Establishment intellectuals are in high dudgeon at the use of terms like “socialism” and “fascism” to describe President Obama’s program of government takeovers of automobile companies; the extension of federal control over banking, financial services, local schools, energy production, health care, and the internet; and “spread the wealth” tax-and-spend policies. But Herbert Hoover and Ronald Reagan had a point when they pointed to similarities between Mussolini’s fascism and FDR’s New Deal. And, as I wrote in a review of Wolfgang Schivelbusch’s Three New Deals: Reflections on Roosevelt’s America, Mussolini’s Italy, and Hitler’s Germany, 1933–1939, Mussolini saw the connection, too: In a laudatory review of Roosevelt’s 1933 book Looking Forward, Mussolini wrote, “Reminiscent of Fascism is the principle that the state no longer leaves the economy to its own devices. … Without question, the mood accompanying this sea change resembles that of Fascism.”
And today I discovered another example, in Susannah Cahalan’s New York Post review of James Mauro’s book Twilight at the World of Tomorrow: Genius, Madness, Murder, and the 1939 World’s Fair on the Brink of War. Mauro relates the visit of Grover Whalen, New York’s police commissioner and president of the World’s Fair Corporation, to Rome to persuade Mussolini to authorize an Italian pavilion at the 1939 World’s Fair. The conversation, Mauro says (as summarized by Cahalan), began like this:
“I understand you served as Police Commissioner of New York,” he said. “How did my people behave?”
“Some good, some bad,” Whalen responded.
“The bad ones — from Sicily?”
Mussolini first balked at participating in the Fair.
“What, Italy compete with Wall Street?” the dictator said. “What, for example, would it accomplish?”
“The American people would like to know what fascism is,” Whalen responded.
“You want to know what fascism is like? It is like your New Deal!”
Mauro’s source for this conversation was Whalen’s autobiography, Mr. New York.
America is not fascist Italy, much less Germany or Russia. We have only the late Mr. Whalen’s word that this conversation took place. But historians should be able to talk rationally about similarities and parallels in disparate programs.