Long and Coughlin vs. The New Deal
A Review of Alan Brinkley’s Voices of Protest: Huey Long, Father Coughlin, and the Great Depression
Alan Brinkley is the Allan Nevins Professor of History at Columbia University, where he was also Provost from 2003-2009. Brinkley writes regularly in magazines such as The New York Review of Books, the New York Times Book Review, Newsweek and The New Republic and is an advocate for progressive issues. He lives in New York City with his wife, Evangeline, daughter Elly, and dog Jessie.
BY MATT VASQUEZ
Alan Brinkley’s book, Voices of Protest: Huey Long, Father Coughlin, and the Great Depression, describes the political lives of two men who led a mighty force that would threaten to overthrow the power of the New Deal. This book is about these two men, “Huey P. Long, a first term United States Senator from the red-clay, piney woods country of northern Louisiana; and Charles E. Coughlin, a Catholic priest from an industrial suburb near Detroit.”1 Huey Long controlled his state of Louisiana so tightly for more than seven years and though he was a “dictator.”2 Father Coughlin, for his part, became after 1938, in the last years of his public career, “one of the nation’s most notorious extremists: an outspoken anti-Semite, a rabid anti-communist, a strident isolationist, and, increasingly, a cautious admirer of Benito Mussolini and Adolf Mussolini.”3 They were both great opponents of the New Deal and distrusted Roosevelt’s glorious eulogies for improvement. However, “the battle against centralized wealth and power continued in the Great Depression; but the war, as the outcome of the Long and Coughlin movements suggests, was already lost.”4 These men may have gathered some support for their beliefs and views, but it was not significant enough to make any great changes in Roosevelt’s New Deal or the way people viewed it.
1933 was a bad year for everyone. Banks failed and relief efforts collapsed as the years went on; the American Social edifice was about to crumble. Yet conditions were a little better than they were the year before,” only a desperate infusion of federal funds had prevented thousands from starving.”5 This is very obvious as the “national income remained more than 40 percent lower than [that] six years earlier.”6 Even worse though was the fact that “ten million people, 20 percent of the workforce remained unemployed.”7 This caused many Americans to “[look] to Franklin Roosevelt as a source of energy and hope.”8 However, for the President it was a time of anxious uncertainty and the economic crisis caused him great dismay. For Huey Long and Father Coughlin, and for millions of Americans who were in dire need of help, it was a time of hopes and expectations. Years before Long became a powerful political figure; he had a master plan, which he told all about to his future wife, Rose, to become a “secondary state officer in Louisiana, then governor, then United States Senator, and finally President,”9 who was simply given the chills when she heard this from him. When Long became a United States Senator in 1932, he made sure that the governor replaced him was so completely loyal to him and so docile, that he was just as easily able to control Louisiana from Washington as he would be able to in Louisiana itself. As a result, he was casually referred to as the “Dictator of Lousiana”10 and “the Kingfish.”11 Huey Long went as far as to tell one of his political opponents that “[he’s] the Constitution [in Louisiana] now.”12 The only reason Long’s political career was still intact after he became a Senator, was his apparent alliance with Franklin D. Roosevelt. As important as Huey Long was, the book also speaks of another man who criticized the New Deal, and that man is Father Coughlin.
Charles E. Coughlin, an unlikely candidate against the New Deal, was a “thirty-four year old, obscure parish priest in a small suburb of Detroit, when two events persuaded him to request time from a local radio station to broadcast his Sunday sermons.”13 These two events were a threat to him from the local Ku Klux Klan and his need of money to pay off the loans for the church he had constructed in the town. When he realized this, he knew that the radio would be able to solve both of his problems, and fortunately enough, he was absolutely right. Once he began his radio sermons, he became so popular that the Ku Klux Klan no longer sent him threats and the local diocese was more than willing to give him the money he needed to pay off the loans for the church. Coughlin’s radio sermons were so great that when he was finished, he was blazing with sweat and the crowd roared in applause. Once the Great Depression came into effect however, his sermons began to lean in a different direction as opposed to that of religion. By 1930, his sermons were almost entirely political—merely degraded the New Deal and what it stood for. People believed every word that left his mouth, and he was easily able to gain the support of all of Michigan and many people across the United States. He was easily the most popular man of his time.
