Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


The New Deal's policies affecting the Great Plains may be subdivided into national programs and those aimed explicitly at the region. But the line is at times blurred. National programs had a differential impact depending upon local circumstances.

The absence of large urban centers or industrial concentrations meant that such New Deal initiatives as the National Industrial Recovery Act and the Wagner Labor Relations Act did not have the same importance in the Plains as in the Northeast or Great Lakes states. On the other hand, John Collier's Indian New Deal had an impact in the Plains matched only in the Southwest.

Depressed agriculture–intensified in the Plains by drought from 1930 on–made relief the region's most pressing want. Whether local and state governments in the Plains could have done more to relieve the distress of their citizens is an open question, given the rise in tax delinquencies. But the evidence indicates that lack of will was as much to blame as lack of resources. Responsibility for taking care of those requiring public assistance thus fell upon the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), headed by Harry Hopkins. Hopkins had to wage a continuing battle with local politicians to impose professionalized administration and gain the demanded matching spending. The major exception to the laggardness of the Plains states in social provision was old-age pensions, because of their relatively high proportion of elderly.

Of primary long-term importance for the Plains was the domestic allotment plan incorporated in the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) of 1933. The goal was to raise farm prices to the level of "parity" by inducing farmers through benefit payments to reduce acreage. After the Supreme Court held unconstitutional the processing tax that funded benefit payments, Congress in 1936 readopted the plan with a conservationist veneer. Farmers would be paid out of general revenues to grow soil-conserving crops instead of soilexhausting (and surplus) crops, such as wheat and cotton.

By the end of 1935 the AAA paid out slightly over $1.1 billion in benefit and rental payments, with approximately half going to the ten Plains states. North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Texas, and Oklahoma were the top five states in the percentage of farmer participation in the program. Prices simultaneously rose, though still remaining below the "parity" level. But higher prices were of limited benefit to those whose crops were ruined by the drought. Agricultural prosperity did not return to the Plains until after the return of higher rainfall levels in the summer of 1938 and the subsequent war in Europe.

Because of the drought, the FERA inaugurated in 1934 a special program through its new Division of Rural Rehabilitation to tide farmers over by loans for the purchase of seed, fertilizer, livestock, and equipment. The AAA's emergency cattle purchase program saved from total ruin the livestock raisers of the western Plains, whose herds faced decimation from blowing dust and lack of forage. And the ranching interests were largely successful in controlling Department of Interior policies under the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934. Farm Credit Administration refinancing of mortgages was a boon to a section where debt per farm was among the nation's highest. So was the rural electrification program pushed by the Rural Electrification Administration, given the region's poverty, sparse population, and distances.

The benefits to the Plains from the New Deal work relief programs were mixed. The region lacked the skilled labor and financial resources for matching funds required for the capital-intensive projects of the Public Works Administration. But the large tracts of federally owned land made the area a favored location for Civilian Conservation Corps camps, and the financial boost such camps provided caused communities to vie for their placement. As throughout the country, the Works Progress Administration (WPA)–though giving many communities otherwise unattainable new facilities–failed to provide jobs for all those needing work. And those not taken on by the WPA, or falling into the special categories covered by the Social Security Act, fared poorly when Washington turned back responsibility for general assistance to the states.

The dust storms that swept over the Plains from 1934 on were the catalyst for the formulation of a program to deal with what were regarded as its long-range problems. There was a consensus among New Deal planners that the crux of the difficulty was an exploitative agriculture ill adapted to the region's climate and soil. Their 1936 report, The Future of the Great Plains, called for a multipronged attack to prevent soil erosion and make the fullest possible use of available water. But its capstone was a proposal for a radical restructuring of land use–a shift from the commercial production of row crops to livestock pasturage. Undergirding this proposal was a call for a revolution in "Attitudes of Mind."

