The Great American Land Grab
Part Seven (in case you missed them, Parts 1-6 are available at the Archives)
Nevertheless, the intended transformation of the West did not occur. Great dams were built, rivaling the pyramids of Egypt in their wondrousness; reservoirs were formed, and aqueducts constructed. By 1970 the Bureau of Reclamation spent almost $10 billion and irrigated nearly seven million acres. Yet land monopoly is more firmly entrenched in the West than ever; federal water has flowed and continues to flow in great quantity to the huge, absentee-owned corporate estates that should, under the law, have been broken up and sold to small resident farmers. In the words of former Senator Wayne Morse, the wholesale, continuing violations of the 1902 Act constitute "a water steal reminiscent of the scandals" of Teapot Dome and the "great land frauds."
Nearly a century ago the San Francisco Chronicle warned: "The land . . . taken by two or three men is sufficient to afford homes and independence to hundreds of intelligent, industrious and honest settlers. It is this class that makes, as it is the other [land monopolists] that ruins a country. The confirmation of title to the monopolists means the transfer of ownership of the soil to a nonresident aristocracy, and its continued cultivation by a race of aliens and coolies. Let it be awarded to the settlers, and schools, roads, churches and general prosperity will ensue.
This and similar warnings went unheeded; the South and West developed as the Chronicle feared. Ownership of particular estates shifted hands over the course of several depressions, panics and booms, and in recent years the trend has been toward ownership by large corporations - often oil companies or conglomerates. But though the names have changed, the pattern of large landholdings has held steady throughout. A nonresident landed aristocracy - today composed of such diverse persons as Sen. Eastland and the directors of Tenneco - enjoys vast power.
Along with absentee ownership, racial exploitation became a way of life in the West, as it previously had in the South but as it never did in the Midwest. Chinese and Japanese field hands were succeeded by Hindus, Filipinos and Mexicans. The treatment of Japanese farmworkers is particularly instructive. For many years they were enthusiastically praised by California growers; they performed the most menial tasks with great skill and without asking favors (such as transportation and boarding) of their employers. Soon, however, the Japanese began leasing land for themselves - usually "useless" marsh or desert which they would reclaim and plant with rice or other crops. Through thrift and hard work, they even began achieving their ambition to own land. This was too much for the land monopolists, who succeeded in passing the Alien Land Act of 1913, designed to force the Japanese to sell their improved lands to them.
Other effects of concentrated land ownership were as the Chronicle foresaw. Schools, shops and civic institutions never blossomed in those parts of the South and West dominated by giant landholdings. Enormous disparity of wealth and power is rarely conducive to widespread involvement in public affairs, and is even less so when large portions of the population are migrants, or are barred by one means or another from voting. Why, after all, should an absentee landlord spend his taxes on good public schools, when his own children go to private school and an educated work force is the last thing he wants?
What was not foreseen was the impact that land monopoly would eventually have on American cities. If the Southern plantations and Mexican land grants had been broken up, if Western land had been distributed in limited-size parcels to actual settlers as generously as it was handed out in prodigious chunks to speculators if the reclamation law had been vigorously enforced, it is doubtful that the cities would be as overcrowded and as beset as they are today. Blacks and landless whites would, in smaller numbers, have migrated to the cities, but they would not have been so ill-prepared had they descended from landowning farmers. They would have had dignity, schooling, some experience in public affairs, and perhaps savings enough to establish a foothold.
The question now is whether we are going to compound the errors and injustices of the past, or remedy them.
End of Part Seven.
This concludes "The Great American Land Grab." Our next featured essay by Peter Barnes, "The Vanishing Small Farmer," will begin onThursday, October 16.
This essay is part of a series written by Peter Barnes for The New Republic magazine in 1971-72. We think you'll be pleased -- and perhaps shocked -- to see how timely and insightful the essays are for today. Each essay will be republished, in installments, by The Progress Report.
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