The Corn Belt Liberty League: Farmers in Revolt

Illinois farmers are, by nature, Republicans. Ever since Abraham Lincoln arrived on the scene, the majority of rural Illinois has been, and most likely will always be, Republicans. Illinois farmers have always held firmly to the belief that no one need tell them what to grow, how to grow, where to grow it, and most importantly, when to grow it.

In the 1920s, farmers went through massive changes in the decade. No longer was the horse or oxen the main mode of transportation. Tractors, trucks, and other motorized vehicles changed farming drastically. The truly mechanized farm could plant more, grow more, and harvest more than ever before. Machines invented in the 1870s made it possible to milk more. For farmers everything was just more. The good times seemed like they would never end. The industrial revolution was made for farmers to make more money.

All’s well that is well did not end well. Farmers began to make too much. Farm prices for crops, meat, and other products began to drop. When the stock market crashed in 1929, farmers were already reeling. Loans to pay for tractors, combines, and other machinery could not be paid back. Farms began to be foreclosed. The drought of the Dust Bowl in Oklahoma and Kansas began to spread east. Illinois farming was going under. Herbert Hoover, the Republican President, did little to help the sinking agricultural industry. Hoover was a believer that Civil Society, churches and charities, were responsible for helping the needy. Republican farmers in Illinois agreed. The rest of the nation did not. In 1932, the United States elected Franklin Roosevelt to be the next president in the United States.

In Roosevelt’s first 100 days, Congress passed a lot of new legislation called the New Deal. The first parts of the New Deal were aimed at recovery and relief. One of those programs was the Agricultural Adjustment Act. The Act was passed after farmers across the nation had already planted crops for the year. The act’s goals were to raise farm prices and delete surpluses. In order to do that, new models of farming had to be implemented. The models called for plowing under millions of acres of crops and slaughtering livestock to drive up the prices. Americans could not understand the concept while millions went to bed hungry every night during the Great Depression.

Many farmers in Illinois did not like the new policies of the AAA. The dislike was more than just being a Republican not liking a Democratic President’s new policy. This was about work. Many farmers were proud and had developed a strong work ethic. They wanted to work for their money. They wanted to farm. The AAA did not want them too. The AAA began setting acreage allotments, corn quotas, and subsidies to farmer who left land fallow.  Many farmers did not take kindly to the change. Some did. Some farmers thought the quotas would help conserve the soil and drive prices up.

In 1936, the AAA was declared unconstitutional. A new AAA would arrive in 1938. In response to the AAA, a select group of farmers, active and retired, in McDonough County in Western Illinois began an organization called the Corn Belt Liberty League to fight the AAA and the policies the AAA imposed. For the next few years, the two sides duked it out in the press, at meetings, in court, and wherever they could, they would. It did not stop with the men either. Macomb newspapers were known for women slinging mud just as much as their husbands.

From 1938 to 1940, the Corn Belt Liberty League grew from 400 McDonough County farmers to over 16,000 members in the state. It held meetings, published a newsletter, all for a $2.00 membership fee. Its arch-enemy was the Illinois Farm Bureau. The Farm Bureau supported subsidies and quotas as a way to increase prices. The heart of the issue for the AAA was that farming was farmer’s business, not the governments. To the Corn Belt Liberty League, the AAA, quotas, crop allotments, and subsidies smelled of socialism, and more so, communism.

The League, in and of itself, was a grassroots organization that stood up to government control of the economy. However, the Corn Belt Liberty League was also resistant to change. Today’s farming techniques shadow those recommended by the AAA. Just because a farmer has all that land does not mean that the farmer should farm it. However, it doesn’t mean he shouldn’t. The crux of the issue between the AAA and the Corn Belt Liberty League was one of modernity.  New machines created a farming revolution which allowed farmers to grow more which they thought would allow them to make more money. Unfortunately, overproduction of crops became the byproduct of the new farmer. As prices began to fall, farmers could not understand the paradox.

As a league, the Corn Belt Liberty League became too big for its own britches. The meetings began to take up more time. The members became well informed and yearned for the meetings often neglecting the work that needed to be done on the farm. The league had no plan to replace the AAA, the league just knew the AAA had to go and the market would take care of itself – just as most Republicans believed. Unfortunately, war would return farming to normalcy. Beginning in 1940, the farming industry began to rebound. As Europe needed food for a war, America too would soon join the fray. By 1942, the Corn Belt Liberty League had stopped functioning. In 1944, it ceased to exist.

