American-Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA -- When FDR Put the Nation to Work


On the afternoon of Wednesday, September 21, 1937, a vicious hurricane swept through the Northeast, bringing with it a tidal surge that smashed the Long Island coast, flooded the Connecticut River, and left nearly 700 dead. Within a day, employees of the Works Progress Administration, the New Deal office charged with employing those on relief, were filling sandbags, rescuing survivors, and sorting through the wreckage. By Friday morning, 100,000 WPA'ers had been deployed to the afflicted region. As Nick Taylor chronicles in American-Made, his ambitious but uneven history of the WPA, their mobilization was remarkably comprehensive. "Through the region, WPA sewing rooms put aside their other work to produce clothing for flood victims. WPA nurses and nutritionists staffed refugee centers at schools and infirmaries, and kindergarten teachers set up children's playrooms." By November, the region had been almost entirely rebuilt, leaving the Red Cross chairman to observe that the WPA's response to the storm was "one of the most amazing disaster recoveries this organization has ever known."

For someone like myself, whose most indelible memory of the U.S. response to a domestic natural disaster is the image of President Bush strumming a guitar while New Orleans drowned, and whose entire conscious political life has taken place in the wake of the Reagan revolution, the sheer scope and approach of the New Deal in general, and the WPA specifically, is unfathomably alien. A government that marshaled 3 million people to build ski lodges, repair roads, stage avant-garde plays, excavate Indian ruins, and grow herb gardens sounds more like a strange cross between pharaonic Egypt and the Berkeley City Council than the Washington of today, which has outsourced every core function, from tax collection to war fighting.

Thirty-plus years of rhetoric about inefficient, bloated government bureaucracy has disposed us to think of an undertaking of the WPA's scale as necessarily possessing all the nimble dynamism of a mastodon. But Taylor shows just how lithe and flexible the WPA was. Roosevelt's approach was pragmatic and experimental: he would try anything that might work. With massive congressional majorities and an opposition equally desperate, the rest of the government was willing to go along with Roosevelt's experimentalism, and out of this open-minded, improvisational spirit, the WPA was born.

The project could have been a failure, but Roosevelt had the wisdom and good fortune to appoint Harry Hopkins to run it. If Taylor's book has a hero, it's Hopkins -- one of those legendarily passionate, smart technocrats who made the New Deal function. (It turns out it makes a big difference to have people who believe in government and bureaucracy running things.) Hopkins proves a memorable character: ornery, irascible, and such an intense workaholic that he literally gave himself an ulcer (which later morphed, tragically, into stomach cancer). He was trusted by Roosevelt but hated by his rivals inside the administration and out. The press called him "smart-alecky," and, when asked to respond to an accusation by a Republican congressman that the WPA "stinks" like a rotting mackerel, he snapped back, "They can call names just so often. I know a lot of adjectives myself, and I am going to start in pretty soon."

Under another person's management, the WPA could have easily become a shiftless bureaucratic behemoth or a slush fund for patronage, but Hopkins insisted on three policies that made the WPA remarkably efficient and free of political favoritism (charges by its conservative critics notwithstanding). First, Hopkins pushed decision making down to the local level, bypassing state political machines and allowing local governments to apply for project funds. This meant that proposals were authored by those best able to assess needs and not by some centralized authority in Washington or the state capital. Secondly, he was zealous about protecting the program from patronage or earmarks, understanding that any hint that the WPA was being used to buy votes would mean its death knell. And finally, unlike those administrations that have taken a "hear-no-evil, see-no-evil" approach to bad news, Hopkins actively sought out information on failing projects and poor performance. He dispatched a team of reporters to fan out across the country, observe various WPA projects anonymously in person, and report back. If the work wasn't up to standard, they didn't pull any punches.

But despite Hopkins's efforts to keep the program clean and beyond reproach, it inevitably became a lightning rod. Part of this was due to the predictable ebb and flow of political feeling. Roosevelt's landslide victory in 1932, combined with the unprecedented levels of poverty and unemployment, temporarily suspended the normal rules of politics, giving the new administration something close to carte blanche. While some on the right opposed the original incarnation of the WPA, a more basic jobs program for people on relief, politicians overwhelmingly supported any effort to save the able-bodied from the spiritual decay brought about by idleness and the dole. But as the WPA metastasized into a nationwide jobs program for millions, it began to attract the attention of a revitalized opposition, formed of anti-Roosevelt capitalists in the Liberty League, Republican politicians, and conservative southern Democrats. The status quo ante came roaring back, as conservatives devoted the energies of the newly formed House Un-American Activities Committee to launching a full-scale assault on the Communists infesting the WPA writers' and theater projects. Hopkins, with (perhaps delusional) thoughts of succeeding Roosevelt as president, was moved over to become secretary of Commerce, and the was WPA soon scaled back before segueing into wartime mobilization.

You might imagine that a 500-page history of the WPA is not exactly a zippy read, and in this case you'd sadly be right. Taylor alternates between compelling chapters describing the general political progress of the New Deal, elections, and court-packing; chapters devoted to fights and feuds inside the WPA bureaucracy; and a dozen or so sections devoted to a single WPA project and its workers. He has gathered a staggering amount of detail, but it's not always a virtue. Too often the narrative sputters and stalls as Taylor unspools in slightly painful detail the workaday routines of a WPA worker on a specific project. The fact of the matter is that 90 percent of the WPA work was unremarkable, basic labor, and it's a tall task to describe the drudgery without boring a reader to tears. So you end up with passages like this description of the lunchtime assembly line at a WPA site in Mt. Hood, Oregon: "One man laid out the slices of bread, the next brushed them with butter, the next put on a piece of lettuce, the next added cheese or ham. A fifth man added another piece of lettuce and the top piece of bread." And so on.

In its depth and breadth, though, the book is a useful resource. As we celebrate the 75th anniversary of the New Deal, at a time when America seems precariously teetering on the edge of another truly massive financial crisis, it's somehow reassuring to reclaim this specific moment of the usable past, a time when the government succeeded in pulling off, with imaginative competence and grace, the monumental task of putting a nation back to work.