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David Lilienthal and the Tennessee Valley Authority

Lawrence Bush
May 17, 2017

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed New Deal legislation creating the Tennessee Valley Authority on this date in 1933. Its mission was to provide flood control, generate electricity, and develop the economy of the Tennessee Valley, a region comprising Tennessee and portions of Alabama, Mississippi, Kentucky, Georgia, North Carolina, and Virginia. Thirty percent of the population in that area suffered skirmishes with malaria, farmland and timberland were depleted, and the average annual income was only $639. The TVA was headed by David Lilienthal (1899-1981), a progressive attorney and public administrator who would later lead the Atomic Energy Commission. "Under the TVA's original setup," writes the New York Times, "the chairman, Dr. Arthur Morgan, who was an engineer, undertook dam-building projects. Dr. Harcourt Morgan, the second member, assumed responsibility for fertilizer production. Mr. Lilienthal was in charge of the power program. But differences arose between the chairman and Mr. Lilienthal . . . [who] favored a frontal assault on the private utilities by selling cheaper T.V.A. power through the municipalities in the area." Despite considerable opposition from conservatives and libertarians in Congress and beyond, Lilienthal built the TVA into the largest generator of electricity in the Western world and a model for international development projects that the U.S. would underwrite in the post-war years.

"Big business is basic to the very life of this country, and yet many -- perhaps most -- Americans have a deep-seated fear and an emotional repugnance to it. Here is monumental contradiction." --David Lilienthal

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.