Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, World War II and Harry S. Truman’s Fair Deal that followed saved both capitalism and representative democracy — a historic triumph. But as historian Ira Katznelson argues persuasively in this engrossing book, “the triumph . . . cannot be severed from the sorrow.”
At home, Katznelson writes, “liberal democracy prospered because of an accommodation with racial humiliation” — the flagrant racism of the Jim Crow South. Abroad, victory in World War II depended on an alliance with Joseph Stalin, a tyrant in the class of Adolf Hitler. Then to cope with Stalin’s Soviet Union early in the Cold War, we relied on Hitler’s Nazi scientists and engineers to build our rockets.
(Liveright) - ’Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time’ by Ira Katznelson
Such contradictory combinations of good and evil recur throughout Katznelson’s story, revealing basic truths about the complexities of human history.
It is an exhilarating pleasure to lose yourself in this old-fashioned example of original historical scholarship. “Fear Itself” is a sprawling, ambitious book that offers illuminating insights on nearly every page. Among Katznelson’s gifts is the one most valuable to readers and most in danger of extinction in the American academy: He writes clear, energetic prose without a whiff of academic jargon or pretension.
Katznelson, the Ruggles professor of history and political science at Columbia University, demonstrates that Congress’s approval of Roosevelt’s New Deal depended on the support of racist Southern Democrats, who were happy to support FDR’s liberal and occasionally radical economic ideas, provided they did not disrupt the Jim Crow culture of the South. FDR willingly accepted this bargain. So poor black Southerners were deliberately excluded from many New Deal programs, beginning with Social Security, which initially did not cover agricultural and domestic workers, the principal occupations of Southern blacks. Again and again, Katznelson shows, Southern members of Congress made sure that African Americans were shortchanged, even by the G.I. Bill of Rights and the Tennessee Valley Authority, which actively discriminated in its employment policies and favored white institutions over black ones.
The book is being published on the 80th anniversary of FDR’s first inaugural address, delivered on March 4, 1933. Its most famous line provided Katznelson’s title: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
Katznelson considers “fear itself” more than a rhetorical flourish. He argues, again persuasively, that historians beguiled by Roosevelt’s successes have failed to appreciate the degree to which fear had unhinged the nation in 1933, or how that fear persisted for more than 20 years, coloring our history at every turn and influencing it still. Those two decades are Katznelson’s subject, despite his subtitle’s reference to the New Deal; his rich narrative takes us from 1933 to the inauguration of Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1953.