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Published by EH.NET (November 2006)

Spencer Weber Waller, Thurman Arnold: A Biography. New York: New York University Press, 2005. xi + 271 pp. $40 (cloth), ISBN: 0-8147-9392-4.

Richard E. Holl, From Boardroom to the War Room: America’s Corporate Liberals and FDR’s Preparedness Program. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2005. x + 191 pp. $75 (cloth), ISBN: 1-58046-192-1.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Michael V. Namorato, Department of History, University of Mississippi.

These studies by Spencer Waller and Richard Holl have a number of interesting commonalities: both discuss American business, both address the importance of the New Deal and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s policies, and both analyze how business and the New Deal interacted. They differ primarily in their approaches to these distinct areas of concern. Where Waller writes a biography of Thurman Arnold who was a member of the Department of Justice in the late 1930s, Holl looks at how American corporate businessmen (or liberals, as he calls them) worked with the Roosevelt Administration. Even more interesting is how these very corporate liberals and Thurman Arnold perceived each other.

Waller argues very forcefully that Thurman Arnold was a unique individual in so many ways. He was “in essence the decathlon champion of American law” (p. 2). He was a practitioner, a law school dean, a legal realist, author, New Dealer, creator and enforcer of modern anti-trust laws, a federal judge, a defender of free speech during the McCarthy era, and the founder of one of the most prominent law firms in Washington today. As a person, moreover, Waller paints a picture of this icon as one who liked to be funny, was not much of a father (but made up for it by being a better grandfather), and whose loyalty to his friends, such as Abe Fortas, never wavered.

In reaching these conclusions, Waller meticulously studies Arnold’s life — beginning with his parents, childhood in Wyoming, education at Princeton, and law school at Harvard. An average student, Arnold developed his interests in writing and partying, although, by law school, he focused more and more on the work at hand. As a young lawyer, Arnold went to Chicago where he took on cases that seemed to be routine and not very challenging. When World War I broke out, he served in France after which he and his wife returned to Laramie to set up home and a law practice.

Waller recounts details about Arnold’s life as a small town politician and later dean of the West Virginia College of Law, which helped him to survive the Great Depression. From there, he went to the Yale Law School as a teacher. Waller spends a considerable amount of time discussing how Arnold became a “legal realist” at Yale. He also summarizes in detail Arnold’s writings in such works as The Symbols of Government and The Folklore of Capitalism. Undoubtedly, these exercises in teaching and writing helped prepare him for the later work he would do in the New Deal in the Anti-Trust Division of the Department of Justice.

In Chapter 6, Waller recounts how Arnold got into the New Deal and worked on the enforcement of anti-trust laws, and how Franklin D. Roosevelt responded to what he had done. The author gives long, in-depth explanations of the cases that Arnold pursued — which were won, lost, or had a long-term impact on American jurisprudence. Probably the most significant discussion in these sections recounts how Arnold perceived anti-trust as a means of preventing abuse of power in the business world. Relentless in promoting himself and his causes, Arnold continually lobbied for more staff, resources, and funds. Several cases would go on to become quite important in legal history such as the Alcoa, American Medical Association, and oil industry cases. Nevertheless, with his usefulness diminishing, Arnold left the New Deal to start a new life as a federal judge.

His judgeship was quite unhappy and Arnold was relieved to get out of it and into opening a private practice, at first with Reed Miller. Later, of course, Arnold joined forces with Abe Fortas and Paul Porter. Together, they established one of the most prominent law firms in Washington. The remainder of the book studies how the firm grew, how it got involved in the McCarthy era witch hunt cases, and Arnold’s work with Coca Cola and Fortas’ relationship with Lyndon Johnson. By the 1960s, Arnold was an icon among lawyers in Washington, despite his outspoken views on Vietnam and other issues. On November 7, 1969, after telling his wife Frances that he was not sure he wanted to live any longer, he died peacefully.

