The USDA Legacy: From the New Deal to Silent Spring
by Pete Daniel
From time to time politicians, lobbyists, and businessmen have visited the
National Museum of American History to propose an exhibit that "tells the story of
American agriculture." Their "story" features science and technology--machines,
chemicals, genetic engineering. They want, in effect, a trade show, a venue for giant
tractors and harvesting machinery and gee whiz stories of progress. No farmers appear
in their strangely impersonal scenario. Lacking are the tension, grit, anguish, bitterness,
stubbornness and sense of accomplishment-or failure- that real farmers experience.
I have gently reminded these well meaning promoters that the National Museum
of American History is, well, a history museum. I have spent twenty years as a curator
conceptualizing an exhibit titled, "The Rural South and the Nation: From George
Washington to Jimmy Carter," which would touch on nearly every major theme in U.S.
history. I tell them of the cotton gins we have collected, of artifacts from the tobacco,
sugar, and rice cultures, and of our Oral History of Southern Agriculture. I even
mention the books that I have done that bear on the subject. I'm never sure who is
more ill-at-ease when I finish talking, the visitors pitching agribusiness or the museum
administrators and development staff who watch the agribusiness dollars disappear. No
one has offered a penny for an exhibit on the rural South.
"The Story of American Agriculture" concept is instructive, for the lack of
farmers and the uncritical promotion of science and technology combines with a notion
of inevitability. The present system was preordained, the argument goes. Backward
yields to forward, hand labor yields to machines, chemicals replace hoes and cultivation,
skilled farmers replace unskilled, large farms replace small ones. Modern agriculture,
however, was by no means an accident. Farm lobby groups, the USDA and its
Agricultural Research Service (ARS), land grant universities, experiment stations,
county agents, home demonstration agents, county USDA bureaucrats, and county
elites created modern agribusiness. In one sense, agribusiness is the USDA's legacy.
Until the New Deal's Agricultural Adjustment Administration(Triple A) was
created in 1933, the federal presence in the South had been minimal, primarily
experiment stations and the federal extension service. The New Deal inundated the
South under federal programs; one person counted twenty-seven in one county. With
the Triple A came the intended and unintended consequences that undermined the old
tenure system and erected the structure of agribusiness. Landlords often hoarded
federal money till they could afford tractors, some county committees favored big
operators, tenants and sharecroppers dropped away, and the local elite controlled the
distribution of benefits. It is a testament to unintended consequences that allotments,
basically a right to grow a crop, became commodified and could be sold or rented and
that added value to the land.1
It is generally known that in the late 1930s, bureaucratic battles shook the floors
of the USDA as Midwestern intellectuals wrestled with proponents of emerging
agribusiness and that by the late 1930s the champions of small farmers lost out. During
World War II the victors consolidated their power.
By the 1950s farmers suffered bureaucratic arrogance and pettiness in their
dealings with the USDA. In one southerner's opinion, the USDA programs were
"overlapping, and more frequently than otherwise confusing." Alabamian L. C. Salter
complained to Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson in November 1953 that
"uniformity prevailed regardless of the region, the area, or soil types, types of farming,
climatic conditions, or the recommendations of the agricultural experiment stations of
the state land grant agricultural colleges." Louisiana farmer Wilbert McReynolds
succinctly explained to Benson in the mid-1950s that farm failures "may be the result of
trying to make an Iowa plan fit Louisiana."2
Benson awaits his biographer, but his autobiographies, in their drumming of free
enterprise, free association of cliches, blindness to African Americans, disregard for
small farmers, and loathing of southern congressmen suggests a man not only poisoned
against the South but also vastly ignorant of it. He personified the soulless future of
American agriculture. Secretary Benson, USDA bureaucrats, lobbying groups, land
grant universities, and experiment stations envisioned a rural bourgeoisie that lived in
neat houses, farmed with the latest machines, and consumed clothes, furniture, and
appliances the same as urban folks. In the fifties few rural southerners, especially those
from the ranks of tenants and sharecroppers, could aspire to this life.3
After the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 when some African
Americans pushed for integration and voting rights, USDA bureaucrats manipulated
policy to deny credit to black farm owners even as wealthy white farmers were
pocketing large checks for the Soil Bank or other programs. The USDA's racism has
been legendary, and there are still discrimination cases pending.4
In the 1950s most people complaining to the USDA were not sharecroppers or
tenants, many of whom had already left the land, but landowners and sometimes local
businessmen and bankers. Many saw contradictions in agricultural programs. "For over
10 years now we have been paying farmers vast sums to produce nothing or to produce
crops that are not needed," Harold G. Vanderlee wrote from Tyler Texas in 1959. "At
the same time we have been spending large sums on irrigation projects to bring
additional land under cultivation." Even as more farmers left the land and the acreage
allotments of others were reduced, experiment stations and land grant universities spent
inordinate amounts of funds discovering ways to grow more per acre. Neither the Soil
Bank nor allotment cuts diminished the mounting surplus. There were not enough
markets to soak up U.S. commodities.5
In 1959, the USDA issued a report on recipients of storage payments in excess
of $500,000 to handlers of grain, rice, and cotton. The C-G-F Grain Company of Fort
Worth headed the list with $14.8 million with Cargill close behind with $13.2 million.
