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David M. Kennedy talks about his new work, Freedom From Fear, a study of the Depression and the Second World War -- America's era of crisis

June 10, 1999

Toward the end of the Second World War, Winston Churchill declared that America "at this moment is at the summit of the world." The historian David M. Kennedy, in Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945, shows just how far America had to climb to reach that summit. His book begins with a country that is dispirited, listless, and insular -- its confidence shaken by the Great Depression. It follows the intricacies and legacy of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, and it concludes with America's having created a military and industrial machine -- and with it a new society -- the likes of which no one before the war could have imagined. The main events described in Freedom From Fear are familiar, but Kennedy brings fresh insights, vitality, and a sense of immediacy to the story -- as anyone knows who has read "Victory At Sea," an excerpt from Freedom From Fear that was The Atlantic's March, 1999, cover story.

Kennedy is the Donald J. McLachlan Professor of History at Stanford University. He is the author of Over Here: The First World War and American Society (1980), which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and Birth Control in America: The Career of Margaret Sanger (1970), which won a Bancroft Prize. Freedom From Fear is the fourth volume of the award-winning Oxford History of the United States.

Kennedy spoke recently with Atlantic Unbound's Katie Bacon.

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David Kennedy   

In your article on immigration for The Atlantic, you wrote that "Getting the question right is the most challenging part of any historical investigation." What questions did you set out to answer in Freedom From Fear?

Fundamentally I was interested in the ways in which the crises of depression and war changed the country, and what kind of legacy the events of this period bequeathed to the rest of the century. I do believe that this was the single most formative moment in modern American history. We still live with its consequences. We would be a different people and a different country today if this era's history had played out differently. It's essential to understand it if we're to know who we are, and why.

Did you have any preconceived notions about the period which changed as you wrote?

I certainly had an instinct that this was a crucible of tremendously consequential change. But it was surprising to me that I had to come to an understanding of the New Deal as something significantly more important than simply a response to the Depression. Eventually, as I try to argue in the book, the New Deal has to be understood as a political response to almost a century of unbridled industrial revolution and economic development, which had gone largely unregulated. In this connection the Depression provided an historic opportunity for at last containing some of the volatilities of American-style free-market capitalism.

Your picture of Hoover seems more favorable than what is usually written about him. Could you talk about his role in trying to combat the Depression?

There are two myths about Hoover that I tried to lay to rest. Both of them have a kind of Dracula quality to them: you have to drive a stake through their heart to put them to rest permanently. The first myth is one that's just transparently silly: that Hoover caused the Great Depression, and that it deserves to be called, therefore, the Hoover Depression. The Depression was a worldwide phenomenon. No single individual, not even any single national leader, can be reasonably accused of causing it. The second myth is that once the Depression reached the United States, Hoover did nothing to try to remedy it, which is also a proposition that won't stand close analysis. Hoover was widely regarded at the time, and deserves to be remembered historically, as someone who tried vigorously to use what powers he had -- which were actually quite limited, given the nature of the federal government then -- to turn the thing around.

What neither Hoover nor anyone else understood until sometime in 1931 was that they were looking at a historic event that we now know as the Great Depression. Hoover and others thought they were facing another quite familiar downturn in the cycle, of the kind that people had seen before, most recently in 1921. At that time Hoover, as Secretary of Commerce, through measures similar to those that he used as President, had managed to turn the economy around -- by urging businessmen to maintain payrolls, not to cut wages, to accelerate investment plans, and by urging state and local governments to accelerate plans for public-works construction. Those all worked in 1921, and it was a reasonable assumption on Hoover's part that they would work again. When he took those kinds of initiatives people praised him as the first President who had ever taken vigorous action at the federal level against one of these economic downturns. But it wasn't enough, because the scale of the crisis, it turned out, was infinitely larger than anybody imagined. So Hoover was partly a victim, you might say, of pervasive ignorance about the nature of the beast they were wrestling with. In part, too, he was a victim of the political circumstances in which he found himself -- dealing with a Democratic Congress, after the elections of 1930, that wasn't in any mood to give him the credit for ending the Depression, a Congress that understood that the best way to insure the election of a Democrat in 1932 was to saddle Hoover with the responsibility for a continuing crisis.

