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Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC)

CIVILIAN CONSERVATION CORPS (CCC)

The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was created in March 1933 during the first frantic "hundred days" of the New Deal. It was the first of a number of agencies created to cope with one of the most desperate and poignant of the social problems caused by the Depression—massive unemployment and economic deprivation amongst the nation's youth. It is impossible to get accurate figures on the extent of youth joblessness at the nadir of the Depression, but the best estimate would be that at least 50 percent of young people between fifteen and twenty-four years of age who were in the labor market were unemployed. Of these, at least 250,000 were simply drifting about the country; the writer Thomas Minehan labeled them the "boy and girl tramps of America." Millions more were mired in hopeless poverty and apathy, without the means even to complete their education. Franklin D. Roosevelt had built his election campaign in 1932 around his faith in the future. Clearly he had to do something quickly to alleviate the deprivation and the scarring of the generation who would inherit the future.

There was also an urgent need to confront a scar of a different kind-the havoc that generations of waste and exploitation had wreaked on the American landscape. Large-scale forest destruction and the resultant soil and wind erosion had created a potential environmental catastrophe. Roosevelt had a life-long interest in conservation. More than most he understood the urgency of repairing the ravaged environment, and he was determined to use his office to do so. Thus the CCC was in one sense a catalyst by which two squandered resources, young men and the land, were brought together in an attempt to save both.

The idea of putting young men to work in the woods was not new. The philosopher William James had long been an enthusiastic advocate of such a program, and various European governments had established conservation camps for their unemployed. Yet, of all the New Deal agencies, the CCC bore the new president's personal stamp, expressing both his conviction in the superior qualities of rural life and his concern for halting the destruction of America's natural environment. Roosevelt had outlined his plans during the campaign, and once inaugurated he moved quickly to act on them. The enabling legislation quickly passed through Congress, and on March 31 became law: The CCC was born.

The new agency's administrative structure was extremely simple. The need for speed was paramount, hence the decision to work through existing federal departments rather than set up a completely new structure. The CCC would be open to young men between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five who were already on the relief rolls. They would be enrolled in camps or companies of two hundred men each, put to work on conservation tasks, and paid $30 monthly, $25 of which went straight home to their families. The men were to be initially enrolled for six months, but enrollment could be renewed for up to two years. The Department of Labor had the responsibility of selecting the enrollees, and the War Department transported them to the camps, which it administered, while the departments of Agriculture and the Interior supervised the actual work projects. Coordinating the whole endeavor was a director and a small central office staff. Roosevelt's choice as director was Robert Fechner, a conservative southern-born labor leader, who was appointed, in part, to allay American Federation of Labor (AFL) disquiet at CCC wage scales. Fechner was hardly a typical New Dealer, but he ran the CCC efficiently until his death in 1939. He was succeeded by his deputy James J. McIntee, also of the AFL.

THE CCC BEGINS

Mobilization began quickly, and given the scale of the enterprise, it proceeded with surprising smoothness. By July 1 nearly 300,000 young men were already at work in more than 1,300 CCC camps. Moreover, those eligible for enrollment had already been extended. On April 14 it was decided to enroll fourteen thousand native Americans of all ages, and a month later the president directed that 250,000 World War I veterans should also be enrolled, again regardless of age. Many of the veterans had marched in 1932 with the Bonus Army, which President Herbert Hoover had ordered dispersed at gunpoint; now a new president gave them a chance to work in the woods instead. The contrast was not lost. Finally, the CCC enrolled twenty-five thousand local woodsmen to help with the projects.

Once the CCC had been mobilized, Fechner and his staff began to think about possible policy developments. An early decision was to add an education program under the general direction of the commissioner for education, George F. Zook. A director of CCC education was appointed in December 1933 and given the responsibility of developing a suitable education program for the camps. The program was initially challenging, and the War Department opposed it, yet a prime measure of its success was that within three years thirty-five thousand enrollees had learned to read and write, and one thousand high school diplomas had been awarded, as well as thirty-nine college degrees.

In January 1934, buoyed by both the CCC's initial success and the extremely favorable public reaction to it, the president decided to expand the program. Enrollment grew steadily, peaking in September 1935 with more than 500,000 enrollees in 2,514 camps. Numbers were slowly reduced thereafter, partly because a second youth agency, the National Youth Administration (NYA), had been created in 1935, but also because of Roosevelt's increasing desire to cut spending. The efforts to close camps in the interest of economy, however, were often thwarted by local politicians, who were anxious not to lose the $5,000 to $10,000 spent monthly by camps in the local market, and the attendant community goodwill that resulted.

The CCC was the most popular of all the New Deal agencies, enjoying wide bipartisan political support. The corps was supported by those directly connected to it—the communities where the camps were established and the enrollees and their families. But the CCC was also popular with millions of ordinary Americans who received no direct benefits from it, but liked its image; most Americans could easily recognize the value of the work performed, while the idea of young men working with their hands in the wilderness appealed to the romantic and nostalgic imagination of a nation whose president had recently announced the closing of its last frontier. Ironically, the only group dubious about the corps was the liberal left, usually the New Deal's most vocal supporters, whose members were disturbed by the military's dominant presence in the camps.