Both men’s political careers started to decline by the spring of 1935 however, due to their establishing themselves as independent political forces. Long was busy keeping the Share Our Wealth Clubs alive and running. At the same time, Father Coughlin was running around the country criticizing Roosevelt and his New Deal. Sadly, neither of them “[believed] in centralized control of their institutions which caused them to fail.”14
It is truly outstanding how successful Huey Long and Father Coughlin were in their political careers given such a short amount of time. The effort they put into their careers gave them a lot of passionate support in the short term, but in the long term their support waned. Ironically, it was their stance which destroyed them after Roosevelt completely controlled the polls. By the end of 1935, it was clearly obvious that “the careers of Huey Long and Father Coughlin suggested, if nothing else, that the long struggle against the new economic order had already entered its twilight.”15
Alan Brinkley’s thesis is very sophisticated in that it states simply that Long and Coughlin “weren’t the leaders of irrational, anti- democratic uprisings. Neither [were] the vanguard of a great, progressive social transformation. Instead, they were manifestations of one of the most powerful impulses of the Great Depression, and of many decades of American life before it: the urge to defend the autonomy of the individual and the independence of the community against the encroachments from the modern industrial state.”16 Alan Brinkley strongly believed in his opinion that both Huey Long and Father Coughlin despised the New Deal. He makes it seems as if all that mattered to them was completely slandering the agencies and acts that made up the New Deal such as the NIRA. He has this point of view because he himself is the Allan Nevins Professor of United States History at the Ivy League Columbia University. When one has such a prestigious title, almost anything they say is happily received as being completely factual, when in reality it is his very own opinion. The reason behind Brinkley writing such a slander of the New Deal may have been the negative and pessimistic attitudes that saturated the time of the terrible recession of 1982. This recession remains nameless and most people have no recollection of it because it was not nearly as life-changing as the Great Depression and might have also been overshadowed by U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War. This recession still had a great effect on the lifestyle of most American however; qualitatively different from the mild recessions of 1990-91 and 2001.The first dive the economy took was during the 1979 revolution in Iran, which shot up oil prices to a ridiculous level. The other major dive was in the number of high interest-rate increases by the Federal Reserve, meant to stop inflation. Home sales almost completely halted. At their worst, they dropped to approximately 30 percent in price compared to where they were before. The unemployment rate increased to above 10 percent in 1982.This rate is misleading however, for it fails to represent people who have been forced to work part time, even though they want and need to work full time. It fails to count people who have given up looking for work to be no different from retirees or stay-at-home parents. They simply do not get accounted for. This is the main reason as to why he decided to write this book—as a way to connect the 1982 recession to the Great Depression of the 1930s and remind us all of the devastating effects each had on the economy as well as the effect it had on our lives.
The book is thoroughly reviewed by Jeffrey Leach, a professional book reviewer who has also done great reviews on 1295 other titles. Another review of this book is by Jason Tanner, a junior college professor of history in Indiana. In Leach’s review, he speaks of how Brinkley is thorough in describing each aspect of Huey Long and Father Coughlin’s political views and opinions. Leach states that “Historian Alan Brinkley examines two of the biggest of these movements in Voices of Protest: Huey Long, Father Coughlin, and the Great Depression, and [explains] how the two men amassed such huge audiences with their populist rhetoric.”17 He gives Brinkley credit for making the connection of how Long and Coughlin were able to obtain their popularity in a fashion similar to Hitler did in that at the time of their rise to power the United States was in an economic crisis like no other ever before in American history—similar to post World War I Germany under the war reparations of the Treaty of Versailles. Americans during the Great Depression—as Germans did after World War I—felt helpless and had no faith in their government to restore the economy and were desperate to find a charismatic leader who would lead them out of the depression and to prosperity once again. If one rises to the occasion in a time of need, then all will follow him. This same concept can be applied to both Huey Long and Charles E. Coughlin. The people saw them as a way back to prosperity and were willing to follow them up until 1935.
