The Civilian Conservation Corps, 1933-1942:
A New Deal Case Study

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Chapter 3
The Policies of Expansion, 1933-1937

After the hectic activity of May and June, 1933, it is hardly surprising that the succeeding six-month period should be primarily one of consolidation, of building on the framework constructed in the first weeks of the CCC's life. Nevertheless, several policy decisions were made in the latter half of 1933 which were of great significance to the Corps' existence. One of the first of these concerned the establishment of "side camps," small subcamps set apart from the main site. Without such camps, much work, peripheral to the main project but important nevertheless, could not have been undertaken because of the distances involved. The responsibility for administering such camps was a source of dissension between the Army and the work services. The technical agencies wanted to have them placed under their control and, though both the Army and Fechner bitterly opposed the decision, the President acceded to this demand. On July 19 he approved the establishment of side camps, provided that not more than 10 per cent of the company strength was inducted into them, and he freed them from military control. [1] Such small camps were widely used, particularly in forests and state parks, and accomplished much useful work.

Another important decision was taken on August 17, 1933, when Fechner authorized the use of CCC units to fight fires in Craig, Montana, thus beginning a long chronicle of CCC assistance in local and national emergencies. Public authorities and private citizens came to look to the CCC for immediate assistance when disaster struck, and it did not let them down. Other disasters at which the CCC rendered valuable aid were the Winooski, Vermont, and Walkill, New York, floods in 1937, the blizzards of 1936-1937 in Wyoming, Utah, and Nevada, the Florida tornado of 1933, and the New England hurricane in 1938. Such work, besides its immediate humanitarian value, was of tremendous assistance in firmly establishing a favorable public impression of the CCC. [2]

On August 15, 1933, the President made the first of many tours of inspection when he visited five CCC camps in the Blue Ridge Mountain—Skyline Drive area of Virginia. He received a tremendous reception, and was entirely in his element, laughing and joking with those accompanying him as he dined "on steak, mashed potatoes, green beans and salad, iced tea, and a so-called apple pie." [3] With typical political acumen, Roosevelt had included in his touring party the erstwhile chief critic of the Corps, the president of the AF of L, William Green. Already partially mollified by Fechner's appointment, Green counted the excursion "one of the most pleasing experiences" of his life and admitted that because of the President's deep interest in the Corps he "could not help but view the whole project in a most sympathetic way." [4] Though organized labor and the CCC authorities occasionally had their differences, principally over wage rates for contract work, the unions were never again unreservedly hostile to the whole operation.

The visit to the camps confirmed for the President that the CCC was a success. It came as no surprise, therefore, when on August 18 he extended the Corps at full strength for another six months. This announcement was followed a week later by the decision to permit re-enrolment for a second six-month term, an act which caused great jubilation in the camps. [5] The most important policy decision taken in 1933, however, was to develop an education program. On November 22 the President approved a plan for a nationwide, Washington-directed, CCC education service, supplanting the scheme then existing which left the introduction of educational work entirely to the discretion of the camp commander. Thus began a new phase of CCC expansion. [6]

The credit for first stimulating interest in the possibilities of using the CCC for educational purposes probably belonged to the director of selection, W. Frank Persons. As early as May 18, 1933, he had submitted an ambitious plan for a centralized education scheme to Fechner, which broadly suggested the appointment of an educational counselor to each camp and which presupposed close co-operation with university extension services. [7] Persons' plan was circulated widely and was well received by a cross-section of people and professions, including university teachers and trade-union officials. [8] Fechner was not similarly impressed, however, and Persons was forced to report rather ruefully on June 6 that his plan stood "disapproved by the Director of Emergency Conservation Work." [9] Fechner was solidly supported by the Army, whose fear of radical and leftist infiltration of the camps colored its whole attitude to educational work. [10]

Still the pressure was kept up. Fechner was deluged by requests from state selecting agencies for a comprehensive education program, [11] and the new federal commissioner of education, George F. Zook, who was enthusiastic about the educational potential of the Corps, occasionally discussed the question with the President. [12] Roosevelt showed enough interest in the various schemes to keep Colonel Major in a state of "suspended agitation." On August 11, reacting to a rumor that the President had authorized the employment of 10,000 jobless teachers in the camps, the Colonel thundered:

I have constantly fought the attempts of long-haired men and short-haired women to get in our camps . . . we are going to be hounded to death by all sorts of educators. Instead of teaching the boys how to do an honest day's work we are going to be forced to accede to the wishes of the long-haired men and short-haired women and spend most of the time on some kind of an educational course. [13]

Major claimed that the youths could not possibly be induced to attend classes after a hard day's work, leaving the teachers with so little to do that he advocated their employment as clerks as well. The Army, in short, stood completely opposed to a centralized educational program for the Corps.

