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"Write out of love, write out of instinct, write out of reason. But always for money."
Louis Untermeyer

Freedom from Fear
The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945 

By David M. Kennedy
Oxford University Press, 936 pp, 1999

You may have noticed that I haven't posted a book review in a while. The latest was over a month ago, in fact. That's because I've been doggedly slogging through this epic tome of American history. 

When I say epic, I mean big, not necessarily great. It's very much a left-wing, semi-revisionist work, with some interesting detours. For example, Kennedy repeats the revisionist canard that the United States spurned sincere Japanese peace overtures and thus goaded Japan into Pearl Harbor. We asked for it, in other words. But Japan was essentially a military dictatorship (the emperor held little real power) that wished to dominate and conquer as much of Southeast Asia as it could, including China. It asked the U.S. to sit idly while it conquered China, and in return Japan would give up any further territorial ambitions in Southeast Asia. The U.S. refused, and rightly so, because it had no assurances that Japan would keep its word. In fact, Japan needed the oil rich Philippines to fuel its war machine. But that was the substance of Japan's so-called peace efforts. In other words, Japan started the war but the U.S. was responsible because it opposed Japan's machinations. This is ridiculous.

Kennedy is a little stronger when discussing the New Deal's effect on the Depression. He rightly points out that FDR's economic schemes did not end the Depression - World War 2 did that. Kennedy claims that the New Deal's success lay not in promoting economic growth but in providing security (hence the book's title) and necessary structure to the economy. The New Deal was more of a reform plan, as opposed to an economic stimulus plan. Of course, that's not how FDR and the New Dealers described it, but FDR rarely let the truth get in the way of his proposals. I should have counted how many times Kennedy says that FDR "dissembled," or was "disingenuous." FDR lied an awful lot, folks.

Kennedy also makes clear that FDR considered the Constitution an impediment to the New Deal. FDR grew increasingly frustrated as the Supreme Court consistently struck down New Deal programs. So he proposed to enlarge the court, under the guise of improving efficiency, but everyone knew he was trying to pack the court with ideologically friendly justices who would be FDR lackeys. The scheme was doomed to fail from the start, because the Court, at the time, was held in very high esteem by the American people (I doubt that's the case now). So the court could have ignored FDR's challenge, but instead it did an about-face and started ruling in favor of New Deal legislation. Thus the Court sold its constitutional soul to FDR and the New Deal.

Kennedy does do a good job of describing the abject suffering so many Americans endured during the Depression. It sounds rather quaint when we complain about economic downturns, or stock market losses, or even recession. None of that comes close to matching the Depression. Tens of millions of normally productive and hard-working people were unemployed. Farmers suffered plummeting agricultural prices. Thousands of banks closed. Economic production withered. Many lived at bare subsistence levels. Please think of that next time we whine and moan about our economy growing at "only" two percent or retailers "suffer" through a Christmas shopping season that actually increased 1.5 percent over last year. 

But World War 2 changed everything. It brought jobs and production boomed. After the war, America was a different country, strong, confident, prosperous, and a world power. It seemed like the Depression never happened. While the war ravaged numerous nations, the American homeland actually benefited. The war laid the foundation for the 50s and 60s boom years.

According to Kennedy, the New Deal also played its part in shaping our future. Social Security, the Securities and Exchange Commission, subsidies to farmers, and Fannie Mae were all New Deal creations. Reforms in the stock market brought more information to investors and helped stabilize Wall Street. The New Deal took some of the risk and sting out of capitalism, without shredding the Constitution.

I'm not quite on board with Kennedy about the New Deal. The security it provided came in a velvet fist. What the New Deal really did is lay the foundation for the modern welfare state in America, and that is a travesty. I realize the 1930s were a unique and horrible time in America, and these reforms may have appeared absolutely necessary, but there had to be a better way. Don't ask me what that was, because I don't know. I admit it.

I'm glad I read this. It was informative, well-written, and provocative. It's the ninth book in the Oxford History of the United States series. I've also read volume 3, The Glorious Cause by Robert Middlekauff, which coves the American Revolution and is absolutely phenomenal. Unfortunately, Freedom from Fear isn't nearly as good as its predecessor.

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