Today, the policies put forth by the AAA are commonplace. In the 1930s, those same policies were radical.  The concepts of fallow land, stored grain, price supports, soil conservation, and government loans and subsidies are commonplace. In the 1930s, the concepts caused outrage and fear. Luckily, the Corn Belt Liberty League was able to voice itself and those voices of its members. F.G. Vining of Kankakee summed up the Corn Belt Liberty League best:

What a real farmer wants is to be let alone to raise what he pleases, where he pleases, and to sell what he raises where he pleases, and when he pleases; and not to be taxed to death to pay for a lot of bunk legislation.

While that may true, freedom to grow whatever , whenever, and wherever doesn’t make sound business practice. Farmers in the 1930s still wanted the freedom they had before the machines. In reality, the AAA was trying to re-educate farmers on how to farm in this new Industrial Age. Neither side listened to the other very well. My grandfather, in next door Henderson County, took money from the AAA. He had six daughters and a son to feed first before he could think of feeding others. My Aunt Bert, who was 20+ years older than my mom (born in 1938), wrote many letters to my mother about life in the Depression. She writes:

Mother said when they butchered the winter supply of hogs by the time they were through you could skate on her kitchen floor. She’d get awfully tired of the greasy mess before they got done. So when lockers came and they came and butchered for you, it was a great day and no one appreciated it more than farm women. To have fresh frozen meat, fruit and vegetables all year round was a treat and it all came in when the farms were electrified. In Mt. Pleasant it was electrified in 1940. Everyone immediately bought a refrigerator, a fan, a clock and an iron. It was a wonderful thing for it made water systems possible and bathrooms workable. Civilization improved a lot.

And that is the heart of the matter for the Corn Belt Liberty League – they resisted change in the AAA, but mostly because they wanted things to be the way they always had been. Those days of farming were gone.

Obama Year Two

A year ago, I took a look back at the first year of the presidency of Barack Obama. It is hard to write about history as it happens. Every historian will tell you that for something to be history, you have to see how the effects of the event played. Sometimes, that takes five, ten, fifteen, or twenty years. Harry Truman is the perfect example of a President whose policies and decisions have improved greatly over time.

Instead, when I look at Obama’s second year in office, I am completely reminded of Franklin Roosevelt’s tenure.

Critics of FDR used this Cartoon

From 1929-1933 Herbert Hoover did little to ease tensions around the country about what would be called “The Great Depression”. Hoover, like many Republicans of the day, believed the stock market would grow again. All the market needed was a correction. What went down, must come up. In addition, Hoover believed it was the role of civil society to help those dispossessed during the depression. America did not. In 1932, the nation elected Franklin Roosevelt to do something about the depression.

In the years that followed, critics of Roosevelt’s New Deal used the term “Socialism” at every turn to describe the New Deal. The Supreme court even struck down some measures of the program. Roosevelt tried to pack the Supreme Court with more justices and that failed too.  Words like tyranny were thrown around in newspapers, radio, and in cartoons of the time period. Sounds familiar does it not?

New Deal Tyranny Cartoon

The politics of today have not changed much. Critics in the 1930s like Billy Sunday and Huey Long have been replaced with Sarah Palin and Glen Beck. The rhetoric is just as ill-tempered. The results just as uncouth. The reactions to both time periods to the policies during hard economic times are ones filled with the terminology of enmity in reaction to change.

Obama portrayed by his critics

The big events for the President in 2010 were the Health Care Bills (or what Joe Biden called “A big f-in deal”) and the mid-term elections. The American Public supplanted the Democrats as the party in power in the House of Representatives with the

Republicans. Then in a reversal of fortunes, Obama turned. From early to December, Obama actually governed, compromised and government actually did something substantial during a lame duck session. Tax breaks were given, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was repealed, 9/11 First responders were given medical care, and new food packaging laws were passed.

2010 also saw the BP spill disaster and the rise of the Tea Party and a new treaty with the USSR, er I mean Russia. But as 2011 begins three issues still loom large

1. The Deficit – It now nears $14 trillion. This astounding figure will only grow. If America does not get this under control, there will be no America.

2. The Economy – Jobs, Jobs, Jobs, Jobs

Cartoon by Clay Bennett - Chattanooga Times Free Press

3. Governing – America, as a whole, does not like the rising tide of ineptitude in government at every level. Illinois saw its tax rate rise to 5% last week. A small rise, but the fact is spending must go down. The budget at the federal level must be cut and cut a lot. How is it we could have a surplus 12 years ago and now a trillion-dollar deficit now? Two wars, two tax cuts, and a banking/mortgage industry collapse later, the country and President face tough challenges. With the party of No now in power in the House, nothing may get done in the next year.

