This excerpt, which is courtesy of the Free Press, comes from Michael Hiltzik’s new book, The New Deal: A Modern History.
During the years of the New Deal, America’s government built as it never had before—or has since.
The New Deal physically reshaped the country. To this day, Americans still rely on its works for transportation, electricity, flood control, housing, and community amenities. The output of one agency alone, the Works Progress Administration, represents a magnificent bequest to later generations. The WPA produced, among many other projects, 1,000 miles of new and rebuilt airport runways, 651,000 miles of highway, 124,000 bridges, 8,000 parks, and 18,000 playgrounds and athletic fields; some 84,000 miles of drainage pipes, 69,000 highway light standards, and 125,000 public buildings built, rebuilt, or expanded. Among the latter were 41,300 schools.
The transformative power of this effort is inestimable. The Tennessee Valley in 1933 was a quintessential backwoods region of “grim drudgery, and grind” in the words of its savior George Norris: beleaguered by floods, drained of its manpower by the siren call of the cities, the latent wealth of its river and lumber left fallow. The TVA of Norris and Franklin Roosevelt turned it into a land of plenty that called its workers home, put its natural endowments to productive use, and delivered to its residents the promise of a secure American middle-class lifestyle.
The Public Works Administration provided Harold Ickes with a larger construction budget than any American government official ever had received: $3.3 billion, more than 20 times the $150 million the government spent on public construction projects in 1929. Ickes was determined to make the most of it. The impression is accurate that he disbursed the money with the tightfistedness of a man spending from his own pocket; but there is no denying that he thereby ensured that it would create for the nation a greater patrimony.
PWA built or helped build monumental projects from sea to sea. In Washington State, Grand Coulee Dam put 8,000 men to work starting in 1933 and used materials and equipment from 46 of the 48 states. In Southern California, PWA helped repair or replace 536 school buildings damaged or destroyed by the great Long Beach earthquake of March 10, 1933. Most of them, rebuilt to the most exacting seismic standards of the time, are still in use at this writing. In Florida, the exemplary project was the Overseas Highway, 127 miles of causeways and bridges connecting the mainland and Key West, built on the remains of a railroad line destroyed by hurricane in 1935, and transforming the latter island from a dismal outback of dispossessed relief recipients to one of America’s premier tourist destinations. In New York was built the greatest project of them all—the Triborough Bridge tying together three of the city’s five boroughs, rescued from insolvency in 1933 by a PWA grant and loan totaling $44 million, and dedicated in 1936 with FDR in attendance despite his loathing for the project’s municipal overseer, Robert Moses, whom the president had repeatedly tried to remove from the project, without success. But he swallowed his enmity for Moses long enough to bask in the nationwide publicity marking Triborough’s completion.
The Triborough ceremony marked a coming of age for the New Deal’s approach to spending for physical infrastructure. At first Roosevelt and his aides had a murky understanding of how to balance the need to put people to work with the goal of efficient and lasting construction. Rexford Tugwell, a top Roosevelt adviser, had witnessed an especially telling exchange between the president and New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia about government funding for what would later be christened LaGuardia Airport. “They were happily agreeing that bulldozers and other powered machines should be banned,” he related. “There should be only hand tools so that more men would be employed.” Finally, Tugwell interjected that if they really wished to put the maximum number of men to work, why not confine them to hand trowels? The point was driven home that they might indeed employ more men, but they would never be able to finish one airport, much less build any others.
FDR came to understand the political luster of great public works. When possible, he dedicated them in person—even when, as in the case with the structure that would ultimately be known as Hoover Dam, credit for its construction belonged to his Republican predecessors. Skeptical early in his first term about their cost and utility, he soon became an enthusiast, demanding more plans and more works—more bridges, more dams, even a highway spanning the American continent from sea to shining sea.