- American-Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA: When FDR Put the Nation to Work
- Bantam, 640 pp.
The Triumph of the WPA
Imagine the vista that a newly elected President Franklin D. Roosevelt surveyed from the oval office in March of 1933. From sea to shining sea, approximately 25% of the nation’s workers were unemployed. 25%.
Since the stock market crash in October of 1929, the Depression had become a quicksand, pulling tens of millions into joblessness and uncertainty. And each person in these statistics had a family to feed, or a life interrupted, or a skill gone unused.
The incredible tale of how the United States dragged itself up from this pit of despair, lurching and stumbling at times but forever going forward, is told in Nick Taylor’s brilliant new book American-Made.
Though ostensibly on the WPA, the Works Progress Administration, which Roosevelt signed into being in 1935, American-Made is much more. It is the story of how American energy, administration, and improvisation coalesced in one of the country’s finest hours.
Looking back through Taylor’s even-handed and meticulously researched narrative, with its evocative photographs, it is mind-boggling to think that a nation so vast in human wealth and natural resources was in such a mess at the beginning of 1933.
But a combination of factors – a widespread belief in laissez-faire economics, manufacturing and farming crises, an absence of fair working conditions, the government’s unwillingness to act on a national level, and the unique American philosophy of rugged individualism (“we don’t need help”) – had, as Taylor shows, upset the country’s delicate ecosystem.
The result was widespread poverty and misery. While President Hoover insisted that local and private sector efforts could supply relief for those most needy, tax collectors and giving citizens soon found that with no one paying taxes or priming the economic pump, there was less and less money to give.
Meanwhile, homelessness and malnutrition were on the rise, warehouses were stuffed with rotting food that no one could afford to buy, and laid-off workmen were protesting outside factories. In the summer of 1932, veterans of WWI encamped in Washington, D.C., demanding the reward promised to them in the Veterans Bonus Act of 1924. When some refused to leave, Hoover sent in the army. Under the command of such familiar names as Douglas MacArthur and George S. Patton, the United States Army beat, gassed, and stabbed protestors. One was a boy of seven.
Something, anything, needed to be done to get Americans back to work and off the streets. Enter, Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal.
Now, it is easy in a book like this to spend a lot of time burnishing the halo of Roosevelt, or, alternatively, melting it down. Taylor does neither. He points out that Roosevelt’s charisma, rhetoric, and willingness to try new things (as exemplified in his colloquial fireside chats over the popular medium of radio), inspired people to action. Emergency relief, banking, and industrial recovery acts, passed in record time in the golden one hundred days of Roosevelt’s first term, were to be the cannons that congress and the people would use in the war against “fear itself.”
Taylor is not, however, interested in hagiography. Roosevelt’s attempt, in 1937, to pack the Supreme Court with justices sympathetic to his proposed reforms is well known. But how many people remember the Roosevelt Recession when, in that same year, the president’s efforts to cut spending sent unemployment soaring again? Taylor ensures that we see Roosevelt as neither saint nor sinner.
In fact, if there is a hero of American-Made, it is Harry Hopkins. Hopkins, who started as a passionate social worker in New York, had risen to become the executive director of New York’s Temporary Emergency Relief Administration back when F.D.R. was the state’s governor.
Having proven himself as an inspired organizer who spent money like water and gave it to you straight, Hopkins was put in charge of the Civil Works Administration (a stop-gap measure and a WPA forerunner) in November of 1933. By January 15, 1934, Hopkins had 4,264,000 people at work bridge building, improving roads, creating art, documenting historical records – if you had an idea that used hands and minds, Hopkins wanted to hear about it.
But it was a temporary surge, and soon people were back on direct relief. Seeking a more permanent solution, F.D.R. called for an enlarged work program and in 1935 he signed an executive order creating the WPA, with Hopkins in charge of its operational arm.
Dancing a tricky step with other New Deal administrators like the slow, careful Harold Ickes, who was in charge of funding and planning for large public works projects, Hopkins and his committed team expanded the CWA’s scope and established an infrastructure for local and state projects (roadwork, stadiums, courthouses, city clean-ups, camp sites) that could be run on a national level. Camp David, fittingly, had its start as a WPA project.
