Roosevelt Myth - John T. Flynn

The Hundred Days

The festival of the Inauguration was but the opening scene. The inaugural address was merely a prologue uttered before the curtain rose upon the stirring drama of the Hundred Days.

The President summoned the new Congress in extraordinary session. He issued an order closing all the banks. Most of them were already closed by state action or by the forces of nature. Congress convened March 9. Then began that hectic and tumultuous hurricane of laws and projects and orders in council which came to be known as the Hundred Days.

Washington was now full of Great Minds and Deep Thinkers youthful pundits from Harvard and Yale and Princeton and especially Columbia, with charts and equations; cornfield philosophers from Kansas and California and, of course, the unconquerable champions of all the money theories, including free silver, paper money and inflation. There were the advocates of the 30-hour week and of every variety of plan for liberating the poor from their poverty and the rich from their riches. A curious arrangement of Fate set the President up in these first hectic moments as the savior of the rich and the protagonists of sound money from their ancient enemies, so that almost the first chants of gratitude went up from the people who least expected these favors.

He spiked the 30-hour law and circumnavigated the inflationist printing-press money crowd. Besides, the public beheld the spectacle of a succession of imperious messages from the President to a Congress made dizzy by the swiftness and variety and novelty of the demands. On March 9, the President called on Congress for legislation to control the opening of the banks and confirm all that he had done. The bill was not ready. But the swift-moving processes of legislation could not wait in this new order for a bill to be prepared. A folded newspaper was tossed into the hopper to serve as a bill until the document could be completed.1 The bill was then sent to Congress by the President. Congress passed it instantly and gave the President full powers over foreign exchange.

Next day he sent a message in curt and imperious words demanding economy. "For three long years," he said, "the federal government has been on the road toward bankruptcy. For the fiscal year 1931 the deficit was $462,000,000 . . . For the fiscal year 1932 it was $2,472,000,000 . . . For the fiscal year 1933 it will probably exceed $1,200,000,000 . . . For the fiscal year 1934 based on appropriation bills passed by the last Congress and estimated revenues, the deficit will probably exceed $1,000,000,000 unless immediate action is taken." Then he warned: "Too often . . . liberal governments have been wrecked on the rocks of loose fiscal policy. We must avoid this danger."

Here at last was the man to put an end to the deficits. Roosevelt declared these deficits had contributed to the banking collapse, had deepened the stagnation in our economic life, added to the ranks of the unemployed. He declared "the credit of the national government is imperiled." And then he asserted: "The first step is to save it. Recovery defends on that" The first step was a measure to cut government payroll expenditures 25 percent. The second step, incredible as it may sound, was to authorize a bill providing in effect for the biggest deficit of all—$3,300,000,000.

March 13, he called on Congress to repeal the Volstead Act. And before the month was out Congress authorized 3.2 percent beer. Soon the old bars would be open again, slightly disguised under a variety of names and awaiting the arrival of the great day when the Eighteenth Amendment would be repealed.

Then came a parade of tremendous measures. On March 16, the President sent a message calling for the passage of the Agricultural Adjustment Act embodying that amazing farm program which put the name of Henry Wallace in lights and sent so many little pigs to their doom. In a week, Roosevelt summoned the Congress to set up his pet project, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) which in his acceptance speech he had declared was his method of ending the depression—to put a million boys in the forests at a dollar a day.

Next came the plan for the Federal Emergency Relief Administration which in the fullness of time would become the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and would introduce to the American people Harry Hopkins, who would become Roosevelt's alter ego and, next to Henry Wallace, the most controversial figure of the regime. Then began a consolidation of agencies in the interest of the Goddess Economy; next the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) which was the beginning of a great government power program and brought George Norris and Bob LaFollette and all the old Progressives with their plaudits and offerings to the foot of the throne.

Still the reforms, the projects, the adventures in social reconstruction followed "treading on each other's heels, so fast they came"— bills to supervise the traffic in investment securities, to prevent the foreclosure of farm mortgages, with one to save the owners of city homes from the mortgage incubus, bills to regulate the railroads, bills for federal action in the oil industry.

Meantime committees were in session investigating the crimes of the past—the sins of big business, of the bankers, the railroads, of Wall Street and of the power barons. Washington had become a headline-writer's paradise.

Then came the great chef d'oeuvre out of the mills of the gods. That was the National Recovery Act—the NRA. It was rushed through Congress with something more of opposition than had yet appeared. Few had even the foggiest idea what it was, save that it was the Great Charter of Free Business and also the Great Charter of Labor. It was the first of many Great Charters that would come piping hot out of Washington. The summer was at hand—the Washington summer plus the New Deal heat. The country was nearly saved. Only a few more touches remained. There was the bill to buy silver to please the silver people, to repeal the gold clause to please the radicals, to issue Federal Reserve notes to please the inflationists and a safety clause that left all this in suspended animation at the will of the President to please the conservatives.

