A Grass Roots Experiment
A Review of David Lilienthal’s TVA: Democracy on the March
David Lilienthal was born on July 8, 1899. He served on the Wisconsin Public Service Commission and later moved on to become the Chairman of the Tennessee Valley Authority. He later chaired the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. After retiring, he created his own engineering consultant company Development and Resources Corporation.
BY NHAT TRUONG
The New Deal was a program to help the United States deal with the crippling effects of the Great Depression. Most programs like the Civilian Conservation Corps, Works Progress Administration, and National Youth Administration were designed to help a wide range of American citizens. The Tennessee Valley Authority was a special case: this program was designed for the sole purpose of aiding the people in the Tennessee Valley. Advancements from these programs, like fertilizer development, would later go on to help a wider range of people, but overall, the TVA was focused on a single region. Not only was the TVA a regional project, it was also a very decentralized. According to David Lilienthal’s book TVA: Democracy on the March, it focused on “democratic methods [which would] provide a way of simulating and releasing the individual resourcefulness and inventiveness.”1 This is a shift away from the heavy political oversight that usually accompanied a government program. The Tennessee Valley Authority placed a huge amount of trust on individuals to naturally do the right thing, even though many examples prove otherwise, like with the Mineral Management Service and British Petroleum. The directors felt that by decentralizing command and putting all control with the people of the valley, more work would get done because the people in charge would know what they were doing and there would be less waste.
The Tennessee Valley is similar to the other numerous valleys around the world—wastefully exploited and barren. With new technologies, science, and experiments, however, the people living in the valley revitalized the land. The Tennessee Valley Authority was an experiment in restoration and conservation that could be and was applied to numerous other valleys. The Tennessee River was also another focus of the TVA. The river would flood every year, destroying crops and leaving people homeless. A series of dams were built to control the river and prevent flooding. In addition, the dams controlled the flow of water and powered hydroelectric plants, supplying electricity to the entire valley at a low price. This allowed for “refrigerators and ranges in the kitchens… hay driers in barns, freezing lockers in the crossroads store.”2 Power provided by the TVA served to improve the lives of the people living there. In addition, the collective electric company that was set up sharply reduced electricity prices in the valley, which spurred other utility companies around the nation to cut their costs also, creating low prices for everyone in the United States. The Tennessee Valley Authority also led the way in many other areas. It was the first to use and develop fertilizer to help create more bountiful crops while preserving the environment. A new smelting process to produce aluminum was created to aid the war effort and then later used commercially. The Tennessee Valley was the testing ground for new technologies that would later be used throughout the nation.
One important issue that the Tennessee Valley Authority had to address was balancing the practical uses of the river with the sentiments of the people that live on the land. For example, “a cemetery has no economic or engineering importance. But to the families whose forebears were buried there, it is often a precious symbol.”3 The cemetery didn’t help the living community in any way but it must be there because the people are emotionally attached to it. The TVA also had to find a way to unify the people with the program and also unify its many parts. Each different specialty, from malaria control to power experts, had its own priority that sometimes conflicted with the priorities of other fields. Compromises had to be reached so that everyone’s goal would be achieved and all parties are left happy. The Tennessee Valley Authority focused on what was called grass roots democracy. This put the focus on the people living in the valley. The people living in the valley work together with experts of a field, like agricultural engineering, to develop methods and technologies that would be practical to the common people. With a big focus on people, the TVA was naturally receptive to unions. Workers were allowed to negotiate with the management for better wages and conditions at a time when labor unions were shunned. The Tennessee Valley also was a place where new skilled workers were trained and new management techniques were tested. Men working on the dams in the valley took their skills into the private sectors. The new idea of compromise between the management and workers was created in the Tennessee Valley and later used in commercial industries.
Experts in an industry possess technical expertise to get the job done. However, they didn’t know the needs of the people, which became the reason why people and experts needed to work together to achieve the best results. Because the best way to accomplish goals was for people and experts to work together at the ground level, the central government could not have an active role. Having centralized power meant that remote rulers made decisions that didn’t fit with the realities in the common America. However, there must be a central power to deal with any national problem. So there must be a balance between central and local government. The best way to achieve this is to have “decentralized administration of centralized authority.”4 the central power is the brain while the local governments, the ones most capable of administering to their citizen’s needs, are the arms in this apparatus. The Tennessee Valley Authority was a federal agency, but the “governmental agencies of the local communities and of the states of the Tennessee Valley have become the TVA’s active and responsible partners.”5 By heavily decentralizing the TVA, the problems of jurisdictions were circumscribed. Before, each agency was restricted from undertaking a project for fear of overreaching its legal boundaries. With decentralization, the TVA was able to take on projects that under other circumstances may have been delegated to the Army Corps of Engineers. By working with local governments, the TVA’s goal was to spark something in the community so that they could have continued on with the projects after the TVA was gone.
Politics have been a big part of any government agency. However, the TVA kept politics out by explicitly forbidding political consideration when appointing an officer or employee. This meant that no “TVA employee could be a candidate for office, or be active in any elections of any kind.”6 By placing the TVA outside of politics, it would not be weighed down by political bickering and the political blame-game. Untouched by politics and politicians needing to quantify success in numbers, the TVA did not create an overall plan. This was due to a plan that single-mindedly focuses on a goal with no regard to the well-being of the surroundings. Therefore, a plan would mean that the TVA had abandoned its central goal: helping the greater good. The TVA has been a model for countries around the world. The idea of benefitting everyone is universal in its acceptance. However, to achieve these goals, different countries and cultures must reconcile their differences and disputes to work together to better both societies. When developing a region, one must be careful that the elite rich do not seize the opportunity to exploit the situation. For a program like the TVA to function best, everyone must be involved in a democratic grass roots fashion.
