Schiller Institute on YouTube Schiller Institute on Facebook RSS

Home >

This Week in History:
April 10 - 17, 1933
The Tennessee Valley Authority

April 2011

National Archives

Construction at TVA's Douglas Dam, Tennessee, 1942.

The second week of April saw the launching of what was perhaps the most world-shaking, and exemplary, project of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal--the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). Unlike the other legislation which had been introduced, and was being passed, the TVA was a gigantic, long-term infrastructure project which would take years to complete, and which would revolutionize the physical environment, and the lives, of millions of Americans throughout decades to come.

The Tennessee River Basin, which encompasses parts of the seven states of Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, Kentucky, and Virginia, had long been a target for development. It was the scene of constant floods and human misery. But, back during the First World War, the Federal government had targetted the portion of the river known as Muscle Shoals, which featured a 130-foot drop over 40 miles, for the creation of a hydroelectric plant, and a nitrate production plant. Completed too late, the facilities never went into operation during the war, and were still sitting idle in 1933.

President Roosevelt, however, had his eye on this site, as well as three others, for major water resource management and development. He had given a campaign speech in 1932, in which he had pledged his support for Federal construction of four great dams--Boulder Canyon; Bonneville on the Columbia River near Portland, Oregon; St. Lawrence in the Northeast; and Muscle Shoals. And during the transition period between his election and inauguration, he had met with Nebraska Senator George Norris twice, to scope out developing the Muscle Shoals project into a great government enterprise fitting together "industry, agriculture, forestry, and flood control." It was Norris, who had been fighting for the development since the early 1920s, who was given the mandate to force the legislation through.

On April 10, President Roosevelt sent a Message to Congress on the Creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority, which we quote in full:

"The continued idleness of a great national investment in the Tennessee Valley leads me to ask the Congress for legislation necessary to enlist this project in the service of the people.

"It is clear that the Muscle Shoals development is but a small part of the potential public usefulness of the entire Tennessee River. Such use, if envisioned in its entirety, transcends mere power development; it enters the wide fields of flood control, soil erosion, afforestation, elimination from agricultural use of marginal lands, and distribution and diversification of industry. In short, this power development of war days leads logically to national planning for a complete river watershed involving many states and the future lives and welfare of million. It touches and gives life to all forms of human concerns.

"I, therefore, suggest to the Congress legislation to create a Tennessee Valley Authority, a corporation clothed with the power of government but possessed of the flexibility and initiative of a private enterprise. It should be charged with the broadest duty of planning for the proper use, conservation, and development of hte natural resources of the Tennessee River drainage basin and its adjoining territory for the general social and economic welfare of the nation. This authority should also be clothed with the necessary power to carry these plans into effect. Its duty should be the rehabilitation of the Muscle Shoals development and the coordination of it with the wider plan.

"Many hard lessons have taught us the human waste that results from lack of planning. Here and there a few wise cities and counties have looked ahead and planned. But our nation has 'just grown.' It is time to extend planning to a wider field, in this instance comprehending in one great project many states directly concerned with the basin of one of our greatest rivers.

"This in a true sense is a return to the spirit and vision of the pioneer. If we are successful here we can march on, step by step, in a like development of other great natural territorial units within our borders."

What the TVA Wrought

Despite outrage from many of the conservatives, Democratic and Republican, over the government getting involved in building public infrastructure, Roosevelt succeeded in getting Norris's legislation through the Senate, and having the Senate version, rather than the much narrower House one, ultimately passed. The passage date was May 18.

To get an idea of the impact of the project, over the following decades, a short section from Richard Freeman's study of Roosevelt's New Deal, recently released in a LaRouche in 2004 Special Report, is relevant.

The TVA incorporated, as an integrated package, hydroelectric generation, flood control, irrigation, scientific agriculture, the fostering of manufacturing, eradication of disease, elimination of illiteracy, and the spread of electrification, to bring about a revolutionary change to a region. The Authority put an end to the flooding, and its attendant destruction....

The TVA also spread electricity. In 1933, the average Tennessee Valley resident used, per capita, only 60% as much electricity as the average resident of the United States. But by 1939, the Valley had leapfrogged the country: The average Tennessee Valley resident had 125% of the national average of electricity use per capita. This miraculous change altered every feature of life. The TVA also lowered the price of electricity: In 1933, the average cost of a kilowatt-hour of delivered electricity was a little over 7 cents; by 1935, it was about 2.5 cents, a savings of 65%.

The TVA fundamentally changed agriculture. It set up 15,000 "demonstration farms" throughout the region. On the farms, agronomists worked with the farmers to apply scientific methods that incorporated increased fertilizer use (much of it produced by the TVA itself, and sold at inexpensive prices); increased electricity use, which enabled farmers to use all manner of farm implements; the use of tiering on mountainsides to lessen water runoff, etc. Between 1933 and 1943, the per-acre yields on the 15,000 TVA "demonstration farms" tripled. Farmers were brought from throughout the region to visit and study the methods of the demonstration farms, spreading the increased farm productivity throughout the Valley.

With flood control, and increased electricity, the TVA deliberately brought manufacturing to the region, where it had scarcely existed before. Utilizing the electricity, aluminum plants were constructed there during World War II, to produce aluminum for military aircraft. In 1930, the Valley had four farm workers for every factory worker, but by 1960, it had two factory workers for every farm worker. This stunning shift in the composition of the labor force in only 30 years, represented a rapid industrialization and modernization; and, at the same time, each farmer was more productive.

The TVA, acting as a development organization, tackled other problems. The Authority established its own Health and Safety Department. By the mid-1940s, once-rampant malaria had been nearly eliminated in the Tennessee Valley. The U.S. government and the TVA jointly planned programs with special emphasis on constructing sanitation projects, and instituted immunization against smallpox, typhoid, and diphtheria. To overcome prevalent illiteracy, the TVA, in conjunction with government agencies, brought in books and libraries, including libraries on wheels, to reach people in the outer areas of the region. When the library program began, it was distributing 52,000 books from 200 locations. By 1951, the regional library services distributed 1.5 million books.

Finally, availing itself of the abundant electricity, the government constructed at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, a nuclear development center, initially part of the wartime Manhattan Project, later one of the leading nuclear science and technology laboratories. A region that had been steeped in backwardness now had one of the top research and development centers in the world.

This article, by Nancy Spannaus, was originally published in the EIR Online’s Electronic Intelligence Weekly, as part of an ongoing series on history, with a special emphasis on American history. We are reprinting and updating these articles now to assist our readers in understanding of the American System of Economy.

Related pages: