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The Social Implications of the Roosevelt Administration: 1934

The Social Implications of the Roosevelt Administration

Harold L. Ickes, Secretary, U.S. Department of the Interior, A Speech at the Annual Meeting of Survey Associates

 Editor’s NoteHarold L. Ickes served as Secretary of the Interior from March 4, 1933 to February 15, 1946.  He and Labor Secretary Frances Perkins were the only original members of the Roosevelt cabinet who remained in office for his entire presidency.Harold L. Ickes, 32nd Secretary of the Interior[View Image]
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Harold L. Ickes, 32nd Secretary of the Interior

I WONDER how many appreciated at the time what was really involved in the last presidential campaign. On the surface it was more or less a repetition of what we go through with every four years in these United States. Democrats were beating the tom-toms against the Republicans; the “ins” were solemnly advising the voters that to yield the citadel to the “outs” would plunge the country into irretrievable disaster. We had the usual appeal to political loyalty and to party prejudice. The wagging tongue of slander was busy as is its wont in whispering innuendoes. We were assured that grass would grow in the streets of our cities if the Democratic candidate was elected. By one we were told not to change pilots while in rough waters, an adaptation for 1932 of the old Hanna slogan of 1900—”not to change horses in the middle of the stream.” By another we were exhorted to bring about “a new deal for the forgotten man.” So little did we realize that underneath the frenzied clash of arms of the contending political hosts a far-reaching and fundamental political revolution was on that many who had selfishly devoted their lives to the cause of that same “forgotten man” continued to support and to vote for, even without enthusiasm, the champion of that ruthless, exploiting individualism that was in the main responsible for the terrible economic situation in which we found ourselves. It would be impossible even to estimate how many millions of voters march to the polls, not to cast their ballots for some one candidate or some one issue, but to register their emphatic protest against some one candidate or some one issue. I imagine that people vote negatively as often as they vote affirmatively. Perhaps oftener. They express their prejudices as readily as their enthusiasms in the polling booth. The result was that while millions of votes were cast for the Democratic candidate because of the love and enthusiasm that people felt for him, it is nevertheless also true that many other millions voted for him because they were disappointed and disillusioned, whether justly or not, with respect to the opposition candidate.

From this distance after the election it is easier to understand its significance. It is clear that whether we intended such a result or not, we are blazing new trails just as surely as our ancestors did when they felt their way cautiously through the untrodden forests in the early days when this country consisted of a thin and easily broken thread along the Atlantic seacoast. A bloodless revolution occurred in this nation on November 8, 1932. In my judgment we have turned our backs definitely and finally upon an era that history will appraise as at once sordid, ruthless and glorious.

We have learned the bitter lesson since 1929 that we are mutually dependent on each other. We know now that if one considerable section of our population lacks sufficient food and clothing and proper shelter, our whole social structure is impaired and weakened. With the disappearance of the frontier as the result of the eager exploitation of our national domain, with its rich treasures of mines and oil wells and fertile fields and water power and lumber; with our enlarging population, filling every nook and cranny of our vast continental expanse that could be made to yield a fair living; with the crowding of people together in our great cities, the time came, as a matter of course, when it was necessary to modify or even to discard certain social, economic and political concepts appropriate to a pioneer people and boldly face a future which, while it will be and ought to be a continuation and development of our past, will nevertheless, in many vital and essential particulars, be different.

It is my privilege tonight to address a group of men and women who have devoted their lives to the improvement of social conditions. You have not hesitated to experiment in order to improve those conditions. You have been pioneers in the fight for social justice. You have interposed your strength between the exploiter and his victim. You have fought for the abolition of child labor and you will not falter in that good fight until the pending child-labor amendment to the Constitution has been ratified by the states. You have pressed for legislation to protect women in industry. You have instituted movements for slum clearance. Toilfully you have brought about some degree of improvement in the conditions under which men and women have sweated and slaved in noisome and insanitary tenements. You have struggled to provide correctional instead of punitive handling of juvenile delinquents. You have helped to bring it about that dangerous machinery is protected; that working hours have been reduced so that the workman can keep within the limits of his physical and nervous endurance. You are working for unemployment and old-age insurance, for workmen’s compensation laws and mothers’ pensions. On the credit side of the ledger you can also enter countless parks and playgrounds, bathing-beaches and swimming-pools, libraries, recreational centers, gymnasia and educational facilities, all within the reach of people who a generation ago had scant opportunity to employ such leisure as they had.

