When Government Works It Makes You Want to Cry

I re-visited the 10-year old documentary The Civilian Conservation Corps this week, as relief from the news that we were stumbling toward another war. Because of the timing, I found it more moving than the first time I saw it, on PBS’s American Experience. It was directed by Robert Stone—not the novelist, but the documentary filmmaker of Radio Bikini, Oswald’s Ghost, and World War III, a pseudo-documentary. All the memes this week were cracking wise about World War III.

One of the first things Franklin Roosevelt did after his 1933 inauguration was send legislation to Congress for the CCC, a New Deal Program that put three million young men to work, over ten years, in conservation and natural-resource building. National unemployment was 25%, and the CCC and other programs kept entire regions from starvation. The young men lived in camps run by Army officers and were fed well, given medical care, and got time off. Most of the money they made went directly home to their families, but the interviewees speak of the fun they had going into towns for movies, dances, and dates. Stone uses archival footage and oral histories with men who served in the camps—the CCC men, like the vets of WWII they became, are disappearing—and the combination is powerful.

One interviewee in particular is not only informed and well-spoken, but something of a poet. Over footage of dust-bowl devastation, he says, “I remember as a child growing up in North Carolina, looking up, and watching Kansas blow by,” he says, miming the action. “I also remember fires, floods, drought, erosion, soil gone. What do you have to live on? We were in a sad condition….”

Talking about the hardships of the Depression, another man says, “I don’t think people realize how close this nation came to having a revolution.”

“If it hadn’t of been for Roosevelt, and establishing the Civilian Conservation Corps, I don’t know what a lot of us young guys would have done,” a third says. He is an elderly man, kindly-looking, no doubt a grandpa. But you can see, still, his former desperation and hear his implied threat: “I don’t know what my next step would have been.”

These young men were given meaningful, challenging work, and the support they needed by the nation—by one man leading a nation, really, against vicious detractors who called him a socialist and worse—and the nation was paid back in full, with interest, by the work they did, and by their being made ready, physically and disciplinarily, to serve in the coming war.

Conservation efforts were sorely needed in the Thirties. One of the interviewees speaks of the two-story high gullies of erosion he played in as a child; others speak of 150 years of no soil management—”gut it and move on” was the farmer’s philosophy, they say—and how the annual amount of topsoil lost to wind and rain was enough to fill boxcars circling the earth seven times.

“That’s a lot of dirt,” a man says wryly, smiling sideways at the camera. It is frightening.

The times were different, of course. The men explain soup kitchens and bread lines for the masses, and widespread Steinbeckian poverty that is not the case now. In their joyful descriptions of physical labor, outdoor recreation, and music-making after hours, you hear the complete absence of all diversions electronic. But there are many parallels as well, such as the shooting of surplus cattle back then, because they used resources and would not sell at market; in Australia now they are shooting 10,000 thirsty, feral camels for similar reasons. In fact, many things in the film echo then and now, from climate change, to societal instability, to demagogic wars hiding over the horizon.

The CCC, the film proves, was “a foundation of our ethic of national service…and conservation…to care about what we leave behind.”

“Who were the people who pioneered the environmental movement in this country, and who now are helping us to transition to more of a green ethic?” an interviewee says. “Many of their parents and grandparents were in the CCC. [My own father was in Company 694 in Grayville, Illinois.] An ethic of conservation is then born and developed, nurtured and built. ‘Cause it’s all a generational conversation that takes place: one thing builds on another, builds on another.”

The old vision of building something together is enough to make you cry.

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.