, GDP grew at about 8% per year in four year, and the stock market nearly quadrupled. GDP growth was impressively strong year after year and the stock market skyrocketed each year. Unemployment improved but came down slowly from over 20% to about 9% is 1937. These economic statistics are important to learn the honest story of the New Deal. In contrast, recent biased attacks by others omit these important annual statistics and tell a misleading story. Why would these misleading critics not cite the GDP statistics for Roosevelt's first year in office? The stats during each of these years would refute their distorted stories of the New Deal. What really happened after Roosevelt took control? He pulled America out of the Great Depression in his first term. Check the GDP and stock market numbers for each year from 1932-1937. The New Deal stopped the downward spiral and brought about a mild recovery upward for several years, followed by a sharp "Roosevelt Recession" in his second term when Congress sharply slashed deficit spending and the money supply contracted due to the Fed requiring higher reserve requirements. The recession was quickly reversed with massive WWII military stimulus spending that fully ended the Depression in 1939.
Those wanting to read a more general biography of FDR and the New Deal and less of the detailed "sausage making" history of the New Deal should consider the award-winning and outstanding biography FDR by Jean Edward Smith. Another good book on the New Deal is the award-winning Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal by William Leuchtenburg.
The author says the New Deal essentially came to an end in FDR's second term, which is the position taken by leading New Deal historians. The Fair Labor Standard Act was the last of the New Deal. However, Conrad Black in his Roosevelt biography, called "a masterpiece" by the Economist, argues differently -- that there were four phases to the New Deal that included two smaller parts occurring later. FDR's entire presidency to 1945 was an extension of the New Deal, according to Black. (FDR's landmark GI Bill should be considered an extension of the New Deal philosophy.)
I would have liked if this book included even more about the enduring contributions of the New Deal in the years and decades that followed the New Deal years, such as the long-term stability created by the SEC, Glass-Steagall Act, FHA inventing insured 30 year mortgages for the broad middle class (home ownership skyrocketed in the post-war boom era from mostly a renter society in America), rural electrification, the massive infrastructure investments, with Eisenhower's interstate highway system an extension of that, GI Bill, etc. The New Deal changed the economic order forever, although with some temporary upheavals, affecting us today. America and the middle class were profoundly better in the decades after the New Deal than the decades before.
Also, FDR's administration made more New Deal-like progressive advancements during the years of WWII, 1941-1945. For example, Hiltzik's book accurately shows that the New Deal left out African Americans, because Southern Democrats held important leadership roles in Congress and FDR needed to keep his coalition together for enduring Democrat electoral success (that lasted almost 50 years). FDR was a master at judging the political winds and knowing how far he could push progressive advances. But Roosevelt policies changed dramatically during World War II when women and minorities were included like never before in American history (partly because of Eleanor Roosevelt's stubborn insistence). These Roosevelt policies in WWII were groundbreaking and created momentum for the Civil Rights movement later and the Brown decision by the Supreme Court (decided with several FDR appointees on the Bench). Read Conrad Black's biography of Franklin Roosevelt or Doris Kearns Goodwin's award-winning No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II for coverage of FDR's presidency during World War II. Also, A New Deal for the World: America's Vision for Human Rights covers the impact of FDR's post-war vision. The world changed after the war because of FDR (including the decline of colonialism).
Also, the foolish repeal in 1999 of the landmark New Deal Glass-Steagall Act partly led to the financial collapse in 2007-2008. The Glass-Steagall Act placed firewalls in the financial system. We should have headed FDR's pragmatic advice and kept that commonsense safeguard in place for financial stability.
This is an authoritative, fair and balanced history of the New Deal. Recommended!
Kirkus Reviews called this "A sweeping, lively survey of the Roosevelt administration's efforts to restart the American economy nearly 80 years ago. With panache and skill, Pulitzer Prize-winning Los Angeles Times journalist Hiltzik (Colossus: Hoover Dam and the Making of the American Century, 2010, etc.) chronicles the rise and decline of the New Deal, from the desperate improvisation of the Hundred Days through the more carefully considered passage of such landmark legislation as the Securities Exchange Act and the Social Security Act... The New Deal was a huge enterprise driven by a large cast of characters who held widely differing views on how to cure the nation's ills... While FDR was "the glue holding these disparate pieces together," he does not appear here as the heroic figure of political legend. Hiltzik presents him instead in more humanized form, sympathetically but with many faults clearly on display... The author suggests that it was FDR's ebullient confidence more than his economic competence that sustained the nation through this devastating period. Though he disagrees with the revisionist school of historians who argue that the New Deal prolonged the Depression, Hiltzik writes with no obvious agenda in mind."