There is now a chance such as there has never been before, not only to consolidate all the social gains to date but to make further substantial advances. In my opinion, there occupies the White House today the most humane, the most understanding and the most socially minded President that these United States have ever had. The slogan, “the forgotten man,” was no mere campaign phrase flung trippingly from his tongue as a vote-catching device. It was the expression of a profound conviction, of a mature social purpose. If this was little understood during the campaign it is generally recognized now. President Roosevelt genuinely likes just human beings. This is no pose on his part. It is part of the warp and woof of his character. The people know that there is at the head of their government in Washington a man genuinely and unaffectedly devoted to their interests.

Reduced to its simplest terms, the social revolution of which I have spoken consisted in turning out from the seats of power the representatives of wealth and privilege and exploiting ruthlessness and substituting for them a man whose purpose it is to make this country of ours a better place to live in for the average man and woman. It is not the desire of President Roosevelt, as I understand him, to pull anyone down. It is a passion with him to build people up. But if it is necessary in his process of building up to ward off with his shield the mailed fist of the marauder he will do it.

What has already been accomplished since the dawn of this new social order that was ushered in on March 4 last? Our banking and currency systems are on a sounder basis than they have been for years. Confronted with the greatest banking crisis in the history of the country, this man, whom his opponents had pictured during the campaign as weak, vacillating, indecisive and incapable of making up and holding his own mind, grasped this acute situation with a firm hand and proceeded to restore order. People may now deposit their savings in banks with the assurance that they will be ready for their needs when they seek to draw them out.

As a result of legislation passed by the special session of Congress last spring there has been a marked improvement in the economic condition of the farmer. Under the fostering care of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation our financial and fiduciary institutions are acquiring new stability. The Home Owners’ Loan Corporation is saving thousands of American homes through the refinancing of maturing mortgages. The railroad problem has been put into the hands of the man best qualified to solve it. The Farm Credit Administration has been set up to do for the farmers what the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation is doing for the small-home owners.

The real significance of all of these government undertakings is a social significance. Our government is no longer a laissez-faire government, exercising traditional and more or less impersonal powers. There exists in Washington a sense of responsibility for the health, safety and well-being of the people. One of President Roosevelt’s first announcements was that the government would not permit its citizens to starve. And he has kept the faith. The federal government has not only poured out its treasures to provide food, clothing and shelter for the unemployed, it has sought in every way possible to restore the morale of the people and to reestablish our social order upon a sounder and more durable foundation.

One of the last administration measures passed by the special session of the Congress, prior to its adjournment in June, was the National Industrial Recovery Act which gave unusual and tremendous powers to the executive. Endowed with delegated powers under this Act, General Hugh S. Johnson has called together in Washington in rapid succession representatives of business and industry to formulate and agree upon codes of fair competition for their respective industries. The theory of the administration is that business and industry will serve their own best interests, as well as the best interests of the country, by organizing what, in effect, are great cooperative movements. Wages and hours of labor, methods of competition, percentage of profits and, in some instances, minimum and maximum prices, are all covered by these codes. The theory underlying them is that each particular industry and business will govern itself with the cooperation of the federal government. Unfair methods of competition are outlawed under the codes.

A code may be self-imposed by a majority of an industry despite a recalcitrant minority. A code may be involuntarily imposed notwithstanding the opposition of a majority. The government, in effect, is saying to business and industry: “Cooperate voluntarily if you can, but cooperate you must. You must restrain yourselves for the common good. You must fit into your proper place in the new social order. You must serve and no longer selfishly dominate.” A far cry this from “rugged individualism.”

THIS movement is pregnant with tremendous social, economic and political possibilities. Take one instance. For years an effort was made in this country to abolish child labor. The Congress has adopted a resolution for a constitutional amendment but the states have so far failed to ratify

it, although happily they are now gradually falling into line. The situation was discouraging. Then on July 9, 1933, President Roosevelt, in affixing his signature to the Textile Code, the first of these new industrial charters to be signed, by a simple stroke of the pen abolished child labor in the United States at least temporarily. This blot on our civilization has for the time been wiped out and other social injustices and abuses will follow, if not under the codes, then as the result of future legislation. The sweatshop will be outlawed. Noisome slums will be cleared. Shorter hours and minimum wages for labor have already been written into the codes. Unemployment insurance and old-age pensions in their turn will give a feeling of security to those temporarily out of work or nearing the time when their ability to work effectively will be gone.

