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Adam Cohen: "Nothing to Fear" A Vivid Story of the 100 days that Remade America

Adam Cohen’s prose is a rhapsody in fact. A throwback to historians such as Arthur Schlesinger Jr. or David Halberstam, in an era that issues forth vague tissues of assertions, or declarations of ideology, his are pages stamped with "In Fact We Trust." In a few short paragraphs he introduces us to future Secretary Perkins, the hotel that is at the nexus of Lincoln escaping assassins, the composition of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic, and a scene of near bedlam as people hungered for a hope that would lift them from the bottom.

In describing the 5 close advisors who would pressure, and be pressured by the President whom Robert H. Jackson would later write  about in That Man, he also introduces us to their moment. Of a time when unemployment and under-employment had reached 70% in the state of Pennsylvania. Of a time when people sometimes took home a dime a week in net pay. Of a time when the plush angst of our own recession would have seemed an unimaginable prosperity. If you want to know why there is such a stark difference between that political moment and this one, Cohen gives you a dozen observations that show how far the difference. People were without clothes, communists were selling copies of The Daily Worker openly in Detroit. Desperation wore a human face in that moment, and Cohen captures that look by describing how Perkins, as an industrial commissioner, had visited the Hooverville in New York’s Central Park.

There have been sweeping magisterial landscapes of the Coming of the New Deal or of the man himself. But by focusing on this tight moment, Cohen gives us a work to set beside Ten Days that Shook the World and Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

FDR, Jefferson, Washington, and Lincoln each attract different kinds of biographers. The Civil War has been detailed in the number of dead, but seldom in the industrial production which won the war for the Union. Washington’s individual politicking has often been chronicled,  but seldom the capitalist revolution that Hamilton engineered. Lincoln, from a Romantic Age, has often attracted a romanticized vocabulary, in fact or fiction. Cohen’s prose is ripped from newspaper writing, such as this example on Page 143:

If Roosevelt had any doubts about whether to abandon the gold standard and embrace inflation, the Wheeler Amendment forced his hand. Farm Belt senators were threatening to vote against the farm bill if it lacked an inflation provision. Roosevelt’s main objection to the Wheeler Amendment was that it was mandatory, which would put Congress, rather than him, in charge of monetary policy. He made clear to the Senate that if the Agricultural Adjustment Act came to him with the amendment, he would not sign it. The administration went to work lobbying individual senators. William Borah of Idaho, who had initially been inclined to support the amendment, committed himself to voting against it and brought others along. When it came to a vote, the Wheeler Amendment got thirty-three votes, up from just eighteen in January. Although the administration won that round, Walter Lippmann reported that at least eleven of the senators who voted no did so "not because they are by conviction opposed to inflation, but because they wished to give the Administration more time to formulate a policy." Senator James Byrnes of South Carolina, a close ally of the administration, warned Moley that the Wheeler Amendment could not be held back much longer. In the end, Moley was convinced, Roosevelt was shaken out of his ambivalence about inflation by a simple "counting of noses in the Senate."

Eventually FDR would accept the Thomas Amendment which authorized action, but did not require specific actions. This portrait of genuine pragmatism, where an executive would read the will of the broad majority of Congress, rather than small groups seeking to block progress and blackmail the nation, is a recurring theme. Roosevelt’s gift, as it emerges in these pages, is to take the symbols that people wanted, and wield them to the policies rooted in fact. He guided his fractious administration, from gold bugs on the right to communists on the left, to a footing that no one had predicted, and whose each step was fraught with drama and danger. Adam Cohen’s book steps forward and recounts not just the details, but the web that connected these actors to their time, and their sense of historical mission – what was on their minds as they made their decisions.

The title says "Nothing to Fear," but the history it paints is how genuine the dangers were and how the interplay of people and politics found a way through a crisis that some saw as the "end of Western Civilization."