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on November 29, 2011
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
When I purchased this book, I figured that I would be getting either a nasty attack book or a slobbering love affair book. After reading it, I can testify that, although the author exposes his very liberal bias in the summations at the end, the body of the text was even-handed. I found the groupings of subject matter within chapters to be well chosen. The focus on the personalities surrounding President Roosevelt helped to carry the narrative along. The personality of President Roosevelt that emerges helps explain the ups and downs of the New Deal era. The notes and the bibliography give me confidence to trust the characterizations and the conclusions that Mr. Hiltzik draws. I recommend the book for those interested in the details of the New Deal and for those who want to learn more about the period between World War I and World War II.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on December 11, 2011
Many have said that FDR's efforts in the New Deal did not significantly reduce unemployment from the 25% that existed in early 1933. Hiltzik reports that the unemployment rate declined to 9% in 1937 when, under pressure from Republicans and conservative Democrats. he cut stimulus spending. A further depression resulted causing unemployment to reach 14% by 1940. The beginning and ending figures are often used to claim that it was World War II that ended the depression and that Keynesian economics as applied by FDR were a failure. It astonished this reviewer to find that this claim is not really true and further that Keynesian principles were only partly applied. Current politicians who press for a balanced budget during the present depression should read this book.
This reviewer had not realized how the farm depression had existed for a decade before the great depression due to over expansion of farm production during the first world war, a production excess no longer needed once European production ramped up again. Thus FDR's first priority was to address this issue. The book is highly condensed yet gives a concise description of how and why many actions by FDR were taken, pragmatic, political or unwise such as the attempt to pack the Supreme Court following its ruling that the NRA was illegal. The book contains fascinating minibiographies of many players in the New Deal, the aides, the cabinet secretaries, the speech writers, the politicians and the judiciary. I highly recommend this book for someone like myself (grew up in another country) who had little knowledge of the period.
35 of 45 people found the following review helpful
on October 27, 2011
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
The New Deal
Alexis de Tocqueville made an astute observation in his book, Democracy in America. He stated that Europeans and Americans have a fundmentally different approach to historical interpretation. Europeans interpret history in terms of social movements and in the context of historical trends. Americans interpret history as the result of the actions of historical personalities. The American Revolution therefore is not viewed as the result of Enlightenment ideals applied to the Colonies, but the result of the efforts of Founding Fathers. Europeans look at the forest, Americans only see the trees.
Consistent with de Tocqueville's analysis, the main failing of the author's book is that it concentrates completely on the efforts of Roosevelt and his advisors in crafting the New Deal legislation. However, FDR did not operate in a vacuum. He was influenced by the thoughts of his advisors, yes, but also by the social forces at work during the Great Depression. The book downplays those outside forces to the point of avoidance, the social events which literally forced Roosevelt to enact more daring legislation. It makes only a fleeting mention of the Bonus Army of 1932, a memorial event consisting of protesting WWI veterans, and entirely fails to mention the numerous other strikes, marches and demonstrations which occurred afterwards which forced Roosevelt's hand to enact the more meaningful New Deal legislation which we are all familiar with which had regulated the economic and financial affairs of this country and which had operated very nicely until it was so unceremoniously repealed in the 90s and 2000s. Other reviews have mentioned that it is an even-handed account of the New Deal. Yes, it is, but it fails to mention the other forces which transformed Roosevelt from an ordinary market-side politician to one who effected real change.
This does not ignore the many achievements of FRR, who, if rated on ability and achievement, must surely be considered one of the greatest presidents this country has produced, if not the greatest. It is a reflection of the one-sided approach to this history of the New Deal that it focuses too much on Roosevelt the person and not what was going on outside the Oval Office. Because it only presents one side of the coin, as well-written as this book is, I would give this book 2 ½ stars.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on February 18, 2012
The American economy has been through a rough time over the past five years. Excessive borrowing, corruption, greed and lack of responsible supervision have all played a role in the difficult period beginning in late 2006, stretching through the remainder of President Bush's second term and only now beginning to unwind during the later stage of President Obama's term. Volumes have been written in search of explanations for the chaos that has been a part of the country's recent economic life.
