Many people today feel as if President Obama has been leading America covertly into the Socialism Bernie is overtly proclaiming. Many feel that they are no longer living in the America of their youth. It is necessary to understand how we got here.
History not only allows us the opportunity to learn from the mistakes of others, it also provides us with a mirror to show us how we are continuing the mistakes of others. The present does not appear like a virgin birth in a vacuum; it is the child of the past. The America of today was born in the progressivism of the 1890.
Teddy Roosevelt started the progressive ball rolling. His place holder William Howard Taft kicked the can down the road a little further. Woodrow Wilson trampled over the Constitution to create the framework of tyranny. Then, after Silent Cal Coolidge and the interlude of the 1920s, the Crash of 29 provided the golden opportunity for Progressives to capture the government and impose upon a willing America its regimented dream of central planning at home and intervention abroad: the welfare/warfare state.
On May 7, 1933, just two months after the inauguration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the New York Times reporter Anne O’Hare McCormick wrote that the atmosphere in Washington was “strangely reminiscent of Rome in the first weeks after the march of the Black Shirts and of Moscow at the beginning of the Five-Year Plan. America today literally asks for orders.” The Roosevelt administration, she added, “envisages a federation of industry, labor and government after the fashion of the corporative State as it exists in Italy.”
The broad-ranging powers granted to Roosevelt by Congress, before that body went into recess, were unprecedented in times of peace. Through this “delegation of powers,” Congress had, in effect, temporarily done away with itself as the legislative branch of government. The only remaining check on the executive was the Supreme Court. In Germany, a similar process allowed Hitler to assume legislative power, after the Reichstag burned down in a suspected case of arson on February 28, 1933.
In the North American Review in 1934, the progressive writer Roger Shaw described the New Deal as “Fascist means to gain liberal ends.” He wasn’t hallucinating. FDR’s adviser Rexford Tugwell wrote in his diary that Mussolini had done “many of the things which seem to me necessary.” Lorena Hickok, a close confidante of Eleanor Roosevelt, who lived in the White House for a spell, wrote approvingly of a local official who said, “If [President] Roosevelt were actually a dictator, we might get somewhere.” She added that if she were younger, she’d like to lead “the Fascist Movement in the United States.” At the National Recovery Administration (NRA), the cartel-creating agency at the heart of the early New Deal, one report declared forthrightly, “The Fascist Principles are very similar to those we have been evolving here in America.”
Roosevelt himself called Mussolini “admirable” and professed that he was “deeply impressed by what he has accomplished.” The admiration was mutual. In a laudatory review of Roosevelt’s 1933 book Looking Forward, Mussolini wrote, “Reminiscent of Fascism is the principle that the state no longer leaves the economy to its own devices.… Without question, the mood accompanying this sea change resembles that of Fascism.” The chief Nazi newspaper, Volkischer Beobachter, repeatedly praised “Roosevelt’s adoption of National Socialist strains of thought in his economic and social policies” and “the development toward an authoritarian state” based on the “demand that collective good be put before individual self-interest.”
Soon after having taken his second Oath of Office in January 1937, President Roosevelt, in a conversation with a speechwriter, articulated his belief that the limits on governmental power that were enshrined in the U.S. Constitution were impediments to the transformative social and economic policies he wished to implement:
“When the chief justice read me the oath and came to the words ‘support the Constitution of the United States,’ I felt like saying: ‘Yes, but it’s the Constitution as I understand it, flexible enough to meet any new problem of democracy — not the kind of Constitution your court has raised up as a barrier to progress and democracy.’”
FDR chose to attack the depression with his so-called New Deal: a series of economic programs passed during his first term in office. These programs greatly expanded the size, scope, and power of the federal government, giving the President and his Brain Trust near-dictatorial status. “I want to assure you,” Roosevelt’s aide Harry Hopkins told an audience of New Deal activists in New York, “that we are not afraid of exploring anything within the law, and we have a lawyer who will declare anything you want to do legal.”
Personally, Roosevelt never had much use for Hitler, but Mussolini was another matter. “I don’t mind telling you in confidence,’ FDR remarked to a White House correspondent, ‘that I am keeping in fairly close touch with that admirable Italian gentleman.” Rexford Tugwell, a leading adviser to the president, had difficulty containing his enthusiasm for Mussolini’s program to modernize Italy: “It’s the cleanest … most efficiently operating piece of social machinery I’ve ever seen. It makes me envious.”
Why did contemporaries see an affinity between Roosevelt and the two leading European dictators while most people today view them as polar opposites? We all suffer from Presentism, which means that people read history backwards: they project the fierce antagonisms of World War II, when America battled the Axis, to an earlier period, the 1930s. At the time, what impressed many observers, including as we have seen the principal actors themselves, was a new style of leadership common to America, Germany, and Italy.
