The Journal of San Diego History
Spring/Summer 2000, Volume 46, Numbers 2 & 3
Gregg Hennessey, Editor

Book Reviews

Federal Landscape: An Economic History of the 20th Century West.

By Gerald D. Nash, Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1999. Map, notes, bibliography, vii + 214 pp. $40.00 Hardcover, $17.95 Paperback.

Reviewed by Andrew Wiese, Associate Professor of History, San Diego State University, and a specialist in modern American urban history.

In his latest book, the distinguished historian, Gerald Nash, offers an engaging overview of federal government spending in the West during the 20th century. With 160 pages of text, the book is designed as a broad survey for undergraduate students and general readers rather than a critical analysis of economic development in the 20th century. Seven chapters trace major trends in federal policy and spending in the trans-Mississippi West from 1900 through the New Deal, World War II, the Cold War, “de-industrialization” and the emergence of computer related industries after 1973.

Nash’s argument is simple. During the 20th century, federal spending in the West transformed the region’s economy from an “undiversified,” “colonial” hinterland into a fully-diversified economic engine for the nation. In the meantime, the federal government reshaped not only the western economy but its physical and social landscape as well. “If the nineteenth century West was the product of American individualism,” Nash writes, “then the twentieth century West is the creation of the federal government” (p. x).

Nash deftly weaves hundreds of federal programs and policies into a clear and coherent narrative ranging from discussion of the Panama Canal and harbor enhancements at the turn of the century to the development of National Parks, New Deal work relief, military installations, dry land “reclamation,” federal highways, grazing policy on indian reservations, forest management, mortgage insurance, Mexican immigration, off-shore oil drilling, uranium mining, missile silos, defense contracting, and university research. Spilling the federal cornucopia for all to see, Nash suggests the many ways that the United States government “created a federal landscape in the West” (p. x).

The book’s greatest weakness is one quality that may make it attractive to undergraduates — its slim profile. In targeting college course adoptions, Nash pares away statistics and explanatory material that might help non-specialists understand just how federal investments affected the western economy. For instance, the book does not track the size, composition, or changes in federal spending in the West in any coherent fashion. There are no tables, charts or textual analyses to illustrate trends in federal spending over time, nor does the book show when or how the western economy “diversified” by comparing the size or share of various sectors or industries in the regional economy at various points in time. It is clear from the book that the federal government spent billions of dollars in the West (Nash doesn’t estimate how many) and that the western economy grew and diversified, but it is not clear precisely how all of these dollars translated into economic growth or diversification. In truth, the emphasis of the book is the ubiquity of federal spending in the West rather than the nuts and bolts impact of these outlays on the western economy.

One example will suffice to illustrate. One of the major federal investments in the West was the building of dams and irrigation infrastructure, yet Nash does not clearly articulate how these investments led to the growth or diversification of the western economy. Initially, Nash repeats the estimates of boosters who argued that federal concrete repaid its investment through the cheap electricity that powered defense manufacturing during and after World War II, yet he notes later that economists in the 1970s and 1980s drew different conclusions about the costs and benefits of dam building. What then was the greatest economic effect of dam building: the stimulation of consumer spending during construction? The development of human capital in labor or entrepreneurial skills among western contractors (such as Henry J. Kaiser)? The provision of inexpensive electricity for cities or cheap water for agriculture? All of these or something else? For undergraduate and general readers who may have a modest understanding of the ways federal spending might work in a regional economy, these are crucial omissions.

The book’s strongest section is chapter five, “The Military Industrial Complex in the Cold War.” In it he provides statistics to measure the regional impact of military spending and an abundance of concrete illustrations to support his argument that “the military industrial complex was the West’s biggest business in the cold war years” (p. 78). His rich discussion of defense spending in Colorado Springs suggests a model for descriptive analysis that is underdeveloped elsewhere in the text.

San Diego appears irregularly throughout the book. The city’s most generous appearance is in chapter one, where Nash details the immodest efforts of representative William J. Kettner and other local boosters to attract the Navy to San Diego in the 1910s. “Regardless of their rhetoric about individualism,” Nash concludes, “westerners wanted federal investment to build their infrastructure” (p. 18). Nash also mentions San Diego in his discussion of World War II military installations and defense industries, as well as the impact of aircraft and high-tech weapons manufacturing during the Cold War. Nash’s discussion of urban sprawl through highway building and federal housing policy, as well as the impact of Social Security and Medicare programs on the West as a retirement destination are as applicable to San Diego as other western cities. In these and many other respects, The Federal Landscape places San Diego in its broadest regional context.

In its comprehensive treatment of federal policy in the West and its dearth of explanation for how investment leads to sustained economic growth, Nash’s book is both more and less than it promises as “an economic history of the 20th century West.”

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