The Road to Modern America
A Review of Adam Cohen’s Nothing to Fear
Adam Cohen is a graduate from the Bronx High School of Science, Harvard College, and Harvard Law School and is currently an editor for the New York Times. He was formerly an education-reform lawyer and a senior writer at Time. Cohen has also written The Perfect Store: Inside eBay.
BY JULIE CALKINS
A fearless leader guides the way to the formation of modern America. In Nothing to Fear, Adam Cohen gives an account of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first 100 days in office, his closest advisors, and the sweeping legislations that they were able to achieve. Throughout this book, Cohen focuses on the five members of Roosevelt’s inner circle and the roles each played in the New Deal. Cohen sheds light on the reasons why Roosevelt was able to pass a great number of legislations in such a short period of time. He claims the Hundred Days to be “…more than the greatest burst of legislation in American history—it was a revolution.”1
Cohen focuses on Roosevelt’s top five advisors and their contributions to the New Deal. He begins by depicting the crisis that was occurring in America as the Hoover days came to an end and the Roosevelt era was about to begin. In the first chapter, Cohen describes the nation as being “…in the grip of a depression of unprecedented magnitude.”2 He shows the scene in Washington prior to Roosevelt’s inauguration and describes Hoover’s “bitterness” towards Roosevelt “…after his landslide defeat.”3 As Cohen recalls, the Hoover Administration had been reluctant to provide aid to the states. In his inaugural address, however, Roosevelt promised “action, and action now.”4 Next, Cohen discusses the banking crisis and the man who came up with a solution for it—Raymond Moley. Although Moley was not given official cabinet status, most thought of him as “the second strongest man in Washington after Roosevelt himself.”5 Moley encouraged Roosevelt to work with Hoover’s Treasury Department team to declare a bank holiday. Working with Woodin, another one of Roosevelt’s advisors, Moley drafted the Emergency Banking Act, which passed into law “within nine hours of its introduction.”6 Cohen later describes the Emergency Banking Act as “[setting] the tone for the entire New Deal.”7
With the banking crisis under control, Cohen explains additional measures taken to recover the economy—measures such as a dramatic decrease in government spending. In the third chapter, Cohen describes Roosevelt’s quick action in passing bills through Congress and Roosevelt’s “hard-driving budget director” Lewis Douglas.8 Douglas is portrayed as a fiscal conservative who was against government-sponsored public works programs. Douglas drew up the Economy Act which cut federal spending by reducing federal salaries and veteran pensions. In effect, this act gave Roosevelt “authority to address the Depression as he saw fit.”9 Even though the Economy Act was seen as cruel by progressives and veterans, the Senate supported Roosevelt, taking necessary steps to improve the economy. Douglas, however, took the Economy Act to a new level when he declared that veterans’ hospitals would also be shut down. While his first two laws had helped business leaders and bankers, Roosevelt still could not forget his promise to help “the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid.” 10
After discussing the initial legislations of the New Deal that mainly served business, Cohen discusses the plight of the farmers, who were on the verge of a revolution. Henry Wallace, the incoming Secretary of Agriculture, took over the Agriculture Department during “a time when the state of the farm economy was grave.”11 Wallace, a farm leader, as well as Roosevelt, wanted to bring aid to the Farm Belt immediately. Farmers wanted the crop prices brought back to pre-World War I levels. Wallace believed that the problem was overproduction and this led him to support domestic allotment, which encouraged farmers to work together in order to reduce their production. He wanted the federal government to compensate farmers who participated. The Agricultural Adjustment Act they created supported domestic allotment and “delegated broad powers to the president—so broad, that few could see their limits.”12 Roosevelt also issued an executive order, creating the Farm Credit Administration. During this time he also passed the Home Owners’ Loan Act of 1933 which created the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation. In addition, Roosevelt announced that he was going off the gold standard. Keeping his promise on creating a program for public works, Roosevelt created the Tennessee Valley Authority. Roosevelt then signed the Social Securities Act of 1933. Once the Agricultural Adjustment Act passed through Congress Wallace began working on domestic allotment. Cohen later describes another important figure who headed public works—Frances Perkins, incoming Secretary of Labor and the first female Cabinet member. On her first meeting with Roosevelt, Perkins pushed for a quick relief program. Cohen describes her as “the driving force within the administration for relief.”13 Perkins wanted to give aid to industrial workers—aid that would come in the form of a public works program.
