From Old Brains to New
A Review of Elliot A. Rosen’s Hoover, Roosevelt, and the Brains Trust: From Depression to New Deall
Travelling around for research, Elliot A. Rosen worked on this book for over 13 years. He utilized first person accounts, such as personal and professional correspondence between the Brain Trusters themselves. He later wrote Roosevelt, the Great Depression, and the Economics of Recovery, a follow-up to Hoover, Roosevelt, and the Brains Trust.
BY CALVIN DUONG
It is interesting to know that Franklin Delano Roosevelt did not, in fact, run as unopposed as one may have thought. Yes, Roosevelt was able to trounce Hoover in a landslide victory, but it was the Democratic conventions that would prove to be the greatest hurdle for Roosevelt. According to Ernest M. Lander, “in Rosen’s opinion Herbert Hoover’s program ‘promoted the Depression,” leading to the landslide Democratic victory in 1932.1 Throughout his political career, Roosevelt had the backing of a group of academics, specifically tasked with aiding and advising the politician. But who were they, and why were they chosen? Where were they from? Were they connected to his later, more known advisory group, the Brains Trust? Though common knowledge states that Roosevelt was the architect of the United States’ rise out of the Great Depression, the reconstruction was actually due to Roosevelt’s academic advisors: the Brains Trust.
When every American thinks of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, they usually remember his role as president during World War II. Some might even go on to remember that he had leaded the United States out of its greatest depression to date, which lasted from 1929 to 1939. What they don’t know, is that Roosevelt began his career as governor of New York. Roosevelt’s advisory group at this time would be known as the Albany Group, headed by his friend, Louis McHenry Howe. During this time, he would give support to one of his later political rivals, Alfred E. Smith in his bid for the presidency in 1928 against Herbert Hoover. Even at the start of his political career, Roosevelt supported the urban worker, lobbying for cheaper public utilities. He would later endorse for aid sent to the ailing farming majority, especially as the advancements in technology and agriculture ravaged the market for crops. In response to the economic collapse in 1929 and dwindling resources of cities and states, Roosevelt formulated the Albany Group in 1931. This group would include such names as Harry Hopkins, Frances Perkins, James A. Farley, and Colonel Edward M. House. Although not part of the later Brains Trust, House’s greatest effort to Roosevelt would be his attempt to enlist William Gibbs McAdoo, a Democrat who from California with high appeal within the Party. Meanwhile, Roosevelt’s democratic rival Smith would form an alliance with John J. Raskob, the new Chairman of the Democratic National Committee, hoping to bring down Roosevelt before he gained too much support. Interestingly enough, Raskob had favored Roosevelt at first, but as Roosevelt turned away from Smith’s ambitions, Raskob steadily grew to oppose the man. Strangely enough, some of Smith’s supporters doubted his nomination for presidential candidate. One, a Walter Lippmann, wrote, “It is impossible to believe that Smith who was a great realist…expects to be nominated.”2 The pair would further oppose Roosevelt’s ascendency with the nomination of Newton Baker, who was thought to be conservative. This would fail, as Backer was vulnerable in two ways: his law firm was linked to railroads and power interests, and he had advocated for US membership in the League of Nations. Domestically, Hoover focused on American Individualism and Volunteerism; Roosevelt advocated on increased federal influence. Unsurprisingly, Hoover would stand by his American System, dutifully opposing price regulation and balancing of supply/demand ratios to the end. Rosen would state that it was Hoover’s American System that had aggravated and accelerated the Great Depression, due to his inflexibility in dealing with the underlying causes. In dealing with the global community, Hoover’s policies to create greater international cooperation would fail. For instance, Hoover had hoped to cancel Germany’s debts to allow the increasingly bankrupt country to try and keep its economy afloat, a move which would anger France greatly. The European country still remembered what it had suffered by Germany’s hand only a decade before. Hoover’s economic adviser would later state that “The President and the French Prime Minister appear to have agreed that German will need relief in regard to the reparations during the depression period…,” which would generate hope for keeping Germany’s economy alive.3 Indeed, France would be the greatest hindrance to Hoover’s plans, as it still wanted to punish Germany for the damage done to the French countryside in World War I. One of the final supposed nails in Hoover’s international coffin would be the abandonment of the gold standard by twenty six European countries, particularly Great Britain. It was Hoover’s goal to utilize the Gold standard to halt the growth of the Depression, but when the largest creditor nation in the Europe, Great Britain, declared they were off the gold standard; Hoover’s policies were rendered useless. Roosevelt, though a Wilsonian (supporter of Woodrow Wilson), was thus forced to prove that he was Nationalist, Internationalist, Agrarian, and create an image separate of the Smith-Baker union. To achieve this, he focused on domestic requirements, not Wilsonian aspirations. Due to his decision to distance himself from advocating for US membership to the League of Nations, Roosevelt was able to completely ignore the internationalist image that afflicted Baker. In March, 1932, Samuel I. Rosenman, Roosevelt’s legal councilor and adviser during his Governorship of New York would suggest the creation of an advisory group of academics. This group would later be known as the Brains Trust.
