A Plundered Province Revisited

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In their early days of corporate ownership, company newspapers inveighed vehemently against political candidates who weren’t Anaconda-approved, but after 1930 they took a different tack, becoming, in the phrase of historian Richard T. Ruetten, “monuments of indifference.” The London Economist studied the Montana press in 1957 and concluded: “Montana’s newspaper readers [are] worse informed about their own affairs than the inhabitants of almost any other state. As a local wit has put it, silence is copper-plated.” Anaconda’s newspapers claimed editorial independence, subject only to the “general policy consideration,” as the company’s legal counsel explained to the Federal Communications Commission in 1951, that they should avoid “yellow journalism”; but in the name of avoiding yellow journalism, they also contrived to avoid covering nearly all state and local news. Montanans who wanted to know what was going on in their legislature had to read the Denver Post .

Colonialist manipulation of Montana’s political and economic life was stultifying. The state knew depression long before the rest of the United States, the result of prolonged drought after overpromoted attempts at dry-land farming, of extensive bank failures and massive foreclosures of farm mortgages. For a time Montana’s bankruptcy rate was the highest in the nation. Montanans owned 33.5 per cent of their state’s total acreage in 1925. By 1943 they owned 28.2 per cent.

Where there is colonialism there is also a colonialist mentality. It manifests itself in extreme conservatism and in pervasive despair. During and after World War I, Montana conservatives bullied Wobblies, burned books, hounded citizens with German surnames, and framed a state sedition act on which the notorious Federal Sedition Law of 1918 was based. Liberals and Progressives fought back against these deprivations of civil rights and against the Company’s control of state affairs, but by the 1920’s Anaconda had consolidated its power, and reform movements had little effect. Against the power of the Company, even historians have thrown up their hands. Reviewing the 1930’s and 1940’s in Montana, Toole found the state’s governors and legislators “almost faceless, essentially voiceless.” “The New Deal came,” Toole concluded, “the New Deal went, the war came, the war went. … [W]hat it really was was twenty years of deep somnolence.”

Changes did come to the Great Plains during the years of the New Deal and the War—Montana as always lagging behind—changes that might have given the region what it had always needed for independence: a diversified economy, industrial capacity, a political voice of its own. DeVoto watched for those changes, and in 1946 he swung through the West and returned to Harper’s to take note of them. He found that the New Deal had slowed the West’s exploitation with programs that “operated to rehabilitate depleted resources, halt and repair erosion, rebuild soil, and restore areas of social decay.” It had eased credit, “opened small gaps in the master system,” and created much local prosperity.

World War II accelerated the change, DeVoto wrote, especially by giving the West contracts, factories, an industrial plant, and with those, an industrial labor force, which it had never had before. “In short, the West now has an industrial plant and the conditions for its use are favorable. … The West can at last develop a high-level economy with all that that implies: stability, prosperity, rising standard of living, successful competition with other sections, a full participating share in an expanding national economy.”

That was half of DeVoto’s assessment, the optimistic half. It was weighted by the emergence of industrial California and so applied less expansively to the rest of the West—for example, DeVoto noted parenthetically that Montana remained “the private fief of Anaconda Copper and Montana Power.” The other half discovered another impending attempt at plunder, an attempt by certain Western senators to donate what was left of the public domain, millions of acres with all their grazing and oil and gas and mineral rights, to the states within which lay the land.

If that sounds like a move toward Western independence, DeVoto thought otherwise: “Federal intervention … alone was powerful enough to save Western natural resources from total control and quick liquidation by the absentee Eastern ownership. For that preservation the West is grateful to the government. But there was and still is a fundamental defect: federal intervention has also preserved those resources from locally owned liquidation by the West itself. So, at the very moment when the West is blueprinting an economy which must be based on the sustained, permanent use of its natural resources, it is also conducting an assault on those resources with the simple objective of liquidating them. … It is the Western mind stripped to the basic split. The West as its own worst enemy. The West committing suicide.”