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Wonkblog book club: Ira Katznelson’s “Fear Itself” — Part III

It's a beautiful Friday afternoon in the summer, so what better way to spend the time than... with a book club?  Hopefully everyone’s read Part III of Ira Katznelson’s, “Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time” by now.

So let’s discuss in comments. Two highlights from this section to kick things off:

1) The chapter on the foreign-policy outlook of white Southern politicians was strangely fascinating. Many Nazi officials in the 1930s thought that they could count on support from the white U.S. South. After all, how different was German anti-Semitism from the racist Jim Crow regime, really? (Hitler was even fond of saying that the South should have won the Civil War.)

But that belief was utterly wrong. Not only did most white Southern politicians (and editorial writers) loathe Nazi Germany, but the South was one of the few regions of the country that strongly supported an activist foreign policy during the 1930s. As Katznelson shows, only Southern votes made it possible for the United States to modify its neutrality stance, send aid to Britain, build up an army, and reinstate the draft prior to World War II.

So why were white Southern politicians so unique in this regard — especially at a time when most Americans favored neutrality abroad? Katznelson offers up a few theories. Many Southerners identified culturally with the British. There were also economics to consider: The South's economy depended heavily on trade that was being disrupted by German expansion. And, of course, "southern military camps and war production after 1939 produced a huge influx of federal government investment."

But Katznelson also hints at a third reason, although he doesn't flesh it out. Most white southerners weren't in any mood to revive debates on race during the 1930s, especially since the compromises in the New Deal had basically left segregation intact in the South. "A powerful sentiment developed," wrote historian George Tindall, "to dampen the rekindled flames of racial feeling." The rise of Nazi Germany threatened to unsettle all that.

2) Katznelson also attempts a valiant defense of the usually disparaged National Recovery Administration, established in 1933. True, he notes, the price-setting and "code of fair practices" all smacked of government attempts to micromanage the economy. But, says Katznelson, the NRA was an important effort to find a middle ground between unfettered capitalism and the sort of planned economies seen in the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany.

I do wish, however, that Katznelson had given more attention to economic research on this period. The book notes that U.S. employment fell sharply in the three years after the NRA was established, suggesting that it wasn't a total failure. But many economists — including Ben Bernanke — have attributed the  recovery to the fact that the Roosevelt administration took the country off the gold standard in 1933.

There’s a whole lot more to discuss, so what did you all think?

Related: Here are our three previous discussions (Part I, Part II, and a follow-up). And as a reminder, here’s our book club schedule. The next discussion will be June 28.

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