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Published by EH.NET (March 2008)

Sarah Phillips, This Land, This Nation: Conservation, Rural America and the New Deal. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007. xi + 320 pp. $24 (paperback), ISBN: 978-0-521-61796-3.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Jon Fox, Department of Economics, University of Arizona.

Sarah Phillips’ This Land, This Nation is a dynamic and interesting look at New Deal conservationism. Finishing it, the reader is left with a clear understanding of the environmental and political consequences of New Deal agricultural policy, as well as a sense of the potential and limits of midcentury liberalism.

Phillips follows the New Conservationists through their formative years in the 1920s and into their heyday in the 30s and 40s. A group of New Deal politicians, the New Conservationists, who included such notables as Franklin D. Roosevelt, believed for the first time that conservation policies were an essential part of America’s economic well being. They viewed America’s economic problems as emanating from the rural farmer’s economic problems. These were then tied to the proper use and fair distribution of resources, specifically water resources and the hydro-electricity generated from them.

This Land, This Nation reads more like a very complete and thoroughly researched thesis than a standard history monograph. It begins with the premise that the agricultural policies of the New Deal were a novel departure from previous conservationist policy, and that these policies helped form the basis for government-sponsored commodity price supports and government-sponsored industrial expansion. It then incorporates sources and anecdotes to help support that position. Unlike a standard history monograph might do, This Land, This Nation is not an exhaustive history of New Deal agricultural or conservation policy. And by not attempting to be just that, Phillips is much more able to focus the reader on the effects of specific New Deal agricultural and conservation policies.

The book is broken up into six parts. It begins with an introduction which discusses the previous literature on New Deal conservation policy and offers brief summaries of the upcoming sections. The following four chapters look at the rise, implementation, and transformation of New Conservationism. It concludes with an epilogue that looks at how New Deal policies and programs were both successfully and unsuccessfully implemented abroad.

Chapter 1 begins with the evolution of the New Conservationists’ ideas, and the separate efforts of the men that would be united under Roosevelt’s administration. Morris Cooke, who would later head the Rural Electrification Administration (REA), and his friend Senator Gifford Pinchot helped create an influential new agenda to make affordable electricity available to the small rural farmer. During the same period, land economists and soil scientists linked rural poverty to the availability and use of natural resources and argued land use planning was necessary to reverse the trend of farmers’ overextension into marginal lands. These two separate lines of thought, one from the land economists and another from the public power proponents, would eventually coalesce into the New Conservationists’ idea that rural living standards would improve with sustainable farming practices and equitable distribution of natural resources.

Chapter 2 begins as the New Deal is beginning. With an overwhelmingly Democratic Congress, the New Conservationists were in a position to implement their desired programs. It discusses the establishment of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) during Roosevelt’s One Hundred Days and how the TVA represented the first time the government not only built the hydro-electric system, but also embodied the New Conservationists’ ideals by delivering the power through rural cooperatives at affordable rates to consumers. Unfortunately, as the chapter explains, the TVA never reached the poorest farmers, and the New Conservationists turned to reclaiming sub-marginal land to either devote it to parks or set it aside. An independent agency, the Resettlement Administration (RA) was formed in April 1935, and had the authority to purchase land, undertake conservation and land restoration projects, build resettlement communities, and make rural loans. However, because farmers accepted relief but not reform, the strategy of government ownership of land faced organized resistance in areas where crop growing had been successful in the recent past. This resistance led to the decline of land reclamation and the rise of soil conservation, water control, tenant assistance and rural electrification. The REA was formed in May 1935, and was a primary force behind rural electrification projects, working with consumer-owned cooperatives to help distribute power to rural farms. Between the REA and Soil Conservation Service, conservation policy became geared towards maintaining and supporting farmers on their own land.

That would soon change however, as shown in Chapter 3 which focuses on Lyndon Johnson’s political experiences during the 1930s and 40s. Here Phillips uses the backdrop of the Texas Hill Country to show how equity was abandoned in favor of efficiency, and how the new hydro-electric dams allowed for a greater degree of rural industrialization. This chapter serves as a transition between the first two chapters of the book which discuss agrarian liberalism, and Chapter 4 which examines that ideology’s decline in favor of industrial liberalism. It offers a prelude to the demise of agrarian liberalism as farmers who were unable to sustain themselves through agriculture on the land instead found work in munitions or other factories.

Chapter 4 extends this trend to the national level and illustrates how agrarian liberals, rebuked by the Supreme Court and losing popular support with farmers who wanted to increase production in a growing economy, gave way to a growing number of industrial liberals. Unlike their agrarian counterparts, industrial liberals embraced multipurpose river projects and outmigration to factory jobs as the answer to rural incomes, and envisioned a world where federal resource policy would help create an expanded industrial workforce and larger, more modernized farms. New Conservationism survived within the Democratic Party, and even though it had drifted from its initial agrarian focus, New Conservationism found new answers in the industrial decentralization that occurred because of the large hydro-electric projects and the manufacturing demands of World War II.

A concluding chapter puts the New Conservationist policies in a historical context and explains why some were successful and some were not.

Overall, this was a very good book, and for those interested in the immediate and long-term environmental and political consequences of government, and specifically New Deal, policy, it is certainly worth a read. Through extensive anecdotal evidence, Phillips (Assistant Professor of History at Columbia University) is able to bring her research to life and take the reader back to the political processes of the 1920s and 30s. In general she utilizes primary sources, and often uses quotes from notable New Deal politicians such as Morris Cooke and David Lilienthal to make her points. She colors many of her chapters with stories of the political maneuvering behind many of the New Deal programs, and does a good job of placing those programs and their effects in the proper historical context.

Jon Fox is a graduate student in economics at the University of Arizona. His research empirically examines how early twentieth century dam projects influenced the development and environmental characteristics of their surrounding areas.