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Ken Burns' The Dust Bowl: Blowing Sand in Our Eyes

Gary North
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Nov. 22, 2012

Commercialism: "Something done magnificently that should not have been done at all."

Ken Burns is a gifted producer of documentaries. His series on The Civil War was an artistic triumph. It has shaped the way documentaries are made. His subsequent effort, Baseball, was pretty good if you are a baseball history fan. Jazz, which I reviewed in 2001, was less successful artistically and in terms of its impact. That had to do more with the demise of jazz than with Burns' creativity. He told the story well. After 1940, the story turned dark.

His series on World War II, The War, was as flat as stale beer. He never found a way to tell the story of the war. He failed to find representative chronological incidents that told a coherent story with an identifiable theme. The film is a series of chronologically interchangeable stock footage from the War Department that Burns strung together by means of letters and diaries that did not carry any theme that I could detect. The documentary was mostly noise and nostalgia.

His most recent effort, The Dust Bowl, is a visual masterpiece. The script is compelling. Peter Coyote is a great narrator. The interviews with survivors add authenticity. But it has one major defect: it is a sophisticated propaganda film in the tradition of Pare Lorentz's 1936 film, The Plow That Broke the Plains. The first half of that classic film is available on Burns even uses a clip from the movie.


Lorentz was a paid propagandist. The New Deal put him on its payroll. He had a message: the Great Plains were turning into a desert. The New Deal alone could save the plains from becoming Arabia. To understand what Burns has done, you must understand who Lorentz was and what he did.

During the great westward expansion into the Great Plains of the United States, 1840-90, two myths competed for men's allegiance: the myth of the uncivilized wilderness vs. the myth of the garden. Both myths were based on environmental determinism. Beginning in the 1840s, some observers argued that the arid plains would make savages of civilized men. But as the American population moved westward, another myth slowly took shape, or more to the point, was shifted from the East to the Midwest: the myth of the garden. The coming of civilization would somehow increase the rainfall of the arid region.

The dust storms of the 1930s disabused those who might otherwise have been tempted to perpetuate this myth. Year after year for a decade, these dust storms buried hundreds of thousands of square miles of land in many feet of air-borne dirt. There was literally darkness at noon. The sweat of man's brow was caked. Then the myth of the garden shifted: from the hard-working farmer to the scientific planner. The Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA) of the United States Department of Agriculture began to preach a new gospel of works: the plow was destroying the soil. The nation needed government-mandated soil conservation, voters were told.

The Resettlement Administration of the Department of Agriculture was ordered by its director, Rexford Guy Tugwell, to create a propaganda film promoting this viewpoint, The Plow That Broke the Plains . It was written and directed by Lorentz, a 30-year-old former West Virginian, who had been a New York movie critic, a Washington gossip columnist, and a political reporter. He had never before made a movie. He had written a pro-Roosevelt picture book, The Roosevelt Year (1934).

The movie cost a minuscule $6,000 to produce, but was incredibly successful artistically. As a propaganda film, it was in the tradition of Eisenstein's The Battleship Potemkin, a silent movie defending the Bolshevik revolution, and by Leni Riefenstahl's 1935 promotion of Hitler and the Nazi Party, Triumph of the Will. (Riefenstahl died in 2003.) It was so successful that President Roosevelt established the United States Film Service in 1938, with Lorentz in charge.

The Plow that Broke the Plains was so blatantly misleading in its splicing together of scenes, some of which ecological historian James C. Malin says were faked, that a United States Senator and other critics forced it out of circulation in 1939. The narrative suggested nothing specific in the way of a restoration program for the land. It ended with this evaluation: "The sun and winds wrote the most tragic chapter in American agriculture." In the script, the plow is not blamed for the erosion of the soil, but this theme is communicated visually. As Lorentz later wrote, he relied primarily on pictures and music; he wrote the narrative only after the pictures and the music were finished.

The following is from a pro-Lorentz author. It describes the pre-1941 New Deal propaganda program for agriculture.

