PBS’s documentary called “The Dust Bowl” directed by Ken Burns and produced by Burns and others deserves commendation for telling an historically pivotal story through the faces, words and scenes of the epic itself. The families, ordeals and outcomes of real people project honesty and reality in ways not often achieved by expert commentary or fictional accounts. But “The Dust Bowl” presents a thesis that severe dust storms and poverty in the southern plains during the 1930s resulted primarily from abuse of nature by ignorant and greedy farmers. This involves serious misconceptions.
Man-made Ecological Disaster?
Burns does commendable work telling how wheat production expanded during the first three decades of the 20th Century in the generally arid southern plains centered around the Oklahoma panhandle. Natural grasslands were replaced – ripped out – by cultivation of wheat crops demanded by national and global markets during and after World War I. Large, mechanized farms used cheap, shallow cultivation methods which risked soil erosion by winds common in the region.
Burns calls the results “man-made ecological disaster.” On closer reflection, however, the pivotal cause of the Dust Bowl was “man-made” economic depression. Here is why.
The years 1929-1931 each achieved bumper crops of wheat in the southern plains. As Burns reports, those years saw rising yields and acreage in production. But these same years were financial disasters for farmers, who planted, cultivated and harvested expecting normal market demand and prices. Instead, demand and prices for wheat collapsed due to falling prices and soaring unemployment, which reached 25% nationally by late 1931.
Man-made Economic Depression
To that point in time, the severe economic conditions were driven by fraud in financial markets on an historically unprecedented scale: the Great Crash of 1929 (called a “speculative bubble” by Burns) and its aftermath, and by the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930. Both the Crash and Smoot-Hawley were products of the mercantilist elite who dominate the financial sector, industry and federal policy.
Burns fails to mention Smoot-Hawley at all, missing the salient point first made by Jude Wanniski in 1978 that the tariff increases won floor votes in the U. S. Senate on the precise days of the ’29 Crash. By year-end 1931, within 18 months after Herbert Hoover signed Smoot-Hawley, U. S. exports fell nearly 70%. Wheat farmers had invested to produce crops for three years straight without recovering their capital, much less making profits. As Burns reports, they simply could not re-plant in 1932.
That is when the dust storms began. Fields laid bare and untended because economic depression was orchestrated by mercantilist elite who intended that result. Burns reports the first dust storm in Amarillo, TX, on January 21, 1932. Winds ripped tons of top-soil from empty fields, lifted it aloft, dried and stripped nutrients from it, and then dropped the “dead” dirt everywhere it was unwanted and destructive.
Once the dust storms began, farmers were helpless to turn around the evil chain of horrors. They were penniless and, even if their soil was good enough and moist enough to grow wheat, the market would not pay them a profitable price.
No doubt, lack of rainfall played a role in the calamity. But, absent the wheat price collapse and general economic depression brought on by the Great Crash, Smoot-Hawley and then the quadrupling of income tax rates in 1932, does anyone doubt Dust Bowl families would have suffered much less? Would dust storms have occurred at all in those conditions? The dust rose from fields idled by financial manipulations. The dust itself did not increase rain-making capabilities of weather. Did it damage those capabilities?
New Light on FDR’s Role
Bad farming practices as root cause of the Dust Bowl is not the only misconception in the PBS documentary. Its reportage of Franklin Roosevelt’s role as president is at least as seriously off the mark. True, many farmers in the region saw Roosevelt as their ally. But, demonstrably, he was not.
Promptly upon taking office, FDR proceeded systematically to deepen the economic depression. He torpedoed efforts of his own secretary of state, Cordell Hull, to reduce tariff rates as the Democratic Party (and farmers) traditionally favored. He raised taxes on everything and everybody in the productive class, as advised by his financial crony, Bernard Baruch. He orchestrated phony reform of financial markets, creating the Securities & Exchange Commission to shield the ruling elite from prosecution for financial fraud.
Worst of all, FDR used tax revenues to buy prodigious amounts of gold during his first eight years of office. He bought more than twice the tonnage of gold owned by the U. S. in 1930. He hoarded this gold in Treasury vaults, putting it outside the monetary system in violation of gold standard rules. By doing this, Roosevelt shrank severely the amount of currency in circulation in the U. S. and around the world.
Americans were hurt worst by this cynical act. Their money was taken as taxes to buy the gold, and then prices for their products fell due to severe monetary deflation resulting from reduced currency supply. We knew the U. S. suffered more from effects of the Great Depression than any other nation. Now we know why.
Roosevelt devalued the U. S. dollar 41% in January, 1934, pretending his purpose was to aid U. S. exporters (including farmers) to compete in foreign markets. The devaluation was designed carefully to assure no new dollars were added to the money supply. Short term, the currency devaluation enabled farm commodities, including wheat, to be dumped in foreign markets with minimal effects on domestic prices.
Dumping farm crops abroad aggravated starvation among Americans, including Dust Bowl families. So did Roosevelt’s other “reform” efforts, such as plowing under un-harvested crops, pouring milk on the ground, and burying carcasses of baby pigs so they wouldn’t grow to produce food. Plains families fed nettles to livestock – and nettle soup to children. New Deal make-work and regulatory programs were window-dressing to attract political support.
Setting History Straight
All of this and much more are detailed, referenced and analyzed in The Fruits of Graft. With the facts of Roosevelt’s actions presented, continuing to broadcast false accounts we have heard for decades is inexcusable.
Mr. Burns, you and your colleagues can render important service to the public interest by digging deeply and reporting how the Great Depression was, in a fundamental sense, “man-made” in America. ~
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