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

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Chapter 13

In eulogizing the Civilian Conservation Corps, the New Republic spoke of its "immense contributions to the conservation of soils and forests [which] have enriched the national wealth far more than the sums spent on it, even if one overlooks the benefits on the health and morale of otherwise jobless young men." The Corps was still badly needed, the journal contended, assailing the "narrow-minded spleen which wiped it out in the interests of economy," thus committing "social sabotage." [1]

Superficially, such a judgment seemed reasonable. The Corps was in fact helping the war effort by performing useful work on military reservations, by protecting vital forest regions, and by supplying partially trained young men to the armed forces. Moreover, it may well have served the country beneficially immediately after the war. If the returning veterans had caused a temporary glut on the labor market, the CCC might have been used to relieve the situation. Its abolition in 1942, therefore, might have been untimely.

Yet it is difficult to see, given the labor situation in 1942, how in fact the Corps could have been continued. The agency was dependent for the bulk of its enrollees on the unskilled unemployed. In the full employment situation of the war, its source of supply no longer existed. It is true, too, that by 1942 the CCC as an organizational amalgam of federal departments was falling apart. Racked by internal dissension and apathy, its continuance as an effective agency would have been contingent on radical changes in organization, scarcely practical in the war situation. The reasons for this organizational deterioration were various. Undoubtedly personalities played an important part. Fechner's policy of increasing directorial control of CCC activities had upset the delicate balance existing between central organization and technical agencies, and McEntee's efforts had only exacerbated this trend. These and other specific examples of internal decay, however, were all merely symptoms of the fundamental cause of the agency's decline: the CCC had developed neither a permanent identity nor a permanent organization. It was never able to disavow its associations with relief. Its structure never lost its temporary look, and its machinery, though for a long time surprisingly efficient, was essentially makeshift, loose, and diffuse. Though its institutional momentum carried it on for nine years, the difficulties of the operation finally became too much. The Corps was never able to plan ahead financially with any degree of certitude, living virtually from hand to mouth throughout its existence. Clashes and wrangling among top officials, symptomatic of the slow breakdown at the center, were increasingly frequent in the CCC's final years.

Intimately connected with the Corps' failure to outgrow its temporary status was its inability to shake off the relief stamp. The CCC was never able to convince the Congress or the public that it had other functions besides the provision of relief and the performance of useful work. This was partly due, of course, to Fechner's reluctance to concede the need to develop a broader aim or to look ahead to a time when the situation which originally prompted the CCC's creation no longer existed. To be sure, McEntee did try to sell to the public the idea of the Corps as a work and training center, an agency which welcomed all young men without reference to their economic status, but by this time it was too late to change its original image. Most continued to consider the CCC as having primarily a relief function, and consequently, when rising re-employment rates made this irrelevant, the agency was bound to be stopped.

There is little need to dwell much longer on the specific results of the CCC's failure to develop wider aims. We have already noted its inability to grasp fully the golden opportunity given it to develop a thoroughgoing program of remedial education and vocational training, leading to eventual re-employment. Much good work was undoubtedly performed, yet in some respects the opportunity was squandered, due in large part to an absence of cohesive planning and basic confusion as to what the aims of CCC education should be. Many comprehensive schemes were advanced, but all foundered upon the rock of expediency and were judged impractical because of the agency's transient character. Unless and until the CCC lost its temporary basis, it was bound to suffer from an absence of direction, a confusion as to ultimate goals. This, perhaps, was the tragedy of the CCC. Despite its successes, its potential was never fully tapped.

A significant aspect of the CCC's existence, one which distinguished it from other relief agencies and which probably had some bearing on the lack of planning for the future, was the question of the CCC's conservatism. The CCC was not led by liberal intellectuals such as Aubrey Williams or Harry Hopkins, but by a conservative former trade-union official who boasted that his clerks had more formal education than he did. Moreover, responsibility for camp management was vested in the least radical body in the country, the Army. This, as has been mentioned, was undoubtedly a factor in explaining the CCC's relative popularity with even right-wing congressmen and commentators, who were further entranced with its possibilities as a political pork barrel. Add to this the fact that many saw in the CCC's activities some sort of return to an older and better America, an America of young men working close to the soil, and the sources of the Corps' popularity are explained. However, this also helps us to understand the lack of interest in charting a wider course for the agency's future. Congressmen never provided a framework for long-term development, while the Army did not consider its role to be a permanent one.

