An editorial from The Nation presents a scheme for improving "the bright jewel of the New Deal."
Editorial by Raymond Gram Swing, The Nation
October 23, 1935
The CCC has become the bright jewel of the New Deal. At the beginning, the fact that the army was in it aroused alarm, for the camps looked like the nucleus of a fascist militia. While here and there individual mistakes and local circumstances made camps unpopular, on the whole the CCC is liked throughout the breadth of the land, and deservedly so. The military element has shown laudable restraint. The idea of giving unemployed young men healthy outdoor work under camp routine has won enthusiastic approval. As a form of relief the CCC has avoided the pitfalls of other relief agencies. And conservation has been both furthered and publicized. It was inevitable that an experiment which turned out successfully should be placed on a permanent basis. And now the decision to give the CCC a regular status in American life has been made. The President has announced it, and the Administration will have a definite program to lay before Congress early next year. After it has been announced, no doubt there will be a brief public discussion, but the CCC is worth careful thought, and both the Administration and Congress will benefit if the country begins the debate sooner.
Obviously the first bone of contention is the place of the army in a permanent CCC. The army played a vital role in establishing the camps. It built and equipped the barracks, and it has fed, clothed, and transported the men and been responsible for discipline. Otherwise the camps could hardly have had so great a success. Yet that is not an argument for continuing the army in the organization. When the CCC work was first conceived, the government had no agency other than the army which had the experience, organization, and equipment to get the new experiment under way rapidly. In the main that work is now finished. More than enough camps have been built. The clothing and feeding of the men is now routinized. The only arguments for continuing the cooperation of the army are that it can manage the physical safety so much better than any other agency that it should be given the task for all time; and that the discipline imposed by army officers is more desirable than any other kind.
No one will deny that the army runs a commissariat on a large scale and operates with central purchasing facilities, and in both is competent and economical. A permanent CCC, however, knowing in advance the requirements of 200,000 young men, could also establish itself on an efficient basis. Whatever economies the army is able to maintain, the CCC by itself either could equal or at least come close to, so that the savings of any army administration would be insubstantial.
Discipline at present is in the hands of the reserve officer in command at each camp. His powers over his 200 workers are strictly limited. He can assess fines up to $3 a month, assign men to distasteful work, or dismiss them from the camp (whereupon their families lose their relief). He is supreme in the camp. A young man charged with breaking discipline is given a "hearing" at what really is a summary the He is entitled to be represented by a colleague and he has an appeal to a district officer and finally to the corps area commander.
It is obvious that the only arguable advantage from having an army officer in charge is the prestige the army may enjoy with members of the camp or the fear it may inspire. If the workers are recruited from the sidewalks of a congested city, it may be thought that the hard-headed youngsters will be impressed by a uniform which represents the entire United States army. But these young men know that the whole United States army is not in fact embodied in their commanding officer. He is only a reservist; he was -- almost certainly -- out of a job when the camp saved him. And he has very narrow powers. The worst penalty he can inflict is not very serious. His most telling sanction is economic, expulsion from camp, which means the loss of relief to the family at home. And this has nothing to do with things military. Discipline in the camps has been well or badly enforced, according to the individuality of officers; immeasurably more of it has been good than bad. But where it has been good, it has been so because the officer was capable, not because he was an officer. Here and there an officer has had a superiority complex and has demanded cringing respect from those in his charge. Though he is not allowed to require saluting, mass formation, or drill, there are ways for him to make himself obnoxious. But on the whole the disciplinary problem has been admirably handled, to the great credit of the army and the reserve officers. The army gave its pledge to the President that the camps should not be militarized and they have not been. But there is no reason why equally good discipline should not be possible under equally capable men unconnected with the army. If left to itself the CCC probably would give appointments to many of the present camp commanders who have demonstrated their personal fitness for the work.
From the army standpoint, then, the two arguments do not come to much. The army can administer economically -- this must be granted -- but the savings would not be considerable. It has maintained effective discipline -- which also must be conceded -- but where the discipline has been good it has been non-military, a poor reason for continuing it as an army feature. So the advantage of keeping the army in the CCC boils down to the very slight savings presumably possible under army administration.
Against this can be set the folly of giving the army permanent control over 200,000 civilians of military age. Some army officers may be eager for this control, recognizing it as an easy method of obtaining army recruits. Others with longer vision may see the CCC as a potential army reserve. What if the country has not wanted a semi-civilian army reserve, with the militarization it implies? Here is a way to get it by round-about. These elements are nothing like a majority in the army, and fortunately they are not a dominating minority. The real army leaders, it can be said on excellent authority, do not care to keep control over the CCC, will be relieved to get out of it; they feel that they have done an emergency job well, that they deserve credit for it, and that the emergency ends when the CCC is made permanent. If the camps want to have the advantage of the army's central purchasing system and commissariat, then army discipline would also have to be retained, for the army's prestige is involved; it isn't going to stay on as cook and tailor, and relinquish discipline to civilians, as though it had fallen down on that part of the job.