When it comes to giving Obama a grade, I still cannot give him good marks at home…A D at best while he gets a B on foreign affairs. Despite the good November and December, the economy and deficit still dominate my grading rubric.

Regardless of the grade, I start to think about what will happen later this year and that is this: The 2012 presidential campaign will kick in high gear. Candidates will flock to Iowa and New Hampshire to start their journey to defeat each other. Obama, oddly enough, will most likely run unopposed for the Democratic nomination. When the election comes in November of 2012, America will have a tough choice. Depending on the candidate, Conservative Republicans like Sarah Palin or Mike Huckabee do not translate well to moderates, like myself, nor to Independents, like myself. Does that mean Obama would be President again? I do not know. It is way too early to prognosticate.

As I sat and watched Obama at the Tuscon service last week, I did not think I was watching a memorial service. It was part campaign speech, part celebration, and part remembrance. It was so surreal. As are most days in the government I do believe. In one year’s time, who knows what we will find for year three.

Legislation signed into law by the President in the last 365 days…

January 27: Emergency Aid to American Survivors of Haiti Earthquake Act
March 4: Travel Promotion Act
March 18: Hiring Incentives to Restore Employment Act
March 23: Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act
March 30: Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act of 2010
May 5: Caregivers and Veterans Omnibus Health Services Act of 2010
May 17: Daniel Pearl Freedom of the Press Act
July 1:Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act
July 21: Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act
July 22: >Unemployment Compensation Extension Act of 2010
July 22: Improper Payments Elimination and Recovery Act of 2010
August 10: SPEECH Act of 2010
September 27: Small Business Jobs and Credit Act of 2010
December 13: Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010
December 17: Tax Relief, Unemployment Insurance Reauthorization, and Job Creation Act of 2010
December 22: Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Repeal Act of 2010

January 2: James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act of 2010
January 4: Food Safety and Modernization Act

The CCC: Another Day, Another Dollar

If it was up to Herbert Hoover, the Great Depression might have never ended. Hoover believed that Civil Society (churches, charities, etc) was responsible for helping to end the poverty, despair, and disaster that had swept across the nation during his presidency. The last institution that needed to get involved, according to Hoover, was the Government. With unemployment approaching 25% in 1932, Americans disagreed with Hoover. That November, the American public elected Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Roosevelt said shortly after taking office…

I propose to create a civilian conservation corps to be used in simple work, not interfering with normal employment, and confining itself to forestry, the prevention of soil erosion, flood control and similar projects. I call your attention to the fact that this type of work is of definite, practical value, not only through the prevention of great present financial loss, but also as a means of creating future national wealth.

Less than a month after taking office, Roosevelt issued Executive Order 6101 establishing the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). As part of Roosevelt’s New Deal, the program aimed to help conserve the land for future generations. The program developed and improved many state parks throughout the country. In Illinois, around 20 park projects took place from paving trails to building cabins to building lodges, shelters, and cabins from the Shawnee National Forest all the way north to the White Pines State Park. 6,600 men in 33 camps in Illinois redid the parks along with levees and erosion control

It is estimated upward of 3 million men worked in the CCC. To join the CCC, one had to be at least 18 years of age but no more than 24. They would plant three billion trees and start close to 800 parks. Most workers kept around $5 a month and sent the rest home. Communities where the CCC camps benefited economically from having a camp nearby.

The Herald Journal of Logan, Utah said:

“One of the most completely successful of all the items on the New Deal program seems to be the forestry work of the Civilian Conservation Corps. . . So well is the project working out that a person is inclined to wonder if it might not be a good thing to make this forest army a permanent affair. . . All of this of course would be pretty expensive but it might be money well spent. . . certainly the question deserves serious consideration. This forest army is too good an outfit to be discarded off-hand.”

The CCC may have been the most popular with the public. It created places for recreation. My wife and I went to Mammoth Cave in Kentucky. The Caves had walking paths paved by the CCC. It is estimated that the CCC paved 24 miles in those caves alone.

The CCC did not end the depression. Nor was it supposed to. It’s aim was to put people to work. What the CCC did for America was to jump start the conservation movement. The sheer numbers of men who worked the land then went home. Many would serve in World War II, but their children would ignite the movement in the 1960s and 1970s. What had begun with Teddy Roosevelt, Gifford Pinchot, and the eloquent John Muir was reborn in the CCC.

There is nothing my wife and I like more than to go to state or national park in the summer. Thanks to the CCC, they have conserved, and preserved, many of our national and local treasures. The CCC became the model for all service corps that have sprung up since the end of World War II. It  is not amazing to me what all they accompllished, but it is amazing that it all still stands today.

