The New Deal’s forgotten accomplishments

A widely accepted criticism of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal is that it never really ended the Great Depression.  It took rearmament, the military draft and the Second World War to bring about full employment.

Conrad Black. of all people, writing in The American Conservative, of all publications, pointed out that what these critics overlook is the millions of Americans put to work by the New Deal conservation and public works programs.

Between 5 million and just under 8 million workers were employed on New Deal projects during the 1930s, but, according to Black, they were not included in the employment statistics cited by most historians, including partisan Democratic historians.

Solid line counts workers employed on public works as unemployed; dotted line does not.  Source: The Edge of the American West.

Black, formerly a Canadian newspaper publisher, has written biographies of Richard M. Nixon and Franklin D. Roosevelt.   Reviewing Robert Dallek’s recent biography of FDR, Black wrote: —

He states that the unemployed stood at 10 million in 1940, when Roosevelt broke a tradition as old as the republic and went after his third term.

In fact, unemployment was somewhat under 10 million, but was declining in the run-up to election day by 100,000 a month, largely due to the immense rearmament program Roosevelt had initiated and to the country’s first peace-time conscription, which he called a “muster”.

But Dallek completely ignores, for purposes of calculating unemployment, the many millions  of participants in his workfare programs, who were just as much employed as, and more usefully than, the millions of conscripts and defense workers in the major European countries and Japan, against which Roosevelt’s record in reducing unemployment is often unfavorably compared.

[snip]  These programs kept between five million and nearly eight million people usefully employed at any time building valuable public sector projects at bargain wages for Roosevelt’s first two terms, until defense requirements and the public sector took over and completed the extermination of unemployment.

Those unable to work received Social Security, unemployment and disability benefits from 1935 on.

[snip]  It is not really clear in this book that the basis of the New Deal was emergency workfare, reduced work weeks, promotion of both collective bargaining and cartelism to raise wages and prices and, with the partial demonetization of gold, to induce modest inflation.

There is no real focus on FDR’s guaranty of bank deposits or the trusteeship of insolvent banks merged and refloated with preferred share issues.  The entire financial system has collapsed by March of 1933 and almost all the banks and commodity exchanges were closed.

There is little about refinancing millions of mortgages and rebuilding farm prices by having farmers vote democratically, by category of agriculture, on production levels, to assure sustainable price levels and an adequate national food supply, while maintaining unharvested capacity in what was called a soil bank.

His public workers schemes massively advanced rural electrification and flood and drought control.

It was all very innovative, and 1936 was the only election in history (except 1964 with Lyndon Johnson) when a Democratic president carried every farm state.

Every one of these programs, except the National Recovery Act’s price controls (what Black called cartelization), would be useful today.

Flood and drought control are bigger issues than ever as the world’s climate changes.

We could use something equivalent to the Rural Electrification Administration to provide broadband public Internet service to rural and other underserved areas.


Franklin Roosevelt was not a “traitor to his class.”   He did not attempt confiscation of wealth.  Under his administration, rich people continued to own yachts, live in huge estates and employ servants.   Under a Huey Long or some other radical, their wealth might have been in real danger.


Roosevelt and the Revisionists by Conrad Black for National Review (2009).   Black’s review of the Dallek book, in the January-February issue of The American Conservative, is not available on line—at least not yet.

Just Another FDR Biography by Conrad Black for The American Conservative.  [Added 2/9/2018]  The Dallek review available at last!


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