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The New Dealers Previous Next
Digital History ID 3440


Franklin Roosevelt brought a new breed of government officials to Washington. Previously, most government administrators were wealthy patricians, businessmen, or political loyalists. Roosevelt, however, looked to new sources of talent, bringing to Washington a team of Ivy League intellectuals and New York State social workers. Known as the "brain trust," these advisors provided Roosevelt with economic ideas and oratorical ammunition.

The New Dealers were strongly influenced by the Progressive reformers of the early 20th century, who believed that government had not only a right but a duty to intervene in all aspects of economic life in order to improve the quality of American life. In one significant respect, however, the New Dealers differed decisively from the Progressives. Progressive reform had a strong moral dimension; many reformers wanted to curb drinking, eliminate what they considered immoral sexual behavior, and reshape human character. In comparison, the New Dealers were much more pragmatic--an attitude vividly illustrated by an incident that took place during World War I. One of the most intense policy debates during the war was whether to provide American troops with condoms. The Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels rejected the idea, fearing that it would corrupt the troops' morals:

It is wicked to seem to encourage and approve placing in the hands of the men an appliance which will lead them to think they may indulge in practices which are not sanctioned by
While Daniels was on vacation, however, Franklin Roosevelt authorized prophylactics for sailors. Pragmatism, not moral reform, would be a key New Deal theme.

Apart from their commitment to pragmatism, the New Dealers were unified in their rejection of laissez-faire orthodoxy--the idea that federal government's responsibilities were confined to balancing the federal budgets and providing for the nation's defense. The New Dealers did, however, disagree profoundly about the best way to end the Depression. They offered three alternative prescriptions for rescuing the nation's economy. The "trust-busters," led by Thurman Arnold, called for vigorous enforcement of anti-trust laws to break-up concentrated business power. The "associationalists" wanted to encourage cooperation between business, labor, and government by establishing associations and codes supported by the three parties. The "economic planners," led by Rexford Tugwell, Adolph Berle, and Gardiner Means, wanted to create a system of centralized national planning.

Roosevelt never aligned himself with any of these factions. He summed up his pragmatic attitude: "Take a method and try it," he said, "if it fails admit it frankly and try another. But above all try something."

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