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The Power and the Glory

ISSUE:  Autumn 1944

TVA—Democracy on the March. By David E. Lilienthal. Harper and Brothers. $2.50.

The TVA has proved to be the New Deal’s most exportable product. The procession of foreign visitors to Knoxville and other centers of Authority activity in the Tennessee Valley has taken on some of the aspects of a pilgrimage. The first book on the TVA was written by a Frenchwoman, and the eminent British scientist, Julian Huxley, has produced one of the most recent studies. The International Labor Organization has examined the Authority as the prototype of a resource development organization which may possibly be utilized throughout the world, and the phrase “a TVA on the Danube” has already become a symbol of the hopes for a real new order after the war.

While the TVA has welcomed this widespread interest in its activities, its officials sometimes feel rather ruefully that its foreign visitors are more impressed with its adaptability to their problems both as an administrative device and as a concept of resource development than are our own citizens in other parts of the United States. The TVA certainly has not been without honor in its own country, but it is true that too many Americans know it only as a “power project.” This excellent description of the TVA, its purposes, program, and methods, by David E. Lilienthal, chairman of the TVA since 1941 and a member of its board from the beginning, should go far toward correcting that impression,

It is difficult, in fact, to think of a government agency embracing a wider range of interests. In suggesting to Congress on April 10,1933, the metamorphosis of the World War I Muscle Shoals power project into a broad regional development agency, President Roosevelt expressed his belief that such an activity, “if envisioned in its entirety,” would “touch and give life to all forms of human concerns.” The prophecy has proved more accurate than even he could have imagined. For the TVA has included within its purview all the resources of the region—land, minerals, waters, forests—and has made magnificent progress toward its goal of a balanced and co-ordinated development of these assets for the people of the Valley and the country.

The unity, the humanity, and the grandeur of the TVA concept of resource development are so compelling as to make a kind of lyricism inevitable in the writing of those who understand what the TVA has been trying to do. R. L. Duffus has spoken of the “obvious poetry” of the TVA, and the New York Times once published an editorial entitled “TVA and the American Dream.” Mr. Lilienthal, whose practical statesmanship could have been put to no more difficult test than in the past eleven years of his service with the Authority, can with better reason than almost any other person permit himself an eloquence and a kind of restrained mysticism in explaining the significance of this experience. Flying over the Tennessee Valley, as he has done so often since 1933, he must have had a satisfaction such as comes to few men in seeing the accomplishments of his organization written in the country below—a river yellow with silt transformed into a chain of blue lakes, eroded gashes in the land being healed, the natural sweep of contour plowing, the steel towers shouldering their shining scallops of copper and aluminum wire across the hills.

There have been other efforts at conservation and resource development, but the work of the TVA has been on a new pattern and with a new method. The pattern is that of a unified program conducted by a single agency in a geographically restricted area. The method is that of decentralization, and it accounts for some of the most characteristic and successful features of the agency’s achievements. For this is a federal corporation which resolutely shuns Washington, which lives with the people for whom it works, and insists on turning over to their local governments as many of its functions as it can. Its goal has been to render local public agencies stronger rather than weaker as a result of its intervention. If cities want waterfront terminals on the new waterway of the Tennessee, they have to work for them. The new experience of managing a public power system selling TVA power may tone up an entire municipal administration. In one community the new power board did its work so well that the citizens wanted to turn the whole local government over to it. Testimony to the success with which the Authority has promoted its philosophy of “grass roots democracy” is found in the Valley-wide resistance which has met and, up to now, defeated the efforts of Senator McKellar to “protect” the region from the TVA by increasing congressional controls over its personnel and finances.

Mr. Lilienthal has given much to the TVA in direction and drive; it is apparent from this book that he has also learned much from it. Some of its lessons he may, in fact, haVe learned too well. The TVA pattern of decentralization seems to this reviewer to have limitations which, in his enthusiasm for the device, Mr. Lilienthal fails to see. But however that may be, he certainly stands out as one of the most successful, and paradoxical, of the policy-formulators brought on to the national stage by the New Deal. A man who has suffered outrageous insults from some legislators, he deplores the tendency in administrative circles to speak harshly of Congress, has himself only the kindest of words for that body, and even gives it more credit in such matters as the drafting of the TVA Act than is deserved. As chairman of one of the most typically New Deal agencies, he constantly states the dangers of overcentralized administration in Washington. A bureaucrat, he condemns the bureaucratic way of doing things to people, and argues for the democratic way of doing things with people. A carpetbagger from the North, he has become a leader in the fight for rectifying the South’s unequal economic situation. No politician, he has developed such popular strength in the Valley by doing a good job as to worry Senator McKellar and cause him to attack what he cannot control. Once subjected to a bitter campaign of personal abuse that would have crumpled many men, he writes this book without a hint of that battle or a word against the colleague who sought to drive him out of public life.

This is a fine story of an agency and a man who deserve well of their country, both now and in the tomorrow for which, as the author says, the book was written.


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