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The New Deal’s Forest Army: How the Civilian Conservation Corps Worked

Author(s):Alexander, Benjamin F.
Reviewer(s):McGuire, Erin

Published by EH.Net (September 2019)

Benjamin F. Alexander, The New Deal’s Forest Army: How the Civilian Conservation Corps Worked. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018. x + 179 pp. $20 (paperback), ISBN: 978-1-4214-2456-9.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Erin McGuire, Scheller College of Business, Georgia Institute of Technology.

 

 

Benjamin Alexander fills an important gap in the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) literature with his detailed description of the program from its inception in the trough of the Great Depression to its demise at the beginning of World War II. After setting the scene with a detailed description of the economic, political, and social climate prior to the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) and opposition he faced in setting up the New Deal, subsequent chapters discuss how men enrolled in the CCC, the work they completed, educational programs they participated in, how they spent leisure time, and finally a chapter on the events that led to the end of the program. Alexander weaves statistics and details about events during the program with colorful narratives that make this book an engaging read.

The first chapter provides an overview of the events prior to Roosevelt’s election and the development of the New Deal programs after his inauguration. After the market crash in 1929, the entire nation was suffering the deepest depression in history. Despite climbing numbers of men looking for work, President Hoover shied away from providing direct federal relief to the impoverished and unemployed. At the same time, America’s forests were being depleted by private industry with “appalling rapidity” (p. 12). FDR campaigned on the promise that he would bring together two of America’s wasted resources: young men and the land, by putting unemployed men to work in conservation. This platform of direct relief to those affected by the Depression was successful in winning him the election.

Once elected, Roosevelt faced pushback from Congress and the public over the CCC and other New Deal employment programs. Many were concerned about the proposed pay rate and whether the program would be used as a draft for the military. After changing the bill to increase the latitude with which FDR could make changes the program, the relief bill made in through Congress by June 1933. It was managed by four different departments: the Departments of Agriculture, Interior, Labor, and War, which led to turf wars between the organizations over control of the program. Alexander does a fantastic job of describing the arguments of the opponents of the CCC and what changes were implemented to obtain their support.

The process for enrolling in the CCC and enrollee demographics are described in the second chapter. Men enrolled in the CCC through their state, county, and city welfare agencies. The program required that the men be unmarried and living at home. However, veterans and local experienced men were given some slots in the CCC to appease local areas concerned that the CCC was taking away local jobs. Prior to being accepted as enrollees, the men and their families were interviewed to determine fitness for the CCC and then subjected to a medical examination to make sure they were physically and mentally fit for the camps. If they passed this stage, they went to a conditioning camp run by the Army where they adjusted to the physical demands of the work. Unsurprisingly, some CCC enrollee slots were given out to certain individuals for political gain by the Democratic Party. This is the first discussion I’ve seen that presents evidence from correspondence that the administration likely used the CCC as a political tool and may be useful for future study.

One of my favorite parts of this book is the detailed description of CCC participation by minority populations. Until picking up this book, I had been unable to find a comprehensive discussion of both the African American and Native American parts of the CCC from a single source. First, although there was a non-discrimination clause in the New Deal bill proposed by Oscar De Priest, African American enrollees faced racism and segregation in the CCC. Most African American enrollees were segregated from white enrollees and the administration faced constraints as to where they were able to send them. Many of these segregated camps had to be located on military reservations to avoid protests from nearby white communities, although there was “no pattern of special conduct problems from black enrollees” (p. 55). African American enrollees tended to have longer enrollments because they faced less inequities in the CCC than in the labor market at home. The benefits of this program to African Americans likely drove the movement of African American voters to the Democratic Party. Second, the Indian division of the CCC was organized differently from the main division. As much of land dedicated to Native Americans was arid or eroded, there were abundant conservation projects to be completed on reservations. Native Americans were able to stay at home and work on their own reservations during CCC enrollment. Several sections in the book discuss the Indian division and the projects they completed, which provides a great background for those looking to learn more about this part of the program.

While in the CCC, the men not only learned to perform conservation work, but also were offered educational programs. Along with traditional subjects such as reading and arithmetic, enrollees often could take courses in vocational specialties, such as cooking, surveying, auto mechanics, and electricity. Over 40% of enrollees participated in some sort of vocational training program during their time in the CCC. One area that could be expanded on in the book is a quantitative discussion about the educational programs. What were the most attended courses at the camps? Did these courses help the enrollees find future employment?

The chapter on enrollee leisure seamlessly combines narrative stories, police reports, and lawsuits to create a cohesive picture of the CCC enrollees’ interaction with each other and their surroundings. When they weren’t working in the national forests or learning valuable skills for the future, the CCC enrollees had opportunities to hunt, fish, go to dances in nearby towns, and play team sports. Alexander supplies many anecdotes about pranks pulled on other enrollees and romances that developed with local women. However, it wasn’t all fun and games. Men often got homesick and ran away from camp. Camps were surprisingly lenient with these runaways; the enrollee faced no punishment if he came back within ten days. Having read accounts of enrollees deserting temporarily due to homesickness at the National Archives, I had always wondered if there was an official policy for homesick enrollees. The chapter also contains a useful description of the internal workings of camp disciplinary committees and enrollee interactions with nearby towns.

The final chapter summarizes the events leading to the dismantling of the CCC. The main cause of the end of the program was the start of World War II. As conflict increased in Europe, military involvement increased in the CCC. In 1940, the administration added noncombatant defense training, tank maintenance, and other military-related courses to the CCC educational program. Enrollees also were tasked with preparing land to be used for military training and equipment maintenance facilities. Despite the camps’ continued value to the government, enrollment began to decline as industrial production picked up across the U.S. The bombing of Pearl Harbor served as a catalyst to the end of the program, as legislators sought to cut nonessential spending.

In the aggregate analysis, Alexander provides a detailed, well-organized account of the Civilian Conservation Corps. I believe that anyone interested in the Great Depression era or in relief programs like those in the New Deal will benefit from reading it. The book provides a solid foundation that will facilitate further work on this topic.

 
Erin McGuire is a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Scheller College of Business at Georgia Institute of Technology. She is currently working on a large-scale project investigating the long run outcomes of participation the Civilian Conservation Corps with Price Fishback (University of Arizona) and Shari Eli (University of Toronto).

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Subject(s):Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Extractive Industries
Economic Planning and Policy
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII