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Designing a New America: the Origins of New Deal Planning, 1890-1943

Author(s):Reagan, Patrick D.
Reviewer(s):Tomlinson, Jim

Published by EH.NET (February 2001)

Patrick D. Reagan, Designing a New America: the Origins of New Deal

Planning, 1890-1943 . University of Massachusetts Press, 1999. Pp. xii +

362. ISBN 1-55849-230-5.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Jim Tomlinson, Brunel University, London.

This book provides a detailed account of the evolution of the movement for

national planning in the US between 1890 and 1943, when Congress ended funding

for the National Resources Planning Board. Much of the account is woven around

the careers and ideas of five key participants: Frederic A. Delano, Charles E.

Merriam, Wesley C. Mitchell, Henry. S. Denison and Beardsley Ruml. During the

1920s and 1930s, these five, Patrick Reagan argues, evolved a distinctive

version of planning, sharply contrasted with the plans of the contemporary

authoritarian states of Europe and Japan. The impetus for this American form

of planning came partly from the experience of state intervention to support

the American participation in the First World War and partly from the

Hoover-led attempts to deal with the unemployment problem of the immediate

post-war years. New Deal planning is seen as closely following these

precedents, though receiving new impetus from the great depression, and moving

in a more statist direction under the stimulus of Roosevelt’s actions to

counteract the great depression.

The key characteristic of this planning was its attempt to find a way between

nineteenth-century liberalism, and especially its sharp distinction between

the public and private sectors, and twentieth century collectivism. This third

way embodied voluntary co-operation between organised business and government

(with a token role for unions and others) guided by experts working in close

co-operation with political leaders. These experts would bring to bear the

knowledge created by the nascent social sciences, and in so doing would

prevent the economic and social breakdown which in so many parts of the world

was creating dictatorships of the right and left. This version of planning was

unambiguously elitist, excluded the unorganised, and showed little concern for

issues around the distribution of income and wealth. Nevertheless, it provided

the foundations for much of the discussion of planning that became an

important element in post World War II politics, at least down to the 1960s.

The biographical approach to the evolution of planning proves an effective way

of bringing into focus both the convergence of concerns and themes which

underlay these ideas of planning, and the informal networks which transformed

the ideas into policy initiatives. Equally, the author’s aim to place planning

in the mainstream of inter-war American politics (rather than an ‘extremist’

response to the great depression) is successfully attained. The contingencies

of history are also nicely brought out in the account of the abolition of the

NRPB, which was based on a combination of Congressional manoeuvrings for

power, absurd ideological posturing by Republicans, and political

maladroitness (and bad faith?) on the part of the President.

The author is repetitive in his claims for American exceptionalism with regard

to planning. (Indeed there is rather a lot of repetition even of minor points:

we are told at least six times that Congress in 1943 mandated the sending of

the NRPB records to the National Archives). This claim for a peculiarly

American version of planning is sound where the contrast is made with

authoritarian regimes like the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany or Japan. But it is

less persuasive if the comparison is made with other democracies that faced

economic and social crisis in the 1920s and 1930s. In Britain, for example, as

Daniel Ritschel in his The Politics of Planning (Oxford, 1997) has recently

emphasised, the ideology of planning was widely embraced across the political

spectrum. Many of the ideas articulated at that time had close affinity with

the contemporary American version of planning, though what was also striking

in Britain was the wide diversity of ideas that could come under that umbrella

term. In this comparative light America appears less unique, more in a common

mould of democracies where, many felt, ‘planning’ would provide a route to

economic stability which free market policies seemed no longer to secure.

Jim Tomlinson is Professor of Economic History, and Head of Department of

Government, Brunel University, London. He has published widely in the field of

macro-economic policy, industrial development and economic history,

principally on Britain. His most recent publication is The Politics of

Decline: Understanding Post-War Britain, Longmans 2000.

Subject(s):Macroeconomics and Fluctuations
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII