Eager to reassure a shaken public, President Franklin D. Roosevelt stretched the truth when he averred in his first inaugural address, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” In reality, there was good reason to be afraid. The world economy remained in the deepest of doldrums, and societies across the globe were turning to dictators for answers. By the time Roosevelt assumed office on March 4, 1933, Hirohito, Mussolini and Stalin were already ruling with iron fists; and not three weeks later the Reichstag  invested the power of the German state in Chancellor Adolf Hitler. Were liberal democracies ill equipped to manage a crisis of such magnitude? It was a genuine question, as Ira Katznelson underscores in this important and engrossing book.

Katznelson argues that the New Deal is what pulled the world back from the brink. To be clear, when Katznelson refers to the New Deal he does not have in mind just the alphabet soup of new federal agencies. He means the whole of U.S. policy, both foreign and domestic, in the era stretching from the election of FDR to the end of the Truman years.

While his period covers presidential administrations, his story revolves around Congress. It was the country’s lawmakers, Katznelson contends, who proved that representative government could weather the worst of storms. As they seized the reins of the domestic economy and authorized new crusades abroad, legislators transformed both the nation and the world. The New Deal they enacted was a historical watershed “almost on a par with . . . the French Revolution.”