Another, nontrivial part of Hoover's problem was that he was a lousy politician. Now, it may have been that even an excellent politician wouldn't have done much better under the circumstances, but he was peculiarly unfitted for leadership in a crisis situation like this. He had very poor rapport with the opposition party -- and with much of his own party, too, for that matter. And he did not very effectively utilize the principal technology of mass communication in his era: the radio. His biggest political mistake, however, was his unwillingness, because of his ideological rigidity on this point, to get into the business of direct federal relief of the unemployed. That cost him dearly. Had he been a more adept President, he might somehow have contrived a way to find relief for the unemployed without compromising his principles.

Could you talk about the fundamental changes Franklin Roosevelt wrought in the country's conception of the role of government? Is that conception substantially the same today?

Before Roosevelt came along, the federal budget accounted for something like five percent of the gross national product; today it accounts for 20 percent, and clearly the origins of that tremendous expansion of the federal presence in our lives lie in the New Deal. Both Hoover and FDR faced the compound challenge of inventing a modern American state in the midst of an enormous crisis. Most other countries that the Depression affected had already invented a lot of the apparatus that we associate with the New Deal -- things like old-age insurance, unemployment insurance, better regulation of the banking and the securities markets. Part of Roosevelt's achievement was that not only did he actually effect these changes but he also convinced the majority of Americans that it was legitimate to do so. In a sense this cut against the grain of a lot of American tradition, which had long been quite suspicious of government.

But despite what I just said, it remains a kind of reflexive American attitude that we don't like government very much, that we're suspicious of it. We're now living in an era in which there's been a certain effort to roll back the achievements of the New Deal-style government. But, interestingly, the core achievements of the New Deal -- Social Security, Federal Bank Deposit Insurance, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and so on -- have remained untouchable, even in the present moment. What's happened, I think, is that the Great Society of the 1960s represented an attempt to expand governmental power beyond what the society regarded as legitimate. A majority of the American people were very uncomfortable with the Great Society-style governmentalism, and therefore those initiatives provided the basis for an effective political counterattack, which is what Ronald Reagan's great success was all about.

From Atlantic Unbound:

Politics & Prose: "All the Presidents' Man," by Jack Beatty (June 9, 1999)
From FDR to LBJ with JKG. A review of John Kenneth Galbraith's new book, Name-Dropping.

You write that the New Deal "never produced a spokesman, not even Franklin Roosevelt, who was able systematically to lay out the New Deal's social and economic philosophy." Looking back, is it possible to say what this philosophy was? And was the New Deal successful?

It's an old chestnut of the history books that there was no system to the New Deal, that it was just a grab bag of random experiments. I think that was true in 1933, when Roosevelt's first focus was on trying to refloat the economy. He never did find the formula to accomplish that. But I think that there is a single word that summarizes the core aspiration and the core achievement of the New Deal, and the word is security. The great historic mission of the New Deal was to reduce risk and uncertainty in all kinds of areas of American life -- for individuals as they faced old age or the prospect of unemployment, for the banking industry, for the home-mortgage lending business, for the stock market, for the agricultural sector, for labor-management relations -- the list of areas where the New Deal introduced elements of predictability and rationality can be extended indefinitely. I think security was Roosevelt's objective from early on, and it's quite a consistent motif across a broad range of activities. It was on that latticework, that scaffolding of stability, put in place by the New Deal, that the postwar economy grew so fabulously.

Was creating this structure of security more important to Roosevelt than actually solving the Depression?