The Federal Compress & Warehouse Company of Memphis received $4.4 million with
the Panhandle Compress & Warehouse Company of Lubbock taking in $1.1 million. In
1955, Federal Compress had received almost $11 million. In 1958, the Rice Growers
Association of California received $871,637 and the Arkansas Rice Growers
Cooperative $826,133. Even the storage of butter, cheese, and milk cost nearly a
million dollars in 1958.6
Thus, at the top of the chain the large commodity handlers earned millions for
storing a surplus that grew despite acreage reduction and the Soil Bank while the
USDA and land grant colleges taught farmers to produce more. The USDA attracted a
large constituency because it gave so many agricultural interests what they wanted. It
sought to please both the farmer and the processor, the growers and the companies that
sold machines and chemicals, the scientists who increased production and the companies
that stored the surplus. William A. Anderson complained to True Morse in 1955 that
such contradictions had "caused more damage to the state of Tennessee than Civil
Even as the grain bins were bursting in the early 1960s, ARS scientists and
administrators were insisting that the country's survival, indeed, that of the world,
depended on increasing production. Were farmers forced to give up chemicals, they
warned, the country faced starvation. Although pests through the ages had taken a toll
on crops, in the post-World War II environment of synthetic pesticides such predation
would lead to world hunger.
As farmers left the land and machines took over, some rural people turned to
humor. Carl Stanley wrote from Montgomery in the winter of 1955 observing the
diminishing number of horses. He heard a story at lunch, he began, when a man
announced, "There's a parade down town and Lady Godiva is going to ride a horse
naked." Good" said his friend. "Let's go down to the parade. I haven't see a horse in a
If engineers and managers came of age in the Progressive Era, and bureaucrats
ruled the New Deal, entomologists flourished in the era of DDT and 2,4-D after World
War II. Both DDT and 2,4-D emerged from World War II as miracle chemicals.
Scientists saw in such chemicals a new millennium and encouraged widespread
application. Long after some pesticides had been found to cause serious environmental
and human problems, chemical companies bullied federal bureaucrats to keep them on
the market. Rachel Carson challenged this mentalite with Silent Spring, and she started
a storm of controversy--and the modern environmental movement.
The significance of chemical research can easily be lost among the more
spectacular weaponry developed during World War II, but to chemical companies,
government scientists, farmers, and lawn lovers, synthetic pesticides were seductive.
Like so many advances in science and technology, synthetic chemicals epitomized the
paradox of creation and destruction. DDT emerged from the war as a miracle chemical,
and scientists synthesized a list of chlorinated hydrocarbons such as chlordane, endrin,
heptachlor, and toxaphene. Captured German scientific records revealed
organophosphates, nerve gases, which led to the manufacture of parathion, malathion,
and TEPP. Scientists also developed 2,4-D, an herbicide that in effect caused plants to
grow themselves to death. In post-war America, the fight against foreign enemies
quickly became syntactically fused to the struggle against insects and weeds.9
DDT became available to the general public on August 1, 1945, and, although
the research was far from conclusive, in October the USDA informed farmers that it
presented no danger to humans. At about the same time, 2,4-D came on the market,
another supposedly benign chemical.10
The application of 2,4-D ended the need for workers to chop weeds with a hoe.
