The American West: Roosevelt’s New Deal Policy

A historical look at the New Deal Policy’s effect on the American West during the Great Depression.

New Deal Policy

In the first two years of the New Deal, there were huge, violent strikes in the state’s Central Valley, in the irrigated Eden of its southeastern desert, and on the coastal wharves.

Photo by Fotolia/noel moore

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How did the Great Depression and other historical events in the 1930s affect the state of California and the American nation? Right Out of California (The New Press, 2015), by Kathryn S. Olmsted, reassesses modern conservatism and reexamines labor disputes in the agricultural fields of Depression-era California while noting their historical significance and importance. This excerpt, which describes Roosevelt’s New Deal Policy and how it affected California as well as the entire United States, is from the Introduction.

Herbert Hoover’s New Deal Policy

When Herbert Hoover went through his mail in the summer of 1933, he grew steadily more furious about the policies of the man who replaced him in the White House. Ensconced in his modernist mansion in the hills above Stanford University, where he had retreated after his recent defeat, Hoover wrote one bitter letter after another to his fellow Western businessmen about the shortcomings of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Roosevelt trafficked in “constant misrepresentations and illusions,” Hoover seethed; the president’s New Deal policies would lead to the “destruction of the savings of the people” and the “impoverishment of the country.” In fact, Roosevelt was just using the Depression as “an excuse for imposing socialism under new euphemistic phrases.”

Contemplating Roosevelt’s policies, Hoover lamented the end of the gold standard, the beginning of unemployment insurance, and the ways the industrial recovery program “terrorized” Americans. Referring to Roosevelt’s agricultural price supports, Hoover complained that the country was trading away its heritage of liberty “for a fictitious price of wheat.”

Yet Hoover benefited from government programs that set “fictitious prices.” Among Hoover’s many investments were four large California ranches, including one with 240 acres of cotton fields. And Hoover’s son Allan, the ranch manager, was eligible to become one of hundreds of thousands of cotton growers who signed subsidy contracts with the federal government.

Thus Herbert Hoover— the man soundly defeated by Roosevelt, the man who accused the New Deal of being fascist, communist, and socialist, the man who was organizing a nationwide revolt against Roosevelt’s brand of social democracy— would himself profit from New Deal cotton policies. “My son, who runs the farm . . . will sell some cotton that he did not plant to the Secretary of Agriculture at a most profitable price,” he wrote to his friend Frank Knox, publisher of the Chicago Daily News. Hoover sarcastically suggested that he would need to “seek emancipation from the Income Tax” because of the extra income he would receive from the subsidies.

Many wealthy, conservative California growers joined Hoover in pocketing the Agricultural Adjustment Administration’s checks. Unlike Hoover, some of them publicly admitted they were happy to do so. Philip Bancroft, a prosperous fruit grower and Republican Party activist, wrote admiringly to the secretary of agriculture of his “enthusiastic appreciation of the splendid work that you and the entire Administration have been doing on behalf of our industry.” J.G. Boswell, owner of one of the largest cotton ranches in the world, chortled that he was “letting out his belt / Anticipating all he’ll get from Franklin Roosevelt.”

Western growers also welcomed other New Deal programs, including the loans of the Farm Credit Administration and infrastructure programs that promoted agriculture. The Public Works Administration, the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, and the Bureau of Reclamation built dams and irrigation systems for California growers, including massive new canals through the state’s rich agricultural valleys. Agribusiness leaders had benefited from federal irrigation and transportation spending for decades, and they greeted the New Deal’s expansion of these programs with enthusiasm. But the New Deal differed from those older government programs because, unlike the big-spending Republicans of the nineteenth century, the New Dealers put resources into helping farm owners and into defending organized labor.

For decades before 1933, the federal government had supported management against labor. At a minimum, American companies in the pitched labor battles of the 1870s through the early 1930s could count on the U.S. government to turn a blind eye to employer violence against striking workers. And at times, including the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, the Pullman strike of 1894, and the West Virginia miners’ strikes of the early 1920s, they could call on federal troops to break strikes. The judicial system also assisted big business. The U.S. Supreme Court sided with employers who fired their workers for joining or even sympathizing with unions, and the courts routinely issued injunctions to stop strikes.