To see what CCC projects are done near you, go to:

To hear the recollections of four men in the CCC, PBS recently broadcast this wonderful documentary on the CCC. Go here.

X-Day: The Invasion of Japan

In the last ten years, a plethora of WW II films and television shows have come out glorifying the European front. The most recent being Quentin Tarantino’s fictitious Inglorious Basterds. Be it in movies or books, the Japanese front has always gotten the short end of the stick until Clint Eastwood’s Flag of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima came out. In recent years, more research has been done on one aspect of the end of the Pacific front, most notably, Codename: Downfall. Had this invasion had to have taken place, our vision of what war is would have changed.

November 1, 1944. Plans were being made. Plans were going forward. Casualties would be high on both sides. In order to win, one side would literally have to destroy the other. While the Nazis got all the press, then and now, it was the Japanese who fought like demons: who never gave up, who never surrendered. But for the American generals in the Pacific, the island hopping strategy envisioned by Nimitz worked slowly and steadily towards the Japanese home islands between 1942-1945. Every island that needed to be taken resulted in very high casualties.

In the spring of 1945, the plan was in place. After the battles at Okinawa and Iwo Jima, casualty estimates for an invasion of the Japan ranged from 200,00 to over a million depending on the length of the invasion. The original plan consisted of two parts – Operation Coronet and Operation Olympic. It called for American troops to fight their way through the forests of urban jungles of Japan.

As the summer of 1945 approached, FDR had passed away and Truman had taken over. At the time, Americans were now within reach of invading. For the better part of the spring, Americans had been firebombing the cities of Japan. It had been successful in destroying the cities but not destroying the will of the Japanese to fight. Public opinion was not quite ready for an invasion. Three-and-a-half years of fighting seemed to be enough. They were more in favor of a blockade and starving out the Japanese. American soldiers who had been fighting the Japanese knew this would never work for the Japanese would never surrender. Kamikaze attacks increased and the civilian resistance on Okinawa sealed the deal: an invasion would cause huge casualties on both sides. The Japanese citizenry was being trained to defend the homeland at all costs. At this point, there would be no surrender.

Luckily for American soldiers, and their families, two little bombs would solve the problem of whether to invade or not. On August 6 and 9, the US became the only nation ever to use nuclear weapons in combat. Truman always reiterated to his dying day that he never gave the decision to drop the bomb a second thought. To him, he knew the number of American lives saved by dropping nuclear weapons in two untouched Japanese cities. What Truman never mentions is that it also possibly saved millions of Japanese as well.

I suggest you watch the following educational film that is one of the most riveting I have seen about the Pacific front.

For Further Reading: Codename: Downfall

Conspiracy Theory: FDR and Pearl Harbor

I teach US History. I teach eighth graders. Some day I might be put up for sainthood, but honestly, I would not want to teach any other age. Despite their hormones, eighth graders are an inquisitive group and at this age, learning is still fun for them and can be quite a serious adventure. Such is the case this week. We started a new unit on World War II. The first couple of days we learn about Hitler’s rise to power, Mein Kampf, and the Nuremberg Laws. Yesterday, we began investigating the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Now, as a teacher, I have to dispel a lot of urban myths. Usually the biggest is the JFK assassination (this blog will come up in about a month). But the first one I like to do is what FDR knew about Pearl Harbor. We begin the lesson by reviewing Germany and then we segue into Japanese Aggression in the 1930s and 1940-41. Kids are furiously taking notes and Pearl Harbor is attacked. Students get the motive on the part of the Japanese, but when I bring up whether FDR is involved, heads turn and I get the “What you talkin’ bout Willis?” looks from all my students. We use that one simple question of whether or not the President of the United States of America was involved in the greatest surprise attack by another country on our soil as the jumping off point for the lesson.

The first piece of evidence we examine is the notorious “Bomb Plot Message”. In 1941, US intelligence services intercepted this message headed for some in Hawaii.

“Strictly secret.

“Henceforth, we would like to have you make reports concerning vessels
along the following lines insofar as possible:

“1. The waters (of Pearl Harbor) are to be divided roughly into five
subareas (We have no objections to your abbreviating as much as you

“Area A. Waters between Ford Island and the Arsenal.
“Area B. Waters adjacent to the Island south and west of Ford Island.
(This area is on the opposite side of the Island from Area A.)
“Area C. East Loch.
“Area D. Middle Loch.
“Area E. West Loch and the communication water routes.

