In this remarkable first book, Tore Olsson traces the ways in which agricultural and political ambitions, dreams, and ideas flowed back and forth between the American South and Mexico in the 1930s and 1940s. During this period of the “long” New Deal, 1933–1943, progressive and radical thinkers on both sides of the border were able to put their visions of an egalitarian rural and agricultural order into an experimental reality. Not coincidentally, these two places shared quite a few similarities. Both areas were built on plantation agriculture and mono-cropping. Both featured ruinous land tenure arrangements that created simmering rural resentment and revolt. Both created environmental degradation of soil and water, problems that multiplied over generations. Both systems were built on the shaky foundations of class divisions—the planter class and the sharecropper class were the dominant, but wildly unequal, forms of life on the land. And both attracted the attention of liberal and radical politicians and visionaries who saw in them an opportunity—indeed, an invitation—to change the world. The story here is of a moment in time when rural circumstances had become so egregiously bad that politicians, agronomists, and philanthropists were drawn to a problem that seemed, on first glance, to be solvable. In the American context, the New Deal shined a bright light on the miserable conditions facing black and white tenant farmers and sharecroppers, and attracted the attention of progressive federal employees such as M. L. Wilson, Rexford Tugwell, and Henry A. Wallace. Their commitment to social justice issues led to the creation of programs such as the Farm Security Administration, which focused not on production issues as the Agricultural Adjustment Administration famously did, which favored middle-class farmers, but rather on more holistic and foundational issues such as land tenure, which favored the working poor. In Mexico, the rhetoric and promise of the Mexican Revolution to redistribute land to peasants had faltered until the election of Lazaro Cardenas in 1934. Under his leadership, 50 million acres of land, including plantations owned by foreigners, as well as some highly valuable irrigated land in Northern Mexico, was turned over to rural “ejidos,” rural peasant communities that shared pastures, fields, and forests for communal use. Ejidos were the backbone of Mexico’s rural population, and were important politically, but their existence depended upon a munificent president. Cardenas was just that, and, as it turned out, his understanding of the rural peasantry, and generosity towards them, would not be shared by the politicians who followed. During this ten-year period, when radical and progressive ideas about social justice found fertile ground, Mexican and American leaders discovered that they had much to learn from each other. Thanks to some timely and pivotal work by the American ambassador to Mexico, Josephus Daniels, as well as American scholar and activist Frank Tannenbaum, the agricultural and rural leadership from both sides began traveling to each others’ country, eager to see what the others had done and to learn how to adapt it for their own rural needs. Thus, this is not a story comparing the similarities and differences of two adjoining countries. Rather, it is the story of ideological inspiration and, to a degree, collaboration between neighbors experiencing similar challenges. Olsson is a very gifted writer, and this book is a real pleasure to read. He is also very deft at organizing what is quite a complex set of stories. Chapter 1 sets the historical stage from the 1870s to the 1920s, explaining how each country ended up with such deep and seemingly intractable rural problems. Chapter 2 explores how the radical reform agenda dating from the Mexican Revolution inspired a group of New Dealers focused on Southern plantation agriculture. The creation of the Farm Security Administration was strongly inspired by Tannenbaum’s observations in rural Mexico. Further, the Southern Tenant Farmers Union, created in 1934, was keen to emulate Cardenas’s reform of cotton-growing land called La Lagunas in northern Mexico, a place they visited and studied. Chapter 3 turns this around, looking at the profound influence that New Deal ideas and programs had on Mexican reform efforts in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Here we see Henry A. Wallace cultivating strong working relationships with Mexican partners, and his appointment of Josephus Daniels as ambassador in 1933 only deepened those bonds. Chapter 4 examines the role played by the Rockefeller family and Foundation (RF) in Mexican agricultural programs, tracing their interest to their creation of the General Education Board in 1903, which sought to fundamentally reform education in the South and to eradicate poverty. Chapter 5 recounts the first decade of the RF’s Mexican agricultural program, demonstrating some of the tensions between agronomists who favored helping successful farmers versus those who favored strengthening smaller farmers, a debate that characterized American, and particularly Southern, agriculture as well. Finally Olsson turns to the impact of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) on the Mexican landscape, showing how leaders in both the American South and arid rural Mexico promoted dam building as a solution to rural poverty, skillfully sidestepping the structural social and economic issues that lay at its heart. This brief review cannot capture the depth and intelligence of this book, nor the important and fresh scholarly findings that make the story so original and exciting. Olsson’s extensive archival work pays off handsomely as he both brings new material to the analysis and juxtaposes the political and economic interests of these two countries. For example, the Rockefeller part of this story, key because it was the seedbed of the Green Revolution, has been told before but never with such attention to the complex international underpinnings, which indeed changes everything. Marbled throughout the book are many recurring themes that challenge existing scholarship. For example, Olsson argues that our scholarly tendency to allow geographical borders to enshrine intellectual borders, has led us to miss the rich commonalities that link people and places across borders. The cotton South, he suggests, has much more in common with other plantation and slave-based countries of the Caribbean than it does with, say, the upper Midwestern United States. Yet these common threads have been obscured by our assumption of difference. He also takes aim at the tangled history of the so-called Green Revolution, often understood as the peaceful “development” of agricultural technologies that promised to increase food production around the world, while also trying to prevent Communist encroachments into Asia, Latin America, and Africa. Olsson argues that these practices were born not in the Third World, but in the American South, where progressive agronomists and philanthropists tried to eradicate rural poverty decades before they set their sights on Mexico. This retelling opens a new space for scholars to explore both the similarities between regions, but also the motivations that guided rural reformers in their efforts. This is very refreshing. While I found Olsson’s claims both elegant and persuasive, I would have liked to hear more about two overarching narratives. One concerns education, and how regional and national ideals created standardized educational opportunities for youth in both the South and in Mexico. This might or might not have been an engine for social change in both places, but might also have speeded up the government’s drive towards urbanization and away from the small farms and ejidos that needed the most support. The second and related narrative centers on the creation and adoption of various kinds of agricultural science and technology—hybrid seeds, machinery, chemicals, and so forth. This story lies just below the surface of Olsson’s primary concerns, but it would be very interesting to learn how off-farm actors in universities and agricultural businesses interacted with tenants, sharecroppers, and peasants regarding these things. Were any efforts made to accommodate small-scale operations with science-based practices, or not? Is there an alternative history of agricultural modernization that includes different practices and products for different scales of farming? But these are small issues compared to the unambiguous power of this study. Olsson has taken some seemingly well-known topics—the New Deal, the Mexican Revolution, the Cardenas presidency, the Green Revolution, the Rockefeller Foundation—and made them fresh and open-ended once again. By looking at these two places and their people in tandem, he has exposed a set of questions and puzzles that breathe new life into this period and these places. This is a book of remarkable scholarship and real heart. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
Diplomatic History – Oxford University Press
Published: Sep 1, 2018
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