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Reality Check (Oct. 31, 2012)
On October 30, I visited the Georgia residence of President Franklin Roosevelt in Warm Springs, Georgia. The visit was part of a weekend seminar on America's entry into World War II, which was sponsored by the Ludwig von Mises Institute. It was held at Callaway Gardens, which is just a few miles down the road from Warm Springs.
I have believed ever since 1958 that Roosevelt took steps throughout 1940 and 1941 which were designed to provoke the Japanese attack in late 1941. My view was shared by the speakers at the conference. So, visiting the presidential home in warm Springs was sort of cathartic for me. It reminded me of how much work there remains to do in re-writing the textbooks.
The national park at Warm Springs serves as a kind of shrine for Roosevelt. Roosevelt died in his home in Warm Springs on April 12, 1945. He had been President for a little over 12 years. He had been President during the worst economic disaster in the history of the United States, and also the worst disaster, economically speaking, in the history of the modern world. Then he presided over World War II. When you consider the magnitude of these two disasters, back to back, it is understandable why Roosevelt became the closest thing to a political saint in twentieth-century American history.
When we look back at the textbook versions of the great presidents, only one of them presided over the country for eight years without any major crisis. That was George Washington. Washington's time of trial had been when he served as commanding general during the American Revolution. The other men who are most likely to be named as a great President were wartime presidents, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt. Each presided over a national crisis.
Because of his polio-induced paralysis, Roosevelt visited Warm Springs intermittently from 1924 until 1945. The waters let him enjoy himself in the pool. It was a vacation time for him.
There is a museum on the property. As part of the tour through the museum, there is a brief documentary about Roosevelt's years at Warm Springs. It is narrated by Walter Cronkite. The documentary is filled with praise for the fact that Roosevelt used government power to help the poor.
As I watched that video, I thought back to my years as a high school student in the late 1950s. I wrote a term paper on Pearl Harbor in the fall of 1958, in my senior year. In preparation, I read a book by John T Flynn, The Roosevelt Myth, which had been published in 1948. Flynn was a long-time opponent of Roosevelt, stretching back to the mid-1930s. This book served as his culminating critique of Roosevelt's presidency.
The book was unique in 1948, because it was critical of Roosevelt's domestic economic policies, and was also critical of his foreign policies. Both can be described as interventionist. Today, almost 70 years after Roosevelt's death, there remains only one book that is negative about both his foreign policy and his domestic policy. That book is The Roosevelt Myth. The book is not what I would call a scholarly book. When I read it in 1958, I thought it needed more footnotes. Some of its claims were insufficiently substantiated.
There has never been a book written by a professional historian that is critical of Roosevelt's foreign policy and domestic policy, There is a reason for this. In academia, there is no widespread commitment to non-interventionism. Ron Paul represents this tradition. He spoke at the seminar on non-interventionism. His views are getting a wider hearing than anyone else since Robert A. Taft, who died in 1953.
There is screening in academia. Those who hold these views are not encouraged to go on with their studies. They are not granted tenure at major universities. This has been true for over 50 years.
A SECULAR SAINT
Roosevelt really does function as a kind of secular saint for most Americans. It is still considered poor etiquette to criticize Roosevelt, despite the fact that there has been a stream of books, beginning in 1947, that indicate that he deliberately provoked the Japanese to attack Pearl Harbor. These books are called revisionist history.
Furthermore, there have been a series of well-written books by professional historians that are critical of his domestic economic policies. But still we lack a one-volume treatment of Roosevelt's presidency from the point of view of non-intervention.
When you find a political figure who is essentially untouchable in the textbooks, you can be sure that the textbooks are favorable to whatever policies that political figure pursued. The textbooks function as a kind of whitewashing operation. The worldview governing the writing of the textbooks was also the official outlook and public justification for the political career of the untouchable saint. If we look back at the rhetoric of that political figure, we can conclude that his political policies were victorious in his day, and they remain victorious today.
I have written on several occasions that the absence of that anti-New Deal treatise is a mark of the weakness in academic circles of the conservative movement. You might imagine that, 67 years after his death, at least one PhD-holding historian would have stepped forward to publish a well-documented book that is critical of Roosevelt on this basis: it is critical of Roosevelt's policy of government intervention. But we do not have that book.
The book should rest on multiple volumes of research. It would be much easier to do a critical analysis of Roosevelt's foreign policy than to criticize his economic policy. There is a large body of material that has been critical of his foreign policy. Not many people have read this, but it does exist.
His economic policies are still the reigning policies of the United States government and virtually all other Western industrial nations. The welfare state is still triumphant in the thinking of most voters.
It is considered a breach of faith to point out that the welfare state rests on government coercion and bad economics. One is not even supposed to point to the fact that Medicare and Social Security will inevitably bankrupt the United States government if the two programs are not radically revised so as to bankrupt the aged voters who have become dependent on the two programs. In other words, bankruptcy is inevitable, but it is a political question as to which groups will get bankrupted first in the process. No presidential candidate is allowed to say these things if he expects to be elected.
It is considered the kiss of political death to say publicly that Franklin Roosevelt undermined the Constitution of the United States on a systematic basis in order to expand the power of the federal government. Yet that is what he did.
Textbooks that survey what he did will often admit that his actions ignored the Constitution, but the authors of the textbooks always say that this was necessary politically, as well as a good thing economically. So, Ronald Reagan ran for President by praising Roosevelt. So did the professionally trained historian Newt Gingrich. When the supposedly most conservative candidates to run for the office of President in the Republican Party praise Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, this is clear testimony to the failure of the conservative movement in the United States. In the 1930s, no journalist could survive for long who opposed Roosevelt, but there were still politicians who had the courage to call his power grabs what they were. This is no longer true.