The last chapters of Cohen’s book deals with reforms for the working class and aid to the struggling victims of the Depression. Perkins’ main goal was to create a large-scale public works program. In order to accomplish this, Perkins “wanted to reach out to the whole labor movement.”14 She held a conference which included officials from a variety of different labor unions. Though Roosevelt had promised to create a relief program, he was also hesitant of the federal government’s role in providing aid to the unemployed and “his commitment to government economy.”15 While Douglas opposed public works, Perkins, with the help of Hopkins and Hodson, began constructing the Federal Emergency Relief Act. Roosevelt, whose position on public works and relief was unclear, came up with the idea for a Civilian Conservation Corps that would send young men into forests to do conservation work. Even though the CCC had its critics, members of the Cabinet rallied to support the program. While Perkins and others worked on a bill for reviving the industrial economy, Douglas was using the Economy Act to further cut government spending. Wagner’s bill included a provision for $3.3 billion to be spent on funding public works. Roosevelt approved and the National Industrial Recovery Act was sent to Congress. Business leaders approved of the bill; however, many in the House believed that it gave Roosevelt too much power. When the NIRA was finally passed in Senate, “the last important piece of Hundred Days legislation had fallen into place.”16 This act created the Public Works Administration—the massive public works program that everyone had been waiting for. In the last chapters, Cohen expands on Harry Hopkins, the federal relief administrator. Hopkins persuaded Roosevelt to approve the Civil Works Administration, which provided two million new jobs. It was with the Roosevelt administration that public works were taken seriously and huge programs were implemented to create public works.
Furthermore, Cohen establishes that the first hundred days of Roosevelt’s presidency were in effect, a revolution. He claims that because the country was in a depression of unprecedented magnitude, the nation was willing to do whatever it took to recover. With this attitude, the nation overwhelmingly voted for Roosevelt, defeating the Hoover administration that had not done much of anything to combat the depression or to provide financial aid to the states. Cohen further states that Roosevelt was granted almost unlimited power because Congress wanted to give him what he needed to save the nation from disaster. With Roosevelt’s growing power, the role of the federal government, Cohen claims, “changed from being a nearly passive observer of its citizens’ problems to an active force in solving them.”17 Roosevelt and his advisors saw that the nation was on the brink of collapsing and so they took the initiative to fix it—starting even before Roosevelt’s inauguration. Furthermore, Cohen acknowledges that the reason so many legislations were able to pass through Congress rather quickly was because of the timing of everything. This belief is credited with the fact that on Roosevelt’s inauguration day, the nation’s banks were in a state of absolute disaster. Roosevelt and Moley knew something had to be done immediately. Even before inauguration day, Roosevelt and Moley worked to declare a national bank holiday and to create the Emergency Banking Act. With the nation in such a state of despair, Cohen claims that the federal government had no choice but to respond with immediate action. The Hoover administration, as he claims, did so grudgingly. Roosevelt, however, believed that the crisis was not going to fix itself. He knew it was time for the federal government to respond to the crisis in an effective manner. Another reason Cohen provides for the passing of so much legislation in so short a time was that Roosevelt “was so confident and charismatic, he spoke so eloquently and with such compassion, that the American people, whose hope had been all but defeated, trusted him unreservedly.”18
Being a former education-reform lawyer, Cohen shows admiration towards the numerous reforms and legislations Roosevelt and his team where able to push through Congress. Cohen continually praises Roosevelt and his team, claiming that “no presidential administration had ever done so much so fast.” 19 While giving short biographies on each member of Roosevelt’s inner circle, Cohen analyzes each one’s upbringings and explains what made them the perfect person for the job. He believes that without a diverse, yet capable Cabinet, the legislations and reforms of the Hundred Days would have never come to pass. Cohen also claims that the Hundred Days wouldn’t have taken place if Roosevelt had not been in charge. Throughout his book, he portrays Roosevelt as a strong leader—the leader that everyone wanted to be close to. In his first days in office he appealed to Congress and was able to pass the many measures necessary to fix a broken nation—Cohen portrays him as the leader of the New Deal. At the time that Cohen was writing this book and getting it published, another historical event was taking place that greatly influenced the writing of this book. The 2008 election took place and in 2009, when the book was published, Barack Obama became the nation’s 44th president when the country was, and still is, in a state of economic crisis.
