Noel Ignatiev's Blog

Fear Itself

Two reviews of a new book plus a comment by me

Roosevelt revisited

Review by Duncan Kelly

Economic crisis at home and fascism abroad forced US leaders to walk a tightrope between dictatorship and democracy

Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time, by Ira Katznelson, WW Norton, RRP£22/$29.95, 720 pages 

The idea that in times of trouble the leaders of democracies can invoke temporary dictatorial or emergency power has long been central to modern politics. While dictatorship in this sense is most obviously needed in wartime, might it also be justified – advantageous, even – in a really severe economic crisis?

This has been a pressing question during our current economic and financial woes, and debate in the US has focused on whether this crisis is anything like the Great Depression that followed the Wall Street crash of 1929. If it is, then what might be required now is a modern version of the New Deal policies for national reconstruction that Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration implemented in the 1930s.

In Fear Itself, Ira Katznelson, professor of political science and history at Columbia university, has produced an excellent work of synthesis about the political and economic terms of the New Deal. It forms a bittersweet homage to the period he has long thought of as the pivotal moment in the development of both American democracy and the US national security state, founded on foreign and domestic policy designed around the “containment” of threats.

As the book’s subtitle – The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time – suggests, Katznelson takes a sober look at that age of political and economic fear in order to explain how the modern American state emerged out of it. His powerful and well-paced account begins in 1933 at the start of FDR’s extended presidency and ends with the inauguration of Dwight Eisenhower 20 years later.

Those two decades reflected an “unremitting sense of fragility” about the fate of American democracy, then under attack from economic depression, dictatorship, war and the development of nuclear weapons. That it was “fear itself” which Roosevelt sought to counter in his presidential addresses is clear, but how was that to be done? By the time of Hiroshima, many thought that all future democratic governments would rule in a permanent form of constitutional dictatorship, simply in order to survive.

Fear – real and imagined, domestic and international – structured the entire period, and this is what gives Katznelson’s book its focus. He cites FDR’s claim that he would not “evade the course of clear duty” that emergency powers required. In the 1930s and 1940s the consequences of democratic failure were too catastrophic to contemplate. 

Yet the possibility of that failure seemed all too real. The anti-democratic successes, political and economic, of fascism and National Socialism brought forth what Katznelson calls a crisis of democratic confidence in America, as elsewhere. How could the checks and balances of American federal democracy match the vigour of demagogic dictatorship? Moreover, how could a rugged and individualist American capitalism learn from dictatorship and central planning, without falling prey to some sort of government-sponsored socialism? Dictatorship or democracy? This was one of the big questions on contemporary commentators’ minds, including the celebrated columnist Walter Lippman, founding editor of The New Republic magazine, who is a recurring presence in this book and who believed FDR would have to assume the mantle of a democratic dictator in order to “mend” American democracy – whether by saving the banking system or through setting up an agency for national reconstruction.

Much of the infrastructure that FDR created has since been repealed, notably the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933, which prevented commercial banks from engaging in investment business: its absence is thought of as presaging the current crisis.

The presentation of FDR as a democratic dictator who pushed through these changes through presidential decree – and thereby saved American democracy from fear – has become part of popular political mythology. Instead, as Katznelson shows, it was Congress that enacted much of the radical legislative agenda. Statute, rather than executive command, transformed American capitalism.

Katznelson’s book goes on to show how both Congress and President were kept in a stranglehold by the veto power of the southern Democrats. The segregationist south was intent on preserving the rights of states to run their own affairs as they saw fit, but it came to support progressive political and economic policy from Washington DC. Katznelson suggests this was because it was in the south’s economic interest: it was poor and economically weak relative to the north and the New Deal offered it the chance of economic prosperity on terms the southern Democrats could live with. While the “Dixiecrats” made the New Deal possible, their support for progressive economic legislation was conditional on non-interference with the right to run their states on segregationist grounds.

This powerful southern Democrat grouping held three trump cards: longevity of its personnel, numbers, and an ideological commitment to racial segregation. According to those below the Mason-Dixon Line, southern-style racism was both religiously sanctioned and patriotically American. When the Nazis sought common ground with US advocates of racial purity, however, they were rebuffed for being anti-American; the barbaric and unjust persecutors of a minority.

