Are There Too Many New Deal Diaries?

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Members of the cabinet customarily respected President Roosevelt’s wishes not to take notes on their deliberations—no great loss, since matters of significance came before the cabinet sessions less frequently than people often assume. Memoranda of telephone conversations with the President are also scarce. More serious for the diplomatic historian, as William L. Langer and S. Everett Gleason point out in The Challenge to Isolation, 1937-1940 , Roosevelt kept no record of his exceedingly significant conversations both in person and by telephone with foreign envoys and United States diplomats abroad. Most trained diplomats habitually prepare an aide memoire after each important conversation. In the absence of these at the White House, Langer and Gleason have frequently found it difficult or impossible to trace the course of negotiations or policy making.

Therein lies part of the value of the New Deal diaries and memoirs, for a good bit of what did not get on paper at all at the White House went into the files or private diaries in the Treasury Department, the Department of the Interior, and elsewhere. Since then, a considerable amount of it has appeared in print. Thus, concerning cabinet meetings, former Postmaster General Parley has privately expressed his indignation over the summaries of cabinet meetings appearing in the Ickes diaries. He himself loyally respected the President’s wishes and took no notes, yet what went on in several of these meetings so indelibly impressed itself upon Parley that in his memoirs he has vividly described them.

When he published Jim Farley’s Story, the Roosevelt Years in 1948, he created a minor sensation by describing how at the second cabinet meeting, March 7, 1933, the President discussed at some length what the United States would do in case of a war with Japan. Incidentally, Ickes in his brief diary summary of that second cabinet meeting makes no mention of Japan, but does comment concerning the third meeting, later the same week, “There was also some discussion of our relations with Japan.” Since Roosevelt liked to speculate upon what would happen in event of war, as other people like to toy with a chess problem, there is no reason to doubt that the cabinet discussions took place. Thus, one obtains from Farley, who had a fine memory, what one can accept as a plausible, detailed account. From Ickes’ contemporary diary entry comes confirmation that there was a discussion, though without detail, and a correction of the date. The historian has reason to be grateful to both cabinet members because they did not follow the President’s wishes too closely.

A counts of other incidents are sometimes so flatly contradictory or so oblique that the historian finds it difficult or impossible to choose among them. There is no better example than the garbled memories that almost always follow the turmoil of a sharply contested nominating convention. Accounts show startling conflict as to whether or not there was serious danger at the 1932 Democratic convention that Roosevelt would fail to receive the nomination. Similar contradictions occur concerning who or what was responsible for his victory at Chicago.

Roosevelt himself must share a considerable responsibility for the measure of confusion concerning the presidential and vice-presidential aspirations and nominations in 1940 and 1944, since he was deliberately playing a canny political game. It was to his advantage not to discourage—perhaps even to fan in a subtle way—the ambitions of several politicians who might otherwise have been troublesome. The accounts of Jim Farley, and of several politicians who have not put their versions in print, can be reconciled with each other only in this light.

The contrasting attitudes of two first ladies of the land eighty years apart well illustrate the difference in candor between the New Deal memoirists and people of an earlier age. Lincoln’s widow carried her sense of privacy so far that she refused to permit publication of a letter of condolence that she had received from Queen Victoria, although surely the queen had expected publication. Mrs. Roosevelt, without ever violating the canons of dignity and good taste, has written with wit and charm of her husband as a flesh-and-blood human being.

There has been great variation in the willingness of New Dealers to “tell all” in print. Even Secretary Ickes had his reticences in areas personally painful to him—reticences which his enemies have ascribed to callousness, but which more likely were the product of a shyness which inhibited him from dictating certain things to a secretary, no matter how trusted. For the most part, Ickes was more candid on political matters than any other New Dealer. Despite the rash of books, the first volume of the Ickes diary, appearing in 1953, was the first to print what thousands of people had known either directly or through hearsay, that an over-dependence upon the bottle had contributed to the downfall of National Recovery Administrator Hugh S. Johnson.

On the whole, New Deal diaries and memoirs, without being unduly offensive, are sufficiently revealing to be of great value to those trying to assess the period. As early as five years ago, David Potter suggested that they were excellent sources for a collective portrait of Roosevelt, and proceeded with deft strokes to paint a most lifelike one. The many books which have come out since then have added to the delicate shadings but have not altered the basic outline.