When the Reverend John Harris reflected on herbicides in 1988 as he stood beside a
Louisiana cane field, he associated herbicides with field workers leaving the area. He
pointed to the field. "You don't see no grass in that cane. See how clean it is. Ain't no
grass gonna grow there." LSU promoted 2,4-D, he continued. "That's how they got
rid of all the hoes. You don't see a hoe now unless you see it around somebody's
house. They don't hoe no more."11
With little thought about health effects on wildlife or farmers, Department of
Agriculture scientists championed synthetic pesticides as their superweapons, and their
bureaucratic domain expanded to accommodate ambitious spray campaigns. In their
eagerness to legitimate synthetic chemicals, USDA bureaucrats embraced ill-considered
eradication projects, such as the fire ant fiasco, and also concealed studies of excessive
chemical residues in milk and meat. Single minded, ambitious, and eager to curry favor
with anyone higher in the USDA organizational chart, in Congress, or among chemical
company executives, ARS leadership shamelessly and sometimes unethically promoted
pesticides. Earlier scientific research on biological control fell away. With the fervor of
the newly converted, ARS scientists worshiped pesticides as a plague-ending god.
The ideology within the USDA, and especially the ARS, embodied faith that
chemicals were the only approach to controlling insects and weeds. In the heated
scientific climate after World War II, Nature was not good enough. The ARS's W. L.
Popham explained in 1960: "Pesticides are as vital to the efficient production of crops
and livestock as aircraft or telephones are for modern transportation and
communications." Without chemicals, he predicted, production would fall and crops
"would be of low quality and unwholesome because of worms and rot." To scientists
such as Popham, it was as if pre-synthetic agricultural practices had never existed. By
the end of the 1960s, government bureaucrats continued to paint a bleak picture of a
world without pesticides. "Soon," a USDA official complained in 1969 as
environmentalists grew in importance, "we may be without food if the nitrate and
phosphate opponents have their way."12
When crises challenged ARS claims that chemicals were benign, it solicited
support from sister government agencies. A Sarasota, Florida, newspaper reported in
October 1956 that malathion sprayed to combat a fruit fly infestation affected people
with asthma and caused skin rashes. The ARS immediately requested "a reassuring
statement from the U.S. Public Health Service." A Business Week columnist reported in
September 1957 that sixty persons near Glen Allan, a small Mississippi community near
Greenville, were ill with a fevers of 105 degrees and suffered from "asthmatic breathing,
various flu-like symptoms, and some pneumonia." Dr. Mary Hogan, who treated the
victims, announced that "spraying cotton fields with an insecticidal mixture" caused the
outbreak. With indecent haste, a Mississippi extension entomologist and a
representative of the Public Health Service that same day "concluded that the condition
was in no way related to the use of insecticides." The ARS promptly notified the
Business Week correspondent of the investigation and referred him to Dr. Wayland J.
Hayes Jr., a U.S. Public Health Service toxicologist and dedicated chemical supporter.
Officially the outbreak was attributed to Asian flu.13 The Glen Allan episode, however,
did not fade away.
The infrastructure that supported agribusiness stretched from county USDA
offices to state agriculture departments, from chemical companies to the Agricultural
Research Service, from federal experiment stations to land grant universities, and from
implement and chemical companies to such lobbying powers as the Delta Council and
the Farm Bureau Federation. These components possessed enormous financial and
political power. An incident in 1956 mobilized the Mississippi Farm Bureau, the Delta
Council, the ARS, and perhaps some chemical companies and suggested the power,
ideology, and ruthlessness that drove agribusiness. The case also opened a window on
the culture of pesticides, how they were used by farmers, handled by aerial applicators,
treated by doctors, and defended by experts.