It can be inferred that Raymond Moley, Rexford Tugwell, and Adolf Berle would become the core of the Brains Trust. They all worked closely with Roosevelt, each hoping to influence the president-to-be into their own point of view. Moley wished for Roosevelt to be more liberal and with help from Tugwell and Berle, influenced Roosevelt into “declaring war” on business. Rhetorically, Moley would ask, “What do people want more than anything else?”4 His response would be “To my mind two things, first work, with all the moral and spiritual values that go with it…second they want a reasonable measure of security for themselves and for those who depend upon them…”5 In the end, all three would convince Roosevelt to aid the poor, working, and agrarian class. Moley would push for welfare, as he had begun his civil career as a research director of the NY State Crime Commission, where he would meet Louis Howe. In Moley’s opinion, Tugwell was a naïve liberal, though was still considered a “first rate economist” who had pushed the boundaries of classicism, and lobbied for aid for the blighted farming population. He would ensure Roosevelt’s claiming of the Midwest due to the emphasis he placed upon aiding the farmers. In addition, Henry A. Wallace, Roosevelt’s future Secretary of Agriculture, would state that overproduction was the problem, thus allowing Roosevelt’s New Deal to produce the Agricultural Adjustment Administration. Berle, on the other hand, would prove to be Roosevelt’s technical support. He attended Harvard University at age fourteen, and gained his law degree by age twenty one. Like Tugwell, Berle gained knowledge of Russian economics in World War I, as he had joined the military and been sent to Europe. During his time as a member of the Brains Trust, Berle would estimate that approximately two hundred companies and corporations controlled about 22 percent of the national wealth. It was Berle who would include social security into what became Roosevelt’s New Deal policy. Though he aided Roosevelt, Berle would later state that he’d rather supported Baker in the nominations.
Because of Tugwell, Roosevelt had garnered a large support base within the small delegated states, whilst greatly dividing the larger states; Smith on the other hand, began feeling betrayed by most of his friends. Indeed, Roosevelt and the Brains Trust’s advances would not be halted until the events of the Chicago Convention, where Roosevelt came into direct confrontation with Smith himself. These debates would further be stalled with the maintenance of the two-thirds majority needed for a victory in the convention. By this time, Roosevelt was considered so large a threat, that he forced Smith, Caruch, and McAdoo, to form an alliance to stop him. They managed to push the ballot to the second vote, to which Roosevelt was left vulnerable to losing voters to the Smith-Caruch-McAdoo alliance. The focus of the convention would then fall onto McAdoo, California’s representative. By the final ballot, tired of the endless recounts, McAdoo finally voted for Roosevelt as the next Democratic candidate. Hoover, however, had run virtually unopposed on the Republican ticket, but due to the fact that the Depression had occurred under his watch, Hoover would have little chance of re-election. With the segway to topics of Hoover and the Great Depression, Rosen would move to describe Hoover’s attempts at stemming the growth of the depression itself, to which Rosen claimed had aggravated and speed up the growth of the depression itself. This would be due to Hoover’s Reconstruction Finance Corporation, which drew its relief funds from existing banks, who had liquidated their assets to try and stay afloat. The “Great Engineer” would also increase taxation, based on recommendation of his economic adviser, Ogden Mills. Though sounding good enough on paper, the taxes would need to raise $900 million to offset debts; the attempt would fail, and the deficit would rise to over $1 billion. Still, Mills believed that the budget was “stable” enough to suffer through Roosevelt’s “foolish experiments.” In the end though, Hoover would remain with his course of action, stating that the American System “had been builded up by 150 years of the toil of our fathers.”6
Hoping to acquire internationalist votes, Roosevelt later supported pressuring Europe to repay its war debts to the United States. This would conflict with the New Deal, which would later be criticized as somewhat Marxist with a leave of public ownership; Professor Howard Zinn would claim that “a vast middle ground of which Roosevelt explored only one sector.”7 Contrary to popular belief, the salaries of most citizens stayed the same, thus creating a large gap between the middle class and poor. This would cause those of the Brains Trust to ponder the usage of a higher tax on income and inheritance. Tugwell would be the instrument for the regulation of the economy, not “to have government run industry…”though not accomplishing much in a period of seven years; the effects would be felt decades after Roosevelt would succumb to a cranial hemorrhage, with much of its creation accredited to those of the Brains Trust.8 That being said, Roosevelt would begin his 9000 mile journey across the U.S. to spread the ideas of the New Deal. And as always, Moley and the Brains Trusters worked diligently from behind the scenes, constantly advising and coming up with solutions to problems that Roosevelt might encounter. However, though the New Deal greatly boosted an ailing American morality, Europe, principally Great Britain, would look unfavorably upon the New Deal, souring U.S.-British relations for the present time. This would be due to the fact that Germany’s government had fallen; and with the foreclosure of their greatest bank, paved the way for the rise of the Nazi party. With this rise, would bring new demands from the reunified Germany for full military equality with France and England, a diplomatic issue that Roosevelt’s New Deal did not try to mediate. This would be the same for Hoover, who would ignore the growing issue entirely. Yet, America would once more become isolationist, writes Rosen, whilst gathering and regrouping its once vaunted industrial and economic strength.