Jason Tanner emphasizes Brinkley’s descriptions of his two subjects, Long and Coughlin; as he goes on to say that “for Huey Long, Brinkley describes Huey as a boy growing up during the populist age, influenced by people around him who were bent on taking out centralized power. From his early start as a lawyer Long fights Standard Oil eventually moving onto bigger roles as governor and then senator of Louisiana. His push for social reforms and absolute control over the legislature created controversy, with critics calling him a fascist. Eventually, Long established the Share Our Wealth movement where his view of politics would become a central role in years to come.”18 He also goes on to say that “Father Coughlin, growing up in the north and raised under the strict guidance of a catholic family, became prominent through his use of a new technology, the radio.”19 With the radio, he was able to share his view of isolationism, economic policies, and hate for Roosevelt to the rest of the United States. Leach really digs deep in analysis of both Long and Coughlin and is very clear and concise.
This book epitomizes the political dissidence movements that sprang forth during this dark period of poverty and shortcomings. This book reveals the story behind these two powerful anti-New Dealers: Huey Long and Father Coughlin, and tells their story from their rises to power to their bitter ends, and in the case of Long it happened all too quickly. Long and Coughlin were in comparison to one another, were very different people who in the end fought for the same goals. They weren’t dirt poor but they weren’t extremely wealthy either, and they both made their way to the bottom to very top. However, Huey Long’s journey was cut short in 1936 when he was assassinated. Brinkley even goes on to say “if the democrats nominate Roosevelt and the Republicans nominate Hoover, Huey Long will be your next president.”20 Coughlin continued with his radio sermons and his attempt to create a kind of third party. However, his influence was declined sharply as his message became much more radical and much more bigoted. He never posed the same magnitude of threat to the political order that Long might have. Brinkley understands the period very well and is easily able decipher the appeal of their messages. There were many trivial and confusing problems in each individual’s own message the way Brinkley described it. It was essential that this country was fortunate to have a man like Franklin Roosevelt as its top executive as opposed to having a Huey Long presidency. Roosevelt may never have really been in that much trouble considering his own popularity even with many of the supporters of both Long and Coughlin.
Brinkley makes it seem as if the Great Depression was a stepping stone for something greater both politically and economically. From his perspective he thinks Huey Long and Father Coughlin as more of pawns than anything else to jumpstart a small rebellion against the correct ways to restore order and balance back to our economy such as through Long’s gigantic political campaign of the “Sharing the Wealth Program.”21 Brinkley also does this with the political sermons of the all mighty Father Coughlin and his degradation of the New Deal and all that it stands for and hopes to achieve economically. When put all together, Brinkley clearly shows that Huey Long and Father Coughlin have changed how much we care about our economy and what we as individuals can do to petition our government.
The ideals of both Huey Long and Father Coughlin are clearly shown in this book and they almost exactly mirror each other in how they both attack all aspects and efforts of the New Deal. They sought to grab hold of and change the views and mindsets of Americans before they were—in the eyes of Long and Coughlin—corrupted by the ideas of Roosevelt and programs the New Deal. In this sense it is clearly obvious why they would criticize Franklin Delano Roosevelt and what his New Deal did for the country. These critics of the New Deal even formed powerful independent dissidence parties that for the first time seriously threatened the democratic party of that era. Then again one must remember that “it would be easy to exaggerate such figures.”22 All-in-all, Huey Long and Father Coughlin were the two most influential and politically powerful critics of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal and his plans for the United States. He even goes as far as to say that “both Huey Long and Father Coughlin changed the course of the history of national politics forever.”23
1: Brinkley, Alan. Voices of Protest. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. 1982. x.
Matt Vasquez goes to Irvine High and loves life. In Link Crew, he guides freshmen through a day in high school. Matt also competes in the discus throw on the track team. He was the 2010 League Champion and placed 5th at the CIF Southern Section Championships with a throw of 150’ 2.”
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