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Roosevelt’s New Deal Army

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PA Democratic Convention
PA Democratic Convention
PA Democratic Convention
PA Democratic Convention

The Briscoe Center has acquired the printer’s archive from the 1936 Democratic Convention program. The archive includes original artwork, photographs, advertisements, and party leader biographies. In addition, it includes a set of fully annotated typewritten essays by Roosevelt’s cabinet members and other officials.

“The printer’s archive is a fascinating set of materials that offers a novel route into the political landscape of the 1930s,” said Don Carleton, executive director of the Briscoe Center.

The 1936 Democratic Convention took place in Philadelphia in June—four months before the general election of the same year. The economy was still in the throes of the Great Depression and President Franklin Roosevelt faced a darkening international scene. The convention represented a chance for the Roosevelt administration to project its philosophy, policies, and achievements upon both the convention and the upcoming election.

The majority of the archive’s annotated essays portray the activities and ethos of Roosevelt’s government departments, including the State and Treasury departments, the National Park Service, and the Works Progress Administration. The essays’ many edits point to the ways those meanings were deeply contested at the time within the Roosevelt administration, the Democratic Party, and the wider American public.

For example, the essay by Secretary of War George Dern was written to defend plans to increase military spending to a surprisingly skeptical public. In doing so, it emphasizes the role of the American army as a “vital creative force that is closely identified with the growth and progress of our country” and central to conservation programs, disaster response, and flood mitigation.

Dern is partisan in his criticism of the Republican-controlled Congresses of the 1920s, accusing them of under funding the army, leaving it lacking in both equipment and personnel. He elaborates in the draft, but Roosevelt’s communication strategists ultimately red-lined many of his assessments. Whole paragraphs alluding to America’s unpreparedness for war were omitted in the final program.

Roosevelt operatives—aware that the president’s internationalist leanings were stronger than those of the American public as a whole—understood the need to advocate strongly for military investment. However, they appear to have thought Dern went too far in stressing America’s unpreparedness. Evidently, they felt the need to balance calls to increase military spending with the desire to project a picture of military preparedness around the world.

“Dern’s annotated essay is just one of many interesting examples from the printer’s archive that demonstrate its potential for from a research and teaching perspective,” said Carleton.