I could never find a smoking gun, as it were, where Roosevelt said for the record, "I'm really not interested in solving the Depression very quickly, because I know that as long as it continues I have the political opportunity to achieve these long-lasting reforms." But some of that logic does apply. What if Roosevelt had ended the Depression, by some miraculous means, in 1933, his first year in office? If that were the case, would there have been a New Deal as we know it? Would there have been a Social Security Act? Would there have been a Fair Labor Standards Act? We can't know for sure, but it's at least probable that we would never have seen this range of institutional reforms if the crisis had been quickly overcome. The degree to which Roosevelt was self-conscious and purposeful about this I can't really say, but it's certainly true that the situation of continuing crisis created the conditions under which he was able to accomplish his major reforms.

Roosevelt and others in the New Deal thought that the Depression was a sign that the era of economic growth was over -- and that government employment programs like the WPA would be a permanent feature of the economic landscape. Could you talk about this?

From The Atlantic's archive:

"The World's Economic Outlook," by John Maynard Keynes (May 1932)
"There is now no possibility of reaching a normal level of production in the near future. Our efforts are directed toward the attainment of more limited hopes. Can we prevent an almost complete collapse of the financial structure of modern capitalism?"

From Atlantic Unbound:

Interview: "Tell it Like it Was," (November 12, 1998)
Steven Spielberg turned to him for advice on Saving Private Ryan. Now, Stephen Ambrose talks about his new book, The Victors -- the culmination of his work on the Second World War.

Interview: "The Other Side of War," (February 1997)
In Doing Battle: The Making of a Skeptic, Paul Fussell -- historian, literary critic, and veteran -- wants to change the way Americans remember the Second World War.

This is something that's frequently forgotten, since we've lived for half a century in an era of economic growth. Many in the 1930s, including, I think, Roosevelt, believed they were witnessing a great historic moment of maturation of the economy, in which as far into the future as they could see its potential for growth was not very great. Therefore their job, as they saw it, was to redistribute income in ways that would make sustainable over the long term an economic and political and social situation that they thought would be based on a no-growth economy. One of the great surprises of the postwar era -- and looking back we forget how surprising this was -- was that the economy showed phenomenal vigor for a quarter century after World War II. From 1945 to the early 1970s is the period of greatest sustained economic growth in American history. From the vantage point of 1940, after the end of a decade of depression, anyone who predicted those twenty-five years of fantastic economic growth just over the horizon would have been called loony. People just didn't have those kinds of expectations.

You write, "The Depression had helped to reinforce an isolationism of the spirit, a kind of moral numbness, that checked American humanitarianism as tightly as political isolationism straightjacketed American diplomacy." How was Roosevelt able to chip away at this moral numbness and prepare the country for war?

That remark is made in the context of my discussion of the American non-response to the efforts of Jewish refugees to get out of Germany in the 1930s. But I think that the insensitivity of Americans to the plight of would-be German Jewish refugees is a case of a broader psychology of the 1930s which we know of as isolationism. The 1930s was really the high-water mark of a century and a half of isolationism, stretching back all the way to George Washington's farewell address. You might say that in the 1930s what had been a tradition of indifference to the rest of the world hardened into an active hostility toward the idea of involvement with it. As I tell the story, Roosevelt, beginning in about 1935, increasingly becomes convinced that this is an untenable position for the country and that the United States had better find a way to make its influence felt internationally. But he faces the extraordinarily difficult task of educating his country about this point of view. It takes him years and years. He begins very tentatively, in 1935, when he proposes that the United States join the World Court. He takes another step in 1937, with a speech on the perils of isolationism, but neither of these gets him very far. Instead Congress repeatedly passes neutrality acts -- in 1935, 1936, 1937, again even in 1939 -- that tighten the legal basis of American isolationism by making it illegal to trade with a belligerent state, to extend credits to a belligerent state, and so on. It's really not until very late in the day, until after the European war has broken out, in September of 1939, and especially after France collapses, in June of 1940, that the public starts to pay attention to what Roosevelt has been trying to tell them. I do believe that his sustained effort, culminating in the great success of the Lend-Lease Act, is one of the absolutely striking examples of presidential leadership in this century, where a political leader took on the job of convincing his countrymen of something they really didn't want to hear, and changed their minds.

