Perhaps the most slanted thing about Ken Burns’ PBS special, “Dust Bowl”, is the politics. The video has a lot of fascinating stories about survivors of the Dust Bowl complete with old photos and footage. FDR is a hero of unassailable credits. But then, one wonders, how did he lose the farmer portion of the Democrat coalition and make NW Oklahoma solidly Republican? Farmers had voted Democrat since Andrew Jackson. Part of the answer is found in excerpts from the documentary. Washington got involved in some incredibly elitist and insulting politics with the dust bowl farmers. Then, as today, there were a group of environmentalists who thought the entire Great Plains should be depopulated and turned into a national grassland. Perhaps their greatest contribution was in having the federal government buy out some absentee farmers and return their lands to grass. But under the Dept. of Agriculture they produced a number of propagandistic films accusing farmers of the failure and advocating collectivism as in the Soviet Union. Secondly, in order to reduce the surplus of livestock that was depressing prices, emaciated cattle were bought and killed and buried with bulldozers. The ranchers were chagrinned the way a consultant would be if the company who had hired him, paid him well, then dumped the fruit of his labors and in his report into the trash. Next FDR fashioned himself a naturalist and proposed several utterly idiotic schemes to fix the West, despite the restraint of his advisors. One was the ill-fated Shelterbelt Program. The concept was to plant a 100-mile wide forest through the center of the Great Plains from Dakotas to Texas. 98% of the seedling trees died the first year. In 1935, as a pork barrel program, US 83 highway, was built from Minot, ND to Childress, TX, going through no town of more than 15,000. It became jokingly known as the Highway to Nowhere. It was roundly joked about and became the subject of 3 Country and Western songs. Of all the alphabet soup New Deal programs, the Soil Conservation Program was one of the few that was sound. Here, a local county-wide district was established and run by farmers on a board. The district was empowered to buy land-altering equipment that could be borrowed by farmers to correct erosion. Yet the government experts who advised the farmers were often political hacks and former politicians who knew little about conservation. It was the farmers who made the program work.
Hence when Burns’ “Dust Bowl” shows FDR making a trip to Amarillo to survey the damage in 1936 it was a forced political move to shore up support. Desperate farmers took help from the government but when the drought broke, became very disgusted with Washington. The AAA was the farm program. It paid farmers to idle land. Southern landowners took the money and told sharecroppers they weren’t needed any longer. That led to widespread unemployment in the Deep South. Mississippi had 52% unemployment and Alabama was nearly as high. These were the pitiful poor who often made their way to the California Great Valley to work as migrant laborers. Very, very few came from Oklahoma which had 22% unemployment compared to a national average of 25% in 1934. Yet an opportunistic author, John Steinbeck, wrote a tear-jerker tale of how a broke Oklahoma family went to California only to be mistreated. Burns slyly inserts a statement about how only 16,000 Oklahomans went to the Valley, but then continues-on about how these “Okies” were abused--as if to disregard his own statistic. (Californians called the impoverished southerners Okies because they already knew the oil field workers from Oklahoma who had similar accents.) Burns then follows his anecdotal stories of two families who went to LA and San Francisco respectively as if to make the Oklahoma-California fabrication true. What was the truth? Farmers hung tough during the dust bowl and many managed to eke out a living. Meade County, Kansas (Liberal) actually gained 2% population from the 1930 to 1940 census.
In the end, all the old-timers in “Dust Bowl” tell their stories and express deep misgivings about farming and this new irrigation that is taking place in the Southern Plains. None were practicing farmers. All are Democrats to the hilt. Another dust bowl is surely in our future, they worry. The drought of the 50’s showed that we learned absolutely nothing. And so it is as if you were to ask the 1/3 of settlers who failed and returned to the East in the 19th century, “How was the West Won?” It probably would be only a half-truth.