It is with this background that Michael Hiltzik tackles the response of Franklin Roosevelt's administration to the Great Depression of 1929-38. This was depression on a grand scale, with asset prices falling to a fraction of their pre-crash value, unemployment peaking at 25% of the non-agricultural work sector in 1932, massive bank failures (almost 2,300 in 1931 alone), a two-decade long decline in farm income, and more than 250,000 residential homes in foreclosure. The Great Depression was a very long, very severe affair, affecting almost every social class and every section of the country.
To say that almost everything about the economy was wrong may be a slight overstatement but only slight. Almost no bright lights were shining during most of the long decade of the 1930's. Franklin Roosevelt was elected president, in a landslide, in November 1932. His enormously positive personality, his strong record as the governor of New York, and his marvelous temperament, contrasted with the dryness and inaction of Herbert Hoover's administration.
Hiltzik's book is a terrific refresher course in what Roosevelt did and did not do to raise the nation's hopes, stimulate the economy, reorganize social priorities, and - in no small way - change the country in a way that made it ready for the huge growth that started with the onset of World War II and carried well into the 21st century.
Not all of Roosevelt's programs were successful. The outpouring of ideas on how to fix the economy produced an array of alphabet soup agencies: the NRA, the CCC, the RFC, the TVA, the FWP, the FERA, the SEC, and many more. Some worked and some did not. But all were the product of a grand energy to do something, do almost anything, to revive the nation's economy.
One comes away from this great revisit to an epochal turning point in American history with two impressions. First, Roosevelt finally succeeded in pushing through massive, carefully crafted pieces of legislation that would change the way Americans lived. Government was clearly on the side of the people, a concept that proved to be increasingly abrasive to the upper layers of society but which resulted in tremendous electoral gains for the Democratic party. Also, Roosevelt showed the way in which the power of the executive branch mushroomed relative to the legislative branch.
Second, in many ways his record was oddly flawed. He never bought into Keynesian economics, which prescribed deficit spending to overcome slack consumer and industrial demand. In fact, he never fully engaged with economic theory and, in his one meeting with Keynes, dismissed him as a "mathematician, rather than an economist. Social programs were far more interesting to him. The apex of his social programs, of course, was the enactment of the Social Security Act in 1935, giving all working Americans a more comfortable old age. Even this, though, was deflationary since it took money out of the economy until the first wave of retirees started withdrawing funds from the program in 1940. By then, however, the demands of revving up American industry to meet the demands of fighting a war became far more important in pushing the economy sharply higher. Further, Roosevelt's political judgment, though he was enormously self-assured, was not always on target. His scheme to pack the Supreme Court in 1937 - to avert judicial disapproval of his social programs - was ill-advised, clumsy and, in the end, unnecessary. The Court sustained almost all of his social programs, including Social Security.
Hiltzik's book is, above all else, well written and persuasively argued. Clearly, the author is a progressive liberal, firmly on the side of having the government serve all the people, equally and vigorously. America responded to Roosevelt's approach to government by placing Democrats in the White House, after Roosevelt's election in 1932, for 30 of the next 38 years. As the country continues to struggle to build firmer foundations in the economy, it is instructive and exciting to read how one of the great political geniuses in American history dealt with very similar problems.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Given the second worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, the time was ripe for a new look at The New Deal of FDR. Pulitzer Prize winning author Michael Hiltzik has done just that, and the result is an excellent piece of history which should be accessible to almost every kind of reader.
Hiltzik thinks we've remembered almost everything wrongly, and he makes convincing arguments. Many of us remember the TVA, the SEC, FDIC, the NRA and other acts and agencies as sterling successes that were widely favored at the time of their creation. In fact, many faced nearly implacable opposition. Some that sailed through turned out to not do very well, notably the NRA and its blue eagle sign. Not everything passed in the first 100 days, and not everything passed, witness FDR's court packing scheme which he not only mismanaged, but then mismanaged a chance for a graceful exit when it was presented to him.