“2. With regard to warships and aircraft carriers, we would like to have
you report on those at anchor (these are not so important) tied up at
wharves, buoys and in docks. (Designate types and classes briefly. If
possible we would like to have you make mention of the fact when
there are two or more vessels along side the same wharf.)”

There are some who see this as a smoking gun. However, nowhere does it say the time and manner of the attack. It could be a simple reconnaissance mission or it could be planning for an attack. But there are several key elements regarding intent and time missing from the message.

We then begin watching the History Channel’s: Conspiracy? FDR and Pearl Harbor. It is a very good program and one perfect for any age. Although it is a bit one sided at times, it does present evidence from both sides about what FDR knew, when he knew, and what he did or did not do about it. Other information is put forth about the possible conspiracy of FDR letting the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor. These tidbits include:
1. Radio traffic in November of 1941 from around the Pacific
2. US intercepts of other information
3. FDR’s own memo about pre-emption – FDR issued an order that under no circumstances that US forces would fire the first shot. We would always act in defense.
4. The McCollum Memo – This memo is a plan for action in the Pacific. Below I have included page six of the document.

Now the McCollum Memo is a plan or strategy for dealing with Japan. In and of itself, it is no great piece of military planning. But politically, it is a gem. The problem comes into is this: How would FDR get his hands on it.

The video concludes by leaving it up to the viewer what happened with FDR and Pearl Harbor. For the past four years I have shown this video, students are usually split 50/50 on what happened. Some focus in on the evidence, some focus in on what the evidence doesn’t provide, some focus in on what they want to believe. It is an interesting task in critical thinking and using evidence to support or disprove a point of view.

As a historian, I can honestly say, conjecture and speculation is used quite a bit in the video. But the bomb plot message, while a key piece of intelligence, still only proves that Pearl Harbor was a target. When one looks at the state of US forces in 1941, we were way behind any condition for military readiness. We were actually training with wooden weapons during the Great Depression because we couldn’t afford the real thing. Anyway, in the world of military intelligence, every military facility is a target. But in the end, Admiral Yamamoto and the Japanese planned and carried out the attack. It was not through the willingness of FDR to let the attack happen but through the ineptitude of commanders of Pearl and the Japanese plan of attack that it was such a devastating blow. I am sure FDR had to have known Pearl was in Japan’s sights, but no one knew it would be at 5:30 a.m. on December 7, 1941, a day that will live in infamy.

Here is another video but it focuses more on lost pictures rather than the memos mentioned above.

The New Deal and the A.R.R.A

The 20th century is replete with big spending programs – the mother of all programs being “The War on Poverty”. With Lyndon Johnson, the government set in motion a series of programs. Some of these programs are still around today including medicare and medicaid. The War on Poverty has spent trillions of dollars the last 43 years, but in its scope and size of its administration, it pales when compared to the New Deal. Johnson, a New Dealer himself, saw the War on Poverty as a limited program but it has turned into something else. The New Deal was meant initially to provide recovery and relief and a second New Deal was aimed at reform of what caused the Great Depression. Now that almost 70 years have passed, a few programs and government agencies are still in effect. However, how does the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act compare to this program?

Both programs dealt with a lot of money and a dramatic increase in the amount of money the government spends. The New Deal is estimated to have cost somewhere between $450-500 billion. While not as expansive in in the government coordination, the ARRA does have not have the government expansion like the Deal. However, ARRA jacks up the percentage the US government is involved in the economy from about 20% to 25%. The New Deal took the government’s role from 4 to 10 percent. But in the end, the New Deal did not revive the economy. Hence, today’s Republicans view ARRA as a New Deal-like program. It’s not. It is far from it. The only similarity is the amount of money being spent. ARRA is going to be disbursed to state and local agencies as well as some current Federal institutions. No new agencies will be created (unless you count There will be no new alphabet soup. Now, when we add in TARP funds, that is over $1.5 trillion in the past year of government spending. I do not know how the ARRA will turn out in two years. Right now, the press sees it as victory. I see it is a 787 billion dollar gamble to do something when nothing just doesn’t cut it.

In the end, when we look at the history of big spending government programs, both the New Deal and ARRA pale in comparison to the War on Terror. Between the Department of Homeland Security and 2 wars, a whopping $5-7 trillion dollars has been spent. Some of it well, some of it not. The same will probably be said of ARRA when it is all said and done. But until the business of doing business in credit and lending is changed and how we get our energy, nothing will change. All of the ARRA components are fine and noble things, but is it what the government should be doing? FDR thought so. So does Obama. The question is not whether you or I do, but whether it will work in the next two years? We will have to be patient to find out.

(Ed. note – Art by Charles Turzak)