This Land, This Nation

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Sarah T. Phillips. This Land, This Nation: Conservation, Rural America, and the New Deal. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007. xi, 289 pp. $23.99, ISBN 978-0-61796-3.

Summary

In This Land, This Nation, Sarah T. Phillips builds a narrative that emphasizes the ways views on land conservation influenced federal New Deal policies on land, water, and electricity. These policies sought to alleviate rural poverty to make agricultural America equitable with industrial America. The main idea compelling this argument was that policymakers, many still entrenched in a Jeffersonian agrarian ideology, believed that overall economic prosperity depended on the economic and social uplift of America’s agricultural backbone. New Deal conservation, then, was based on the “assumption that the sustainable and equitable use of these rural resources would help agricultural America ‘catch up’” with urban industry to the extent that “national administrators linked conservation with agricultural programs, and considered environmental planning vital to the nation’s economic renewal and long-term viability” (3).

Under the federal leadership of Franklin Roosevelt and others, including scientists, politicians, and economists, from the various New Deal organizations and Department of the Interior, these individuals created a new form of conservation ideology to meet the unique needs of 1930s America. Combined from the legacy of the conservationists and preservationists, the New Deal New Conservationists “concluded that land and water resources should therefore be protected and developed not just for efficiency’s sake but to raise the living standards of the people living nearby” (9) and that the federal government was obligated to enact policies toward that dual aim. Ultimately, despite revolutionary land policies, policymakers never challenged the pre-New Deal class and race discrepancies thereby further perpetuating those problems to the benefit of upper-class landowners and farmers (198). Rather than alleviating poverty and keeping the farm family structure alive in America by focusing on cheap electrification, education about responsible and sustainable land use, and dam programs, New Deal policies “put more emphasis on encouraging agricultural out-migration than on sustaining smaller farms, maintaining rural populations, or requiring soil conservation districts to implement measures that might limit farm incomes” (237).

Phillips ends her analysis with an insightful epilogue that carries forth her argument not only into the decades following the New Deal, but also another realm of historical scholarship: Cold War foreign policy. She argues that the New Conservationist mindset of using federal land reform policies to end rural poverty was an integral part of the overriding Cold War foreign policy. Not accounting for cultural or social differences, policymakers assumed that “because most of the Third World remained agricultural in character…the Cold War battle would be waged for the ‘hearts and minds’ of rural people in particular and that American practices [and New Deal supposed successes] should serve as a model” (245). Through this model, Americans would help Third World nations fight both natural resources and colonial exploitation by easing them into the world economic system. Further, just as in New Deal ideology, by strengthening the agricultural base of these nations, the U.S. would enable them to have the strength to help contain the Soviet Union.

Commentary

Amy Lechner, Fall 2007

Phillips’ introduction is solid and fully encompasses the scope of the argument. One of the best introductions this reviewer has seen, it alone makes the book worth reading. However, given the structure of the book, an introduction of this nature is necessary. The rest of This Land, This Nation is heavy with details, making it a worthwhile read for someone already familiar with New Deal land policies. Rather than providing an introduction to these policies and the decision-makers behind them, This Land, This Nation provides a new perspective on these land policies as related to the New Conservation movement that sought to improve socioeconomic conditions through environmental reform. The many acts and programs that are referred to by their similar-sounding acronyms, and the policy makers who devised them (some of whom Phillips decided to call by their initials), begin to blend into one another. As a result, a reader not familiar with the New Deal names and projects will likely have to read This Land, This Nation more than once to appreciate the level of research and analysis Phillips uses so confidently.

Her attention to detail allows Phillips to employ a very interesting use of biography to describe the ways local constituents and state governments directed and used reforms to advance a state agenda and an individual’s political aspirations. Phillips uses the example of Lyndon Johnson’s rise to political prominence as directly affected, and in many ways caused, by swaying Washington to view central Texas as a valid proving ground for new policy initiatives. This case not only allows Phillips to expose Johnson as “The Best New Dealer from Texas,” but to show the interplay between federal and state officials and how federal policy affected local populations in tangible and measurable ways. Or as Sarah Phillips argues, that “even though New Deal conservation never became a movement from below, it required the active and committed involvement of local officials” (151).

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