March 31, 1933--With both houses of Congress having passed the measure, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed into law an act creating the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). The legislation provided employment for young men in the Great Depression and gave FDR a claim second only to distant cousin Theodore Roosevelt as the nation’s greatest environmental President.
The subprime mess has led observers to call for the kind of financial regulation that comprised a major part of FDR’s famed “Hundred Days” after his inauguration. But in all the reevaluations of his Presidency, the CCC should not be overlooked.
In poring over almanacs and chronologies in preparation for my blog, I have been struck by the furious pace of change occurring simultaneously under the New Deal and Nazi Germany. But Hitler and FDR took office with mandates to repair their nation’s economies. But, Jonah Goldberg’s infamously titled Liberal Fascism to the contrary, there the resemblance ends.
Hitler’s revival of the German economy involved more than full employment or even the revving up of his country’s war machine, as cataclysmic as that proved to be. As Gotz Aly’s Hitler's Beneficiaries: Plunder, Racial War, and the Nazi Welfare State makes plain, the Nazis bolstered the economic well-being of most Germans through redistributing property they seized from marginalized groups such as the Jews. That made the German public deeply complicit in the crimes of the Nazi regime from day one, whether or not they knew of the mass extermination of entire groups that occurred during the Holocaust.
Contrast that with his opposite number—and eventually, implacable enemy—across the ocean. “On a very wide front and in the truest possible sense,” wrote journalist Joseph Alsop, in FDR: A Centenary Remembrance, "Franklin Delano Roosevelt included the excluded." He not only helped the worst-off Americans stave off starvation—gave them “relief,” if you will—but provided them with educational opportunity that would open doors for them throughout the rest of their lives.
These objectives were manifest in the CCC. The program put to work 3 ½ million men, ages 17 to 28, in 4,500 camps throughout the country. They made $30 a month, keeping $5 to $8 for their own needs in the camp while sending the rest home to their families. In all, it’s estimated that $600 million was sent home to the enrollees’ dependents over the nine years of the CCC.
Equally important, the CCC furnished these young men with an education. Hundreds of thousands attended nighttime classes, achieving, depending on how far they progressed, literacy, high school diplomas (back when they meant more than they do now), and even college degrees. In this way, the CCC represented a dry run for the G.I. Bill enacted in World War II, which swelled the ranks of the postwar middle class.
FDR’s commitment to the environment was more than longstanding—it was practically bred in the bone. Like cousin Theodore, he was a dedicated bird-watcher (though he quickly abandoned his childhood interest in taxidermy when the necessary preparations made him ill).
Thomas Patton’s essay “The Forest Plantations at Hyde Park” in FDR At Home: A Collection of Essays (edited by Nancy Fogel, 2005), he had tramped through the woods and fields surrounding his home as a boy, and, except for five years (1919-1923) when he was serving as Assistant Secretary of the Navy and recovering from polio, he ordered tree seedlings every year from 1912 until his death in 1945. He applied what he learned through the forestry program he implemented as governor of New York, which The Journal of Forestry called the “largest and most constructive yet adopted by any state.”
Moreover, his commitment to what came to be nicknamed his “Tree Army” was total. While preparing an organizational chart for the CCC, he noted, “I want personally to check on the location scope etc. of the camps, size work to be done etc. FDR.” [sic]
A USA Today article on the CCC noted that there’s a group called the National Association of Civilian Conservation Corps Alumni. Their Web site disclosed that there were two CCC camps within five miles of where I live in Englewood, N.J. Writing on another Web site, one CCC alumnus, Sterling B. Gleason, recalls working on Palisades Interstate Park—and, when they had a chance afterhours, going to the nightclub Ben Martin’s Riviera.
Unfortunately, with America’s energies turning to the war effort, the CCC was dismantled in 1942. In an age when America’s environmental needs grow more acute and so many of the nation’s youth can use employment that will teach them good work habits, I believe it should be revived.
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