Elliot A. Rosen had generated a book that offers great insight into who and what the Brains Trust was. All throughout Roosevelt’s career, he has had the help of academics, first the Albany Group, to the Brains Trust, and for him, it is these groups, not Roosevelt who should receive much of the credit for what would become the New Deal. To accomplish this, Rosen focused on the period 1928-1933, as being most influential as it was the time of the New Deal’s conception as well as a time of turmoil within the Democratic Party. He would further criticize Hoover for his narrow vision and extreme adherence to a policy that placed responsibility into the hands of corporations, who were in a way responsible for the collapse themselves. What is interesting about Rosen and his text was that it had been written and published during a time of renewed conservatism. The seventies, afflicted with the Vietnam War and rising economic problems, wanted something to blame. Rosen had published a highly researched and written text during a time when public opinion shifted drastically against his own views, thus defending Roosevelt’s actions during the Depression. On the subject of Mr. Rosen’s book, Professor Ernest M. Lander, formerly of Cornell University, would note that it would explain in detail the inner workings between Roosevelt and his advisory group. He states that “Rosen spent 13 years on the book which includes 50 pages of footnotes, many from primary sources.”9 Indeed, the only two points that Lander would make against Rosen was his less than subtle bias against Hoover, and his disputed view of there being only one New Deal, not two. Professor B. Sternsher of Bowling Green State University would also have nothing but praise for Rosen’s work. He would describe Rosen’s interpretations on the actions of Hoover, Roosevelt, and the Brain Trust and how each dealt with the challenges they faced, and that to call Hoover the father of the New Deal, would be obscuring his true ideologies and policies. He would end his review stating “Historians of the Depression and the New Deal who dispute Rosen’s conclusive will encounter a formidable adversary. All will find this work along with half a dozen others indispensible.”10 To the average citizen, the literary style and vocabulary may become a bit daunting, but the way Rosen words his chapters, allows even those with the smallest political knowledge to understand what has occurred between Roosevelt, the Brains Trust, and the political adversaries of the time. Due to the current time frame of which this was written Rosen has crafted his book so that anyone may understand, whilst retaining the more in depth details for those who would make use of it as research.
According to Rosen, the 1930s marked an influx of new political ideas and another exchange of power from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party. However, this time it would be during the worst economic crisis in history. In dealing with this depression, Roosevelt would take an extreme liberal view, culminating into what was called the New Deal. Finally, it would be the fact that he utilized a group of academics to aide and advise him in economic policy that would turn the tide and cement his name in American history forever. 11
The 1930s were indeed a watershed for many reasons; some may point out the change from a golden time of prosperity a time of sorrow and hardship. Others still might speak of the happenings within Europe. What is less spoken of is the fact that new political ideas and policies became re-awakened in the 1930s. Hoover justified his lethargic presidency by stating that the American System had existed for over 150 years and he was not going to change it. Roosevelt and his Brains Trust would implement far reaching policies, such as welfare and social security, two policies virtually unheard of in politics at the time. As far as modern politics is concerned, these policies adopt the Brains Trust’s stance on business which according to Rosen is “planning and regulation, not ownership.”12 Although it reduced our nation and the world into a decade of economic downturn, it would give birth to some of the longest lasting policies that reside within the US government. Thanks to the Brains Trust, the elderly have Social Security and the injured and unemployed have welfare for the injured and unemployed. Although the entire nation fought to bring out country out of the Great Depression, it could never have been done without a group of individuals known as the Brain Trust.
1: Lander, Ernest. “Editorial Review of Hoover, Roosevelt, and the Brains Trust.” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. 435. (1978): 324-25. Print.
Calvin Duong is what most would describe as eccentric due to his somewhat “interesting” thoughts, ideas, and somewhat energetic actions. In his private life, he enjoys drawing, reading, daydreaming, or listening to classical music.
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