Nevertheless, the idea slowly gained support in Washington, even Fechner himself beginning to recognize the need for a more comprehensive plan, especially as pressure from the field increased. On October 16, 1933, the Association of State Foresters at its annual meeting passed a resolution urging that "this educational opportunity should not be neglected" and supported the idea that planned instruction be given in the camps. [14] University teachers also contributed suggestions, [15] and the President even added a few ideas of his own. He wrote on November 8 that he was "very anxious to try out in one or two places the idea of giving the men in the CCC camps some kind of formal instruction in forestry and the natural history of trees. I am going to ask them to do this in the Virginia camps this winter." [16]

The first really positive move toward the establishment of an educational program in the camps was made on October 25 when Howe sought from Persons "a definite and specific plan for education in the CCC." [17] Zook, too, was consulted, and between them they evolved a comprehensive program which was presented to Fechner on November 2. The plan advocated a director of CCC education working under Fechner, with an office staff and an advisory committee, an education co-ordinator in each Corps Area, and a camp education adviser and two enrollee assistants in each camp. [18] Education in the CCC was becoming a real possibility.

The War Department, too, realizing the inevitability of some type of program being adopted, changed its tactics. It now merely aimed at insuring that whatever the outcome, the Army would retain ultimate control over all camp activities. Accordingly, General MacArthur presented a modification of Zook's program to the President on November 22. Retaining enough of the original features to mollify the Office of Education, it nevertheless firmly established the principle of Army control of education. MacArthur proposed that the program be administered by the Office of Education in the Department of the Interior. It would be headed by a director, aided by an advisory committee, who would communicate directly with the secretary of war on all important matters and would "recommend to the Secretary the outlines of instruction, teaching procedure, and the type of teaching materials for use in the camps."

The responsibility for carrying out the program was vested in the corps area commander, assisted by a corps area educational adviser who was selected by the Officer of Education but was directly responsible to the corps area commander. The procedure was duplicated in each camp, where the camp commanders were to be in charge of all instruction in their respective camps, assisted by one camp educational adviser. It was expected, however, that both the military and technical service people would co-operate with the adviser in giving instruction and settling general camp policy. As there was to be no encroachment upon working hours, education would have to be given at night, and attendance was to be purely voluntary. [19] This modified scheme was immediately approved by the President, and centralized education in the CCC had officially begun. [20]

Though many found the dominant position accorded the Army repugnant, and though, as will be discussed later, the program as approved did contain many unsatisfactory features, it probably represented the best possible compromise between the ambition of education officials and the nervous apprehension of the War Department. Because of the strategic importance of the Army to the CCC organization, it was necessary to gain military acceptance of the program if it was to have any success at all. Thus, the vesting of ultimate responsibility with the Department of War was the best practical solution.

Much had to be organized before the program could operate at full strength. A director, staff, and advisers were needed, and curricula had to be prepared. Clarence S. Marsh, dean of the evening session at the University of Buffalo, was appointed director on December 29, 1933, and he immediately proceeded "to marshall a working force and prepare it for its duties," selecting his advisers mainly from the ranks of the unemployed teachers and university graduates. [21] By June, 1934, the program was fully staffed and had begun its operations. [22]

The problems with which education officials and advisers had to contend were urgent and alarming. In the first place, they had to provide instruction for 250,000 youths and men of widely divergent skills and background, whose educational attainments ranged from no formal schooling to university degrees. Within each camp, therefore, a wide variety of courses had to be scheduled, both academic and vocational, in order best to meet the needs of the enrollees. Thus, advisers, even if they were able to secure technical service co-operation or outside teaching assistance, were forced to become instructors in many fields, often well outside their own level of competence, with inevitable deterioration in both preparation and teaching performance.

Second, the material available was often grossly inadequate. The adviser seldom had an office of his own, let alone a classroom, and most of the instruction was done in the mess halls or barracks. Library facilities and classroom equipment were in variably substandard and in insufficient supply. It is scarcely surprising that the turnover of supervisors was always high and that after one year only 50 per cent of original appointees were still in the camps. [23]

Third, it is clear that the initial success of the program in the individual camps depended on the attitude of the camp commander. Some co-operated enthusiastically with the adviser, but others were frankly skeptical and uninterested. As one commander bluntly put it: "why pamper [the enrollees] with this hocus-pocus of education. It's a lot of bunk, anyway." [24] Such open contempt could effectively kill the camp program, making it, as one disillusioned adviser complained, "futile and wasteful." [25] Many corps area commanders, too, were most uncertain about the scheme's value. General Fox Connor, commander of the First Corps Area, once issued instructions to abolish forthwith what he termed "cultural courses." As disciplines like history, sociology, foreign languages, and philosophy were deemed to fall within this category, the scope of academic instruction available to the individual adviser was somewhat reduced. [26]

