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  • This Land, This Nation: Conservation, Rural America, and the New Deal
  • Neil M. Maher
This Land, This Nation: Conservation, Rural America, and the New Deal. By Sarah T. Phillips (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007. x plus 289 pp. $23.99 PB).

In the preface to her important book, This Land, This Nation: Conservation, Rural America, and the New Deal, Sarah Phillips describes a summer job she had working on a canola farm in South Georgia. It was through conversations during those long hot days with the farm's manager, who viewed farmers as the [End Page 510] bedrock of the American way of life, that Phillips became interested in the co-evolution of political ideology, agricultural policy, and American government p. x). To further explore this relationship between ideas, policy, and political structure Phillips examines the history of New Deal conservation efforts aimed at helping rural Americans during the Great Depression.

Phillips makes three convincing arguments in This Land, This Nation. First, she posits that the New Deal gave birth to a new type of federal conservation that focused not just on the wise use of natural resources, as conservationists had done during the Progressive Era, but also on a concern for people, in this case on the economic well-being of rural Americans. "New Deal conservation was new," she explains, "because it linked natural with human resources" (p. 9). As important, Phillips argues that this New Conservation in turn altered national politics by expanding the size and power of the federal government and also by helping the Roosevelt administration to build political constituencies, especially among farmers in the South, the Great Plains, and the western United States. Finally, Phillips illustrates the transformation of this New Conservation from a focus on agricultural policy aimed at keeping farmers on their land during the early 1930s, to a more industrial form in the late 1930s and early 1940s that instead promoted cheap hydropower as a means of employing the poorest farmers in rural factories. The result was the ascendance of what Phillips calls "an increasingly influential form of industrial liberalism" that ultimately transformed the welfare state (p. 224).

Phillips builds these arguments through four long chapters and an epilogue that are organized chronologically and thematically. She begins the book by rooting the sources of New Conservation in two separate intellectual traditions, one promoted by rural electrification enthusiasts and another by land use planners, both of which linked social with environmental policy goals. While Herbert Hoover rejected this new form of thinking because it meant an increasingly activist federal government, New York Governor Franklin Roosevelt embraced it, and ran with New Conservation all the way to the White House. Phillips next examines the ideas of other New Conservationists including Rexford Tugwell, Henry Wallace, and Hugh Bennett, along with the practices of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), which she sees as the ultimate New Conservation program. The third chapter of This Land, This Nation turns to the early political career of congressman Lyndon B. Johnson in Central Texas as a case study of how New Dealers used New Conservation to build powerful political constituencies. Phillips then traces the transition from an agricultural to an industrial form of this novel conservation policy, before ending the book with a fascinating epilogue that follows New Conservation into the postwar era, when the United States used the idea of conserving both natural and human resources as a foreign policy strategy for developing third world countries while simultaneously containing Cold War communism.

Phillips is correct when she claims that "This Land, This Nation combines political with environmental history" (p. 2). She has painstakingly scoured the papers of dozens of New Dealers, including those of lesser-known administrators such as L.C. Gray, Morris Cooke, and M.L. Wilson, as well as the records not only of numerous well-known New Deal conservation bureaus including the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, the Soil Conservation Service, and [End Page 511] the TVA, but also of more obscure programs such as the Bureau of Agricultural Economics, the Rural Electrification Administration, and the Interior Department's Division of Subsistence Homesteads. Although the detailed presentation of policy debates among these administrators and programs...