Ken Burns’ The Dust Bowl: Blowing Sand in Our Eyes

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Commercialism: “Something done magnificently that should not have been done at all.”

Ken Burns is a gifted producer of documentaries. His series on The Civil War was an artistic triumph. It has shaped the way documentaries are made. His subsequent effort, Baseball, was pretty good if you are a baseball history fan. Jazz, which I reviewed in 2001, was less successful artistically and in terms of its impact. That had to do more with the demise of jazz than with Burns’ creativity. He told the story well. After 1940, the story turned dark.

His series on World War II, The War, was as flat as stale beer. He never found a way to tell the story of the war. He failed to find representative chronological incidents that told a coherent story with an identifiable theme. The film is a series of chronologically interchangeable stock footage from the War Department that Burns strung together by means of letters and diaries that did not carry any theme that I could detect. The documentary was mostly noise and nostalgia.

His most recent effort, The Dust Bowl, is a visual masterpiece. The script is compelling. Peter Coyote is a great narrator. The interviews with survivors add authenticity. But it has one major defect: it is a sophisticated propaganda film in the tradition of Pare Lorentz’s 1936 film, The Plow That Broke the Plains. The first half of that classic film is available on Burns even uses a clip from the movie.


Lorentz was a paid propagandist. The New Deal put him on its payroll. He had a message: the Great Plains were turning into a desert. The New Deal alone could save the plains from becoming Arabia. To understand what Burns has done, you must understand who Lorentz was and what he did.

During the great westward expansion into the Great Plains of the United States, 1840-90, two myths competed for men’s allegiance: the myth of the uncivilized wilderness vs. the myth of the garden. Both myths were based on environmental determinism. Beginning in the 1840s, some observers argued that the arid plains would make savages of civilized men. But as the American population moved westward, another myth slowly took shape, or more to the point, was shifted from the East to the Midwest: the myth of the garden. The coming of civilization would somehow increase the rainfall of the arid region.

The dust storms of the 1930s disabused those who might otherwise have been tempted to perpetuate this myth. Year after year for a decade, these dust storms buried hundreds of thousands of square miles of land in many feet of air-borne dirt. There was literally darkness at noon. The sweat of man’s brow was caked. Then the myth of the garden shifted: from the hard-working farmer to the scientific planner. The Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA) of the United States Department of Agriculture began to preach a new gospel of works: the plow was destroying the soil. The nation needed government-mandated soil conservation, voters were told.

The Resettlement Administration of the Department of Agriculture was ordered by its director, Rexford Guy Tugwell, to create a propaganda film promoting this viewpoint, The Plow That Broke the Plains . It was written and directed by Lorentz, a 30-year-old former West Virginian, who had been a New York movie critic, a Washington gossip columnist, and a political reporter. He had never before made a movie. He had written a pro-Roosevelt picture book, The Roosevelt Year (1934).

The movie cost a minuscule $6,000 to produce, but was incredibly successful artistically. As a propaganda film, it was in the tradition of Eisenstein’s The Battleship Potemkin, a silent movie defending the Bolshevik revolution, and by Leni Riefenstahl’s 1935 promotion of Hitler and the Nazi Party, Triumph of the Will. (Riefenstahl died in 2003.) It was so successful that President Roosevelt established the United States Film Service in 1938, with Lorentz in charge.

The Plow that Broke the Plains was so blatantly misleading in its splicing together of scenes, some of which ecological historian James C. Malin says were faked, that a United States Senator and other critics forced it out of circulation in 1939. The narrative suggested nothing specific in the way of a restoration program for the land. It ended with this evaluation: “The sun and winds wrote the most tragic chapter in American agriculture.” In the script, the plow is not blamed for the erosion of the soil, but this theme is communicated visually. As Lorentz later wrote, he relied primarily on pictures and music; he wrote the narrative only after the pictures and the music were finished.

The following is from a pro-Lorentz author. It describes the pre-1941 New Deal propaganda program for agriculture.

