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New Deal, pt 1: embracing economic security

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Interviewer: How did the New Deal embrace economic security as a new component of American freedom?

Eric Foner: The Great Depression, which began in 1929 and lasted until 1940 or 1941, really put the question of economic security on the public agenda. Millions and millions of people were out of work; millions lost their life savings and were plunged into poverty. Nobody knew where the economy was going. The idea of economic security, that people were entitled to at least a minimal standard of living guaranteed by the government if necessary, became a central element of liberty in the New Deal. President Roosevelt explicitly and consciously defined the New Deal as the embodiment of freedom, but of freedom of economic security rather than freedom of contract, or freedom of every man for himself. So Roosevelt really tried to shift the ideas of liberty or freedom to encompass a public role in maintaining a decent standard of living. Later on this would be one of his Four Freedoms. Freedom from want was one of the essential liberties in Roosevelt's view.

New Deal, pt 2: remaking the West

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Interviewer: How did New Deal programs remake the landscape and economy of the West?

Eric Foner: Many New Deal programs were directed at not only economic recovery but also economic development of areas that had not had much economic development in the past. The TVA, the Tennessee Valley Authority, really led to economic development in that area in the South, and many New Deal projects, dams, electric power, irrigation projects, large-scale public enterprises, and road building, were focused in the West, where there was both tremendous need and tremendous opportunity for economic development. The Cooley Dam up in the Pacific Northwest eventually would be producing a large proportion of the hydroelectric power for the whole country, but it also greatly stimulated the whole economic development of Oregon, Washington state, Idaho, northern California, that whole area at the Columbia River base. So the New Deal really gave a tremendous push to western development.

New Deal, pt 3: the beneficiaries

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Interviewer: Who benefited from the programs of the New Deal, and who was let down?

Eric Foner: In some ways, New Deal programs benefited everybody. Economic relief, public employment, efforts to improve the economy—all sorts of people benefited from those. But because of the way Congress was structured and because southern democrats had a stranglehold on control of the key committees in Congress, many New Deal programs were shaped so as to exclude African-Americans, basically because the southern democrats didn't want these programs to undercut the white supremacy system of the South and the cheap labor force that blacks represented. So, for example, Social Security (a core New Deal program), old-age insurance, unemployment insurance, etc., excluded agricultural workers and domestic workers, which made up the large majority of the black workers in the country, so most blacks were just excluded from Social Security. They were also not helped by the Fair Labor Standards Act, which set minimum wages, because those occupations were not covered by the minimum-wage law. Other New Deal programs did not explicitly exclude nonwhites but were administered in a local way, and therefore often in a discriminatory manner. The CCC, the Civilian Conservation Corps, had camps in the South that were segregated or often didn't allow blacks in at all. The Federal Housing Authority actually promoted housing segregation in the country. They refused to give mortgage loans or mortgage guarantees in any integrated neighborhood. They only assisted housing in segregated neighborhoods. So many New Deal programs ended up being entitlements for white Americans, and nonwhites, not only blacks but Hispanics in the West and Asians, didn't benefit nearly as much as whites from these New Deal programs.

New Deal, pt 4: significance

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Interviewer: Do you want to comment on the overall significance of the New Deal and its legacy?

Eric Foner: Well, the New Deal transformed American society, politics, and government in innumerable ways. It greatly enhanced the power of the national government; it led people to look to the national government for the answers to severe economic problems. It really created the permanent, administrative state with all sorts of agencies telling farmers what they could grow, telling business how it could operate, telling transportation how it could run, all sorts of agencies to run different sectors of the economy. It was the first time that the government intervened to promote the right of labor, to create the unions and collective bargaining, so it really transformed the role of government in people's lives. The New Deal made the federal government a much more active and permanent player in the daily lives of most Americans. It also made the Democratic Party the majority party in the country for the next thirty to forty years; up until the end of the 1960s, the Democratic Party was the natural majority party because of the coalition that President Roosevelt had put together. Of course, the one thing the New Deal didn't do was end the Depression; unemployment was still intolerably high when 1940 rolled around. It was World War II and the massive employment in defense industries that really dragged the United States out of the economic depression.

New Deal, pt 5: commitment to civil liberty protection

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Interviewer: You point out that, during the New Deal period, there developed a significantly stronger public commitment to the protection of civil liberties, that civil liberties became the judicial foundation of freedom. Could you explain that development, and how it came about?

Eric Foner: The heightened focus on civil liberties during the New Deal comes from a number of places. One, interestingly enough, is the labor movement itself. For the first time, in the New Deal, the federal government allied itself with the labor movement. Generally, the government had been much against it and had sent troops to break strikes over and over again. President Roosevelt allied himself with the labor movement, and large numbers of workers voted for Roosevelt, so the suppression of the right to organize—the use of private police against labor, the use of local ordinances banning labor from organizing—comes to seem more outrageous in the 1930s, because the federal government is now on the side of efforts to organize workers into unions.

Second of all, the rising tension with Nazi Germany, which of course leads eventually to our involvement in World War II against Germany, by the late 1930s, causes more and more people to highlight civil liberties in the United States in contradistinction to Nazism. In other words, this is what makes American liberty distinct, unique. Over in Germany they are suppressing violently, brutally, the right of dissent; nobody can dissent in Hitler's Germany, nobody can speak their piece. Over here, we allow civil liberties. This becomes part of a contradistinction between Nazi Germany and the United States. In 1941, before the United States enters the war, Roosevelt gives his famous Four Freedoms speech. This is early 1941, but he's talking about the freedoms which, after the war, everybody has to enjoy, throughout the world. Two of those are the basic civil liberties: freedom of speech and freedom of religion. And it shows how civil liberties have gotten themselves into a central part of the definition of American freedom by this time.