The case began at the Marie Gin near Indianola, Mississippi. On August 16,
1956, a pilot spraying a mixture of malathion, endrin, and zylene flew over a cotton gin
where Charles E. Lawler knelt welding steel beams on a platform at the edge of a cotton
field. The plane appeared suddenly from behind the gin, and before Lawler could move
he was enveloped in a pesticide mist. He gasped for breath, tearing at his welder's
helmet, was immediately sick, and went home feeling nauseous. That night he ran a
fever, was dizzy, threw up, and he went into a coma the next morning. The doctor
immediately rushed him to the hospital. Charles Lawler never recovered his health.
In March 1960, nearly four years after the incident, the director of the ARS's
Entomology Research Division pondered a telegram from B. F. Smith, head of the Delta
Council. Charles E. Lawler had brought a $150,000 law suit against the landlord,
tenant, and aerial applicator for damages suffered "as the result of the application of a
malathion-endrin mixture for the control of cotton insects." Smith suggested that Dr.
Marvin Merkel, an entomologist at the Delta Branch Experiment Station in Stoneville,
as well as a Shell consultant, testify as an expert witness. Another ARS staff member, a
memo stated, had "pointed out the importance of this suit and the effect it could have on
cotton insect and other insect control programs if the claim for damage is sustained,
even though there is every indication that the insecticide was not responsible for the
Smith's call for expert testimony from a government scientist (connected to
Shell) and the ARS's solicitousness were emblematic of the ties between government
scientists and the private sector. As Mississippi cotton production evolved from labor
intensive plowing, chopping, and picking to capital intensive tractors, pesticides, and
picking machines, those who stood to benefit from the emerging system allied to
promote their interests.
Drew lawyer Pascol Townsend took Lawler's case and Elizabeth Hulen of
Jackson joined him. Forrest Cooper from Indianola was the defense lawyer. With
testimony from Lawler and a black worker who was near him at the time of the incident,
Townsend and Hulen demonstrated the immediate and drastic results of the chemicals.
Physicians who had treated Lawler took the stand. Townsend and Hulen also called Dr.
Mary Hogan, who had diagnosed chemical poisoning in Glen Allan in 1957, but Forrest
Cooper objected when her testimony would have drawn upon her experience in the
Cooper called the landlord (out of town, gas receipts showed), the tenant ( he
had warned Lawler about spraying), the aerial application company owner (he changed
a date on a receipt to show the spraying took place another day), the pilot (he did not
recall seeing anyone on the gin platform), the county agent (people were exposed to
chemicals all the time with no ill effects), the doctor who first treated Lawler (he did not
realize that Lawler had been poisoned and had not prescribed atropine), expert
witnesses (a malathion-endrin-zylene mixture could not have caused Lawler's illness),
and local farmers (they knew of no one harmed by chemicals). It took the jury only a
few minutes to find for the defense.15
Townsend and Hulen appealed the case to the Mississippi Supreme Court, which
ruled that Dr. Hogan's testimony should have been allowed. It also pointed out that
hospital records showed that the doctor who first treated Lawler had administered
atropine, the antidote for organophophate poisoning. The Supreme Court overturned
the jury verdict, except for ruling that the landlord's role was not relevant to the suit,
and sent the case against the tenant and owner of the aerial applicator company back for
retrial. When their efforts to sway the Supreme Court failed, the Farm Bureau and
Delta Council suggested that the legislature re-write the pesticide liability laws in the
Although Dr. Mary Hogan did not complete her testimony at the trial, in an
affidavit filed by Townsend and Hulen in 1957 she had summarized her experiences at
Glen Allan. Born in Starkville and educated at the University of Mississippi and the
University of Tennessee, she began practicing in Glen Allan in 1952. In the summer and
fall of 1957, the year after the Lawler incident, she learned that aerial applicators were
using parathion and malathion. While she might normally see twenty-five African
American patients a day, when poisoning season began in 1957 a hundred and twenty-five arrived daily for treatment. They arrived coughing, spitting up blood, and running a
high fever, and would lay out in the yard until she could see them. She diagnosed their
malady as chemical pneumonia and advised her patients to stay away from the fields
during spraying. Dr. Hogan reasoned that the poison blocked nerve impulses to the
brain and interfered with breathing. She also reported that some people had died of
respiratory failure. Dr. Hogan and her staff sometimes became ill when these
organophosphates drifted from nearby cotton fields to her clinic. On October 5, 1957,
she passed out. For a month she was a patient at University Hospital in Jackson, where
she met another woman who was poisoned. Dr. Hogan then took up a psychiatric
practice at Whitfield.17
Her experience raises the likelihood of a "hidden archive" of black workers
poisoned by malathion and parathion. In the 1950s and 1960s, blacks were unlikely to
complain about health problems. Not only were workers being replaced by machines
and chemicals but also Citizens Councils were intimidating African Americans who
advocated voting rights, school integration, or belonged to the NAACP. If black
workers complained of poisoning, they might be categorized as troublemakers, which
could cost their jobs.