The CCC was extremely effective. Though associated in the public mind with reforestation, CCC enrollees were actually engaged in a myriad of tasks. They battled forest fires, developed camping grounds and park trails, improved grazing lands, fought soil erosion, protected wildlife (particularly in the nation's wetlands), constructed dams and irrigation ditches, and preserved and restored historical sites. Still, reforestation was the corps' most important task, and its contribution to the nation's environment was crucial, best measured by a single statistic. Of all the trees planted on public lands between 1789 and 1942, more than 75 percent were planted by the CCC.

The CCC conserved human beings along with the landscape. Its enrollees benefited physically from the hard work and healthy living, while also gaining a deeper perspective on their country. Many of them had traveled far from home to go to camp because many of the reforestation projects were located in western states. There they met and worked alongside people from many different ethnic or regional backgrounds.

White enrollees, however, were unlikely to find themselves living and working alongside black youths, and to some of those critical of the corps, this was its most serious shortcoming. The 1933 act that created the CCC contained a clause stating specifically that there should be no discrimination "on account of race, color or creed" in the selection of enrollees. Yet within a few weeks it was obvious that these provisions were being ignored, especially by southern selection agents. Black youths, despite the desperate nature of their poverty, were simply being passed over, and Department of Labor officials had to threaten to stop all selection in the South before local agents, reluctantly, began to comply. In addition, local white communities in many parts of the country were inclined to protest if a black camp was established nearby, in contrast to their enthusiastic welcoming of white corpsmen. This was a national rather than a regional response, although southern communities were generally less hostile to black camps than communities in other regions, especially the Rocky Mountain states. Eventually, Fechner and his staff evolved a policy covering black enrollment. There was to be strict segregation in the CCC; as far as possible, black men would not be sent out of their home states, black camps would not be forced on local communities, and blacks would be selected according to their ratio in the general population (one in ten) and not according to need. Fechner, a conservative southerner, had no intention of engaging in social engineering, and though most black enrollees clearly benefited from their time in the CCC, it never provided them with the opportunities available to white members. They were not allowed the latitude of movement accorded white enrollees, command in black camps was firmly retained in white hands, and unlike its sister agency, the NYA (also directed by a southerner, the liberal Aubrey Williams), Fechner made no attempt to move against prevailing racial attitudes. The CCC did not fail its black enrollees; it simply ignored their particular circumstances and needs.

THE LAST YEARS

In January 1937 Roosevelt, fulfilling a campaign promise and in accordance with his strong personal wish, recommended that the CCC become a permanent agency of government, and legislation to effect this was introduced in March. It was never passed, for though the ensuing debate showed that bipartisan support for the agency remained strong, Congress was reluctant to concede that it should become more than a relief measure. Moreover, after Roosevelt's court-packing bill poisoned the legislative atmosphere, legislators decided to hand the president a rebuff by refusing to make permanent his pet project. Congress eventually renewed the program for three more years.

Beginning in 1939, the CCC slowly lost its importance as the economy started its long-awaited revival. Enrollee and camp numbers were steadily reduced, particularly as the demand for munitions and war materials absorbed the remaining pockets of unemployment. Fechner's successor, James McIntee, did what he could to meld the corps' activities into the nation's defense needs, but the demand for the abolition of all government spending not directly relevant to the winning of the war became too strong to resist. In 1941, Congress created a Joint Committee on Non-Essential Federal Expenditures, charging it with recommending the elimination of all non-essential bodies. In December 1941 it recommended an end to the CCC. The president fought to save the corps, but to no avail. In June 1942 the Senate finally concurred with an earlier House resolution to deny further funding to the agency, and the CCC was abolished.

Although the CCC came to an end, it was certainly not forgotten. Both the California Conservation Corps, established in 1979, and the Wisconsin Conservation Corps, established in 1983, used the New Deal agency as their model, and for good reason. Despite its relatively high cost, the CCC added far more to the national wealth than the sum spent on it, not to mention the benefits to the health and morale of otherwise jobless young men. In its nine-year existence, nearly three million young men had passed through this essentially makeshift agency. Moreover, by the time of the CCC's abolition the United States was at war, and CCC members had received valuable experience in the military lifestyle, which the Army was able to build upon. More importantly, the members of the CCC made a genuine contribution to the heritage of every American in the billions of trees they planted or protected, the parks and recreation areas they developed, and the millions of acres they saved from soil erosion or flooding.

See Also: BOY AND GIRL TRAMPS OF AMERICA; CONSERVATION MOVEMENT; HUNDRED DAYS; NEW DEAL.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Cole, Olen, Jr. The African-American Experience in the Civilian Conservation Corps. 1999.

Harper, Charles P. The Administration of the Civilian Conservation Corps. 1939.

Holland, Kenneth, and Frank E. Hill. Youth in the CCC. 1942.

Salmond, John A. The Civilian Conservation Corps, 1933–1942: A New Deal Case Study. 1967.

John A. Salmond

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