In addition, the Nazis’ rapid conquest of much of Europe had closed off some of the principal markets for southern exports of tobacco and cotton, and this made the south a critic of American isolationism as a strategy. Yet, as Katznelson shows, the very successes of the New Deal, which benefited the south as much as anyone else, ultimately broke the racial foundations of southern power by unleashing uncontrollable economic and political forces. Capitalism here trumps ideology.

Katznelson also concludes that the development of the national security state, which began during the second half of the New Deal and continued well into the cold war, was founded upon the determination to banish fear itself. This fact lies behind the politics of today’s US, and anyone wanting an intelligent guide to the ideas that still shape its place in our own fractious times should begin by reading this book.

Duncan Kelly teaches political thought at the University of Cambridge

Destiny v. Democracy

Review by David Runciman

·         Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time by Ira Katznelson
Norton, 706 pp, £22.00, April, ISBN 978 0 87140 450 3

Casting around for kindred spirits in the blighted international landscape of the 1930s, Hitler looked fondly towards Dixie. What was not to like? The South was effectively a one-party state. In the 1936 presidential election, FDR’s Democratic ticket won 97 per cent of the vote in Mississippi, 99 per cent in South Carolina. In some counties no votes at all were recorded for Republican candidates. The figures compare very favourably with the 98.8 per cent the Nazis secured in their own national elections the same year. The difference was that Hitler used the coercive power of the state to secure an artificially high turnout (99 per cent of the German electorate was reported as having voted) whereas the Democrats used coercion to keep the turnout low. The population of Mississippi in the late 1930s was more than two million. Yet the number of people whose votes were counted in the 1938 congressional midterms was barely 35,000. This remarkably limited franchise was achieved by means of elaborate rules – including a poll tax – designed to make voting both difficult and expensive; it was backed up by threats of violence to anyone who challenged the status quo. The aim, of course, was to make sure the electorate remained exclusively white. Of the residents of Mississippi nearly half – roughly a million people – were black.

This was the other thing the Nazis admired about the South: it was a political order organised around an unambiguous idea of racial superiority, and geared towards keeping the races separate. Miscegenation was to be feared above all else. Anything was permitted to prevent it. In a debate on anti-lynching legislation in the US Senate in 1938, the senator from Mississippi Theodore Bilbo echoed Mein Kampf in asserting that merely ‘one drop of Negro blood placed in the veins of the purest Caucasian destroys the inventive genius of his mind and strikes palsied his creative faculties.’ The elected representatives of the South successfully blocked any legislative attempt to clamp down on lynching, holding it to be a matter for individual states to regulate, and something that Northerners couldn’t understand. Only Southerners knew what was at stake. Bilbo suspected a Jewish conspiracy behind what he saw as Northern interference: ‘The niggers and Jews of New York are working hand in hand.’ During Roosevelt’s first two terms, lynching continued unabated. There were 28 recorded instances in 1933 alone, the first year of the New Deal. This tacit acceptance of extra-legal killing was something else that struck a chord with the Nazis. In fact, what happened in the South was in the early 1930s more overt and more bestial than anything taking place in Germany, where state-sanctioned murder was treated as an unpleasant necessity rather than a public festival. As Ira Katznelson records, in November 1933, more than a year after FDR’s election, Lloyd Warner was burned alive before a cheering crowd of ten thousand in Princess Anne, Maryland, after an attempt to hang him had failed. Nothing so ghastly was permitted on the streets of Hitler’s new Reich. Still, this didn’t stop the Nazis romanticising the South and indulging in soft-soap fantasies about its martial culture. The German edition of Gone with the Wind – Vom Winde verweht – fascinated Hitler when it appeared in 1937. The film too was a big hit with the Nazi elite. On 22 June 1941, while he was waiting for the launch of Operation Barbarossa, Goebbels spent the hours after midnight watching a pre-release of the German version. It was comfort viewing.

About this, as about everything else, the Nazis couldn’t have been more wrong. Their love affair with the South was emphatically not reciprocated. Despite the lurid rhetoric of Southern senators like Bilbo, nowhere in the United States was more militantly anti-Nazi. It was from the South that the greatest political pressure came to break with the policy of neutrality after 1939, to arm on the side of the democracies and to take the fight to Hitler. Some of the reasons evolved from accidents of history and geography. German-Americans were concentrated in the Northern states. The South had always been pro-British, dating back to the Civil War, when it was to Britain that the Confederacy had looked for international support. After the Union’s victory, the South no longer had an army of its own. Its martial culture, therefore, could only find expression through the American army, which made the Southern states cheerleaders in any overseas military adventures. The South was strongly in favour of the Spanish-American War, the annexation of the Philippines, America’s entry into the First World War in 1917 and its entry into the Second a generation later.

Despite their endless misgivings about federal government and Northern aggrandisement, Southerners also saw themselves as patriots. They were sensitive to any slights to national honour. Many Southern newspapers were outraged by Hitler’s disrespectful treatment of black American athletes, including Jesse Owens, at the Berlin Olympics of 1936; the Atlanta Constitution even advocated a boycott of the games. The Montgomery Advertiser, taking note in 1933 of the regime’s attacks on Jews, apparently perceived no irony in declaring that ‘Hitler will only gain respect in the US if he stops persecuting the minority.’ The same newspapers flatly rejected any attempt to compare lynching to the systematic persecutions carried out by the Nazis. The point about lynching was that it remained ostensibly illegal, whereas Hitler was using the instruments of the law to pursue his campaigns of violence. Far from empathising with Nazis, Southerners seemed to find them a useful moral benchmark: say what you like about us, at least we’re nothing like them. People who outwardly resemble each other are often the ones most at pains to flag up their differences.

Some of the motivation for Southern anti-Nazism was more pragmatic. The South depended on free trade, especially agricultural and mineral exports, whereas the Nazi regime was promoting closed trading areas and protectionism. When Hitler annexed the Sudetenland, he also seized control of two-thirds of all Czech cotton mills. Once this happened, cotton exports from the South to Germany effectively ceased. Were Hitler to remain in control of continental Europe, parts of the Southern economy faced ruin. Southerners also knew that war was good for local business. The expansion of the federal military budget brought widespread benefits to Southern states, in the form of new army camps, investment in transport and other infrastructure and a sudden rush of commercial opportunities. There was always a balance to be struck in these calculations: government spending brought with it the danger of government oversight, which might lead to new questions being asked about the racial order of the South. If you took Northern money, you risked giving Northern politicians leverage over the way it was doled out. But Southern politicians rightly calculated that at a time of war, the federal government couldn’t afford to be too squeamish. In an emergency, getting the job done took priority over how it was managed. The money would get spent, and so long as the South remained enthusiastic about the cause, not too many awkward questions would get asked.

Politicking of this kind is the other reason it was a big mistake to think the South was Fascist. It may have been a one-party state, but the Democrats were not a one-state party. Southern Democrats didn’t have a single leader; theirs, as Katznelson says, was a ‘chaotic and anarchic’ organisation, riddled with local variations. More important, it was an organisation that extended well beyond the South. How the Northern and the Southern wings of the Democratic Party reconciled themselves to each other in this period was the central dynamic of American politics (the Western wing played a smaller part), and it provides the basis for Katznelson’s enthralling new history of the New Deal. Both sides had to compromise. For Southern Democrats, having their party in the White House meant accepting an outsider as president, since no Southern politician was considered nationally electable. If the Democrats controlled Washington, the benefits for the South were enormous, as resources were reallocated from more affluent parts of the country. After 1933, this was the lifeline on which the South depended to survive the Great Depression. The price paid was the uncertainty that came with having Northern and Midwestern politicians pulling the purse-strings. These men (and the occasional woman) were answerable to electorates very different from those of their Southern counterparts; indeed, many of them represented districts in which black voters, even in small numbers, could swing an election. Southern Democrats could never be sure what might be required of them in return for all that federal largesse; they had to be perpetually vigilant for signs of slippage on the race question. They couldn’t afford to pull up the drawbridge, but neither were they willing to let any do-gooding liberals across it. The result was an endless series of arms-length negotiations, in which each side did what it could to probe for weaknesses in the other. The South could never be Fascist because the South was part of a functioning national democracy, with all the unavoidable accommodations and patched-up deals that entailed.


