Perspectives on 20th Century America: Readings and Commentary

By Otis L. Graham Jr. | Go to book overview

PART FOUR
The 1930s

The distinctive contours of today's America have been a long time in taking shape. They reflect decisions made decades ago, and forces which have had a long running start down the corridors of history. Historians, however, discern some pe- riods which seem to compress the process of change, historical "watersheds" in which emerging institutions and habits appear almost suddenly to crowd out the older ones. Because of the dramatic expansion of governmental power which took place during the 1930s, that decade has long been seen as such a watershed. By the end of the 1930s, the modern American political economy had decisively emerged. Within the framework devised to struggle against the Great Depression, Americans were to operate through World War II and the Cold War; in fact, the depression framework survives into our own day. That framework consists of a capitalistic economy extensively managed, regulated, and subsidized by demo- cratic government under clear mandates to seek stability, security, balance.

This historic change in the relationship between the American economy and political system gave rise to a lively scholarly debate which -- even some thirty to forty years after the New Deal -- shows no signs of being resolved. During the years after World War II, when American intellectuals generally thought that our political and economic arrangements were admirably progressive, the majority of historians described the New Deal as a time of rapid and desirable social gains. This view was countered by a determined but dwindling group of conservatives who considered the New Deal years a time of rapid but undesirable social change. By the late 1950s this conservative dissent had few remaining adherents in scholarly circles, although the point of view it represented had a reasonably sizeable political following. But the prospects of interpretive unity among histori- ans receded when there emerged, in the 1960s, a vigorous third position.

In a decade of unprecedented contemporary social criticism, such as the 1960s were, it is not surprising to find a significant number of historians beginning to look more critically at the entire record of American society under the Welfare State. Historians such as Howard Zinn, Barton J. Bernstein, and Paul Conkin re- vived a radical critique of the New Deal -- a point of view that had not been heard since the 1930s. In their view, far-reaching decisions had indeed been reached in those years of social fluidity and crisis; but these decisions had con- firmed and reinforced America's status quo rather than seriously modified it. The New Deal was seen by these scholars as fundamentally conservative -- not merely in the sense that it preserved capitalism, but because Roosevelt and those around

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