Fourth, Army officers too often tried to discourage discussion of social and political issues. One corps area officer for example, refused to allow any books on sociology to be used in the camps on the grounds that "all writers on sociology were somewhat radical." Unrestrained discussion, he believed, could bring discontent and agitation. The official instructions issued to all education advisers contained detailed advice on "how to avoid dangerous issues" as an added safeguard against controversial debate. Advisers resented this high-handed infringement of the right of free speech and asserted that it hindered their efforts to keep the enrollees well informed on the basic issues of the day. [27]

Finally, most CCC education officials were sure that Fechner did not co-operate fully with them in plans for the advancement of their work, and in this allegation they were undoubtedly correct. Fechner always considered that relief of unemployment and the promotion of useful conservation work were the chief activities of the CCC; education was secondary. His attitude was, in a sense, commensurate with his responsibilities as director of an organization which he had to justify each year on the basis of work performed, not lessons learned. He was therefore reluctant to spend more money on education because this would simply mean less for the work projects, and work was what the CCC had been created to do. One can understand his reasoning, narrow in vision though it seems, but to Marsh and his associates it smacked of non-co-operation. In fact, Marsh resigned in 1935, frustrated by his inability to develop a coherent program, believing that he was being deprived of finance, time, and encouragement. He was replaced by a former educational adviser to the Liberian government, Howard Oxley, who held the post till the Corp's demise, though he too had a full share of frustrations. [28]

Nevertheless, despite military antagonism, directorial apathy, and confused aims and intentions the CCC education program not only survived its first three years but achieved some measure of success in the process. In remedial education, for example, it performed a great function. By June, 1937, 35,000 illiterates had been taught to read and write, more than a thousand youths had gained high school diplomas, and thirty-nine had received college degrees. To this end, forty universities gave courses to CCC camps by mail and twenty-six had granted scholarships to former enrollees. [29] Here were at least some criteria by which to judge the program's effectiveness.

Within each camp the courses offered were extraordinarily varied and could range from wood chopping to empirical philosophy. More than half were vocational in nature; the rest were academic courses. Of the total number of academic offerings, 16 per cent were on the elementary school level, 27 per cent on the high school level, and 5 per cent were college courses. [30] Much of the best vocational training was given "on the job." Boys who had never swung a pick nor used an ax now learned to run jackhammers and drive trucks. Though the success of more sophisticated vocational courses, such as boilermaking or metal work, was often compromised due to lack of equipment, space, and time, the basic instruction in the use of tools and machinery stood many an enrollee in good stead when he left the Corps and sought employment. [31]

Thus, by 1937, CCC education had survived the controversies of its origin and the vicissitudes of its development to take its place as a legitimate aspect of the Corps' work. Though it was to encounter more hostile criticism in later years, it had achieved enough success to insure its continuance.

The Civilian Conservation Corps entered the new year, 1934, on the crest of a wave. On January 25 the President informed Fechner that he wanted the work continued at least until April, 1935, and that he had sought an appropriation of $275,000,000 to cover the cost. Fechner was authorized to plan ahead on that basis, maintaining enrolment at the present figure of slightly more than 300,000, including veterans and Indians. Re-enrolment was again to be permitted, but no man was to remain in camp for more than a year in an effort to distribute the benefits of CCC life over as wide an area as possible. [32]

On April 7, 1934, the CCC celebrated officially its first anniversary. This was, of course, a time to review the accomplishments of the past year, and they made very impressive reading. By March, 1934, the Corps had improved millions of acres of forest and park land, thousands of miles of telephone lines had been erected, and 420,000 dams had been built to aid in erosion control. Losses from forest fires in national forests had decreased spectacularly over the year to less than 17 per cent of the average annual loss, a splendid tribute to CCC endeavor. The health of enrollees had improved, and on an average each had gained seven and one-quarter pounds. Moreover, about $72,500,000 had been allotted to dependents during the year, lightening local relief burdens and stimulating local business. The satisfaction felt by officials as they celebrated the anniversary was indeed well justified. [33]

There was still, however, much room for improvement. One particular area of concern was the number of accidents in camp. In October, 1933, Fechner had expressed his anxiety at the number of accidental deaths in the Corps and had stressed the "need for greater vigilance" on the part of the military and technical services. Such appeals had little effect, however, and it seemed that a thoroughgoing safety program was needed. [34]

