Roosevelt in 1933
Once FDR had been elected, progressive-minded newspaper editorial boards, politicians, and pundits exhorted him to become a “dictator.” The revered reporter and political commentator Walter Lippmann, for instance, told Roosevelt in a private meeting: “The [economic] situation is critical, Franklin. You may have no alternative but to assume dictatorial powers.” Similarly, Eleanor Roosevelt mused that America might need the leadership of a “benevolent dictator.”
In FDR's day, the term “dictator” did not carry the negative connotations with which it is currently freighted; rather, it signified the idea that a political "general" or "commander" was needed to take charge of the battle against the economic depression in a manner similar to how Woodrow Wilson and the progressives had fought World War I.
FDR chose to attack the depression with his so-called New Deal, a series of economic programs passed during his first term in office. These programs greatly expanded the size, scope, and power of the federal government, giving the President and his Brain Trust near-dictatorial status. “I want to assure you,” Roosevelt's aide Harry Hopkins told an audience of New Deal activists in New York, “that we are not afraid of exploring anything within the law, and we have a lawyer who will declare anything you want to do legal.”
“The New Deal,” writes Jonah Goldberg, “was conceived at the climax of a worldwide fascist moment, a moment when socialists in many countries were increasingly becoming nationalists and nationalists could embrace nothing other than socialism.”
Many of Roosevelt's ideas and policies were entirely indistinguishable from the fascism of Mussolini. In fact, writes Goldberg, there were “many common features among New Deal liberalism, Italian Fascism, and German National Socialism, all of which shared many of the same historical and intellectual forebears.” Like American progressives, many Italian Fascist and German Nazi intellectuals championed a “middle” or “Third Way” between capitalism and socialism. Goldberg explains:
Conversely, FDR, Hitler, and Mussolini alike made many populist appeals designed to spark resentment against so-caled “fat cats,” “international bankers,” and “economic royalists.” Such appeals were, and remain, the tools of the trade for demagogues. (As recently as December 2009, for instance, President Barack Obama said: “I did not run for office to be helping out a bunch of fat cat bankers on Wall Street.”)
Roosevelt used the FBI and other government agencies to spy on domestic critics. He also authorized the use of the American Legion to assist the FBI in monitoring American citizens.
The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was perhaps the most popular program of the New Deal, mobilizing some 2.5 million young men to work mostly as a “forestry army,” performing such tasks as clearing dead wood. In both substance and style, the CCC was essentially a paramilitary organization. Jonah Goldberg writes:
Roosevelt also instituted the National Recovery Administration (NRA), which was led by Hugh “Iron Pants” Johnson, a passionate disciple of fascism who personally distributed innumerable copies of the openly fascist tract, The Corporate State (authored by Raffaello Viglione, one of Mussolini’s favorite economists). Under Johnson's leadership, the NRA imposed hundreds of onerous codes on businesses -- mandating industry collusion and price-fixing that virtually eliminated competition and the free market. Threatening that Americans who failed to cooperate with the NRA's dictates would get a “sock in the nose,” Johnson emphasized that the Roosevelt administration's war on the depression was “lethal and more menacing than any other crisis in our history.”
The NRA established a stylized Blue Eagle as the patriotic symbol of compliance that all American business establishments were expected to hang from their doors, along with the motto “We do our part” -- a phrase used by the Roosevelt administration the way the Germans used “Gemeinnutz geht vor Eigennutz” (“Public need before private greed”). American and German newspapers alike often noted the similarities between the Blue Eagle, which clutched a band of lightning bolts in one claw and an industrial cogwheel in the other, to the swastika or the German Reich eagle.
Johnson and the NRA dispatched a large army of informants, represented by such diverse constituencies as union members and Boy Scouts, to monitor compliance with the Blue Eagle program in neighborhoods across the United States. “When every American housewife understands that the Blue Eagle on everything that she permits to come into her home is a symbol of its restoration to security, may God have mercy on the man or group of men who attempt to trifle with this bird,” Johnson said.
To further promote voluntary compliance with the Blue Eagle program, Johnson organized many military parades and Nuremberg-style rallies, where marchers donned the uniforms of their respective occupations.
The fascist mindset underlying the NRA's authoritarian mandates was confirmed in the results of a study commissioned by the NRA's own Research and Planning Division. Titled "Capitalism and Labor Under Fascism," it concluded: “The fascist principles are very similar to those which have been evolving in America and so are of particular interest at this time.”
In the early 1930s, both Mussolini and Hitler were very much aware of the similarities between their own programs and those of FDR:
Soon after having taken his second Oath of Office in January 1937, President Roosevelt, in a conversation with a speechwriter, articulated his belief that the limits on governmental power that were enshrined in the U.S. Constitution were impediments to the transformative social and economic policies he wished to implement: