Despite nostalgia for the New Deal, people forget how militaristic it was. President Franklin D. Roosevelt conceived of the New Deal as a “moral equivalent of war” effort and promised to use the tactics of World War I to fight the Depression. Nearly all the New Deal agencies were modeled on the war agencies of the Wilson administration. The Civilian Conservation Corps turned 3 million men into a paramilitary “tree army.”
The National Recovery Administration, run by former general Hugh “Iron Pants” Johnson, aimed to organize the economy along the lines of war mobilization. On Sept. 13, 1933, he organized the largest parade New York had ever seen. Tens of thousands of workers marched in military fashion celebrating the mascot of the NRA, the “Blue Eagle.” Similar militaristic pageants were held across the country.
FDR explained the purpose of the Blue Eagle in a fireside chat: “In war, in the gloom of night attack,” he crooned, “soldiers wear a bright badge on their shoulders to be sure that comrades do not fire on comrades. On that principle, those who cooperate in this program must know each other at a glance. That is why we have provided a badge of honor for this purpose.”
I have neither the space nor the inclination to pronounce on what was good or bad about all this. But as Washington grapples with the legacy costs of the “greatest generation” — including the unsustainable burden of paying the retirement bills for the GIs’ supremely entitled children, the Baby Boomers, perhaps it is at least worth recognizing that the government and the culture designed to benefit one generation has come at the cost of those that come after it.