FDR and the Unfinished Agenda
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Part III: FDR's Brain Trust

On November 10 th 1932, two days after FDR won his first presidential election, Adolf Berle, one of the members of the outfit known as the FDR "Brain Trust," sat down to outline his view of what FDRís legislative agenda should be. Berle was best able to demonstrate the depth of the crisis in which the country found itself by drawing up a series of stark Ďeither/orí alternatives for the president-elect and his cabinet.

He put together three of them. First, there would either be economic recovery or there would be a revolution. Second, there would either be social reform of a restored economy or attempted political stabilization in a disintegrating one. Third, either the "recovery" Hoover claimed was in progress woud arrive, or FDR would have to clean up the mess.

"It must be remembered," Berle wrote, "that by March 4th next we may have anything on our hands from a recovery to a revolution. The chance is about even either way." 1 If there wasnít a recovery, would there be a revolution, if the economy was not recovering how could there be social reform or political stabilization?

Berle had joined Rooseveltís election campaign back in March of 1932. At that time Samuel I. Rosenman, FDRís counsel, proposed that FDR pull together a group that could provide him with policy analyses and speeches. High-energy brain power, capable of turning around big projects quickly, was Rosenmanís prescription.2 Rosenman was a New York State Supreme Court Justice, who had served with Roosevelt since the early 1920ís, and would until after the Presidentís death, when he continued to help organize the Nuremberg prosecutions of leading Nazis,

Rosenman went to Columbia University professor Ray Moley, and asked him to round up some other smart folks. Moley had done studies of the criminal justice system for FDR while he was governor of New York State. Rosenman, Moley and FDRís law partner Basil OíConnor then held a follow up meeting to which two other Columbia professors, Rexford Tugwell and Adolf Berle, were invited. In the third week of March Moley took Tugwell to meet FDR. While it is not clear what happened in that meeting, on April 7th 1932 Roosevelt made his first electoral campaign radio address. It was the one which came to be known as "The Forgotten Man," and it was the work of the group that Rosenman had pulled together.

This short radio broadcast, just 12 minutes long, established the major themes of what became the FDR election campaign, and the initial 100-day opening drive of his administration. There are people who insist that no one really knew what Roosevelt was going to do if, and when, he became President. If the broadcasts and speeches from "Forgotten Man" through the First Fireside chat of March 12th 1933 are taken together, including his acceptance speech on July 2nd at the Democratic Convention in Chicago, his Commonwealth Club Speech in San Francisco, September 23rd 1932, his Inaugural Address of March 4th 1933), it becomes quite clear that most everyone was well informed of what the major policy outlines and commitment of the incoming FDR administration would be.

As Berle emphasized in his memo, it was not clear what the actual circumstances at the time of the inauguration would be, and thus it remained unclear how everything would actually be implemented. As it turned out, and as we have seen, the banking crisis and the gold flight defined the emergency circumstances that got the ball rolling.

The group that came together has been attacked as ivory tower academics who didnít know how the world worked, as advocates of "big government," as socialists and collectivizers. The names came thick and fast, sometimes from the ignorant, often from paid apologists for unabashed corporate dominance. Their simplistic caricatures drove attacks against advocates for social justice and are used even today.

In fact, the stories and ideological backgrounds of FDRís Brain Trust are a bit more complicated. Most of the members of this group were heirs of something called the Progressive tradition, an American school of economics, separate and different from the utilitarianism or Marshall/Keynes type thinking coming out of England, and also from the economics coming out of Wilhelmine Germany, and different as well from the theories of the Marxists and the Social Democrats.

One of the key influences on Berle and Tugwell, for example, was Charles van Hise who in 1912 published a volume called "Concentration and Control: A Solution of the Trust Problem in the United States." Berle, together with his colleague Gardiner Means, was the author of the "The Modern Corporation and Private Property" 3.

Berle worked with FDRís wife Eleanor to prepare the talk featured in the Commonwealth Club speech, in San Francisco on September 23rd 1932. This speech took up the question of the relationship between the political rights of the individual and the rights of property. It featured an affirmation in the strongest terms of the primacy of the first. This view comes from van Hise. The idea was that corporations, which had gotten so concentrated in form should not be broken up, but should be brought under government control and made accountable.

