Tennessee Valley Authority

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The Tennessee Valley Authority (usually called TVA), (1933 to present) is a federal agency charged with bringing electricity to the Tennessee Valley through dams and economic development.

The original idea was proposed by Henry Ford and conservative businessmen in the 1920s, but was blocked by liberals led by Senator George Norris who feared business. Norris, although nominally a Republican, supported President Franklin D. Roosevelt and sponsored the TVA in 1933, even though it had no impact on his state of Nebraska.

The project successfully modernized most of Tennessee, which was hard hit by the Great Depression. Today Tennessee conservatives support the TVA. However the economic growth of Tennessee since 1933 closely parallels neighboring Kentucky, even though Kentucky has far less TVA activity, and trails Georgia as well.[1]

Liberals hailed the TVA in the 1940s and 1950s as a model for the world. It failed in its efforts to build nuclear power plants The romantic liberal image has fallen away, leaving the dams and electricity that is now more expensive than gas or coal.

TVA History

Arthur Ernest Morgan (1878-1975) was the first chairman and chief engineer of the TVA. A self-taught engineer and surveyor, in the 1910s Morgan devised a successful flood-control system for Dayton, Ohio, and subsequently became president of Antioch College. Roosevelt appointed him to head the TVA in 1933.

Morgan realized that flood control was ruining the prospects for farmers. Every spring the river pulled topsoil from the hillsides, rutting the fields and forcing farmers to move progressively higher up the less and less fertile steep slopes. More than soil was lost. Morgan wrote, "When half the land is washed away and the rest is poor, the ambitious man, the man of energy and initiative, will not stay." When the hills would not hold the soil, the soil would not hold the men, and they, too, washed downstream to cities where their limited skills found little demand. Morgan's mission was to restore the economic and cultural life of the 40,000-square-mile watershed—through flood control, electric power generation and improved river navigation. By 1935, TVA had 16,000 people—most of them locals—working at five dam sites.

Morgan chaired the three-man board running TVA, and every day he had to battle David E. Lilienthal.[2] The core issue was how to use the vast amounts of electricity the TVA's dams would produce. A fervent liberal, Lilienthal wanted to use the TVA electricity to coerce the private utilities to lower their rates or be bought out. Opposition to TVA's statist plans was led by Wendell Willkie, who went on to become GOP presidential nominee in 1940. Morgan, a religious man who deeply believed in the Social Gospel, exemplified the engineering spirit of the Progressive Era and therefore was hostile to all politicians—they introduced inefficiency and corruption into his engineering projects. Morgan, like the Nashville Agrarians, was a "ruralist" who believed that farms and small-towns offered the best prospect for human fulfillment; he saw TVA as a means of reviving the declining small-town, rural culture of the Tennessee Valley. Roosevelt in 1938 sided with Lilienthal and fired Morgan.

Global model

Morgan was renowned for his use of innovative methods, and Lilienthal stressed how it could become a basis for foreign policy, seeing the TVA a world class model for rural modernization. Lilienthal's book, TVA: Democracy on the March (1944) glowing described the TVA as a more than a generator of inexpensive power; he called it an American model example of grassroots regional democracy, environmental conservation, and the peaceful use of energy. Lilienthal promoted the notion that the TVA, as a regional democratic experiment, could be introduced to other parts of America and exported to Europe. The State Department brought in high level visitors from many lands. In 1955, Lilienthal and other TVA associates formed the Development and Resources Corporation that operated for over two decades in 25 countries until 1979 when the new revolutionary government of Iran refused to reimburse it for development projects.

However the TVA was a top-heavy, centralized, technocratic venture that required a very large well-trained staff that could rarely be found in the Third World. The experts tended to denigrate and displace locals in insensitive ways. When the TVA became a model for modernization programs in various parts of the Third World during the Cold War, such as in the Mekong Delta in Vietnam, its failure brought a backlash of cynicism toward the TVA and all grandiose modernization programs that has persisted.[3]

Arkansas River Authority--rejected

In 1936, conservatives in Congress took advantage of the New Dealers' spending mood by expanding the Corps of Engineers' flood control program. This move helped divert support for further valley authorities.[4]

Liberals proposed in the 1930s to create a grandiose Arkansas Valley Authority (AVA), patterned on the TVA, which would have contained all of the states Arkansas and Oklahoma and large parts of Missouri, Louisiana, Kansas, Texas, New Mexico, and Colorado. The AVA was supported by New Dealers and legislation was proposed in Congress in 1941. By now the Conservative Coalition had matters well in hand. Opposition, led by Colorado Governor Ralph Carr and including all Colorado Congressmen and Senator Alva B. Adams as well as the Southwestern Interstate Coal Operators' Association and the Denver Chamber of Commerce, helped defeat the AVA. Opposition centered on possible loss of Colorado's water rights and fear of increased Federal powers.[5]

Further reading

  • Chandler, William U. The Myth of the TVA: Conservation and Development in the Tennessee Valley, 1933-80 (1984), a conservative economic critique
  • Colignon, Richard A. Power Plays: Critical Events in the Institutionalism of the Tennessee Valley Authority (1997)
  • Creese, Walter L. TVA's Public Planning: The Vision, the Reality. (1990). 388 pp.
  • Hargrove, Erwin E. Prisoner of Myth: The Leadership of the Tennessee Valley Authority, 1933-1990 (1994)
  • Neuse, Steve M. David E. Lilienthal: The Journey of an American Liberal (1996).
  • O'Neill, Karen M. "Why the TVA Remains Unique: Interest Groups and the Defeat of New Deal River Planning," Rural Sociology, 2002 Vol. 67, Issue 2 in EBSCO
  • Selznick. Phillip. TVA and the Grass Roots: A Study in Politics and Organization (1949), how bureaucrats took control from the locals and the utopians.
  • Talbert, Roy. FDR's Utopian: Arthur Morgan of the TVA (1987)218 pp.

Primary sources

  • Lilienthal, David. TVA: Democracy on the March (1944), classic statement of liberal visions based on TVA model


  1. See William U. Chandler, The Myth of the TVA: Conservation and Development in the Tennessee Valley, 1933-80 (1984) for a conservative economic critique
  2. The third member was Harcourt Morgan, no relation.
  3. David Ekbladh, "'Mr. TVA': Grass-roots Development, David Lilienthal, and the Rise and Fall of the Tennessee Valley Authority as a Symbol for U.S. Overseas Development, 1933-1973," Diplomatic History 2002 26(3): 335-374
  4. O'Neill (2002)
  5. Mary Farley, "Colorado and the Arkansas Valley Authority," Colorado Magazine 1971 48(3): 221-234