During the second half of the 1930's, the United States Government embarked on unique project, a public relations campaign to keep the American people informed about the New Deal and the necessity of its programs. Under the direction of the Resettlement Administration, the Government first sponsored radio and photography campaigns, which produced some of the most famous work of artists including Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange and Ben Shahn. Some of the photographs that Evans took went into the critically acclaimed book that he worked with James Agee to produce, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. In 1935, the Resettlement Administration decided to produce films as a method of getting its message to a wider segment of the public. The films produced under the auspices of the Resettlement Administration represent the only peacetime production by the United States Government of films intended for commercial release and public viewing ever. They also heralded a new direction for American documentary filmmaking because of the sophistication with which they were made. These films were known as the Films of Merit, and the first of them were directed by Pare Lorentz.

The Resettlement Administration was an exercise in government-funded population control. It moved people off the land and into urban areas.

The Resettlement Administration was founded on May 1, 1935 as part of the second phase of the New Deal. Dr. Rexford Guy Tugwell, the Under-Secretary of Agriculture, was appointed as its administrator. The goal of the Resettlement Administration was the relocation of impoverished farm families and poor city families. It also focused on the prevention of unprofitable farming techniques and improper land use, as well as the preservation of natural resources. Finally, it was responsible for the creation of three "Greenbelt" communities, suburban housing developments outside of Washington D.C., Cincinnati, and Milwaukee, intended to provide improved living conditions for city dwellers. Like many other New Deal agencies, it was founded on the belief that a control of social conditions would produce better lives for American citizens. . . .

Lorentz came to the project with the first film already conceptualized. Dr. Tugwell originally envisioned that the Resettlement Administration would produce a series of eighteen films, the first of which he suggested should deal with the Tennessee Valley Authority. The TVA had been created in May of 1933 and was charged with building dams and establishing flood control, projects that dovetailed with the Resettlement Administration's commitment to environmental conservation. But Lorentz wanted to make a film about the Dust Bowl, an idea that he had unsuccessfully pitched to the Hollywood studios a year earlier. Lorentz was able to convince Tugwell to make this film, which became The Plow That Broke the Plains. But Lorentz' second film for the RA would explore Tugwell's idea. The River, which many film critics argued was an even greater artistic success than The Plow That Broke the Plains told that story of the great rivers of the American continent and the work of the Tennessee Valley Authority.

The success of these projects led Roosevelt to establish the United States Film Service in 1938 under Lorentz' direction. The USFS was active until 1940, when Congress cut off its funding.

Lorentz was a self-conscious acolyte of the messianic State. We get a sense of his deeply religious motivation at 20 minutes and 30 seconds into his movie. With the barren landscape as the image, he inserts an off-key organ playing the Doxology: "Praise God from whom all blessings flow." In short, "You dare not trust that God." Implication: "You can trust the New Deal."

As for Tugwell, he was the most famous member of Roosevelt's "Brain Trust." The Wikipedia entry on him reminds us: "He participated in the Committee to Frame a World Constitution from 1945 to 1948. He also viewed a revised national constitution as necessary to enable economic planning, and late in life composed a constitution for the Newstates of America. In it, planning would become a new branch of federal government, alongside the Regulatory and Electoral branches."

Burns' version goes over the same dusty ground. It is filled with photos, paid for by the federal government. There is no question: the dust storms were horrendous.

His documentary blames the dust bowl on the profit-driven plowing of the 1920s. The farmers bought tractors and planted wheat. This ruined the grassland. Then, when the rain ceased for a decade, the now dry soil blew away.

It was true chronologically. Farmers plowed the soil and planted wheat. The rains ceased. The land dried up. Dust storms began. But chronological sequence is not causation.


The great historian of Kansas was James C. Malin. He was little known in his era in the 1920s through the 1950s. He is not so much forgotten as never known, except for specialists in Midwestern history. He was one of the great American historians of the twentieth century. His definitive book was The Grassland of North America. It was the first great book on the ecological history of the Great Plains. It has shaped the writing of the region's history ever since.

As Malin wrote in his detailed scholarly articles, the dust storms have been a recurring feature of the Great Plains. Long before there were tractors, there were dust storms. The grassland did not protect the region's residents from these storms. In 1946, the Kansas Historical Quarterly published three of his articles on dust storms from 1850 to 1900. They deserve to be used by anyone writing a history of the Great Plains.

