Book tripleversary

New Deal

Eric Rauchway


December 18, 2023

While doing a Reddit AMA for Myth America, in which I have a chapter on pernicious myths about the New Deal, I received a question about Murdering McKinley, reminding me that book is twenty years old this year.1 A quick glance at my c.v. told me that by a coincidence of timing, that means The Great Depression and the New Deal: A Very Short Introduction is fifteen years old, and Winter War: Hoover, Roosevelt, and the First Clash over the New Deal is five.2 These arbitrary digital anniversaries don’t mean a thing, except that we make them so, which is no reason not to. So here are some thoughts, which are mainly for me before I forget them.

Franklin Roosevelt (at the far right of the photo, in profile looking left, wearing a straw boater) at a reception for Theodore Roosevelt (middle left, facing forward) on the former president’s return from Africa in 1910. FDR Presidential Library.

First, these are easily the three most popular of my books. That popularity owes to different causes. The VSI is in a well known series with a good reputation. The VSI and Winter War happened to appear shortly before moments when their topics seemed relevant (the Great Economic Unpleasantness of the late Bush administration and the Trump–Biden transition, respectively). Murdering McKinley hadn’t either of those advantages, but Brian Lamb did like it for Booknotes.

All three of them came out of definite ideas that then changed in significantly in the process of researching and writing, though for different reasons.

Murdering McKinley started out of my sense that the transition from McKinley to Theodore Roosevelt was much more consequential than then-current historiography supposed, and the willingness of Thomas LeBien, then an editor at Hill and Wang, to believe I could write it relatively quickly and well. With my reading of the Vernon Briggs papers in the Massachusetts Historical Society, the book morphed into a kind of social scientific detective story. For the most part the narrative looks over Briggs’s shoulder as he tries to figure out Czolgosz’s motives. Owing to the amorphous state of psychiatry at the time, Briggs looked into a wide range of possibilities, and his investigation of Czolgosz took him in turn into almost every troubled corner of American life at around 1900. Everywhere he looked he could see motives, which in the end meant he couldn’t know what the motive was: almost every way you could say Czolgosz had suffered, so had millions of other Americans—but he was the one who pulled the trigger.

I remain reasonably happy with the book although if I had it to do again I would give more attention to foreign policy. Czolgosz did at one point indicate dissatisfaction with the hypocrisy of US colonization of the Philippines (among the many other aspects of American society with which he was unhappy), and given that the book came out just as the Iraq War was beginning, it would have been a useful time for historical reflection on that episode.

The Very Short Introduction came about because Oxford University Press editor Susan Ferber asked me if I’d like to do a VSI on the Great Depression. I had just done Blessed Among Nations which, with Murdering McKinley, established that I was willing to write about matters like the tariff and the gold standard and the mess left of the US economy after the Great War. Susan must have thought that caring about all that stuff was a good qualification for writing about the slump of 1929–1933, even if I hadn’t yet written directly about that period. I wanted to do it because I was then thinking about writing a book that would end with the 1930s, so it would be useful to me.

The VSI series was already well established in the British headquarters of OUP, but this was going to be one of the first volumes commissioned by the US office, and there was some uncertainty about format—whether it would have scholarly apparatus, and so forth—but the key thing was, it would be Very Short, as the titles indicate. There was a strict word count, which I don’t remember, but it was small; nevertheless I had barely thought about it before I went back to Susan and said I wanted it to cover the New Deal as well as the Great Depression. She said yes: as long as I stuck within the word count.

The book reflects the state of historiography at the time and I would certainly write it differently if I could write it now. But maybe then it wouldn’t be as popular. I was determined to integrate as much of the history of the New Deal done in departments of economics as I could with the history done in departments of history, and that led to a book that did indeed have perhaps more to say about tariffs and the gold standard and public works policies than most. It reflects the good work done by then-beginning historians of the New Deal, like Andrew W. Cohen, Meg Jacobs, and Jason Scott Smith.

It also reflects the interpretations of the two major New Deal historians of the 1990s, Alan Brinkley and David M. Kennedy. And while including Brinkley’s observations about the broader possibilities of the 1930s, and Kennedy’s insistence on the continuity between the New Deal and the war, I wanted to go a bit further in crediting the New Deal itself; so much of the literature aimed at what it hadn’t done. So my contribution, I thought, was to emphasize—and expand a bit—John Kenneth Galbraith’s concept of countervailing power. The New Deal not only supported labor unions, but also workers, consumers, and farmers more broadly, as well as ill developed regions like the South and the intermountain West, and so forth, in rebalancing unbalanced markets; that was more than security—that was a lasting structural effect.

