Each year on Jan. 30, 1982 -- The anniversary of the birth of Franklin D. Roosevelt--I think about the Great Depression and the New Deal. I lived through a portion of the 1930s and recall my mother's constant admonitions against waste, the soothing effects of President Roosevelt's fireside chats as we gathered around the old Philco, and the many times I accompanied my mother on necessary shopping trips where I soon learned that putting items "on tab" brought anxious looks (and few words) from mother and merchant alike.
Although my mother had little formal education, she shares the distinction of being in agreement with most professional historians by identifying the protagonists of the Great Depression drama as Roosevelt (the hero) and business (the villain). The drama unfolds into several acts.
Scene One, Act One finds a large crowd of businessmen--from small entrepreneurs to corporate managers--expressing doubts about the inevitability of the return of prosperity in the late summer of 1932. Many admire the dictatorial stance and resultant actions of Benito Mussolini, and a few go so far as to call for the conferring of dictatorial powers on President Herbert Hoover. As the scene comes to a close, the businessmen appear baffled, leading an insightful ad man to dub Gimbel's 1943 Christmas doll with the name "Baffie." The curtain falls as Baffie suggests escapist themes in a baby-talk soliloquy.
Scene Two, Act One is short and sweet. Businessmen have rallied around the new Democratic president, who has been the recipient of many of their votes. In fact, 2,000 noted businessmen joined the Roosevelt bandwagon as early as April 1932 when the Roosevelt Business and Professional League was organized through the efforts of Jesse Isidor Straus, president of R. H. Macy and Co.
The passage of the National Industrial Recovery Act in the late spring of 1933 ushers in Act II. Again, business people are in a pleasant mood, for the NIRA has provided exemption from the antitrust laws and the opportunity to eliminate industrial abuses through the self-regulation of trade associations. In outlining the major position of the NIRA program before the annual meeting of the Chamber of Commerce of the United States in May, 1933, FDR is "received with an enthusiasm which can hardly be overemphasized."
Somewhat given to superstition, Franklin Roosevelt might well have seen some ominous signs as 1934 and Act III of the Depression drama unfold. New Year's Day in London is accompanied by the densest fog that the city had experienced in many a year. London bus conductors are forced to walk along the curbs shouting loudly and hopefully guiding drivers who could not see more than a distance of two feet. Four days later, the Loch Ness monster is spotted.
For Roosevelt and his relations with business, 1934 is to be a very bad year: two of his intimate advisers resign--banker Paul Warburg and budget director Lewis Douglas, both popular among businessmen. The passage of the Securities Exchange Act, rifts between business and labor over the implementation of the NIRA, and the attempt of Sen. Robert Wagner to strengthen labor's position in a permanent law outside the NIRA rubric all bring forth frustration if not hostility from businessmen. Severe criticism of the New Deal dominates the Chamber of Commerce's annual spring meeting, and some of the members in the autumn declare open season on FDR by founding the American Liberty League.
Act III never seemed to end, especially as the New Deal changed directions in 1935. The planning, cooperative emphasis of the NIRA gave way to the old progressive ideals of trust-busting, high taxes and regulation. And the business crusade against Sen. Wagner's labor bill (ultimately passed as the National Labor Relations Act) assumed almost fanatical proportions, with the National Association of Manufacturers' campaign described as "the greatest ever conducted by industry regarding any congressional measure."
An undeclared war loomed between FDR and the Chamber of Commerce in 1935, the former breaking precedent by refusing to send the message of greeting to the organization located within shouting distance of the White House; the latter taking advantage of the territorial propinquity by shouting invectives. In a poll of its 1,500 members in September, 1935, the chamber found an anti-New Deal bias by the unbelievable margin of 35 to 1.
The president's overwhelming reelection in 1936 provided only a brief pause in the business-New Deal war. The fate of the Supreme Court packing plan, the attempted but unsuccessful purge of anti-New Dealers in Congress, the criticism regarding the Works Progress Administration (the work relief program), and the long fight over the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act (minimum wage, maximum hours) revealed that the strength of business conservatives had ebbed the tide if not the flow of New Deal legislation.
The drama of business and FDR had a tragic ending. What had started as a happy wedding and productive honeymoon soon became a separation and bitter divorce, a most atypical movie theme for the 1930s.