Skip navigation
College Quarterly
Summer 2013 - Volume 16 Number 3
Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time
Ira Katznelson
New York: Liveright, 2013
Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

I’m reminded of my ignorance and, for the first time, I am mildly interested in reading Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom (2003), by disgraced tycoon, former Order of Canada recipient and current member of the British House of Lords, Baron Black of Crossharbour (Conrad to his remaining friends). I have occasionally perused his unctuous prose in smaller doses, mainly newspaper columns, but not even the seeming unlikelihood of the connection between biographer (smug elitist) and his subject (liberal icon) captured my attention. I thought (and I still do) that Black’s biases would insinuate themselves into every page and, since they annoy me, I saw no reason to succumb to masochism. I also thought (and I do not any longer) that I knew pretty much what I needed to know about Roosevelt, his Depression-era administration and his entry and successful management of the United States of America in World War II. Ira Katznelson’s remarkable new book has given me serious second thoughts.

Fear Itself is very far from a hagiography, but it is not an example of the typical leftist screed that tells us that Roosevelt lacked a coherent vision, a comprehensive critical understanding of the troubled economic times and the fortitude to push the USA firmly to the left. The “New Deal,” from this perspective, was a slap-dash set of initiatives which accomplished some tremendous things, but which ultimately saved capitalism from itself and allowed “the system” to survive more-or-less intact. It was an opportunity which, being only half-way successful, turned out to be just the preamble for the next big systemic failure. This book goes far deeper and reveals or, rather, recollects some of the genuinely despicable aspects of American politics and society about which Roosevelt did (and perhaps could do) absolutely nothing.

Katznelson takes us deeply under the surface of the Roosevelt Era to bring from the depths many of the problems that we like to pretend have been overcome, even as we choose to forget how terrible and terrifying those problems were. As a four-year cancer survivor, I also like to focus on the skills of my admirable surgeon and the quality of life I now enjoy without dwelling on the past or on what might have come to be. As a strong supporter and marginal participant in the American Civil Rights Movement, I also like to reflect on Dr. King’s mellifluous speeches and hands-clapping renditions of “We Shall Overcome,” while consigning Abel Meeropol’s poem “Strange Fruit” (turned into Billie Holliday’s controversial 1939 song) to the safety of a sort of mental museum. Seldom, however, do I give much thought to the question of what might have happened if the bigots of the American South had prevailed, if the Freedom Rides had failed, if President Johnson had not twisted all those arms to promote the Civil Rights Act of 1964 or the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (currently being undone by the US Supreme Court, but that’s another story).

Ira Katznelson is here to say that it might have been otherwise.

History is not a hard science or, if it is, it’s too hard for our somewhat large but occasionally weak brains to be able to fathom. We forget easily. We neglect what is not immediately apparent. We leap to conclusions for which there is little persuasive evidence. And, of course, we believe what others have falsely told us of the past. Worse, we write from a contemporary perspective, assume what happened is what was meant to happen or even predestined and, of course, take most seriously the accounts of the past that were handed down by the “winners.” So it is with Franklin Delano Roosevelt and with explorations of the times in which he lived.

Probing that past, it is crucial to examine not just the memoirs of important people, statistical records of stock market ups and downs, industrial production reports, detailed legislative and judicial decisions and, of course, descriptions of military engagements and diplomatic conferences and treaties. These and other elements of “official” history are crucial, of course, but so are the daily experiences of “ordinary” women and men whose lives and deaths are easily buried under the weight of dominant personalities and seemingly world-changing events.

Ira Katznelson reminds us of things we might prefer to forget, not least of which is the fact that there was more to the American (and Canadian, British and French) admiration for European tyrants than we might suppose. More than the fictitious Miss Jean Brodie (in or past her “Prime”) were smitten by Benito Mussolini, Francisco Franco and António de Oliveira Salazar. From King Edward VIII to Catholic priests such as Charles Coughlin and Lionel Groulx, from John F. Kennedy’s father to Charles Lindberg and the associates of Vichy leader Philippe Pétain, the liberal democracies were populated by plenty of people who either esteemed antisemitism and dictatorship or regarded it as inevitable and worthy of engagement.

Then, beneath this layer of celebrity, there was a different and deeply degrading reality to be found. In Fear Itself, a bright light is shone on the dark past. Some of it reflects into the future. Katznelson, for example, worries about democratic institutions. He pays attention to the fact that a defining characteristic of the Italian, German and Soviet tyrannies were the triumphs of the executive arm of government over legislatures, often with little hint of popular objection. The ease with which the apparatus of the “national security state” which currently engages in electronic surveillance, unwarranted wire-taps, almost routine incidents of police brutality and targeted assassinations of citizens and others suspected of terrorist associations using externally guided drones (never mind the “collateral damage” in the form of innocent civilians maimed and killed) should give every citizen of putative liberal democracies pause.