Such a program was approved on April 9, 1934, in one of the first major policy decisions of that year. Curiously enough, Fechner had opposed the program as presented because of excessive cost, but it was so strongly supported by the War Department and the technical services that he capitulated. [35] Samuel M. Lauderdale, a bluff, experienced Forest Service engineer, was subsequently appointed director of the Civilian Conservation Corps' Safety Division. Working with a council composed of one representative from each of the co-operating agencies, his organization did much good work throughout the CCC's existence. [36] Safety Division representatives visited each camp, demonstrating accident prevention techniques, checking camp equipment for safety hazards, insuring that high sanitation standards prevailed, and giving instruction in work safety measures. By June, 1936, in large part due to their labors, the death rates from disease and injury had been reduced to a point much lower than those of the Regular Army for the same period, and lower also than those prevailing among men of similar age groups throughout the United States. [37]

In mid-1934 came the first significant expansion of CCC enrolment. In the spring and summer of that year drought devastated much of the Midwest, blasting its way as far south as Texas and east to the Alleghenies. Millions of acres of topsoil were lost, crops withered and died, and cattle languished without water. [38] There was desperate need for immediate government action, both to ameliorate somewhat the physical devastation left by the drought, and to relieve the increased regional unemployment situation which it had caused. Roosevelt decided to use the CCC as one of the agencies to implement drought policy and asked Congress for an additional $50,000,000 for Corps work in the drought areas. He planned to enrol as many men in the drought-affected states as the increased appropriation would allow, form them into regular CCC units, and put them on work projects in the stricken areas, principally to check soil erosion and to develop irrigation schemes. [39] Once Congress had voted the money, the Department of Labor was instructed to select 50,000 additional men, including 5,000 veterans, from cities of more than 2,500 population in the drought-affected areas of twenty-two states, as it was in urban areas where unemployment was most widespread. They began work on July 1, the increased enrolment raising the strength of the Corps to 353,000 including Indians and veterans, and the number of camps to 1,625. [40]

The quality of the work in the drought areas added more kudos to the already favorable public image of the CCC. The New York Times commented on the success of the agency, stating that the absence of criticism—"even from Republican quarters"—was a phenomenon "watched with interest by the Administration," while the Detroit News admitted that prospective critics of the Corps had been "silenced by the prompt and unmistakable dividends" it had paid. [41] The agency certainly rested firmly on a broad base of support which transcended party and regional lines.

Delighted with its achievements, the President made plans to extend the life of the CCC after the expiration of the existing enabling legislation on April 1, 1935. He wrote to Fechner: "This kind of work must go on. I believe that the Nation feels that the work of these young men is so thoroughly justified, and, in addition the benefits to the men themselves are so clear, that the actual annual cost will be met without much opposition or much complaint." [42] Not only did he seek continuation of the Corps, but he also planned a drastic extension of its size and compass as part of the expanded relief organization which he outlined in his message to Congress on January 4, 1935. Roosevelt proposed a bold new approach to the problem of unemployment. "Continued dependence on relief," he proclaimed, induced "spiritual and moral degradation"; consequently, he sought legislation aimed at puffing 3,500,000 people back to work. To this end, he asked for the massive appropriation of more than $4.8 billion in order to create a public works program which would be self-liquidating, non-competitive with private business, and which would pay a "security wage," higher than the dole, but not so high as to become a lucrative alternative to private employment. The President "envisaged the extension and enlargement of the successful work of the CCC" as an integral part of this development. [43]

The decision to enlarge the CCC again caused further paeans of praise to ring out in the nation's press, in contrast with the mixed reception given the work relief scheme in toto. Even the violently anti-New Deal Chicago Tribune thought that "The CCC is one of the best projects of the Administration, and the great majority of its recruits, we believe, appreciate its opportunities and are being benefited." [44] Such words from the most bitter of Republican newspapers indicated dramatically how high the Corps stood in popular esteem.

Anticipating the passage of the legislation, the Advisory Council drew up a blueprint providing for the mobilization of the CCC to 600,000 men and their full employment in work camps as soon as possible after the appropriation was authorized. This document the President approved on January 17. [45] There were other steps taken to meet the demands of expansion. On April 12 Roosevelt authorized the use of Navy and Marine Reserve officers to augment the six thousand Army Reserve officers already employed in the camps. [46] The expansion program could quickly be implemented as soon as Congress approved the work relief scheme. But this took some time. The plan's very magnitude and philosophy caused much misgiving on Capitol Hill, and weeks passed without action. Though Fechner was concerned at the effect of the delay, mainly because the CCC was running out of funds, the future of the agency was never in serious doubt. [47] The debates on the work relief measure were often most acrimonious, but there was virtually no criticism of the provision extending the CCC. Indeed, the success of the agency was of positive value to the Administration. Supporters of the President's plan were able to remind their opponents that its failure to pass Congress would spell doom for the CCC, a prospect few congressmen relished. [48] The work relief resolution was eventually signed by the President on April 8, after passing the House by 317 votes to 70 and the Senate by 66 to 13. [49] CCC expansion could now begin.

