Aside from the Civil War, the Great Depression and World War II were likely the two most difficult and cataclysmic events in American history. That they occurred within a decade of each other was intolerable and signaled the volatility of the time. Such volatility fell on Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the President who presided over both events.
Thrust into the difficult position of steering the United States through two monumental crises, Franklin D. Roosevelt rose to the occasion in a magnificent way and cemented his place as one of the most transformational leaders in American history. His greatness at the helm—as well as the turbulence of the nation’s waters—is captured by David M. Kennedy in his extraordinary work, Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945.
His is a work that appeals to readers throughout the spectrum; historians will find it artfully researched and insightful, laymen will find that it opens a colorful window into the American past. With masterful manipulation of his subject matter, Kennedy leads the reader through two major themes—the economic collapse of the Great Depression and the unprecedented government leadership initiated to address it and the horrible rise up to the most devastating war in world history.
Kennedy starts the book out by looking at the root causes of the Great Depression. A large historical debate rages over the blame for this most deprived time in American history; was President Hoover to blame for his poor leadership and his inability to see a crisis coming, or was the economic system simply doomed to fail after the massive speculation of the 1920s. Kennedy suggests that neither is solely responsible but that there was rather a blend of problems and therefore a shared responsibility.
Clearly, the Roaring Twenties, he argues were “Roaring” because of massive speculation and a market that had expanded artificially into a bubble economy. Beyond the problems on Wall Street, however, the average American was perched precariously within prosperity, but with almost no safety net in place to catch them should something go wrong. Farmers were not protected by the government, so if a growing season was poor or an entire year’s crop was destroyed, they had little recourse but to accept a monumental blow.
Workers who lost their jobs needed to quickly find employment because the government was not there to help them out. Elderly people relied upon their savings or were forced to continue working as no social security payments existed. For many, prosperity reigned in the Roaring Twenties, but they were one bump away from ruin. Kennedy makes this point, reinforcing the idea that a social safety net may have helped prevent the collapse, and foreshadowing the way for Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s bold New Deal programs as an antidote to economic ruin.
The economic collapse that sparked the slide into the Great Depression occurred on the watch of Herbert Hoover, a man that Kennedy paints as well-intentioned but ultimately unsuccessful. Hoover’s problem, Kennedy suggests was that he failed to grasp the magnitude of the problem and as a result, his administration only flirted with changes rather than looking to broad systemic restructuring as Roosevelt would eventually do.
Hoover’s downfall, in Kennedy’s eyes, was that he did not think big in a time when the country sorely needed radical change and new ideas. Instead, Hoover woefully remained “a manager” and never emerged as the leader that the country needed to get back on track (Kennedy, 65). Though his administration managed the country well in the sense of old orthodoxy—balanced budgets and the like—Hoover never thought outside of the metaphorical box and as a result, allowed the United States to descend into economic catastrophe under his watch.
Thus, in treating the sources of the Great Depression, Kennedy clearly associates the blame both with systemic problems in the economic system and with an administration who did too little too late to reverse the tidal wave of economic destruction.
After ascribing blame for the Great Depression, Kennedy traces the evolution of Roosevelt’s administration as they sought new ways to tackle the mammoth problem of the devastated American economy. In the end, Kennedy points out, Roosevelt’s solution was to restart economic growth with jumper cables extending straight from Washington; a new era of big government began with the New Deal.
In painting his picture, Kennedy effectively asserts the theme of desperate times and bold solutions. It comes across clearly that never before had the economy found itself in such dire circumstances, and never before had the federal government played such an enormous role in American governance. Kennedy successfully breaks up his largely factual account with interesting tidbits which are sprinkled abundantly throughout the text. Kennedy’s evaluation of the New Deal, however, is not simply an exercise of cheerleading.
Instead, while Kennedy believes that the program was essential to putting the country back on the path to recovery and growth, he also laments its limitations. In the end, Kennedy portrays the New Deal as an eventual success for its influence on social life and economic growth, but suggests that it may not have been the single panacea that cured the Great Depression, as is popularly believed. Throughout this discussion and evaluation of Roosevelt’s economic policy, however, Kennedy’s thematic descriptions overflow with images of volatility, turbulence, and bold—even unprecedented—government action.