Title Reviewed:
A New Deal for the American People

Author Reviewed:
Roger Biles

Charles J. Tull


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 88, Issue 3, pp 257-258

Article Type:
Book Review

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A New Deal for the American People. By Roger Biles. (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1991. Pp. 274. Illustrations, notes, bibliographical essay, index. Clothbound, $28.50; paperbound, $12.00.)

New Deal scholarship has undergone an interesting change since the 1960s when the New Left indicted it for failing, as Barton J. Bernstein put it, "to transform American society." Recent scholarship has taken a more realistic turn, and younger scholars, who have produced several fine monographs in recent years, have tended to be far less critical. Unlike the New Left revisionists they are evaluating the New Deal in the framework of an extremely conservative American society that would not have tolerated radical change. As Roger Biles notes in his introduction, there is now "an emerging consensus regarding the limitations of New Deal reform and an understanding of the realities of politics and the resistance to change in local and state politics" (p. 3). A New Deal for the American People "mirrors that consensus" (p. 3). The author breaks no new ground in this well-written account of the successes, failures, and limitations of the New Deal. Instead, making use of a prodigious command of secondary sources, he provides a well-written, scholarly overview of the new scholarship.

Biles's chapter on the relief program is particularly illustrative of the innate conservatism of the American people and their political system. It is easy to condemn the New Deal for doing too little, but many of the states were unwilling to do anything. At the height of the depression six states refused to cooperate with the federal relief program, and Harry Hopkins was forced to federalize their operations. In 1937 nine states, including Indiana, "contributed nothing for relief but paid some administrative costs" (p. 112). With millions out of work in 1935 polls indicated that 60 percent of the American people thought relief spending was too high. One of the most important legacies of the New Deal was the formation of relief agencies by state and local governments. These agencies, imperfect as they were and are, are now a vital part of the safety net for the poor and the unemployed.

Biles agrees with the New Left revisionists that the New Deal was neither radical nor revolutionary: "The New Deals’ great achievement was the application of just enough change to preserve the American political economy" (p. 230). He is more willing, however, to give it credit for what it actually accomplished; namely, that it "provided sustenance for millions of people and hope for many more" (p. 226).

CHARLES J. TULL is professor of history, Indiana University, South Bend. He is currently writing a history of the United States Shipping Board in World War I.

Published by the Indiana University Department of History.