Many of Roosevelt’s ideas and policies were entirely indistinguishable from the fascism of Mussolini. In fact, Jonah Goldberg writes in Liberal Fascism, there were “many common features among New Deal liberalism, Italian Fascism, and German National Socialism, all of which shared many of the same historical and intellectual forebears.” Like American progressives, many Italian Fascist and German Nazi intellectuals championed a “middle” or “Third Way” between capitalism and socialism. Goldberg further explains:
“The ‘middle way’ sounds moderate and un-radical. Its appeal is that it sounds unideological and freethinking. But philosophically the Third Way is not mere difference splitting; it is utopian and authoritarian. Its utopian aspect becomes manifest in its antagonism to the idea that politics is about trade-offs. The Third Wayer says that there are no false choices—’I refuse to accept that X should come at the expense of Y.’ The Third Way holds that we can have capitalism and socialism, individual liberty and absolute unity.”
I don’t know about anyone else, but I was taught in grade school and high school that America no longer had a capitalist economy. Instead, America had combined capitalism and socialism into what we were taught was now a mixed economy. And that was back in the 1950s and 1960s.
In Three New Deals, the German cultural historian Wolfgang Schivelbusch states “To compare is not the same as to equate. America during Roosevelt’s New Deal did not become a one-party state; it had no secret police; the Constitution remained in force, and there were no concentration camps; the New Deal preserved the institutions of the liberal-democratic system that National Socialism abolished.” But throughout the ’30s, intellectuals and journalists noted “areas of convergence among the New Deal, Fascism, and National Socialism.” All three were seen as transcending “classic Anglo-French liberalism”—individualism, free markets, decentralized power.
Since 1776, liberalism had transformed the Western world. As The Nation editorialized in 1900, before it, too, abandoned the old liberalism, “Freed from the vexatious meddling of governments, men devoted themselves to their natural task, the bettering of their condition, with the wonderful results which surround us”—industry, transportation, telephones and telegraphs, sanitation, abundant food, electricity. But the editor worried that “its material comfort has blinded the eyes of the present generation to the cause which made it possible.” Old liberals died, and younger liberals began to wonder if government couldn’t be a positive force, something to be used rather than constrained.
Others, meanwhile, began to reject liberalism itself. In his 1930s novel The Man Without Qualities, Robert Musil wrote, “Misfortune had decreed that…the mood of the times would shift away from the old guidelines of liberalism that had favored the great guiding ideals of tolerance, the dignity of man, and free trade—and reason and progress in the Western world would be displaced by racial theories and street slogans.”
The dream of a planned society infected both right and left. Ernst Jünger, an influential right-wing militarist in Germany, reported his reaction to the Soviet Union: “I told myself: granted, they have no constitution, but they do have a plan. This may be an excellent thing.” As early as 1912, FDR himself praised the Prussian-German model: “They passed beyond the liberty of the individual to do as he pleased with his own property and found it necessary to check this liberty for the benefit of the freedom of the whole people,” he said in an address to the People’s Forum of Troy, New York.
American Progressives studied at German universities. Schivelbusch writes, and “came to appreciate the Hegelian theory of a strong state and Prussian militarism as the most efficient way of organizing modern societies that could no longer be ruled by anarchic liberal principles.” The pragmatist philosopher William James’ influential 1910 essay “The Moral Equivalent of War” stressed the importance of order, discipline, and planning.
Schivelbusch finds parallels in the ideas, style, and programs of the disparate regimes even their architecture. “Neoclassical monumentalism,” he writes, is “the architectural style in which the state visually manifests power and authority.” In Berlin, Moscow, and Rome, “the enemy that was to be eradicated was the laissez-faire architectural legacy of nineteenth-century liberalism, an unplanned jumble of styles and structures.” Washington erected plenty of neoclassical monuments in the ’30s, though with less destruction than in the European capitals. Think of the “Man Controlling Trade” sculptures in front of the Federal Trade Commission, with a muscular man restraining an enormous horse. They would have been right at home in Il Duce’s Italy.
Intellectuals worried about inequality, the poverty of the working class, and the commercial culture created by mass production. They didn’t seem to notice the tension between the last complaint and the first two. Liberalism seemed inadequate to deal with such problems. When economic crisis hit, in Italy and Germany after World War I and in the United States with the Great Depression, the anti-liberals seized the opportunity arguing that the market had failed and that the time for bold experimentation had arrived.
Trace all that to today. We have a president who entered office comparing himself to FDR, a president who said he aspired to be a transformative leader, a president who has promised to fundamentally transform America, and we can see that the New Deal is alive and well, even if the Republic is not.
Fifty years of reading History on a daily basis has taught me one thing: we do not learn the lessons of History. Look about us and find the great examples of socialism. Mostly you will have to look in the dustbin of History, although Venezuela provides a perfect example of where economies go when robbing Peter to pay Paul becomes national policy.
A soviet dictator, Nikita Khrushchev told us:
“We will take America without firing a shot … we will bury you!”
“We can’t expect the American people to jump from capitalism to communism, but we can assist their elected leaders in giving them small doses of socialism, until they awaken one day to find that they have communism.”
“I once said, ‘We will bury you,’ and I got into trouble with it. Of course we will not bury you with a shovel. Your own working class will bury you.”
“We do not have to invade the United States, we will destroy you from within.”
No one gets to live in the world they grew up in – time moves too fast. We could, however, preserve and pass on the country we grew up in – unless, of course, we don’t.
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