In the case of President Roosevelt, Katznelson acknowledges that Roosevelt’s frequent attempts to concentrate power in the White House were vigorously resisted by Congress, but the independence of the legislative branch—obviously easier in the United States with its heralded system of “checks and balances—came at a price.

The price, of course, was the authorization of enduring racism in the American South. Too few remember that Abraham Lincoln was a Republican. His great achievements included not only keeping the union of North and South together at the cost of the bloodiest war in America’s history, but also freeing the slaves. His thanks from states of the defeated Confederacy was that, after the collapse of “Reconstruction,” the Republican Party would not win popular favour again until the creation of the “Southern strategy” persuaded southern Democrats that the Republicans were willing to treat their Black citizens more harshly than the liberal Democrats of the north were prepared to do.

In the meantime, racial intolerance and formal segregation were the central factors in southern politics and crucial to anyone with an interest in dealing with the South. President Roosevelt had such an interest. He was compelled to comply with the race agenda that was the key to keeping Democratic representatives in Congress. So it was that some progressive reforms such as the Banking Act (also know as the Glass Steagall Act, 1933), the Social Security Act (1935) and the National Labor Relations Act (also called the Wagner Act, 1935) created what Katznelson terms the “American welfare state, but lost out when anything such as measures to promote a more centralized planned economy or to challenge Jim Crow laws in the South were suggested.

Katznelson goes further. Anyone who was distressed by the Cold War or by the militarization of the United States that accompanied it can also lay the blame on Roosevelt’s strategy for defeating Hitler. By compelling the USSR to absorb the greatest number of casualties and endure by far the greatest human costs, Roosevelt also guaranteed that the Soviet Union would control Eastern Europe and ensured that World War II would be followed by the Cold War. The South loomed large in this process as well.

Always pleased with military posturing and ever eager for government hand-outs that did not affect racial segregation, the South not only became the biggest beneficiary of the permanent war economy, but also helped push domestic policy to the right. This took the form of encouragement for boldly patriotic acts including enabling the establishment of the House Committee on Un-American Activities and gutting the Wagner Act. As early as 1947, the Taft-Hartley Act removed protection for labour unions. At least in the latter case, a clear connection with Jim Crow can be made. Trade unions were not only a threat to capital, but to segregation as well. (The fact that so-called “right-to-work” legislation is being enacted in the deindustrialized parts of the American Middle West and is being seriously proposed in, of all places, the Province of Ontario shows seriously once apparently draconian laws can be resuscitated.

One larger lesson that Katznelson wishes to present is this: the legacy of the New Deal is, at best, ambiguous. It is true that Roosevelt significantly broadened the authority of the state, but the benefits of social investment declined in comparison to the military and the oil, chemical and armaments industries that now dominate the Southern economy. It is also true that some of the worst aspects of racism are now at least superficially being removed from Southern culture. At the same time, the social justice component of public policy, especially as it applied to social class and (I would add) gender issues thanks largely to the continued influence of fundamentalist Christianity, continues and threatens to undo much that was accomplished during and since the Roosevelt Era.

An even larger and perhaps more disturbing message concerns the path of history itself. It is not linear or even necessarily dialectical. It is possible to move what seems to be “forward,” but it is also possible to move what is plainly backward. The path that the United States took from 1932 to 1945 and beyond looks, in retrospect, to have been one of progress. Lynchings are rare. Black women can sit at the front of a bus in Birmingham, Alabama. Federal troops are not needed to desegregate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas or the University of Mississippi. Atlanta is a very modern city and a central transportation hub for the entire country. Katznelson shows, however, that it could easily have been much, much different. It is well-known that Adolf Hitler kept a life-sized photo of Henry Ford on his office wall. It is also well-known that American industry in the cases of Ford, General Motors and IBM were of immense value to the Nazi war machine. Combined with the influence of American isolationists, Southern racists and a number of other elements in American public life, the possibility of a very different path to the future is clear.

We should be constantly critical of our understanding of society—past and present. What seems to be logical, predestined and ultimately satisfying may not be so. Received wisdom may be in error, and even if it represents what happened fairly well, it wasn’t the way it had to happen or might have happened. The implications for the future are also worrisome. And, it is unsettling to recall that in the beloved “Andy Griffith Show,” which ran on television from 1960 to April Fool’s Day in 1968 (three days before the assassination of Martin Luther King), presented warm family humour, told morally uplifting tales and purported to display the real life of the bucolic North Carolina town of Mayberry, not one of the residents was Black and the only “Negro” that ever appeared was just passing through.


Black, C. 2003. Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom. New York: Public Affairs.

Howard A. Doughty teaches political economy at Seneca College in Toronto.