In the Commonwealth Club speech FDR put it this way:

Six hundred odd corporations Ö controlled two thirds of industry. Ten million small-business men divided the other third. Ö [A]t the end of another century we shall have all American industry controlled by a dozen corporations and run by perhaps a hundred men. Put plainly, we are steering a steady course toward economic oligarchy.

There was a division earlier, during the Wilson administration between the proponents of this approach, and "trust-busters" like later Supreme Court Judge Brandeis, who some said, favored a return to a smaller scale, more agricultural type of life style. Tugwell thought Brandeis had derailed industrial policy single-handedly for more than 20 years.4

Those who joined the group formed by Rosenman were also in agreement with the methods proposed by the Wilson administration to organize the industrial side of the war build-up, if it had lasted long enough, and the administrative measures which had been developed to protect the country from financial speculators and saboteurs. After Roosevelt became President those who served in a variety of Wilsonís war related boards, found ready homes in his new administration.

They had a common outlook and a common approach to policy questions, one that was shared by the former Assistant Secretary of the Navy in the Wilson administration, FDR.

After the inauguration, most members of the Brain Trust were deployed into government departments. Rosenman and Berle stayed outside, where Berle helped with drawing up banking legislation, securities reform and railroad reorganization bills.

Often overlooked in all this discussion, "where did Roosevelt get his ideas from?" is FDRís stint as Governor of NY State from 1928 to 1932. In those days New York State was the countryís most populous. With New York City and its suburbs, it had a transportation, manufacturing and population center, with upstate New York an important agricultural sector. New York State was a microcosm of the whole country.

Is it any wonder then that programs implemented in New York State would function as drafts for what FDR would do as President, or that people who had worked with FDR in New York State would be brought down to Washington to work with him too? After all, FDR had modeled his own career trajectory on that of his relative Teddy. First stop for both was Assistant Secretary of the Navy, second Governor of New York state, third was the White House.

Henry Morgenthau, Jr. who had been the Chairman of the New York Agricultural Advisory Commission, would first work on agriculture and then become Treasury Secretary. Frances Perkins, who as Industrial Commissioner of New York had worked on unemployment insurance and social security type retirement programs, would become the first woman cabinet member when she took over the Labor Department. Harry Hopkins was the New York head of FDRís Temporary Emergency Relief Administration, a prototype for the Federal Emergency Relief Administration. In New York FDR was an advocate of the 5-day work week and the 8 hour day. In New York FDR launched Hydropower projects, as he would later around the country.

What Roosevelt had learned as Governor of New York State, dealing with the unemployed, the hungry, the dispossessed was that the election of 1932 would be won by whoever could harness the votes of discontent and become its voice. The Forgotten Man broadcast was the pilot project, and it was a winner. On April 13th FDRís opponent for the Democrat nomination Al Smith denounced the broadcast at the Jefferson Day dinner, saying he was prepared "to fight Ö against any candidate who persists in any demagogic appeal to the masses of working people." It wasnít demagoguery, it was what the country needed to hear. FDR would make sure they heard the message often during his campaign in 1932.

1David Kennedy " Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945. " NY 1999, page 117.

2Outline for Brain Trust recruitment and activities taken from Black op.cit pp225-250, Kennedy op. ci.t pp119-124 and Feis op.cit. ch11 passim.

3 Kennedy op. cit. p120. " Second, they all considered themselves inheritors of that tradition of progressive thought best expressed in Charles van Hiseís classic work of 1912, "Concentration and Control: A Solution of the Trust Problem in the United States." Both Berle and Tugwell in 1932 were in the process of making important contributions to that intellectual tradition with works of their own. "

4 Kennedy op.cit. p121

Next, Part IV: The First Hundred Days .

Key Research by: Ava Home
ePluribus Media editors and fact checkers for this article: JeninRI,standingup, aaron barlow, cho, Cache, Roxy, and Vivian

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