The New Deal’s War on the Bill of Rights: The Untold Story of FDR’s Concentration Camps, Censorship, and Mass Surveillance, by David T. Beito (Independent Institute, 404 pp., $20.48)

Taming the Street: The Old Guard, the New Deal, and FDR’s Fight to Regulate American Capitalism, by Diana B. Henriques (Random House, 464 pp., $20.02)

The New Deal reshaped American life. President Franklin Roosevelt’s signature programs turned our federal republic into a national one, made welfare a central duty of the national government, and regulated businesses and citizens in ways and to an extent previously unimaginable. Two recent books offer clashing visions of the New Deal era and of its enduring impact on American life.

Historian David Beito’s The New Deal’s War on the Bill of Rights is an almost unalloyed tale of oppression. While most New Deal critics have focused on its economic policies or threats to property rights, Beito details how the Roosevelt administration used government power to subvert free speech, personal privacy, and other basic liberties. The book chronicles the extent of the administration’s overreach, which involved everything from shutting down newspapers to prosecuting New Deal opponents.

Beito illustrates how threats to property rights and civil rights in the New Deal could go together, especially for companies that wanted to broadcast over the air. Roosevelt told the newly created Federal Communications Commission to spike applications from radio stations hostile to the administration. They also discouraged anti-FDR broadcasts. In 1940, for example, the FCC blocked the purchase of a 15-minute segment by the antiwar America First Committee. Such efforts prompted companies to self-censor their content to avoid offending the administration. When an NBC commentator lightly attacked FDR on radio, an NBC vice president phoned the White House to say that the network would take him off the air.

Beito highlights the American Civil Liberties Union’s lamentable role in those and other abuses. The ACLU often acted less like champions of civil liberties than partisans for the Democratic Party. The group defended FDR’s radio crackdown, and its publicity director said that free speech shouldn’t apply over the airwaves. The group’s Massachusetts affiliate celebrated the prosecution of the magazine Social Justice for its anti-administration stance. Morris Ernst, a prominent ACLU attorney, even wrote to the president with a plan to examine FDR opponents’ tax returns. These examples are eye-opening for readers who might assume that the ACLU’s willingness to condone restrictions on free expression is a more recent development.

Civil rights often suffer during wartime, and World War II was no exception. Beito chronicles the Roosevelt administration’s extreme efforts to hound the opposition during the war years. He details FDR’s personal demands for the removal and internment of Japanese Americans (which the ACLU’s board endorsed), and his administration’s efforts to block newspapers that opposed him from the mails. Attorney General Francis Biddle, for example, called the nation’s leading black publisher into his office and complained about its criticism of the administration. Biddle laid several supposedly offending newspapers down and said he would “shut them all up.”

Beito’s dour portrait of the FDR administration contrasts with that painted by Diana Henriques, a celebrated financial journalist. In Taming the Street, Henriques chronicles FDR and his team’s efforts to regulate securities markets and bring the New York Stock Exchange to heel. Taming is an unvarnished morality tale, pitting heroic New Dealers against benighted plutocrats eager to commit fraud and cheat the poor.

As is the case with many histories, one can enjoy Henriques’s book without sharing its premises; whether FDR was lovable or NYSE president Dick Whitney was a crook has little bearing on the merits of New Deal securities regulations. And though Henriques has a clear political perspective, Taming is an enjoyable read. She grippingly portrays the raw, billion-dollar drama of politicians fighting big banks and brokers. The scene of Whitney walking out of the stock exchange and asking his brother at the J.P. Morgan office for funds to cover up his embezzlement vividly encapsulates the cozy world of early twentieth-century finance. Similarly, she recalls how Joseph Kennedy, the first chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission, regaled FDR at his Potomac estate with fresh New England seafood and penny-ante poker, illustrating the backroom nature of D.C. politics.

Henriques’s celebratory tone obscures some problems with the New Deal campaign. While she details the battle between utility companies and government regulators, she neglects to discuss the associated civil-liberties violations, which Beito’s book covers in depth. Senator Hugo Black, whom FDR later appointed to the Supreme Court, and his congressional committee reviewed private tax returns, including those from opposing congressmen, and blanket-searched telegram records to smear utility companies’ public-influence campaign. This ranks among the most invasive actions in congressional history; it’s almost wholly absent from Henriques’s account.

Taming’s black-and-white tale has something of the flavor of prevailing liberal opinion in the mid-twentieth century: the New Deal was good, and its opponents were bad. But its somewhat old-fashioned assessment avoids the pitfalls of many academic histories today. It refuses to focus on race or gender and is unabashedly interested in the doings of the prominent and powerful, not in telling “history from the bottom up.”

The Roosevelt administration left an indelible imprint on the United States. While Americans support many New Deal-descended programs to this day, they bristle at the invasive government that FDR brought into being. As Beito and Henriques’s dueling accounts suggest, the New Deal’s legacy remains up for debate.

Photo by Roy Rochlin/Getty Images


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