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Udall: A Letter to My Grandchildren, Pt 2

As global warming looms, some echoes from past hard times

December 30, 2010 |
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

LBJ Library Photo by Robert Knudsen
  As Secretary of the Interior, Stewart Udall, seen here in the Pacific Northwest with Lady Bird Johnson, helped establish dozens of national parks, wilderness areas, and shorelines.

Editor’s Note: This is Part Two of a letter by Mr. Udall to his grandchildren about global warming. In Part One, Mr. Udall described the post-World War II optimism that convinced America that technology could solve any problem—and provide unlimited energy and mobility. Here he recalls lessons learned from growing up during the Great Depression and World War II.

Ordinarily, a backward look at history is a detour into unproductive nostalgia. I am acutely aware of the profound differences between today’s culture and the spare way of living that prevailed in the 1930s. Nevertheless, I believe my contemporaries—called “the greatest generation” by Tom Brokaw—I prefer to characterize it as “the frugal generation”—have timely life lessons to offer your generation.

The free-fall of the stock market in October, 1929, was part of a worldwide economic disaster. It was followed by a bank panic that lasted over two years and wiped out the savings of millions and created a wave of shock and despair. The collapse—unemployment rose to 80 percent in some manufacturing cities—came to be called The Great Depression.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s buoyant spirit and his job-creating New Deal programs, tied to Keynesian economic prospects, slowly improved and replaced pessimism with cautious hope. But the struggle to get the economy back on track lasted 11 years.

At the outset, no one foresaw that the Depression’s paralyzing grip would change many of the country’s core values and expectations.

Two Americas
I lived through that period as a teenager. There were actually two Americas in the 1930s where energy was concerned. Roughly half of all Americans resided in metropolitan areas or in mid-sized cities where industrial activity was dominant. These folks had electricity and were served by railroads that provided first-rate service for passengers and industries. The other half lived in rural areas, small towns, and on farms. Some rural families owned used cars but, in my region in the Southwest, except for large communities like Phoenix, Salt Lake City, and Denver, few homes had access to electric power.

In general, the living standards of these two Americas were contrasted in important ways. A subsistent economy was dominant in the latter. These families essentially lived off the land, which meant that children had daily chores—chopping wood, milking cows, feeding animals and tending the garden—and all meals were home cooked. Payrolls were few, so older adults on ranches and farms had seasonal jobs and kept busy doing heavy outdoor work. It was not all work and no play: Churches and high schools filled in with religious activities and entertainment.

In the 1930s, I lived in the Intermountain West. I spent the first 18 years of my life in the farm village of St. Johns, Arizona—population 1,300—on the Colorado Plateau 60 miles from the nearest railroad.

We had no electricity; wood was our fuel. Horses, mules, and human muscle provided the “horsepower” required for irrigated agriculture. Travel was limited, but I had an opportunity—in the clean, clear air of that time—to move about on the electric trolleys and trains that provided cities like Phoenix, Tucson, Albuquerque, and Salt Lake City with efficient, convenient, low-cost travel.

Then, on my one trip to the Los Angeles area, in 1937, with a football team, I rode on the fast Red Ball trains that connected that area’s flowering “garden cities,” before the auto industry conspired after the war to eliminate them. I was fascinated recently to observe that Utah is combating auto congestion and pollution by connecting its major cities with fast trains and building light-rail lines in some of its urban areas.

The one major sector of the economy that thrived during the Depression was the railway system. During the war it carried soldiers and the huge new war machines with remarkable dispatch. But, unlike our European neighbors, we unceremoniously discarded it in the 1950s when the Interstate Highway system was approved. Now, the end of cheap oil will turn the tables in favor of rail mobility and simultaneously bolster human health and save travelers billions of dollars each year.

Shattered Hopes, Hardscrabble Dreams
Drastic changes will be in order. That is why I believe the transition my generation made from 1930 to 1946 and beyond needs to be evaluated and emulated. Hopes were shattered and replaced with misery in the first years of the Depression, but everyone realized they had to adapt to a different economy and a spare lifestyle.

My generation did not handle this crisis by blaming the government or seeking scapegoats, but by strengthening our families and communities, and above all, by supporting primary and secondary schools so our children might have a better future. This was not a decision made by the national government. It was made by the members of thousands of local communities who taxed themselves to make good education a reality.

Opportunities for higher education shrank during the 1930s. Only three or four percent of high school graduates—mostly the children of well-to-do parents—enrolled and won college degrees. This elevated the importance of high school studies and striving students sought, and received, valuable extra instruction.

