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PBS's American Experience remains one of the more reliable television programs on history and topical issues, especially when it comes to social change in the 20th century. Without fanfare or resorting to sensationalism, shows like A Class Apart help us remember the importance of major strides in civil rights.
2009's The Civilian Conservation Corps: American Experience is particularly relevant for our times. As with the current Administration in Washington, Franklin Delano Roosevelt came into office in 1933 when the country was in a shambles. The Great Depression left practically half the population out of work. Our agricultural economy was threatened by the Dust Bowl, a cataclysm made worse by the lack of organized soil conservation. The divide was the same as it is now: the Republicans wanted to let "nature" take its course, as they felt the Federal Government's role was not to provide widespread social services. Roosevelt and the Democrats were in favor of radical intervention at the Federal level: people were starving. Thus was created the great American political divide that's put the country in a dysfunctional stalemate.
The powerhouse Democrat Roosevelt was able to jam through a number of New Deal initiatives that we now take for granted but were originally condemned as downright Bolshevik: social security, new taxes, business regulation. Among them was the public relief work program called The Civilian Conservation Corps, which in its nine years of operation put to work over three million men for six-month periods, working on public and federal lands. The corps built and improved roads, improved national parks and worked on large projects to protect farmland despoiled by poor conservation.
The hour-long show uses abundant news film to illustrate the CCC's work in all 48 states and several American territories. Starting with the reality of hundreds of thousands of men and young boys who became hoboes riding the rails looking for work, the show recounts the experiences of several who came home and enrolled in the CCC. Regimented along military lines, the men lived in camps and were paid $30 a month. $25 of it was sent home, but the remaining five went a long way in 1933's economy.
The four interview subjects, now older men, remember that they loved the food in the camps. Even with the hard work they gained weight. Most CCC men believed in what the camps represented; they learned new skills and many found/regained their dignity. We hear a number of anecdotal stories. Locals near the camps resented Saturdays when the CCC men came into town, a real hide-your-daughters situation. Disputes among enlistees were settled in boxing matches.
Talkie news film shows F.D.R. making a big deal of a visit to a CCC camp, wishing he could stay longer and be active with the men! The media cooperation to hide the President's infirmity is a remarkable thing indeed, especially from our perspective. Roosevelt used the positive images of healthy, happy men engaged at good works as propaganda for his giant new bureaucratic overhaul of the political landscape. Conservatives may not have liked these programs, but, as one of the interviewees says, without such radical efforts the country could have faced a violent revolution.
The docu shows that the Civilian Conservation Corps was not a make-work boondoggle. Federal land everywhere was vastly improved. Many roads were built, along with fire trails and firebreaks. The Appalachian Trail and many of the amenities in national parks were constructed at this time, as well as the Presidential retreat at Camp David. Even more crucial was the progressive science brought to bear on agricultural disaster areas. Besides terracing and sculpting farmland to ward off erosion, the CCC was the first large-scale proving ground for modern conservation. Our resources of water, forest and wildlife wouldn't have lasted long without some kind of protection.
The CCC was another kind of social experiment as well. A black enlistee recalls that the camps were initially mixed, but soon divided into separate but equal installations. In this case equal was actually equal, especially when compared to the deplorable practices of the U.S. Army a decade later in WW2. The docu reports that the pay was the same for all, as was the food and other treatment.
The docu mentions educational programs in the camps, in particular classes for literacy. We don't hear of other kinds of education that might be considered indoctrination. In some ways the CCC is like the Nazi work corps of the same era, massive militaristic organizations that were heavily politicized. As it was, the CCC disbanded with the start of WW2, with many of its men going directly into the Armed Services. After the democratic war effort to save the world, our country's economy and its outlook were no longer geared to public projects like the CCC.
PBS Video's DVD of The Civilian Conservation Corps: American Experience is a handsome enhanced disc consisting almost entirely of B&W news film, slightly enlarged to fit the 1:78 widescreen aspect ratio. The Amazon listing of 1:33 is incorrect. The show comes from WGBH Boston, a major producer of PBS shows. In public TV's declining fortunes, it and a few other prime time series now look fairly isolated -- on weekends our local station here in Los Angeles sometimes shows the equivalent of infomercials.
Writer Producer Director Robert Stone has done several American Experience shows; he's well known for the well-received independent docu, Theremin, An Electronic Odyssey. His program is short on sensation yet comes off as a thoughtful piece of history not remembered all that often today.
The one extra on the disc is a DVD-Rom PDF file, a 13-page Teachers Guide that suggests that students evaluate the Depression conditions that indicated a need for the CCC program. Should such social engineering be part of the government's role? Would a similar program be appropriate in modern times?
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Civilian Conservation Corps: American Experience rates:
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