Friday, November 13, 2009

American Experience: Hoover Dam (PBS, 2009)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I also spent most of the morning watching three programs out of the four I had recorded on a DVD over the past two days: the latest episodes of The Good Wife and Law and Order: Special Victims Unit and a PBS American Experience special on the construction of Hoover Dam, which was fascinating in its account of how a massive public works project was pushed through in ways that would have been politically impossible today — both the Right, with its obsession with fiscal responsibility, and the Left, with its environmentalist caucus that would be aghast at such a powerful disturbance of the natural order, would have gone all-out to stop it if the politics of today had existed then.

The show was also a fascinating story about the big-money interests that came together to build the dam (since both the task itself and the $5 million performance bond the federal government demanded from the contractor was beyond any one company, the winning bid was submitted by a coalition of established big-name contractors in San Francisco who called their association “The Six Companies” and whose proprietors included such later “stars” as Henry J. Kaiser and William Bechtel) and how rough they were with the workers, paying them tiny wages (which, this being the depths of the depression — 1931 to 1935 — they accepted because they considered themselves lucky to be working at all), brutally suppressing a six-day strike attempt led by the Industrial Workers of the World (the fact that the IWW was still that much of a going concern in 1931 was itself a surprise to me!), the institutionalized racism at the construction site (Blacks were not hired to work on the dam at all from 1931 to 1933, and even after that — when Roosevelt’s secretary of the interior, Harold Ickes, Sr., ordered an end to employment discrimination — they were still not allowed to live at Boulder City, the company town created to house the white workers) and even a certain degree of Orwellianism in the name of the dam (it was Hoover Dam when first authorized by Congress in 1931, Boulder Dam from Roosevelt’s election until the Republicans regained control of Congress in 1947, and Hoover Dam thereafter), and it’s made me a bit less skeptical about greenlighting major public works projects given that we’re in the middle of a depression.

Indeed, the sheer size and scope of Boulder/Hoover Dam was itself a spit-in-the-eye response to the depression, an assertion that Americans had done great things and could do them again that probably had a positive effect on the economy even beyond the several thousand people it actually employed and the resulting “multiplier” effects on the economy.