In 1942, Congress passed legislation attempting to facilitate voting by soldiers stationed overseas. Passed too close to the date of the general election (and after the primary election season) and creating a cumbersome process, the bill was ineffective. As the number of American soliders overseas continued to increase, the lack of practical access to the ballot was intolerable to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He sent a bill to Congress in 1944 that would have created a simple federal ballot made it much easier for soldiers to make their voices heard. Despite having the authority of a wartime president, however, the bill failed. Congress instead passed a much weaker version, more similar to the 1942 statute, that did not send out a uniform federal ballot and left administration in the hands of the states. Fewer than 33 percent of eligible soldiers were able to vote in the 1944 elections. How, during the height of wartime, could such a basic democratic right be denied many soldiers risking their lives for their country?
The answer, as Ira Katznelson details in his brilliant new book Fear Itself, is that a coalition of Republicans (who believed that soldiers largely represented a pro-FDR demographic) and Southern Democrats (who feared that even this limited form of federal intervention would threaten Jim Crow) wanted to limit ballot access for soldiers. The clash between the imperatives of war and the constraints of congressional politics makes the failure of FDR's 1944 bill a paradigmatic New Deal story. Eighty years ago yesterday, FDR famously said during his First Inaugural Address that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” The New Deal—which Katznelson argues should be seen as encompassing the period between the election of FDR in 1932 and the election of Eisenhower 20 years later—was, according to Fear Itself, conducted in the shadow of three major fears. First, there was the fear about whether democracy could survive the Great Depression as countries such as Germany, Italy, and Japan turned to authoritarian responses. Second, there was the fear protecting national security respresented, first by World War II and then by the Cold War and the atomic age. And third, and crucially, was the Southern fear that its system of white supremacy would not survive. The first two fears created an impetus for unprecedented federal action, but this federal action was, throughout the New Deal, shaped and constrained by the third fear.
One of the many strengths of Fear Itself is that it brings Congress back to center stage in the New Deal era.