Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Charges of Communist Agriculture in the 1950s

The extensive federal regulation of agricultural prices and production under supply management policy was at times controversial. And, this policy often drew the charge of being “socialist” or “communist.” In fact, a heated debate erupted during a House subcommittee meeting on supply management policy in 1958.

The members of the House subcommittee included several southern Democrats, who generally favored both price supports and production controls. Robert Poage, a Democrat from Texas, was the chair of the subcommittee. The hearing included testimony from representatives of the American Farm Bureau Federation, the largest and politically most influential farm organization.

These two sides – southern Democrats and the Farm Bureau – held opposing views of supply management policy. Southern Democrats believed that price supports and production controls were necessary to support prices for southern crops, such as cotton and tobacco. By contrast, the Farm Bureau advocated for a policy that would eliminate many production controls, dramatically reduce price supports, and create greater reliance on markets.

This hearing took place in the midst of the Cold War, in which anything could be labeled “communist” and everything “communist” was automatically bad or wrong.

During the hearing, the southern Democrats wrangled with the Farm Bureau representatives. Tensions rose over discussions of price supports, production controls, farm income, and the Farm Bureau’s policy positions generally. The southern Democrats favored maintaining extensive government involvement in agriculture with high price supports, rigid production controls to raise farm income. By contrast, the Farm Bureau officials advocated for a more market-oriented policy that would dramatically lower price supports and eliminate many production controls.

But, tempers reached the boiling point toward the end of the hearing, when the specter of communism emerged. The exchange over this issue began between Paul Jones (D-MO) and Frank Woolley, Legislative Counsel for the Farm Bureau.

Mr. Jones: I have one question before we adjourn. Mr. Woolley . . . didn’t you tell me then that the program we were suggesting of payments on cotton had been originally inspired by Communists, and that it was a Communist-inspired program—did you tell me that?
Mr. Woolley: No. What I said to you was that in 1955—and I am glad you asked that because—
Mr. Jones: . . . did you tell me that?
Mr. Woolley: Now, Congressman, I want—
Mr. Jones: I want you to tell me yes or no.

Woolley said he could not remember if he had brought up the issue of communism with Mr. Jones, but Woolley went on to discuss a pamphlet in his possession that was printed in 1955 by the Communist Party in the U.S. and titled “The Farm Crisis.” According to Woolley, the pamphlet showed that the Communist Party “unequivocally supports production payments.” Chairman Poage then joined the fray.

Mr. Poage: Well, now, let us get this straight.
When you come to making those comments charging communism in this committee, and that is what you are doing, calling us Communists, because we are opposed to your proposal—let us lay it out on the table, and you just go ahead and name the people that you think are the Communists on the committee, and I want you to put that in the record; I don’t want you to be going behind my back and, frankly, if you think I am a Communist, say so here and get it on the record.
Mr. Woolley: . . . I told Mr. Jones . . . that when I said that the Communists were supporting the production payment [program], . . . this did not carry with it the idea that he or anybody else that was proposing production payments was a Communist. . . .
The point I am trying to make . . . [is] that if the Communists spend thousands of dollars propagandizing for a particular method . . . doesn’t it cause somebody to raise a question as to whether it might or might not be against our interest? That is the question, and it is not that you are a Communist—I know you are not—at least, I hope you are not.
Mr. Jones: Are you inferring by your propaganda, are you trying to say that a bill that we introduced here was inspired by a Communist program? I resent that very much. . . .
Mr. Fleming: Might I make a statement, Mr. Chairman?
Mr. Poage: [gaveling] This committee is going to adjourn right here and now, . . . and I am sorry that anybody dragged communism into this, when it has nothing to do with the corn bill or the cotton bill or any other bill . . . and I will not permit it to go any further.
Mr. Fleming: Just one sentence?
Mr. Poage: No; you can make it somewhere else, anywhere you want to.
The committee is adjourned.

Then, according to newspaper accounts, Poage shouted, “But if you want to discuss it further, I’ll meet you in the alley.”

It is not very often that a Congressional hearing ends with the committee chair inviting a panel witness into the alley to settle a dispute. Nor was it common for southern Democrats to be charged with being “communist.” More often, the southern Democrats were the accusers, finding communists among especially among civil rights activists and union organizers.

In truth, southern Democrats could hardly be labeled “liberals” much less “communist.” So, why did they favor a policy that relied so heavily on government and oppose a more market-oriented policy? Why did the Farm Bureau officials opposed to supply management policy so much as to raise the specter of communism?

The answer has two parts. First, painting a policy or person as “communist” could severely undermine its legitimacy. That is, it was political strategy. The real issue is what lay beneath this political charge.

Second, the division between southern Democrats, representing southern cotton producers, and Farm Bureau officials, representing farmers in the Corn Belt. These groups of farmers had very different economic interests. Cotton farmers were suffering from overproduction, declining exports, and growing competition from synthetic fibers. They needed government assistance to turn a profit and bring production in line with demand.

Corn Belt farmers, growing corn and soybeans, did not suffer from these same problems. Then as now, the vast majority of corn and soybeans were fed to livestock, especially hogs. In fact, this was the most important source of farm income in the Corn Belt: hogs were much more profitable that field crops, such as corn or soybeans. So, these corn farmers had little interest in artificially high crop prices. They were more interested in maintaining the significant growth in per capita meat consumption, which prevented any overproduction as seen with cotton.

So, what does this have to do with the current debate about health care reform? The same tone and style of political debate occurred around agricultural policy in the 1950s as is occurring around health care today. We need to look beyond the political rhetoric and red-baiting to examine the underlying economic interests represented in the debates. For example, take the Clinton-era attempts at reform. That will be my next installment.

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