In June 1962 the papers were filed in the Lawler settlement, and the tenant and
the aerial applicator settled for $4,599.00.18 It was also in June 1962 that The New
Yorker carried the first installment of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring.
In Indianola, as in other Delta towns, chemicals were linked to agricultural
prosperity and thus to the community's welfare. While the health complaints of black
workers could be ignored or contradicted, Charles Lawler's poisoning presented a more
complex case. A skilled worker and family man, Lawler was part of the white
community. Yet the community-and the jury-- rallied around the landlord, the tenant,
and the aerial applicator. Pascol Townsend and Elizabeth Hulen could not overcome
the ideology that justified chemicals and thus supported the farm economy. Yet
Elizabeth Hulen, Dr. Rozella Hahn (a doctor who testified for the plaintiff), and Dr.
Mary Hogan broke with Delta ideology that demanded total defense of planters'
interests. These professional women thought outside the controlling ideology.
Before moving on to several other cases, I want to slightly expand the hidden
archive. Attempting to learn more about Pascol Townsend, I interviewed two lawyers
from his firm in Drew. Lawson Holladay recalled a summer job during his college days
in the 1960s. The levee board hired him and a friend to spray herbicides along the
Sunflower River to keep weeds down. When I asked Holladay what he was spraying,
he replied, "2, 4-D, 2,4,5-T, diesel fuel and a soap surfactant to make it stick. I mean,
that's Agent Orange."
John McWilliams, who grew up in Holly Ridge where his parents ran a store,
recalled that in the 1960s Mission Brand Chemicals opened a factory nearby. The plant
hired young men, many of them black high school dropouts. "And a lot of times,"
McWilliams recalled, "they would come to the Holly Ridge store for lunch and you
couldn't tell that they were black. They would be covered with white. . . .They didn't
have any kind of mask, rubber suits, anything." Sometimes," he added, "they were
covered with yellow powder, depending on what they were making." He paused. "And
they all are dead. . . .They died young."19
A few days later I was in Helena, Arkansas, for the opening of an exhibit on the
1927 Mississippi River flood and was chatting with one of the Delta Cultural Center
volunteers, Juanita Russell. When I mentioned I was doing research on pesticides, she
recalled the time when her house was treated for termites. The man who applied
chlordane could not read. "So," she related, "he took a paint brush, took my wool rugs
up. . . .Painted the floors. . . .The next day," she continued, "we were in intensive care
in Memphis Tennessee Baptist Hospital." The landlord recommended changing the
airconditioner filter. She moved. The house was uninhabitable and was destroyed.
Mrs. Russell still has lung problems and suffers from emphysema and chronic
bronchitis.20 After talking with Lawson Holladay, John McWilliams, and Juanita
Russell, I wondered just how many people were either exposed to dangerous levels of
pesticides or actually suffered from poisoning. Such incidents usually go unrecorded
A 1970 survey of Johnston County, North Carolina, gives a glimpse of chemical
use and revealed how casually most farmers handled chemicals. Most stored chemicals
in unlocked buildings near their houses. Nearly 70 percent had never worn safety
equipment "such as gloves, respirator, or special clothing." Nearly 12 percent indicated
that "they themselves or a member of their immediate family had been poisoned by
pesticides during the past five years." Nearly 8 percent reported that they knew
neighbors who had been poisoned. North Carolinians regularly died from
organophosphate poisoning. In 1967 a man and a four year old girl died, a teenager
died both in 1968 and 1969, and four fatalities occurred in 1971, all from parathion
poisoning.21 Thus, eight years after Silent Spring, farmers and homeowners were still
very casual about toxic chemicals.