In addition to providing machinery for setting up and administering codes of fair competition, the National Industrial Recovery Act set aside the sum of $3,300,000,000 for a Public Works’ program. Here was the greatest sum of money ever appropriated by any government for such a purpose in the history of the world. The administration of this vast sum of money was necessarily entrusted to men who had had neither experience nor precedent to guide them. We did not even have the nucleus of an organization. Yet time was of the essence. Congress had provided this money in order that it might be put to work as speedily as possible to rime the pump of industrial recovery. It was necessary to go out into all parts of the country to seek for engineers, lawyers, accountants and financial experts to be thrown together over night into a functioning organization. But we did it. Not only this but we set up a Public Works’ organization in every state in order to expedite the work and to decentralize it as much as possible. And in six months not only was all of this money allocated but there has not been even a hint of corruption or graft or waste in connection with its administration. While we hope and believe that a further appropriation will be made by the Congress for Public Works we realize that our next major task is to see to it that all of the money that has been allocated is put promptly to use.

In carrying out this Public Works’ program the government is once more acting as a social agency and not merely as tax-collector, a policeman or an arbitrator. People were out of work; they were cold; they were hungry; they were rapidly losing their morale. Recognizing its responsibility as a government of the people and for the people, the administration lost no time in quibbling over technicalities, or worrying about precedents. An acute problem had to be solved. A social crisis must be met. President Roosevelt, recognizing his grave responsibility, met this crisis. Later, with winter approaching and millions of men still out of work, in spite of the desperate effort that had been made to start the Public Works’ program at top speed, the President turned over hundreds of millions of dollars to the brilliant and able federal relief administrator, Harry L. Hopkins, with instructions to put men back to work over the winter instead of carrying them on relief rolls. The effect of this bold stroke on the morale of the country has been marvelous. Thanks to the fine and humane work of Mr. Hopkins, we are coming through the winter of 1933-34 as a people in the best physical and spiritual condition since the crash that brought us to our knees in 1929.

While applying immediate social remedies, this administration has not been blind to the necessity of long-range planning. One of the most significant developments of the Public Works’ program is the National Planning Board which was organized and is functioning as part of the Public Works’ Administration. Heretofore America has just grown. It has followed no matured plan because no one has ever thought that a plan was necessary or, if he has thought so, he has been too busy to do anything about it. With the vanishing fo the physical frontier the necessity of a rational national plan has become more and more apparent. It was left to the administration of President Roosevelt to adopt for the first time as a national policy the theory that the country as a whole ought to be developed and used for the greatest good of the greatest number, and that we cannot develop and use it in that manner unless we have thoroughly and intelligently studied the entire country; unless we know its valleys, its streams, its mountains and its plains and what is the best use they can be put to; unless we understand the problems of navigation, flood control, power and sewage disposal; unless we have a knowledge of our mineral resources, our soil possibilities, our ranges of climate and the adaptability of our crops to soil and climate.

Nor will aesthetic values be overlooked by the National Planning Board. Consisting as it does of Frederic A. Delano, chairman, Professor Charles E; Merriam, of the University of Chicago, and Professor Wesley C. Mitchell, of Columbia University, with Charles W. Eliot, 2d, as executive officer, the board can be depended upon to give due consideration to such values. The purpose is to develop soundly and sanely and to use wisely and conservatively the tremendous resources of this vastly rich country for the material needs and physical comfort of the people, while at the same time preserving and cherishing its beauties of water and sky and mountain for the spiritual up-building and physical health of the people.

Also, as part of the Public Works’ Administration, a Federal Housing Corporation has been organized and to it has been allocated the sum of 5100 million to be devoted to slum clearance in the crowded cities of the country. Of this sum $20 million has been earmarked for New York and an equal amount for Chicago. There has been some delay in getting this program under way due to several false starts on the part of local voluntary committees. There has been difficulty in finding enough qualified experts to carry on the work. Then too we have had to go slow because we want to secure necessary land before the real-estate speculators can beat us to it and force up prices which would be reflected in too high rents.

WE hope to demonstrate through actual slum-clearance projects in a dozen or more cities what decent housing at a minimum rental will mean for those cities in the way of improved morale, of healthier living, of abatement in delinquency. We believe that while it may be a requirement of modern industrial life that large masses of people live together in close proximity, it is not necessary that they should live crowded together indecently in filthy tenements where even light and air are lacking. Slum clearance not only serves a highly desirable social purpose, it offers an opportunity of employment for men in our crowded cities where the building trades have especially suffered during these years of depression. We cannot expect immediately to clean out all the slums of our cities but we do believe that we can do enough to prove what can be done in the way of providing decent and comfortable quarters for those in the lower-income classes and our hope is that when the cities begin to receive the dividends that we know they will receive in social returns from these housing projects the municipalities themselves or groups of citizens will take up and carry on this desirable work.

