Perhaps no program better represented the new governmental martial outlook than the Civilian Conservation Corps, or CCC. Arguably the most popular program of the New Deal, the CCC mobilized some 2.5 million young men into what could only be called paramilitary training. CCCers mostly worked as a 'forestry army,' clearing dead wood and the like. Enlistees met at army recruiting stations; wore World War I uniforms; were transported around the country by troop trains; answered to army sergeants; were required to stand at attention, march in formation, employ military lingo—including the duty of calling superiors 'sir'—read a CCC newspaper modeled on Stars and Stripes; went to bed in army tents listening to taps; and woke to reveille.
After the CCC was approved by Congress, FDR reported, 'It is a pretty good record, one which I think can be compared with the mobilization carried on in 1917.' The Speaker of the House boasted of the CCC's success: 'They are also under military training and as they come out of it they come out improved in health and developed mentally and physically and are more useful citizens and if ever we should become involved in another war they would furnish a very valuable nucleus for our army.' Meanwhile, the Nazis were establishing similar camps for virtually identical reasons.
The chief motive among social planners was to get young men out of the mainstream workforce. The public arguments tended to emphasize the need to beef up the physical and moral fiber of an embryonic new army. FDR said the camps were ideal for getting youth 'off the city street comers.' Hitler promised his camps would keep youth from 'rotting helplessly in the streets.' Mussolini's various 'battles'—the 'Battle of the Grains' and such—were defended on similar grounds.
A second rationale was to transcend class barriers, an aspect of the program that still appeals to liberals today. The argument, then as now, is that there are no common institutions that foster a sense of true collective obligation. There's merit to this point. But it's interesting that the Nazis were far more convinced of this rationale than the New Dealers, and it informed not only their Labor Service program but their entire domestic agenda.
A far more shocking example of the militarization of American life came in the form of the National Recovery Administration, led by Hugh 'Iron Pants' Johnson, Time's Man of the Year for 1933. General Johnson was a pugnacious brawler who threatened that Americans who didn't cooperate with the New Deal would get a 'sock in the nose.' The military liaison to the War Industries Board and director of America's first military draft during the Great War—which he later called the 'great schooling' for the New Deal—Johnson was convinced that what America needed was another injection of wartime fervor and fear. Few public figures—Joseph McCarthy included—were more prone to question the patriotism of their opponents. At every opportunity, Johnson claimed the war on the Depression was indistinguishable from battle. 'This is war—lethal and more menacing than any other crisis in our history,' he wrote. No sphere of life was out of bounds for the new service. 'It is women in homes—and not soldiers in uniform—who will this time save our country,' he announced. 'They will go over the top to as great a victory as the Argonne. It is zero hour for housewives. Their battle cry is 'Buy now under the Blue Eagle!'
The Blue Eagle was the patriotic symbol of compliance that all companies were expected to hang from their doors, along with the motto 'We do our part,' a phrase used by the administration the way the Germans used 'Gemeinnutz geht vor Eigennutz.' Now largely airbrushed from popular awareness, the stylized Indian eagle clutching a band of lightning bolts in one claw and an industrial cogwheel in the other was often compared to the swastika or the German Reich eagle in both American and German newspapers. Johnson demanded that compliance with the Blue Eagle program be monitored by an army of quasi-official informants, from union members to Boy Scouts. His totalitarian approach was unmistakable. 'When every American housewife understands that the Blue Eagle on everything that she permits to come into her home is a symbol of its restoration to security, may God have mercy on the man or group of men who attempt to trifle with this bird.'
It's difficult to exaggerate the propagandistic importance FDR invested in the Blue Eagle. 'In war, in the gloom of night attack, soldiers wear a bright badge on their shoulders to be sure their comrades do not fire on comrades,' the president explained. 'On that principle those who cooperate in this program must know each other at a glance.' In a fireside chat in 1933, Roosevelt called for a great Mussolini-style 'summer offensive against unemployment.' Hollywood did its part. In the 1933 Wamer Brothers musical Footlight Parade, starring James Cagney, a chorus line uses flash cards to flip up a portrait of Roosevelt, and then forms a giant Blue Eagle. Will Rogers led a Who's Who roster of stars in Blue Eagle and NRA radio broadcasts.
