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During the worst days of the Great Depression in the 1930s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt initiated a series of new and innovative ideas to combat America’s economic crisis. The programs, collectively known as the New Deal, offered relief and recovery to several groups and institutions that had been particularly hard-hit by the Depression, including farmers, youth, banks, industry, and workers. One of the most innovative accomplishments of the New Deal was the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), which became law on May 18, 1933, during the first 100 days of Roosevelt’s initial term in office.
The TVA offered recovery and relief to an agriculturally devastated region in southern Appalachia, which incorporated seven southern states within the water tributaries of the Tennessee River system-an area encompassing approximately 40,000 square miles (103,600 square kilometers). This region, once identified by Roosevelt as the “nation’s number one economic problem,” included the states of Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, Kentucky, and Virginia.
The Tennessee Valley had been prosperous in the past, but, according to Arthur E. Morgan, a Roosevelt intimate associated with the TVA, as quoted by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., by the 1930s, “only poverty remained-poverty, with thousands on thousands of families who never saw $100 cash income a year.” Thus, the TVA sought to revitalize the South’s economy but also to improve the lives of millions of families who lived in rural Appalachia. It was, Morgan suggested, “not primarily a dam-building program, a fertilizer job or powertransmission job,” but, rather, a large idea for “a designed and planned social and economic order.”
One of the primary goals of the TVA was to offer public power to a region devoid of electricity. The greatest champion of public power, Nebraska senator George W. Norris, had vigorously advocated the idea of public power during the 1920s. His defense of the government-owned dam at Muscle Shoals, Alabama, against private interests who hoped to purchase the complex led him to seek a broader federal program of dam construction along the Tennessee River. However, conservative Republican leaders in the House and Senate, as well as two Republican presidents, defeated six of his dam-building proposals before Roosevelt took office in 1933. Norris’s efforts kept the dream of public power alive in the South and, in large measure, the TVA was actually his legacy.
Between 1933 and 1945, the TVA, in one of the largest construction efforts ever undertaken by the federal government, constructed 16 dams in the Tennessee River basin. According to Leuchtenburg, it was, in short, a “public corporation with the owners of government but the flexibility of a private corporation” that worked in conjunction with state and local agencies. TVA’s benefits were immediately apparent. Millions of Americans found steady employment through the TVA. The dams also generated electricity to the rural South (only two out of every 100 farms had electricity before the TVA) and manufactured fertilizer for the region’s farmers. The lakes that it created offered recreational opportunities and a profusion of government-funded parks were built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and other agencies along their shores. Conservationist goals, like soil conservation, the removal of depleted agricultural lands, flood control, and forestation, were also major components of the TVA program.
The TVA also pioneered in social experimentation. The altering of water levels at the system’s dams, for example, helped to eliminate malaria as a serious health risk in the Tennessee Valley. Previously, about one-third of the region’s inhabitants had been affected by malaria. Furthermore, the organization made major contributions to recreational lake management and architectural design.
TVA had its critics. The government’s public power program, which infringed on rights of private utility companies, was highly controversial and led some opponents of the agency to label Roosevelt a Communist. Others leveled criticism at the TVA’s bureaucracy, which they felt was riddled with fiscal mismanagement and poor planning.
Racial conflict also plagued the TVA. When the TVA compensated farmers for flooding their croplands, they paid landowners, but not sharecroppers and tenants who were forced out of work and off of the land. Hiring inequities and complaints of racial discrimination frequently surfaced within the TVA. Investigations during the mid-1930s by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) substantiated evidence of racial discrimination and led to a congressional investigation. During the hearings, the TVA maintained that it had to uphold regional racial customs in order to maintain a good relationship with local authorities. Otherwise, the chances for a successful program that would benefit both blacks and whites would be jeopardized. The congressional committee only mildly chastised the TVA for its racial practices.
The conservation goals of the TVA were also compromised. The construction of dams disrupted the flow of freshwater in the Tennessee River valley and thus altered aquatic and riverine ecosystems. Several species of freshwater mollusks, for example, dependent on flowing water, became either endangered or extinct. In addition, thousands of acres of wetland areas were permanently lost under the waters of TVA lakes. The TVA also strip-mined coal fields in order to provide fuel to operate the power plants.
For the duration of the 20th century, the TVA continued to maintain its lakes and produce power. During the 1960s the TVA began producing nuclear power in several of its facilities. Although most of its nuclear plants have been phased out, the TVA has developed an energy plan for the Tennessee valley that will be phased in through 2020. In 1998, TVA announced a new plan for its facilities that would reduce pollutants that deplete ozone and cause smog. According to its own study, the agency will have spent $5.6 billion on clean air modifications to its coal-fired plants by 2010. As of 2005, the TVA operates 29 hydropower plants.
- Roger Biles, The South and the New Deal (University of Kentucky Press, 1994);
- William E. Leuchtenburg, Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal (Harper Torchbooks, 1963);
- Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., The Coming of the New Deal (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1958).