By June 16, the program was complete. The banks were open. Business was moving back into activity. The President was kept busy signing bills and presenting the pens used to the proud Congressional sponsors—often using half a dozen pens on a single bill to satisfy all its champions. The President announced the appointment of General Hugh Johnson—a new name to most people—as head of the NRA. He allotted $238,000,000 for building war vessels and another $400,000,000 for state roads. He sent a letter to Congress, now exhausted from its great labors, thanking it for its cooperation and wishing it a happy holiday. Congress adjourned, Roosevelt took a train for Boston where he went aboard a small sailing craft, the Amberjack II, in which, with two of his sons, he sailed as skipper to his old boyhood summer home at Campobello on June 28.

The country was breathless. The prevailing mood of the nation was one of good humor. The Stock Exchange had been reopened on March 15 and now the market was moving up. A new batch of optimists was talking about the coming Roosevelt boom. Roosevelt was calling everybody by their first names. People were saying: "What a man!" The country began to have some good-natured fun with the Brain Trust. Some said the Century of the Professors had arrived. Debutantes were going to lectures on the quantitative theory of money. The book stores were displaying books on the business cycle. The White House reporters were grouped several times a week in simple ignorance around the President's desk, his walls covered with charts and tables, while he gave them lectures on economic theory.

The whole nation sat several evenings around their radios to hear the golden voice of the Leader explain to them in simple terms the meaning of all the great measures he was driving through Congress. Jim Farley sat in the Post Office Department where the faithful beat a path to his desk and where he juggled the problem of deciding which Democrat would get a job and which nine Democrats would not. But Congress and the President were solving that problem for him by creating bureaus by the dozen and jobs by the scores of thousands. The hotels, the cocktail lounges and the halls of all the public buildings were crowded with exuberant people.

Praise for the President came from every quarter as the country settled down to the happiest summer it had had in some years. There were, of course, a few discordant voices and a few captious critics. Roosevelt had been compared to Moses. But, murmured the critics, "Will it take him 40 years to lead us out of the wilderness?" They said he was sending his young CCC boys "into the forests to get us out of the woods." Others called his new order "government by ballyhoo." William Green denounced the CCC as a plan to put men to work at a dollar a day. The Anti-Saloon League was bitter. It carped that liquor was being brought back merely to tax and that before we were done we would revive narcotics, lotteries and the fast houses to solve the deficits.

But generally the sounds that rose up out of the country were paens of praise, and from nowhere so ardent as from business. At the United States Chamber of Commerce dinner on May 13, H. I. Harriman, its president, said:

"Never in the history of this nation has any government more courageously and fully attempted to deal with so many and such far-reaching problems."

The diners rose and cheered this statement to the echo. The Republican Philadelphia Inquirer said: "The President—yes the President—has indeed assumed the leadership of the world." A leading manufacturers' journal, said; "One morning we will wake up and find the depression gone." Several meetings were held to celebrate its departure. The Literary Digest said on June 10 that the industrial revival was being hailed. The Wall Street Journal said; "No congressional session in history has performed works which so completely defy all efforts to estimate their effects in advance." On June 18, 1933, the New York Times said editorially:

"The President seized upon a wonderful opportunity in a way that was at once sagacious and dynamic. With insistent determination and great boldness he sought to tender the very emergency of the nation, the wreck of business and the feats for the future, the means of establishing his authority and leading both Congress and the country into a more hopeful and resolute temper. In a true sense the public disaster was transmuted into an official triumph for him. But that was because he appeared to the American people to be riding the whirlwind and directing the storm. The country was ready and even anxious to accept new leadership. From President Roosevelt it got a rapid succession of courageous speeches and effort and achievement which inclined multitudes of his fellow citizens to acclaim him as the Heaven-sent man of the hour."

With the President and Congress gone out of Washington the country settled down to acquaint itself with and accommodate itself to the new order of things. As for the President, he was at the pastime he loved best—sailing around our northern coast in a small one-sail vessel as its skipper. Congress had gone home and was out of his way. It had put vast powers into his hands and had put a fabulous sum of money—$3,300,000,000—in addition to all the other specific appropriations for government, into his hands to he spent at his sweet will in any way he desired. The great purse—which is the greatest of all the weapons in the hands of a free parliament to oppose the extravagances of a headstrong executive—had been handed over to him. The "spendthrift" Hoover was in California at his Palo Alto home putting his own affairs in order, while the great Economizer who had denounced Hoover's deficits had now produced in 100 days a deficit larger than Hoover had produced in two years.

Presently all the many forces he had set in motion would be at work. We have seen the new President and his program as it appeared to the people of the country at that time. We must now have a nearer view of this New Deal in action.