FDR had a wide array of very colorful personalities around him. They were an early version of 'the best and brightest' team that JFK later put together, and this team fought amongst themselves as much for FDR's favor as any White House cabinet in recent memory. Since FDR had the habit of telling people what they wanted to hear, there were lots of misreadings of the power base by the aides and Hiltzik captures every single one.
What most struck me in this book were the comparisons to our own times today. If you think arguments about whether federal regulations helps or hurts job creation, whether raising taxes lower tax receipts, or whether government can be a force for good, or a road to serfdom, rest assured that all of these arguments played out in the 1930's and Hiltzik writes like he had a ringside seat for the action.
Well organized, well written, and always of interest, I recommend this book highly.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on August 27, 2013
Hiltzik's history of The New Deal was informative and captures well the trial and error experimentation of that period in American history when FDR was trying to do everything he could to help the millions who were suffering the effects of the Great Depression. Its amazing to me, reading the book, how we are still facing alot of the same problems, severe income inequality, a lack of oversight and proper regulation of financial institutions, and the corruption of the political system. It was inspiring, however, to read this book and see that there was a time when our political system worked to put people to work, and to advance the country at the same time--with the Tennessee Valley Authority, rural electrification, and the WPA and the CCC, all which helped revitalize urban and rural areas alike. Not to mention the implementation of Social Security, which ensured that our most vulerable citizens--the elderly--did not starve and live on the street in their old age when they could not gain employment. It was the beginning of a more compassionate, decent government, which we surely need to preserve in the 21st century. Hiltzik's account was comprehensive and very readable.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on August 15, 2012
While I have always been a fan of FDR and the New Deal, I was prepared for the usual rehash of commonly held views of both subjects. Namely, how FDR rescued the economy with a bold, well thoughtout plan that miraculously restored the economy to vigorous health. Clearly, that is not what you will find in this eminently readable, and extremely well written account.
Hiltzik's analysis demonstrates quite clearly that both the New Deal and its author were characterized by remarkable inconsistencies that frequently thwarted the very goals intended. Of particular interest is the many examples of Roosevelt's attachment to the concept of a balanced budget, his statements supporting the concept both in his campaign speeches, and press conferences, and his aversion to programs that appeared to him to be nothing more than a "dole". The author demonstrates quite clearly that FDR did not take the unsolicited advice given him by John Maynard Keynes, and in fact followed policies that helped to stall economic progress that resulted in the "Roosevelt recession" of 1937-38.
Another interesting subject that Hiltzik explores via interesting vignets is the constant interplay of rival philosophies and their proponents who surrounded the President throughout the period from 1932-1940. Harold Ickes v. Henry Hopkins, Francis Perkins v. Henry Morganthau are there for the reader to ponder. This reveals the fact that one of Roosevelt's methods of governing was to pit differing philosophies and approaches in conflict with one another.
No study of the period, would be complete without an examination of arguably Roosevelt's greatest errors: his ill fated decsion to "pack the Court" in 1937. This is excellently documented, and analyzed to show how the Democratic coalition was permanently harmed, with long term negative consequences for the party. In addition, the author explores in depth, the New Deal's unenviable record on race relations and the plight of the black worker during the Great Depression; the truly, "forgotten man".
This is simply a brillaint book! If the reader is looking for an outstanding one volume history of the period; this is it.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on July 3, 2012
I sure liked this book. Many things happening in 2008 to today, 2012, seem to have a one-to-one correspondence with so much of what went on in the 1930s. I've been quoting information from it to Democrat friends and sending copied pages to Barack.
3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on June 11, 2012
Michael Hiltzik sets out to tell the history of the New Deal while dispelling the myths that have grown up around it. He succeeds handily in both accounts, moreover, his narrative makes the story immediate and accessible, without diminishing his scholarship.
Gore Vidal said something to the effect that "FDR made America safe for Capitalism, but the Republicans are too stupid to realize it". Mr. Gore can be a bit strident and I would bet that most Americans are unaware of FDR's role in the New Deal, and how it evolved, in fact, that the New Deal actually evolved and didn't spring forth as plotted in advance. FDR has become something of an icon, who, like the Founding Fathers, can mean almost anything to anyone, with quotes that can suit almost any agenda.
