Analysis of Hoover, Roosevelt's Book Winter War, and the First Clash Over the New Deal: American Struggle to Recover From the Great Depression
The global political atmosphere that we know today is full of bad blood perpetuated by malicious rhetoric both on and off the debate stage. Even after all the votes have been tallied and the president-elect has been named, the war between red and blue is still not over as the nation and its leaders are forced to look forward. Over the course of our nation’s 243-year history, it has experienced one party democratically surrender the Oval Office to another party over two dozen times. While this struggle is undoubtedly more publicized than ever in today’s America, historian Eric Rauchway details one of the more spiteful instances of presidential handoff in United States history.
His book, Winter War: Hoover, Roosevelt, and the First Clash Over the New Deal, recounts the events following Democrat Franklin Roosevelt’s defeat of Republican Herbert Hoover in the election of 1932. Outside of the apparent political divide, the two had vastly different responses to the big question of the day: how does the American socioeconomic climate recuperate after the Great Depression? Just after his November victory, Roosevelt laid out his comprehensive, long-term plan which attacked the sagging economy through a series of public work programs, financial reforms, and regulations. As a lame duck, Hoover naturally questioned his rival’s ability to competently stimulate the weakened economy through his seemingly progressive New Deal. Due to his criticism, the months leading up to FDR’s first one hundred days would be filled with political battles between the two leaders as support for and against the welfare state began to grow. In Rauchway’s eyes, these battles would shape the overwhelming political division between American conservatism and liberalism, which would emerge later in the 1900’s and continue through the turn of the century. Just like 25% of his American people, Hoover found himself unemployed in the winter of 1932, and there was nothing he could do about it. Up until the election, the two party leaders had maintained a fairly respectful acquaintanceship. However, this mutual respect quickly subsided over the course of the campaign and had essentially vanished by the time the results came in. At this point, Rauchway notes that everything changed. Hoover no longer had the public spotlight to himself, nor did he have the opportunity to take action of any sort. Roosevelt, on the other hand, had gained a portion of the spotlight but did not possess the constitutional power to lead for another four months. The only constant seemed to be that the nation was still in economic distress. Seeing as Hoover’s hands were tied, he and his inner circle became publically hostile towards Roosevelt in a last attempt to persuade the American people with the ounce of power that they had left. This intense personal and political hatred towards FDR would characterize the final months of the Hoover administration and is one of the more obvious themes in Rauchway’s work. The existence of public newspapers, speeches, and radio programs which contain hateful remarks made Rauchway’s search for evidence fairly simple. For example, Hoover’s congressional liaison, James MacLafferty, openly attacked the president-elect’s physical disabilities by stating, “when I see a man of Hoover’s physical and mental power almost groggy from the blows that rain upon him I cannot make myself believe otherwise than that the election of Roosevelt is a crime against the nation.”
Weaved between his personal low-blows, Hoover politically attacked FDR’s New Deal which, in his mind, was a “social philosophy very different from the traditional philosophies of the American people.” According to Rauchway’s argument, Hoover was establishing himself as the seemingly divine leader against socialism by projecting FDR’s plan in negative light on such a grand stage. He painted Roosevelt’s New Deal as fascist wrecking ball which would “destroy the very foundations of American society” and lead to nothing more than a “march to Moscow.” Rauchway argues that the repeated slander eventually led to political action which suggested nothing less than an effort to prohibit the Roosevelt administration from having much maneuverability. These efforts even included an attempt to create an economic council tasked with collecting all European war debts and reallocating the funds. This council, which would have consisted of individuals within the Hoover administration, would have retained control of the broad duties even after FDR’s inauguration.
Hoover’s outspokenness made Rauchway’s search for evidence absurdly simple. However, FDR did not. Outside of the campaign and planned public appearances, Roosevelt kept his speculation and national vision somewhat lowkey as he had a true incentive to prevent Hoover from speaking out against it. Due to this obstacle, Rauchway utilizes Roosevelt’s personal writings from the winter before his inauguration as supporting evidence. Rauchway makes it clear from the introduction that he believes that FDR had silently been constructing a clear socioeconomic vision for the country. However, before one can begin to understand his approach to relieving national depression, Rauchway knew it was important that they understand the root of the issue. To provide this basis, Rauchway notes that in December of 1932, Roosevelt inked an explanation for why exactly the Great Depression continued to worsen. In his eyes, the “political failure to grasp the fact of economic interdependence” simply perpetuated what could have been an average recession. This conclusion was backed by some well-defined policy proposals. One of which suggested the implementation of various price supports for agricultural producers but included language which broadened the reach to other intertwined industries. By creating an umbrella policy which pertained to various economic sectors, Roosevelt was influencing the markets through pure purchasing power. This would essentially link the productivity and interests of agricultural producers to that of 125 million Americans.
In general, I feel as if Rauchway was incredibly effective at both conveying and supporting his argument in Winter War. The evidence that he provides throughout the book paves a clear path to understanding the origins of the divisive political atmosphere that we still witness today. Rauchway showed the crude, yet affective, method behind Hoover’s attempt to combat the emergence a welfare state through classic conservatism. Additionally, he presented FDR’s staunchly liberal vision and the series of logical steps that it took to construct the New Deal. Rauchway truly paints each of the two figures as the physical embodiments of twentieth century conservatism and liberalism. As we look at the historical memory of this time period, Rauchway is essentially suggesting that this single instance of electoral succession foreshadowed the political separation of the masses. While it may be bold, possibly ignorant, to suggest that one lame duck period of four months influenced the historical memories and politics of the following century, it is hard to ignore. For this reason, I must concede to Rauchway’s argument: tension between FDR’s New Deal and Hoover’s opposition to it helped shape American politics and historical memory. There is no doubt that this scuffle between two political giants introduced a number of productive new political tactics and long-term policies to the American democracy. However, not all that came out of the war was warm and fuzzy.
Personally, I feel as if Winter War is a call upon its readers, and ultimately the American people, to set aside our frigid, partisan attitudes to defeat the Great Political Depression that we live in today. Just as FDR would have suggested, we are all interconnected (politically, socially, economically, etc.), so why not link our diverse interests and put an end to our own modern depression.
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