Of course, all of this cost money, a whole helluva lot of money. Here’s Taylor’s memorable description of Hopkins’s response when he was asked by an Iowa farmer about who was going to pay for all these pies in the sky:
It was an invitation to waffle, but for Hopkins, waffling was never an option. He surveyed the audience, tossed his jacket on a chair, took off his tie, and rolled up his sleeves. Then he leaned on the podium, gripped its sides, and said, ‘You are.’
Though such direct dealings (and the immense satisfaction of an earned paycheck for a hard day’s work) went a long way to getting citizens on board, from the very start there were challenges and complaints. For one, it took a lot for Americans to even admit that they needed assistance. The stigma of being on relief or working on government-sponsored jobs, of not being able to support one’s own family, was almost worse than being hungry.
What’s more, administrators had to negotiate a spider’s web of Washington politics. Opponents of the New Deal said that providing work for work’s sake and starting benefits like Social Security were sinking the government into debt. Big business viewed the rise of union power with suspicion, and protested to lawmakers about restrictions on working hours and overtime wages.
Skeptics said the WPA stood for “We Piddle Along,” accused its workers of leaning on their shovels, and coined the phrase “boondoggle” (originally a word for a useful everyday gadget, it morphed into a term meaning something “of thin value”). And since WPA was a government-run project, Republicans were on the lookout for vote rigging and electioneering.
Meanwhile, walls of buildings were rising, mud roads were being paved, library books were being delivered on horseback, archaeological digs were being excavated, and Orson Welles was directing an all-black version of Macbeth set in the Haitian jungle. Along with the carpenters and secretaries, painters, sculptors, writers, and actors had also joined the ranks, though with some confusion on how one measured an artist’s full working week.
The WPA was feeding a need, both for the individual and the community. The personal comes out in Taylor’s inclusion of personal histories – Johnny Mills building roads in North Carolina, Frank Goodman working as a young publicist for the theater – and the community emerges from his details of unique projects – adult education classes, music concerts for next to nothing, and the compilation of state guides. With a well-run organization providing the opportunity, people leapt at the chance for improvement.
Some, like New York’s Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, practically threw themselves over the cliff in their excitement:
“He comes to Washington and tells me a sad story,” Taylor quotes Roosevelt as saying. “The tears run down my cheeks and the tears run down his cheeks and the first thing I know, he has wangled another fifty million dollars.”
Along with his other achievements, La Guardia’s wangling resulted in New York’s first airport, named after its founding booster.
As the decade drew to a close, the clouds began to roll in. The House of Un-American Activities (HUAC) appears in the thirties, promising to discover and squash Nazi and Communist agitation. Setting their sights on the WPA arts’ projects, and the theater project in particular, the HUAC singled out productions like The Cradle Will Rock (about a steel strike) and claimed that Communists had infiltrated the ranks. HUAC’s uncorroborated accusations and fear-mongering were not solely, American-Made points out, a product of the Cold War.
Fear was in the air because war was in the air, both in Asia and in Europe. And Taylor points out that the efficiency displayed in crises like the Ohio floods or the 1938 New England Hurricane, in which WPA workers were key parts of disaster relief, would prove crucial for war preparation. In the run-up to 1941, the WPA turned subtly but increasingly to unofficial war work, building army camps and fixing neglected arsenals, while all the while the United States remained officially neutral.
In the end, it was the war that drove the final nails into the Depression’s coffin. By 1943, unemployment was 1.9%; in 1944, it was under 1%. And the WPA, of course, was never meant to last. From its inception, its purpose was to fill a need until the private sector was healthy enough to take over.
But during its life, as Taylor describes with such wit and fervor, it had employed 8.5 million people, spent about 10.5 billion dollars, created a number of lasting legacies, and, through a blend of administrative speed and smarts, got the country working again.
There were also its intangible benefits. The Depression had turned the country inward, towards self-examination. In a time of crisis, people were forced to redefine the roles of government and citizenship, and formulate a new vision of what it meant to be American. And since the WPA’s projects were based on public improvement and instigated by public imagination, many of its workers were intimately involved in creating this fresh sense of national pride and community.
Though it had its misunderstandings, its critics, and its mistakes, it would be a crime to call the WPA anything other than a triumph of American will. It is to Taylor’s credit that in his new book he shows us nothing less.
Elinor Teele is a freelance writer and photographer living in Massachusetts. In addition to reviews and essays, she writes short stories, novels and plays for children and adults. An adopted New Zealander, she holds a PhD in English Literature from the University of Cambridge, England.