Posts Tagged ‘Fear Itself’

The old South vs. the totalitarian dictators

July 9, 2014

In the 1920s and early 1930s, Germany’s Nazis thought of American white Southerners as soul brothers.  But they were wrong.  The Southern Democrats in the U.S. Congress were the Nazis’ sworn enemies.

Fear ItselfIn a previous post, I summarized Ira Katznelson’s Fear Itself: the New Deal and the Origins of Our Time, and his account of how the Southern Democrats both supported and set limits on FDR’s New Deal reforms of the 1930s.  In this post, I carry my reading of Katznelson’s book forward into how the Southern Democrats shaped U.S. policy toward the Axis and then toward the Soviets.

Hitler despised black people, admired the Ku Klux Klan and regretted the defeat of the South in the Civil War, as a lost opportunity to create a society based on inequality and slavery.  He loved the movie, “Gone With the Wind,” which he watched while awaiting the news of the German invasion of the USSR.

While the Old South states were not dictatorships, they were similar to Hitler’s Germany in that all were ruled by a single party with restricted franchise.  In 1936, Franklin Roosevelt received 97 percent of the vote in Mississippi and 99 percent in South Carolina, with some counties reporting not a single Republican vote.  This is equal to what Hitler and Stalin got in their plebiscites.

But although Hitler had great esteem for the American South, this feeling was not reciprocated.  The South was the most anti-Nazi, pro-British and pro-interventionist region of the United States.

Katznelson is not completely sure why.  One explanation is that white Southerners were mostly of British descent, and felt sympathy for the mother country in peril.  There is something to this.  New England Yankees, also of British descent, were strong interventionists.  Ethnic ties never entirely die.

I think that, in addition, Southerners were sincerely devoted to their idea of democracy—limited government, legislative supremacy, state’s rights and individual freedom (for white people), which, for all their racism, was diametrically opposed to Hitler’s totalitarianism.

Also, the South is the only part of the United States with a historical memory of invasion and defeat.  That may have made the Nazi threat seem more real to them than to other Americans.

And finally, I don’t think the South is as war-averse other parts of the United States.   When I did my Army service in the 1950s, the career soldiers were disproportionately Southern, and I don’t think this was for economic reasons.   Southerners regard military service as honorable and worthy of respect.

Be that as it may, the South was united in support for Britain and resistance to Hitler in a way that the rest of the country was not.


How the old South shaped the New Deal

July 9, 2014

I remember Jefferson-Jackson Day picnics and politicians’ speeches about the Democratic Party’s four great champions of the common people—Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

What I didn’t think about was that Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson were Southern slaveholders, and Woodrow Wilson was a Southern-born segregationist.

Fear ItselfNow I have just finished reading Fear Itself: the New Deal and the Origins of Our Timeby Ira Katznelson, which tells how the Southern white supremacists shaped the administrations of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman in ways that still affect the USA today.   It made me see the history of that era in a new way.

Without the Southern Democrats in Congress, the New Deal legislation would not have been enacted.  Lend-Lease aid to Britain and a military draft system would not have been approved prior to U.S. entry into World War Two, and the Cold War.

I grew up in a family that idolized Franklin D. Roosevelt.  But the history of the New Deal era is more than the saga of FDR.

He might have attempted to rule as a dictator.   Katznelson showed how many people in 1933 felt that American capitalism and democracy were collapsing, and that the USA needed a Mussolini.  But he did not make the attempt.

FDR did claim and exercise sweeping powers greater than exercised by any previous President in peacetime.  But he never exercised any power not granted by Congress.  As a result the United States went through 20 years of crisis with its Constitutional structure intact.  The price of this was that U.S. policy was confined within what Katznelson called a “Southern cage.”

From most of 1933-1953, Democrats were a majority in Congress.  But a majority of the Democratic Senators and Representatives were Southerners, and, because of the seniority system, Southerners were chairs of key committees.  Without Southern cooperation, FDR’s proposals could not have been enacted.

Southern Democrats were not antagonistic to the New Deal as such.  They wanted curbs on the power of Northern banks, railroads and other corporations, federal public works and relief for the homeless and unemployed—provided that they got these things in a way that did not disturb white supremacy in the South.

Senate Majority Leader Joseph Robinson of Arkansas backed the New Deal, as one observer said, “so long as they fought the money power and the big industries—so long as they were pro-farmer and did not stir up the niggers [sic].”