There are other highly important and socially significant activities that are being carried on in Washington that I would like to talk about but I would be trespassing unduly upon your time. They are so many and so varied that we cannot now appraise them at their true value We are too close to them. I will refer merely in passing to the new land policy of the President—a policy that provides that when a new acre of land is brought into cultivation as the result of reclamation or drainage, acreage of submarginal land of an equivalent productive capacity shall be taken out of cultivation and turned back either into the public domain or into the national forests. Twenty five million dollars have been set aside to begin the necessary land purchases in order to give effect to this policy.

One of the noteworthy facts about this administration is that it does not sit about indulging in day dreams. When an idea has been tested and found to be one which if reduced to reality will make for the greater happiness and well-being of the people the administration immediately sets about to give it effect. President Roosevelt does not run away from an idea merely because it is a new one. He makes precedent serve him instead of himself serving precedent. In addition to his imagination and his courage he has a practical mind. He is soundly wise. While he does not withhold his hand from doing what he thinks ought to be done for the benefit of the country through fear of failure he is neither reckless nor foolhardy.

A faint voice was heard in the land last week in opposition to President Roosevelt’s policies. It came from Ogden L. Mills wending his lugubrious way to Topeka, Kansas, to tell the free-thinking, hard-hitting farmers of the Middle-West that it were far better for them to starve by strict constitutional methods than to live by a liberalized interpretation of that fundamental document. With black band on arm and hat at half mast, he mourned the departed glories of the past. Whatever the administration was doing was. wrong. Initiative was stricken with a palsy. Liberty was dead. That rugged individualism so dear to the heart of the men who by ruthless methods have grown rich at the expense of those not strong enough to protect themselves from exploitation, was no more. The good old days of government of the rich and powerful for the rich and powerful at the expense of the great mass of the people were gone forever.

Those old days are gone, let us hope, forever. I believe that we are at the dawn of an era when the average man and woman and child in the United States will have an opportunity for a happier and richer life. And it is just and desirable that this should be so. After all, we are not in this world to work like galley slaves for long hours at toilsome tasks, in order to accumulate in the hands of 2 percent of the population 80 percent of the wealth of the country. We are not here merely to endure a purgatorial existence in anticipation of a beatific eternity after the grave closes on us. We are here with hopes and aspirations and legitimate desires that we are entitled to have satisfied to at least a reasonable degree. Nor will such a social program as we have been discussing cause a strain on our economic system. The contrary, rather. To satisfy legitimate wants, to encourage greater consumption of goods, means more orders for factories, increased travel, a stimulation of commercial life. Fortunately, a higher standard of living fits perfectly into the offensive being waged against depression.

Thinking back over the years, I can recall political shibboleths vainly shouted in the hope that the walls of unfair privilege, of entrenched selfish power, might by some miracle fall down: “A square deal,” “Social justice.” Uttering these slogans many of us have marched and counter-marched until in very foot weariness we could no longer keep in line. Perhaps some of us who fought for “a square deal” or “for social justice” were just a little cynical when we were invited to join in the crusade for the “New Deal.” Mayhap we thought that it was just another flank movement intended by the strategists to capture the seats of power. But we know now that this was not a mere political battle cry. It expressed an aspiration, a determination to achieve something of good for the great mass of the people. We know now by a hundred tests that Franklin D. Roosevelt has a genuine feeling for the people. We know that he hates injustice with a righteous hatred. He would defend the weak against the strong. He would deny to women and little children the glorious constitutional right to enslave their bodies and dwarf their souls by long hours of overtaxing toil in order to add to the profits of those whose incomes are already so great that it causes a vertigo when they make up their tax returns.

In my judgment here is the leader you have been looking for for more years than you would like to remember. And, miracle of miracles, this leader in a great forward movement for a new and better social order is actually occupying the seat of the mightiest ruler in the world today. Strong in the faith of the people, entrenched in their confident affections, he will not fail us unless we fail him. He is the master of a stout ship, sailing in the right direction. Granted any sort of a favoring breeze he will bring us safely into the harbor of a fairer land.

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Ickes, H.L. (1934, March). The social implications of the Roosevelt Administration. Survey Graphic, 23(3), 111. Retrieved [date accessed] from /?p=11152.

Source:  New Deal Network, (March 12, 2014).

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