The Journal of San Diego History
Fall 1994, Volume 40, Number 4
Richard W. Crawford, Editor

Book Review

The New Deal and the West.

By Richard Lowitt. University of Oklahoma Press, 1993. Illustrations. Bibliography. Index. 283 pages. $14.95. Softcover. Buy this book from

Reviewed by Jeffrey D. Shorn, AIA; Architect and Professor of Art and Architectural History, author of The History of Architecture: A Summary, 1982.

The New Deal and the West, Richard Lowitt’s clear, well researched analysis of how and why the New Deal benefitted the American West, is a well conceived and articulate book. He explores the impact of New Deal programs and agencies, not only on the people of the West, but also on the natural resources and the resultant economic benefits to both. Lowitt’s West focuses on the Great Plains, the Rocky Mountains, the Great Basin, the Pacific Northwest, and, of course, California from 1932 to 1940.

He begins by discussing Franklin D. Roosevelt’s interest in the West, while campaigning for the presidency in 1932, and proceeds to discuss the economic conditions of the area during the drought and depression years of 1933-1934. In subsequent chapters, we are introduced to important topics on how New Deal programs and agencies helped Great Plains farmers, how the Taylor Grazing Act protected federal range land, and how new policies regarding Native Americans would attempt to rectify earlier ones, which had not provided restoration of Native American identity.

A major part of the book deals with the federal government’s support for water development. The chapter on the Columbia river Basin and two chapters on water and land development in California are significant. The construction of the five largest concrete dams in the world, which supplied water for irrigated farming and cheap power for industry, was a major step leading to the modernization of the West.

Lowitt examines the politics and jurisdictional competition between two major Federal government departments, Interior and Agriculture, which administered most of the programs designed to revitalize the West’s economy. Harold L. Ickes, Secretary of the Interior, and Henry A. Wallace, Secretary of Agriculture, competed with one another for control of the West. In the end, Ickes controlled most of the projects dealing with grazing and water west of the Rockies, while Wallace had greater control over planning east of the Rockies.

California, always an independently minded state, tried to solve its own problems. It didn’t always support the federal programs, which were to benefit the State. California, dependent on migratory farm laborers, was reluctant to support the Wagner Act, the NIRA, or any federal relief programs. In spite of this, the state benefitted a great deal from other programs, including irrigation, tunnel, bridge, and canal construction. San Diego benefitted from some of these water projects, but is never mentioned in the text. From our perspective today, it was these very projects which paved the way and made the development of contemporary California possible.

Late in the New Deal, the mounting crisis in Europe gave Roosevelt an excuse to redirect his focus away from the West and its ever growing political controversies and resentments, which developed and began to undermine the social programs of the New Deal.

If there is a criticism of the work, it is the author’s unbalanced concentration of the Pacific Coast and the Great Plains. The states of Utah, Idaho, Nevada, and Wyoming receive short shrift, in spite of having a huge percentage of federal land and the great legislative support they gave Roosevelt. There is also little mention of the other types of projects, be they architectural or artistic in nature, beyond dams, which benefitted from the New Deal.

The Twentieth Century American West, an emerging area of study, will gain immensely from this clearly written and well researched book. Readers will find it to be good reading and an excellent historic resource of an important period in the development of the Western United States.


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