The Blue Eagle From Egg to Earth

by General Hugh S. Johnson
[Doubleday, Doran, $3.00]
No man other than General Johnson could have written this book. The first third of the volume, termed by the General ’sketchily autobiographical,’is interesting, and at times fascinating. It pictures the man who later guided the NRA, but not the NRA itself.
The treatment of NRA is topical, personal, and colorful, but almost too intimate to be balanced and analytical. No one of the literally thousands of business men, labor leaders, lawyers, or newspaper men who, during that first year, frequented the third and fourth floors of the Commerce Building in Washington—NRA’s domicile — can read these pages without recapturing much of the glory that was, but is no more. Personalities abound. From the ranks of business pass in review Baruch, Hancock, Harriman, Kirstein, George Sloan, Stettinius, Swope, and Teagle, most of whom were drawn into NRA at one time or another — and Henry Ford. William Green, Gorman, Hillman, John Lewis, McGrady, and Wolman, labor leaders all, live in its pages. Even this list is abbreviated, yet any attempt to go beyond it into the Administration as a whole would be futile.
An early decision that the General, as Administrator of the NRA, should report to a Cabinet Board rather than to the President himself, and that the administration of Public Works (Title II of the NIRA) should be divorced from NRA, very nearly resulted in the first of his several contemplated resignations. Once NRA swung into its stride, no force could have prevented Hugh Johnson from reporting directly to the President. In the final stretch the General notes, with little complaint, a ‘nameless opposition such as I had outside, and — in the last few months — inside NRA. I never had to cope with that before in my life.’ Frankly disagreeing with certain of the policies of the Administration, and holding that lack of coördination in the recovery programme as a whole intensified the difficulties confronting NRA, he still has no word of criticism for his President.
With one exception, his lieutenants ’were as faithful and devoted as soldiers on a battlefield.’ The narrative portrays the General as having been undermined, and in part unmade, by the man whom he had helped to make. Fairness requires recognition that Mr. Richberg’s case has not yet been presented.
Brevity forbids adequate consideration of the NRA itself. The ‘goldfish bowl’ theory of codes made in the open is stressed, yet belied by the description of the ‘long grueling sessions — night and day — day after day — week after week — in an effort, by persuasion, sometimes by bluffing, principally by plain horse trading and bare-faced poker playing — by which most of the great Industrial Codes finally came into being.’ The description of the coal code concludes: ‘Nobody will ever know what happened behind those closed doors to accomplish this final result.’ The goldfish bowl was a dramatic, convenient fiction.
Johnsonian economics in NRA called for an increase of employment and purchasing power through as great decreases in hours and increases in wage rates as industry could be asked to bear. The President’s Reëmployment Agreement (’blanket code’) would hold the fort until codification of individual industries was accomplished. Commodity price increases were to be limited to the additional out-of-pocket costs entailed by wage increases. The Blue Eagle, a Symbol of mass popular support, was and is deemed indispensable to NRA’s success: ’I am prepared to risk the prophecy — when the Blue Eagle goes, NRA will go.’
Restraints of trade running counter to the Antitrust Acts are permitted by the Recovery Act under government sanction and supervision, and, the General contends, do not lead toward monopoly. ’There is not one single code that is not a combination in restraint of trade, and if codes are not permitted so to restrain trade then NIRA ought to be repealed to-morrow.’
The validity of NRA regulation of the installation or new labor-saving devices is maintained. By implication this would defend the sections in certain codes (by no means widespread) providing similar ‘regulation’ with respect to new plant construction, machine-hour operation, and volume of output. Price fixing is termed of limited scope, and emphasis is placed on the fact that what is frequently called price fixing is merely a prohibition against ’selling at less than cost of production.’ No recognition is given to the fact that NRA has not developed an adequate reporting system, either accounting or statistical, to afford protection against abuse of these provisions.
Honest men can differ as to the soundness of the NRA. The General is both an honest and an able man; frankly admitting certain errors, he believes thoroughly in the policy adopted, and the contribution made toward recovery and social reform. I happen to believe that the NRA has retarded recovery, has created vested interests on the part of both industry and labor that are contrary to the public interest, and will be viewed in retrospect as another noble experiment that simply did not work. Our agreement is complete ‘that this government has no labor policy. It has deliberately dodged this issue.‘
The Blue Eagle from Egg to Earth is a stirring account of possibly the most colorful episode of the New Deal. No man in public life gave of himself more freely to his cause than did General Johnson. A thoroughgoing appraisal of the NRA is yet to be published; even such a volume, when it appears, cannot displace the personal statement of the chief figure in the drama.