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29 March, 2009

You say the New Deal didn’t work? Prove it

You say the New Deal didn’t work? Prove it

by Don Williams

You love certainty.

Even when it turns out to be wrong, most of us love the sound of a voice speaking with inspired conviction.

Which brings me to a bit of bombast one hears over and over from the usual suspects--Rush Limbaugh, George Will, Charles Krauthammer and others who declare that Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal didn’t end the Great Depression. World War II ended the Great Depression, they cry in harmony, and so we shouldn’t buy into President Obama’s stimulus spending plan.

If you set aside the historical truth that unemployment declined nearly every year of Roosevelt’s administration, this argument makes a certain sense to dewy-eyed children growing up among Republicans, because WWII changed damn near everything. It was a conflagration--outrageous chaos melded to unprecedented technology—and it swept Hitler off the world stage.

As a by-product, so the theory goes, it birthed the greatest economic juggernaut the world has ever seen, the U.S. post-war economy. So, the New Deal was beside the point, the argument runs, and one should resist Obama’s massive spending program, which is nothing but warmed over New Deal socialism they inform us with condescension dripping.

In order to spot the central fallacy of this argument, however, one need only play throw-and-catch with the following common sense question:

What in heck was WWII if not a massive government spending and employment program married to unparalleled protectionism?

Yes, yes, it was a war against Nazi-ism and so on, but when it comes to the key question of its effect on the U.S. and global economy, the U.S. war effort was the last word in Keynesian economics, government spending and protectionism—socialism if you will—long as we’re bandying about that hot-button word.

Honest, what was World War II if not the ultimate jobs-programs? Hundreds of thousands of American men were drafted into the military, and Rosie the Riveter’s job at the airplane factory was funded by fat government contracts paid for by tax dollars and federal deficits.

Face it. Nothing is more socialistic than the military culture, where you have men and women living in government housing, driving government jeeps, tanks, planes and boats, shooting government guns, eating government food, wearing government clothing and partaking of government healthcare. Everyone’s pay falls within well-defined boundaries, so the staggering inequities in pay—the kind dragged into the light by so many Wall Street scandals--scarcely exist in the military.

Privates and generals make a guaranteed annual income and salaries are capped by the government. Everyone who signs up for service is treated to goodies at taxpayer expense for the rest of their lives. Government counseling, medical care, pensions, disability payments, education and so on are provided for by a grateful public all too willing to be taxed in order to support the troops.

Moreover WWII provided near-perfect protectionism for American industry. Not only did the war render about half the industrialized world off-limits as trading partners—thanks to blockades, attacks on shipping and laws against trading with enemies—but much of our competition was bombed back to a pre-industrial state by both sides in the conflict, especially in Germany’s Ruhr Valley, Northern Italy, and much of England, France, Russia, Japan, Poland, China and other countries. England was so strapped by the end of the war—in part because of American demands for compensation for helping that nation—that the British public turned Winston Churchill out of office in bitter protest of the fiasco that had stricken their empire.

In addition, the Allies surrendered Central Europe to the trusting hands of Stalin’s radical post-Marxist empire, which sealed them off as trading partners as well.

You could say America was the last man left standing. Aside from Pearl Harbor, hardly a glove was laid on America’s infrastructure. Every power that might’ve challenged our selling of goods and services throughout the world was either off-limits or near-fatally damaged.

It’s true that the Marshall Plan mitigated the damage and brought about a blossoming of European economies. Similarly, Japan was brought back from the ashes.

But what was that if not more Keynesian-style manipulation of economies here and abroad through massive government spending and management?

I bring this up not to advocate turning America into a military welfare state, but just for clarity’s sake. The chief point is that anyone who says Roosevelt’s big-spending policies didn’t end the Great Depression has no leg to stand on, not even one of those expensive titanium legs our government hires doctors to provide wounded troopers. Roosevelt spent more, not less, after the war started.

So whether it was the New Deal or World War II that ended the Great Depression, the chief engine of change was a massive infusion of federal dollars into the American and global economy for more than a decade. It’s a transfer on the order of what Obama intends as he retools the grid, healthcare, education and transportation infrastructure.

To those who say it can’t work, I have two words.

Prove it.

Don Williams is a prize-winning columnist, short story writer and the founding editor and publisher of New Millennium Writings, an annual anthology of literary stories, essays and poems. His awards include a National Endowment for the Humanities Michigan Journalism Fellowship, a Golden Presscard Award and the Malcolm Law Journalism Prize. He is finishing a novel, "Orchid of the Orchid Lounge," set in his native Tennessee and Iraq. His book of selected journalism, "Heroes, Sheroes and Zeroes, the Best Writings About People" by Don Williams, is due a second printing. For more information, email him at Or visit the NMW website at

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