Review Essay

New Deal, Old South

How FDR Propped Up Jim Crow

In This Review

Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time
Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time
By Ira Katznelson
Liveright, 2013, 720 pp. $29.95 Purchase

In March 1933, with the United States deep in the throes of the Great Depression, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt delivered his first inaugural address, warning of the power of fear -- or, more specifically, the danger of “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” Those efforts were the “new deal” that Roosevelt had promised during his campaign, a sweeping reformation of the U.S. economy that would define his first two terms in office and create the foundations for the contemporary American social welfare state: federal aid to the unemployed, stiffer regulation of industry, legal protections for workers, and the Social Security program, among other major innovations.

Today, Americans tend to understand the New Deal in a few standard ways. The consensus view is triumphalist: the New Deal was the first step in the United States’ muscular emergence from the Great Depression and the beginning of the country’s rise to become the undisputed “leader of the free world.” Then there are the more ideological interpretations. Liberals see the New Deal as a vindication of Keynesian economics, strong labor unions, and a secure social welfare state. In the liberal view, Roosevelt confronted the fear spawned by the cruel and crushing hardships of unfettered capitalism during the 1920s. Conservatives hold, meanwhile, that the New Deal left a legacy of unrestrained government intrusion into the private sector and quasi-authoritarian limits on liberty and the free market. In the conservative view, Roosevelt is himself the source of fear, standing in for the menace of unbridled executive power.

The New Deal era portrayed in Ira Katznelson’s Fear Itself contrasts sharply with all those conventional accounts. According to Katznelson, the fear invoked by Roosevelt persisted well beyond 1932, defining a Zeitgeist that extended into the Cold War era and ushering in an executive branch that behaved, even in peacetime, as if the United States had been “invaded by a foreign foe,” in Roosevelt’s phrase. By the time of Roosevelt’

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