New Deal and the 1930s
following is an interview with Alger Hiss, conducted by Judah
Graubart and Alice V. Graubart for their book, "Decade
of Destiny" (Contemporary Books, Inc., 1978).
people held as wide a variety of sensitive government positions
during the thirties (and forties) as Alger Hiss. Serving in
the Justice Department, on the Nye Committee and in the State
Department, he was witness to and participant in much of the
formation of America's prewar foreign and domestic policies.
Indeed, it is Mr. Hiss's belief that it was because he was
so integral a part of the New Deal era that he became the
personification of it for Roosevelt's posthumous enemies.
think the extent, the depth, the fury of the Depression caught
most people of my generation by surprise and taught us, more
than anything else, the importance of politics. When I graduated
from college, I paid very little attention to such matters;
those who were in politics seemed to me rather grubby and
corrupt people. But while at law school, and then immediately
after, the Depression began, and it indicated that things
were not right with our country. The collapse, the whole economic
picture, was widespread devastation.
New York, the Hoovervilles were on Riverside Drive, in Central
Park, everywhere. One couldn't move around without seeing
them. On Wall Street, where I worked, the famous men who were
too proud to beg were selling apples for a nickel apiece.
Once employed, sometimes running their own businesses, they
got steadily more and more threadbare. The soup kitchens were
much too inadequate.
'33, after Roosevelt became President, I was invited by Jerome
Frank, the general counsel to the Agricultural Adjustment
Administration, to come to Washington. I was not carried away
by the idea, because I had only very recently come to the
job I had in New York and was in the middle of a case. But
a telegram from my former teacher, Felix Frankfurter, who
had influenced me in law school, sparked my decision to go.
The telegram read: "On basis national emergency, you
must accept Jerome Frank's invitation."
it was like a call to arms, being told that the nation was
in danger. I think many of us who went down in those first
few weeks thought of ourselves as civilian militia going down
for the duration of a real emergency, as if we were going
to war. Roosevelt, in his Inaugural Address, used the sacrifices
of war as an analogy. I think we believed that in a few years
the emergency would be met; I know I always expected to go
back to civil law. Practically none of us were in the civil
service. We were going to be there only a short time and certainly
weren't interested in a government career as bureaucrats.
Therefore, the furthest thing from our thoughts was retirement
benefits at the end of lengthy bureaucratic lives, and all
the people in government - the civil servants - recognized
that in us.
formed a good working relationship with the civil servants,
who, we soon realized, were as much in favor of personal self-sacrifice
and of working long hours for the public good as we were.
Whereas we found them to be invaluable because of their knowledge
and experience, many of them regarded us as reinforcements,
to use the military analogy, since all their bright ideas,
not unlike ours, had been refused by the Republicans. Now
came people who would be sympathetic, and they were cheered
the New Deal came in, we pretty much had a free hand. Things
were not working out the way business leaders had been led
to believe they would; so we had public support. Roosevelt
said he would experiment and if one thing didn't work, he
would try another. The whole thing was improvised. We had
some success and we had some failures, but certainly the bitterness
of the Depression was for millions of people ameliorated by
the benefits paid to the small farmers by the Works Progress
Administration, by the relief funds and by the Federal Emergency
Relief Act. The whole spirit of the New Deal, of such people
as [Harry] Hopkins, [Harold] Ickes and Miss [Frances] Perkins,
was so idealistic, so humanitarian, I think the public as
a whole felt as it has not felt since - that the government
cared about its duties and about individual citizens. There
was a genuine sense of participation in the farm program where
I worked. There were county committees set up for the farmers
that not only handled a great deal of the administration -
checking the acreage and so on - but also sent recommendations
for improvements. It was an extraordinary period of public
confidence in the government.
incident with Senator "Cotton Ed" Smith occurred
while I was with the Department of Agriculture in an official
capacity. I helped draft the cotton contract for reducing
cost on acreage, and we had provided that some of the payments
made in exchange for reduction of the acreage should go to
tenant farmers when the farm involved had tenants as well
as an owner. Senator Smith had expected that all those payments
would go to him as the owner. He came to see me in my office
and was very angry because the payments, as we had drafted
them, applied to him as well as to his tenants and were to
be made directly to them. He said something to the effect,
"You can't send checks to my niggers," as if they
were hardly human and sending payments to them would be like
sending them to his horses or mules, who wouldn't know how
to handle checks. I explained that this was what was required
under the statutes and that I assumed that my superiors accepted
this view or they wouldn't have approved it in the first place.
I was as polite to him as I could be, but I was in no way
frightened. It wouldn't have meant much to me if I had been
fired; I could have gone somewhere else or back to practicing
law, and this was a matter of principle. It just seemed to
me to be no big deal. The New Deal was the big deal.
should add that a year later, when the purge over the cotton
contracts occurred, not only Senator Smith but also the cotton
producers and their representatives in Congress changed things.