Of course he had help from his enemies, but there are moments in this story when Roosevelt alone seems to be the person who affects the course of history, particularly in that key period of 1940-1941, when England is the only power left facing Germany, and a lot of people in this country, including all of Roosevelt's highest political and military advisors, tell him that England will not survive. Roosevelt, virtually alone in the American government, refuses to believe that. He places his bet on the British and on Churchill, and gets aid to the British -- and, I think more importantly, signals to Hitler that America will not remain forever neutral. As Roosevelt says repeatedly, "I could get this wrong, I could be impeached for what I'm doing." He was sluicing American military production, bombers, ships, and so on, to the British, and thereby denying them to the American military, which was desperately trying to build up a military establishment. It was a very courageous set of political decisions he made there, and it's a little difficult imagining anyone else doing that.

From The Atlantic's archive:

"First Wave at Omaha Beach," by S.L.A. Marshall (November 1960)
"In everything that has been written about Omaha until now, there is less blood and iron than in the original field notes covering any battalion landing in the first wave. Doubt it? Then let's follow along with Able and Baker companies, 116th Infantry, 29th Division. Their story is lifted from my fading Normandy notebook, which covers the landing of every Omaha company."

"'Is This Like Your War, Sir?,'" by Arthur T. Hadley (September 1972)
The line of battle, 1944-1945, revisited.

"The Real War 1939-1945," by Paul Fussell (August 1989)
On its fiftieth anniversary, how should we think of the Second World War? What is its contemporary meaning? One possible meaning, reflected in every line of what follows, is obscured by that oddly minimizing term 'conventional war.' With our fears focused on nuclear destruction, we tend to be less mindful of just what conventional war between modern industrial powers is like. This article describes such war, in a stark, unromantic manner.

You write that the "Japanese-American war was a race war." How did this fact affect the way the war was fought?

I do think it was a racialized war to an extent that the war in Europe was not. One of the truly wonderful discussions of this is John Dower's book War Without Mercy, where he argues that the Japanese had racialist -- racist, even -- conceptions of their American adversaries, just as the Americans had of the Japanese. Both sides drew on old cultural attitudes that had long been at work in their societies. The circumstances of the kind of fighting the Americans conducted in the Pacific was a lot different from Europe. It was a longer war, and it was a cruel war. The Japanese military code essentially forbade troops to surrender, and so they fought to the finish in a way that astonished Americans who came up against them. It was just a terribly vicious war. The tone was set early on at Guadalcanal. There was an episode where some wounded Japanese tried to kill American medics who were taking them off the battlefield. This sealed the Japanese reputation for treachery, ferocity, and fanaticism. Word of this quickly traveled through American ranks in the Pacific, and the war became one of no compromise.

Why do you think the United States took such an active role in the postwar world rather than retreating back into isolationism, as the country did after the First World War?

You might say because the U.S. had no choice. There was no other country left that had the ability to rehabilitate the international system. But if we again imagine a hypothetical prophet of the 1940s trying to peer into the future, he would have been a very rash prophet indeed who would have predicted that in five years time this deeply isolationist country would emerge not only as an active player in the international environment but as the leader of the international scene. Who could have predicted that the U.S. could take the lead and found the United Nations when it had walked away from the League of Nations a generation earlier? Who could have predicted that the U.S. would found and fund the International Monetary Fund and later the Marshall Plan? There was nothing in American history that suggested that Americans would play this role.

You catalogue a list of things the U.S. might have reflected on after the war, among them "how callously they had barred the door to those seeking to flee from Hitler's Europe," "how they had fought in Europe only late in the day, against a foe mortally weakened by three years of brutal warfare in the east" and had "fought in the Pacific with a bestiality they did not care to admit." These challenge the way the Second World War has traditionally been remembered. How do you think people remember it now, in the wake of movies like Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line, and books by authors like Paul Fussell and Stephen Ambrose?