During the second half of the 1930’s, the United States Government embarked on unique project, a public relations campaign to keep the American people informed about the New Deal and the necessity of its programs. Under the direction of the Resettlement Administration, the Government first sponsored radio and photography campaigns, which produced some of the most famous work of artists including Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange and Ben Shahn. Some of the photographs that Evans took went into the critically acclaimed book that he worked with James Agee to produce, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. In 1935, the Resettlement Administration decided to produce films as a method of getting its message to a wider segment of the public. The films produced under the auspices of the Resettlement Administration represent the only peacetime production by the United States Government of films intended for commercial release and public viewing ever. They also heralded a new direction for American documentary filmmaking because of the sophistication with which they were made. These films were known as the Films of Merit, and the first of them were directed by Pare Lorentz.

The Resettlement Administration was an exercise in government-funded population control. It moved people off the land and into urban areas.

The Resettlement Administration was founded on May 1, 1935 as part of the second phase of the New Deal. Dr. Rexford Guy Tugwell, the Under-Secretary of Agriculture, was appointed as its administrator. The goal of the Resettlement Administration was the relocation of impoverished farm families and poor city families. It also focused on the prevention of unprofitable farming techniques and improper land use, as well as the preservation of natural resources. Finally, it was responsible for the creation of three “Greenbelt” communities, suburban housing developments outside of Washington D.C., Cincinnati, and Milwaukee, intended to provide improved living conditions for city dwellers. Like many other New Deal agencies, it was founded on the belief that a control of social conditions would produce better lives for American citizens. . . .

Lorentz came to the project with the first film already conceptualized. Dr. Tugwell originally envisioned that the Resettlement Administration would produce a series of eighteen films, the first of which he suggested should deal with the Tennessee Valley Authority. The TVA had been created in May of 1933 and was charged with building dams and establishing flood control, projects that dovetailed with the Resettlement Administration’s commitment to environmental conservation. But Lorentz wanted to make a film about the Dust Bowl, an idea that he had unsuccessfully pitched to the Hollywood studios a year earlier. Lorentz was able to convince Tugwell to make this film, which became The Plow That Broke the Plains. But Lorentz’ second film for the RA would explore Tugwell’s idea. The River, which many film critics argued was an even greater artistic success than The Plow That Broke the Plains told that story of the great rivers of the American continent and the work of the Tennessee Valley Authority.

The success of these projects led Roosevelt to establish the United States Film Service in 1938 under Lorentz’ direction. The USFS was active until 1940, when Congress cut off its funding.

Lorentz was a self-conscious acolyte of the messianic State. We get a sense of his deeply religious motivation at 20 minutes and 30 seconds into his movie. With the barren landscape as the image, he inserts an off-key organ playing the Doxology: “Praise God from whom all blessings flow.” In short, “You dare not trust that God.” Implication: “You can trust the New Deal.”

As for Tugwell, he was the most famous member of Roosevelt’s “Brain Trust.” The Wikipedia entry on him reminds us: “He participated in the Committee to Frame a World Constitution from 1945 to 1948. He also viewed a revised national constitution as necessary to enable economic planning, and late in life composed a constitution for the Newstates of America. In it, planning would become a new branch of federal government, alongside the Regulatory and Electoral branches.”

Burns’ version goes over the same dusty ground. It is filled with photos, paid for by the federal government. There is no question: the dust storms were horrendous.

His documentary blames the dust bowl on the profit-driven plowing of the 1920s. The farmers bought tractors and planted wheat. This ruined the grassland. Then, when the rain ceased for a decade, the now dry soil blew away.

It was true chronologically. Farmers plowed the soil and planted wheat. The rains ceased. The land dried up. Dust storms began. But chronological sequence is not causation.

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November 23, 2012

Gary North [send him mail] is the author of Mises on Money. Visit He is also the author of a free 31-volume series, An Economic Commentary on the Bible.

Copyright © 2012 Gary North