In the second cotton contracts, we insisted not only that
the payments go to the tenants but also that the same number
of tenants be kept on the farm. It wasn't going to help the
country, and it wasn't going to be fair, if the owner, in
order to get the payments himself, dismissed some of the tenants.
This we lost out on.
the purge, Jerome Frank, my boss, was asked to leave, as were
Lee Pressman and a number of others, much to their shock,
for they thought Secretary Wallace was supporting their position.
But, when push came to shove, Wallace felt that there was
too much opposition to his position in Congress and, in effect,
backed down and jettisoned them. They became not scapegoats
but something pretty close to it. Other people didn't resign
but were fired only a few days later. Since I was then mostly
on loan to the Nye Committee on the Munitions Industry as
their counsel, I had no occasion to get involved in the purge.
Nevertheless, my interest in the Department of Agriculture
lessened from day to day, since the people I had worked with
were gone, as were the idealism and innovation they had supplied.
reason I had been sent to join the Nye Committee was that
at least two of its members were on the Senate Agricultural
Committee and so Secretary Wallace tried to do them a favor.
The objectives of the former committee were twofold. The first
was to limit the actual trade in arms, something that is of
interest again today, though on a much broader scale. The
arms trade was considered then, as now, immoral. It was also
thought that the arms trade maximized the danger of warfare
between small countries. We found, for example, that the salesmen
for a great arms firm would do their best to convince the
officials of, let's say, a Latin American country that a neighboring
rival country had military designs against them, and would
encourage them to buy. They would then run to the neighboring
country and say, "Look, your rival has just bought this
remember a particular letter that came out in the hearings,
in which a local representative of one of the American munitions
companies complained that the State Department was "fomenting
peace." We had always thought of the word "fomenting"
as being used for war, not for something desirable, like peace.
committee's second objective was to take profit out of war.
In that effort, it was supported by the American Legion and
other veteran associations, which felt that it was unfair
for businessmen to make big profits while the individual soldier
should be expected to give up a job, in which he might have
been receiving increased pay, to run the risk of being injured
explored that. We found that after every major American war,
even the Civil War, there had been congressional investigations
into the wastes, the corruption, etc. We found that war does
tend to encourage and promote corruption, and certainly extravagance.
After all, when the issue is possible defeat, money doesn't
seem so important. On the other hand, a lot of people benefit
corruptly and greedily at such a time. But we were unable
to figure any way to take the profit out of war, and the reports
I helped write said this just wasn't very likely.
I was approached by one of the duPont lawyers who told me
that "whatever you're earning here, you could earn more,"
or something like, "Your talents would be useful."
Certainly it was an indication that I could get a job and
I suppose that they preferred that I got the job early, rather
than after I'd continued. No, I never doubted that it was
an attempt, as you put it, to "bribe me."
Nye? He was a friendly man with Midwestern gusto, vigor and
simplicity. Not terribly sophisticated, not very learned,
easy to work with, and a man of a good deal of conscience.
He came from the Dakotas, where isolationism was strong. Therefore
he was a spokesman for what he grew up with. He felt that
Europe was less noble, beautiful, and pure than the American
Middle West. That part of Washington's Farewell Address that
went "Do not get involved with evil designs of foreign
powers" must have been inculcated in his own thinking.
In that sense, of course, he was oversimplifying the view.
I found him to be very pleasant, conscientious and well-meaning,
though he was not of the stature of Senator Vandenberg, nor
did he have the intellectual quickness and charm of Senator
Bone or the dignity of Senator Pope.
committee came to be known primarily as the Neutrality Committee
after the period I was with it - the isolationists believed
in neutrality - and it began to recommend that the United
States should, particularly if war broke out abroad, refuse
to trade with either side. Although when the Spanish civil
war broke out, the terms of that Neutrality Act, which were
not meant to apply to a civil war, did seem to apply to Spain,
and Nye was willing to revise his own act, because he did
not think it was proper to refuse to ship to the Loyalist
government, the legal government of Spain. I think the reason
was that he came from a region where populism was strong,
and most populists are liberals. They cared about the little
man, about the underdog and about decency. And Nye had some
of this populist tradition himself.
'36, I went into the State Department because of Francis Sayre,
the assistant secretary in charge of the whole economic aspect
of foreign affairs, including trade. I had been working in
the Department of Justice to protect the trade agreements
from attacks, alleging they were unconstitutional. When his
assistant, John Dickey, left, Mr. Sayre asked me to come and
work on trade agreements in the State Department and continue
to supervise the litigation aspect, which I did.
the Spanish civil war, I would say that the State Department
was short-sighted. It was difficult for them to sense what
that war meant to Italy and Germany. They took more seriously
than I think was warranted the efforts of the British and
French in the nonintervention treaty. And the British, and
the French, too, I think, were weak-kneed. They did not foresee
that this would be the first victory of the Axis, that this
was the beginning of World War II. Now, of course, the State
Department had the excuse of simply trying to help the British
and French carry out nonintervention. That's why the neutrality
approach toward Spain was allowed to continue, even though
Senator Nye was so sympathetic to the Loyalists, he was willing
to work for removal of the embargo.
what was happening in Germany then, the State Department officials
did not think that it was their duty to chastise the Germans.
Any professional foreign office tends to feel that the domestic
procedures of foreign countries are less important than the
governmental relationships. From my own point of view, they
were not aroused enough. I saw Nazism as a mortal danger.
They tended to minimize the reports of what was going on in
Germany. Of course, things were not as bad as they became
later, but there was a tendency with State Department officials
to say that the press was exaggerating what was happening
there. The reason for my attitude was that I was more New
Dealish than many people in the State Department. The New
Dealers used to say that the writ of the New Deal ran everywhere
except the State Department, which was more conservative and
cautious. For example, if you look at the memoirs of George
Kennan, who's almost exactly my twin in age, you'll see that
he went immediately into the Foreign Service, and the Depression
seems to have made no impact on him. His only complaint about
it was his expression of annoyance with Roosevelt that the
expense accounts of Foreign Service officers should be reduced
as an economy move. Well, this was not the way people of the
New Deal felt. We felt that this was a time of great suffering
for the American people and everybody should pitch in and
try to help. But the State Department was basically conservative;
they came from a different medium. They had been protected
all their lives.
were very few Jewish people in the State Department. Herbert
Feis was the only one I can remember. I do not think the State
Department favored Hitlerian anti-Semitism. The State Department's
anti-Semitism may have been snobbish. That's possible. It
was that kind of social fabric. But that's quite different
from implying that the State Department as a whole or any
official within it condoned the kind of brutality that Hitlerian
anti-Semitism meant. Is that the idea of "While Six Million
Died"? I think that idea's very exaggerated.
also worked with Mr. Sayre in the Far Eastern Division. The
American position was that Japan's aggression against China
should not only not be rewarded, but that we should not continue
our shipping of scrap iron to Japan, thereby facilitating
Japan's access to the oil reserves of the Dutch East Indies,
almost all of which were owned by American companies. So in
order to free ourselves for discriminatory action - and it
would take discriminatory action to say they could not get
scrap iron but other countries could - we terminated the trade
treaty guaranteeing equal practices.
always believed that war with Germany was inevitable, but
not at all with Japan. I was conscious early in '35, certainly
in '36, that we had reached a prewar instead of a postwar
era. I spoke to my college fraternity in Baltimore, saying
that I thought war was coming in Europe. I saw that Hitler
lived by expansionism, that this was the only way the Germany
economy could keep going, and Hitler's power depended on his
being a militarized and militaristic leader. So I thought
we would be drawn into a war because Germany was strong and
we would have to protect England and France, as we had in
World War I.
felt quite the contrary about Japan. We never considered them
a match for us, and they weren't. I don't think anybody in
the State Department had anticipated the attack on Pearl Harbor.
It seemed suicidal when it happened. If anybody would have
said it would happen, we would have discounted it.
I wouldn't say the New Deal ended abruptly with Pearl Harbor.
It was under wraps, minimized in many respects, particularly
those where it would come into conflict with business, as
in wartime production. But those aspects of the New Deal that
would facilitate production, such was the morale of labor,
were treated with liberalism. I would say that the New Deal
didn't really end until the Cold War began, and this was one
of the functions of the Cold War and of McCarthyism - to discredit
the New Deal.
never had any doubt as to the fact that McCarthyism was to
attack Roosevelt indirectly. He was too popular, even when
dead, to be attacked directly. If the New Deal could be attacked,
if Yalta and his other policies could be attacked, then this
was one way of removing the stigmata of Roosevelt from those
policies. I've never doubted that one of the accomplishments
of McCarthyism was to diminish sympathy for Roosevelt, sympathy
for the New Deal, sympathy for the United Nations.
the New Deal will be needed when conditions get bad again.
It only came to light when the traditional business hierarchy
of leadership couldn't function anymore. That time will come
again. Another depression? I wouldn't go so far as to say
that. But what I would say is that the serious malformations
in the American economic and social structure with which the
New Deal tried to deal, when not cured or corrected, were
obviated by the war. The New Deal as an improvisation, as
an experiment, never succeeded in making the major changes
necessary to avoid the disasters of the Depression. Had it
been thoroughly successful, we wouldn't have had the kinds
of things that went on in the '60s, when the rigidity of American
culture came up against the demands for major changes. The
New Deal represented the same kind of attempt to break out
of the rigidity that had led to the Depression and to the
inability to change the format under which American culture
had grown. I think the New Deal era and the '60s had some
things in common, except that the New Deal was more restrained,
had a better sense of history and was more practical. But
the time will come again, I think, when those things will
have to be combined for major changes, though I'm not sure
that many people would agree with me.
to Who Was Alger Hiss?