However, the really significant compromises were the ones made by Northern politicians. Katznelson persuasively argues that the core features of the New Deal were fashioned out of Northern acquiescence and Southern intransigence. The give-and-take was highly asymmetrical. Roosevelt needed the votes of Southern representatives in Congress, above all in the Senate, to get his legislative programme for reviving the American economy passed. Though in a permanent minority, Southern senators wielded disproportionate influence. There were two reasons for this. First, they were more united than any rival grouping. What united them was race, and a shared sense that they represented the final bulwark against the destruction of the white order. Any local differences were put aside when segregation was on the line. Unity made them disciplined but also highly adaptable: Southern representatives would forge whatever alliances were needed to keep the South intact. If that meant doing deals with Republicans, so be it. Roosevelt knew he couldn’t rely on the Southern politicians in his party if they had any sense that their way of life was under threat. So he was loath to put them to the test. He may also have had a sneaking sympathy with their predicament. He was at ease among Southerners (as he was with pretty much everybody), and regularly holidayed in South Carolina, where he apparently felt at home. He believed that if the South was going to change, it would have to do so at its own pace. His administration had more urgent business to attend to.

The second weapon Southern senators had at their disposal was their longevity. Control of Senate committees went by seniority and because the South was a one-party state, Southerners were invariably the ones who had been there longest. In the 1920s, when the Democratic Party was being battered by Republicans in national elections, the South was immune. During this period, 67 per cent of all Democrats in the Senate and 72 per cent in the House came from the South. When a new raft of Northern and Western Democrats were returned on FDR’s coat tails in the 1930s, the same Southerners were still around. So it didn’t matter whether the Democrats were down or up, the South still ended up on top. When the party was down, Southern representatives were the only ones standing; when the party was up, Southern representatives were the ones with all the experience. There was no way for a Democratic president to legislate without letting the South get its fingerprints all over his bills.

But Roosevelt had an additional motivation for not wanting to bypass Congress. As Katznelson points out, he arrived in office in 1933 at a moment of acute danger, not just for his country but for democracy worldwide. A widespread feeling had arisen that only dictatorship could tackle the chaos and misery that the Great Depression had unleashed. Mussolini, Stalin and now Hitler were all being cast as men of action; the indecisive democracies seemed to be trailing in their wake. Many hoped that Roosevelt would take a leaf out of the autocrats’ book. His inauguration was accompanied by a welter of newspaper comment demanding immediate executive action. The pre-eminent columnist Walter Lippmann wrote that ‘strong medicine’ was needed. He advocated a large increase in presidential powers, and a temporary suspension of Congressional checks and balances. In a private visit to the president-elect in February, Lippmann told him: ‘The situation is critical, Franklin. You may have no alternative but to assume dictatorial powers.’ In his inaugural address, Roosevelt raised the possibility that he might have to act by presidential fiat. If the crisis persisted, he said, ‘I shall ask Congress for the one remaining instrument to meet [it]: broad executive power to wage a war against the Emergency, as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe.’ Another journalist, Anne O’Hare McCormick of the New York Times, described the atmosphere in Washington during Roosevelt’s first hundred days as ‘strangely reminiscent of Rome in the first weeks after the march of the Blackshirts, or Moscow at the beginning of the Five Year Plan’. The American people, she went on, ‘trust the discretion of the president more than they trust Congress’. His authority rested on his electoral popularity, but simply winning elections was not enough to guarantee democracy (Hitler won elections too). Instead, as McCormick wrote, mass popular consent ‘vests the president with the authority of a dictator’.

Yet in the end, Roosevelt was no dictator. If American democracy was to meet the challenge of the crisis, he knew that it could only be done by working with and through Congress. Katznelson complains that too many histories of the New Deal give undue weight to Roosevelt’s personal input, thereby granting him a pseudo-dictatorial authority over the process. In fact, Roosevelt never sought the kind of emergency powers he alluded to in his Inaugural. And he was careful to make clear that even if he were to seek any additional authority, it would have to be granted by Congress, rather than simply being taken from it. Roosevelt recognised that what distinguished democracy from the alternatives was the fact that national leaders had to govern with the consent of the people’s representatives in the legislature. It couldn’t be taken for granted. Bypassing Congress might have made government quicker to respond and more efficient, but it also meant admitting that a democratic system was too slow and cumbersome to deal with the most serious challenges it faced. In the fight to save democracy, this would have been a Pyrrhic victory at best.


