That’s the lesson from history. After Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt remained committed to implementing long-term reforms to reconstruct a nation devastated by the Great Depression and making the wartime mobilization as progressive as possible. “When victory comes,” he publicly reiterated two years later, that massive undertaking “has got to be carried on.”
But fierce opposition on Capitol Hill to plans for an expansive, comprehensive postwar New Deal led to political compromises and defeats that, in the long run, left the country unprepared to easily vanquish covid-19 and desperately in need of what Roosevelt dubbed “Doctor New Deal” to once again heal an ailing nation.
Like the Democrats ambitiously trying to include permanent reforms, such as student debt relief, in the stimulus, Roosevelt and his staff recognized the opportunity that a global crisis offered to demand the dramatic overhauls that they had long discussed. But even Roosevelt needed leverage to get Congress to consider genuine changes to the status quo, especially in the 1940s as his popularity waned and large Democratic congressional majorities shrank.
The president had always faced fierce opposition to some of his administration’s most cherished reforms. Conservative Republicans and Democrats from the South and West considered them a threat to free enterprise, individual liberty, states’ rights and social norms. Roosevelt’s biggest victories, including the pension and unemployment provisions in the 1935 Social Security Act, had been possible only after smashing victories for liberals in both parties in 1934 and 1936. Even with those wins, the compromises required to pass this legislation had left Americans of color, particularly women, working in the agricultural, domestic and public-sector jobs excluded from laws guaranteeing federal pensions, unemployment insurance provisions, union rights, minimum wages and maximum hours.
By the late 1930s, the president and his staff were laboring to ensure that the war effort likely to come would be all-American, as government posters later proclaimed. While most think of this transition as the end of the New Deal, in reality, New Deal agencies played a pivotal role in the war effort, especially in vastly improving the country’s productive capacity, basic infrastructure and workforce.
The National Youth Administration, for example, continued the popular work-study program to help much-needed nurses, doctors and engineers graduate and reoriented other programs toward vocational training to teach young adults the skills needed to rapidly produce guns, tanks and medical supplies.
Roosevelt also did not give up on creating a more equitable arsenal of democracy. He decreed that the bulk of war production would take place in the nation’s interior, far from Northeastern, Midwestern and West Coast factories. Roosevelt may have publicly made that 1940 demand in the name of defense, but he and his aides also intended that order to direct the manufacturing jobs that qualified for federal employment benefits into areas where the only opportunities were in the agricultural, domestic and public sectors that had been excluded from what New Dealers had managed to pass in the 1930s.
World War II’s unsung heroes were the citizens and immigrants who served in the armed forces and worked in those war-production factories. Manufacturers actually resisted building remote plants despite the profits promised, but ordinary people flocked to the remote wartime boom towns, where they eagerly spent their hard-earned wages in the shops, restaurants and other small businesses that had not yet recovered from the Depression. Working men and women also joined the unions, bargained for the employment benefits (like health care) and filed the discrimination complaints against employers in the hopes of a Double V, the defeat of fascism abroad and racism at home. White House officials considered those laboring on the home front more than entitled to those government benefits.
But Capitol Hill conservatives were hellbent on defeating liberals’ plans for a postwar New Deal that would offer even more to civilians and soldiers. They hated many New Deal agencies, which they insisted were of no use during World War II. These claims ignored clear evidence that, for example, the National Youth Administration was critical to supplying the literal tons of food, millions of uniforms and thousands of weapons that the military needed. Conservatives also hated the National Resources Planning Board, an agency that Roosevelt had directed in 1940 to begin planning for the peace that would follow the war.
Congress never entertained the staff’s bold suggestions for more social services, public transportation options, progressive taxation policies and higher educational opportunities. In fact, that bureau, the National Youth Administration and many other holdover New Deal agencies were unceremoniously defunded in bitter skirmishes over the federal budget in summer 1943.
By then, White House insiders had already started working on proposals for a generous list of social supports for veterans, crucially overseen by the Federal Security Agency, which oversaw federal pension and unemployment insurance programs. Officials hoped that would eventually make it possible to extend help affording college fees, starting small businesses, running family farms and finding jobs for civilians, such as the war-production workers steadily finding themselves out of work as military needs decreased and remote factories began to close.
But the agency’s fiercest congressional critics insisted that the Veterans Administration would manage everything promised to soldiers. Conservative Republicans and their Democratic allies feared that letting a civilian agency manage aid would create exactly the kind of “entering wedge” that would allow a dramatic, permanent expansion of the social safety net, whose construction they had fought in the 1930s.
Less than a year before his death, Roosevelt capitulated, signing the famed 1944 Servicemen’s Readjustment Act. The GI Bill of Rights empowered the VA to dole out employment, housing and educational assistance that really only white male veterans could easily use. Conservatives were relieved that those purposefully temporary benefits had been entrusted to an agency that served only veterans, which effectively walled off these benefits from the workers who had been so critical to the war effort.
Experts have spent decades documenting the long-term consequences of the New Deal excluding many Americans and then only veterans receiving sizable government support after the war. The covid-19 pandemic has brought renewed public attention to glaring inequities in the basic workplace rights, social-welfare guarantees and health-care needs that now endanger the lives of those on the front lines of this epidemic: the many Americans and immigrants, a huge percentage of them women of color, working in health care, food service, shipping, public transportation, janitorial services, public sanitation, child care and other vital sectors.
It is not enough to call them heroes, as both Republicans and Democrats have done. They need the supplies that will keep them safe, child-care options to enable them to work, sick-day guarantees that many Americans take for granted, the wages to reflect how invaluable they are and assurances that they will be designated as employees entitled to benefits, not contract laborers ineligible for such basic guarantees.
Democrats must also keep trying to include genuine far-reaching reforms in stimulus packages that would help everyone in this country threatened by this virus and the economic consequences of stay-at-home orders. The stimulus’s funds for struggling hospitals, direct payments to taxpayers, unemployment benefits for gig workers and loans for small businesses that keep their staff are a start. For future emergency bills, Democrats can look to states — like California, which has cracked down on corporations insisting that workers are not actually employees — as well as the wildly popular ideas discussed in the once-packed Democratic primary.
Expanding Medicare, massive student-debt forgiveness, tuition-free public higher education, universal child care, progressive taxation and affordable housing were among the innovative reforms discussed. Such efforts would ensure that the next time this country faces a national crisis, we are better prepared to fight it and do not need to hope that Congress will bring Doctor New Deal out of retirement.