Revisionist historians and economists keep trying to stomp on FDR’s legacy. But declaring that WPA workers were unemployed is just silly.
As we note here frequently, given that it has been over seven decades since the end of the Second World War, there has never been a better time for us to undertake a thorough re-examination of the historical period bracketed by the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand on the one end, and on the other by the Berlin Crisis. We are sufficiently removed to give us historical perspective; most of the players have passed from the scene; and we now have access to troves of formerly classified or sequestered information that offer valuable new information.
There is no reason for The New Deal to be above that renewed scrutiny. Franklin Delano Roosevelt is the nearest thing that America has among its 20th Century citizens to a national saint, evinced by a continued flow of laudatory popular histories. The 1930s was a period of national trauma and a near-death experience for democracy, yet it was in our popular imagination a crucible that forged the generation that would win the Second World War.
But if we examine that legacy with anything less than unalloyed vigor, we risk learning the wrong lessons from the time. Is that not worth risking the sacrifice of some of our most treasured myths?
As we cast about for policy solutions for the present and designs for the future, we cannot afford sentimental nostalgia. That goes every bit as much for the Age of FDR as it does for any other.