- Historic Sites
The TVA: It Ain't What It Used to Be
What has befallen “the greatest peacetime achievement of twentieth-century America”s since the New Deal
February 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 2
Though the early TVA demonstrated unusual sensitivity and courage in certain areas of human concern such as hiring black-listed miners and holding up the flooding of a reservoir because of a bedridden landowner, in other areas it made crucial compromises. Despite Chairman Morgan’s claim that blacks were hired in proportion to their percentage in the regional population, there is evidence that even black college graduates were kept in menial jobs. Certainly blacks were housed in segregated areas, and separate toilet and drinking facilities for blacks and whites were installed at all TVA dams. Though Eleanor Roosevelt was a friend of many of the agency’s early executives and a major influence on other liberals who flocked to TVA, her efforts on behalf of women were never reflected in their having a major role in the agency. (Even today, of the top thirty-seven staff people who meet with the board each two weeks, only one is a woman and one a black.) The agency all but turned over important parts of its agricultural program under H. A. Morgan’s direction to the conservative Extension Service and the American Farm Bureau Federation, which worked mainly with more prosperous farmers.
As tremendously successful as the dams and recreation areas were for flood prevention and economic relief, they were not built without sacrifice. Whole communities were uprooted for reservoirs behind dams, and traditional folkways and community cohesiveness had to make way for a new brand of progress. Since its inception, TVA has forced the removal of 125,480 persons from their homes in a territory slightly larger than New England. Most of the removal occurred during the early years when dams were being built “by assembly-line methods,” as one executive described it. To tame the Tennessee River TVA created what Donald Davidson, the Vanderbilt University writer, called a two-million-acre “permanent flood.”
Though the power program had been only one of many elements of regional development envisioned by the founders, challenge after challenge from private power interests forced it—and Lilienthal as power affairs manager —into the forefront of national attention. The first of many legal hurdles put in the way of TVA came from a coalition of coal and ice companies who claimed that hydro power would threaten coal consumption and replace ice dealers with refrigerators. When courts refused to hear that case, TVA opponents organized a stockholders’ suit to prevent the Alabama Power Company from negotiating with the agency over power territory. Known as the Ashwander case, it was appealed to the Supreme Court, which upheld TVA. The utilities themselves organized and filed another suit, only to be rebuffed again in the courts. The years of legal challenges delayed important advances in TVA’s power program, further divided Lilienthal and the more cautious chairman, and brought Wendell Willkie into the national limelight for his run for the Presidency against Roosevelt in 1940.
Chairman Morgan, increasingly disaffected with his two board colleagues, began to air his grievances in the press. Though rarely specific, he hinted in public statements and magazine articles that the other two members were involved in “evasion, intrigue and sharp strategy,” and in “subtle forms of failure to meet a public trust.” Pressed by the President and by a congressional investigation, Morgan eventually revealed that his most serious reservation about his colleagues concerned what he saw as their connivance in a move by private interests to secure mineral rights on land that was part of the Norris Dam site. But the chairman produced no evidence—before or after his removal by the President—that his colleagues had acted unprofessionally or illegally in this or other matters. In finally removing Morgan, the President told Congress “he is temperamentally unfitted to exercise a divided authority.”
Until his death in 1975, Arthur Morgan continued to provide ammunition for a debate over whether Lilienthal had destroyed the TVA ideal by limiting it to a narrowly denned agency concerned almost entirely with being a utility. Lilienthal supporters had ample volumes of his writings on which to base a case that Morgan was an eccentric and politically naive engineer trying to apply hydrology principles to the vagaries of human character. Both men’s genius had made TVA more than just another federal pork barrel; but their pettiness raised serious doubts that it was a national “model.”