June 2008

Vincent W Rospond

nonfiction

FDR: The First Hundred Days by Anthony J. Badger

Written history is general divided into three types: detailed history written by historians for historians, authoritative commercial works, and general histories. Anthony Badger’s latest work falls into the last category. It is a book that is useful for people wanting to know the basic facts, and the history community needs more of these type books.

As the title implies, FDR: The First Hundred Days deals with the legislation that Roosevelt enacted during his first hundred days of office. It is in fact these hundred days, the author contends, which sets the grace period for all future presidents and has impacted the economic development of the country for the past seventy plus years. Badger provides a clear and comprehensive view of a period which can be confusing to those unfamiliar with the legislation. The first hundred encompassed a myriad of legislation designed to get America out of the great depression that included public works, banking controls, deficit spending, farm programs, and the creation of the FDIC.

Because this depression was worldwide, by the time Roosevelt took office governments had been looking at three ways of dealing with stagnant economies: standing pat and letting the market sort itself out, instituting price controls and government intervention, or private and public packages designed to stimulate the economy. For the most part these remedies reflected the form of government involved. More controlling governments tended to enact price controls, conservative governments allowed for market corrections, liberal governments tried market stimulation. The degree of success varied by country -- and by plan instituted -- but the more tolerant governments were in a better condition to exploit the initial years of the Second World War. Roosevelt took bits of pieces of each of these, orchestrated by the government as his solution. Some of these measures were reversed by Congress or the courts, some faded away, and others are still with us today.

Badger takes each of these issues in turn and presents them to you to clear, concise fashion. I found it frustrating at times because while it boiled the basics down into easily digestible bites, it was missing just that little bit to make the reader walk away full. The bibliography is a reading list of other books that deal with specific topics in each chapter or broad brush statements of the period. This is not a criticism of the research, in that the product is very useable, but the bibliography is not laid out for ease of use. There is nothing revelatory in this tome, but it does what it says.

In terms of facts and narrative, there are some items missing from the overall picture, such as the role of socialism versus fascism worldwide, and how that affected US political thinking. There is a great discussion on who the experts were that advised Roosevelt, but not so much how they were influenced. The presentation is pretty evenhanded, but the conclusion seems to focus on historians who feel the steps of the government were unnecessary or prolonged the depression. Historians are polarized on this topic and there is evidence to support both sides, but the leap here seems to go with the right more than center.

Given the current state of US finances and the sweeping changes the current administration is proposing in financial markets, this book may be timely if nothing else. If you want a primer on the early New Deal, this is a good starting point, but if you want more info, it can help point you to more fertile grounds.

FDR: The First Hundred Days by Anthony J. Badger
Hill & Wang
ISBN: 0809044412
224 Pages