Then, in the 1930s, during Roosevelt’s New Deal, the federal government began to change the ways it intervened in the economy. It started serving labor as well as management. Congress and the Roosevelt administration empowered workers by going so far as guaranteeing their right to join unions. Section 7a of the 1933 National Industrial Recovery Act said that workers “shall have the right to organize and bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing.” By 1935, when the National Labor Relations Act superseded Section 7a, the Roosevelt administration was unequivocally protecting industrial workers’ right to organize and to demand higher wages and better conditions from their employers. It was these New Deal labor policies— particularly when they helped people with dark skin or relatively radical beliefs— that prompted businessmen to launch a counterrevolution that would continue into the next century.

Ironically, Californians, like other Westerners, knew well what good the federal government could do. The vast expanse of the American West had served, as historian Richard White has written, as the “kindergarten of the American state.” The U.S. government first expanded its powers in the West, where it conquered Native peoples, explored prairies, dammed rivers, irrigated fields, and divided and administered the land. But the Great Depression and the New Deal made California conservatives much less enthusiastic about government power. Already, they worried that the worsening Depression might bring Bolshevism to America. Now that the government was intervening on behalf of workers in the shadow of the Bolshevik Revolution, many Western business leaders saw a strong government as a menace to liberty.

The agribusiness barons of California did not just complain about the changes the New Deal brought. They organized. To attack labor, they formed and funded industry groups to lobby local governments to outlaw picketing and imprison union leaders. They hired publicists who branded strikers as Communists and tried to turn the public against them. To combat what they saw as the broader problem of New Deal labor laws, they hired political consultants who understood how to use concerns about cultural changes to turn middle- class Californians against government policies that benefited workers. These conservatives, a new breed of activist, discovered and funded media-savvy, right-wing office seekers who would spread their message.

The new conservatives often connected the economic changes they deplored with the cultural changes they feared. Californians on the political right expressed anxiety that the “color line” was becoming blurred in the 1930s, as Mexican Americans, Asian Americans, and African Americans moved into spaces and jobs that had previously been off-limits to them. They worried that the traditional, patriarchal family was under siege as women began to take on more economic responsibilities and leadership opportunities. Traditionalists also disliked the emphasis on class struggle in the art and novels of the Depression decade— particularly in the work of Californians like photographer Dorothea Lange and, most famously, a young novelist named John Steinbeck, who described the desperation and celebrated the resiliency of farmworker families.

The Western growers helped to cultivate and nurture the antilabor, antistatist movement that dominates American politics today. By the end of the Depression decade, the philosophy, tactics, and leaders of modern conservatism had emerged in California. Soon Western capitalists would help spread their movement to the rest of the country. The modern Republican Party came right out of California.

California Was a National Leader

At first glance, it might seem odd that California in the 1930s would be at the vanguard of a new national political movement. The state was far from Washington, D.C., both in actual miles and in the daily concerns of national politicians, and it was lightly populated. The 1930 census counted 5,677,000 people in California, or about 4.6 percent of the national population of 122,775,000. Moreover, if an enterprising political or business leader from the nation’s capital or New York wanted to visit California and take stock of the local situation in 1930, he or she would have had to set aside two weeks just to get there and back by train.

But then the rise of the commercial aviation industry shrank the nation and expanded California’s political power. Although air travel was still new and flights were slow and costly by modern standards, the diaries and letters of politicians and businessmen record their excitement at traveling coast to coast in less than twenty- four hours. “I am in sunny California,” wrote Lawrence Richey, Hoover’s secretary, to a friend in Los Angeles in 1933. “I left Washington Sunday after noon at 3:30 and arrived in San Francisco at 11:45 Monday morning. It was surely a great trip and it is wonderful to think that we can reach California in such a short time.”