Many individuals were crushed by the 1930s. Others used sardonic humor to roll with the punches. Oklahoma’s Will Rogers, who wrote a weekly column featuring pithy observations, was a laugh-at-your-plight commentator. One of his gems that I remember was: “I had a surprise yesterday. A headline read, ‘Six Bankers in Detroit Indicted.’ I thought Detroit was a bigger town than that!”

Another Okie, the mother of author Tony Hillerman, was not intimidated by the erosion of the Dust Bowl. She responded by coining a proverb to salve the wounds of her neighbors: “Blessed are those who expect little,” she intoned, “for they shall seldom be disappointed.”

In some cases extreme adversity evoked defiance and persuaded men and women that they were indomitable. This was the theme of John Steinbeck’s great book and film, The Grapes of Wrath.

All Together Now
Optimism had a brief surge in the 1930s with the advent of radio and talking pictures. Radio had a positive influence on national culture. It gave a president the power to tell the country what he was trying to accomplish. It also enabled families to sit in a circle to hear news reports—and be entertained. It was a welcome advance because it used so little electricity that it was essentially free in a society that was struggling to make ends meet.

Movies, likewise, had a positive impact on culture. Like radio, Hollywood’s stunning visuals did not make a dent in the depressed economy, but their appeal was educational and proffered solace. Going to a move, too, was usually a family activity. Life values taught, say, by a Spencer Tracy, a Katherine Hepburn, or a Betty Davis resonated with meaning.

Whether one liked comedies (Chaplin, W.C. Fields, etc.), fantasies (The Wizard of Oz), nostalgia for “the good, old days” (Thorton Wilder’s Our Town), or social tragedies (The Grapes of Wrath), filmgoers went home feeling that tenacious individuals could make a difference. Besides, the admission fee was minimal. The first film that came to my hometown, in 1934, was Small Town Girl, with Janet Gaynor. A ticket cost just 25 cents.

Those technologies made families more cohesive and created a “we’re all in this together” spirit that encouraged positive thinking at a time when there was no national “safety net.” Governments only got involved, in those days, if there was an epidemic or a local disaster.

As a result, the burden of providing care for the sick and the dying fell on families and churches. If, for example, a breadwinner was ill or injured, older children hustled for part-time work to fill the gap. This kind of self-reliance infused teenagers with confidence and pride when war clouds appeared on the horizon.

A Nation Transformed
The stunning Pearl Harbor attack triggered a social and economic transformation never experienced before. In the days and weeks after war was declared, the worries of the Great Depression were replaced by millions asking, “What can I do to help?”

There was no turmoil, no panicky reaction to “terror.” President Roosevelt delivered a call to action that turned the economic landscape upside down. Our biggest industries converted factories into war plants that produced ships, tanks, flying machines, and other weapons of war.

A civilian workforce of millions of idle men and women was trained to staff the assembly lines. In the meantime, those who volunteered or were drafted—ultimately 12 million wore military uniforms—had to wait until bases were constructed where they could be trained to use the powerful, new machines of war.

The scope and scale of the overall effort is affirmed by the statistic that young women—including a symbolic aircraft worked named Rosie the Riveter—held 30 percent of the jobs at war factories and usually worked 50 hours each week. (Lee, your grandmother, was part of that workforce.) It forever changed the roll of American women, who could and forever would have more choices and equality.

As boot camps were completed, they became a military melting pot of young men from all walks of life. Their hometowns ranged from large cities like Brooklyn, Knoxville, or Milwaukee to small towns such as Walla Walla, Wash., Eagle Pass, Tex., and Whiskeytown, Calif. There was less friction than expected because the young men had a common purpose and their unspoken “all in it together” attitudes overcame cultural or religious differences.

These fledgling soldiers knew little about what the future had in store for them. Most of them would end up giving three, four, or five years of their lives to the country. Over 292,000 of them sacrificed life itself—and a large number would suffer grievous wounds that would impair the health and future enjoyment of life. But they knew the risks and bore them stoically.

Part III of Mr. Udall’s letter to his grandchildren will be published on New Years Day, 2007. In it, he describes how lessons from The Great Depression and World War II can aid the coming worldwide battle against global warming.

As Secretary of the Interior in the Kennedy and Johnson cabinets, Mr. Udall successfully pushed for the Clean Air, Water Quality, and Clean Water Restoration Acts and Amendments, the Wilderness Act of 1964, the Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1966, and other groundbreaking green laws.

You can read Part One of Mr. Udall’s letter here. Read Institute founder Keith Schneider’s 1998 essay about Mr. Udall here.

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