Reagan, FDR and Mussolini
Jude Wanniski
October 5, 1999


Memo To: Bob Novak and David Corn
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Edmund Morris and Dutch

I haven't read the Edmund Morris biography of Reagan and I probably won't. I had never heard of Morris, but believe it or not, the moment I first heard a Brit was commissioned, I assumed his book would be a flop. There is no way a Brit can understand the essence of Reagan, which is of course the essence of America. Dinesh D'Souza, who was on your Friday Crossfire discussing the book with the two of you, wrote a superior bio of the Gipper, which I praised in this space after I read it. D'Souza's folks had come to America on the promise of its essence. Still, I knew it would be a while before there was a definitive biography. I don't think Abe Lincoln was captured by a historian until Benjamin Thomas did his single volume bio in the 1950s. It may take a half century before Reagan will be figured out. My tip to that historian is to understand that Reagan came of age in terms of social consciousness at 13, in the early stages of the Roaring Twenties, a time of unbridled optimism in America. Morris could not have understood how that experience sculpted Reagan the boy into the man he became -- especially when Morris came of age himself when his native country was in a Keynesian, welfare-state tailspin that did not end until Maggie Thatcher showed up.

The reason I write this memo to the two of you, though, is that you both fussed over a passage in the Morris book that mentions Reagan's belief that Franklin Roosevelt admired Mussolini and fascism. You both seem to have concluded that Reagan was simply misinformed. As a matter of fact, when FDR was inaugurated in March 1933, most of the world was agog over Mussolini's success in avoiding the Great Depression that gripped the rest of the world. As I wrote in my 1977 book, The Way the World Works, Roosevelt and his "Brains Trust," the architects of the New Deal, were fascinated by the concept of Italy's "fascism," a term which was not pejorative at the time. It simply meant a form of economic nationalism built around consensus planning by the established elites in government, business and labor. FDR's intellectual team included three academics, Raymond Moley, Rexford Tugwell and Adolph Berle, plus Henry Morganthau, his Treasury Secretary. They, like everyone else in the world, had assumed the Depression had been brought on by the failure of the free market in the 1929 Wall Street Crash. If the free market did not work, then wise men had to step in to manage the national economy. As I put it in my book (p.154): "The idea was to use the central government both to promote economic growth through regulation of business and to assure balanced growth between industrial and agricultural sectors. This meant a reallocation of resources away from the direction they would normally flow in a free market, either by government direction, government partnership with business and labor (in syndicates, which is why the process is sometimes called syndicalism), or taxation and spending. The Brains Trust was impressed not only by the experiment in central government direction, but in 1933 there was a general interest in Washington and other world capitals in what Mussolini had accomplished in Italy."

You can find all this and more in Elliot Rosen's 1977 book, Hoover, Roosevelt and the Brains Trust, which landed on my lap just as I was writing this piece of my book in 1977. I think I may be the first, so far only person, to note that both Roosevelt and Hitler were fooled into thinking Mussolini was making the trains run on time with his form of what I now call "corporatism" in our own country. Italy had kept its economy running because Mussolini had a finance minister, Alberto di Stefani, who was fanatical about keeping income-tax rates down, tariffs down, and a commitment to a gold lira. As I recall from my research at the time, Mussolini finally did get a swelled head by all the global attention he got for his fascist approach -- especially from Hitler -- and he got rid of di Stefani, invaded Ethiopia, and the rest you know.

I've been told a number of times that President Reagan actually read my book in 1980. I know I handed him a copy in early January of that year, when I spent three days with him and his "Brains Trust" in Los Angeles, getting ready for his presidential campaign that year. I don't know if that's where he picked up this discussion of Mussolini and Roosevelt. He did not get the connection -- mentioned in Dutch -- regarding FDR's Interior Secretary, Harold Ickes, from me. But I know I was the guy who got him to see that Calvin Coolidge was a terrific President, that it was Hoover who was the problem. Indeed, Hoover was a "fascist" himself, in the sense that his baby, the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act, was a package designed by Big Business, Big Labor and Big Government "to assure balanced growth between industrial and agricultural sectors."

Let there be no mistake. There were plenty of communist intellectuals running around in the Roosevelt administration -- and it should not be surprising that there were. With unemployment over 20%, and the economy not responding to the "fascist" initiatives copied from Mussolini, it is quite understandable that patriotic men and women of the left in fact came to believe that Marx's forecast of a doomed capitalism had been on the mark. Certainly in Moscow, where the elites had been inching their way back to a market socialism, the Wall Street shock ended all talk of allowing market forces back into the planning process.

The American people loved Roosevelt, I always believed, because he was willing to try anything, if enough people thought it might work to relieve the suffering of ordinary Americans. The New Deal historian, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., never quite understood my arguments about Smoot-Hawley and the 1929 Crash, but I believe he has been correct in arguing these last fifty years that FDR's New Deal saved the country from more radical experiments in fascism or communism. The cards dealt out in the New Deal were pieces of fascist, communist, Keynesian and monetarist ideas, plus a sustained commitment to a revival of free trade under the reciprocal trade agreements worked out by Secretary of State Cordell Hull.

In any case, I suggest we all forget about the Edmund Morris biography of Reagan. He didn't have a clue to what was going on in this country over the lifetime of Ronald Reagan -- which a biographer would have to understand in the first instance. I'm not saying a British historian is incapable of understanding Reagan, but it will take a while before all historians catch up with the 20th century. There isn't one yet who understands what happened in 1929.