The New Deal and the 1930s

The 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):

Few people held as wide a variety of sensitive government positions during the 1930s (and 1940s) 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, Hiss believed 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.

I 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.

In 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.

In ’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.

Well, 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.

We 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 up.

When 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.

The 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.

I 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.

During 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.

The 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 much.”

I 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.

The 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 or killed.

We 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.

Yes, 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.”

Senator 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.

The 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.

In ’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.

Concerning 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 that he was willing to work for removal of the embargo.

Regarding 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.

There 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 [While Six Million Died: A Chronical of American Apathy, by Arthur D. Morse, 1967]? I think that idea’s very exaggerated.

I 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.

I 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 German 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.

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.

No, 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.

I never had any doubt as to the fact that McCarthyism was [intended] 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.

But 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.