Brain(s) Trust

views updated


The Brains Trust was a small group of academics selected by Franklin D. Roosevelt and his political advisors to help the Democratic candidate in 1932 in his presidential bid. The term was originally coined by Louis Howe, a long-time associate of Roosevelt. It was later shortened to Brain Trust and made popular by New York Times reporter James Kieran.

Given the complexities of the modern American economy and the enormity of the Great Depression and its effects, Roosevelt's law partner, Sam Rosenman, suggested to the Democratic candidate that he seek the advice of academics in attempting to deal with the economic issues of the day, a practice Roosevelt had used previously during his governorship of New York. Rosenman recruited Raymond Moley, a political science professor at Columbia University in New York, to help Roosevelt organize this academic group.

Raymond Moley had already worked with Roosevelt during the Seabury investigation into corruption in the New York City government. An expert in criminal justice, Moley was to help the candidate in political matters and introduce him to other academics. After another Roosevelt law partner, Doc O'Connor, joined the small group, Moley recruited two more Columbia professors: Rexford G. Tugwell and Adolf Berle.

Tugwell was a professor of economics at Columbia and a highly prolific author who had written on the causes of the Great Depression and Herbert Hoover's failure to address the crisis. Tugwell was also familiar with the novel approaches being suggested to resolve America's agricultural problems. Adolf Berle was a well known legal expert who published with the economist Gardiner Means an important work on the modern corporation, The Modern Corporation and Private Property (1933). Moley, Tugwell, and Berle served as Roosevelt's Brains Trust throughout the 1932 campaign.

The purpose of the Brains Trust was to educate Roosevelt on current economic issues, assist in speechwriting, and help the candidate formulate his own ideas on how to approach and resolve the Depression. Although the three academics would later follow their own distinctive beliefs and career paths, in 1932 they all agreed that big business was inevitable, that the Wilsonian approach of breaking up corporations into small units was unacceptable, that regulation was the key to dealing with big business, and that some form of planning in the economic sector was necessary.

Throughout the 1932 campaign, the Brains Trust met frequently with Roosevelt. They often researched topics the candidate needed to know about or was embracing, and they helped him draft speeches, although Roosevelt typically put his own imprint on any speech, sometimes changing the wording and content as he delivered it. Moley worked with Roosevelt on the "forgotten man" speech in April 1932. Moley also helped Roosevelt draft a speech delivered in Saint Paul, often referred to as the "concert of interest" speech, in which the term New Deal was first used. Berle helped Roosevelt write the San Francisco Commonwealth Club speech, which called for economic planning in the future. Tugwell worked on a number of speeches, usually writing parts of the draft, especially if the speech dealt with agriculture and the domestic allotment proposal.

In addition to speech writing, Moley tutored Roosevelt on political issues, Tugwell on agricultural matters, and Berle on finance and corporations. Tugwell, for example, worked hard to educate Roosevelt on domestic allotment, a plan to control farm overproduction by paying farmers to not plant crops. Although some Democratic leaders disliked the idea of professors advising their candidate, there was little they could do about it. Roosevelt relied on his Brains Trust and listened to what they had to say, whether or not he incorporated what they told him into his speeches or, later, into his New Deal programs. Election day marked the official end of the Brains Trust, but not the end of the role each member of the group played in Roosevelt's administration.

Of the three, Berle was the only one who chose not to accept an official appointment in 1933. Rather, Berle returned to New York where he advised Fiorello La Guardia in his mayoral campaign and helped the newly elected mayor address New York's financial crisis. Berle continued to help the president in a variety of ways, however. For example, he advised Roosevelt on the banking crisis, the railroads, and foreign policy, especially concerning Latin America and Cuba.

Raymond Moley was appointed assistant secretary of state in 1933. Working under Cordell Hull, Moley was closely associated with the president. Moley advised Roosevelt for the 1933 London Conference, but Roosevelt seemed to endorse Hull's views, rather than Moley's, when he sent his famous "bombshell" message to the conference announcing his decision to promote American economic nationalism to resolve the economic crisis. This announcement so undermined Moley's position that he gradually drifted away from the president. He eventually left the administration and became a magazine editor. Moley's disappointment with Roosevelt deepened as time went on, and he finally broke openly with the president during the 1940 campaign. Thereafter, Moley became a consistent critic of the Roosevelt presidency.

Rexford Tugwell fared much better. He remained with Roosevelt after the election, serving as an advisor until the inauguration, after which Tugwell was officially appointed assistant secretary of agriculture under Henry Wallace. Tugwell worked diligently in the Department of Agriculture (USDA) to implement domestic allotment under the provisions of the Agricultural Adjustment Act. His clash with the director of the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, George Peek, and Peek's eventual resignation, was seen as a victory for Tugwell, however short-lived. Although Peek's replacement, Chester Davis, was committed to domestic allotment, he was also a determined administrator who did not tolerate disagreement from subordinates. His famous "purge" of liberals in the USDA over Southern sharecropping agreements was a direct attack on Tugwell. Tugwell was so livid about Davis's actions that he threatened to resign from the New Deal. Roosevelt convinced him to stay, and Tugwell became director of the Resettlement Administration (RA) in 1935. Despite his good intentions and administrative capabilities, Tugwell was targeted by the press as a radical and as a threat to America. He resigned from the RA in 1936, only to return to the administration in 1941 when Roosevelt appointed him governor of Puerto Rico. For the rest of his life and career, Tugwell remained loyal to Roosevelt, despite the disappointments he felt with Roosevelt and the New Deal after 1936.

With Tugwell's departure from the administration in 1936, all three original members of the Brains Trust were gone. Other advisers with academic backgrounds and business expertise joined the administration, and the term associate member of the Brains Trust is sometimes applied to such individuals as Hugh Johnson of the National Recovery Administration (NRA) and Donald Richberg of the NRA and the National Economic Council. Later advisers like Benjamin Cohen and Thomas Corcoran are also sometimes referred to as Brains Trusters. In the end, though, the Brains Trust remained what it had started out to be—a small advisory group of academics who helped Roosevelt in his 1932 bid for the presidency.



Berle, Beatrice Bishop, and Travis B. Jacobs, eds. Navigating the Rapids, 1918–1971: From the Papers of Adolf Berle. 1973.

Namorato, Michael V. Rexford G. Tugwell: A Biography. 1988.

Rosen, Elliot. Hoover, Roosevelt, and the Brains Trust: FromDepression to New Deal. 1977.

Schwartz, Jordan A. The New Dealers: Power Politics in theAge of Roosevelt. 1993.

Michael V. Namorato