California was not just easier for national political leaders and businessmen to get to during the 1930s, it was also richer, more populous, and more politically significant than it had been just a few years before. The number of its electoral votes swelled from thirteen in the 1920s to twenty- two in 1932, and then to twenty-five after the reapportionment of 1940. In other words, the state’s relative political importance almost doubled from 1930 to 1940.

The state received more electoral votes because it had more people. Its population leaped 65 percent from 1920 to 1930, and then jumped another 21 percent during the Depression decade—14 percent higher than the national growth rate. During the 1920s alone, California added the equivalent of the entire population of Iowa or Virginia— and most of these new residents were American-born, not immigrants.

California’s move from the periphery to the center of national politics in the 1930s can be seen in a list of the names of the people who play roles in this story: U.S. presidents Herbert Hoover, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan; celebrated authors Upton Sinclair, Lincoln Steffens, Carey Mc- Williams, and Langston Hughes; economist Paul Taylor; university leader Clark Kerr; World War I propagandist George Creel; and actor James Cagney. There are also people less known to the public, but not less significant: law enforcement and security figures like General Ralph Van Deman, called the “ father of military intelligence,” and General Pelham Glassford, the hero to many for his role in the Bonus Army March of 1932. Of these people, only Nixon and Steffens were native Californians. The rest came from somewhere else.

California’s migrants were uncommonly willing to experiment with radical solutions to political problems. National policy makers in the 1930s regarded California as a little nuts— “one H—— of a state,” as Franklin Roosevelt’s chief political strategist, Louis Howe, said privately. California’s large and vibrant Communist Party had dynamic leaders who were especially effective at leading strikes. Some of the party’s most successful labor organizers inspired tens of thousands of workers to walk off their jobs and demand better treatment.

The non-Communist left in California was also extensive and energetic. The 1930s was an era when Sinclair could credibly campaign for governor as a democratic socialist pledging to take over parts of the state’s economy. As journalist Carey McWilliams wrote in his memoir, “California— particularly Southern California— was the place to be in the years from 1934 to 1939; in no other part of the country did so much happen so fast.”

Workers across the United States demanded higher pay during this era, but California was unique because some of its biggest strikes occurred on farms as well as in factories. In the first two years of the New Deal, there were huge, violent strikes in the state’s Central Valley, in the irrigated Eden of its southeastern desert, and on the coastal wharves. In 1933 alone, fifty thousand farmworkers refused to harvest crops and walked out of the fields to protest wages as low as 10¢ an hour. The largest agricultural strike in U.S. history happened in the San Joaquin Valley in 1933 when close to twenty thousand cotton pickers went on strike. The nation witnessed the second general strike in its history when the entire city of San Francisco shut down to protest state repression of a longshoremen’s strike in the summer of 1934.

Books and other artistic accounts of these labor battles helped shape public perception of the Depression. Many artists, writers, and Hollywood stars tried to assist the farmworkers and support their radical organizers. The poverty of the farm laborers contrasted so sharply with the artists’ idealized vision of California— a land that should have been filled with sunshine and happiness— that they felt compelled to point out the contradiction.

John Steinbeck would play the most important role in publicizing the farmworkers’ troubles to the rest of the nation. Steinbeck would also help embed some of the most pervasive myths about the time in the American consciousness. Readers of his novels learned that these strikes were led exclusively by white men; that women and people of color played only supporting roles; and that Communist labor organizers, as well as the growers, provoked violence. The truth was more complex— and, to those invested in maintaining the current social order, more threatening.

The massive California farm strikes incited political reaction as well as artistic inspiration. At first, the growers responded to the strikes with hired goons and official repression. Up and down the state, vigilantes beat pickets with axe handles and clubs, soaked them with fire hoses, and smothered them with tear gas. Local law enforcement officers arrested picketers on trumped-up charges of “vagrancy” and union organizers on felony charges of conspiracy. Very quickly, however, they realized that they needed to invent new kinds of political mobilization.

Novelist Wallace Stegner famously said that California is like America, only more so. The battles in the California fields were similar to struggles that would take place elsewhere around the country, but they began earlier and were marked by more systematic and calculated violence than the national fights they prefigured. The state’s multiracial, multiethnic workforce of migrants and immigrants, of women and men, foreshadowed the coming transformation of American labor. The battles over these changes would remake American politics and policy.