In that recital I offer at the end of the book, about how Americans didn't remember some of the regrettable things about the war and memorialized a lot of others, I'm not trying to be simply contrarian, although maybe the passage has some of that atmosphere to it. What I am trying to do is set the record straight to a certain extent, and remind people that though American victory in World War II was hard won and a terrific accomplishment, we didn't fight the same war as anybody else, and we made some mistakes. In fact, there are some things that down the road we officially apologized for, like the internment of the Japanese Americans. So it might have been the "greatest generation," but like all generations they made their share of mistakes, too.

Do you think that people's conception of the Second World War is changing?

I don't know. Certainly as I go around the country talking about this book, people still want to remember the "good war"; it's easier to remember that war than the real war. It's more comforting. Especially when I find in my audience veterans of the war, what they want to hear from me and other historians is that they did the right thing, and they did it well. That's an understandable human inclination. But it's the job of history not simply to reassure people but to get the record straight. And some of the things that I think we should remember about World War II are a little unsettling and discomforting. But they're part of the record, and we don't do ourselves any favor if we neglect to confront those parts of the story.

We're now in the midst of another, albeit much more limited, military crisis in Europe. What lessons -- both diplomatic and military -- could be taken from our experience in the Second World War?

One of the lessons of World War II is that isolationism is now impossible, because of the state of the world, the state of technology, the global economy, and so on. That's part of the reason why we're now in Kosovo. The second thing is a little more complicated, and that is that as a country we have a reflexive preference for a high-tech air war of a relatively bloodless sort, and we're historically very reluctant to put men on the ground and in harm's way. In fact, the President declared at the beginning of the Kosovo crisis that he wasn't going to use ground troops -- not a very smart announcement, I think. In the Gulf War, according to the so-called "Powell Doctrine," we wouldn't introduce ground troops into combat until after a punishing air campaign and until we could do so with such immense numerical and technical superiority that we would just crush the enemy in very short order. In a sense that's exactly how we fought World War II: we waged an air war against Germany for two full years before D-Day; we quite consciously built up this very heavy-fisted air force to pound Germany, and put into the field a relatively small army, at a relatively late date. Our army was maybe half the size of the Russian army, and we introduced it into the main battlefield of northwest Europe only in the last year of the war. The casualty records reflect this. American deaths in all theaters of war were about 400,000 personnel. Russian losses, including civilians, were approximately 24 million.

Some of the air chiefs during World War II were against D-Day -- they thought we didn't need D-Day, that we could win the war from the air. And, in fact that is how the war with Japan ended -- with a tremendous nuclear aerial attack before any American soldier was introduced onto the Japanese mainland. That's always been the clincher for the theorists of air power -- it succeeded in Japan, and that's how we can do it next time if we have to.

Could you talk about the philosophy behind your way of writing history? Are there any authors you see as models?

There are several, but one that I might mention specifically is C. Vann Woodward, who happens to be the editor in chief of the Oxford History of the United States series. Woodward, like me, was tempted early in his career to go into the field of literature rather than history, and he imparts to his historical writing the highest literary qualities. He's tried all his career to write not for other specialists or for captive student audiences but for the general reader. He has a conception of history as performing not just a scholarly but also a civic function, contributing to the informed discourse of the society at large. Those are all things that I deeply believe in, so I try to write in that vein, in a way that is accessible to the general reader and not just to other specialists. Another one of my mentors was John Blum, who also shares a lot of these values. David Potter, who was my undergraduate teacher, is another person who had this same outlook. Indeed, this outlook is part of the reason I went into this field in the first place, because I thought history was an academic and scholarly discipline that was organically connected to the larger society, and not just hermetically sealed in its own academic box. I wanted very much to participate in that kind of enterprise, and Freedom From Fear is the kind of history that I became a historian to write.

Join the conversation in Post & Riposte.

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Katie Bacon is a senior editor of Atlantic Unbound.

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