The next cases focus on labeling and toxicity. Edward V. Griffin, a college
graduate, managed Lake View Farm Supply in South Carolina. On May 18, 1964, the
twenty-eight-year-old Griffin was taking inventory in the company's pesticide
warehouse. Late in the afternoon a bag of 1 percent parathion dust burst, and,
following directions on the label, Griffin washed himself with soap and water.
Griffin went home about 6:00 and watered the flowers. His wife, Anne, who
was pregnant with their third child, called him to supper, and while sitting at the supper
table he became ill. His wife called for an ambulance, and he was rushed to the hospital
at Mullins, some twelve miles away. He arrived unconscious, and the doctor
administered atropine. Griffin died about an hour later. The next morning workers
entered the warehouse and found a burst bag of 1 percent parathion dust.
In 1969, Anne Griffin sued both for pain and suffering and for wrongful death,
insisting that her husband had followed the instructions on the label and washed himself
thoroughly. There was no skull and crossbones on the label, nor did it list an antidote.
The judge declared the label "incomplete and inadequate." Anne Griffin won
$107,220.00 in pecuniary loss, loss of companionship, and mental shock and suffering.22
In a similar case in the mid-1970s, a worker at an experimental farm in Georgia
moved ten bags of 10 percent parathion. Later he lost consciousness and "was on the
floor, shaking, glassy-eyed, and foaming at the mouth." He never recovered and died a
short time later. Near the office there was an open bag of parathion. Buster Brown,
who worked at the Mississippi Valley Aircraft Service, accidently splashed some
malathion into his right eye on August 24, 1957. His eye became inflamed and his sight
blurred. After visiting several doctors, his eye was removed.23
Of all the people around pesticides, those who applied the chemicals were most
at risk. Whether working on a ground rig or applying chemicals from the air, there was
the potential for dangerous exposure. Crop dusters, as many pilots insisted on being
called, most resembled stock car drivers in their nerve and skills. Bill Robinet summed
up some of the dangers to dusters in his autobiography, By the Skin of my Teeth. Pilots
were always on the lookout for trees, electric lines, livestock, and equipment. "Cotton
pickers or kids," he wrote, "would throw stones at the passing aircraft. Dove hunters
and irate turkey farmers would shoot at pilots. . . . Your wheels might get caught in the
cotton and drag you down or you might succumb to one or more of the organic
phosphates you were applying." The engine could quit, "a bird might hit you in the face
or the airplane just might catch on fire for no apparent reason." "Boredom," he insisted,
"had no place in the routine.24
Aerial applicators were exposed to chemicals routinely, but in most cases they
showed no adverse effects. Most knew exactly what they were doing and understood
the potential effects of their cargo.
On August 29, 1961, Jose G. Gonzalez, a twenty-eight-year-old pre-medical
student, Mexican citizen, and crop duster, made three flights near Bishopville, South
Carolina, applying Folex, a plant defoliant. As he made his third run, Gonzalez circled
the field to check for obstructions and then started his first "swath run" (the actual
spraying). At that moment Gonzalez, according to court records, "became nauseated
from the odor of the Folex, had trouble breathing, had severe pain in his stomach, black
spots before his eyes and was sluggish." He attempted to pull out of the run but hit a
wire and crashed. The plane flipped over causing the Folex to spill over him. When he
arrived at the hospital, the doctor reported, "He was having trouble breathing, chills,
pains in his stomach, blindness and was vomiting."25
Gonzalez was cut and bleeding, his left leg and ankle were broken, two teeth
were broken, and he was covered with Folex dust. Doctors wanted to set his leg that
afternoon, but Gonzalez's condition was deteriorating. After finding no antidote on the
Folex label, the doctors called the Richmond headquarters that manufactured Folex but
were offered no help. It took twelve hours to find a poison center that recommended
atropine. Gonzalez remained critically ill for several days, and it was weeks before his
condition stabilized enough for doctors to operate on his leg. Gonzalez stayed in the
hospital almost three months.
