Why Do We Have Such an Activist Presidency?

tags: World War II, FDR, New Deal, Maury Klein


Maury Klein is professor emeritus of history at the University of Rhode Island. He is the author of "The Power Makers: Steam, Electricity, and the Men Who Invented Modern America," "Rainbow's End: The Crash of 1929," and most recently of "A Call to Arms: Mobilizing America for World War II."

Credit: Wiki Commons.

Rants against big federal government, though recently increased in intensity and volume, are nothing new. They go back as far as the 1930s, when the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt swept into Washington a new administration with a fresh approach to dealing with national problems. In coping with the depths of the Great Depression, Roosevelt and Congress alike made the federal government more proactive than it had ever been. Many if not most critics of a giant federal footprint in American life trace its origins to the New Deal. This is partially true, but as usual there is more to the story.

The alphabet soup of new programs and agencies created by the New Deal dwarfed anything that had gone before. However, those who trumpet the virtues of the free market tend to forget or ignore why this transformation occurred. By 1932 the laissez-faire philosophy espoused so confidently by a decade of Republican leaders had shown itself to be utterly bankrupt. The economy had ground to a halt, mired in the deepest depression in our history with unemployment around 25 percent. Not only individual Americans but cities, towns, and states were pushed to the brink of desperation, beaten down by falling income and tax revenues. Foreclosures and business failures were rampant, with no end in sight. The banking system was in shambles, wracked with corruption, closings, and scandals that by the winter of 1933 threatened to bring down the entire financial system.

The New Deal never fully solved the depression but it did stabilize the financial system and bring the economy back from the brink. Only concerted action by Washington could have produced such accomplishments as FDIC, the separation of commercial and investment banking, creation of the SEC, farm subsidies to bolster agricultural prices, public works programs such as the TVA, Civilian Conservation Corps, PWA, WPA, and a host of others that left a positive and lasting imprint on American life. Those who grumble that the New Deal destroyed capitalism could not be more wrong; it saved the capitalist system to live another day, which was Roosevelt’s intention all along.

The New Deal brought with it a federal government that intervened more actively and directly in the economy and other areas of American life. It gave Americans such social welfare programs as Social Security and unemployment insurance, the last major industrial nation to do so. Washington became a major player in the lives of many more Americans than ever before. However, it was World War II that grew the federal government far beyond even the New Deal years. This first truly global conflict, fought on three continents on a scale never before witnessed, forced the federal government to expand its existing roles and take on new ones to harness the resources needed to wage war on such far-flung fronts.

Between 1933 and 1945 Roosevelt issued an average of 307 presidential directives a year; previous presidents averaged only 85, beginning with the first one by Abraham Lincoln in 1862. Among other things these directives created 200 new federal boards, bureaus, agencies, and commissions. As late as 1939 the Congressional Directory needed only a single page to list the entire White House staff; by 1944 it required thirteen pages of small type for the 687 people directly employed by the president. The Federal Register began life in March 1936. By June 29, 1944, it had printed 76,541 directives, orders, grants, permissions, and prohibitions consuming 62,202 printed pages and 93 million words. These numbers only hint at the growth of the federal government brought about by the gargantuan task foisted on it by the war. Details on that task and how it was accomplished can be found in my recent book, A Call to Arms: Mobilizing America for World War II.

After the war the demands on Washington diminished only slightly. The war created a world in which, like it or not, America’s role had expanded enormously. Thanks in large part to the Cold War and its lethal arms race, the military was not disbanded after the surrender of Japan but remained a large and ever more expensive presence as the technology of war continued to advance. The war gave birth to the industrial-military complex and the rise of Big Science, which drew its funding from Washington. The enlightened G. I. Bill of Rights helped smooth the transition of returning service people for the first time while also increasing the government’s social welfare activities. For the first time, too, the United States assumed the leading role in world affairs through the Marshall Plan and a host of other programs. Increased demand for social reforms such as civil rights also required more involvement from Washington.

The federal government grew because the needs and demands for its presence multiplied and took on greater urgency. While it could certainly be trimmed in size and scope, the notion of retreating to some earlier, happier -- and entirely mythical -- era of small government is little more than a pipe dream. Those who shout demands to pare down the federal government and, like John Boehner, argue that Congress needs to repeal rather than pass laws, are but echoing the defunct philosophy of the Republican party during the 1930s and 1940s. They are, to quote an infamous member of their ranks, the true “Nabobs of Negativism.” The real issue is not getting rid of “big government.” It is rather accepting the reality of its presence and finding ways to make it work more effectively and efficiently.

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