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How America's social conscience was born

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A Caring Society: The New Deal, the Worker, and the Great Depression, by Irving Bernstein. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. 338 pp. $22.95. The United States as we know it in 1985 was shaped by three fundamental events. The American Revolution created a national society. The Civil War created a free society (at least in theory). The New Deal under President Franklin D. Roosevelt created what Professor Irving Bernstein perceptively terms ``a caring society.''

During that economically and socially consequential administration, what we may term the safeguards under which Americans now live -- social security, unemployment insurance, welfare, measures against investment fraud, a more secure banking system, etc. -- were set in place.

Never before in the nation's history, and only rarely in any nation's annals, had so many crucially meaningful steps of a ``caring'' nature been taken in so brief a period. At numerous critical points the whole direction of the nation was altered.

As has been repeated a thousand times, this was accomplished in two ways. First, the New Deal took concrete steps to alleviate the disastrous physical conditions that had arisen with the Great Depression. Second, FDR's administration altered the thinking of the country, convincing an overwhelming majority of citizens that the day had come when government must intervene to establish satisfactory conditions of human life.

This conviction remains the underlying philosophy of the US political system. Not even the more conservative tendencies of the Reagan years have seriously dented it. America developed a social conscience.

From a strictly factual point of view, there is little new in this book. The deplorable conditions that existed in the US when Roosevelt was sworn in as President in March 1933 (for example, an unemployment rate of 30 percent) have been recounted endlessly. So have the steps taken during that famous ``first hundred days'' to meet the crisis. Countless volumes have detailed the great changes wrought in America by that single President and his administration.


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