Benjamin F. Alexander. The New Deal's Forest Army: How the Civilian Conservation Corps Worked. How Things Worked Series. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018. Illustrations. 192 pp. $19.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4214-2456-9; $55.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4214-2455-2.
Reviewed by Kim Jarvis (Doane University)
Published on H-FedHist (August, 2018)
Commissioned by Caryn E. Neumann (Miami University of Ohio Regionals)
Benjamin F. Alexander’s The New Deal’s Forest Army: How the Civilian Conservation Corps Worked is one of three titles published in 2018 as part of the Johns Hopkins University Press How Things Worked series. Alexander’s clear overview of the Civilian Conservation Corps, or the CCC as it became known, is a welcome one in a crowded field, as is evident from the valuable seven pages of resources in his “Suggestions for Further Readings” section at the end of the book. While Neil Maher’s book Nature’s New Deal (2008) is a more extensive examination of the environmental elements and legacy of the CCC, Alexander’s short work is useful in that it offers an introduction to the program overall and insight into its participants’ experiences, with a clear narrative distilled from an impressive array of sources.
Alexander’s focus is clear as well. In his introduction, he outlines the questions he will answer: how the CCC worked; who joined and how they joined; how the camps were organized; how the CCC, the Great Depression, and the New Deal were connected; and what the CCC’s larger legacy is. He addresses these questions directly, guiding readers through the details of the program throughout his study.
Lasting from its creation as the Emergency Conservation Work program in 1933 until Congress cut funding in 1942, the CCC reflected President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s commitment to conservation, with its focus on forests and parks. The organization of the camps, Alexander notes, was taken over by the US Army, with officers and reservists serving as leaders. Although there was a concern that the CCC was an attempt to “militarize” American youth through the creation of a “forest army,” General Douglas MacArthur assured Congress during his testimony in 1933 that this was not the case (pp. 17, 18). Alexander notes later in his discussion of the legacy of the CCC that the camps and their programming led to improved health and skills of the young men involved, which helped the war effort after 1941.
In chapter 2, Alexander details who the CCC “enrollees” (known as juniors and veterans) were: young single men and some World War I veterans. A portion of their pay was sent home to their families as part of the New Deal relief effort. Overall, while white men benefited most from the CCC, African Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans were included in the program, with African Americans often serving in segregated camps; Hispanics, while not segregated, often experienced discrimination. First known as the Indian Emergency Conservation Work program, the Indian CCC, administered by the Bureau of Indian Affairs rather than the US Army, focused much of its work on reservations in the western United States, although it also had projects in the eastern regions of the country.
In addition to offering an overview of the wide range of projects completed by the CCC, in chapter 3 Alexander includes a discussion of educational programming in the camps. Although technically voluntary, a range of classes were offered on citizenship and literacy, in vocational training, and in academic subjects, in which many enrollees, including African Americans and Native Americans, took part. The CCC’s efforts in this area, Alexander notes, were intended to improve the lives of enrollees, whether in terms of providing job training, more advanced academic studies, or even high school diplomas, opportunities that enrollees might not have had at home.
Discipline was an important element of the daily life in CCC camps. Although discipline was not military in nature, between 1933 and 1937 enrollees spent their first two weeks in the camps going through daily physical conditioning that prepared them for the strenuous work that lay ahead, with schedules for daily activities providing structure to keep the camps running smoothly and to help enrollees adapt to their new surroundings. Often there were racial tensions in the camps, as well as tensions between CCC enrollees from different parts of the country who lived in camps together, so structure and discipline helped camp leaders manage these issues. But there was also a sense of camaraderie. In chapter 4, Alexander discusses the sense of community, using the CCC newsletter Happy Days. He also discusses what the enrollees did during their time off, such as playing practical jokes on each other. Enrollees participated in a range of sports, including boxing and baseball, wrote for camp newspapers, and performed in variety shows, concerts, and plays, some of which were open to members of local communities, who, in turn, sometimes sponsored dance halls for enrollees.
The stories of the former CCC members Alexander met when he attended a CCC legacy convention in 2015, which he notes helped to inspire this study, are an interesting contribution to this book. These stories enliven the study and offer insight into how this New Deal program influenced both the individuals who joined the CCC and the communities in which these enrollees worked. Including some additional stories from these men would have added even more depth to the personal focus of the work, although this might not have been possible in a short study such as this.
Alexander’s discussion of the legacy of the CCC, focusing on its economic and social benefits as well as its encouragement of grassroots environmental efforts, demonstrates how this study fits into the larger historiography of the Great Depression and the New Deal.
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Kim Jarvis. Review of Alexander, Benjamin F., The New Deal's Forest Army: How the Civilian Conservation Corps Worked.
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