Johnson's favorite means of promoting compliance with the Blue Eagle were military parades and Nuremberg-style rallies. On September 12, 1933, Johnson harangued an audience often thousand at Madison Square Garden, vowing that 85 percent of America's workers were already under the authority of the Blue Eagle. The following day New York was nearly shut down by a Blue Eagle parade in honor of 'The President's NRA Day.' All Blue Eagle-compliant stores were ordered shut at 1:00 p.m., and the governor declared a half-day holiday for everyone else as well. Under the direction of a U.S. Army major general, the Blue Eagle parade marched from Washington Square up Fifth Avenue to the New York Public Library, where it passed a reviewing stand upon which stood Johnson, the governors from the tristate area, and Eleanor Roosevelt.
This was the biggest parade in New York's history, eclipsing even the ticker-tape parade to celebrate Charles Lindbergh's crossing of the Atlantic. In true corporatist fashion, labor and management alike were expected to participate. The President's NRA Day Parade boasted fifty thousand garment workers, thirty thousand city laborers, seventeen thousand retail workers, six thousand brewery hands, and a Radio City Music Hall troupe. Nearly a quarter-million men and women marched for ten hours past an audience of well over a million people, with forty-nine military planes flying overhead. Because of events like this, writes Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Johnson and Roosevelt achieved their goal of 'transforming a government agency into a religious experience.' A member of the British Independent Labour Party was horrified by such pageantry, saying it made him feel like he was in Nazi Germany.
The New York parade was no isolated incident. Similar spectacles were held in cities across the country, where marchers typically wore the uniforms of their respective occupations. The Philadelphia Eagles football team was named in honor of the Blue Eagle. A hundred thousand schoolkids were marched onto the Boston Common and forced to swear an oath, administered by the mayor: 'I promise as a good American citizen to do my part for the NRA. I will buy only where the Blue Eagle flies.' In Atlantic City, beauty pageant contestants had the Blue Eagle stamped on their thighs. In San Francisco, eight thousand schoolchildren were orchestrated to form an enormous Blue Eagle. In Memphis, fifty thousand citizens marched in the city's Christmas parade, which ended with Santa Claus riding a giant Blue Eagle.
Not surprisingly, victims of the Blue Eagle received little sympathy in the press and even less quarter from the government. Perhaps the most famous case was Jacob Maged, the forty-nine-year-old immigrant dry cleaner who spent three months in jail in 1934 for charging thirty-five cents to press a suit, when the NRA had insisted that all loyal Americans must charge at least forty cents. Because one of the central goals of the early New Deal was to create artificial scarcity in order to drive prices up, the Agricultural Adjustment Administration ordered that six million pigs be slaughtered. Bountiful crops were left to rot. Many white farmers were paid not to work their land (which meant that many black tenant farmers went hungry). All of these policies were enforced by a militarized government.
In urban centers the plight of blacks was little better. By granting new collective bargaining powers to unions, FDR also gave them the power to lock blacks out of the labor force. And the unions—often viscerally racist—did precisely that. Hence some in the black press said the NRA really stood for the 'Negro Run Around,' the 'Negro Removal Act,' and 'Negroes Robbed Again.' At a rally in Harlem a protester drew a picture of the Blue Eagle and wrote underneath: 'That Bird Stole My Pop's Job.' Meanwhile, under Johnson's watchful eye, policemen would break down doors with axes to make sure tailors weren't working at night and—literally—yank newsboys from the street because they didn't work for big corporations.
It should not be surprising to learn that General Johnson was an ardent disciple of Fascism. As head of the NRA, he distributed copies of The Corporate State by Raffaello Viglione—an unapologetic Fascist tract by one of Mussolini's favorite economists. He even gave one to Secretary of Labor Prances Perkins, imploring her to hand out copies to the cabinet.
By 1934 Johnson's fascist methods and, more important, his unstable personality had led to his downfall. And while he was undoubtedly the most unrelentingly fascistic and pro-Fascist member of the Roosevelt administration, his ideas and methods were not at all out of the mainstream. When Alexander Sachs, a respected economist who'd grown up in Europe, was invited to consult on the formation of the NRA, he warned that it could only be administered 'by a bureaucracy operating by fiat and such bureaucracy would be far more akin to the incipient Fascist or Nazi state than to a liberal republic.' No one followed his advice, and he joined the administration anyway.