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The Meaning of the T.V.A.

ISSUE:  Autumn 1942

“There is something in the mere cant of a dam, when seen from below, that makes one think of the Pyramids of Egypt. Both Pyramid and dam represent an architecture of power. But the difference it notable, too, and should make one prouder of being an American, The first grew out of slavery and celebrated death. Ours was produced by free labor to create energy and life for the people of the United States.”—Lewis Mumford

The Tennessee Valley Authority will soon be ten years old. It has worn well. Since 1933 its fame as a dam builder, regional planner, power agency, and conservator of soil resources has spread around the world. People generally are familiar with the story of the T. V. A. and how it grew from the Muscle Shoals nitrate and power plants of the first World War into a program for the control and utilization of the natural resources of an entire region— a region which seemed in some curious way to have fallen out of the main stream of national development. Its work has fascinated thoughtful observers, creating the feeling that here was something of which a nation could be proud. There is a tendency on the part of many who attempt to understand its meaning to talk in terms of superlatives. Their comments are likely to have a poetic, not to say mystical, quality. This phenomenon is not confined to the starry-eyed visitors who come, in the words of Jonathan Daniels, to “oo and ah at the new heaven in the old earth.” It appears as well in such a hard-headed newspaper as the New York Times, which in 1938 published an editorial entitled “TVA and the American Dream.” It is difficult to think of any other federal agency which would have inspired that phrase.

At the moment the meaning of the T. V. A. lies primarily in the amount of power its dams are sending into the aluminum plants of the Tennessee Valley. Plough shares have been beaten into swords for the duration. But even in the midst of war it may not be amiss to examine into the factors responsible for the extraordinary reputation the Tennessee Valley project has achieved. The component parts of its program are not unusual. Other river systems have been developed, though not so completely, by the building of multiple-purpose dams. There are other public power systems in the country. There are other planning agencies, other programs for agricultural improvement and land conservation. And yet nowhere else have these elements been combined in such a purposeful way. No other public instrumentality of our times has seemed to have more symbolic meaning, more usefulness as a tool, more promise for the future.

The comprehensive program of river control which the T. V. A. is now hurrying to its conclusion is probably the most impressive physical engineering project since the Panama Canal. While there are larger dams elsewhere, there is nothing to compare with this co-ordinated development of twenty-eight dams located throughout a watershed of 40,000 square miles and making it possible for water to be t dispatched down the Tennessee like trains on a railroad. I These dams are operated as part of a single system for a single goal—to make the flow of the river and its tributaries do a maximum of good and a minimum of harm. Controlling purposes in working out the operating plan are to keep navigable depths in the river at all times, to allow proper margins for storage of flood waters, and to permit generation of the maximum amount of power consistent with the first two objectives. The flow of the Tennessee is also co-ordinated with that of the lower Mississippi, in order to mitigate flood or drought conditions. At New Orleans two years ago low flow in the Mississippi permitted sea water to back up the river to a point where the city water supply was threatened, a situation which the T, V. A. was called on to alleviate by releases from its storage reservoirs 1500 river-miles away.

The imagination is caught, not only by the boldness and completeness of this control plan, but also by the tremendous potentialities of the stored water. Electric power is still as exciting and mysterious, despite a half-century of familiarity, as it was to the sensitive mind of Henry Adams who in the great gallery of machines at the Paris Exposition of 1900 “began to feel the forty-foot dynamos as a moral force, much as the early Christians felt the Cross.” Impressive as it is, a steam-driven dynamo does not begin to compare in symbolic quality with a hydro turbine generator. In order to stoke a steam plant thousands of men must crouch in the earth to dig for coal. In a hydro-electric plant the operating technicians do not wrestle with nature in the dirt and the dark. Instead, they manipulate with ridiculous ease the force of the white coal rushing through penstocks and turning quietly humming turbines. They symbolize man in control of his environment and directing his destiny.

Again, a steam power plant is that and nothing more. Its social consequences lie simply in the amount of power it will make available. But the damming of a river creates an entire new physical environment. Napoleon is reported to have said that man could have no more absolute authority than control over the waters that cover the earth. He who undertakes to wipe out by flood a valley where men have lived plays God, and incurs obligations proportionately heavy. There must be a weighing of consequences, and a new equilibrium must be fashioned to replace the one destroyed.

The symbolic value of the T. V. A. has been heightened by the stirring architectural treatment accorded its projects. Fritz Gutheim has said that architecture and engineering are more completely integral in the T. V. A. than they have been at any time since the two professions became separated, ‘The job of the architect has been to make sure that the dams look as efficient as the engineers have made them,” Anyone who has seen the Norris and Hiwassee dams, with their spectacular height and scenic surroundings, or the long low dams bracketing the wide valley of the main stream, and has walked through the powerhouses and looked over the reservoirs from the vantage points provided for visitors can testify how well this goal has been achieved. One need not be an architect to appreciate the clean lines, the sense of strength and regular rhythm in these structures. The achievement in design which they represent can be better understood by considering Wilson Dam at Muscle Shoals, completed only eight years before Norris Dam was begun, yet closer in spirit to the scroll-work of nineteenth century building than to the simple mass of the T. V. A.-designed dams. The latter have the beauty of their function, heightened not by decoration or gew-gaws but by such natural devices as allowing the concrete to retain the mark of the grain from the rectangular wood forms into which it is poured, horizontal being contrasted with vertical patterns.

The remarkable sequence of buildings for which the T. V, A. has been responsible derives perhaps its greatest symbolic quality from the fact that it represents the achievement of a truly public architecture—created by public employees for a public purpose and public enjoyment. Gutheim admirably sensed the significance of this factor when he called it “the architecture of public relations,” meaning that “From the conception of the scheme to its final execution you feel that each decision has been made in the light of the fact that the public would come, look, and judge by what it saw.” And what it sees, according to Mumford, is “modern architecture at its mightiest and its best. The Pharoahs did not do any better.”


In one sense the New Deal has been a gigantic retooling job. The model T administrative equipment of the federal government during the 1920’s was simply inadequate to handle the production requirements of the 1930’s. There had been so many tasks which badly wanted doing, and which everyone agreed would have beneficial results, but which had not been undertaken because there were no tools available for the purpose. And the tools had not been developed because of a basic unwillingness to think of the federal government as an instrument, or to use it for other than traditional purposes. There was an assumption that what had not been done previously could not be done, and would not be legal. Consider the frustrated tone in the 1930 report of the Army Engineers on the development of the Tennessee River:

While it is possible that a central agency set up with authority to control the operations of all the waterway plants in the Tennessee Basin might secure a somewhat greater degree of efficiency than could be obtained by voluntary cooperation among independent power producers, there appears to be no legal means for establishing such an agency by the United States.

In time it was discovered that this desirable goal was not beyond the constitutional reach of the federal government.

Of all the administrative agencies created by the New Deal, none has seemed more significantly instrumental in character than the T. V. A. Unlike the states, whose century-old political boundaries cut through the living reality of metropolitan areas and other economic and social configurations, it was given jurisdiction over a single natural area, an entire watershed. Federal departments were already in existence with responsibilities similar to those it was to undertake in its region. The Army Engineers were qualified dam builders, the Department of Agriculture was active in the Tennessee Valley as elsewhere in the nation, the Forest Service was carrying on its conservation program. But the theory of the T. V. A. was that the activities of such single-purpose agencies, operating from Washington on a nationwide scale, were likely to impinge upon a particular area in a rather segmented and unco-ordinated fashion, and that a new type of contribution could be made to government administration by setting up a multi-purpose agency in a limited problem area. As Chairman Lilienthal put it: “The problems of the Tennessee Valley were viewed as a single problem of many integrated parts, rather than dissected into separate bits in order to fit the pigeon-holes of existing gov-ernmental instrumentalities.”

And so it has been the job of the T. V. A. to see its area as a whole, and in relation to the larger interests of the nation. It has been fact-gatherer and press agent for the region, and even special pleader where it felt that discrimination existed, as in the field of railroad freight rates. But the planning and operating powers of the T. V. A. are not great, all things considered. It does not replace the cities, the counties, the states, or even other federal departments operating in the area. It has no federal funds to distribute except those spent for its own projects. Thus, both by necessity and by choice, it has sought regional development not by supplanting or dictating to local institutions, but rather by strengthening them and working with them. The Authority has prided itself on the “grass roots” character of its operations, and on the fact that its administrative decisions are made in Knoxville, not in the District of Columbia. As an important experiment in the decentralization of federal functions, the T. V. A. has been discovering how problems too big for the states can be handled without creating a Washington bureaucracy out of touch with the country.

There are certainly limits to what the regional experience of the T. V. A. has demonstrated. It by no means follows that its example should be adopted over the entire nation, with the Department of Agriculture and the Department of the Interior abolished and their duties taken over by regional authorities operating from regional sub-capitals. For the most part federal decentralization will have to be secured by less spectacular means. But the regional device should be increasingly useful as a solution to the dilemma posed by the inadequacies of the states and the dangers of expanding further Washington’s administrative responsibilities.

The Authority’s instrumentalism is reflected in its program as well as in its structure. How it has developed the interrelationships between its major activities and followed through on all the leads opened up by them can be seen perhaps most clearly in its treatment of the agricultural problem in the Tennessee Valley, upon the solution of which practically all its efforts have some bearing. Its water control responsibilities give the T. V. A. a concern for keeping the river off the land, and the land out of the river. There is no controversy concerning this goal. The individual farmer, the T. V. A., and the nation as a whole all have the same interests in protecting the soil. It is the task of the Authority to translate these interests into effective action. Education of farmers in soil-conserving practices is required. For a generation this has been the domain of the extension services of the state agricultural colleges and the county agents. The T. V. A. did not attempt to compete with this established system, but instead sought to make it more effective by embarking on a policy of cooperation, formalized in a three-way memorandum of understanding signed in 1934 with the Department of Agriculture and the land-grant colleges of the Valley states.

The special contribution which the T. V. A. has to make to the general educational program of the extension services derives from another of its major programs, fertilizer experimentation and production. The Authority is interested in acquainting farmers in the most practical way with the effects of phosphate and lime on grass and legume crops which will protect and restore the land. The technique developed for this purpose is the test-demonstration farm. Groups of farmers, called together by their county agents, select one of their number to conduct on his farm a demonstration with T. V. A. fertilizers. They participate in working out a program of land use and farm management for the farm. The demonstration farmer agrees to use the phosphate supplied by the T. V. A. only on soil-saving crops and pastures; and otherwise to follow farming practices that will further soil rebuilding. Except for the phosphate and a limited amount of technical guidance, the farmer and his neighbors are on their own. The farmer pays for any additional material, livestock, and machinery required by the adjustment, including freight charges on the phosphate. Further, he agrees to keep detailed operating and financial records, and opens his farm and accounts to the observation of all the farmers in his community. Each demonstration farm—and by 1941 there had been 85,000 of them—thus becomes a kind of schoolroom which the whole neighborhood attends.

But education, even through practical demonstrations of this character, is not enough. It does a man no good to know proper farming methods, if he is foreclosed by circumstances from acting on that knowledge. A farmer does not plow up a hillside and put it in corn because he wants to promote erosion. He does not plant cotton on the same land year after year because he wants to burn out the soil. He does it because, under the circumstances, he has no alternatives. He needs the money which these cash crops bring. He can do nothing else until, as Mr. Lilienthal expressed it to Jonathan Daniels, he is given “a choice—a free choice—by making it possible for him to use his land in such a way that he will not only be able to support his family but at the same time protect his soil against depreciation. No need to fear how he’ll choose.”

Fortunately the task of making choices of this kind available does not fall upon the T. V. A. alone. It is a responsibility of the whole national agricultural program, with its benefit payments and rehabilitation loans. But the resources of the T, V. A. are dedicated to this purpose also. It conducts research looking toward the development of agricultural industries which will use regional resources and relieve the burden on the soil by supplying new sources of income. Thus work has been done on the quick-freezing of fruits and vegetables, on the preparation of flax fiber so that it can be used on cotton mill machinery for the manufacture of linen fabrics, on the processing of sorghum. Other research efforts have been directed to the development of farm machinery adapted to the conditions existing on Valley farms. A low-cost threshing machine has been devised, and a furrow seeder which plants grain and distributes fertilizer in the same process on hillsides. Electric power has been adapted to income-producing uses on the farm through such devices as an electric hay drier inexpensive enough to be used by the small farmer, keeping hay crops from spoiling and increasing their feeding value. Electric methods of curing sweet potatoes have been developed. The Authority has designed and demonstrated a community refrigerator for groups of families in the country, which can repay much of its cost and improve farm diets by the preservation of meat and other farm products.

It is by aggressive, interrelated programs of this kind that the T. V. A. has made itself into an instrument for the widening of economic opportunity for the farming population of the Valley. To the extent that its powers permit, this sort of approach has characterized all T. V. A. activities. The Authority has sought to discharge its regional responsibility by an extensive program of co-ordinated physical and social engineering. Land and water and forests and people have all been included in the equation to be solved. Naturally the solution has not been perfect. There have been mistakes, and the powers of the T. V. A. are limited. But the instrument has worked. The retooling has produced results.


