Book Review - The New Deal by Paul K. Conkin

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HS 3737

Year 3        

BA History

Book Review - The New Deal by Paul K. Conkin

First published in the politically turbulent years of the late 1960’s, Paul Conkin’s ‘The New Deal’ is considered now one of the defining books closely associated with the New Left school of historical criticism. The New Left was a political movement that grew up, frequently, in college and university campuses in the mid to late 1960’s as a response to a growing perception of an entrenched social hierarchy within American society. At the time of writing, Conkin’s book was not a conscious attempt to provide a New Left reading of the New Deal, as he himself states in the preface he had, ‘never heard of any movement called the New Left’. Conkin was clearly, being a young professor at a dynamic and progressive institution like the University of Maryland, influenced by the spread of the radical disillusionment at the time, and this shows in the reasons he gives for writing this book. Conkin viewed the perception of the New Deal in journalism as well as in the historiographical trend prior to the 1960’s as largely uncritical, that the even the most scholarly literature reflected a ‘smug or superficial valuative perspective-approval, even glowing approval of almost all New Deal policies.’ So the publication of ‘The New Deal’ reflected the work of a young scholar, working in a politically charged environment, seeking to make their name in academic circles by publishing a thoroughly revisionist critique of American domestic politics during the 1930’s. Such an ambitious and politicised attempt at revisionism could, quite easily have gone wrong, as politics can overtake the history, but, in Conkin’s case, he has succeeded in, not only rectifying the balance of critical appraisals of the New Deal, but also in providing students new to the area with a balanced if occasionally obtuse introduction to the period.

At 106 pages long, ‘The New Deal’ is a short book and as such, can neither hope, nor attempt to approach a full analysis of the economic and political intricacies of the period. Conkin’s approach is one of a chronological analysis with the book being split into four chapters, the latter three dealing with the developmental stages of the New Deal, from just prior to the election of Roosevelt, when he gives a brief analysis of the reasons for the Great Depression, and perhaps most strikingly, draws comparisons between Herbert Hoover, the preceding President and Franklin Roosevelt, two politicians who could not have differed more in both political approach and personability. Conkin paints a rather bleak picture of inevitability surrounding the depression, saying that it was ‘not a failure of the twenties but an affliction of the thirties’ and that the measures required to have averted such a crisis would have been politically untenable at the time. He was in all likelihood right, it was not only thanks to the efforts of Roosevelt that political interventionism in economic matters begrudgingly began to be accepted by the American people, largely as a result of the fact that they had little alternative. However, Conkin’s approach in this book to the origins of the New Deal is a little conjectural. His conclusion that the depression was largely inevitable does not seem to take adequate account of Hoover’s own approach and political stance; that the measures required to avoid a depression were politically untenable during the 1920’s was as much a reflection of the mindset of the administration, as that of the average American. After all Roosevelt demonstrated five years later that, when the public political mindset was not all that different that it was possible to instigate a programme of, in effect, structural reforms with regards to the role of the federal government in America.

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The picture Conkin paints of the tense interplay between the two politicians, the outgoing and the new president during the interregnum of November 1932 to March 1933 is wonderfully evocative. His tone, describing the accession of Roosevelt, almost mocking, as he tells the reader of the scene of desolation that no dramatist could have plotted, perfect for a heroes entry (complete with his flashing smile, nice slogans and gay optimism). Conkin rightly draws the readers’ attention to the ease of attributing Roosevelt’s failings in this early period of his government to the ineptness of his predecessor but he certainly bears animosity ...

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