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.


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: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/map-widget/ccc-map/

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 recovery.gov). 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)

Franklin Roosevelt – 12 Years of Lessons for Obama

Of all the presidents on this list, the most PE Obama could learn from is Franklin Roosevelt. Not just on what Roosevelt did, but what the programs of the New Deal did and did not do. Obama already seems to have the communication through the media thing down, so on to other things.

The Three R’s of FDR

1. The First New Deal was aimed at Recovery and Relief.
2. The Second New Deal was aimed at Reform.

Unfortunately for Obama, the nation cannot afford 2 plans – everything has to be in one plan. That would be one hell of a plan. If you sit and think about what all is wrong with the economy, the budget, and the nation, one program can not hope to solve it all. Looking back at FDR’s New Deal, the problems were far greater: overproduction, foreign competition, and unstable credit catapulted the nation into record unemployment. Now here’s the difference – Obama comes in 4 months into the crisis. FDR came in 4 years into the future. Almost every government organization from 1933-1936 tried to put band-aids on bleeders. I don’t care how pragmatic a President may be (and FDR was quite the pragmatist), Obama cannot afford to be pragmatic at all. The problems are just too numerous. And I don’t know if throwing money at the problem is going to work. Our economy is so out of whack, that regulation, jobs creation, and reform are just not going to cut. We need a new economy. FDR had to wait until World War II to create that economy and it did do the trick. Unfortunately, the circumstances were not what he had wished.

Obama must reinvent the economy. If he cannot, then the lessons of FDR will be useless. Obama has to start a fundamental shift in how we do things, what things we do, and why we do things. Stop me if you have heard this one before: energy, transportation, communication, and information systems. While FDR stopped short of doing all those things until the war, Obama has to hit the ground running. All this and reforming the credit industry have to be done. Yikes! If you were to ask Thomas Friedman, he would say, “Green is the new Red, White, and Blue”. However, he is not that far off. To restructure our automobile industry, our energy systems, and infrastructure along with modernizing several other things will revitalize the economy along with set us u to succeed and to end a lot of our foreign policy problems save Israel (that’s a whole other blog).

Now, the New Deal and the economy were not the only things on the plate of FDR. Foreign Affairs dominated the second half. The biggest lesson here is you need to find your “Winston”. To try and tackle the world’s problems with “Cowboy” Diplomacy has not worked in the last 8 years. What needs to work is for you to set about some goals and aims like the Atlantic Charter with your “Winston” and then go out and do it. Now, I don’t believe that Joe Biden is your “Winston” nor is the current PM of Great Britain or the leaders of the free world, or for that matter, Putin, but there has to be someone out there with whom you can help build a better world.

Other Presidential Lessons for Obama Series
George Washington
Thomas Jefferson
Abraham Lincoln
Teddy Roosevelt
Woodrow Wilson
Franklin Roosevelt
Harry Truman
Dwight Eisenhower
John F. Kennedy
Ronald Reagan
George H.W. Bush