The New Deal: The National Level

By John Braeman; Robert H. Bremner et al. | Go to book overview

Richard Polenberg


The Decline of the New Deal,
1937-1940

IN THE FALL OF 1938, LESS THAN TWO YEARS AFTER FRANKLIN Roosevelt's triumphant reelection, Walter Millis noted that the New Deal had "passed into a purely historical importance." 1 That Roosevelt's second term witnessed a sharp decline in New Deal fortunes is beyond dispute. What is less clear is the nature of that decline and the reasons it occurred. The waning of reform apparently involved three distinct but related phenomena: mounting hostility in Congress toward presidential proposals, as reflected in the defeat, watering-down, or repeal of key New Deal measures; declining public support, as measured by the success of conservative Democrats and Republicans in the 1938 elections; and a growing tendency of the president and members of his administration to devote more of their energies to national defense or foreign policy and less to social reform. If, as Millis believed, the New Deal was over, liberals may themselves have been partially responsible.

To say that Roosevelt faced a recalcitrant Congress in his second term is not to imply that he faced a tractable one in his first. Although Congress enacted a great many New Deal measures in 1935, it by no means followed meekly in the president's wake. In the case of the National Labor Relations Act, congressional pressure pushed Roosevelt further in the direction of supporting trade unions than he wished to go. More often Congress weakened New Deal proposals before adopting them. In June 1935, the House, with the backing of more than half of its Democratic members, refused to accept the important "death sentence" clause in the

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