Are There Too Many New Deal Diaries?

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Such are the arguments against rapid publication of personal records, and some objections to the arguments. On the positive side, the principle argument in favor of printing New Deal diaries and memoirs is this: for the reader who wishes to form his own judgment or the historian who wishes to interpret the period, they are indispensable. And there is a strong case for trying to evaluate the New Deal at this particular moment of history.

Historians of the 1930’s and 1940’s believe that, to the extent they are able to avoid the bogey of undue bias and to apply the rules of historical scholarship, their work is just as valid history as an examination of events and institutions long gone. They can point out that battles among historians (and, indeed, memoirists too) over the nature of the New Deal are no more partisan than those over the Civil War, the Jackson Period, or the Roman Empire. All that is really requisite for the responsible scholar to make a valid study of the New Deal is adequate materials. Thanks in part to the memoirs and diaries, these he has in abundance.

Consequently, to the historian of the Roosevelt era, the mythical mute gardener and the few important New Dealers who have maintained a monastic silence are not heroes. Rather, the heroes are the many who have published their diaries and reminiscences.

What is the value of their accounts? First, that the best of these writers saw their own times with a clarity, vividness and validity far greater than those coming later and trying to reconstruct a period they did not themselves experience.

Many keen contemporary observers have recorded their era more lucidly than later historians. The best of the contemporaries interpret their times not only in the terms of their times, but also with freedom from later superimposed distortions. Thus Frederick Law Olmsted’s Cotton Kingdom , which appeared just before the Civil War, is an unsurpassed analysis of the Old South. Historians a hundred years later, despite their vantage of perspective, must still seek out Olmsted’s and other contemporary writings in order to obtain the significant details and insights which catch the vitality of the age.

Another value of early publication is the chain reaction set off when a memoir is published. Each one is likely to inspire a rebuttal from a fellow New Dealer which might otherwise not have been written. The publication of each volume of the Ickes diary has led to a flurry of indignant denials and explanations by people who have felt themselves maligned. And Donald Richberg in the latest of the memoirs, whimsically entitled My Hero (the title refers to Richberg, not Roosevelt) has called to task several of the earlier memoirists. Among them is Frances Perkins, whom he criticizes for not having given him credit in her memoirs for his participation in the drafting of the National Industrial Recovery Act. Thus, because Secretaries Ickes and Perkins did not specify that their accounts must be withheld for fifty years, the ultimate record benefits from the responses their books evoke.

Why, it might be asked, are historians so interested in obtaining every possible diary and memoir in this archival age when tons of manuscripts have been preserved and when there are unlimited quantities of newspapers, magazines, and other printed materials? The answer is this: while manuscripts and printed official records and contemporary newspaper reporting ordinarily record what decisions were made, they frequently do not delineate how they were reached.

Above all, the historian is handicapped in trying to learn the motivations of the chief architect of the New Deal. Franklin D. Roosevelt more often than not failed to put his thoughts into writing. Unfortunately for historians he did not, like Theodore Roosevelt, dictate long “posterity letters” for the historical record. Nor did Roosevelt customarily dictate long policy memoranda to his subordinates, as did President Hoover to Secretary of State Stimson. When Roosevelt could not, as he preferred, engage in private face-to-face conferences, he used that modern enemy of the historian, the telephone.

To add to the misfortune of historians, Roosevelt was opposed to the keeping of a record of his conversations and conferences. This, he felt, strongly and correctly, would inhibit the freedom of give-and-take in negotiations and would thus frustrate one of his most valued objectives: to achieve accommodation between opposing points of view.

For Roosevelt, and for some of those who conferred with him, there was much to be said for keeping conversations “off the record.” Secretary Hull recalls in his memoirs the “pleasant, quiet luncheons I had alone with the President on scores of occasions, when for an hour at least we could exchange shirtsleeve opinions without guarding every word and watching every comma.”