Burns' film does not even hint at any of this.

Fast forward six decades. In an anthology published in 2008, Placing History: How Maps, Spatial Data, and GIS Are Changing Historical Scholarship, Prof. Geoff Cunfer wrote an excellent summary of the latest findings on the dust bowl. The story is very complex, but basically it is this: the land had no rain for a decade. That was the crucial fact, not the plowing of the 1920s.

He made this point. In the second half of the nineteenth century, the reports coming out of the region were controlled by newspapers. They were owned by local boosters, who suppressed the news. In the 1930s, the New Deal sent photographers and writers into the region to tell the story. It also promoted a government-funded relocation of farmers off their land. It was not that storms were worse in the 1930s. It was that politics was based on central planning.

Burns' film briefly mentions how local boosters tried to suppress bad news in the 1930s. It does not draw the conclusion that Cunfer did.

Cunfer also says that previous studies were limited to a few counties. This distorted the reports. Recent studies are based on detailed computerized reports from 208 counties. The story that these data reveal is complex. It does not fit the story that was pitched by the New Deal and the promoters of "the plow that broke the plains" propaganda.

But because history is amazingly complex, it is difficult for serious historians who are using the latest research technology to get their version to the public. It does not have pizazz. Burn's documentary is knee deep in pizazz, like the dust mounds that covered houses and fields. It will keep the public from looking.

The film focuses on four counties: two in Oklahoma, one in Colorado, and one in Kansas. They were contiguous. These were not representative of the entire Great Plains.

This time, Burns found his stories. The trouble is, they are not representative stories of the region, Canada to Texas. They do not prove the New Deal's Party Line: "the free market's profit-driven plows that broke the plains."


Prof. Cunfer is one of the most respected economic historians of the Great Plains. His articles and books set standards in scholarship. I regard him as the Malin of this century in the area of ecological history. His article on the Dust Bowl appears on the website of the Economic History Association. His comments deserve wider distribution. He describes Pare Lorentz's efforts and the efforts of the photographers.

The narrative behind this publicity campaign was this: in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries farmers had come to the dry western plains, encouraged by a misguided Homestead Act, where they plowed up land unsuited for farming. The grassland should have been left in native grass for grazing, but small farmers, hoping to make profits growing cash crops like wheat had plowed the land, exposing soils to relentless winds. When serious drought struck in the 1930s the wounded landscape succumbed to dust storms that devastated farms, farmers, and local economies. The result was a mass exodus of desperately poor people, a social failure caused by misuse of land. The profit motive and private land ownership were behind this failure, and only a scientifically grounded federal bureaucracy could manage land use wisely in the interests of all Americans, rather than for the profit of a few individuals. Federal agents would retire land from cultivation, return it to grassland, and teach remaining farmers how to use their land more carefully to prevent erosion. This effort would, of course, require large budgets and thousands of employees, but it was vital to resolving a rural disaster.

This publicity campaign had federal money behind it. Why? Because the federal government had a program it was promoting.

The New Deal government, with Congressional support and appropriations, began to put reform plan into place. A host of new agencies vied to manage the program, including the FSA, the SCS, the RA, and the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA). Each implemented a variety of reforms. The RA began purchasing "submarginal" land from farmers, eventually acquiring some 10 million acres for former farmland in the Great Plains. (These lands are now mostly managed by the U.S. Forest Service as National Grasslands leased to nearby private ranchers for grazing.) The RA and the FSA worked to relocate destitute farmers on better lands, or move them out of farming altogether. The SCS established demonstration projects in counties across the nation, where local cooperator farmers implemented recommended soils conservation techniques on their farms, such as fallowing, strip cropping, contour plowing, terracing, growing cover crops, and a variety of cultivation techniques. There were efforts in each county to establish Land Use Planning Committees made of local farmers and federal agents who would have authority over land use practices on private farms.


During World War II, the push from Washington to push the farmers off the land ended. It was replaced by farm subsidies -- a program supposedly designed to save the family farms and keep farmers on their land. In short, it was a complete reversal. So, the hype over the dust bowl ended. So did the drought.

