Seventy-five years ago, in March 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt became president amid the gravest economic crisis in the nation's history. The Depression that began with, but was not necessarily caused by, the collapse of the stock market in 1929 was now pulling banks, farms and businesses into a swirling vortex. Unemployment ratcheted up to 25 percent.
FDR's response was to try something, anything, to get people working again. Congress agreed to put the federal government in debt to create jobs, and in 1935, the Works Progress Administration started to "make the dirt fly," in the president's words. Before it officially closed in 1943, the workers hired and paid by the WPA built countless roads, stadiums, libraries, parks, New York's LaGuardia Airport and San Antonio's River Walk.
In American-Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA, When FDR Put the Nation to Work, writer Nick Taylor revels in the sprawling construction statistics. Nonetheless, he gives space in this story to the WPA's critics in Congress, who insisted that those initials stood for "We Piddle Around" and that Communists had infiltrated the agency. He also touches on the continued rate of joblessness, which persisted despite Roosevelt's efforts.
The New Deal's job creation, if it failed in the aggregate, succeeded in the particular. Taylor, a writer of popular nonfiction and co-author of John Glenn's memoir, puts a human face on the WPA through interviews with the folks who got government paychecks and their dignity back. "It wasn't no different than no other job," said Johnny Mills, who dug out embankments and shoveled gravel to widen roads in the North Carolina mountains. "You earned the money. I always tried to make a living for my family. And it was help to us."Taylor's second hero, after President Roosevelt, is Harry Hopkins, who ran the New Deal relief efforts for almost six years. Taylor gives a rich portrait of this great public servant, a rare bureaucrat who spoke his mind against his relentless critics. His resignation at the end of 1938 is as good a place as any to declare the New Deal over, as Taylor does. Nine months later, Hitler's armies marched into Poland and began the conquest of Europe. Taylor acknowledges that the economic engine of manufacture for World War II brought unemployment down to single digits.
Taylor does not enter the debate over whether the New Deal amounted to another American revolution by intruding federal powers into political, social and personal matters. But in his sketches of New Deal relief programs, one can readily find the idea of government responsibility for individual well-being and welfare. Did the government's involvement in a job creation program lead to today's federal presence in education? Should the crisis of 1933-1943 have made the federal government what it later became - a regulator in the banking and securities business, as well as the agricultural and industrial sectors of the economy?Those aren't Taylor's questions. Instead, he chronicles with engaging detail the work of one New Deal agency that "placed its faith in ordinary men and women [who] proved to be extraordinary beyond all expectations."James Summerville writes from Dickson, Tennessee.