- King Cotton in Modern America: A Cultural, Political, and Economic History since 1945
In what will no doubt become required reading for historians and general readers of twentieth-century U.S. history, distinguished southern historian D. Clayton Brown explains how the economic and political trajectory and culture of the U.S. cotton industry changed following World War II. Brown sends his readers on a jaunt that begins in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1938, and ends in twenty-first century Texas; along the way readers encounter Marshall Plan negotiations in Bretton Woods and yield-increasing and pest-control developments in El Paso and Tucson. As the geographic relocation of cotton production shifted to the western United States, Brown argues that the small, inefficient southern cotton farms of yore gave way to a modern, mechanized, and capitalized industry that acknowledged and adapted to larger political and economic forces.
The founding and machinations of the National Cotton Council (NCC), which Brown suggests saved the cotton industry, to combine and coordinate all aspects of the cotton industry into a political powerhouse both at home and abroad cannot be overstated, especially when three high-ranking federal officials—President Harry Truman, Undersecretary of State Dean Acheson, and Secretary of State George Marshall—delivered speeches at three national cotton meetings in 1947 and 1948. To enhance its political influence, the NCC created specialized divisions to broaden its ability to impact any issue that affected the industry. The Cotton Council International and the Cotton Producers Institute worked to increase [End Page 319] consumption of U.S. cotton at home and abroad via advertising, while the NCC leadership focused on legislative aims, including repealing the margarine tax, negotiating acreage reduction agreements, maintaining subsidies via reform, and obtaining federal funds for pest control research.
Texas and Texans played no small role in cotton’s rebirth as a modern, corporate business following World War II, and Professor Brown pays special attention to the achievements of politicians and cotton experts in and from the Lone Star State. From Texas native and cotton farmer John Rust’s invention of the first viable cotton picker in 1931 that helped spur postwar farm mechanization, to Waco congressman Robert Poage’s successful campaign in Washington to abolish the margarine tax in 1950, the history of cotton remained a key player in the economic history of Texas. As cotton production moved onto the high plains of West Texas, Brown lauds cooperation of growers and state and federal agencies that helped create a stronger cotton plant and fiber and a standard for grading cotton. He notes, however, that farming in the arid lands of the western U.S.—especially in Texas—was not without environmental cost. Growers wasted and abused the valuable waters in the Ogallala aquifer, while new and effective pest control treatments threatened the health and safety of consumers and wildlife.
King Cotton in Modern America is extremely well written and well researched, and Brown’s knack for story-telling engages the reader from beginning to end. Conspicuously, though, the political bargains, economic events, and the long-range scientific developments of the period bury the culture of cotton Brown includes in the title. After a thorough description of Memphis as the pre-1945 cotton capital, the cultural information is confined to music—the blues in the South and the rise of country music in West Texas—and sporadic anecdotes describing the interaction of Hispanic laborers and the new cotton economy. Overall, however, Professor Brown does not disappoint, and shows with evocative detail and description how “a new determination arose within the cotton industry to adapt to modernity, face the new threats, and remain a viable part of the world economy” (ix).