On April 11, 1935, Fechner discussed with the Advisory Council the burden of a recent interview with Roosevelt in which the President had outlined his latest idea for the future organization of the CCC, a plan intimately concerned with his hopes of reducing government expenditure in the election year. The increase to 600,000 enrollees was to be only temporary. Starting on October 1, 1935, Roosevelt wanted the numbers gradually tapered down until only 450,000 remained in camp on June 1, 1936. Fechner tried to point out that such a scheme was fraught with dangerous possibilities, in that it meant that work projects might have to be left incomplete and men discharged before finishing their full term. Though Roosevelt did not choose to develop the idea further at this stage it was an ominous augury of policies to come, policies which for the first time were to incur a substantial amount of congressional and public criticism for the Corps. [50]

Meanwhile, expansion continued briskly. There were 2,916 camps to be filled, 2,106 under the Department of Agriculture and 690 under the Department of the Interior, and to facilitate full enrolment the upward age limit was increased from twenty-five to twenty-eight years and the maximum time of service from one year to eighteen months. There seemed no reason at this time why the figure of 600,000 could not be easily met. [51]

However, a new and controversial figure began to pose problems for the CCC. This was Harry Hopkins, newly appointed director of the Works Progress Administration and rising star in the hierarchy of presidential advisers. The President had decided that all projects paid for by the $4.8 billion appropriation had to be voted on by a specially constituted Committee on Allotments. The CCC clearly came under this category and Fechner was forced to submit his plans to this committee for approval. The chairman of the committee was Frank Walker, former executive secretary of the Executive Council and Democratic national committeeman, but the dominant member was Hopkins. [52] It was at a meeting of this committee that Roosevelt, influenced by Hopkins, announced a decision which was to have the gravest consequences for the CCC's whole expansion program. In future, he ruled, all enrollees and employees had to be taken from public relief rolls, even skilled persons like stenographers and clerks. [53]

Fechner protested that this decision would radically alter the whole basis of selection. While the overwhelming majority of enrollees had always come from the relief rolls, states had been permitted to take other needy youths in order to fulfil their quotas. Boys without dependents, for instance, were often inducted, and made their allotment to some destitute family recommended by the local board, but their selection would in future be impossible under the new ruling. [54] Fechner also wanted to know about the status of specially trained persons, stenographers, technicians, and above all, educational advisers. Many of these people had not come from relief rolls. Would their continued employment be barred?

The answers Hopkins and Roosevelt gave to these concerned inquiries were quite definite. Hopkins insisted that if a given state could not fill its quota from the relief rolls, the remaining enrollees were to be selected from states with overflows of qualified applicants. Thus, he effectively wrecked the quota system of selection. Moreover, Hopkins asserted that he "had five million people on his relief rolls, and among them were people capable of substituting in any position." [55] All future CCC employees were therefore to come from these rolls, a decision the President spelled out in a letter to Fechner in which he confirmed that education advisers certainly were included under such a provision. [56] Fechner's objections had been disregarded. With these rulings the CCC entered a four-month period of drift and indecision as officials attempted to implement the Hopkins-controlled enrolment provisions. As early as June 6 it was apparent that, given strict adherence to the relief clause, the 600,000 enrolment figure was unlikely to be reached. The alternatives, therefore, were either to cut the quota, which was inadvisable because of camp construction already begun, or to expand the eligibility rules. [57] The problem was emphasized to both Roosevelt and Hopkins on June 18 at a White House conference which, however, produced nothing definite. Neither Hopkins nor the President was willing to withdraw the relief provision, nor would they authorize a specific reduction in the number to be enrolled, though the President hinted that this might be considered at a later date. In the meantime the 600,000 enrolment was still to be the goal. [58]

Faced with ever-increasing evidence from the states that the quotas would not be filled under existing regulations, Fechner implored the President once more a week later for some relaxation of the provision, but again he was brusquely treated. [59] Roosevelt insisted that enrolment and construction be continued on the existing basis, with the goal still to be 600,000 men in 2,916 camps. All state quotas were to be completely disregarded, and all qualified applicants were to be taken. [60] There was little to do but attempt to comply with the ruling and watch as the situation deteriorated.

