Nothing to Fear: FDR’s Inner Circle and the Hundred Days That Created Modern America
The Penguin Press
In an open letter to then President-elect Obama, economist Paul Krugman wrote concerning the economy, “The last president to face a similar mess was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and you can learn a lot from his example. That doesn’t mean, however, that you should do everything FDR did. On the contrary, you have to take care to emulate his successes, but avoid repeating his mistakes.” To understand what Krugman was writing about pick up a copy of Nothing to Fear: FDR’s Inner Circle and the Hundred Day that Created America. In this timely narrative, Adam Cohen brilliantly brings to life Roosevelt’s first Hundred Days.
Cohen right off the bat sets the dismal economic scene when Roosevelt took office: Stock market prices since the 1929 crash had plummeted 85 percent. Manufacturing had come to a standstill; between one-quarter and one-third of the workforce were unemployed. In rural areas, farm income had fallen from $6.7 billion in 1929 to $2.3 billion in 1932. Crop prices were so low that farmers couldn’t afford to cover their expenses.
And then there was the financial industry. Banks were among the most eager participants in the speculative stock-buying rage during the 1920s. After the crash, banks found themselves with total assets that were worth less than what they owed their depositors. Between 1930 and 1932, 773 national banks, 3,604 state banks, with more than $2.7 billion in assets failed.
To tackle and resolve the country’s economic issues, Roosevelt leaned heavily on his advisors–an inner circle of five men and one woman. Cohen provides fascinating biographies of these individuals who persuaded the president to embrace progressive programs.
Some readers might hesitate to read an account of the New Deal, but fear not, Nothing to Fear reads like a brisk and well-plotted novel with both good guys (and gal) and not so great guys. Cohen’s admirable portrait of Frances Perkins, the first woman to hold a cabinet position, and her gritty determination to sway the president to back large-scale public work programs moves at a swift pace.
Cohen also examines the relationships between the participants within that circle, notably the conflicts of Perkins, Henry Wallace, the secretary of agriculture, and Harry Hopkins, who ran the $500 million relief program, had with Lewis Douglas, the director of the budget. Douglas, a conservative ideologue who advocated spending cuts, was a curious choice to play a large role in the New Deal, but he appealed to the president’s fiscal conservative nature.
Two different schools of thought in American politics existed between the Perkins group and Douglas. Hopkins, Perkins, and Wallace–committed liberals–argued that government should take an active role in improving the lives of workers, the poor, the unemployed, and farmers. Douglas argued for the free market, low taxes, and small government. In his introduction, Cohen neatly sums up the first Hundred Days:
While the public story line of the Hundred Days was about how Roosevelt, through his eloquent public statements and legislative initiatives rallied a desperate nation, behind the scenes his advisers were battling over what shape the New Deal would take. Perkins, Wallace, and Hopkins worked with members of Congress, farm leaders, union officials, and other progressives to promote their agenda. Douglas worked with business leaders and other conservatives to pull Roosevelt in the opposite direction. In the first month of the Hundred Days, through the passage of the Economy Act, Douglas’s side prevailed. For the rest of the Hundred Days, Perkins’s side did. While Douglas won the early battles, Perkins, Wallace, and Hopkins won the war.
Nothing to Fear is a remarkable book and suggested reading to anyone with an interest in history and economics, but the members of The White House Economic Recovery Advisory Board should also have a copy as well. Perhaps they can get some insights and tap into Perkins, Wallace, and Hopkins bold determination and get America out of the mess it’s in.