But how many times have you ever heard FDR described as a fiscal conservative?
His record as New York State governor bears this out, and in fact, FDR and Hoover weren't that far apart in their economic outlooks. Some of what we think of as the early New Deal (and there are two parts, early---1933-1936, and later New Deal; 1937-1939) was actually comprised of Hoover initiatives, either continued as was, or slightly tweaked for the current circumstances. The bank holiday, for example: Hoover. In fact, the banks were closed so close to the inauguration, some of the richest men in America, coming to Washington to witness the handoff of power, or to join in the new Administration, could not pay their hotel bills for lack of cash. Worse yet, some of the worst failures of the New Deal were strictly FDR's babies---think of the court packing scheme; while other of the more successful programs were enacted over his head, and in some ways, he never reconciled himself to them. FDR was against increasing the national debt; wary of big spending programs; and did not see Maynard Keynes as the genius others later recognized him to be.
Where the New Deal failed, or at best, barely helped its target audience, is among Black America. "The Forgotten Man" was the New Deal's version of "The 99%". But one chapter, entitled "The Most Forgotten Man" deals with the New Deal and Black America, and the picture isn't pretty. Many of the programs were managed at the state level, so any bias against African Americans (the book continuously uses the period term "negro" which seems a bit out of date even in a history book) that existed before the New Deal, continued unabated. As a result, blacks were either cut out of programs, or programs distributed their largesse--which wasn't that much of a largesse to begin with--around them. There were some areas where black people figured prominently, like developments where the Feds bought land, and livestock for destitute rural blacks in the south, but when you look at the programs over all, the best any program did was still funding black oriented assistance at levels far below whites. Even the CCC remained largely segregated, and complaints from white neighborhoods forced all black CCC camps to move or disband. If that wasn't bad enough, FDR put up absolutely no struggle against the powerful Southern senators, and made excuses that were pathetic even for their period. The New Deal's efforts on behalf of civil rights were a blot on an otherwise ambitious and sometimes courageous program.
Unfortunately, Hiltzik takes FDR's failure and makes it his own embarrassment. In the last chapter, tying up loose ends and surveying the changes in America and its relationship to its government, Hiltzik goes back to the inability of the New Deal to do much of anything for black America, then sloppily glosses it over with a remark about how it in any event did so much for the common man. And then, as if to make up for it all, wraps up the last chapter with a rousing narration of Marian Anderson's Easter concert, outdoors, on the Mall. Yes it was an impressive moment, but to make it look like that was the crown on the achievement of a New Deal that pretty much left Black America out in the cold, and made absolutely no effort to fight on their behalf, is rather dismal.
The parallels between our Great Recession era and the Depression pile up as you read along. It's not just how we got into the mess, and how little the rich actually suffered, compared to anybody else; or how quickly they recovered, compared to anybody else; or how few of them actually got penalized for what they did. But you see the same working people fighting for concepts of freedom and liberty, that, when taken to their logical conclusions, are arguments fighting for the freedom to starve to death, or become a homeless vagrant. So many people then, as now, are so terrified of socialism and communism that it's clear they've never stopped to take a breath and ask themselves why, or what in fact either might actually be, and how it might affect them. And in many cases, the fight isn't so much with the barons of Wall Street as it is with the pygmies of Main Street, who just can't stand the idea that someone is getting more than they are, or are getting something for free.
Just tonight, another parallel went by, over the airwaves: Governments in Europe trying to instill confidence in investors and bankers. FDR was confronted with this idea over and over again by his balanced-budget Treasury secretary, Morgenthau. Eventually, FDR blew up at his old friend, having come to realize that no matter what you do, the Bankers will never have confidence in the government, if the government isn't in their pocket; erasing regulation and wiping out taxes. Yet here we are today, desperately trying to instill confidence among the bankers.
In the end, the greatest parallel isn't a parallel at all. FDR stands out from Obama and Hoover because he actually DID something. He often had no clue what to do, and his programs were all deeply flawed. He often fought the programs that turned out the most successful, and initiated ideas that turned into disasters. But, he DID something, when something needed to be done.
"The New Deal A Modern History" should be a valuable book in any library about the era, but even more so in libraries like mine, where you're trying to understand a larger picture, without getting hung up on iconic figures or colorful eras by themselves.