I think that it will be possible for historians and economists who were critical of Roosevelt to gain the public's hearing sometime in the future, but only after the Keynesian experiment has visibly hit the shoals of bankruptcy. For as long as half of the American electorate is dependent on checks from Washington, either during their working years or after, Roosevelt's position as a sainted politician will be maintained.
I would like to write a book called "Bad News." I would begin with the campaign book written by Teddy Roosevelt in 1910: The New Nationalism. I would follow it with an analysis of Woodrow Wilson's campaign book, The New Freedom. Then I would skip to Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. Then I would skip again to John F. Kennedy's New Frontier. Step-by-step, the leaders of both political parties called for the expansion of federal power, both domestically and internationally, in the pursuit of empire.
The culmination of the "news" was Lyndon Johnson's Great Society. Johnson was a man without rhetorical ability. This was not true of the four Presidents who associated their ideologies with the word "new." All of them were effective speakers, and all of them were opposed to the strict construction of the words of the United States Constitution.
When we recognize that we are the heirs of over a century of systematic policies to expand the power of the government over our lives, we can better understand the reasons for the massive federal budget deficits that are admitted by the government, let alone the vastly larger deficits in the present value of the unfunded liabilities of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. All of the "news," taken together has produced red ink on a scale never imagined in human history.
The ratchet of government spending has increased every time there has been a war, and the wars never cease. The ratchet of government spending increases every time somebody goes on the welfare rolls, whether we call the welfare rolls welfare or not. The number of people who are now going onto Medicare and Social Security constitute a tsunami of red ink that will result in bankruptcy, one way or the other, before a majority of these newly eligible beneficiaries reach room temperature.
This is why there is going to be a great need for historians and economists in the future who will be in a position to tell the story of the bad "news." There has to be a trained cadre of competent scholars who will prepare the foundations for the writing of a completely new series of textbooks.
Today, specialists can begin to ply their trade in historical revisionism on the World Wide Web. This is a wonderful thing. Over time, there will be a body of materials that can be accessed by textbook writers and teachers -- materials which could not have existed prior to the World Wide Web.
The textbook publishing houses are all in trouble financially, and the New York publishing houses that produce books for intellectuals are also in big trouble. Their business model no longer works. That business model has rested on the fact that they controlled distribution of the books, but today that control is fading.
It is now possible for any bright person who is willing to spend the time researching and writing to post his findings where Google can find his findings. Social networks are being created daily that will enable groups of conservative and libertarian scholars to communicate with each other, to encourage one another, and to make available new interpretations of old events which are really not so new at all. The criticisms are very old news -- long forgotten in academia. Criticisms of the expansion of federal power were published during the careers of the Presidents in question. But these criticisms never made their way into the world of the intellectuals. They also never made their way into college curriculum materials.
At the meeting of the Mises Institute, over a dozen scholars presented lectures on the evil effects of war in expanding the federal government and in causing unnecessary deaths of American troops. I began with a summary of the problems facing revisionist scholars six decades ago. I have never attended a seminar like that one. It would have been inconceivable two decades ago. No organization would have put together such a roster of published scholars who have gone into print against America's entry into World War II.
So, there have been major changes that have taken place over the last two decades. At the heart of these changes is the Internet. These changes have not filtered down into the textbooks, nor will they until such time as the long fuse that was lit in 1898, with the Spanish-American War, finally reaches the powder keg of fiscal policy.
There are scholars who began as critics of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal who died a generation ago without seeing the fruits of their work. Even today, the work that they did seems to have been in vain. But because of the World Wide Web, and because of PDFs, and because of Google, their work really was not in vain. Over time, a new generation of scholars will find those materials, sift through them for usable footnotes, and go on to build on the foundation which those critics laid all those years ago. John T Flynn was one of them. There were others.
We must be patient in these matters. To change the minds of a majority of American intellectuals will take some kind of cataclysmic economic event to call to their attention the fact that the fiscal powder keg was foreseen as early as the 1930s.
When we consider the critics of the federal income tax in 1912, we can begin to understand how long it takes for a series of wealth redistribution programs to produce disastrous results. But the federal debt is rising faster than the economy. There will be a head-on collision at some point.
The people who saw the implications of the federal income tax in 1912 did not have any idea how long this collision could be postponed, but it will come to an inevitable end at some point. That will be the time to rewrite the textbooks, and to post them free of charge, or close to it, on the World Wide Web.
Those of us who have been critics of the New Deal all of our lives have spent decades in the wilderness. We may not have eaten locusts and honey, the way John the Baptist did, and we may not have dressed ourselves in sackcloth and ashes, but it has been a wilderness. Nevertheless, we can see progress today on the fringes of intellectual discussion, because the World Wide Web is making available materials of a very high quality which would never have found their way into print as recently as 1995.
Over a period of time, the critics of the welfare state will find a receptive audience. The audience may not have as much money as it thought it was going to have in the golden years of retirement, but at least it is inexpensive to read books on the World Wide Web.
I was glad to visit the shrine at Warm Springs. It reminded me of the challenge that still lies before any scholar who dares to call into question the sainted status of Franklin Roosevelt. The weather was nice, and there were not many visitors. That cheered me up a great deal.
The shrines of dead politicians are part of all political regimes, but rare is the shrine that survives as a popular tourist center. Mount Vernon will always get its share of visitors, but eventually the crowds will cease at the shrines of those Presidents who left a legacy of red ink.