Dictatorship, Fear of in the United States

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Franklin Delano Roosevelt's presidential administration reinvented the federal government in the United States during the Great Depression and World War II. From being a minimal state with scant taxing power, which played little role in the economy and made no effort to guarantee material or social wellbeing, the New Deal created and defined public responsibility for ensuring a minimal level of economic well-being for the American people.

The rise of the federal government was a great transformation in American life. It elicited a prolonged reaction from conservatives and from businessmen whose power it seemed to limit, while traditional liberal intellectuals were alarmed by what they perceived as the rise of a newly powerful federal government. During the New Deal years, the idea that the Roosevelt administration might become a dictatorship circulated throughout nervous conservative and liberal circles alike. The rise of fascism in Germany and Italy accentuated the fear that the National Recovery Administration and other early New Deal planning efforts might be harbingers of fascism in the United States. Especially after Roosevelt introduced his plan to expand the number of judges on the Supreme Court in 1937, conservatives sought to paint him as a politician who wished to eliminate the checks and balances provided in the Constitution. In addition, the rise of populist leaders like Huey Long of Louisiana and Father Charles Coughlin of Detroit frightened liberals and conservatives who thought that these firebrands could be fascist dictators in the making.

In reality, there was never any danger that the Roosevelt administration would become a dictatorship, nor of it sliding into fascism. In fact, the cries of dictatorship accelerated later in the New Deal, when Roosevelt undertook the kind of controversial legislation permitting the self-organization of workers—such as the Wagner Act—that Europe's fascist governments had sought to destroy as soon as they came into power. Still, even during World War II, conservatives compared the New Deal to Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. For example, David Sarnoff, the president of RCA, said in a 1943 speech criticizing wartime social legislation, "If we have learned anything from the history of the past ten years, we have learned how empty were the claims of those demagogues who wheedled away the freedoms of their people with the mirage of an all-powerful state that would provide security at the expense of liberty."

In the early 1940s, fears about dictatorship and fascism changed into anxieties about Communism. Ex-Trotskyist James Burnham's The Managerial Revolution (1941) and Austrian exile Friedrich Hayek's The Road to Serfdom (1944) both marked the rising level of anxiety about centralized government power. This intellectual shift transformed the anti-fascism of World War II, with its egalitarian dimensions and support of social democracy, shifting it to a more conservative politics after the war was over. Often, the measures denounced as evidence of totalitarianism were simply those that sought greater welfare state protections or an expansion of social democracy. By targeting these as dictatorial or totalitarian politics, conservatives were able to use the language of World War II to support their own aim of rolling back social democracy in the postwar period.

The new paranoia about totalitarianism afflicted liberals as well. Anxious and frustrated by the limitations and failures of the New Deal and horrified by Stalinist Russia, some liberal intellectuals in the United States began during the late Depression days to fear the rise of a brutal central state as much as the power of corporations or the plight of the poor. They became afraid that their efforts to create a welfare state would have the unintentional effect of moving the country towards dictatorship. This fear prompted many to draw back from the radical politics they had espoused in an earlier era, and to seek ways to regulate capitalism without excessively strengthening the state. This new liberal timidity and radical self-doubt was the real victory of the rising conservative reaction at the end of the New Deal. Unfounded fears of totalitarianism—which never threatened the United States—would constrain postwar liberalism, especially when it came to domestic social and economic policy.



Brinkley, Alan. Voices of Protest: Huey Long, Father Coughlin, and the Great Depression. 1982.

Brinkley, Alan. The End of Reform: New Deal Liberalism in Recession and War. 1995.

Burnham, James. The Managerial Revolution. 1941.

Ekirch, Arthur, E., Jr. Ideologies and Utopias: The Impact of the New Deal on American Thought. 1969.

Hayek, Friedrich A. The Road to Serfdom. 1944.

Kim Phillips-Fein