The New Deal Controversy

Programs created by the New Deal created millions of jobs and kept many Americans from starving to death, but that doesn't mean it wasn't extremely controversial in its time.

On the one hand, liberals and progressives who supported Roosevelt maintained that the broad and deep government interventions introduced by New Deal were not only the most fiscally sound solution to the Depression but in fact the only humane and ethical response to the human suffering that was so prevalent. According to historian Jason Scott Smith, for many people who were involved in creating New Deal work programs in particular, like Harry Hopkins, the head of the Works Progress Administration, policies were driven by "social gospel" -- the notion that there was a web of shared responsibility for the fate of one's fellow man.

Moreover, for many Americans who supported the New Deal, it wasn't just about the jobs created: construction of public works made possible by the WPA in particular symbolized the government's support of its people and celebrated American innovation and "know how."

But on the other hand, wealthy conservatives despised the New Deal -- and Roosevelt. "Many of them couldn't even pronounce his name," says New Deal scholar Gray Brechin. "He just became ‘that man in the White House.'" According to Brechin, they took issue with the fact that New Deal policies centered in large part on redistributing wealth by intervening in business affairs.

The fact that the New Deal enlarged government also alarmed its critics. There were, they thought, political implications to expanding the government's payroll. As Smith puts it, there was a concern that "Harry Hopkins and the WPA were trying to ‘buy votes for Roosevelt' by increasing the number of unskilled workers that were employed as an election got closer."

The concerns of critics of the New Deal weren't rooted solely in what was going on in the United States; what was going on overseas informed their views as well, with many (including the very wealthy and powerful newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst) arguing that Roosevelt's New Deal policies amounted to communism. Smith says that the American Liberty League, which was funded by the wealthy and powerful DuPont family, posited that Roosevelt was "acting like a tyrant, taking maximum control, like Hitler in Germany or Mussolini in Italy."

Roosevelt and his advisors believed that Americans were smart enough to see through such arguments, and Roosevelt defended his ideas in one of his famous fireside chats.

In 1939, when the worst of the Depression had passed, Americans weighed in on whether or not the New Deal had succeeded via the then nascent science of public opinion polling. "Gallop asked two questions," says Smith. "One was, ‘What's the best thing FDR has done since he's been President?' and the second was, ‘What's the worst thing he's done since he was President?' And the number one answer to each of those questions was the WPA."