Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Book Review (#20 of 2013) Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War 1939-1945 by David M. Kennedy

Freedom from Fear won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize in history. It is a 900+ page tome that is essentially two books, The Depression and The War. I decided to read it as a comparison to Amity Schlaes' The Forgotten Man (my review).

As far as The Depression goes, Schlaes' treatment is much deeper and more detailed, including the 1920s context and the personal histories and travels to the USSR of FDR's "braintrust." Kennedy skips or glosses over certain crucial details of the New Deal that Schlae's emphasizes, like the critical Schechter case. However, Kennedy does a good job explaining how the New Deal had to be mostly undone to fight World War II. He also does a better job integrating the important of international events on FDR's decision-making in the later 30's.

Overall, I don't find many contradictions to Schlaes' treatment of FDR and the New Deal, which is remarkable given how much the Left has poo-poohed Schlaes' account. FDR comes across as inexperienced, contradictory, weak in negotiations, and not very literate ("None of his advisers ever knew him to read a book) in both accounts-- quite different from the adoration he receives today. The New Deal was more about more fair redistribution than economic stimulation, which is why the restrictions it put on free enterprise had to be let go to allow businesses to produce the war machine.

FDR's decision to take the U.S. off the gold standard was the greatest economic boost. His sudden determination to raise taxes and reduce the deficit helped cause the 1938 recession for which he almost faced a tough re-election.

Kennedy does a good job giving a play-by-play overview of World War II, including many details revealed by recent research; that's quite laudable. FDR's ill health and failings at Yalta are detailed. Kennedy does a decent job giving some home-front industrial policy and statistics throughout the book, including WWII, but I think fails to capture the sociology of the American people during the War years. He does look at certain aspects, such as internment camps, and the role of women (and their eagerness to get back to homemaking according to multiple surveys-- something that is forgotten about the 1940s by many modern talking heads).

In all, I give this book 4 stars out of 5. It's not great as a detailed account of both periods, but is a very good overview of both.

No comments: