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Nationalism and the South

ISSUE:  Winter 1934

When the guns of Charleston roared against Sumter on that spring morning of ‘61, the occasion represented the end of a long period of fierce thinking and the substitution therefor of a period of decisive action. And although the thought and the action were both ultimately buried in a Lost Cause, they nevertheless bore witness to a Southern trait which was supposedly undying. Is the supposition still valid?

Again we (the South) live in a world of secession, albeit more seceded from than seceding. Rebellion surges against the old order. New forms of control reach out to re-encircle, to reshape, to remotivate the doings of men and nations. The fortresses of individualism are falling, the adventur-ings of industry are being muzzled, the special rights and privileges of whole sections are being nullified. Panic stricken, the nations of the world draw tightly about them the skirts of economic seclusion; the opulent interchanges which in the older days brought wealth to Georgia and South takes its stand on cotton culture; and by that culture, so far as our own generation is concerned, the South will stand or fall.

The logic is the all-compelling logic of self-preservation. Yet where Southerners are gathered together en masse, wherever fire-eaters spew their pyrotechnics, the political war cries are: Buy America, collect the war debts, keep up the tariffs, a plague on trade agreements, a fig for your economic conferences, to hell with France, yes, we’ll take their gold. And, not knowing that each of these crude shibboleths is a nail in the coffin of a great region, they continue gayly to hammer them in.

Startlingly strange it is that the minds of business men and their public representatives should be so obtuse as to fail to see that foreign trade is a two-way activity,—that to sell to other countries we must buy in equal proportion, or else lend the purchase money. The admonition Buy America means precisely the same thing as Don’t Export. The insistence on collecting the war debts is an insistence that foreigners be not permitted to buy our goods. The plea for higher tariffs is a plea that our cotton be kept at home unmarketed. Our refusal to help stabilize foreign currencies is a refusal to pave the way to bigger business for our farms and factories. Such is the paradox of Nationalism, the stupidity of a “self-contained America.”

If I were, say, a complacent New Yorker, possessed of the type of mind which grandly views the nation as a whole and persists in thinking of it as an economic unit, I might reason in this characteristic fashion: The United States possesses all the resources which make for self-sufficiency. We have unlimited quantities of the great commodity hierarchy, coal, iron, and petroleum; we have all the foodstuffs we can use and virtually all of the chemicals which we need. We have abundance of tobacco and cotton and all the products of unlimited forests. To be sure, we have been importing large quantities of silk, but improved rayon can very well displace that. Also we need more sugar than we raise, but our own beet-growing possibilities can be expanded indefinitely; besides, Florida is just now developing sugarcane culture on a promising scale. As for rubber, we are on the verge of devising a synthetic product which will be entirely satisfactory. We shall no doubt wish to continue importing some minor materials, a little tin, manganese, and nickel, but special barter arrangements can be worked out for those. Nothing of real importance is left out of the self-sufficiency picture, except coffee. The case is closed. Hurrah for America!

There is just one effective answer to this serene pronouncement on our comprehensive superiorities. Bring the pronouncer before an audience of five million Southern cotton growers and have them shout in his ear as one man: Yes, that is all very well, but what job have you got for us now? Where do we go from here? And so the case is reopened.

The disconcerting inquiry from the cotton farmers will be shared by those who work in the tobacco fields. Twenty per cent of their product is also at stake. And there will be recruits a-plenty from the petroleum fields. The naval stores industry will supply others. There will be not a few from the coal mines, because the fuel once used in the manufacture of machinery for export will no longer be needed. The manufacturers of textiles will contribute their quota too, as will the makers of cigarettes and smoking tobacco.

This is the dilemma we are brought to if the patrioteers have their way, if the doctrines now rampant come to full fruition in a one hundred per cent self-contained America. It is to be expected, of course, that before the present movement has run full course cataracts will begin dropping from blind eyes and so make possible enough reverse action to stave off complete catastrophe. But our reasoning here must take nationalism at its full face value. It is our business to inquire what this particular form of insanity means if allowed to achieve its professed objectives. If its logic points in a certain definite direction, we would be truly weak-minded to dismiss it merely because of a hope that it won’t carry through.


I have already referred to the magnitude and character of the losses we would suffer from the elimination of our cotton export trade, assuming no compensatory developments. Let us now view the possibilities of readjustment. What would be done with the fifteen million acres of abandoned cotton land, the several million acres of deserted tobacco land, and the labor formerly spent thereon? Their allocation to other money crops is out of the question, for the simple reason that these latter also fall in the overproduction categories. But some means of overcoming cash losses by other forms of income could alone prevent starvation. The obvious recourse is to the growing of foodstuffs for local consumption. Cotton and tobacco farms in the South have long been noted for their lack of livestock, poultry, fruits, and vegetables. Hard-earned cotton dollars have gone too much into the purchase at the village store of fat-back and molasses for the family and hay for the mules. Such agronomical non-sense would probably be wiped out by nationalism. Each farm from necessity would have to grow its own rations. Hogs would be raised to make possible the growing of corn; the breeding of cattle would justify the planting of more grain, clover, and lespedeza. The art of canning and preserving would of necessity pervade the farming regions. The chicken yard, the orchard, the smokehouse, and the potato hill would become a part of the economy of each farm.

It would mean the final passing of the great plantation. Single family farming would predominate. Mechanization would virtually disappear; animal and man power would re-emerge. The passing of the money crop would spell the doom of tenancy. The farm population would slowly, but inevitably, take on the characteristics of old-world peasantry. Its food and its raiment, its furniture and furnishings, its tools and its bric-a-brac would be the products of its own hands. The ranks of the merchants would be thinned, and the reduced output of the factories would be for the urban-ites. The food would probably be better balanced, the raiment would be sturdier if rougher, the economic hazards of life would be less.

But despite these things which commend it, it is a throwback to medievalism—without the cathedrals. Primitive self-sufficiency would mean a revolution in our institutional life, a re-scaling of cultural values. The concrete would give way to the clay, the automobile to the mule cart, the hospital to the midwife. Higher education would again take to the sackcloth. The cosmopolitan would bow to the folk-way.

To many this is no forbidding picture as compared with the state we have been brought to by our unrestrained industrialism. But let us carry the analysis further.

A South forced into its shell by a self-contained nationalism is a South which can no longer be an opulent customer for the rest of the Union. It bodes no good for the automobile industry and the tractor manufacturers. The corn and hog growers of the Middle West will receive a bad jolt. The dairy business of Michigan and Wisconsin will be hard hit, as will the canneries of Pennsylvania, Maryland, Maine, and California. Scarcely an area of the nation will escape the necessity of downward readjustments in accustomed activities and of new quests for compensatory but less profitable occupations. The South, therefore, will not stand alone in its reactions. What it suffers from loss of trade with foreign nations it will diffuse in full measure throughout the republic. Then each state will probably learn that it is no easier to cope with a destiny that sits on its own doorstep than with one that is interwoven in the world fabric.


There is but little hope that the revolution I have indicated can be obviated by any program of planned economy. In general, no so-called economic planning can do more than facilitate the accomplishment of what is logically necessary and possible. Once it achieves fundamental readjustments, its remaining function is to check excesses, maintain balances, assure proper proportions. It is, therefore, primarily an agency of stabilization; its inclination is always toward rigidity. It removes from the scene the dynamic of individualism, the lure of business adventure. It seeks less to reward natural advantage and exceptional skill than to restrain them. Except in those cases where it causes government to step into public works activities inappropriate to private enterprise, it aims rather toward the efficient operation and maintenance of what we have than the attainment of new and revolutionary objectives.

If Russia seems to be an exception, it is because of the industrial immaturity of that nation. There every available energy is turned into the creation of primary equipment. Years of frenzied effort will be required to bring that country to the point where, well equipped with plant and machinery, she can begin to concentrate on the satisfaction of consumption requirements. That point reached, the tempo of further progress must change and possibly become adjusted to the slow variable of population growth. Then the spectre of unemployment will raise its head, and refuse to be laid by any method which Bolshevism can apply other than a shortening of the working day or increased military service.

England has already reached the stage of development where she is virtually immune to any type of planned economy, with the possible exception of socialism. Her industrial plant is complete; in certain respects, excessive. What with her scanty natural resources on the one hand and the necessity of relying upon a constantly narrowing export trade on the other, her total opportunity is not enlarged by any conceivable plan. The only flexibility left to her lies in the narrow range of potentially greater technical efficiency.

I have referred to England and Russia as two countries which, although in sharply contrasting situations, illustrate clearly the truth that any system of economic planning is subject at any given time to the same maximum limitations which apply to a system of private enterprise. It is important that we bear this in mind when we weigh the possibilities of gain from our newly fledged N. R. A. against the certain losses from a vanished export trade. Unquestionably the movement toward nationalism will proceed hand in hand with the movement toward increasing control of domestic business. In all of the nationalistically disposed countries this has been the case, and there is no reason to believe the United States will or can be an exception. The variety and seriousness of the internal adjustments attendant upon the consummation of a nationalistic program would brook no other alternative.

It can be safely presumed, therefore, that the South will take her planned industrial economy along with her nationalism and self-sufficiency. And the plan, such as it is, will not be hers; it will be the nation’s. However admirable it may turn out to be for the whole people of the country, it will also be from the point of view of the South a lock-step device.

The special significance of this lies in the fact that heretofore the South has been geared to a rate of industrial growth more rapid than that of the national average. She has regarded herself as a finely appointed stage for industry, largely unoccupied because of the lateness in recognizing her magnificent advantages. Once these advantages began to be widely recognized, as they were about fifteen years ago, the industrial response was stupendous. It solved to a certain extent the problem of a congested agricultural population. And no doubt there are many people who expect this to continue, who anticipate that the unemployment caused by a restricted agricultural output will be absorbed by an expanding industry.

They are doomed to disappointment. The N. R. A. has taken away from us virtually all of our bait. What did this bait consist of? Labor that was cheaper than the labor of other sections, labor that would in fact receive gratefully whatever pay the employer chose to give. Besides, it would work longer hours—sixty hours a week if you liked. Again, it would work either day or night, either sex according to preference. Furthermore, it had no interest in being organized, made no fuss about the conditions of work or its mode of living. It gave thanks to God, three times a day, for its daily bread; read the Bible religiously, but nothing else; attended church regularly; and looked forward to heaven for its ultimate rewards.

What does the N. R. A. do for this splendid set-up? It standardizes the working day so that the Southern worker is at the machine the same number of hours as his New England cousin and no more. So goes by the board that working-time differential. It establishes a standard minimum wage, permitting a weekly differential between North and South which is offset by the additional expense which the Southern employer is put to for housing. So goes by the board the wage differential. It imposes, for our most important industry, a definite check upon the installation of new machinery. Additional machines are allowed only when the industry as a whole, nationally viewed, actually needs it. So goes by the board the sort of expansion which comes from reckless individualism. It provides for the workers a system of collective bargaining, invites them to organize, enjoins the employer from any express opposition to trade unionism. So goes by the board labor docility, the dictation from above of working conditions, the right of management to run its plant as it pleases, the essence of paternalism, and a host of other trappings.

These changes are good—very, very good—but they are designed to have an extremely sobering influence. They conform to the highest principles of social and economic decency, but they decisively remove the props from our o’er-weening sectional ambitions. They make possible a somewhat larger and more stable volume of employment, but they assure no upward trend. They make more secure the position of existing establishments, but they cater to no program of expansion. They definitely draw the curtain on any prospects of a larger industrialism arrived at by the suction process.

There is the possibility, of course, that the N. R. A. will not achieve permanence. The law makes express provision for only two years of life. But it would be a great mistake to assume that its lapsing will take place automatically. Labor will have something to say about it, the attitude of management will be important, and public opinion will demand a hearing.

Labor will fight for its retention and, in the interim, will amass far greater power than it has previously had, to make its fight effective. In the South, some of the more important obstacles to rapid unionization have been removed. Employers under the law are compelled to accept the procedure of collective bargaining and are estopped from any forceful activities against such unions as their employees choose to have. But more important than this, perhaps, is the removal from unionization of certain social and legal stigmas. Southern workers have traditionally approached the idea of unionization with a guilty conscience. State laws did not approve, the local judiciary was hostile, the community was unfriendly, the church was skeptical. Now these shadows are dissipated. The worker is given a new conscience. The act of unionization is not only legalized; it is insisted upon by government itself as a device essential to the public interest. By society as a whole it is given the high dignity of being a prime social and economic objective.

If labor responds as would seem inevitable, it will not be disposed to give up this high position. Its economic bargaining power will be supplemented by vastly greater political power which should effectively bulwark its newly won status.

Moreover, it is not to be assumed that management will be universally hostile. Long before 1933, most textile enterprisers were weary of the merciless competitive buffetings from their fellows, were sick of the inhuman wages they were paying. They saw with perfect clarity that the long hours, the night work, the low wages, the price cutting, the reckless physical expansion were getting them nowhere except more deeply into the red. Hence they grasped eagerly for the short, standardized working day, the machinery for regularizing prices and costs, swallowed easily the minimum wage, made no great fuss over collective bargaining, and were ready with their code on the day President Roosevelt signed the N. R. A. The Act will have to be a truly great disappointment if managers fail to insist upon its retention in 1935.

The States now dominant in the textile industry will wish to retain the Act for the broader reason that it effectually checkmates any possibility that the industry will move to other borders. In the upper South during the past five years there has been no small amount of worrying over the increasing textile interest of the Southwest. There was the fear that just as North and South Carolina had taken from New England, so would Georgia, Alabama, and Texas take from the Carolinas, and by the same methods. The need for geographical stability is just as great as the need for production and price stability, and the present vested interests will do everything in their power to see that the need is met.

Public opinion will take heed of the improved social and economic conditions in mill villages and will be all the more pleased that such gains were not made at the expense of the stockholders. In so far as the industrial South is concerned, the N. R. A. will stand.


It is evident that the benefits of the N. R. A., however great, are not of the character which will save us from the acute agricultural maladjustments following upon a chauvinistic “self-contained” program. It follows logically that the South must fight the latter development with every resource at its command. It seems to me there are two major points of attack, the first one being a reduction of the obstacles to foreign trade which we ourselves, as a nation, have set up; the second consisting of efforts to induce reciprocal action along similar lines from other nations, especially those which constitute our most important export outlets.

Of the obstacles which we ourselves have set, probably the most exasperating and the most unnecessary is our top-heavy position as a creditor nation. The rest of the world owes us something like twenty billion dollars, including both public and private debts. Annual interest and amortization payments on this vast sum can hardly be less than a billion dollars a year. These payments must be made in dollars, or in gold—not in foreign currencies. In order to procure the necessary dollars, debtor countries must use the proceeds of their export trade, since gold is inadequate and since further borrowing is impracticable. After deducting from export proceeds the amounts required for foreign debt payment, the remainder is not adequate to pay for the customary imports—and the imports of these debtor countries are our exports.

Hence the governments of debtor countries are forced into every sort of device to keep their foreign purchases down to a minimum. Not only high tariffs are resorted to, but arbitrary limitations in the form of quotas and embargoes. In many cases, as for example, Germany, Italy, Australia, and practically all of the countries of South America, the central banks refuse flatly to provide the exchange for the purchase of foreign goods or the payment of private debts abroad except within certain narrow limits arbitrarily im


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