Most scholars have looked elsewhere— the South, Midwestern cities, or Wall Street— for the origins of modern conservatism. When historians bring the West into this story, they examine the house wives or defense workers in the suburbs of the Sun Belt. Alternatively, when they focus on class rather than region and analyze the role of business leaders in creating the New Right, they primarily discuss the members of the Liberty League and other Eastern industrialists. But these stories leave us with an incomplete and misleading understanding of the sources and motivations of conservative leadership.

In Right Out of California, I argue that modern conservatism first emerged in its fullest form in the 1930s, in reaction to the New Deal. This movement began in California, and not in its suburbs but in its fields, where racial conflict shaped political attitudes. California agribusiness leaders consciously manipulated fears of cultural change— particularly disruptions to racial segregation and traditional gender roles—to mobilize grassroots opposition to Roosevelt’s labor policies.

The engineers of this Western conservative movement realized that their argument had more power if it encompassed culture as well as money. Business leaders understood that they had to persuade people that Franklin Roosevelt’s administration imperiled their religion, their liberty, and their family— their very way of life as they knew it. These Western corporate leaders developed ideas and strategies that would define the conservative movement for de cades to come— and that would eventually have enormous consequences not just for the labor movement but for income in equality in America.

Compromised Reform of the New Deal Policy

These conservatives saw the New Deal as an existential threat. “SINCE WE HAVE MOVED LEFT WE CAN SEE THE MONSTROUS RUSSIAN DOCTRINE BEING ACTUALLY APPLIED OF GRADING DOWN THE WHOLE POPULATION TO THE LEVEL OF THE LEAST PROSPEROUS,” wrote newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst in 1935, with a characteristic overuse of capitalization. “Is this the New Deal or the NEW DEATH?”

But California agribusinessmen feared, or professed to fear, the New Deal all out of proportion to the actual threat it posed. Roosevelt’s administration did much to help them and little to harm them. Indeed, the California growers despised and feared Roosevelt’s labor policies even though those policies did not apply to agricultural workers.

The key piece of New Deal legislation that protected workers’ right to organize, Section 7a of the National Industrial Recovery Act, did not cover farmworkers or domestic workers. The New Dealers deliberately left out these workers to secure the support of Southern lawmakers who represented plantation owners who did not want their sharecroppers or maids to join a union. Later, the Social Security Act and National Labor Relations Act would also exclude farmworkers. The Roosevelt administration was not interested in supporting farmworkers because they were overwhelmingly African Americans in the South (who could not vote), Mexican immigrants in the Southwest (who also could not vote), or white migrants in the West (who found it difficult to meet residency requirements to vote). The fragile New Deal coalition needed the cooperation of conservative Democrats, who would have bolted if FDR had not placated them. The New Dealers tried mightily to appease owners of large plantations, farms, and ranches— who had been among the Democratic Party’s most important supporters since before the Civil War.

Franklin Roosevelt, after all, was no radical. He never wanted the government to take over the nation’s factories, farms, or banks— and it did not do so during his administration. He did support labor unions, but only because he and his allies hoped that workers could unite to raise their wages without direct government re distribution of wealth. For the most part, the New Deal tried to maintain a social order that largely benefited white men. Throughout the labor struggles in California, Roosevelt and his advisers dismissed and marginalized those who proposed more radical solutions.

Still, the New Dealers’ attempts to distance themselves from more radical alternatives were not comfort enough to the California growers and their allies. During the labor struggles of the 1930s, these businessmen discovered how to bash the center for coddling the left— and, perversely, to do this at precisely those times when the center was distancing itself from or failing the left. Yet for their pains, the New Dealers were attacked for being too radical. As the center defined the left as the enemy, the right claimed that the center was the left. This dynamic was new to American political culture in the 1930s, but its creators would soon refine it and export it to the rest of the nation.


This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Right Out of California: The 1930s and The Big Business Roots of Modern Conservatism by Kathryn S. Olmsted, and published by The New Press, 2015.