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Are There Too Many New Deal Diaries?

June 2024
11min read

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?

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.”

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.

Here, then, is Roosevelt, a man of many sides, presented in as many aspects by each of those who saw a part but not the whole. While he was an exceedingly complicated man, he was by no means a baffling or unexplainable one. This becomes clear to those who have had the patience to read the impressions of him set forth by the half-dozen or so of the most perceptive of his contemporaries—both favorable and unfavorable. On the critical side there are Raymond Moley, Richberg, Farley, and Louis B. Wehle; on the friendly side, Mrs. Roosevelt, Miss Perkins, Judge Rosenman, Rexford Tugwell, and Robert Sherwood.

One can glimpse the personal side of him as he appeared to his wife, his secretary, the White House housekeeper, the secret service men, the newspapermen, his physician, his Negro cook at Warm Springs, and even the woman who had charge of his stamp collection.


If the New Dealers at times appear ludicrous in their writings through their headlong scramble for preferment and their assignment to themselves of overimportant roles as Roosevelt’s advisers, the President is himself at least partly to blame. One of the ways in which he inspired such hard work and keen competition was by assigning overlapping tasks to his subordinates, and on occasion by listening so attentively to each one, that each felt he alone had the President’s ear.

Just as the qualities and interests of the New Dealers varied, so do their memoirs and diaries. Most of them, with one or two possible exceptions, are basically honest, according to their writers’ own perception of realities. Ambassador William E. Dodd’s diary, prepared for publication after his death, has rather too many remarkable bits of foresight in it. But certainly there is basic honesty in the two principal diaries in print, those of Secretary Ickes and Ambassador Joseph C. Grew. Neither of them was guilty, like Lincoln’s wartime Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles, of doctoring his diary with afterthoughts. Afterthoughts aplenty appear in the memoirs, as they should, and often this leads to misrepresentation or distortion of the evidence. This is inevitable in memoirs, and is one of the main reasons why historians must use even the best of them with some caution.

The contradictions and inconsistencies inherent in these highly personal forms of writing, the memoirs and diaries, will at times be baffling. At other times, the reader will piece together the many fragments from various sources to form a well-rounded whole. The effect of them all together is like that of a kaleidoscope. The factual bits of colored glass that make up each of them differ little from those of the others, but with each turn they fall into a new and fascinating pattern to delight the historian’s eye.

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