Over at our joint I’ve been doing a fair bit of “this day seventy-five years ago” because of the anniversary of Roosevelt’s hundred days and, well, because. This one may hold some interest for an international readership:
On this day in 1933, British Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald delivered an address from the National Press Club in Washington, DC, discussing the common problems of the US and UK: “In America at this moment and in Great Britain there are millions of men who want work and can’t get it…. Governments cannot be indifferent to a state of things like that.”
MacDonald looked forward to “wise international government action,” to be established at the upcoming international economic conference. He hoped it would revive “a freely flowing international exchange,” i.e., trade—“Self-sufficiency in the economic field on the part of nations ultimately ends in the poverty of their own people.”
He was mindful of the apparent irony in Britain’s having taken the nationalist, defensive action of going off the gold standard: “Can you imagine that in the early days of that crisis we said gayly and light-heartedly, ‘Let it rip. Let it rip. We will go off gold. There are benefits in being off gold, and we will reap them.’” Obviously he meant the answer to be “no.”—“And so on this currency question, agreement is the only protection.”1
But for many observers, especially the cross French cabinet ministers, there was plenty of blame to be laid on the UK and also the US—which had itself gone off gold while MacDonald and French representatives were sailing over to America to confer. The French insisted there could be only one basis for agreement, as Finance Minister Georges Bonnet said: “We hope every country will return as soon as possible to the gold standard. I need scarcely add that there cannot be for an instant any question of our abandoning it ourselves.”2
That wasn’t going to happen either. As Anne O’Hare McCormick wrote, “Today the secular scene is one of economic anarchy…. What moves the nations, so far as they move, is a save-himself-who-can policy, expressed in cut-throat competition for dammed-up trade.”3 The vast majority of the Senate wanted to say, to borrow from MacDonald, “Let it rip,” and realize the benefits of going off gold: 46 of 85 senators polled said they wanted inflation.4 And under the pending Thomas Amendment, Roosevelt would have discretionary power to give it to them. In general, Roosevelt used his unprecedented powers in a nationalist manner: he told the world economic conference, never mind; he sought inflation and used methods of managing the economy that presumed, more or less, autarky.5
It would not be until 1938, with the Anglo-American Trade Agreement, that MacDonald’s wish for a thaw in international exchange would be engineered; not till the postwar settlement—the creation of the IMF and World Bank and United Nations and the re-drafting of international law—that anything like McCormick’s wished-for “New Deal in World Affairs” would begin to be realized.
As Isaiah Berlin later wrote, Roosevelt’s “great social experiment was conducted with an isolationist disregard of the outside world.”6 In this era of transnational history, the New Deal presents a problem: while the Great Depression was a truly global event, with international causes and effects, the New Deal was not. People in other countries took notice of it, but its policies did not, despite the hopes of MacDonald and others, involve international cooperation.
Which makes the New Deal a problem not only for historians who like these days to show a transnational element wherever we can find it, but also a problem for modern liberals who fall heir to the New Deal. Roosevelt’s domestic agenda doesn’t provide the basis for a usable past until and unless you take account of the Bretton Woods Agreement, the United Nations, and the Nuremberg Tribunals as capstone achievements of New Deal liberalism. Then, and only then, do you have a New Deal way of being-in-the-world.
1“Text of Premier MacDonald’s Address Broadcast to Nation,” NYT 4/23/1933, p. 24.
2“France is Firm on Gold,” NYT 4/23/1933, p. 27.
3Anne O’Hare McCormick, “The New Deal in World Affairs,” NYT 4/23/1933, p. SM1.
4“Inflation Favored by 46 Senators,” NYT 4/23/1933, p. 26.
5For a list of such powers as of this day in 1933, see Arthur Krock, “Roosevelt, as Crusader, Seeks Unequaled Power,” NYT 4/23/1933, p. E1.
6Isaiah Berlin, “President Franklin Delano Roosevelt,” in The Proper Study of Mankind: An Anthology of Essays, ed. Henry Hardy and Roger Hausheer (London: Chatto and Windus, 1997), 629.
UPDATED to add, if you’re interested in reading more specifically on the relation of the postwar agreements to the New Deal, you should have a look at Elizabeth Borgwardt, A New Deal for the World.