The army as a whole, then, can be expected to get out of the CCC gracefully, even gratefully. There is a movement to make one well-known corps commander head of the new permanent organization. This, however, is not backed in high quarters, and would only have the support of persons who would like to see the CCC developed as a militarized youth movement, along semi-fascist lines. However, it is for such personal ambitions that the public must watch out if the CCC is not assured a strictly non-military future.
The second fundamental issue to be decided is the purpose of the CCC as a permanent government agency. So far it has been a happy accident, a relief project with a wide ramification of benefits and no ill effects. It has brought town and city boys into the forests, it has built up their undernourished bodies and strengthened their characters, it has provided cash for their parents. Also it has made a great deal of urgent conservation work possible. In a permanent CCC one plan under consideration is not to confine the camps to young men whose families are on relief. If this is carried out, the first purpose of the camps will cease to be relief. It then can be conservation. And if it becomes conservation, there can be no question who should have full responsibility for it. It would belong to the Forestry Service. The camps could continue to work untold benefits for the young men who lived in them, and in a large number of cases needy families could continue to draw financial benefits. But the camps themselves would have one primary purpose, to develop and protect the natural resources of the country. If 200,000 young men pass through the camps every two years, in ten years a million young men would be educated conservationists, and in a few decades we should have a nation which for the first time was conservation-wise. That would mean that the American people at last had grown out of the piratical economy by which they spread over the continent.
The Forestry Service has the right spirit to head a permanent CCC. Its personnel is about as non-political as any that a modern democracy can produce, and its men work on ludicrously low salaries with the greatest zeal. They are imbued with the religion of conservation. No better esprit de corps is to be found and no more honest or capable administration. So if the CCC is to be dedicated to conservation, the Forestry Service is eminently fitted to govern and guide it. Under the current doctrine that things federal must be handled through state units, there might be some delay in certain districts in creating suitable subordinate state forest services. But the foresters are able to take over the entire work as soon as Congress can give it to them.
To reduce the cost of the CCC, the amount of relief now paid probably will have to be reduced, and the existing relief basis may be radically changed. At present each camp worker receives $30 a month in cash, after his board, lodging, and clothing have been provided. He keeps $5 for himself; the remaining $25 is paid to his family. This makes each camp cost $6,000 a month in cash, and probably another $8,000 in upkeep and administration. The latter items cannot be much reduced. But Congress may be asked to cut the relief cost by half, every camper to receive $15 a month, and to dispose of the whole sum himself. With this change may also come new eligibility rules, and the camps may be opened to young men whether their families are on relief or not. In this event the CCC camps will become similar to the labor camps of Germany, which make a deliberate effort to bring about a mingling of classes on a footing of equality. And in America a good many upper- and middle-class families with unemployed sons on their hands will urge them to go into the CCC.
If there is a good side to this, there also is a danger that the camps will be asked to absorb a large number of grown-up problem children. Hardly a camp exists which has not been bedeviled by parents whose sons "need the discipline of camp supervision and the healthy outdoor life." These young men have been refused because their parents were not on relief. If too large a group of youngsters of this kind comes into the camps, heaven alone can help the Forest Service, or whoever has the responsibility. The idea that young men can be made over in short order may have been fondly entertained at the beginning of the CCC, but it certainly has been modified. Nearly all the campers have improved under the humane treatment, excellent food, and regular hours of this life. The average gain in weight in some camps runs as high as eight to ten pounds. But city boys from slum streets with slum standards have not been transformed into perfect citizens. I know of a camp where the New York boys quite naturally set up their own gangs. One fellow established a dice monopoly, and maintained it by strong-arm methods. Most of the boys of this camp went to New York on their week-end leaves. A group with relations at home operating motor trucks established a weekly service at low rates. Another group tried to bring in another set of relations to cut in on the business. The second group was warned there would be war, but the competing truck duly arrived. It was met, captured, and now lies at the bottom of a nearby lake. Gangster "civilization" is not to be rooted out by a few months of work in the woods.
In a permanent CCC the present somewhat extemporized system of education will need overhauling. I visited a camp where the education officer had as his room a stuffy little space filled with cast-off school desks. Nothing could have been more forbidding to young men than the mere appearance of that room. Only a supervisor with rare personal attractiveness and tact could hope to interest his young men there, and the teacher ruefully admitted his real chance came in winter when it was too cold for outdoor sport. Perhaps the word "education" will have to be dropped altogether. Someone should be there to give guidance in the wise use of free time since camp life is divided into three parts, eight hours a day for work, eight for sleep, and eight for leisure. But vocational training with an immediate economic objective must rank first if the camps are to succeed in fitting young men to find jobs. In many camps this already is the focus. In a permanent system the opportunity to expand in this direction is almost limitless. But the greatest objective is not education, it is not relief, it is conservation. And a permanent CCC would be the finest practical university of elemental social economy ever established in this country.
My American Experience
Who is your favorite 20th-century American president? Was it FDR? Reagan? Clinton? Or one of the other 14 men who helped usher the United Sates through the 1900s? Who do you think was the most influential?