Critics of Nothing to Fear agree that Cohen revisits the beginning months of one of the greatest presidential terms in history. John Steele Gordon of the New York Times credits Cohen with “[bringing] this brief but extraordinary period in American history to vivid life.”20 Gordon also mentions that Cohen’s book shows how the “American experiment,” which many people thought was coming to an end due to the Great Depression, took a new course with the Roosevelt administration. In addition, Gordon notices Cohen’s portrayal of Hoover as being the “wrong man at the wrong time.”21 This holds true in that in Nothing to Fear, Hoover is shown to be the president who in essence did absolutely nothing to help a desperate nation in a desperate situation. In another review of the book, Wendy Smith from the Los Angeles Times notices the connection between Cohen’s book and the situation taking place at the time of its publication. She states that “facing our own economic meltdown we are able…to truly understand how frightened Americans were as they waited for FDR to take office in 1933.”22 Cohen finds a common ground between the country’s current economic situation and the state the nation was in when Roosevelt took office.
While proving the Hundred Days to be a revolution, Cohen also goes in depth and describes both the president and advisors that made many of the legislations passed during this period possible. He provides detailed information on each of Roosevelt’s advisors and detailed information on the legislations and reforms passed throughout the Hundred Days. He accurately depicts the quickness with which everything was achieved because Roosevelt hurriedly signed bills for Congress’ approval. Cohen states that Roosevelt had “wanted a bill ready for delivery to Congress at the start of the special session, which was then just two days away.”23 However, the detailed information on Roosevelt’s advisors was also a weakness. Cohen focused on the lives of each advisor beginning from before their political career started, which distracted from the actual Hundred Days and legislations passed during this period. Overall, the book provided a great deal of information on the legislations of the Hundred Days, the advisors who made it happen, and the President that rescued a nation from destruction.
The picture that Nothing to Fear paints of America during the 1930s is one of a destitute nation that was saved by a determined President and his unmatched staff. Cohen begins by depicting a nation in desperate need of aid—a nation soaring with Hoovervilles, breadlines, and most of all, unemployment. However, with Roosevelt’s inauguration, Cohen shows a revival in the faith of the nation. The start of the Roosevelt administration, Cohen claims, left Washington “seized with a new vitality and sense of purpose.”24 Cohen describes the 1930s as a change in the role of the federal government. The federal government, that had previously been hesitant in providing aid to the states, was now willing to take immediate action in fixing the economy and helping the nation recover financially.
This period in history marked drastic changes in American government, the economy, and the values held by the nation. Prior to the Great Depression, people wanted to restrict the power of the federal government as much as possible and place more power in the hands of the states. The state governments were responsible for the welfare of the citizens in their state. The federal government’s responsibility lay primarily in protecting rights and national security. However, when the depression struck, “the nation was crying out for the government to respond.”27 Furthermore, the laissez-faire economy that the whole nation had once rallied behind failed. The banks were on the verge of collapsing and unemployment was at an all-time high. The nation was now begging for the government to regulate the economy and fix the crisis. When the Roosevelt administration came into office, it granted the nation’s wishes and began passing legislations to improve the economy. This would forever change the government’s role. The values of the nation during this period also changed. People were no longer focused on new innovations or famous stars like in the 1920s, but rather they focused all their energy on simply finding jobs and feeding families. This time period can be compared to today’s because the nation is currently in the midst of a recession, where many people are also focusing their energy on looking for jobs and feeding their families. The government, just as with the Roosevelt administration, is also attempting to recover the economy and ease the financial burdens of its citizens.
The Hundred Days can be best viewed as a time when the federal government had to step up and immediately establish reforms in order to save a nation on the verge of destruction. In Nothing to Fear, Adam Cohen describes the Hundred Days and the people that were able to make it all happen. The changes that took place during this period “built something that has become an essential part of America.”28
1: Cohen, Adam. Nothing to Fear. New York: The Penguin Press, 2009. 10.
Julie Calkins is a junior at Irvine High School. She is currently enrolled in AP United States History, AP English Language, Honors Algebra II/ Trig, Chemistry, and Photo. She plans to eventually attend the University of California at Irvine and major in Pre-medical Studies.
© 2010 Advanced Placement United States History. All rights reserved.