The Progressive era in American politics formally lasted from the 1890s until the 1920s. But its legacy continued thereafter, permeating the philosophy and the policies of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR), who was first elected President in 1932, while the U.S. was mired in an economic depression. FDR campaigned, successfully, on a pledge to re-create the war socialism of the Wilson administration, a goal that was wildly popular with the liberal establishment of Roosevelt's day.
Once FDR had been elected, progressive-minded newspaper editorial boards, politicians, and pundits exhorted him to become a “dictator.” The revered reporter and political commentator Walter Lippmann, for instance, told Roosevelt in a private meeting: “The [economic] situation is critical, Franklin. You may have no alternative but to assume dictatorial powers.” Similarly, Eleanor Roosevelt mused that America might need the leadership of a “benevolent dictator.”
In FDR's day, the term “dictator” did not carry the negative connotations with which it is currently freighted; rather, it signified the idea that a political "general" or "commander" was needed to take charge of the battle against the economic depression in a manner similar to how Woodrow Wilson and the progressives had fought World War I.
FDR chose to attack the depression with his so-called New Deal, a series of economic programs passed during his first term in office. These programs greatly expanded the size, scope, and power of the federal government, giving the President and his Brain Trust near-dictatorial status. “I want to assure you,” Roosevelt's aide Harry Hopkins told an audience of New Deal activists in New York, “that we are not afraid of exploring anything within the law, and we have a lawyer who will declare anything you want to do legal.”
“The New Deal,” writes Jonah Goldberg, “was conceived at the climax of a worldwide fascist moment, a moment when socialists in many countries were increasingly becoming nationalists and nationalists could embrace nothing other than socialism.”
Many of Roosevelt's ideas and policies were entirely indistinguishable from the fascism of Mussolini. In fact, writes Goldberg, there were “many common features among New Deal liberalism, Italian Fascism, and German National Socialism, all of which shared many of the same historical and intellectual forebears.” Like American progressives, many Italian Fascist and German Nazi intellectuals championed a “middle” or “Third Way” between capitalism and socialism. Goldberg explains:
“The 'middle way' sounds moderate and un-radical. Its appeal is that it sounds unideological and freethinking. But philosophically the Third Way is not mere difference splitting; it is utopian and authoritarian. Its utopian aspect becomes manifest in its antagonism to the idea that politics is about trade-offs. The Third Wayer says that there are no false choices—'I refuse to accept that X should come at the expense of Y.' The Third Way holds that we can have capitalism and socialism, individual liberty and absolute unity.”
The German and American New Deals -- i.e., fascism and progressivism -- also shared the bedrock belief that the state should be permitted to do whatever it wished, so long as it was for “good reasons.” Chief among those "good reasons" was the idea that government's purpose was to protect the interests of "the forgotten man," on whose behalf both FDR and Hitler were proficient at projecting deep concern.
Conversely, FDR, Hitler, and Mussolini alike made many populist appeals designed to spark resentment against so-caled “fat cats,” “international bankers,” and “economic royalists.” Such appeals were, and remain, the tools of the trade for demagogues. (As recently as December 2009, for instance, President Barack Obama said: “I did not run for office to be helping out a bunch of fat cat bankers on Wall Street.”)
Roosevelt used the FBI and other government agencies to spy on domestic critics. He also authorized the use of the American Legion to assist the FBI in monitoring American citizens.
The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was perhaps the most popular program of the New Deal, mobilizing some 2.5 million young men to work mostly as a “forestry army,” performing such tasks as clearing dead wood. In both substance and style, the CCC was essentially a paramilitary organization. Jonah Goldberg writes:
“Enlistees met at army recruiting stations; wore World War I uniforms; were transported around the country by troop trains; answered to army sergeants; were required to stand at attention, march in formation, employ military lingo...; read a CCC newspaper modeled on Stars and Stripes; went to bed in army tents listening to taps; and woke to reveille.”
While FDR justified these camps as useful vehicles for getting youth “off the city street corners,” their primary purpose was to expand the public sector. At the very same time, the Nazis were busy establishing similar camps that Hitler said would keep young people from “rotting helplessly in the streets.” A secondary objective of the camps -- both in the U.S. and Germany -- was to transcend class barriers and promote a sense of collective unity and duty.
