Are There Too Many New Deal Diaries?

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A few years ago Bill Mauldin drew a cartoon to commemorate an unsung hero: a gardener at Hyde Park who had firmly resisted the temptation to write his memoirs of President Roosevelt. Undoubtedly Mauldin’s gardener was indeed a hero to a reading public wearied and bewildered by the apparently endless outpouring of memoirs and diaries about Roosevelt and the New Deal. In the ten years since Roosevelt’s death, the number that have appeared is so large that it bids fair to rival the quantity on Lincoln and his administration.

From the President down, most of the New Dealers had a keen sense of history, and many of them were ambitious to record their roles in the stirring events of their times.

When the New Deal came to an end, many a participant was quick to translate his records and memories into printed memoir. Also, the diaries of several of them appeared in print. The sheer volume of these created a problem for the average reader of history. How could he keep up with this growing heap of print, much less separate the grain from the chaff? Surely he would be tempted to complain that too much had appeared too soon and too indiscriminately.

At least a few historians would agree. They believe that diaries and other records should be kept and memoirs written. They feel indebted to men like Henry Morgenthau, Jr., who have given their diaries and manuscripts to research libraries, and to those like Henry Wallace who have dictated their memoirs for the Columbia Oral History Project. They recognize that these materials, which might otherwise be permanently lost, will thus become ultimately available for research and will be of great value to historians of the future.

These conservative few among historians are ready to wait until the future for these materials. They feel that the New Deal is too near to us, and that the task of evaluating it properly belongs to the historians of the next generation. They feel that the writing on the New Deal in which so many participants and so many historians are now engaging is more in the realm of politics than history, that the intent of the writers is more to influence votes than to engage in calm evaluation.

Robert E. Sherwood’s Roosevelt and Hopkins , which appeared in 1948, was an eloquent apology for Roosevelt’s wartime policies at a time when they were coming increasingly under attack. Thus, although this obviously was not Sherwood’s intent, Roosevelt and Hopkins might have been a factor in keeping voters within the Democratic fold in a year when the Republicans were still campaigning against Roosevelt.

Critics of these memoirs would fear that because they appeared at a time when they might be of political influence they might be subject to distortion. If these critics seemed to be citing Freeman’s classic dictum that “History is past politics,” they apparently interpreted that word “past” to mean long past. Perhaps they would decree: “History is dead politics.”

Another argument against spreading so much in the printed record so soon is that it is indecorous and may become an invasion of the privacy of the writer’s friends and associates. Critics have leveled this charge especially against Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes, pointing to some of the livelier items in his diaries. Certainly, much that Ickes wrote has caused pain and embarrassment, particularly when foes of the New Deal have picked it up out of context. Eventhose who considered themselves his strong friends and supporters have suffered from his barbs.

 

It can be argued that publication of revelations like these should wait for many years, and that books like the Ickes diaries will cause present-day public figures to be reticent in their interchanges with their colleagues for fear they will see their candid observations in print embarrassingly soon. The diarist occasionally has been only one step behind the columnist; public figures might easily feel that they were surrounded by people with candid cameras and hidden microphones.

To all these objections, historians of the New Deal have ready answers. They would argue that there has been little undue invasion of privacy in the printed accounts, as the scarcity of libel suits indicates, and that public figures must expect wide publicity as a condition of the job. They do not fear a cutting off of future accounts, for the temptation to talk in private is too great. We live in an age in which the breezes of candor still occasionally whisk away the political smog.

But what of the argument that memoirs, diaries, and current historical studies of the New Deal treat with matters so recent that anyone writing about them is inevitably subject to undue bias? Unquestionably the bias of the average diarist or memoir writer is strong and personal. The very obviousness and strength of the bias often becomes a positive value of the account, a factor to be evaluated for itself as certainly as any information revealed. Who would be misled by Ickes’ candid remark that he could understand why Roosevelt did not pick him for vice-president in 1940 but that he could not fathom how Roosevelt could pick Henry Wallace?