I got some comments about the VSI from established New Deal historians, who said various versions of “I couldn’t have written about it that succinctly,” which I chose to take as a compliment.

I also thought I should keep Franklin D. Roosevelt out of it as much as possible. I was not—and still don’t think I am—a presidential historian, and I understood the New Deal (like Progressivism) to result from much broader forces than the election of a single person. Still, those elections and those persons matter in funneling or focusing those factors. So you’ve got to talk about presidents and presidencies, even if you don’t want them to dominate the narrative unduly. Roosevelt scarcely appears in the VSI as a force in himself until the last chapter, which I think is probably a good way at least to begin thinking about the New Deal—as a product of long-pent forces released and given focus by his election, rather than the product of the Roosevelt White House per se—though ultimately one does have to reckon with him, just as Americans at the time did.

That need to reckon with what Roosevelt did, and didn’t, do led to Winter War. I worked on it with Lara Heimert at Basic Books, who had also edited my previous book, The Money Makers, about Roosevelt’s repeated reliance on monetary policy from 1933–1945. In the course of writing that book I became persuaded that, contrary to a lot of commentary, Roosevelt had a clear agenda going into November 1932 and that his actions between election and inauguration had to do with protecting and furthering that agenda. As with Murdering McKinley, I made a good archival find that enabled greater insight into Roosevelt’s campaign and embryonic administration. During some research at the Hoover Institution, I found some correspondence of Robert Jackson—not the later Supreme Court justice and Nuremberg prosecutor, but the political operator—in which Jackson mentioned his diary; I was able pretty easily to find the diary was archived at his alma mater, Dartmouth. And it contained some terrific material on how the campaign functioned, and what it was like to work with Roosevelt and his inner circle. Using that and the diaries of some Hoover aides—Edgar Rickard, Theodore Joslin, James MacLafferty—as well as that of Raymond Moley’s secretary, Celeste Jedel, I had a pretty good picture of the Democratic and Republican camps.

Roosevelt liked to compare himself to a football quarterback: he knew where he needed to go, and the rules for getting there, but whether he might pass, hand off, or run the ball himself remained open, and he liked to keep his options open until the last possible second. It seemed to me an apt comparison, in its emphasis on shifting tactics and even strategy, but clear ultimate aims.3 He viewed the New Deal as a program to reinvigorate and improve democracy in the United States—reinvigorating and improving the economy was a first step in that direction, and it had to be done in a way that was broadly beneficial if people were to begin to trust Washington, DC, again. And from the start, he and his aides saw the New Deal in the context of a world where democracy was under threat; as Jackson wrote just before Roosevelt took office,

The world situation is no better than here in the United States. The Japs are attacking China. In Germany. . . . the upstart Hitler, the rabble-rouser … is now Chancellor and demanding powers that will make him a dictator. . . . Such is the chaos that confronts Franklin Delano Roosevelt.4

I got some nice feedback from established Roosevelt biographers, and some historians seem to feel it helped them reconceptualize the New Deal and the administration’s relationship to its constituencies, which is gratifying. I hope it continues to appeal to students of the New Deal. It certainly informed how I wrote about the New Deal in my next book—but Why the New Deal Matters doesn’t have a neat anniversary this year, so I’ll have to reflect on it another time.


  1. Eric Rauchway, “The New Deal,” in Myth America: Historians Take On The Biggest Legends and Lies About Our Past, ed. Kevin M. Kruse and Julian E. Zelizer (New York: Basic Books, 2022), 141–53; Eric Rauchway, Murdering McKinley: The Making of Theodore Roosevelt’s America (New York: Hill and Wang, 2003).↩︎

  2. Eric Rauchway, The Great Depression and the New Deal: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008); Eric Rauchway, Winter War: Hoover, Roosevelt, and the First Clash over the New Deal (New York: Basic Books, 2018).↩︎

  3. I know some historians hate sports analogies, but it is his, not mine; as for a wheelchair-using US president’s comparison of himself to a top athlete, that is left for analysts better suited to the topic than I am.↩︎

  4. Robert Jackson diary, March 1, 1933.↩︎