The New Deal — social elixir or socialist plot?

Posted by | February 8, 2007

“I pledge you, I pledge myself, to a new deal for the American people,” said newly nominated Democratic presidential candidate Franklin D. Roosevelt on July 2, 1932.

Editorial cartoonists had a field day with the alphabet-soup of agencies the newly elected Roosevelt spun out starting in 1933: the AAA, CAA, CCC, CWA, FAP, FCA, FMP and so on: 15 in his first year in office alone!

More than one agency held out promise to Appalachian residents. The TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority) was an unusual entrance of government into business — a government-owned network of dams and hydroelectric plants to control floods and produce electric power in the Tennessee Valley. The AAA (Agricultural Adjustment Administration) was an attempt to organize agriculture, though it favored the larger farmers as the NRA favored big business.

“The New Deal is plainly an attempt to achieve a working socialism and avert a social collapse in America; it is extraordinarily parallel to the successive ‘policies’ and ‘plans’ of the Russian experiment. Americans shirk the word ‘socialism’, but what else can one call it?” noted British author H.G. Wells.

It did give jobs to the unemployed, helped the consumer with lower electric rates, and in some respect deserved the accusation that it was “socialistic.” But the New Deal’s organization of the economy was aimed mainly at stabilizing the economy, and secondly at giving only enough help to the lower classes to keep them from turning a rebellion into a real revolution.

That rebellion was fermenting when Roosevelt took office:. Desperate people were not waiting for the government to help them; they were helping themselves, acting directly. Aunt Molly Jackson, a woman who very soon became active in labor struggles in Appalachia, recalled how she walked into the local store, asked for a 24-pound sack of flour, gave it to her little boy to take it outside, then filled a sack of sugar and said to the storekeeper, “Well, I’ll see you in ninety days. I have to feed some children . . . I’ll pay you, don’t worry.”

And when he objected, she pulled out her pistol (which, as a midwife traveling alone through the hills, she had a permit to carry) and said: “Martin, if you try to take this grub away from me, God knows that if they electrocute me for it tomorrow, I’ll shoot you six times in a minute.” Then, as she recalls, “I walked out, I got home, and these seven children was so hungry that they was a-grabbin the raw dough off-a their mother’s hands and crammin it into their mouths and swallowing it whole.”


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