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7 UNPLUGGING THE NEW DEAL Hells Canyon High Dam and the Postwar Public-Power Debate H ells Canyon became a national controversy because the High Dam symbolized deep postwar political diªerences over electricity’s ownership and water’s social purposes. What might have been a regional scrap about the best dam to build across the Snake River fueled a wider national debate over the New Deal promise to transform watersheds and regulate capitalism with public hydropower. “High versus low dam” simplified the complex issue of whether government or business best served the public’s need for electricity. This vibrant economic debate also raised two larger issues that still challenge American environmental policymakers :Whereshouldthepowertocontrolnaturereside,andhowshould that power be used? Postwar liberals subscribed to the New Deal principle that public power constrainedprivateprofitmakingbyinvigoratingpopulargovernment;some even wanted government electricity to supplant private power altogether. Conservatives believed New Deal public power threatened property rights and local self-determination; some even believed more government power dams portended socialism. The Hells Canyon controversy thus had immediate regional impacts and long-term national implications. Not only a referendum about public-power expansion in the Northwest, it also tested the New Deal’s continuing relevance as Americans in the postwar years worked out new definitions of the public interest in nature. Electric current generates heat as it encounters resistance. So did publicpower expansion in the postwar Northwest. Hells Canyon High Dam mobilized the New Deal’s most ardent backers and dedicated opponents. Idaho Power Company appeared locked in a head-to-head duel with the federal government. Idaho Power fought the federal dam as a proxy for conservatives in business and politics still fuming, after twenty years, about the 118 New Deal’s intervention into American capitalism. President Truman made Hells Canyon High Dam a test of Democratic fidelity to the New Deal’s faith in government planning and business regulation. Republicans matched Truman’s partisan vigor. Each contestant agreed public power embodied the New Deal spirit. One side to the Hells Canyon controversy wanted to keep that spirit alive. The other wanted to snuª it out.1 The nation’s natural-resources custodians agreed Hells Canyon had large implications. Julius Krug, Truman’s Interior secretary from 1946 to 1949, backed the High Dam to extend public power’s domain beyond the Columbia Basin. “In an area where Uncle Sam has become the dominant power supplier,” Krug told the American Public Power Association’s 1949 convention, “the Federal government has a responsibility to keep ahead of demand by providing facilities to assure an adequate power supply.”2 Douglas McKay, Dwight Eisenhower’s first Interior secretary, abandoned federal eªorts to build the High Dam shortly after taking o‹ce. Explaining his decision, McKay wrote in 1953, “The Department of Interior would be playing the reprehensible part of ‘a dog in the manger’ if it insisted on opposing a badly needed development that private capital is ready and willing to undertake if the plan proposed by the Idaho Power Company is reasonably comparable as to results, while the Department itself has no assurance that it can carry out its plan without extended delay.”3 Senator Wayne Morse, Oregon’s maverick liberal Republican, despised McKay for backing corporate capital. Morse thought nature and history enfolded the Snake Basin into the northwestern public-power domain. Private utilities, he charged, thwarted national goals by seizing public water resources to exact monopoly profits.4 “We cannot and must not tolerate this mutilation of our rivers,” Morse thundered to the Senate in May 1952. PublicpowerinthepostwarSnakeBasinwouldsolve“theproblemof orderly resource development for the benefit of the people not only of Oregon but of those in neighboring states and for the nation at large.” Hells Canyon High Dam had to be a federal project because “construction of large dams for multiple-purpose use of our rivers is the business of the United States.”5 Morse extolled public power’s promise in terms that inspired postwar liberals. He urged the Senate to push the New Deal upriver to guarantee “plenty of power for all” through “full public development of our hydroelectric resources so as to provide generating capacity well in advance of load growth.” Cheap public hydropower from New Deal dams and transmission systems had transformed the Columbia Basin’s economy and sociUNPLUGGING THE NEW DEAL 119 ety. The High Dam would work similar magic in the Snake Basin, Morse believed. Thousands laboring to build it would purchase millions of dollars ’ worth of...


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