In a desperate attempt to end the prevailing climate of drift, Fechner proposed a new solution to the President without either of them first consulting Hopkins. On July 24 the director reported to Persons that Roosevelt had verbally authorized the enrolment of single men up to the age of thirty-five in the Corps and that camps would henceforth be divided into two groups, one for ages eighteen through twenty-four, and the other for men twenty-five and over. With this extension, Fechner believed that the quota would be reached. Accordingly he had advised the state directors of the decision but had instructed them to await confirmation from Persons before beginning selection. Persons, therefore, was now instructed to confirm Fechner's prior announcement and order selection of the older men to begin. [61]

But Persons bitterly opposed the extension of the age limit. Over the head of the director, he protested to Hopkins against its implementation. [62] Hopkins apparently knew nothing of Fechner's talk with the President and was similarly opposed to extending the upper age limit. The selection of older men would affect his own relief schemes, principally the WPA, and so he instructed Persons, again without Fechner's knowledge, to delay ordering the enrolment of the new group while he attempted to persuade Roosevelt to reverse his decision. [63] He was successful, and the President withdrew his verbal assent to the extension, much to Persons' relief. In thanking Hopkins for his good offices, he said that the proposed relaxation of the age limit would have "affected the CCC and its morale." [64]

Fechner, out of town, was in due course apprised of the decision. He accordingly informed Persons of the change. With some heat he reported that Hopkins had once more interfered in selection policy and had convinced Roosevelt that the extension of the age limit would not be desirable. [65] There is no evidence to indicate that he ever learned of the vital part his own director of selection played in influencing the President's decision. From the point of view of staff relations, his ignorance was no doubt just as well.

It is likely that the raising of the age limit to thirty-five would have created more problems than it could have solved. It would have allowed a complete new age group into the Corps, men who were by no stretch of the imagination the youths for whom projects, education, and remuneration had been designed. State directors were bitterly opposed to selection of older men, and a radical reconsideration of policy would have been necessary. [66] The controversy provided a striking indication of the importance of Harry Hopkins as a controlling factor of CCC policy at this time and shows just how circumscribed was Fechner's position. In an important matter of policy he was unable to claim the loyalty of his own director of selection.

No further attempt was made to adjust policy to meet the exigencies of the relief provision. The enrolment period ended in September, 1935, with 502,000 men in 2,514 camps, well short of the original goal. This was due partly to the creation of the National Youth Administration which provided unemployed youths with an alternative to the CCC, but there is no doubt that Hopkins' obstinacy was also a key factor. Moreover, much discontent had been generated in the process. Selection agents found real resentment in local areas at the rigid adherence to the relief provision. Technical service representatives grimly reported that in many communities which had prepared for camps under the expanded plan, and where construction had started only to be abandoned because of the failure to meet the goal, a reservoir of anger had built up against the policies of the Corps. Such hostility was a new experience for Fechner, one that particularly chafed him because he was not responsible for it. The director was apprehensive that the issue could be used against the President in his re-election campaign in 1936. [67]

The September, 1935, figure of more than 500,000 was to be the high point of CCC enrolment, for election apprehension affected the President differently. While Fechner still advocated relaxation of the relief provision as the way to salvage the situation, the President, influenced by the desire of a budget reduction in election year, decided on a policy of extensive camp closings. He envisaged a progressive shutdown with no new enrolments, until by July 1, 1936, the total in camp would be but 300,000 men. He then hoped to make the CCC a permanent federal agency on this diminished scale. [68]

In vain Fechner argued against the wisdom of such a dubious scheme, pointing out the further reductions would serve only to exacerbate the discontent already smouldering in the localities. The President regretted the "embarrassment" which his plan would cause, but nevertheless he insisted on its immediate application, starting with the curtailment of additional expenditure on supplies and equipment. [69] As Roosevelt's reduction plans became more widely known, public protest grew in volume. The announcement that 489 camps, existing or approved, were to be closed or canceled by January 1 produced such a vigorous reaction, particularly in the Midwest, that Fechner wrote requesting a "special allotment of $25 million to establish at least 12 camps in areas of tremendous political value." [70] The request was denied.

Congressmen added their substantial support to the protests. Representative Braswell Dean, Democrat of Georgia, in pleading for the re-establishment of a camp in his district, said the reduction policy would have "tragic" consequences for the Administration. Representative John W. McCormack, Democrat of Massachusetts, was similarly pessimistic. Petitions of protest pouring in from all parts of the country gave point to their argument. [71]

Alarmed at the intensity of feeling which had been aroused, other Administration officials joined Fechner in criticizing the reduction policy. Secretary of Agriculture Wallace discerned "grave consequences to the Administration" in the move and protested that "discontinuance of the number of camps necessary to bring Corps strength down to 2,078 camps in January and 1,456 camps in April will make it impossible to carry out agreements entered into in good faith by these local co-operating agencies and will result in widespread charges that the Administration had broken its promises." [72] He advocated continuing all camps till their work projects were played out, then "knocking them off." He also mentioned that he had been inundated with memoranda from state foresters stressing the bad effect the decision had had in local communities.

However, Roosevelt stood adamant in face of the rising tide of criticism both within and without the Administration. He was sure that Fechner was exaggerating the seriousness of the reaction and that the political benefits of budget reduction would far outweigh the brief spell of tarnished popularity. [73] Accordingly, at a meeting on December 18 attended by the secretaries of labor, agriculture, and the interior, the director of the Bureau of the Budget, the chief forester, Tugwell, Walker, and Fechner, he insisted that the reduction plan was still fully effective and would start on January 1, 1936. By June 30, he declared, he wanted only 300,000 men enrolled in 1,456 camps. [74] Consequently, the Corps entered the new year with considerable trepidation.

The CCC lost 489 camps as of January 1, 1936, an occurrence which pleased few and which prompted a further batch of protest mail. [75] Leading Democratic congressmen made strong personal appeals to the President to stay his hand, but to no avail. [76] Fechner reported to the Advisory Council on February 5 that Roosevelt was pleased with the way the first reduction had been carried out and wanted detailed plans drafted for cutting the number of camps to 1,456 by June 1. [77] On February 13 Fechner himself made a further plea for modification. He asked for funds to operate 1,807 camps till June 30 but again his request was denied. The President was determined to have only 1,703 camps in operation by April 1, which therefore meant the immediate reduction of a further 455 camps. [78] In addition, Roosevelt announced that because the CCC would no longer operate on funds taken from relief appropriations, but would be provided for in the regular War Department appropriations, a substantial reduction in funds was to be expected for the financial year 1936-1937. It seemed as if his determined stand for camp reduction would succeed. [79]

On March 14, 1936, however, a new element entered the situation, one which within ten days had changed it entirely. Congressmen, increasingly concerned as pressure from the grass roots mounted, resolved to take positive action themselves to save what camps they could. On that day, therefore, the speaker of the House, Representative Joseph W. Byrns, and Representative Samuel D. McReynolds, both Tennessee Democrats, called on the President with a petition signed by 233 members of the House, including a substantial number of Republicans, urging Roosevelt to discontinue the wholesale closing of camps. [80] The President considered the plea but rejected it. His intention was definitely to continue the reduction policy. He wanted only 300,000 in the CCC by July 1, he said, and "did not see how it could be maintained in greater strength after July 1 without throwing the Budget further out of balance." [81] The reference to budget balancing is important, for it indicates that this was not merely a convenient catchphrase to the President. He genuinely sought fiscal stability and was willing to sacrifice much of the CCC program to attain it.

Congress, however, was not of a similar mind. Balanced budgets, desirable in principle, could not be allowed to interfere with re-election prospects. On March 18, therefore, a letter signed by Representative Jack Nichols, Democrat, of Oklahoma, was sent to all Democratic congressmen, requesting their attendance at a meeting on the morning of March 20 "to lay plans for a continuous fight to prevent this order going into effect." Congressmen were reminded that "whether you have a CCC camp in your district or not, you are affected, for the threatened reduction in personnel will mean that an average of 300 families in each district would lose their breadwinner." [82] The President would henceforth have to implement his reduction plan in the teeth of serious congressional opposition from his own party.

At a meeting which was attended by more than two hundred House Democrats, strategy was thoroughly deliberated. The plan was to act as a bloc and force the continuation of the CCC at its present strength of 2,158 camps and 400,000 enrollees. Furthermore, as a supplementary appropriation, congressmen decided to fight for the earmarking of part of the President's new $1.5 billion relief bill for CCC purposes. To emphasize their determination, seventy-five representatives signed a petition to force the whole Democratic caucus to discuss the issue. Representative Nichols was delegated to appoint a committee to call on the President and inform him of their intentions. [83]

The revolt of such a substantial section of the House Democratic strength caused Administration leaders to have doubts about the fate of the President's whole legislative program. Pointing out that the insurgents had threatened to block the passage of the relief appropriation until their demands were met, they urged on Roosevelt the necessity of compromise. [84] The President could do little else but capitulate in the face of such strong pressures. Accordingly, he advised Fechner that all existing camps were to be maintained and camps were to be closed only as they completed their work projects. Another $6,800,000 would be allotted to pay for the change in plans. [85]

Thus the congressional revolt was ended. Roosevelt's policy of cutting the CCC in the interest of economy, a plan in which he genuinely believed and which he had advocated consistently for more than six months, had been defeated by his own party, led mainly by rural representatives who in other days and other contexts could usually be counted among those supporting the curtailment of federal expenditure.

