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.