Published by EH.NET (July 1, 2000)

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

Planning, 1890-1943. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2000.

xii + 362 pp. $40 (cloth), ISBN: 1-55849-230-5.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Robert Cuff, Department of History, York University


Patrick Reagan, an historian at Tennessee Technological University, has

written a first-rate study of executive-level attempts at economic and social

planning during the 1930s and early 1940s. The National Resources Planning

Board (1939-1943) and its bureaucratic predecessors, the civilian agencies most

central to the story, have received varying degrees of attention in New Deal

historiography. In V Was For Victory: Politics and American Culture During

World War II (1976), for example, John Morton Blum made conservative

congressional attacks on NRPB after Pearl Harbor symbolic of a general wartime

backlash against New Deal liberalism, a theme now common in accounts of the

wartime domestic scene. Taking a broader perspective, Otis Graham in Toward

A Planned Society: From Roosevelt to Nixon (1976) interpreted New Deal

efforts at policy planning as part of a useable past for erstwhile planners in

the late 1970s. More recently, Alan Brinkley in The End of Reform: New Deal

Liberalism in Recession and War (1995) has traced NRPB’s role in policy

struggles over the meaning of liberalism for the postwar social order.

Reagan takes these and other studies into account but also makes his own

distinctive contribution. On the interpretative level, no one has so firmly

linked the national planning impulse of the 1930s to the intellectual and

organizational history of the pre-New Deal era. In this sense, Designing a

New America may be read as an archaeological excavation of New Deal

managerial ideals. In making the case for continuity, or for a broader

historical context, Reagan provides an impressive synthesis of recent

historiography (and an excellent primer for graduate students) on an array of

issues related to the planning impulse, including progressive-era urban reform;

mobilization during World War I; welfare capitalism; social science

policy-making; and inter-war attempts at voluntary economic stabilization.

Biographical studies of key Board members comprise five of the book’s eight

chapters, an approach, of course, that reinforces the sense of linkage between

the 1930s and networks of policy advocates in prior decades. Included are

detailed portraits of Franklin Roosevelt’s uncle Frederic A. Delano, a former

railroad executive whom Reagan regards as the father of New Deal planning;

University of Chicago political scientist Charles Merriam; institutional

economist Wesley Clair Mitchell; Massachusetts business executive Henry S.

Dennison; and Rockefeller foundation manager Beardsley Ruml. While all five

chapters draw on primary as well as secondary sources, and all are worth

reading, those on the lesser-known Delano and Ruml contain the freshest

material. Ruml’s career trajectory from philanthropy manager to a member in

1935 of Roosevelt’s planning board is particularly intriguing.

In a certain respect, the biographical material is so strong that the reader

comes away a bit uncertain about the story’s administrative dimension–of how

and why the National Planning Board of 1933 evolved into the NRPB of 1939, and

what exactly those agencies did during their ten-year existence. I also think

the author repeats the description of a seamless historical web a bit too often

when he might better have added a page or two on what exactly had changed in

approaches to nation-wide planning in the period he covers. But these are

simply quibbles about a piece of work that’s impressive as both interpretative

scholarship and original research.

Robert Cuff teaches at York University. He has written on economic planning

during World Wars I and II.