Monday, July 11, 2011


A review of David M. Kennedy's Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945 (2005)

Part of the Oxford History of the United States Series

Rating (5 of 5)

The one thing that remains constant as I continue my march through the ages of history of the United States, is that America is a nation that continues to transform and change. The two extraordinary events of the Great Depression and World War II helped transform the nation its people. The leader though both of these great crises was Franklin D. Roosevelt. Not since George Washington led us through both the American Revolution and the early days of the national government had one leader impacted the nation's destiny by shaping the country's response to two great national events.

(Roosevelt hard at work)

Economic 'depressions' had happened before in our country, in the late 1830s, late 1870s, and mid-1890s. However the event we now know as the 'Great Depression' lasted longer than any other and came as a great shock because the twenties had been such a boom time. Kennedy traces the source of the severity of this depression to the international factors that emerged from World War I. In this analysis, Herbert Hoover had been more of a victim of events than the cause of them. Nevertheless, Hoover no longer had the public’s trust nor confidence and the electorate turned him out of office in 1932. What I learned from this book was how the Depression came in waves. That it was not right after the stock market crashed that things went bad, but a series of events that continued to torpedo the U.S. Economy until it collapsed.

(The President and the First Lady)

When Franklin D. Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor move into the White House, the President brought with them Harry Hopkins and Frances Perkins. While in Washington they begin to set up the New Deal. Kennedy spends a great deal of time discussing the New Deal and its impact. The New Deal benefited and continues to benefit the nation. Its immediate impact with programs like the Civilian Conservation Corps provided the unemployed temporary employment. The New Deal continues to impact us today with Social Security, banking reforms, a minimum wage, and safety regulations for workers. Kennedy explains clearly that the New Deal did not end the depression. What it did do however, was provide security for the American people from the rough waves of the market. The same reason levies are built to protect against floods, the New Deal gave security to so the common people were not completely left exposed to the economic forces beyond their control.

(Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins)

(Secretary of Commerce Harry Hopkins)

“Roosevelt had prepared the ground well. His transparent allusions to less responsible schemes helped convince congressional doubters that the president's measured radicalism was far preferable to the dread Long and Townsend alternatives—or the even more dread option of a bill introduced by Minnesota representative Ernest Lundeen, which called for unemployment compensation at full wages to all jobless workers, paid for out of general tax revenues and administered by local workers' councils. After lengthy hearings through an exceptionally crowed legislative season, the Social Security Act became law on August 14, 1935.” (p.271)

Roosevelt was not without his faults however, and those faults were exposed with the Court-packing scheme. His fault was not an attempt to reform the Court, for the Court for the fifty years prior had been acquiring quite an infamous reputation as the enemy of reform. It would impose its own narrow view of the U.S. Constitution and use it to undermine progressive legislation that the people had been trying for years to achieve through their elected representatives. Roosevelt was able to get the Court to change its tune but the unwise manner in which he did it cost him a great deal of political capital.

Then of course comes World War II, with American isolationism at an all-time high, Roosevelt did what he could to aid the allies with the Land Lease deal, turning America into an 'arsenal for democracy'. However, with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, America could no longer turn its back on the war.

World War II had some of the history’s most affective leaders. From the heroic Roosevelt, Churchill, and DeGalle on the allies; to the more villainous Stalin—who fought with the good guys—, Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo; no side in this conflict lacked for effective leadership. There was also a great deal of talented generals and admirals. Although having a great deal of talent is nice problem to have it, in part, made Roosevelt’s job harder as he had to choose who would lead Operation Overlord and liberate Europe. Roosevelt felt that justice demanded that he use George Marshall, however, in the end he felt the right man for the job was Dwight D. Eisenhower.

(The Big Three)

(The Axis Three)

“Eisenhower's studied geniality found an appreciative admired in Franklin Roosevelt, himself an adept scholar of the human psyche and virtuoso practitioner of the recondite craft of leadership. Now, flying from Tunis to Sicily for an inspection tour of American troops, Roosevelt the accomplished master instructed Eisenhower the sedulous apprentice in the arts that he must summon and home in his new assignment. Huddling in a seat alongside the general as their aircraft droned over the Mediterranean, the president dwelt on the teeming difficulties that awaited Eisenhower in London. There he would confront head-on, day in a day out, the full majesty of the British Government and the seductive personality of Winston Churchill. Churchill still believed, Roosevelt warned, that a failed Channel attack could cost the allies the war—and that the risk of failure was large. Despite his assurances at Quebec and his submission at Teheran, Churchill had not laid to rest his gnawing anxieties about Overlord. It would take all of Eisenhower's skill and resolution, Roosevelt advised, to keep Overlord on schedule.” (p.690)

(General Eisenhower giving orders)

On the Pacific front Fleet Admiral Nimitz and General MacArthur had their hands full with Japan. Kennedy describes the War in the Pacific as one brutal blood bath. The amount of blood and gore that went on in this side of the war played as a major factor for Harry S. Truman to use the Atomic Bomb.

“When the battle officially ended on June 22, only some 7,000 of the original 77,000 remained alive. The fighting had also killed over 100,000 Okianawan civilians. The Americans suffered 7,613 killed or missing, 31,807 wounded, and 26,211 non-battle casualties on the island, a nearly 35 percent casualty rate, in addition to the nearly 5,000 who dies and 4,824 who were wounded at sea. Among the dead were Buckner, his chest sundered by a Japanese shell fragment, as well as the celebrated war correspondent Ernie Pyle, felled by a sniper's bullet. The awful carnage on Okinawa, like that on Iwo Jima, weighed heavily on the minds of American policymakers as they now contemplated the war's endgame.” (p.834)

(Admiral Nimitz accepts Japan's surrender on behalf of the United States)

(President Harry Truman)

This book is covers so much in under a thousand pages. One thousand seems like a lot, but for the amount of information the reader receives it is actually quite a low number. Kennedy does not go into a great deal about the Holocaust primarily because this book is about the United States, but he does discuss how the people in the United States had a difficult time in the absorbing what was actually happening to the Jews and other 'undesirables' of Germany. The book also covers the American home front, the status of African-Americans and other racial minorities, and the changing attitudes about the role of women as a result of the war. Kennedy goes over the horrible internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, and the tragic case of Fred Korematsu. I really appreciate Kennedy's take on the 'average American' before and after these two events.

On a technical side note I would once again say that I appreciate the Oxford series for leaving the footnotes at the bottom of the pages they are on and not at the end of the book. It makes looking at sources easy and does not distract from the general narrative.

Freedom from Fear is a wonderful book which I highly recommend to anyone. Like the rest of this series I find its depth incredible without being overwhelming.

{The first video is a 1930s government news bulletin the second is images of D-Day combined with classical music and was posted by BromellFilmCorp on YouTube}

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