- The New Deal: A Global History by Kiran Klaus Patel
In December 1932, just after Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first election to the presidency, he wrote a magazine article explaining that the key to recovery from the Depression was an understanding of the interdependence of all people in the modern world: all must regain prosperity, or none would. He further explained that because his policies would work for no one class but for a combination of many interests, he would unify factions in the legislature and lead through Congressional majorities—not as a dictator. The president-elect’s assurances that he would seek a common good and respect Constitutional limits on his power might seem anodyne in the extreme, but in the world of 1932 they had unusual force: in countries around the globe, the Depression had permitted demagogues and dictators to claim power, and by expressly disclaiming such ambition, Roosevelt was saying that the United States would find some way out of the Depression that preserved its basic institutions and traditions. Without these international examples before him, Roosevelt would have needed no such pledge or plan. Moreover, in his twin emphases on the necessary interdependence of peoples and of avoiding fascism, the New Deal was both transnational and comparative in its approach to other nations from its very conception. Roosevelt’s recovery program was born global.
Kiran Klaus Patel’s The New Deal: A Global History is a gift to lecturers who want to emphasize both the essential links between the New Deal and the social progress of other nations as well as the ways in which Roosevelt’s reformers sought to distinguish what they were doing from dictatorial developments overseas. Each ingredient of the New Deal alphabet soup had some foreign parallel, inspiration, cousin, or heir, but each was also advertised as a—if not always individually tailored, then at least made-tomeasure—fit for American circumstances.
Even when New Dealers sought to achieve ends similar to those of fascist governments—popular mobilization for public works or for rearmament—they were keen and careful to describe some democratically defensible means for what they were doing. The best example of this distinction between convergent ends and divergent means is the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), on which Patel has previously written. The CCC brought military regimentation to the nation’s unemployed young men, and its iconography emphasized their strong, working bodies as symbols of the nation’s renewed health. The CCC’s designers understood that in these respects they risked emulating the German labor camps (Arbeitsdienst). They took pains, therefore, to eliminate any hint of warlike nationalism from the CCC, to prevent too much similarity with the Arbeitsdienst, “the polar opposite from which the corps distanced itself” (88), while simultaneously seeking connection and comparison to public works programs in nonfascist nations like Great Britain, the Netherlands, and Switzerland. As with the CCC, so with the Agricultural [End Page 102] Adjustment Administration, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and other New Deal agencies; they drew strength both from their connections to nonfascist programs and from their distinction from fascist programs while also appearing peculiarly suited to the United States.
The impulse to preserve a distinctively American character for the New Deal was not only internal to the Roosevelt administration but came also from its US critics and opponents. The US Supreme Court blocked what it saw as corporatist or collectivist policies, and red-baiting congressmen thwarted the adoption of cooperative experiments. Short-lived or abortive attempts to move outside the American liberal tradition, like the administration’s exploration of Sweden’s system of consumer cooperatives, came to grief in the teeth of such enmity. As Patel notes, the very effort to borrow from overseas undermined the New Deal’s transnationalist tendencies: “The European references cited by the New Dealers made it easy to denounce the cooperative approach as un-American” (225). At the same time, as Patel shrewdly points out, the New Dealers’ determination to find international programs to emulate owed as much to wishful thinking as to...