West, Great Depression in the American

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Commentators in the region claimed that the Depression came late to the West, the area extending from North Dakota to Texas, and west to the Pacific Coast. But the western economy, heavily dependent on agriculture and the production of a variety of natural resources, probably deteriorated as rapidly as the rest of the nation. By the end of 1930, the Depression was at hand. Agriculture had been in the doldrums throughout the 1920s, and the western Plains was suffering from a Dust Bowl preview. Oil prices collapsed as the East Texas field came into production. In 1930 Oregon's lumber production was off 60 percent from 1929, western mining had dropped by half, and construction had declined significantly in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Portland. By the winter of 1932 to 1933, urban unemployment in the West was between 30 and 40 percent. Hoovervilles sprouted in most cities; homeless families lived in caves along the Canadian River in Oklahoma City, and the squalor of the Hispanic barrio in Phoenix was described as appalling. Farmers were pushed into tenancy (60 percent of farmers in Oklahoma and 45 percent in North Dakota were tenants by the end of the 1930s), or they left the land for the city or better opportunities farther west.


In their first responses to the Depression, westerners opted for cooperative individualism over rugged individualism, the ideal generally thought typical of the western outlook. Cooperative individualism, a tenet the West shared with President Herbert Hoover and much of the rest of the nation in the early 1930s, links the ideal of self-reliance with an assumption that those better off will offer charitable assistance to the truly needy. In the first years of the Depression, private institutions, especially the Community Chest, the Red Cross, and church-related groups, raised record amounts to meet the needs. In Los Angeles, Seattle, and Denver, self-help groups bartered work for food and other needs. Local governments responded reluctantly, first creating an employment committee to ponder the situation, then, after forcing contributions from municipal employees, making limited relief appropriations. Officials, especially in Denver and Oklahoma City, expressed concern that generous relief would only attract transients. Starting as early as spring 1931 in San Francisco and Los Angeles, voters in most large western cities endorsed bond issues to aid the unemployed. Once the cities and counties began dispensing relief they often blurred the lines between private and public responsibilities, funneling public relief funds through charitable agencies. Seattle made its self-help organization, the Unemployed Citizens' League, the basis for city-administered relief, with politically tumultuous results.

By the end of the Hoover years, local efforts had collapsed. Municipal treasuries were depleted and tax relief organizations pressured officials to reduce spending. In the countryside, rabbit hunts provided for the needy in several western states; Texas farmers burned corn for heat; and throughout the Plains farm women tended larger gardens, raised more chicken and egg money, cooked Sunday dinners for others, and made their own soap to get by. Most states did accelerate public works projects to absorb a small portion of the jobless, though governors Roland Hartley of Washington and Edwin Johnson of Colorado perceived virtually no state responsibility for the needy. Minorities were either short-changed on relief (Mexicans in Los Angeles), or tended to their own without outside help (the Friendly House in the Phoenix barrio and Asians all along the Pacific Coast).

Some found self-help and charity insufficient from the beginning. The Farm Holiday movement, active in the Plains states, Colorado, and New Mexico, demonstrated for suspension of foreclosures and tax relief. Governors William Langer of North Dakota and William Murray of Oklahoma declared foreclosure moratoriums. Marches of the unemployed occurred in the larger cities, but violence was rare. The Bonus Expeditionary Force that went to Washington in 1932 seeking early payment of a bonus for veterans of World War I originated in Portland, and one of the largest contingents came from Los Angeles. By the end of 1932 cooperative individualism had collapsed. Property owners clamored for tax relief even as the need for unemployment relief funds was growing. Westerners welcomed the chance to vote for a New Deal. Every western state switched from Republican in 1928 to Democratic in the 1932 presidential election.


The Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), as it provided direct relief (stipends without work in return), revived the severely underfunded relief effort, but stimulated controversy. Under FERA guidelines, states were to provide three dollars in relief for every federal dollar, but no western state came close to doing so; for example, FERA provided 87 percent of relief in Nebraska and 85 percent in Colorado. Ultimately, FERA director Harry Hopkins relented; if a state made a good-faith effort to match federal contributions, funding continued. Idaho, Wyoming, and Utah passed sales taxes; Colorado passed a gasoline excise tax; and other states similarly improvised or scrounged to find at least token matching funds. Still, problems arose. In several states, FERA money seemed to be dispensed as patronage. Hopkins deprived the governors of North Dakota, Oklahoma, and Colorado of their control of relief due to non-cooperation with the agency. The Mormon Church in Utah was not comfortable with federal relief, although it did not prohibit its members from taking aid. Eventually, the church created a Church Security Program, in part to help its members avoid the dole.

The Franklin D. Roosevelt administration exited the direct relief business in 1935 by creating the Works Progress Administration (WPA). This too proved both a boon and a problem. The WPA became the largest employer in Nevada and funded millions of dollars of work in other states, but the agency was tinged by patronage accusations in New Mexico. In California, Arizona, and Colorado, growers criticized the WPA for not ousting Hispanic migrant laborers from the program so they would work in the fields at lower pay.

The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) had a doubly beneficial impact on the West. Not only did it put the region's unemployed young men to work, it also brought thousands of new workers to the West, where many CCC projects were based. CCC workers planted trees on the Plains, helped construct Boulder Dam (Hoover Dam), and did forestry work throughout the Rockies and Cascades.

Hard-pressed cities gladly turned over relief responsibilities to these agencies and rejoiced at federally funded civic improvements: a bridge over the Missouri River in Omaha, dredging of the ship channel in Houston, a three-way underpass in downtown Dallas, as well as extensive road paving and sewer building throughout the major cities. Buoyed by the rising price of oil and the developing defense industry, the largest western cities by 1939 had emerged from Depression gloom and had devolved the major responsibility for their citizens' social welfare onto the federal government.

New Deal agencies that targeted farmers played crucial roles in the West. The Rural Electrification Administration began hooking up farms, the Farm Credit Administration refinanced mortgages, and the Bankhead-Jones Act of 1937 provided loans to tenant farmers trying to purchase land.

Minorities in the West were not forgotten, but they were not served especially well; still, many who obtained relief saw their standard of living rise. African Americans comprised less than 5 percent of the population in the West and tended to be segregated and ignored, but they were not barred from relief roles. The Tydings-McDuffie Act of 1934 classified Filipinos as aliens, making it difficult for them to obtain government aid. Both Filipinos and Mexican citizens in the United States were invited, and often compelled, to leave. Between 30 percent and 40 percent of the Mexican population was repatriated.

Few state officials shared the Roosevelt administration's penchant for planning or urgency for providing relief. Even "Little New Deals" under governors Culbert Olson in California and Ernest Marland in Oklahoma were less than dynamic. More typical were budget balancers like Alfred Landon in Kansas and Edwin Johnson in Colorado. Even though few states cooperated with Roosevelt, per capita federal expenditures were highest in the West. This was due, in part, to the region's small population, but it was also because the New Deal provided generous relief and recovery and funded several large region-transforming projects. The average expenditure for every citizen in the West was $306, compared to $224 in the Midwest, $196 in the Northeast, and $189 in the Southeast. The top fourteen states in per capita expenditure during the New Deal were western states.


The New Deal probably made its greatest impact on the West in the area of agriculture. Farming, the backbone of the region's economy, was in desperate shape during the 1930s. Plummeting farm prices were to blame. Moreover, the Plains were parched by drought. From 1929 to 1939 the area suffered nine years of below-average rainfall, and by mid-decade it was afflicted with debilitating dust storms that lifted tons of dirt from the land. Heat, aridity, grasshopper plagues, and poor farming methods produced misery for farmers. In some counties as much as 80 percent of the population was on relief. The Roosevelt administration formed the Great Plains Drought Area Committee in 1936 to study the problem. Many of the Committee's recommendations were enacted: Some submarginal land was taken out of production, the Soil Conservation Service taught proper techniques, and various agencies worked at conserving or developing water supplies. Another of the more imaginative responses was the shelterbelt program, a pet idea of the president. The Forest Service, with WPA assistance, planted thousands of strips of trees in a zone stretching from Bismarck, North Dakota, to Amarillo, Texas, to moderate wind velocity on the farms they protected.

The two Agricultural Adjustment Administrations (AAA) took land out of production throughout the West. Because the drought was widespread, few of these plots would have been highly productive, but independent-minded western farmers initially balked at the idea of restrictions. Nonetheless, needing the money, they cooperated with the government. The New Deal aided ranchers as well. Both the AAA and the Federal Surplus Relief Corporation purchased livestock from farmers throughout the West. The Drought Relief Service subsidized farmers in almost every Dust Bowl county by buying cattle that would have died anyway.

Perhaps the closest the West came to embracing public planning for agriculture was the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934, which effectively ended the Homestead Act by virtually closing the public domain to entry and reclassifying it as grazing land available on a fee basis. Though cattlemen from Wyoming and other grazing states opposed it, they soon acknowledged the utility of land management and low fees.


Perhaps the best known story of the Depression-era West is the saga of internal migration. Beginning in the mid-1930s and peaking in 1937 and 1938, hundreds of thousands of Plains residents emigrated to California. The majority came from Oklahoma, Texas, and Arkansas, but they were known collectively as Okies. Others moved from the northern Plains to Oregon and Washington. Most were fleeing unworkable land both within and around the Dust Bowl of the western Great Plains. The most noticeable contingents became itinerant field workers, replacing Filipinos and Mexicans, in part because the Okies were more resistant to unionization. Nonetheless, the Associated Farmers, a powerful California growers' group, and the United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing, and Allied Workers of America, a Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) union, clashed often in the late 1930s.

California welcomed the Okies as cheap labor, but rejected them as residents. Los Angeles briefly set up a "Bum Blockade" in 1936, and the state denied relief money to newly arrived migrants. Most of the migrants lived in squalor in California and Arizona, although the Resettlement Administration and its successor, the Farm Security Administration, created a few model camps. These two administrations also purchased submarginal lands from families, and relocated them on settlements throughout the western states, including Alaska. The program was only partially successful because most of the resettlement land was itself of inferior quality.

If Depression-era western residents contributed anything exceptional to the national culture it was stimulated by the Okies' experience. John Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath (1939), Dorothea Lange's photographs, Woody Guthrie's ballads, and Carey McWilliams's Factories in the Fields (1939) all indicted California agriculture and vividly portrayed the migrants' travails.


Some members of the Department of Agriculture, including Rexford Tugwell, had sought thorough planning coupled with federal management for land use in the West, but the policies actually formulated by Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace were mainly responses to critical conditions. The Department of Interior, under Harold Ickes, came closer to creating a major decision-making role for the federal government in the West. Not only in grazing, but in water policy and Indian affairs, Ickes's Department of Interior, sometimes successfully and other times problematically, drew up grand and comprehensive plans for often reluctant westerners.

The Bureau of Reclamation and the Public Works Administration (PWA) designed or assisted on a number of critical water projects during and immediately after the Depression that transformed several sections of the region. The projects, which created jobs in the short run, provided flood control, irrigation to reclaim arid lands, recreational sites, and, above all, hydroelectric power for the West Coast and intermountain regions. As the Bureau of Reclamation and the PWA completed the Boulder Dam project, actually authorized in 1928, Ickes and his staff realized the myriad effects of such an enormous project. Out of this understanding came Parker Dam in California to provide electricity to Los Angeles and the All-American Canal to irrigate the Imperial and Coachella valleys. On the Columbia River, the Bonneville Dam enhanced navigation and the 450-foot-high Grand Coulee Dam furnished irrigation for the dry eastern half of Washington. Above all, the dams created megawatts of public hydroelectric power (administered by a federal agency, the Bonneville Power Administration) that contributed to the defense industry, as well as to post-World War II diversification in the Northwest. In Montana the multipurpose earthen Fort Peck Dam regulated the flow of the Missouri River. At the end of the Depression era, the ambitious Colorado-Big Thompson project got underway in Colorado. And despite real questions about whether the project was more for the benefit of small farmers (which the Bureau of Reclamation served) or agribusinesses, the Central Valley Project in California, designed to supply more water to the San Joaquin Valley, got under way.


The Department of Interior's ideal of central planning surely affected Native Americans, who benefited from a variety of New Deal programs, especially the Indian Emergency Conservation Works Program—a separate CCC that allowed Native Americans to stay near their homes. The keystone to Indian policy was the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 (Wheeler-Howard Act). Commissioner of Indian Affairs John Collier believed Indian communalism could be an antidote for an exceedingly individualistic American society. In tune with this ideal, the act repealed allotment in severalty, restored surplus lands to the tribes, and encouraged purchase of already allotted lands to be added to tribal lands. Tribal bodies could be created and tribal corporations formed to obtain federal loans.

Despite the fact that this legislation restored tribal autonomy, not all Indian groups approved. Full-blooded Native Americans tended to oppose the measure, fearing they would lose their allotments. Others had accepted assimilation and saw no reason for change. Many felt the commissioner and his staff were trying to manipulate them, especially after local agents seemed to control the writing of the tribal constitutions. Ultimately, ninety-three tribes voted for incorporation, but, significantly, the Navajos declined, perhaps upset by an overly aggressive Indian Bureau livestock purchasing program. It appears the Indian Reorganization Act was a partial success, mainly limited by government planners too zealous in instructing Native Americans on how to preserve their own heritage.


The New Deal record was modest in the area of natural resources. Wallace and Ickes vied for control of the forests. Futilely dreaming of transforming the Department of Interior into the Department of Conservation, Secretary Ickes sought to capture the Department of Agriculture's Forest Service by showing Interior's skill in multiple use planning and sustained yield forestry in the O and C Lands, an expanse of forest in western Oregon revested by the Oregon and California Railroad in 1916 and placed under Interior's control. Though he ultimately failed to expand his bureaucratic turf, Ickes was moderately successful expanding the forestland under his control through the Grazing Service and an enlargement of Olympic National Park in Washington.

The oil industry worked through much of the decade to prop up prices in the face of a petroleum glut. Ickes was again at the center of activity, advocating comprehensive federal regulation rather than the proration of production sought by the oil industry. After the Supreme Court abolished the National Recovery Administration and its regulations on production, several oil producing states negotiated the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact in 1935. This, along with the Connally Act to eliminate the transport of hot oil (oil produced in excess of the proration limits on each oil field), brought stability, and the oil industry became substantially self-regulating. The Silver Purchase Act of 1934, compelling the federal government to buy quantities of silver for possible monetization, was the most significant New Deal contribution to the mining industry. Though Roosevelt and, especially, Ickes saw the West as a land of resources to be carefully looked after and preserved, political realities in the end transformed this preservationist notion into, at best, more careful stewardship to produce later economic advantage for westerners.


Politics in the West largely followed national trends. Roosevelt swept the West in 1932 and 1936, then lost five states in 1940 (the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, and Colorado). Many Democrats whom Roosevelt had helped sweep into office were loyal to him. Other Democrats proved to be prickly opponents. Governors Johnson of Colorado, Murray of Oklahoma, and Charles Martin of Oregon were particularly hostile. Senator Burton K. Wheeler of Montana, a one-time Roosevelt supporter, broke with the president over the issue of adding justices to the Supreme Court. Part of the reason for intraparty opposition was that Democrats in the West were often conservative. Republicans, particularly those infused with a Progressive tradition, were more liberal. Bronson Cutting of New Mexico, Edward Costigan of Colorado, and Nebraska's George Norris, all Republicans, were New Deal supporters.

The Washington and Oregon Commonwealth associations and North Dakota's Non-Partisan League generally shunned party affiliation, but seemed to find common cause with more progressive New Deal policies. With such a topsy-turvy political situation, it is no surprise that the Roosevelt coalition did not hold up well in the West, even though Roosevelt's programs found philosophical support among some opinion makers in the region. As the need for federal assistance lessened, traditional independent-mindedness reasserted itself, and westerners went back to voting for candidates rather than parties and to voting Republican more often.

Though not numerous, there were some who sought to go beyond the New Deal. In 1934, socialist Upton Sinclair waged a successful primary campaign to win the Democratic nomination for governor of California, but he lost the race to a conservative Republican when leading Democrats, including Roosevelt, sat out his End Poverty in California (EPIC) campaign. Dr. Francis Townsend's old age pension plan started in Long Beach, California. Even before organized labor benefited from the Wagner Act, union leader Harry Bridges organized one of the most significant Depression-era strikes among Pacific Coast dockworkers. Marked by violence, the action evolved into a four-day general strike in San Francisco in 1934. In the end, Bridges's International Longshoremen's Association gained recognition.


The Great Depression in the West may have sapped cooperative individualism in the early years, but by World War II it was clear that some variety of individualism was active in the region. Westerners accepted the federal government as an agent of relief, whether it was outright relief, work relief, subsidies for farmers, or livestock purchases. But when New Dealers sought to plan or merely guide the western economy, the federal government was still seen as interfering. Federal planning affected the West in varying degrees: Some marginal land was taken out of production; agronomy methods improved; grazing on federal land was fairly closely controlled; land allotments for Native Americans were halted; and forests were managed, perhaps better than before. But individual westerners, especially the more powerful ones, still had a good deal of autonomy in agriculture, lumber, oil, and mining. The greatest impact of central planning in the West occurred in water management, where only the federal government could afford to undertake the huge projects that changed the western half of the region. The hydroelectricity these projects produced prepared the West for diversification during the war years and beyond. Politically, the story was the same. Westerners demonstrated their gratefulness to President Roosevelt for his assistance, but they clung to their independent, mainly Republican, ways. The Depression in the West produced significant change, but could not be accurately described as a watershed.



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