In my post today about W.A. Swanberg’s Norman Thomas: The Last Idealist, I’ll talk about Socialist Norman Thomas’ views regarding President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.
This will probably not be the last time that I discuss Norman Thomas’ views on the New Deal, since I’m still in the 1930’s in my reading of this book. On page 140, Swanberg narrates that Norman Thomas and Socialist Morris Hillquit met with President Franklin Roosevelt in the White House on March 14, 1933. Swanberg states that they “were greeted by Roosevelt in a White House with a geniality not usually accorded Socialists” (page 140). Roosevelt had just closed the banks, which Thomas and Hillquit considered to be a bold and surprising move on FDR’s part. They encouraged Roosevelt to support a $12 billion bond for relief and public works and to nationalize the banks that he had just closed. Roosevelt paid attention to what they were saying, even though he did not entirely agree with them. Thomas and Hillquit left the meeting quite impressed with Roosevelt, and Thomas commented that Roosevelt’s program “far more nearly resembled the Socialist…than his own [Democratic] platform” (Thomas’ words, quoted on page 140). You may recall that, during the 1932 Presidential election, Thomas did not particularly care for Roosevelt’s emphasis on the need for a balanced federal budget.
But Thomas felt that, even though the New Deal was coddling capitalism, it would not be able to revive it. Recovery was slow, unemployment persisted, fascist mobs were in the street, and charismatic leaders like Huey Long (whom Thomas publicly debated at one point about Socialism) were gaining a following. There was fear that fascism was coming to America, perhaps through “Wall Street brokers plotting a right-wing military coup” (page 153). Thomas thought that the New Deal would transition to something, but he hoped that it would be Socialism, not Fascism or Communism. For Thomas, a transition to Socialism would be much more peaceful. Thomas also did not care for FDR’s “big-navy program”, or Assistant Secretary of War Harry Woodring’s idea of incorporating the Civilian Conservation Corps into the army.
Thomas came to have problems with elements of the New Deal. Let’s start with the National Recovery Administration (NRA). For reasons that Swanberg does not specify (at least in my reading up to this point), Thomas regarded the NRA “as a potential back door to Fascism” (Swanberg on page 158). Thomas also cited examples of “the way in which minimum wages set by the [National Recovery Administration] tend to become maximum” (Thomas’ words, quoted on page 158). Then there was the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA). Thomas opposed how the AAA curtailed crops and livestock in a time when people were starving, believing that it was an attempt “to save capitalism at the expense of the poor” (Swanberg on page 158). According to Swanberg, the AAA mandated that plantation owners share a certain amount of the “plow-under payments” (Swanberg’s words) that they received with their sharecroppers, yet the plantation owners were the ones who were administering the program at a local level. As a result, a number of sharecroppers, who did not know to what the law entitled them, never received their portion of the plow-under payments, and many of them were fired because less cotton was being planted due to the AAA, which meant that there wasn’t as much work for the sharecroppers to do.