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Rex Tugwell (10 Jul 1891 – 21 Jul 1979)
Planning and Action for Rural Reconstruction

As world-wide climate change has made the issues of land use, water, desertification, and land reform vital issues, it is useful to recall the contributions of Rexford Tugwell, an economist and advocate of government planning. He did his PhD studies at Columbia University in New York City. He was influenced by Scott Nearing in the Economics Department and John Dewey in Philosophy. Scott Nearing was a socialist very interested by the efforts of planning in the USSR. Nearing was also a follower of Leo Tolstoy. He gave up university teaching, bought a farm in New England and became an advocate of “back to Nature” and simple living.

Rex Tugwell started teaching at Columbia, and his writings on the need for economic planning was quickly noted after the 1929 Wall Street “crash” and the start of the Great Depression. He was asked to be a member of the early circle around Franklin D. Roosevelt, then Governor of New York. The circle of economists became known as the “Brain Trust”, and they prepared proposals and drafted speeches for Franklin Roosevelt’s campaign for President in 1932. Once elected, Roosevelt named Tugwell as Undersecretary of the Department of Agriculture to work closely with the Secretary of Agriculture, Henry A. Wallace.

The agriculture sector was one of the hardest hit sectors of the economy by the 1929 – 1939 Great Depression. To meet the war needs of the First World War, US agriculture had been stimulated. Land which had never been plowed was opened to grow wheat and other grains. There was an increase in the production of animals for meat. Much of the land opened for grain was not really appropriate, having been used in the past for pasture. With several years of drought, the soil eroded and turned to dust, swept away by winds. Thus the term “Dust Bowls” which covered much of the Middle West and Western states such as Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico.

Tugwell and Henry Wallace, who had been the editor of a leading farm journal and an agriculture scientist concerned with seeds, saw things in very much the same way, as reflected in a book each wrote the same year. (1) Tugwell as Undersecretary, helped in the creation of the Soil Conservation Service in 1933 to restore poor quality land and to promote better agricultural methods. He also helped to create the Resettlement Administration whose aim was to create new healthy communities for the rural unemployed relatively close to urban centers where they would have access to services – what came to be called “Greenbelt towns.”

As Henry Wallace, testifying before Congress in 1938 concerning a program of loans to farm tenants said ” Our homestead and reclamation movements were aimed primarily at putting agricultural land of the Nation into the hands of owner-operators. But we failed to such an extent that a large proportion of our best farm land fell into the hands of speculators and absentee landlords. Today, we are faced with the problem of stemming the tide of tenancy and reconstructing our agriculture in a fundamental manner by promoting farm ownership among tillers of the soil.”

Tugwell pushed for government planning for food production by being able to control production, prices and costs. He was influenced by the economic thinking of John Maynard Keynes on the role that government could play through intervention in the economy. However to political opponents, Tugwell’s views seemed closer to the planning of Joseph Stalin than Maynard Keynes, and he started being called in the press “Rex the Red”. Tugwell was pushed out of the Department of Agriculture.

He returned to New York City which had just elected a progressive mayor with hopes to transform the city, Fiorello La Guardia. La Guardia selected Tugwell to become the first director of the newly formed New York City Planning Commission. The Planning Commission developed proposals for public housing, new bridges and public parks. It was one of the first efforts at over-all planning by a city government.

At the outbreak of the Second World War, Roosevelt named Tugwell as Governor of Puerto Rico. At the time the Governor was appointed and not elected. Tugwell was Governor from 1941 to 1946. He created the Puerto Rico Planning, Urbanization and Zoning Board in 1942. He worked to overcome years of neglect by Washington of the island. He improved the University of Puerto Rico so that more Puerto Ricans would be prepared to deal adequately with the economy and government service. (2)

At the end of the Second World War, Tugwell left government service to return to academic life. He joined the economic faculty of the University of Chicago to teach economic planning. At the University of Chicago at the time, there had been created an interdisciplinary Committee to Frame a World Constitution to make proposals for world institutions adequate to meet the post-war challenges. Tugwell saw the need for global planning at a world level and became an active member of the Committee. (3)

As the 1948 campaign for President was approaching and the Cold War tensions between the USA and the USSR were heating up, there was an effort in the USA to create a new political party more open than the “Truman Doctrine” to negotiations with the USSR as well as stronger measures for poverty reduction within the USA. Henry Wallace, who had been Franklin Roosevelt’s second Vice President was chosen to lead the new Progressive Party. Wallace chose Tugwell to be chairman of the Progressive Party Platform Committee charged with setting out the aims and program proposals for the campaign. Tugwell, reflecting the efforts of the Committee to Frame a World Constitution, wrote and had accepted the main foreign policy framework of the party. “The Progressive Party believes that enduring peace among the peoples of the world community is possible only through world law. Continued anarchy among nations in the atomic age threatens our civilization and humanity itself with annihilation. The only ultimate alternative to war is the abandonment of the principle of the coercion of sovereignties by sovereignties and the adoption of the principle of the just enforcement upon individuals of world federal law enacted by a world federal legislature with limited but adequate power to safeguard the common defense and general welfare of all mankind.”

Ten years later, when as a graduate student at the University of Chicago, I met Tugwell; he had largely left the field of economic planning to write about political leadership, especially the style and experiences of Franklin Roosevelt. Today, however, the issues that Tugwell raised in the Department of Agriculture have become world issues: adequate food production and distribution at a price that most people can pay, protection of the soil, water and forests, land ownership and land reform, rural housing and non-farm employment in rural areas. We build on the efforts of those who came before.

René Wadlow
Transcend Media Service


1) Henry A. Wallace. New Frontiers (New York: Reynal and Hitchock, 1934)
Rexford G. Tugwell. The Battle for Democracy (New York: Columbia University Press, 1935) contents

2) On conditions in Puerto Rico see Rexford G. Tugwell. The Stricken Land (New York: Doubleday, 1947) contents

3) Each year on the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, he would write his reflections on the year past including the debates within the Committee to Frame a World Constitution. These yearly reflections have been brought together in Rexford G. Tugwell. A Chronicle of Jeopardy: 1945-1955(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955) contents

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