Nothing to Fear: FDR’s Inner Circle and the Hundred Days that Created Modern America

When Adam Cohen’s publishers scheduled Nothing to Fear, his dramatic new history of the first hundred days of FDR’s administration, to appear just before Inauguration Day, 2009, they could not have suspected just how disturbingly timely the book would be. Ever since the Wall Street meltdown last September, Americans have been wondering whether our current financial crisis is going to result, like the Crash of 1929, in another Great Depression. As unemployment figures rise and major industries demand government bailouts, the historical comparison looks more and more plausible. Certainly President-elect Obama is aware of it: he has already announced a plan to create 2.5 million public-works jobs, the biggest such program since the days of the Works Progress Administration.

Reading Nothing to Fear, however, helps to put our current economic woes in better perspective. People are worried enough today, but there is nothing like the sheer terror that afflicted the United States in March 1933, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt took office. Since Black Friday, three and a half years before, the stock market had dropped 85 percent; but the country was facing more than a financial crisis. As Cohen effectively shows in his opening pages, the Depression was turning into a full-scale social collapse. Farm income had dropped by two-thirds, at a time when 40 percent of Americans still made their living by farming. Five thousand banks had failed, wiping out their depositors’ life savings. Americans were literally starving in the streets: “There were great numbers of hospital cases of malnutrition reported, of babies dying, of men falling dead in parks, and frozen unemployed found in abandoned warehouses during the winter,” recalled the journalist Matthew Josephson.

It all sounds more like Russia in 1917 than like America. And the threat of revolution was by no means abstract. At a time when capitalist democracy seemed unable to function, many people looked with envy at the autocratic regimes of Mussolini and of Hitler, who had taken power in Germany just weeks before FDR’s inauguration. None of Cohen’s facts and figures conveys the sheer desperation of the moment like the quotations he offers from Senator William Borah of Idaho, who wanted to “give our incoming president dictatorial powers within the Constitution for a certain period,” and Senator David Reed of Pennsylvania, who said, “If this country ever needed a Mussolini, it needs one now.”

Americans have never forgotten how FDR, in his first inaugural address, reassured the country that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” But we seldom recall that he also warned of a “temporary departure” from constitutional rule, promising to “ask the Congress for the one remaining instrument to meet the crisis — broad executive power to wage a war against the emergency, as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe.” Cohen quotes Frances Perkins, FDR’s labor secretary, on the “solemn” and “terrifying” mood of the crowd at the inauguration: “You felt that they would do anything, if only someone would tell them what to do.”

But while FDR was committed to “action and action now,” he took office with no dogmatic views on the best way to end the Depression. As Cohen tells it, in fact, the story of the Hundred Days has much less to do with Roosevelt than with his advisers, who plied him with improvised and contradictory plans of action. Nothing to Fear focuses on the lives and ideas of the chief players in Roosevelt’s court during this crucial period, from legendary figures like Henry Wallace and Harry Hopkins to now-obscure ones like Raymond Moley, the chief of FDR’s Brain Trust, who during the Hundred Days was considered the most powerful man in Washington. (“An often-told joke,” Cohen writes, “had an old friend of Roosevelt calling up and pleading, ?Franklin, can you do me just one favor? Can you get me an appointment with Moley?’ “)

Cohen’s approach has some disadvantages: he offers more detail than the reader really needs about the early lives of his subjects, and even about their parents and grandparents. (Hopkins’s father, we learn, once won $500 in a bowling match.) And he leaves FDR’s own thoughts and decision-making processes largely in the dark. But this is fair enough, since even the president’s closest advisers often found him an enigma. They could have said, in the words of Robert Frost: “We dance round in a ring and suppose, / But the Secret sits in the middle and knows.”

Take Perkins, one of Cohen’s main subjects, who was one of just two Cabinet members to serve from the first day of FDR’s presidency to the last. Perkins worked for Roosevelt when FDR was governor of New York and had known him for decades before that. Yet even she grew frustrated by the way he seemed to agree with whoever had spoken to him last. “I know you’re putting things into his mind, if not words into his mouth,” she berated the conservative budget director, Lewis Douglas, when she found that the president had suddenly gone back on his promise to launch a public works program. Indeed, Roosevelt allowed Douglas to make savage cuts in the federal budget even as Hopkins, head of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, was sending unprecedented amounts to the poor and unemployed.

In surrounding himself with so many brilliant, passionate people, Roosevelt demonstrated a remarkable confidence in the president’s power to be what George W. Bush called, in a much-maligned but not inaccurate phrase, “the decider.” Hopkins, a former New York City social worker, clamored for immediate payments to the poor; Douglas, the scion of an Arizona copper-mining dynasty, warned that such profligacy would lead to ruin. Meanwhile Wallace, FDR’s Secretary of Agriculture (and later his Vice President), was revolutionizing American farming by paying farmers to plow under their crops; and Perkins, the first woman to serve in the Cabinet, was introducing the minimum wage and worker safety laws she had promoted all her life.

Together, they produced the blizzard of legislation — not all of it wise or effective — that made the Hundred Days legendary: the Agricultural Adjustment Act, the National Industrial Recovery Act, the Banking Act, the creation of the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Tennessee Valley Authority. But it was FDR, with his patrician confidence, his democratic principles, and his courage who made all their work possible. Nothing to Fear leaves the reader grateful that, in 1933 as in 1861 and 1789, the Republic found the leader it needed — and even more grateful that 2009, for all its troubles, will probably not turn out to be a year like those.