Richard Holl, unlike Waller, takes a different approach in his study of American business and the New Deal. Essentially, Holl looks at what he calls the “corporate liberals” of the American business world. These were visionary businessmen who sought to work with Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal instead of fighting against it. They saw cooperation with the government as a means of avoiding a stronger central state and as a way of re-creating industrial self-government.

Holl makes the case that these corporate liberals were those businessmen in the 1920s who were very much in favor of welfare capitalism and trade associationism. They wanted to help workers, improve business’s position in American society, and collaborate with the federal government. Specifically, Holl focuses on Henry Dennison, Gerard Swope, Marion Folsom, Edward Stettinius, William Knudsen, Donald Nelson, Averell Harriman, Owen Young, and a few others.

Starting with the 1920s, Holl details how these corporate liberals tried to develop their own welfare capitalist plan in his their own companies and how the Great Depression forced them to retract their promises. However, Holl goes on to show that these corporate liberals, especially people like Stettinius, Knudsen, and Nelson, worked with Franklin Roosevelt in his New Deal, beginning with the National Recovery Administration, Social Security, and the Wagner Act. Holl argues forcefully that the BAC (Business Advisory Council) of the Department of Commerce sustained the corporate liberals’ presence within the Roosevelt Administration. Even though most historians talk about the anti-Roosevelt business position by 1937-38, Holl points out that there were still a number of corporate liberals who supported the president. With Harry Hopkins in the Commerce Department, these corporate liberals like Willard Thorp, Edward Noble, and Robert Wood worked with the secretary to see how businessmen could foster New Deal objectives as, for example, with the Bureau of Industrial Economics.

But, it was really in the preparedness area that the corporate liberals made their mark. Holl meticulously relates how the United States was unprepared for World War II. Roosevelt and the corporate liberals knew it and realized that something had to be done to rectify this dangerous situation. Neither Roosevelt nor the corporate liberals wanted a state-centered answer like the “all-outers” New Dealers, such as Harold Ickes. Instead, the president and his business supporters called for and got cooperation.

This is where Holl contributes his most original ideas. Using Stettinius, Knudsen, and Nelson as backdrops, Holl studies how the War Resources Board, the National Defense Advisory Commission, and the Office of Production Management went about helping the United States prepare itself for war by bringing the military and business together, by having “educational orders” filled out by companies that would have to produce military supplies, by having these influential businessmen direct the military and civilian authorities along workable paths for meeting wartime demands, and by giving the president leeway to develop and foster cooperation between business and government. In the end, it all worked in the sense that the corporate liberals kept the extreme radical New Dealers and extreme anti-New Deal businessmen from dominating war preparations.

How does one assess these two works on the New Deal? In many ways Waller’s book is a biography about a lawyer which is written by a lawyer. This is not meant in any way to demean or detract from the study. Waller has written a good work on an individual who has not received as much attention as he deserves. It should also be pointed out, however, that there are a few shortcomings in this work. The author spends too much time summarizing Arnold’s briefs and his writings. He also tends to give Arnold more importance than he might have had. And, his portrayal of Arnold as an individual is sometimes lost in the maze of all the “legalese” that the reader has to confront.

On the other hand, it is clear that Holl has done an extensive amount of research on the corporate liberals and wartime agencies. His research is solid, his ideas are definitely interesting, and his writing style is fine. But, again as in the case of Waller, Holl has a couple of shortcomings. The most important weakness is that he tends to re-iterate much of what others have said about businessmen, especially Ellis Hawley. What makes Holl’s work original, though, is that he focuses more on the individual corporate executives. Here, his contribution is, indeed, significant.

In closing, both Waller’s biography of Thurman Arnold and Holl’s study of America’s corporate liberals are solid examples of old-fashioned, good historical research and analysis. Both have offered interesting perspectives on their subjects and both have given us some original ideas to look at and consider when it comes to American business, the New Deal, and the anti-trust laws.

Michael V. Namorato, Professor of History at the University of Mississippi, specializes in the Great Depression-New Deal era. He is currently working with two co-authors on a political, economic study of child welfare in Mississippi.