Roosevelt also instituted the National Recovery Administration (NRA), which was led by Hugh “Iron Pants” Johnson, a passionate disciple of fascism who personally distributed innumerable copies of the openly fascist tract, The Corporate State (authored by Raffaello Viglione, one of Mussolini’s favorite economists). Under Johnson's leadership, the NRA imposed hundreds of onerous codes on businesses -- mandating industry collusion and price-fixing that virtually eliminated competition and the free market. Threatening that Americans who failed to cooperate with the NRA's dictates would get a “sock in the nose,” Johnson emphasized that the Roosevelt administration's war on the depression was “lethal and more menacing than any other crisis in our history.”
The NRA established a stylized Blue Eagle as the patriotic symbol of compliance that all American business establishments were expected to hang from their doors, along with the motto “We do our part” -- a phrase used by the Roosevelt administration the way the Germans used “Gemeinnutz geht vor Eigennutz” (“Public need before private greed”). American and German newspapers alike often noted the similarities between the Blue Eagle, which clutched a band of lightning bolts in one claw and an industrial cogwheel in the other, to the swastika or the German Reich eagle.
Johnson and the NRA dispatched a large army of informants, represented by such diverse constituencies as union members and Boy Scouts, to monitor compliance with the Blue Eagle program in neighborhoods across the United States. “When every American housewife understands that the Blue Eagle on everything that she permits to come into her home is a symbol of its restoration to security, may God have mercy on the man or group of men who attempt to trifle with this bird,” Johnson said.
To further promote voluntary compliance with the Blue Eagle program, Johnson organized many military parades and Nuremberg-style rallies, where marchers donned the uniforms of their respective occupations.
The fascist mindset underlying the NRA's authoritarian mandates was confirmed in the results of a study commissioned by the NRA's own Research and Planning Division. Titled "Capitalism and Labor Under Fascism," it concluded: “The fascist principles are very similar to those which have been evolving in America and so are of particular interest at this time.”
In the early 1930s, both Mussolini and Hitler were very much aware of the similarities between their own programs and those of FDR:
Both dictators celebrated the New Deal as an initiative that was compatible with their own economic philosophy.
In 1934 the Nazi Party’s official newspaper depicted President Roosevelt as a man of “irreproachable, extremely responsible character and immovable will,” and as a “warmhearted leader of the people with a profound understanding of social needs.”
The Nazi Party paper also lauded the New Deal for having eliminated “the uninhibited frenzy of market speculation” by adopting “National Socialist strains of thought,” and it noted that "many passages in [FDR's] book Looking Forward could have been written by a National Socialist." "In any case," said the publication, "one can assume that he [Roosevelt] feels considerable affinity with the National Socialist philosophy."
After FDR had been in office for a year, Hitler himself sent Roosevelt a private letter congratulating “his heroic efforts in the interests of the American people.” “The President’s successful battle against economic distress is being followed by the entire German people with interest and admiration,” wrote the German fuehrer.
Mussolini, for his part, praised FDR for recognizing that the American economy could not “be left to its own devices.” “Without question, the mood accompanying this sea change [i.e., FDR's policies] resembles that of Fascism,” Mussolini wrote.
In an interview with the German biographer Emil Ludwig, Mussolini made plain his view that “America has a dictator” in FDR.
In an essay written for American audiences, Mussolini observed admiringly that FDR was bringing “spiritual renewal” and destroying the anachronistic notion that democracy and liberalism were “immortal principles.” Added Mussolini: “America itself is abandoning [these principles]. Roosevelt is moving, acting, giving orders independently of the decisions or wishes of the Senate or Congress. There are no longer intermediaries between him and the nation. There is no longer a parliament but an ‘état majeur.’ There are no longer parties, but a single party. A sole will silences dissenting voices.”
Mussolini's admiration for FDR was reciprocated in full measure. In a letter to Breckinridge Long, his ambassador to Italy, Roosevelt made reference to “that admirable Italian gentleman” who “is really interested in what we are doing.” “I am much interested and deeply impressed by what he has accomplished,” said Roosevelt.
Soon after having taken his second Oath of Office in January 1937, President Roosevelt, in a conversation with a speechwriter, articulated his belief that the limits on governmental power that were enshrined in the U.S. Constitution were impediments to the transformative social and economic policies he wished to implement:
"When the chief justice read me the oath and came to the words 'support the Constitution of the United States,' I felt like saying: 'Yes, but it's the Constitution as I understand it, flexible enough to meet any new problem of democracy -- not the kind of Constitution your court has raised up as a barrier to progress and democracy.'"
It was not until the late 1940s, when classical liberalism was revived by Friedrich Hayek, that a cohernt, articulate opposition to big-government collectivism was mounted in the United States and Europe.