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  • This Land, This Nation: Conservation, Rural America, and the New Deal
  • Sara M. Gregg
This Land, This Nation: Conservation, Rural America, and the New Deal. By Sarah T. Phillips (New York, Cambridge University Press, 2007) 289 pp. $75.00 cloth $23.99 paper

In this latest re-examination of the New Deal, Phillips examines how the evolving conservation movement helped to define federal policy during the tumultuous 1930s and thereafter. Using a term coined by Mumford in 1925, Phillips suggests that the "New Conservation" embodied an ambitious approach to land use and resource management that dominated federal planning circles from the 1920s through the 1940s.1 [End Page 152]

As many scholars have observed, rural electrification and conservation emerged as critical elements of New Deal economic reform. Phillips presses this point further by arguing that the management of natural resources became a key component of federal planning during this period. The consequences of federal conservation planning, she concludes, facilitated the maturation of the modern American state and, eventually, globalization.

Following in the path of other scholars, particularly Bruce Schulman in From Cotton Belt to Sunbelt (New York, 1991), this book demonstrates that the conservation and management of natural resources during the war years paved the way for the emergence of the modern agricultural system. Phillips notes that during the 1930s federal officials recognized that rural poverty was one of the primary challenges to economic recovery. Yet many prescriptions for improving conditions on the farm ultimately led to consolidation, mechanization, and the displacement of poor farmers from the land. This was a central paradox of agricultural planning, and an unintended consequence of the agrarian planners' attempts to regularize farm production and income.

By focusing on New Dealers' attempts to bring rural America into economic balance with the cities, Phillips captures a central ambition of land use planning—efficient and sustainable production. As plans for managing natural resources moved beyond the national forests and navigable waterways into the farm fields of the Midwest and the South, the practice of conservation broadened both its reach and its impact. During the 1930s, "For the first time, national administrators linked conservation with agricultural programs, and considered environmental planning vital to the nation's economic renewal and long-term vitality" (3). The successes and failures of these conservation programs subsequently informed New Deal and World War II resource-management policies, which were later exported abroad during the Cold War.

This Land, This Nation provides an engaging and well-crafted narrative of the impact of federal funding in the South; Phillips' analysis is driven by examples from the Tennessee Valley and central Texas. The first chapter examines the emergence of policymakers concerned with rural electrification and land utilization during the 1910s and 1920s, demonstrating the continuities between Progressive reform and the policies that emerged during the New Deal. The following two chapters evoke the desperation and the optimism associated with land land-use planning during the 1930s. First, Phillips focuses on the advocates of rural electrification as they reshaped the landscape through the regional planning approach of the Tennessee Valley Authority. She then shifts her attention to Texas, where young congressman Lyndon Baines Johnson launched his career through his promotion of flood control and power projects in his district. These examples of the motivations and impacts of New Deal planning evoke the wide range of interests involved in implementing federal policy.

Phillips' intent to convey a national perspective is most effective in [End Page 153] the fourth chapter, which evaluates the industrialization of natural-resource management during World War II. This chapter is paired with a compelling epilogue that explores the expansion of U. S. conservation planning abroad during the postwar era, thereby linking New Deal ideology to the modern global economy.

This ambitious, well-researched study engages many of the questions that have driven recent histories of the 1930s. It convincingly traces the connections between the idealism of the New Deal and postwar developments that often seem detached from the ideas embraced by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his cohort of agrarian planners. Although it has much to recommend it, particularly as a study of regional planning and economic change, it is not, strictly...