It’s not often that a midterm election changes the direction of the United States. Signs are that next Tuesday’s will. Sixty-eight years ago, one certainly did. On November 3, 1942, voters went to the polls to hand FDR and the Democrats a defeat so resounding that it halted the country’s decade-long leftward shift, while their GOP rivals found a clear mandate to reverse the biggest expansion of government in American history, the New Deal.
Yet astonishingly, and unlike in 1994, Republicans did it without getting control of either the House or the Senate. Instead, they won just enough seats to instigate a legislative backlash against Roosevelt and his progressive allies, which not only halted the New Deal juggernaut but which — one could argue — also won World War II without giving up America’s freedoms in the effort.
In 1942, voters turned against FDR only two years after he had won reelection to an unprecedented third term. Yet after Pearl Harbor — followed in quick succession by the surrender of the Philippines, the Japanese occupation of Alaska’s Aleutian Islands, and growing American shipping losses to U-boats in the Atlantic — there was a strong feeling, not entirely unwarranted, that Roosevelt had been an incompetent war leader. Roosevelt had hoped to launch Operation Torch — the invasion of Axis-held North Africa — before the election to help the Democrats’ chances, but the invasion was delayed until November 8. Yet even if he had managed to pull off his October Surprise, it still would have been too little, too late.
Still, the real discontent was domestic. Since 1933 — and not unlike today — Americans had witnessed an unprecedented growth of the federal government and federal spending, all in the name of helping the nation recover from economic depression. Yet by 1941 unemployment was still above 9 percent. As recently as 1939 it had been 16 percent. The public began to sense what even Roosevelt’s Treasury secretary, Henry Morgenthau, had sensed for some time: that the New Deal had been a failure, and it was time to reverse direction.
Americans were also fed up with an administration that seemed to want to use the war effort as an excuse to extend federal control over the economy even further. Embodying that view was the left-liberal director of the Office of Price Administration (OPA), Leon Henderson, who seemed to see no commodity, from shoes to sugar, and no transaction, from riding a train to placing a long-distance telephone call, that he wasn’t ready to ration or regulate. That progressive New Deal war economy was summed up in an article by Roosevelt intimate Harry Hopkins in The American Magazine called “You Will Be Mobilized,” which prescribed a future of bleak regimentation and material deprivation, along with rising taxes, in order to win a war the United States manifestly wasn’t winning.
So although no Tea Party sprang up, the popular discontent showed in plunging Democratic poll numbers through 1942.
In May, the Democrats still looked as if they might gain 38 seats in the House. By August that number had dropped to eight. Then in September, the GOP looked to gain 21. When the election actually took place, two months later, the Republicans grabbed 46 in an anti-Democrat avalanche.
#page#Liberal Democrats went down by the dozen. Outside the still-solid Democratic South, Republicans gained 20 of the 25 Senate seats being contested — and the governorship of nearly every big state, including Michigan, California, and New York, where Thomas E. Dewey became the first Republican governor in 20 years. Although the Democrats hung on to a 13-seat majority in the House, and a solid majority in the Senate, the halcyon days of a pro-Roosevelt Congress were over. As Life magazine put it after the election, “The U.S. is now a Republican country.”
That meant big changes in how government in Washington worked. Many of the new senators, like Ed Moore of Oklahoma and Kenneth Wherry of Nebraska, were businessmen who promised to bring common-sense solutions to the nation’s problems, including the war, instead of ideology — as well as a return to the principle of limited government.
Even before the 78th Congress was sworn in, a coalition of Republicans and conservative Southern Democrats started cutting one New Deal program after another, often over Roosevelt’s veto. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was the first to go, in June 1942, followed by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in December. The moribund National Youth Administration vanished in July 1943, and the National Resources Planning Board (run by FDR’s cousin Fred Delano) was gone in August. The new Congress defunded the Farm Security Administration and the Rural Electrification Administration that same year.
Congress kept the OPA, but Leon Henderson was gone even before it met in January. The OPA lost its authoritarian clout, and Americans accepted rationing as long as it was imposed locally, not federally.
The Americans who voted Republicans into office were fully committed to winning the war, but according to what they saw as proven American methods rather than imported progressive ideas. “This election proves how the American people want to fight,” one of the new members of Congress, Clare Boothe Luce, told a reporter, “with their eyes open, not with blinders. They want to fight it efficiently and without bungling.”
The new Congress therefore saw the war effort not as an excuse to expand federal powers, but as something to be kept within constitutional bounds. It sharply limited the Justice Department’s antitrust powers, in order to allow big defense contractors to get on with the war effort. It turned down the idea of an Official Secrets Act, and the head of the Office of War Information’s domestic branch — essentially Roosevelt’s minister of propaganda — was forced to quit.
While Congress did approve a bill allowing government to renegotiate war contracts in order to limit profits, it made it clear that this war would be won with the support of private business and industry, not over its opposition — while strikes by unions like the CIO and the United Mine Workers, which had threatened to paralyze war production, would no longer be tolerated.
Roosevelt got the message. When UMW miners dared to walk out in the spring of 1943, Roosevelt threatened to draft them all. The strike was over almost before it started. It was one of Roosevelt’s most popular decisions. By December 1943, Roosevelt was telling reporters that “Dr. New Deal” had given way to “Dr. Win the War.”
Contrary to Life magazine, the 1942 election did not make America a Republican country — even though in 1946 Republicans would gain control of both the House and the Senate, however fleetingly. Roosevelt would win a fourth term in 1944 — but this time as a reward for being the master architect of America’s imminent victory, not as the leader of the New Deal. But 1942 did signal the start of a conservative resurgence that would finally blossom in the Reagan years — even though progressive liberalism would continue to grow the federal government bigger than ever.
Because in their effort to speed up victory over the Axis, the legislators of the 78th Congress made one crucial mistake.
In July 1943, they instated the first federal-income-tax withholding law, in the hopes that this would accelerate the flow of revenue into the defense effort. The goal was noble; the consequences monstrous. Over the decades more and more money would disappear from people’s paychecks without their noticing. Tax-and-spend Washington found its most valuable secret ally — given to them, ironically, by the Congress dedicated to getting government off people’s backs.
— Arthur Herman is a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. His most recent book, Gandhi and Churchill: The Epic Rivalry That Destroyed an Empire and Forged Our Age, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2009.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article has been revised since its initial posting.