Working with Congress didn’t in fact slow Roosevelt down. The Southern wing of his party was at least as keen as he was to see the national government play a greater role in co-ordinating economic policy and providing support for ailing sectors of industry and agriculture. The National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) of 1933 passed through Congress with emphatic majorities in both Houses; Southern representatives intervened only to strengthen its provisions where they felt that insufficient attention was being paid to the desperate hardships faced by their constituents. But the Southerners were playing a double game. They wanted to maximise the help the federal government provided to the worst hit parts of the country, while at the same time minimising the amount of control the federal government could exercise over the way the help was distributed within individual states. In calculating the scale of the emergency in the South, they saw to it that everyone’s misfortune was included. But in calculating how the South could benefit from government assistance, they made sure that it was only whites who counted. For instance, statistics were gathered that showed the South lagging far behind the rest of the nation in basic amenities. The figures revealed that only 5.7 per cent of Southern farmhouses had access to running water, and almost none had indoor toilets. As a result, water-borne diseases – including malaria – were widespread and basic health for many people was poor. The region lacked doctors, hospitals and clinics. It also lacked decent transport links and public schooling. Illiteracy was widespread. The whole area was crying out for help. But these statistics were only achieved by lumping white and black together, as though segregation didn’t exist. When it came to drawing up the legislation that underpinned the New Deal, Southern members of Congress made sure that segregation was not simply recognised: it was reinforced. So the NIRA codes that established minimum wages and maximum hours for workers explicitly excluded domestic and farm labour, thus ensuring that the vast majority of African Americans in the South would not be covered by their provisions. Roosevelt also agreed to exemptions for various Southern industries, including citrus packing and cotton ginning. He knew what he was doing. ‘It is not the purpose of the administration,’ he announced in 1934, ‘by sudden or explosive change, to impair Southern industry by refusing to recognise traditional differentials.’ In order to count as ‘Southern’, an industry needed only to show that the majority of its workers in a given state were black. This produced strange anomalies. Fertiliser production in Delaware, where nine out of ten workers were black, fell under a Southern code, whereas other industries in the same state that employed mainly white workers were included in the NIRA provisions.

By the late 1930s, the double game was starting to come apart. As long as the crisis could be presented as a great national emergency, requiring all hands to the pumps, the South was happy, because emergency politics is also ad hoc politics, allowing considerable latitude for local differences. In the early days, Roosevelt never pressed for more than voluntary co-operation between federal and state governments in order to retain flexibility and achieve the maximum immediate impact. But once the worst of the crisis had passed, his attention and that of others in the Democratic Party turned to institutional reform and structural change. When that happened, the South baulked. Southern politicians started to mutter darkly about Hitlerism in Washington: FDR was threatening to dictate a new set of rules without taking sufficient account of the separate struggle playing out below the Mason-Dixon Line. The focus of Southern fears was labour legislation. Plans to strengthen the bargaining position of labour unions and extend the minimum wage were fiercely resisted by many Southern Democrats, who rightly saw that organised labour posed the greatest threat to segregation (unions were almost the only public bodies of the time that welcomed black and white workers together). A 1938 labour standards bill, which would have brought Southern agriculture within the ambit of New Deal regulations, was defeated in the House, despite its overwhelming Democratic majority. ‘Unworkable’, ‘un-American’, ‘impractical’ and, above all, ‘dictatorial’ was how Southern representatives characterised it. They allied with Republicans, who had their own reasons for wanting to curtail the unions, to pass a much watered-down version, which kept the important exemptions intact. The same alliance then established a House Special Committee to Investigate the National Labor Relations Board, which set about exposing Communist infiltration and racial bias (i.e. anti-white bias) inside the federal government. It was a taste of things to come.

The New Deal was fracturing, but the impetus behind it was far from over. One of the distinctive features of Katznelson’s book is that he sees the New Deal period as extending well beyond the 1930s. The mid-20th century was the age of ‘fear’ and there was still plenty to be afraid of. One emergency soon gave way to another. In 1941 the US finally confronted its foreign enemy. War meant another enormous expansion of government activity, including vast new increases in federal spending and economic controls. Again, the strongest support in Washington came from the representatives of the South. They were in favour of the fighting, because they believed Nazism was the true enemy; they were in favour of the spending, because they wanted more money diverted to their region; they were in favour of the controls, because they liked the idea that Wall Street would have its wings clipped; above all, they were in favour of the emergency, because it meant there wasn’t time to attend to niceties. War was both a welcome opportunity and a welcome distraction. The double game was back on.