He then returned home to Mexico before going back to medical school in
California in the fall of 1962. Gonzalez sued. At the time of the trial in March 1965,
Gonzalez's left leg was one and a half inches shorter than his right leg, his right hand
was permanently injured, and he was weak and unable to stand for long periods of time.
The judge ruled that Gonzalez crashed because of a "typical case of
cholinesterase inhibition," which he defined as "the slowing of nerve impulses and lack
of muscular coordination." The Virginia-Carolina Chemical Company, he ruled, "was
negligent in distributing a dangerous poison without adequate tests and without
adequate warning of its toxic effects and in failing to publish and/or have available a
protective antidote for the toxic substance, and such acts of negligence contributed as a
proximate cause to plaintiff's injuries and damages." The judge allowed Gonzalez to
collect $40,000 in damages.26
The Lawler, Griffin, and Gonzales cases provide examples of poisoning that
went against the conventional wisdom regarding chemical safety in the 1950s and
1960s. Given the regularity of burst bags and carelessness in handling chemicals, one
wonders how many other deaths were attributable to the same cause. These cases
emerged because of lawsuits, but one wonders how many other "accidents" went
unreported, how many pesticide-induced sicknesses were labeled "Asian flu," and how
many duster crashes were due to being overcome with pesticides.
In the records of the USDA and of the ARS there are numerous reports of
sickness and death, of children drinking chemicals, of animals eating pesticides, and of
farmers being overcome. Officials often knew of dangers but did not act. When in
1967 Germany considered ruling that tobacco be labeled a food crop the ARS was
concerned that no residue research had been done on tobacco. "Several years ago the
Department cancelled the registration for endrin on tobacco," an ARS deputy explained.
"This was done with the concurrence of Shell but I believe this was mainly an exercise
as endrin is still used on tobacco."27 At about the same time, another ARS executive
summarized research that showed feeding dogs even 0.1 ppm of endrin "produced slight
kidney degeneration," and the effects were progressively worse when dosage was
increased. "The Committee," the internal memorandum concluded, "recommended that
a tolerance for endrin be denied because they could not find a clear demonstration of a
no-effect level." A few months later the ARS admitted, "We have concern for the
health of persons manufacturing the product and for those applying the pesticide
chemical to tobacco plants, and to the person using the tobacco products."28 Their
concern did not translate into action.
Endrin residues also presented problems with soybean and cottonseed oil, for the
chemical ended up in the vegetable oil. The problem with residues in oil crops would
continue, an ARS scientist predicted, until these particular pesticides were discontinued.
"If the FDA were to enforce present regulations," he wrote, "there would be practically
no Southern soybeans processed."29 Yet the vegetable oil reached the market with
Despite health problems connected to endrin and malathion, both remained on
the market. In November 1963, for example, there was a massive fish kill, estimated at 5
million fish, along the Mississippi River in Louisiana. It took five months to find the
source, which turned out to be endrin released from a Velsicol Corporation plant in
Memphis. In 1967 a report listed ninety fish kills totaling 1.6 million fish due to
agricultural operations and a total of 11.6 million killed by all kinds of pollution.30
Fish kills and research on animals were indisputable proof of toxicity, but long-term chemical effects were more subtle. Because DDT and other chlorinated
hydrocarbons were stable chemicals, that is, they did not break down, their effectiveness
continued for months, even years. Stability also allowed them to lodge in fat and
concentrate as they moved up the food chain to predators that took in concentrated
DDT from their prey. Ultimately scientists learned the effects of pesticides on the
American bald eagle, peregrine falcons, and pelicans, birds at the top of the food chain.
For roughly fifteen years after the war--until Rachel Carson's Silent Spring in 1962--chemical companies, the USDA, and many farmers ignored warnings that these and
other chemicals posed a danger to animals, much less to humans. When Rachel Carson
warned of invisible dangers in the air--radioactivity and chemicals--atomic testing and
widespread application of chemicals had long been accepted as benign.
