One nation, divided by electricity
Amid its many woes, the Great Depression offered one great escape: the radio. Three million housewives a day found 15 minutes of comfort in The Romance of Helen Trent, the "real-life drama" of a woman "who--when life mocks her, breaks her hopes, dashes her against the rocks of despair--fights back bravely, successfully, to prove what so many women long to prove in their own lives: that because a woman is 35, and more, romance in life need not be over." Just as brave was "Jack Armstrong, the all-American boy," foiling villains from Africa to the Arctic and inspiring legions of adolescents to eat their Wheaties.
But radio listening was largely an urban experience; 9 of 10 farm families had no electricity. "The lack of electric power," notes New Deal historian William Leuchtenburg, "divided the United States into two nations: the city dwellers and the country folk." Along with the radio, city families enjoyed washing machines, refrigerators, and the light bulb. Rural families relied on washboards, iceboxes, and kerosene lamps.
Dirt-poor. Nowhere was rural life more primitive than in the basin of the Tennessee River. Ever since northern lumber companies cleared virgin hardwood in the late 19th century, the region had been plagued by floods, erosion, and hopeless poverty. Poet James Agee, exploring the valley, heard families speaking Elizabethan English. Some had never seen a water pipe or a doctor or even the nearest town. Sharecroppers with six children endured winter on $10 a month.
Shortly before becoming president, Franklin D. Roosevelt made an off-the-cuff promise to modernize the South. Along nearly 1,000 miles of the Tennessee and its tributaries, he vowed better opportunities "for millions of yet unborn." Seventy years ago this month, FDR signed a bill creating the Tennessee Valley Authority--"the forward edge," historian David Kennedy calls it, "of the great transforming blade of federal power that would . . . resculpt the Cotton Belt into the Sun Belt."
The TVA would have many roles--curbing malaria, reforesting land, preventing floods, making fertilizer--but most of all it was a giant corporation producing and selling electricity. Within a dozen years, its hydroelectric dams would make it America's biggest power generator. Seventy-five percent of the valley's farm families would have electricity in 1945, compared with 2 percent in 1933. Cheap power bred rapid industrialization; by 1947, each of the valley's 212 counties had at least one factory. The most significant, known as the "mystery plant," used twice as much electricity as did the city of Memphis. It made ingredients at Oak Ridge, Tenn., for atomic bombs.
In the late '40s, the TVA concluded that hydropower alone could not meet postwar needs. It added coal-burning generators, then nuclear reactors--and faced the same problems vexing private utilities. Rates soared as it coped with safety and pollution concerns. A year ago, the TVA sued the Environmental Protection Agency to gain more time to clean up air fouled by its plants.
Republicans have taken aim at the TVA since its birth. President Eisenhower favored selling it, as did Barry Goldwater, the 1964 presidential nominee. One GOP congressman likened it to a "Soviet dream." In truth, the TVA was a GOP dream, the vision of Sen. George Norris, a self-styled fighting liberal from Nebraska.
In early '33, Norris and FDR discussed ways to get the TVA bill through Congress. "What will you say when they ask you the political philosophy behind TVA?" Norris asked the president.
"I'll tell them it's neither fish nor fowl," Roosevelt answered, "but, whatever it is, it will taste awfully good to the people of the Tennessee Valley."
This is the fifth in a series of monthly reports marking the 70th anniversary of U.S. News.
This story appears in the May 26, 2003 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.