|Inside the New Deal
by Joe Marcus
(An Economist in the New Deal Administration of Harry Hopkins)
I think it was '31 or '32. 1 was attending the City College of New York. Most were students whose parents were workers or small businessmen hit by the Depression. In the public speaking class, I was called upon to talk about unemployment insurance. I was attacked by most of the students ... this was Socialism. I was shocked by their vehemence. If I remember the American Federation of Labor at its national convention voted it down. The idea of social security was very advanced. Those who were really hungry wanted something. But the intellectuals, the students, the bureaucratic elements-to them it was a horrible thought. It was something subversive. At first.
But they learned quickly. It was a shock to them. When Roosevelt came out with the ideas, it was not a clearly thought-out program. There was much improvisation. What you had was a deep-seated emotional feeling as far as the people were concerned. A willingness to change society, just out of outrage, out of need. I think they would have accepted even more radical ideas.
Roosevelt was reflecting the temper of the time-the emotional more than the intellectual. It wasn't merely a question of the king bestowing favors. The pressure from below was a reality. It was not a concentrated campaign effort. There was no organization with a program that commanded the majority of the people, This was part of the political strangeness of our society. The actions below were very revolutionary. Yet some of the ideas of the people, generally, were very backward.
I graduated college in '35. 1 went down to Washington and started to work in the spring of '36. The New Deal was a young man's world. Young people, if they showed any ability, got an opportunity. I was a kid, twenty-two or twenty-three. In a few months I was made head of the department. We had a meeting with hot shots: What's to be done? I pointed out some problems: let's define what we're looking for. They immediately had me take over. I had to set up the organization and hire seventy-five people. Given a chance as a youngster to try out ideas, I learned a fantastic amount. The challenge itself was great.
It was the idea of being asked big questions. The technical problems were small. These you had to solve by yourself. But the context was broad: Where was society going? Your statistical questions became questions of full employment. You were not prepared for it in school. If you wanted new answers, you needed a new kind of people. This is what was exciting.
Ordinarily, I might have had a job at the university, marking papers or helping a professor. All of a sudden, I'm doing original research and asking basic questions about how our society works. What makes a Depression? What makes for pulling out of it? Once you start thinking in these terms, you're in a different ball game.
The climate was exciting. You were part of a society that was on the move. You were involved in something that could make a difference. Laws could be changed. So could the conditions of people.
The idea of being involved close to the center of political life was unthinkable, just two or three years before all this happened. Unthinkable for someone like me, of lower middle-class, close to ghetto, Jewish life. Suddenly you were a significant member of society. It was not the kind of closed society you had lived in before....
You were really part of something, changes could be made. Bringing immediate results to people who were starving. You could do something about it: that was the most important thing. This you felt.
A feeling that if you had something to say, it would get to the top. As I look back now, memoranda I had written reached the White House, one way or another. The biggest thrill of my life was hearing a speech of Roosevelt's using a selection from a memorandum I had written.
Everybody was searching for ideas. A lot of guys were opportunists, some were crackpots. But there was a search, a sense of values ... that would make a difference in the lives of people.
We weren't thinking of remaking society. That wasn't it. I didn't buy this dream stuff. What was happening was a complete change in social attitudes at the central government level. The question was; How can you do it within this system? People working in all the New Deal agencies were dominated by this spirit....
It was an exciting community, where we lived in Washington. The basic feeling-and I don't think this is just nostalgia-was one of excitement, of achievement, of happiness. Life was important, life was significant.
Were there questions in Washington about the nature of our society?
I don't think revolution as a topic of the day existed. The fact that people acted as they did, in violation of law and order was itself a revolutionary act. People suddenly heard there was a Communist Party. It was insignificant before then. Suddenly, the more active people, the more concerned people, were in one way or another exposed to it. It never did command any real popular support, though it had influence in key places. This was a new set of ideas, but revolution was never really on the agenda.
F.D.R. was very significant in understanding how best to lead this sort of situation. Not by himself, but he mobilized those elements ready to develop these programs.