Errol Morris: The Case of the Inappropriate Alarm Clock (Part 1)
Republican editors throughout the land were soon rubbing their hands over a dispatch which, on quick reading, seemed to convict the New Deal’s cherished resettlement Administration of photographic fakery and bad faith.
— Time Magazine
Summer of 1936. One of the worst droughts in American history. On June 7, North Dakota’s Republican governor, Walter Welford, proclaimed a day of prayer. The citizens of North Dakota would kneel en masse to pray for rain. “Only Providence,” the governor declared, could avert “another tragedy of tremendous proportions.” Devil’s Lake, N.D., recorded .16 of an inch.
The drought continued.
On June 21, Gov. Welford flew to Washington to ask President Roosevelt for aid. On June 23, Roosevelt ordered Dr. Tugwell, head of the Resettlement Administration, to make a survey of the needs in Dakotas and Montana. A million dollars in aid had been requested.
Within a week, a heat wave spread across the Western plains. Newspapers reported it was 111 degrees in North Dakota. By July 7, it was a record 119 degrees in parts of the state. Fields were scorched brown and black. The range country seemed to be covered with a tan moss so close to the ground that the hungry cattle could not reach it; so dry was the covering that it was useless for sheep. It was estimated that 85 percent of the cattle in North Dakota would have to be moved out of state or sent to slaughter. The federal government stepped forward with $5 million to buy a million head of cattle — with the meat to go to the needy.
Grasshoppers descended on the region, their vast numbers consuming what little crops remained. By July 9, heat had killed 120 across the country.
On July 11, the people of Mitchell, S.D., turned once more to prayer. Bells in the city’s 13 church towers tolled the signal to the people, 11,000 in number, to fall to their knees. The temperature stood at 104 degrees. Still the rain did not come.
On July 17, Washington responded to the worsening situation with a vast migration plan. Thousands of families would be moved by the federal government — about 30 percent of the farm families of North Dakota would be taken off their barren land. The grasshoppers marched on.
By August, small cactus plants were the only living vegetation over large areas along the Dakota-Montana line. The grasshoppers were gone now, killed by the intense heat or starved to death. They had been replaced by an infestation of rodents driven into homes in search of food. By Aug. 9 supplies of traps in North Dakota were exhausted. Home owners anxiously awaited new shipments to relieve the situation.
The land was turning to desert and dust. It felt like the end of the world.
On Aug. 25, Franklin Delano Roosevelt boarded a train for the Dakotas.
It was the 1936 presidential election. The issues would be familiar to today’s voters. Roosevelt, the eastern Democrat, arguing for the intervention of government in the economy, and Alf Landon, the midwestern Republican, arguing for a laissez-faire approach free of government controls and intervention. Roosevelt, campaigning for a second term, was on a train (“the Dustbowl Special”) headed towards the Dakota badlands. Everything was in place for a series of photo opportunities and news stories that would cast his efforts to fight the drought in the best possible light. But, unknown to F.D.R., a controversy was brewing, a controversy involving photography. Time magazine observed:
…when Franklin Roosevelt’s special train rolled into Bismarck, N. Dakota in the course of its travels through the drought areas it also rolled into a story which brought nationwide attention to a small-town newspaper. Aboard the Presidential Pullmans were placed scores of copies of the Fargo (N. Dakota) Forum, whose front page displayed a strange yarn. Because a corps of the nation’s nimblest news hawks were also on the train, Republican editors throughout the land were soon rubbing their hands over a dispatch which, on quick reading, seemed to convict the New Deal’s cherished resettlement Administration of photographic fakery and bad faith.
In 1935, Roosevelt organized the Resettlement Administration (R.A.), a federal agency responsible for relocating struggling urban and rural families. By 1937 (because of intense Congressional pressure) it had been folded into a new agency, the Farm Security Administration (F.S.A.) designed to combat rural poverty. If this was all there was to it, the R.A. and F.S.A. might have been forgotten by history . But there was a small photography program, part of the Information Division of the F.S.A., headed by Roy Stryker, that nurtured many of the important photographers of the 1930s: Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee, Ben Shahn and Arthur Rothstein, among others. It also produced Pare Lorentz’s extraordinary documentary films “The Plow that Broke the Plains” and “The River” ...
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