As before, it proved unsustainable. The South made some compromises when it had to. First in 1942, then in 1944, finally in 1946, its representatives in Congress agreed to legislation that extended the vote to soldiers serving overseas, of whom a small but significant proportion were black. The Southerners knew it would be political suicide to disenfranchise men who had been fighting and dying for their country. But each successive piece of legislation reinforced the ability of individual states to control the electoral process. As a result, though the poll tax was abolished, the Southern states still excluded large numbers of soldiers from voting by applying arbitrary tests and cumbersome procedures that couldn’t be challenged in the federal courts. Of the more than nine million people of voting age in the military at the time of the 1944 election, fewer than three million ended up casting a ballot, despite expectations that the number would be far higher. The states with the poorest military turnout records were Alabama, South Carolina, Delaware, Texas, Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana. Back in 1942, a leading African-American columnist in the Atlanta World had asked whether ‘the lawmakers in Congress are going to disenfranchise a couple of million white boys to keep a couple of thousand Negroes from exercising the prerogative of American citizenship.’ He needn’t have put the question. Southern Democrats paid lip service to the principle of ballots for soldiers, but they allied with Republicans in Congress (who feared that active servicemen were more likely to vote Democrat) to limit the practice wherever possible.


The pattern repeated itself in other areas. Southern representatives supported the White House when the draft was first introduced in 1940, breaking with the traditional American suspicion of standing armies. But they made sure that conscription would be run by voluntary local draft boards, not federal employees. Southern states ensured that the armed forces remained segregated, first by refusing to draft African Americans (often by applying arbitrary medical or literacy tests), and then by insisting that troops of different regions didn’t fraternise. This decentralised system served the twin purposes of reinforcing the racial hierarchy of the South and allowing the defenders of the hierarchy to burnish their anti-Nazi credentials. Theirs was an ‘American’ draft, built on principles of localism and voluntary co-operation, so very different from the mass conscription of the dictatorial regimes they were fighting against. ‘With the administrative and substantive assurances provided by military segregation and draft board decentralisation,’ Katznelson writes, ‘the white South could pursue its preferences about global affairs as if they had no consequences for their racial order. Later, of course, this proved to have been a profound miscalculation.’

Once the war was over, the priority of Southern representatives in Congress shifted from promoting the ad hoc power of the federal government to ensuring that it didn’t become institutionalised. As in the late 1930s, the imperative of the late 1940s was to prevent emergency politics from morphing into structural change. The South had two weapons at its disposal. The first was to use its clout in Congress to dismantle the most intrusive aspects of wartime economic controls. Southern Democrats combined with Northern Republicans to rein in government bodies charged with economic planning at the national level. Neither wanted continued federal oversight of regional industrial policy. So the National Resources Planning Board (NRPB), which had acquired considerable authority during the war to intervene in many aspects of business, including wage policy, saw its powers whittled away and its funding cut off. The scope and funding of the Bureau of the Budget (BOB) was increased in its stead. The effect, as Katznelson points out, was to limit the federal government’s primary role in economic affairs to fiscal policy, rather than direct intervention. The BOB could expand government spending when necessary, and it could use the national budget to promote high employment. What it could not do was tell different sectors of the economy how to manage their own affairs. This suited most Dixiecrats just fine: mild Keynesianism plus maximum local discretion was their preferred policy mix. At the same time, the Southern Democrat/Northern Republican axis renewed its assault on organised labour, scuttling plans by non-Southern Democrats to bolster the regulation of industrial relations at the federal level. The Fair Employment Practices Committee suffered the same fate as the NRPB: its opponents in Congress outwitted its champions, and its powers were transferred to a neutered Department of Labor.

The other tool of the white South in its fight for survival was to identify a fresh emergency: when one war ends, another must begin. The Cold War became the vehicle for a new wave of patriotic sabre-rattling and lavish military expenditure. Southern members of Congress were among the most enthusiastic champions of enhanced presidential discretion to channel resources where they were needed in the fight against Communism. They also championed loyalty to the cause of freedom as the ultimate test of every federal employee’s credentials for remaining in post. Communism was in many ways a more convenient enemy for the South than Nazism, since no one was in any danger of confusing the two sides. The anti-Communist witch hunts of the late 1940s and early 1950s took place with the connivance and often the direct encouragement of the Southern bloc in Congress.