It is too easy, however, to accuse the CCC unfairly. Even if wider aims had been developed and the Corps placed on a permanent footing, it would have provided no immediate answer to the basic problems facing American youth. These could not be solved by moving boys from their homes to the woods, no matter how enlightened those responsible for the shift might be. Though the CCC could certainly have done more, it should not be treated as a scapegoat, a whipping boy for other more fundamental failures. Moreover, to talk of the CCC as conservative is to overlook the fact that the spirit which flowed through the whole New Deal program had clearly not passed it by. The CCC fitted squarely into the New Deal pattern. It is almost a cliché to describe the Roosevelt revolution as experimental, anti-ideological, essentially pragmatic, and, above all, humanitarian. Certainly, this was true of the CCC. It was frankly experimental, it had no real precedent to follow and no long-term goals to be reached. Its organization was essentially a makeshift response to the immediate problem of unemployed youth. Further, in its profound concern for the well-being of its enrollees, the CCC shared in the broadly humanitarian trends of the era, and this underlying principle was with it until the end.

In spite of the vicissitudes of its final years and the larger question of the lack of an overview as to its permanent function in the American social fabric, the Civilian Conservation Corps stood firmly upon its record. Immediately, to a country engaged in bloody war, it had provided the sinews of a military force. It had given young officers valuable training in command techniques, and the nearly three million young men who had passed through the camps had received experience of military life upon which the Army was well able to build.

Moreover, there is little need to dwell upon the vital contribution made by the CCC to the conservation of natural resources. The billions of trees planted or protected, the millions of acres saved from the ravages of soil erosion or the depredations of flooded rivers, the hundreds of parks and recreation areas which were developed, are a permanent testimony to the success of Corps work. They constitute a legitimate contribution to the heritage of every American.

Finally, the CCC had a lasting effect on its enrollees. Life in the camps brought tangible benefits to the health, educational level, and employment expectancies of almost three million young Americans, and it also gave immediate financial aid to their families. Equally important were the intangibles of Corps life. The CCC gave to its enrollees both a new understanding of their country and a faith in its future. Youths from the teeming cities learned something of rural America, boys from farms and country hamlets became acquainted with the complexities and ethnic variation of their land and its people. Both emerged from the camp experience with a greater understanding of America, and of Americans.

Despite its shortcomings, the CCC was of the profoundest importance. It was important because of its effect on the nation's national resources and the health of its enrollees, and it is important to the story of reform in the United States. It marked the first attempt by the federal government to provide some specific solution for the problems of youth in an increasingly urban society. In its makeshift, loose way it was a pathfinder, the precursor of more sophisticated programs and ideas. After the CCC came Roosevelt's National Youth Administration, the attempts at providing federal aid to education pursued by every postwar president, and the complex of youth agencies which form such an integral part of President Lyndon B. Johnson's war on poverty. Indeed, the parallels between one of these, the Job Corps, and the CCC are striking. To be sure, the Job Corps is a far more sophisticated agency than the old CCC, its functions at once more specialized and more diverse. Nevertheless, its enrollees, too, are unemployed young men between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five years; they, too, live in camps, sometimes old CCC sites first used over thirty years ago; they, too, work in the woods. By its successes as well as its shortcomings, the CCC has surely provided, in this instance, a concrete example for others to follow.

Though the CCC is dead, it has not been forgotten. As Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., wrote, it has "left its monuments in the preservation and purification of the land, the water, the forests, and the young men of America." [2]


The Civilian Conservation Corps, 1933-1942: A New Deal Case Study
salmond/chap13.htm — 03-Jan-2008

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