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To assess all these controversies of the Roosevelt years has by now become almost an industry, a large and well-organized effort to explain what really happened. The industry's headquarters is at Hyde Park, the first of the great presidential libraries, where more than 150 separate collections of New Deal documents and memoirs are measured not in pages but in linear feet. (One linear foot represents approximately 2,000 pages, and Roosevelt's presidential papers alone extend to 2,076 linear feet.)
Laureate of this industry is Pulitzer-prizewinning Historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. of the City University of New York, whose three-volume Age of Roosevelt appeared between 1956 and 1960 and established the now prevalent view that Roosevelt was the savior of both capitalism and democracy. The American system had totally broken down, Schlesinger argued, and both conservatives and radicals were well on the way to convincing the world that there was no middle way between ideological extremes. Roosevelt proved otherwise. Said Schlesinger: "In the welter of confusion and ignorance, experiment corrected by compassion was the best answer."
But was the New Deal answer really successful? Did it work? Other scholarly experts almost uniformly praise and admire Roosevelt, but even the most sympathetic among them add a number of reservations. "The New Deal certainly did not get the country out of the Depression," says Columbia's William Leuchtenburg, author of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal. "As late as 1941, there were still 6 million unemployed, and it was really not until the war that the army of the jobless finally disappeared." "Some of the New Deal legislation was very hastily contrived," says Williams College's James MacGregor Burns, author of a two-volume Roosevelt biography. Duke's James David Barber, author of The Presidential Character, notes that Roosevelt "was not too open about his real intentions, particularly in the court-packing episode."
Though it has become common to focus on what Presidents do or fail to do, Frank Freidel of the University of Washington, whose monumental Franklin D. Roosevelt has reached the fourth out of eight volumes, emphasizes that Congress caused difficulties almost from the beginning. Says he: "Congress, as it is intended to be in the Constitution, was a very important tempering influence, and even in 1935 it required enormous efforts on Roosevelt's part to get what he wanted." Yale's Blum also charges Roosevelt with failure to end the Depression, and he puts the blame not only on "congressional impedance" but on general "economic ignorance." Says he: "Economists at that time really didn't know how to achieve recovery. You needed a Keynesian revolution, and this came only inadvertently with defense spending, which was far beyond anything the New Deal envisaged." Blum emphasizes another problem: Roosevelt was trying simultaneously to achieve recovery and reform. Says Blum: "There was a kind of friction between the aims of recovery and the aims of reform."
After all the criticisms, though, the bulk of expert opinion agrees that Roosevelt's New Deal changed American life substantially, changed it permanently and changed it