Lilienthal emphasizes that the Tennessee Valley Authority was a decentralized program. He attributes the TVA’s success to the fact that it put emphasis on the individual peoples living in the valley rather than catering to a distant politician’s view of what should happen in the valley. By involving the people in the projects, the work was more focused on the people’s need and therefore more effective. There needed to be a lot of faith in the natural inclination of people to do what is right instead of exploiting the situation for their own advantage. The TVA believed that man was naturally good. This meant that large corporations were given nearly free reign in using the valley’s natural resources with only a little prompting of benefitting society. Lilienthal writes with personal experience in the TVA. He was the chairman of this agency and therefore had extensive knowledge of this program. However, such close attachment to the program meant that Lilienthal writes with “no tone of Olympian impartiality in this book.”7 Lilienthal was very closely associated with the program and he offers great insight into the program. However, his emotions sometimes cloud his judgment and he presents the TVA in a very positive manner. As with all writings and opinions, the time period in which this book was written has an effect on it. The source that this book is based upon, which is mostly the author’s personal experience, is a reliable source. The author, David Lilienthal, was the chairman of the Tennessee Valley Authority, so he was able to recount the true events and details. This book was written in 1944 and clearly shows the influence that Consensus historiography had on it. Lilienthal focused on how the TVA served the entire valley and how these improvements later help the entire nation. This fits with the “Consensus” historiography idea that the common American ideas were more important than our conflicts. Lilienthal’s opinion of the TVA may have been more negative had he written this book at a later time. Had Lilienthal written in present times, he would be influenced by the “Neo-conservative” historiography. This modern school of historiography stresses more government control to achieve more conservative goals. This would be the opposite of the TVA’s more liberal decentralized approach. However, his personal feelings toward the project biased his opinion to be more positive. He was very closely connected to the TVA and as a result, his opinion would always be positive.
Lilienthal’s book TVA: Democracy on the March received many positive reviews. To Lieutenant Harlan Trott, the book is evidence of “our willingness to plan on a national scale in the spirit of ‘Come, let us reason together.’”8 This spirit is what Trott attributes to the success of the Tennessee Valley Authority. Trott believes that the TVA shows America is headed to a better future where there is a “mature willingness to assume a collective sense of responsibly towards the conservation of our natural weath.”9 To Trott, the future for America is bright because of America’s maturity and willingness to work for the greater good and the TVA embodies this virtue. Katherine Jocher, of the University of North Carolina, also offers positive reviews of Lilienthal’s book. Jocher states that the TVA is the most famous example of a democratic social experiment. The TVA is a regional project that is run by the people in the region. However, any benefits from this region must be applied to all regions of the nation or there would be no popular support for such a project. Jocher states that “as chairmen of the TVA, Lilienthal writes… with knowledge and authorirty.”10 Because he oversaw the TVA, Lilienthal offered unique insight into the workings of this program. However, this book was written in “non-technical language intended for the laymen as well as for the expert and student of social planning.”11 Even though Lilienthal was head of the TVA, his book is written in understandable language. This helps the average reader understand the TVA’s goals, creating support for the program. TVA: Democracy on the March is a very well-written book. With great insight into the workings and goals of the TVA, this book presents the TVA in more details than a textbook could. However, these details are in technical terms and therefore hard to understand to the uneducated reader.
The 1930s was a time of great change in America. David Lilienthal sees the 1930s, and especially the Tennessee Valley Authority, as a break from previous ideas and traditions. With the beginnings of the Great Depression, the government started taking a more active role in regulating businesses and helping the poor. This was the true beginning of big government. However, the TVA was an example of how a decentralized, small government could be successful. The Tennessee Valley differed from other projects that were under federal control at that time because it stated that “the people must participate actively in… development.”12 Before the Great Depression, the government did not interfere in business nor did it try to help the poor. However, with the onset of the stock market crash, Dust Bowl, and Great Depression, the government started to create welfare programs and regulate businesses. The Tennessee Valley Authority put an emphasis on less government. Therefore, the TVA wasn’t necessarily a change to previously held ideas; rather, it was different from contemporary ideas.
The 1920s came to be known as an era of free spending and little government oversight. This freewheeling decade ended in economic collapse. With that came government regulation to prevent another disaster from occurring again. Thus, the 1930s was different than any previous times. It was a watershed because of the increase of government control. However, the TVA was different from all that. This agency put a focus on a smaller government with more emphasis on the states. Instead of being different from previously held practices and traditions, it conformed to them. However, it was an anomaly to what was occurring at that time. The situation in the 1930s was similar to the problems we face today. To most people, the economic crisis seemed to have no end. To end the madness, the government stepped in to help the people. Just like back then, the government today had to stepped in and help by bailing out the “too big to fail” companies. Back then, the government had a people bailout, not a company bailout.
This period was a one of great change. Many of these changes are still apparent today. Had the United States progressed with the same attitude it had in the 1920s, then the United States would be under largely corporate control with no government insight. The impact of this era is still felt today. David Lilienthal’s book TVA: Democracy on the March portrays the change that was occurring in the 1930s. More specifically, he focuses on the Tennessee Valley region. There, he put our basic ideals and values of freedom and citizen participation in government to the test. The result of the Tennessee Valley Authority experiment was a successful one where all citizens participated in government with great results to show for this endeavor. That garnered a sense of unity and cohesiveness that held the nation together through tough times. This sense of unity held America through the Great Depression and World War II that followed.
1: Lilienthal, David. TVA: Democracy on the March. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, Incorporated, 1944. 78.
Nhat Truong is a junior in AP US History. He likes to sleep and do nothing. His hobbies are doing nothing and sleeping. If he isn’t sleeping, then he is probably doing nothing. He wants to thank the guys that sat next to him for a great year.
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