An eagle that didn't take off
Henry Ford was not impressed by the avian drawing the government unveiled 70 years ago this month. A "Roosevelt buzzard," the automaker called it. But multitudes of Americans took a look at the "Blue Eagle," the thunderbird logo of Franklin D. Roosevelt's summer offensive against the Great Depression, and saw a patriotic beacon of hope. "In war, in the gloom of night attack," the president explained on the radio, "soldiers wear a bright badge on their shoulders to be sure comrades do not fire on comrades. On that principle, those who cooperate in this program must know each other at a glance. That is why we have provided a badge of honor for this purpose, a simple design with a legend, `We Do Our Part,' and I ask that all those who join with me shall display that badge prominently."
FDR's badge of honor went to any company or consumer pledging support for his National Recovery Administration, an ambitious scheme to revive ailing industries through government-planned scarcity. In the summer and fall of 1933, Americans displayed the Blue Eagle almost everywhere--on factory walls, in store windows, on commercial products, on windshields, in homes, even on the bare thighs of Atlantic City beauty queens. To the step of "Happy Days Are Here Again," a quarter-million New Yorkers paraded down Fifth Avenue in a 10-hour salute to the symbolic bird.
Roosevelt put the blame for depressed prices and puny wages on excess production and cutthroat competition. His NRA invited almost every type of business, from shipyards and steel mills to tailor shops and burlesque theaters, to write its own "code of fair competition."
Loads of codes. For workers, the codes would establish minimum wages (such as $13 a week for a cotton-mill worker in the North, $12 for one in the South), ceilings on hours (in many instances, 35 hours a week for blue-collar workers and 44 hours for white-collar employees), and the right to form unions and bargain with management. Among consumers, the "good American" would boycott businesses that failed to show the eagle. New Dealers envisioned millions of new jobs "before the snow flies."
That summer, the economy improved a bit, but winter brought more unemployment--plus widespread grumbling about the NRA and the maze of 765 codes it struggled to supervise, even down to the Dog Food Code. With antitrust rules suspended, big industries found monopolistic ways to control output and fix prices. Consumers suffered, as did small businesses unable to absorb rising costs. Many firms averted bankruptcy by ignoring the wage-and-hour provisions of the codes they signed. With their jobs at stake, workers were in no position to protest. Still, a common grievance emerged: "NRA prices and Hoover wages."
By early 1934, grocers in Cleveland were assailing the NRA as "the worst law ever passed by Congress." It was "Hitlerism," one lawmaker said. It was communistic, other critics insisted. The NRA did so little for African-Americans that they took to calling it the "Negro Run Around." White House aide Harry Hopkins hit the NRA's disorganized boss, Hugh Johnson, with the bluntest attack. "Hugh," he said, "your codes stink."
Particularly foul was the Live Poultry Code. A Brooklyn chicken firm asked what right the NRA had to tell it which hens it could sell and how much it must pay the workers who killed them. The Supreme Court answered in 1935 by unanimously ruling the NRA unconstitutional.
As a recovery tool, the NRA proved a massive flop. But the Blue Eagle laid a few worthy eggs. It curbed the deflationary spiral that had nearly wrecked the country. It energized a long-suppressed drive to organize labor. It virtually eliminated child labor. And it helped make five days, not six, America's prevailing workweek.
This is the eighth in a series of monthly reports marking the 70th anniversary of U.S.News & World Report.
This story appears in the August 18, 2003 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.