Made In The U.S.A.

This year is the 75th anniversary of the programs usually referred to as the New Deal, enacted by the Franklin Roosevelt administration to help the U.S. get through the worst economic depression in its history.

Was the New Deal the right medicine? Did it succeed?

The patient was very sick. Millions of men and women – mostly men – who had worked all their adult lives could not find jobs. The U.S. military was almost nonexistent. Former army camps had fallen into disrepair. The naval fleet was smaller than the fleets of Great Britain, Japan, Germany, France and probably others.

The nation’s infrastructure, urgently needed for the new era of automobiles, airplanes, electrical power and urban growth, was barely out of the horse and buggy stage. Twelve years later, the United States stood alone as the greatest, most prosperous and successful nation in all of history.

So, the short verdict on the New Deal is: Yes, it worked. And, let it be stressed that the New Deal, its philosophy and its methods have worked for all presidents since FDR, both Democrat and Republican.

The argument is often made that the New Deal program did not actually get the nation out of the Depression. Only World War II produced full employment and general prosperity again. But why was that? Because the war forced the government to dramatically increase the medicine.

When war came, no one stood up to condemn “deficit spending.” No one ranted against using government funds to pay millions of soldiers or finance the building of the airplanes and tanks that created large industries.

What the New Deal did was provide the means to survive for many families. It also established the principle of government intervention to assure jobs, food, security for the elderly and the infirm and structures which the private sector was unable or unwilling to build.

Those principles and the New Deal’s pioneering examples of public works were crucial in a nation emerging from the agrarian into the industrial age. Millions of jobs were created for those who previously worked on farms. Cities were built, and highways and dams and stadiums.

In a book published just this year, Nick Taylor brilliantly relates the saga of the New Deal program which was perhaps most essential, both from 1935 to 1943, when it existed, and for the nation’s future.

The book is called American-Made, a proud slogan that itself seems in danger today. Its subject is the WPA (Works Project Administration), a term that still rings in the memory of those of us who grew up in the Depression years.

The WPA was a government agency that eventually hired 8 million people to work on projects throughout the nation. Most of those Americans had been receiving a government “dole.” The WPA gave them jobs.

As Taylor relates: “The post-war generation grew up attending WPA-built schools. It rode on WPA roads, attended games at WPA stadiums; got married in WPA-built courthouses; swam in lakes created by WPA dams.” In its eight years of existence, the WPA’s workers built 650,000 miles of highways, 78,000 bridges, 800 airports and 125,000 military base buildings.

That was its blue-collar side, and there was also a white-collar side of the WPA. Those workers operated 1,500 nursery schools; presented 225,000 concerts, performed plays, puppet shows and circuses for some 30 million people; produced 475,000 works of art (many of them murals in public buildings, still seen today).

When natural disasters struck, WPA workers rushed to the rescue and then helped rebuild the damaged areas.

On July 1, 1943, the WPA quietly passed into history. The demands of World War II made it unnecessary.

But its legacy lived on, notably in the building of the Interstate Highway system in the 1950s and 1960s, the largest of all public projects, initiated by Republican President Dwight Eisenhower and funded enthusiastically by Republican congresses.

President Ronald Reagan’s huge military buildup of the 1980s, usually credited with winning the Cold War by bankrupting the Soviet Union, was the New Deal of that period, and the national debt grew more than in the 1930s.

Social Security, Wage and Hours Laws, flood control, banking and stock market oversight, and much more were part of the New Deal. It was an American solution to an American problem and both parties have honored its basic concepts and success.

Categories: Guest Commentary