The reasons for the revolt were not hard to identify and the newspapers lost no time in exploring them. The New York Times correctly concluded that the uprising originated in the county, coming "from the hundreds of communities and hundreds of Congressional districts which would have been affected by the proposed reduction." Representatives and senators from all states had been deluged with mail, telegrams, and calls attesting to the popularity of the CCC camps and seeking immediate reversal of the reduction policy. [86] Faced with such a dramatic manifestation of the extraordinary popularity of the CCC, congressmen saw compliance with the President's plan as political suicide. As one representative said: "it would have been tough for me if [the camps] are moved out of my district. I would have hated to face the people in that community if that one had been slashed." [87] Discussing the revolt, Arthur Krock in the New York Times made the point that few Republicans had supported retrenchment and that they were just as interested as the Democrats in having camps retained in their particular districts. [88] The attitude of Republican newspapers to the revolt lends credence to this view. The New York Herald Tribune called the CCC the "most popular" of all New Deal legislation, and talked both of its success in conserving natural resources and its effectiveness in stimulating local trade in "thousands of small communities." [89] The Des Moines Register, generally anti-New Deal in policy, was pleased at the success of the revolt. While it considered retrenchment in federal expenditures to be necessary, it believed that "the CCC should be one of the last of the government agencies to face the axe." The Boston Evening Transcript was similarly complimentary. [90] The reaction of the Republican news papers again indicates the strong bipartisan flavor of CCC support.

Nowhere was this bipartisan trend more in evidence than in the 1936 election. The Republican presidential and vice-presidential candidates both specifically indorsed the CCC, thus effectively removing it from the arena of campaign criticism. Governor Alfred M. Landon had long admired the Corps. In 1934 in a letter to Roosevelt he had termed it "one of the most constructive policies of the Administration." [91] During the campaign he even tried to associate himself specifically with its success. Speaking at Los Angeles, Landon claimed credit for an amendment to the original bill, namely the one permitting work on state lands. He proudly stated that "subsequent experience has shown this has greatly enlarged the value of the Conservation Corps" which had "great opportunities for lasting good." Landon promised: "Once I am elected President, I will do everything within my power, not only to continue the CCC, but to improve the organization." [92] Such statements could scarcely be termed partisan criticism. The Republican vice-presidential candidate, Colonel Frank Knox, admitted that "the CCC has been a valuable institution in time of great distress," though its cost had been high. Only the Socialist party proposed its abolishment. The party platform claimed that the CCC "threatened the wage and living standards of organized labor"; the platform also expressed its dislike of the Army's role. [93]

In the first weeks of the campaign the Republican national chairman, John D. M. Hamilton, made sporadic attempts to prove political influence in the CCC organization, an accusation which, as Arthur Knock commented, should surprise no one, patronage "being one of the means by which national political machines are maintained." [94] Few papers took much notice of Hamilton's charges. The New York Herald Tribune said that "Farleyization" would "introduce a note of demoralization into an organization that above all New Deal innovations has received almost unanimous approval" and that "the camps . . . deserve a better fate than to be made the tools of cynical place-seekers," but the issue did not catch on. [95] Hamilton soon dropped it, and the Corps survived the rest of the campaign unscathed.

For the Democrats, of course, it was a positive source of gain and a regular ingredient of campaign speeches. The President himself invoked its success from time to time, promising that if re-elected he intended to make it permanent. [96] Moreover, he was able to use the Corps for both practical and political effect in September, once more increasing enrolment in drought areas. [97] Few of Roosevelt's legislative actions during his first term caused him less campaign embarrassment than the CCC. It came as no surprise, therefore, that in his 1936 report to the President, Director Fechner requested "that this program of conservation work, among men and natural resources, be adapted as a part of our permanent national governmental activities, the size and extent of the work to be governed by the dual factors of employment conditions and the urgency of the conservation work to be accomplished." [98] Within three years the CCC had become probably the most highly regarded of all New Deal agencies. Its continuation seemed inevitable.


The Civilian Conservation Corps, 1933-1942: A New Deal Case Study
salmond/chap3.htm — 03-Jan-2008

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