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Roosevelt's Critics Previous Next
Digital History ID 3444

 

By 1935, Roosevelt's programs were provoking strong opposition. Many conservatives regarded his programs as infringements on the rights of the individual, while a growing number of critics argued that they did not go far enough. Three figures stepped forward to challenge Roosevelt: Huey Long, a Louisiana senator; Father Charles Coughlin, a Catholic priest from Detroit; and Francis Townsend, a retired California physician.

Of the three, Huey Long attracted the widest following. Ambitious, endowed with supernatural energy, and totally devoid of scruples, Long was a fiery, spellbinding orator in the tradition of southern populism. As governor and then U.S. senator, he ruled Louisiana with an iron hand, keeping a private army equipped with sub-machine guns and a "deduct box," where he kept funds deducted from state employees' salaries. Yet the people of Louisiana loved him because he attacked the big oil companies, increased state spending on public works, and improved public schools. Although he backed Roosevelt in 1932, Long quickly abandoned the president and opposed the New Deal as too conservative.

Huey Long was immensely popular, especially among the poor. Part of his appeal lay in his style; he dressed in vanilla ice cream-white suits and called himself "the Kingfish," after a character in "Amos 'n Andy." He became a popular legend by playing up his country origins and ridiculing the rich. In one incident, he issued a "budget" showing how millionaires could economize by living on $10,000 a day.

Early in 1934, Long announced his "Share Our Wealth" program. Vowing to make "every man a king," he promised to soak the rich by imposing a stiff tax on inheritances over $5 million and by levying a 100 percent tax on annual incomes over $1 million. The confiscated funds, in turn, would be distributed to the people, guaranteeing every American family an annual income of no less than $2,000. In Long's words, the money would be more than enough to buy "a radio, a car, and a home." By February 1935, Long's followers had organized over 27,000 "Share Our Wealth" clubs. Roosevelt had to take him seriously, for a Democratic poll revealed that Long could attract three-to-four million voters to an independent presidential ticket.

Like Long, Father Charles Coughlin was an early supporter who turned sour on the New Deal. For about 16 years, from the mid-1920s until the United States entered World War II, Father Charles Coughlin was probably the most influential religious figure in the United States. His radio program, "The Golden Hour of the Shrine of the Little Flower," had a weekly audience of 16 million. His parish in suburban Detroit had to build a post office to handle his mail.

Coughlin blamed the Depression on greedy bankers and challenged Roosevelt to solve the crisis by nationalizing banks and inflating the currency. When Roosevelt refused to heed his advice, Coughlin broke with Roosevelt and in 1934 formed the National Union for Social Justice. The National Union's weekly newspaper serialized "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion," an anti-Semitic forgery.

Father Coughlin helped to invent a new kind of preaching that made effective use of the microphone and radio. Coughlin exemplified what historian Richard Hofstadter called the "paranoid style." He believed that Jews and Communists, in league with bankers and capitalists, were out to get the little man.

Roosevelt's least likely critic was Dr. Francis Townsend, a California public health officer, who found himself unemployed at the age of 67 with only $100 in savings. Seeing many people in similar or worse straits, Townsend embraced old-age relief as the key to ending the Depression. In January 1934, Townsend announced his plan, demanding a $200 monthly pension for every citizen over the age of 60. In return, recipients had to retire and spend their entire pension every month within the United States. Younger Americans would inherit the jobs vacated by senior citizens and the economy would be stimulated by the increased purchasing power of the elderly. Although critics lambasted the Townsend plan as ludicrous, several million Americans found his plan refreshingly simple.

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