The Eagle That Never Flew

It’s one of those tokens of the past that you might recognize but can’t identify. It’ll show up, unexplained, in old advertisements and movies. Between September, 1933 and July, 1935, it appeared on every cover of the Saturday Evening Post.

It’s unofficial name — the only name it ever had — was the Blue Eagle, and it was the emblem of the National Recovery Administration (not of the National Rifle Association). It was displayed by businesses that supported the NRA codes for price and wage-controls.

The NRA was one of President Roosevelt’s first efforts to stimulate the depressed economy. It created codes that would reduce competitive pricing and increase employment.

It took time to write these codes for each industry. So, in 1933, the NRA asked businesses to accept a voluntary code for all employers. The NRA code set minimum wages and maximum hours, but allowed competing businesses to set prices for their industries.

The businesses that adopted the blanket code, according to John Kennedy Ohl, were asked to display “a Blue Eagle accompanied by the words ‘We Do Our Part,’ on a placard in their windows or on their products. Consumers were to give their business only to those firms that adhered to the code.”

The Blue Eagle from Egg to Earth
The Blue Eagle from Egg to Earth By General Hugh S. Johnson January 19, 1935

The program was run by Hugh S. Johnson, a blunt and impassioned zealot who used every medium in his power to achieve compliance. Under this direction, says Ohl, “the NRA orchestrated a great outpouring of ballyhoo and patriotic appeal replete with radio speakers, motorcades, torchlight processions, mass rallies, parades, and a nationwide speaking tour by Johnson… The Blue Eagle appeared on posters, billboards, flags, movie screens, magazines, newspapers, and numerous products. Beauty contestants had the Blue Eagle stamped on their thighs, and in Philadelphia fans cheered a new professional football team dubbed the Eagles after the NRA’s icon.”

For all the wing flapping, though, the Blue Eagle never left the ground. After two years, and determined opposition from some industries, the Supreme Court declared the NRA unconstitutional.

Later that year, Hugh Johnson published a series of articles in the Post that attempted to justify what he called “the greatest social and economic experiment of our age.” In his article, he claimed the NRA had several achievements.

“Whatever may properly be criticized about NRA, it created 2,785,000 jobs at a desperate time and added about $3,000,000,000 to the annual purchasing power of working people. It did more to create employment than all other emergency agencies put together, and it did so by creating normal jobs everywhere and without drafts on the Federal Treasury… It abolished child labor. It ran out the sweatshops. It established the principle of regulated hours, wages and working conditions. It went far toward removing wages from the area of predatory competition. It added to the rights and freedom of human labor.”

National Archives
National Archives

Few historians would agree with his assessment. By making these claims, David M. Kennedy says, “for neither the first time nor the last, Johnson was whistling ‘Dixie.’ Much of the modest rise in production and employment in the spring of 1933 owed not to the salutary ministration of NRA but to nervous anticipation of its impact.”
Kennedy points out that Johnson’s attitude proved a handicap for the agency.

“Johnson faced… persistent industrial recalcitrance with his trademark mix of bluster, bravado, and baloney. ‘Away slight men!’ he railed to a group of businessmen in Atlanta. ‘You may have been Captains of Industry once, but you are Corporals of Disaster now.’ Pleading for minimum wage standards, he declaimed that ‘men have died and worms have eaten them but not from paying human labor thirty cents an hour.’ The ‘chiselers’ who tried to shave NRA standards, he thundered, were ‘guilty of a practice as cheap as stealing pennies out of the cup of a blind beggar.'”

In his Post article, Johnson never considered apologizing for his devotion to what he called his “holy cause.”

“Perhaps I am overzealous or even fanatic on this subject, but I feel it so intensely that I will fight for it. I have sacrificed, and will sacrifice, for it. No personal interest — neither my own nor another’s — can stand in the way of anything which I think will help it.”

His passionate devotion sometimes blinded him to the impracticability of the NRA. In other areas, though, he was keenly perceptive, and some of his observations about business and employment were true for the 1920s as well as today:

“Savage wolfish competition without any direction whatever has proved to be one of the most destructive forces in our economic life. When it got savage and wolfish enough, it began immediately to gnaw upon the living standards of wage and salary earners, and that happened to include over 80% of our population.

“When times are fabulously good, the great prosperity of the few filters down to the many and tends to obscure this tendency. But in normal times, and especially when a depression such as that which began five years ago comes upon us like a blight and millions of men begin tramping the streets, looking for any kind of work that will afford a crust of bread for their families, the whole aspect changes.

“Families are no longer self-contained, economic units that can be put on wheels and trundled into a new environment to start things over again. Our nineteenth-century safety valve of cheap or free new lands and a constantly expanding country has ceased to exist. The old order of our frontier days is gone forever, and by no man’s designing.

“All this has brought benefits, but it has also brought great griefs. The roaring, clacking engine of our industry and commerce has become a vast and highly active machine of which no individual is more than an integrated part. Each performs a specialized function. In most cases, living income comes as a matter of determination by a power with whom there is no bargaining in any true sense. The individual worker accepts the wage scales decreed by employers and is thankful, and his separation from the particular ratchet in which he revolves may be a tragedy. At his doorway there is no longer an open road to high adventure in a new and brighter country, and even if there were such a road, his specialization has unfitted him to take it.

The official cause of death for the Blue Eagle was the Supreme Court’s decision in Schchter v. The United States. However, it faced a more immovable opponent in American industry, as Ohl points out:

National Archives
National Archives

“Ultimately… the NRA failed because of its underlying premise… the belief that the various segments of the economy could look beyond their own interest and work together for the national welfare. This belief was naive in the case of organized business. Starved for profits and often unwilling to accept labor as even a junior partner, it pursued its own interests and used the NRA to restrict production, raise prices, and thwart labor’s aspirations.”

Sixty-six years later, the government rushed to the aid of American banks that were facing collapse. Within the year, though, bank executives were paying themselves large bonuses made possible by the support of taxpayers. Now, as in 1933, many businessmen in America view catastrophe and government emergency-assistance as an opportunity for profit.

Read the Blue Eagle from Egg to Earth [PDF].