As Mitch McConnell stands poised to use the Senate to send the “Green New Deal” to the dustbin of history with a well-timed vote, the entire idea should bring to mind questions about the original.
One could question whether the Green New Deal refers to environmentalism or the inexperience of those who threw it together, but it does draw on Franklin Roosevelt’s original for inspiration in at least one way. Both “deals” put authoritarian socialism to the forefront as solutions for imagined or otherwise concocted problems. They undermine rights and attack society to midwife visions of perfect societies dreamed up in college classrooms.
To put it succinctly, some Members of Congress seek to base the nation’s economic and social development on ideals little better thought out than those from an average freshman political science class. Whether that refers to a college or high school is up to the reader to judge. Using the term “New Deal,” however, hints at the backing of policies that cause intentional harm to some groups for the potential benefit of others.
President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration oversaw two of the worst violations of civil rights in the history of the country. Most join FDR’s intelligence team of J. Edgar Hoover, “Wild” Bill Donovan, and military experts in seeing the internment of US citizens of Japanese origin as pointless and devastating to families caught up. American historians, however, have much less sympathy for Tennessee farmers who lost their land and livelihood to the dreams of a President and the callous disregard of bureaucrats imposing socialism.
The Tennessee Valley Authority has receded into history as a controversial development, except for occasional calls to privatize it. From the administration of Woodrow Wilson onward, many Americans stood enamored at the potential for economic and regional planning that would reduce the impact of market forces in favor of socialist-style government controls. Some were similar to those dreamed of by today’s socialists. Other countries, such as Italy and the Soviet Union in the 1920s and Germany in the next decade, seemed to find success through planning. Many Americans felt that the US could successfully implement the model without bringing the method.
Of course, they were wrong. Socialist planning goes hand in hand with attacks on liberty, economic freedom, and, most of the time, personal freedom. Italian fascists forced a consensus on Mussolini’s economic plans through beatings, castor oil, and internal exile to prison camps. Lenin and Stalin simply murdered the millions who stood in the way of their planning. In both cases, the first step lay in marginalizing the opposition, making them seem subhuman in their opposition to plans that would destroy their lives.
Since the TVA represented one of the president’s more aggressive goals, his administration started almost immediately in 1933. Roosevelt’s bureaucrats sought to use federal funds to buy out thousands of farmers living along the banks of the Tennessee and other area streams. The next step lay in constructing hydroelectric dams to produce electric power for the area while also creating lakes to draw middle-class tourists from the cities.
In the way of these plans stood a large and extended community of small farmers. Many of these families had held their land back to original grants for Revolutionary War service from North Carolina. By the 1920s, dangerous and powerful floods caused tremendous damage, especially to regional soils. While “experts” blamed the farmers who used the same techniques for 150 years, others later noted that early 20thcentury clearcutting of forests may have been the actual cause.
The three Roosevelt appointed bureaucrats who administered the TVA program put together a plan that used the worst myths and stereotypes about the people living in the upper Tennessee Valley. Their purpose lay in marginalizing the farmers and other residents in the eyes of the general American culture.
According to historian John Alexander Williams, a noted left-wing Appalachian historian, “In varying degrees, each of the federal agencies or their apologists summoned lurid images of depravity and deprivation to justify the seizure of homes and land.” A federal bureaucrat on the ground required his staff to “watch out for poorly constructed school houses” and other buildings. They would take the worst imagery and project it as common to the entire area, much as Stalin did before starving millions of Ukrainian peasants into submission.
TVA bureaucrats also asserted that residents had so little awareness of the world that few had heard of World War I or even the Civil War and that illiteracy and inbreeding dominated the region. Lack of knowledge of the Civil War is the most interesting charge since many in the region at the time of the war risked treason charges to fight in the Union Army.
Williams noted that “modern scholars who have investigated these charges . . . have refuted them point by point.” Contemporary residents bitterly related that “they didn’t want something that looked good,” and “they wanted to show the worst side. They took pictures.”
The pictures were taken and film recorded went to mass media outlets and also formed part of newsreels commonly watched prior to motion pictures. By doing this, the federal government cynically undercut the normal American sympathy for farmers by implying that the area required government uplift whether it wanted it or not.
What happened to the farmers and others? Approximately 60 percent took to the road to find factory jobs in large cities, an uncertain prospect for almost anyone between 1933 and 1939. Studies do not reveal what happened to the rest. In reality, this program turned thousands of people off of land that fed and sustained them and into an unfamiliar lifestyle in unfamiliar places.
Williams argues that the TVA was not progressive enough in creating a plan to help them relocate. This misses the point entirely. President Franklin Roosevelt and his administration lusted after the land and used federal power to destroy the image of those who lived there. They dusted off similar strategies used by contemporary totalitarians to steal land from the vulnerable and turned them against people descended from those who spilled blood first to create, then to preserve the Union.
The Tennessee Valley Authority today stands as a tangible monument to the New Deal, one of the few socialist style programs actually attempted, and also the human tragedy of lands stolen and people dispersed. Americans need to remember that this is not an aberration. It is how socialism actually works.