Nothing to Fear
FDR's Inner Circle and the Hundred Days That Created Modern America
By Adam Cohen
Thorndike Press, Large Print Edition (2009), 773 pages
Genre: History, American
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - July 29, 2009
The title Nothing to Fear is based on Franklin Delano Roosevelt's famous statement about the years following the 1929 depression, "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself." "Nothing to fear" is not exactly what FDR said and he did not invent this most famous presidential statement; but like most else about FDR, it is attributed to him.
Cohen's book, as its subtitle says, focuses on "FDR's Inner Circle and the Hundred Days that created Modern America." Many people think that FDR developed the solutions to the great depression on his own. But Cohen shows that he entered office with no idea of what to do next, and it was five members of his inner circle that formulated the solutions that changed America with fifteen major laws enacted within his first hundred days as president.
Roosevelt took office as president on March 4, 1933 when thousands of banks closed, a quarter of American workers were out of work and farmers and military veterans were openly rebellious.
Herbert Hoover, a republican, was president before him. Hoover recognized the horrors of the depression, but his solution, based on long-held and highly respected American political theory, was passive and callous. His "free-market ideology taught him that private enterprise should be the source of all solutions, and his near-religious commitment to ‘rugged individualism' convinced him that giving aid to the Depression's victims would morally damage them."
FDR turned the country and its philosophy around. His was the third American revolution. George Washington was president during the first revolution that created the United States. Abraham Lincoln headed the government during the second revolution that determined that the states were indivisible. FDR's third revolution turned Hoover's ideology on its head and introduced a concept of governmental duty that is still accepted today.
While Hoover was convinced that the federal government should not aid people, FDR initiated the idea that government is responsible for the people, to help them when help is necessary and, as with preventive medicine, do all that is reasonable to assure that the American citizens do not reach a stage where help is necessary.
FDR did not seem to be the person who could accomplish this enormous liberal task. He could not stand unaided because of polio. He had been a grade C student in college. He looked and acted like an aristocrat. Hoover was a conservative, but FDR was not a liberal; he was a pragmatist. His cabinet was composed of people with diverse ideas. Only three of the five people who made his revolution were liberals.
Cohen describes each of these five people with interesting details. He tells about FDR's "New Deal," a term he did not invent, in which he introduced the three Rs: He gave Relief to the unemployed and badly hurt farmers, Reformed business and financial practices, and promoted the Recovery of the economy. Congress gave FDR every chance it could during the hundred days; it granted every program that FDR submitted to them.
FDR's first challenge was the country's banking system. There were runs on the bank to make withdrawals, the banks had inadequate funds to meet the demands, and they had to be closed. The Emergency Banking Act was the Roosevelt administration's first dramatic triumph, and it was accomplished in just eight days. Part of the success was due to FDR using Republications from the prior administration in developing the solution, and part was the result of his first short calm fireside chat where he assured the people and won them over to his ideas. In fact, the day the banks reopened, there were more deposits than withdrawals.
The Banking Act set the stage for Roosevelt's New deal, and the acts that followed had similar effects. Virtually all of them were first opposed by Roosevelt. For example, one of the most important innovations of the hundred days was federal deposit insurance. Roosevelt was adamantly opposed to it and warned that he would veto any bill that included it. However, Congress saw matters differently and FDR accepted their view.
The most radical change that FDR presented to America was the abandonment of the ancient notion that people are poor because of their own character faults, their laziness and refusal to work. Remarkably, Roosevelt agreed with these notions when he became president. Adam Cohen shows how and why he changed his mind.
The work of the hundred days helped alleviate the depression. The country's economy improved each year. FDR's administration saved many people, but the depression did not end entirely until the Second World War.
Today, close to eight decades after the hundred days, Franklin Delano Roosevelt is considered by many to be the third greatest president, after Washington and Lincoln, because of his innovations and achievements, his third revolution, but few people know the names of the five who invented and advanced the ideas and who implemented them.
Dr. Israel Drazin is the author of a series of books on Maimonides, a twelfth century rational philosopher, and the co-author of a series of books on Targum Onkelos, the earliest existing translation of the Hebrew Bible. Both are published by Gefen Publishing House, www.israelbooks.com.