The response of Plains dwellers ranged from enthusiastic acceptance to hostility. Despite rhetorical bows to the noble yeoman myth, most Plains farmers were profit-maximizing capitalists. Accordingly, fullest exploitation of available water took highest priority–the more so because the public at large rather than the beneficiaries would bear the bulk of the cost of federal irrigation projects. Despite suspicion about the ambitions of Hugh Hammond Bennett's Soil Conservation Service under the Soil Conservation Act of 1935, the lure of higher outputs through government-subsidized innovations such as contour plowing and listing brought at least partial acceptance. There was, however, strong resistance to including provision for mandatory land-use regulations in the states that were authorizing acts to create soil conservation districts. Even in the states that did so, those provisions remained a dead letter.

More ambitious and/or radical proposals did not find much favor with Congress or–so far as can be ascertained–with Plains dwellers. President Franklin D. Roosevelt's pet erosion solution–building a hundred-mile-wide shelterbelt of trees from the Texas Panhandle to Canada–failed to win legislative backing. Although Roosevelt kept the project going until 1942 with relief funds, the results were a shadow of his vision. The Resettlement Administration and Farm Security Administration continued the fera rehabilitation loan program, but budget restraints limited what could be accomplished. The few experiments at a more collectivist-style agriculture sparked cries of a communist plot. Even the suggestion of any large-scale resettlement of population from the Plains raised angry protests from local spokesmen. Paradoxically, the New Deal's success in providing immediate relief undercut the likelihood of major behavioral and value changes.

Eight of the top fourteen states in per capita expenditures by major New Deal agencies from 1933 to 1939 were Plains states, but this largess brought no long-term political advantage. Roosevelt carried all the Plains states in 1932 and again in 1936, while Democrats were swept into office throughout the region. But many of those Democrats were Jeffersonian states' righters (such as Edwin C. Johnson in Colorado), demagogues (such as "Alfalfa Bill" Murray in Oklahoma), or political mountebanks (such as Charles W. Bryan in Nebraska). In Congress, Roosevelt's leading regional supporters were progressive Republicans such as George W. Norris of Nebraska and Bronson Cutting of New Mexico. No Plains state instituted a "little New Deal." Even in North Dakota–the most radically inclined state of the region–Nonpartisan League–backed Gov. William Langer offered more bombast than substance.

Plains lawmakers began swinging away from support for the Roosevelt administration with the 1937 Supreme Court–packing fight. The 1938 election showed a similar movement under way among the public. And in 1940 Roosevelt himself lost Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, and the Dakotas. Crucial in explaining this rightward shift appears to be the conflict between New Deal policies and Plains dwellers' rugged individualist self-image. Financial desperation led a majority to compromise temporarily what they saw as their principles—a compromise that was rationalized by the justification that people such as themselves were the backbone of the country and thus uniquely deserving of governmental solicitude. But extending that solicitude to the alien and suspect masses of the cities was another matter; nor was it required once the agricultural subsidy programs had become safely institutionalized.

Long-standing rural fears about the threat of centralized power were raised by Roosevelt's Court-packing and executive branch reorganization plans and were reinforced by the intrusion of federal bureaucrats into the daily lives of Plains men and women. The New Deal's growing exploitation of class warfare rhetoric threatened the myth of classlessness with which local elites had long buttressed their own positions. The final blow was Roosevelt's interventionist foreign policies. Plains isolationism had diverse roots–the feeling that American problems should be dealt with first, suspicions of an international bankers' conspiracy, ethnic loyalties and resentments–but the result was to solidify the reaction against the New Deal and its works.

See also AGRICULTURE: Agricultural Adjustment Administration; Farm Security Administration; Taylor Grazing Act.

John Braeman University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Lowitt, Richard. The New Deal and the West. 1984. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1993.

Saloutos, Theodore. The American Farmer and the New Deal. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1982.

Schuyler, Michael W. The Dread of Plenty: Agricultural Relief Activities in the Middle West, 1933–1939. Manhattan KS: Sunflower University Press, 1989.

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