These committees functioned for several years in the late 1930s, but ended in most places by the early 1940s. The most important and expensive measure was the AAA's development of a comprehensive system of farm subsidies, which paid farmers cash for reducing their acreage of commodity crops. The subsidies, created as an emergency Depression measure, have become routine and persist 70 years later. They brought millions of dollars into nearly every farming county in the U.S. and permanently transformed the economics of agriculture. In a multitude of innovative ways the federal government set out to remake American farming. The Dust Bowl narrative served exceedingly well to justify these massive and revolutionary changes in farming, America's most common occupation for most of its history.

The rains came in 1941. So did World War II. The propaganda campaign switched to fighting Germans rather than fighting nature. The photographers went off to war.

The Dust Bowl finally ended in 1941 with the arrival of drenching rains on the southern and central plains and with the advent of World War II. The rains restored crops and settled the dust. The war diverted public and government attention from the plains. In a telling move, the FSA photography corps was reconstituted as the Office of War Information, the propaganda wing of the government's war effort. The narrative of World War II replaced the Dust Bowl narrative in the public's attention. Congress diverted funding away from the Great Plains and toward mobilization. The Land Utilization Program stopped buying submarginal land and the county Land Use Planning Committees ceased. Some of the New Deal reforms became permanent. The AAA subsidy system continued through the present and the Soil Conservation Service (now the Natural Resources Conservation Service) created a stable niche promoting wise agricultural land management and soil mapping.

What was the result of soil conservation education? Not much.

Ironically, overall land use on the Great Plains had changed little during the decade. About the same amount of land was devoted to crops in the second half of the twentieth century as in the first half. Farmers grew the same crops in the same mixtures. Many implemented the milder reforms promoted by New Dealers -- contour plowing, terracing -- but little cropland was converted back to pasture. The "submarginal" regions have continued to grow wheat, sorghum, and other crops in roughly the same quantities.

Yet the propaganda campaign still shapes the public's thinking. It surely shaped Ken Burns' thinking.

Despite these facts the public has generally adopted the Dust Bowl narrative. If asked, most will identify the Dust Bowl as caused by misuse of land. The descendants of the federal agencies created in the 1930s still claim to have played a leading role in solving the crisis. Periodic droughts and dust storms have returned to the region since 1941, notably in the early 1950s and again in the 1970s. Towns in the core dust storm region still have dust storms in dry years. Lubbock, Texas, for example, experienced 35 dust storms in 1973-74. Rural depopulation continues in the Great Plains (although cities in the region have grown even faster than rural places have declined). None of these droughts, dust storms, or periods of depopulation have received the concentrated public attention that those of the 1930s did. Nonetheless, environmentalists and critics of modern agricultural systems continue to warn that unless we reform modern farming the Dust Bowl may return.


Throughout the film, we are told that people at the time thought that the Great Plains would turn into a desert. But then came Franklin Roosevelt, who hired government workers to plant 220 million trees. That saved the Great Plains, we are told. The nineteenth-century regional myth, "rain follows the plow," which Burns mentions, has been replaced: "Rain follows government trees."

What has saved the Great Plains from dust storms has been the Ogalala aquifer, which can be tapped by farmers with modern pumps. When this "free" water is no longer available cheap, we will see more dust bowls. Maybe then we can get a documentary on them by a filmmaker who does not mimic Pare Lorentz.

If you want to know where Burns got all those spliced-in movies and photographs, think "Rexford Guy Tugwell." They are all part of the public domain -- free. The government's subsidy is still paying off politically, over 75 years later.

As surely as the sun burned up the crops of the Great Plains for a decade, so does Ken Burns' documentary burn up historical cause and effect.

Toward the end of Part 2, Burns inserted a segment on how Franklin Roosevelt came to Lubbock, Texas after a decade of drought. The city had a huge parade in his honor. Then it rained on his parade. This was the culminating symbol for the entire documentary. Saint Franklin had delivered his people!

Think of this review as rain on Burns' parade. Anyway, a drizzle.

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