The Second Red Scare and the Unmaking of the New Deal Left

By Landon R. Y Storrson | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 1
When the Old Left Was Young… and Went
to Washington

In a famous description of the changes that Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal wrought in the nation’s capital, one veteran civil servant grumbled that “a plague of young lawyers settled on Washington. They all claimed to be friends of somebody or other and mostly of Felix Frankfurter and Jerome Frank.” In another classic portrayal, the historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. explained that the Great Depression, by reducing private employment options, “made men of intellectual ability available as never before; and the government had never been so eager to hire them…. With each prominent New Dealer acting as his own employment agency, Washington was deluged with an endless stream of bright young men.” Schlesinger described their ideological orientations as ranging from fiscal orthodoxy to Wilsonian liberalism to Theodore Rooseveltian progressivism. They were passionate about ideas and worked long hours, but that did not prevent them from drinking, dancing, and arguing much of the night, transforming stuffy, sleepy Washington into a lively, sophisticated city. “The memories would not soon fade—the interminable meetings, the litter of cigarette stubs… the call from the White House, the postponed dinner, the neglected wife, the office lights burning into the night, the lilacs hanging in fragrance above Georgetown gardens while men rebuilt the nation.”1

Schlesinger’s evocative portrait omitted a cohort of leftist women and men whose presence was crucial to Washington’s transformation and to the design and implementation of many hallmark New Deal policies. It is widely known that capitalism’s crisis shifted the American political spectrum to the left in the 1930s, and also that the decade’s protest movements included one comprising radical students on college campuses around the nation.2 Less recognized is the fact that after graduation many of those young radicals—economists, social workers, and yes, lawyers, foremost among them—took jobs in the federal government. The high unemployment rate did make government jobs more attractive to men, but the civil service was especially attractive to a growing pool of professional

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