Finally, the meaning of the T. V. A. derives from the fact that its windows seem to open so broadly on the future. To friend and to foe it has seemed a sign in the sky, an indication of the shape of things to come. The frenzied editor of the Chicago Tribune had this vision of the Authority:

There is no longer room to doubt that at Norris the communism of Lenin and Stalin has taken root in the United States, for no man in Norris may engage in private business, no man in Norris may work for wages except for the government, no man in Norris may worship in church or build a church to worship in according to his conscience. Can any one doubt that in the inaccessible mountains of Tennessee is being grown the germ culture that is intended to infect America?

It is obviously true that the T. V. A. has something to say on the question of socialization, but today most sober citizens can see that our national problems are too serious to be settled by name calling, and that collectivism is not usefully treated as original sin. It is more pertinent to consider the T. V. A. as effect rather than as cause, and its significance for the future depends upon what contributions it has to make in spirit, in mechanism, in administrative competence, to the solution of the dilemmas of the post-war world.

From this point of view, a special contribution of the T. V. A. is to be found in the amount of useable and heartening administrative experience it has produced. Public enterprise has been traditionally considered as handicapped by certain inescapable features of government administration. There is the alleged dilemma of operating with personnel selected either by an unimaginative civil service commission or by politicians. There is the red tape of government contracting, the restrictiveness of government auditing, the necessity of placating Congress if appropriations are to be secured, the political interference that is to be expected. It is thus of particular importance that the T. V. A. has been able to escape both the civil service and the spoilsmen while building up what is probably the most constructive and imaginative public personnel program ever seen in this country, to announce a long-term plan and carry it through with Congressional approval, and to show that public responsibility does not require meek submission to routine and red tape.

Credit for the Authority’s excellent administrative record is in part due to its organizational form, that of a public corporation, which constitutes a bridge between private and public enterprise likely to be increasingly used. The public corporation is a corporate entity owned wholly by the government and operated by its appointees. The form has been widely used in the administration of economic undertakings by governments, the purpose being to blend the administrative, autonomy and financial responsibility of the private business corporation with public accountability and control. The possibilities of the public corporation have been less un-derstandingly explored in the United States than in Great Britain, where the broadcasting system, the generation and transmission of electric power, the London transportation facilities and port services, and overseas air transport have been carried on by public corporations for varying lengths of time. Consideration is now being given to unifying the British railways on a similar basis. In the case of the T. V. A., the implications of the corporate form have not been given effect in its financing, but its corporate status has been of considerable value in the adoption of personnel, accounting, and fiscal control methods suited to its needs, and has also emphasized its regional autonomy.

The public corporation is, of course, only a means and a mechanism. It can serve the totalitarian, the corporate, the communist state, as the Russian trusts, the Hermann Goer-ing Werke, and the South Manchuria Company testify. But a country bent on making democracy work will insist that the process of socialization, and the area within which the government becomes the sole institutional capitalist, be limited. Most Americans agree on the necessity for economic activity independent of the state, and on the impossibility of maintaining democracy and freedom if economic power becomes the monopoly of an absolute state.

The virtue of the public corporation is that it can be manipulated so as to achieve public control without unduly promoting the growth of statism. It can be given substantial administrative autonomy, making it a truly public rather than merely a government activity. The policy of decentralization which the T. V. A. has followed is another indication of how public corporations can be set up without adding to the weight of the central bureaucracy.

The long-run significance of the T. V. A. is of course much broader than any demonstration it may have given of the uses of the public corporation. Fundamentally, its contribution has been the basis it has supplied for faith in democratic institutions. It is well to have it proved so dramatically that planning can grow out of popular consensus, and does not need to be the product of supermen, imposed by Hitlerian dictation. It is good to have such impressive evidence that public control is compatible with efficiency. For one of the most important tasks of a democracy at war is to strengthen the administrative resources of government, to increase its sense of responsibility, to raise the level of public administration generally, so that it may be adequate to the heavy tasks of the present and future.

The power plants which the T. V. A. built in the face of protests from the faint-hearted that a market would never be found for such huge quantities of power, turned out to be the nation’s salvation when aluminum production became the measure of the difference between victory and defeat. Perhaps in somewhat similar fashion the administrative experience of the T. V. A. has built up reserves of governmental competence and of popular respect for the clean and workmanlike job done in the Tennessee Valley which will stand us in good stead in difficult days to come. Faith is based on works, and Americans who have looked down on Norris Dam in its setting of the hills of East Tennessee may feel that the government which could do this can also succeed in meeting the challenge of the times into which we move.


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