What better way to keep uppity government officials in line than to remind them that excessive zeal in promoting social justice was inherently suspicious? The dawn of the nuclear age also served Southern purposes, by making large swathes of military activity highly secretive and very expensive. Lots of government money, very little public accountability: the ideal combination. Katznelson describes in compelling detail how the South effectively shaped the American military-industrial complex in the years after the Second World War. Southern representatives in Congress promoted measures that gave military planners exactly the sort of latitude in the control of policy they had denied to economic planners. This included a vast expansion of state funding of scientific research, almost all of it channelled through the military. Katznelson cites the astonishing fact that 96 per cent of all federal funding for science in American universities in 1949 came from the army, the navy, the air force or the Atomic Energy Commission. In this, the air force played an outsize role, accounting for more than 40 per cent of the entire military budget that year. Aviation was a Southern passion. It had also been a Fascist one. The Italian journalist Guido Mattioli announced in 1935 that ‘every aviator is a born Fascist.’ Charles Lindbergh, the hero American pilot of the interwar years, was the closest the country ever came to a genuine Fascist figurehead (a possibility imagined by Philip Roth in his remarkable counterfactual novel The Plot against America). Now that Fascism was dead, control of the skies could revert to being an all-American activity. The federal government was free to pour money into it like there was no tomorrow.


Katznelson’s argument is that the distinctive character of the postwar American state was determined by the compromises that riddled the New Deal from its outset until its demise under Eisenhower. The result was a ‘Janus-faced’ politics: outwardly assertive, interventionist, crusading, moralising, always looking to take the fight to the enemy; inwardly constrained, laissez-faire, decentralised, protective of private interests, reluctant to uphold the public good. Katznelson sees this dual state – mixing nearly unconstrained public capacity with nearly unconstrained private power – as both enduring and pathological. He also sees it as distinctively American. But how distinctive is it? The combination of unlimited external force and maximal internal freedom describes, among other things, the vision of the state first laid down by Hobbes. For Hobbes, states need to be Janus-faced so that they can preserve the peace: preserve it from external aggression and internal interference. But Hobbes also thought that this would only be possible with an unequivocal sovereign who had the power to decide when to fight and when to let things be. Separation of powers was anathema to him. What’s distinctive about the American story is that a Hobbesian state was produced in the absence of a single sovereign. It was born out of the mess and equivocation of democratic politics. This inadvertent quality marks the continuing trajectory of American democracy. As Katznelson says, the South got what it wanted, and in so doing lost the thing it was trying to defend. By helping to save democracy, even on its own terms, it surrendered control of its destiny. Eventually segregation was undone by the legislative efforts of Lyndon Johnson, the first Southern senator to make it to the White House in a hundred years. LBJ saw that breaking with his former colleagues was the way to cement his national electoral appeal. He did what FDR couldn’t: he undermined the South from within.

‘If there is a lesson,’ Katznelson writes of the New Deal, ‘it is not one of retrospective judgment, as if the possibility then existed to rescue liberal democracy and pursue racial justice simultaneously. It later turned out that the first would prove to be a condition of the second. But there is no reason not to brood about the confining cage of explicit and wilful racism in the Roosevelt and Truman years, or not to weigh its implications.’ This is a beautifully measured book, but it is shot through with regret. Katznelson calls Roosevelt’s accommodations with the representatives of the South – men like Bilbo, who deserves his place up there with the other monsters of the age – a ‘rotten compromise’. It would be nice to think that he could have done more to take them on. But in the absence of the dictatorial powers that he eschewed as president, it is hard to see how. He could have tried calling the bluff of the Southern blowhards in Congress. The trouble is they weren’t bluffing. Everything about their behaviour indicates that they were willing to sacrifice a Democratic president for the sake of the Democratic South. If Roosevelt had gone down, and his New Deal with him, the alternatives would have been worse. Perhaps the fantasy of a Lindbergh presidency is far-fetched. But there were plenty of nasty options out there in the age of ‘fear itself’. In that respect, traditional histories are not wrong to emphasise the centrality to the whole story of the accommodating Roosevelt. America was lucky to have him.

Katznelson’s other regret is what the ‘Southern’ New Deal did to the prospects of economic justice in the United States. As well as entrenching the white supremacist order of the South for a generation, it killed the possibility of European-style social democracy, by curtailing the role of government, entrenching the rights of private corporations and undermining the organisational capacity of the unions. When the civil rights movement finally gathered momentum in the South, there was no equivalently forceful labour movement for it to ally with. ‘As a result,’ Katznelson says, ‘the frontal attack on black civic and political exclusion advanced without focusing on social class, economic equality or labour rights as essential features of racial justice.’ Still, it is best not to be too wishful about European-style social democracy. It developed during the same period with the aid of a few rotten compromises of its own, including, in various places, with its unmentionable Fascist past. Katznelson complains that the ‘procedural’ American state, lacking any developed sense of the public interest, is endlessly prone to crises of civic trust, as people tire of the pretensions of an ostensibly impartial system that is so manifestly unfair. But the ‘corporatist’ European state is also prone to crises of trust, as people tire of the pretensions of an ostensibly fair system that is so manifestly unresponsive to their most pressing demands. We are living through just such a crisis at the moment. No one knows how it will play out. Democracy, everywhere, remains an inadvertent form of politics.

London Review of Books Vol. 35 No. 8 · 25 April 2013

Comment by Noel Ignatiev:

I haven’t read the book, but from the reviews it appears that Katznelson got it right, which would be consistent with other work of his I’ve read. One element of the story that is missing – again, based on the reviews – is the role of the liberal/labor/left coalition (including the Communist Party) in facilitating Roosevelt’s strategy of keeping all wings of the Democratic Party together. The exclusion of agricultural and domestic workers from pensions and unemployment compensation coverage under the Social Security Act must have seemed to the leftists who fought for those measures a necessary price to pay for getting them enacted. And the alternative, of taking Roosevelt on directly, which would have entailed breaking up the Democratic Party in the south, organizing the southern rural proletariat and semiproletariat and the likelihood of armed struggle, was daunting, particularly at a time when Roosevelt was smiling on efforts to establish unions in the industrial north and Communists had the ear of the White House. Thus the Communist Party dissolved the Sharecroppers Union, which had led militant struggles at Camp Hill, Alabama and elsewhere, into the Packinghouse Union, as the prelude to abandoning revolutionary organizing efforts among southern blacks altogether. The CP slogans of 1930 to 1934, the Negro Soviet Republic and the right of self-determination in the Black Belt, may seem bizarre today but at least had the merit of recognizing the revolutionary potential of the struggle for racial justice. They gave way to the Popular Front and the defense of bourgeois “democracy” against fascism. This turn fit well with Stalin’s efforts to build an alliance with the Western Democracies against Hitler, which led the CPs to suppress the Spanish revolution and oppose or seek to moderate class and anti-colonial struggles in the British, French and U.S. colonies, including opposing the 1942 Negro March on Washington Movement, denouncing the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party as an agent of fascism, and supporting the no-strike pledge during the War. It should be clear that such tendencies to seek alliance with liberals would have existed inside the CPs and the labor movements even without Stalin’s pressure. The party line flipped again after Hitler invaded Russia, but only in the countries occupied by Germany or Japan during the War did the CPs lead the liberation struggle, which is why bourgeois nationalists were able to take power after the War in India, Algeria, Indonesia and other places, and also why the black freedom movement emerged out of the black church rather than the Left – although some historians of the so-called “long civil rights movement” seek to conceal the break that took place in the mid-thirties. The black movement, especially SNCC, was a revolt against the liberal/labor/left. So was the New Left in general in its distinctive and best features. The best treatment of the break with liberalism is James Foreman, The Making of Black Revolutionaries. (Although Foreman never mentions the CP by name, referring instead to the liberal/labor coalition, he made it clear in private conversation that he hated the CP. Foreman is dead and anyone can attribute to him whatever view they like, but I know I am right.)

C.L.R. James mentions a plan by Roosevelt and Wendell Willkie, the leader of the Republican moderates, to drive the southerners out of the Democratic Party and realign U.S. politics into Liberals and Conservatives. According to James the deaths of FDR and Willkie doomed the plan. Katznelson would probably say it was the War and later the Cold War. Both are right, but it would have been impossible to upset the existing arrangement without challenging southern Jim Crow, a course at that time unacceptable to any sector of capital. The CP turned briefly left again after the War, when it looked like Russia and the U.S. were heading toward a confrontation, launching campaigns to organize southern black labor, which it soon dropped in the interests of the “antimonopoly coalition,” the 1950s version of the Popular Front. (My introduction to serious radical politics was through individuals who had taken part in those short-lived campaigns.)

Katznelson’s work, while strong on analysis, is weak on program. Around 1985 I heard a talk by Margaret Weir, who co-authored a very good book with him. During question time I asked if she saw a contradiction between her and Katznelson’s exposure of the role of the liberal/labor/left in constructing a coalition based on white supremacy and hopes for a renewal of the unions. She replied that she saw no alternative.

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