Despite increasing knowledge about toxicity, chemical use expanded. In 1966,
farmers used 72 million pounds of organochlorine insecticides on cotton, corn, peanuts,
and tobacco, plus 26 million pounds of other synthetic pesticides on these crops. In
1969, as the movement to ban chlorinated hydrocarbons accelerated, an ARS executive
warned of "increasing allegations of nerve and brain damage from chlorinated
hydrocarbon pesticides." He reported a speech by respected scientist Bruce Welch that
"all of the hydrocarbon pesticides affect the cholinesterase system and that chronic
effects may be severe."31
Silent Spring had an eerily similar effect on environmental questions as the 1954
Brown v. Board of Education decision had on segregation. While both Silent Spring
and the Brown decision were monumental and set in motion historical currents that
endure, neither accomplished its ultimate goal. Due to Brown, the South, if not the
nation, is today vastly different from the segregated and hateful place it was in the
1950s. By the same token, awareness of chemical dangers and laws to control chemical
toxicity have curbed some of the most deadly pesticides. Yet the volume of chemicals
used in the country today is far greater than when Silent Spring was published, and the
residue of racism persists with the tenacity of DDT, especially in the USDA. The Delta
Council and the Mississippi Farm Bureau saw in Rachel Carson's book a major threat to
their livelihoods just as they saw in the Brown decision a challenge to their political,
economic, and social domination. Both chemicals and segregation served the rural elite.
The legacy of the USDA is thus both agribusiness and the human and
environmental cost to implement it. Still, it is likely that when the USDA's official
history is written that it will favor more the heroic agribusiness scenario than one that
questions the AAA, defends sharecroppers, criticizes pesticides, and analyzes USDA
policy. It is more likely that the National Museum of American History will mount an
exhibit that "tells the story of American agriculture" than one on the rural South from
George Washington to Jimmy Carter. Both history and exhibits are too important now
to be left to historians and curators, just as farming was too important to be left to
farmers. The USDA from the New Deal to Silent Spring began reconfiguring the rural
United States into a semblance of Iowa. The part of the country that least fit the Iowa
blueprint was the South, and it paid the highest price in human terms. Telling "the story
of American agriculture" should include both the history of the intended and the
unintended consequences of USDA policy, the creation and the destruction.
1. Pete Daniel, Breaking the Land: The Transformation of Cotton, Tobacco, and Rice
Cultures since 1880 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1985), 65-90; Daniel, "The
Legal Basis of Agrarian Capitalism: The South since 1933," in Melvyn Stokes and Rick
Halpern, eds., Race and Class in the America South Since 1890 (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 1994), 79-110.
2. L. C. Salter to Ezra Taft Benson, November 2, 1953; Wilbert McReynolds to Ezra
Taft Benson, January 26, 1953, farm program, Records of the Secretary of Agriculture,
Record Group 16, National Archives and Records Administration (hereafter cited SOA,
RG 16, NARA).
3. Edward L. Schapsmeier and Frederick H. Schapsmeier, "Eisenhower and
Agricultural Reform: Ike's Farm Policy Legacy Appraised," The American Journal of
Economics and Sociology 51 (April 1992), 147-59; Ezra Taft Benson, Cross Fire: The
Eight Years with Eisenhower (Garden City: Doubleday, 1962).
4. Pete Daniel, Lost Revolutions: The South in the 1950s (Chapel Hill: University of
North Carolina Press, 2000), 214-17; 246-48.
5. Harold G. Vanderlee to Lindley Beckworth, February 6, 1959, commodities 5, box
3278; Marvin L. McLain to John J. Sparkman, April 15, 1959, commodities 5-1,
storage, box 3279, SOA, RG 16, NARA.
6. "Recipients of Storage Payments in Excess of $500,000 Made in the Calendar Years
1958 to Companies Operation Under Uniform Grain and Rice Storage Agreements,"
attached to Marvin L. McLain to John J. Williams, April 29, 1959, commodities 5-1,
storage, box 3279, ibid.
7. William A. Anderson to True Morse, November 29, 1955, farming 2, family, ibid.
8. Marvin L. McLain to John J. Sparkman, April 15, 1959, commodities 5-1, storage,
box 3279, SOA, RG 16, NARA; Carl Stanley to P. O. Davis, February 3, 1955, ACES
Papers, box 71, Correspondence, 1954-55, Auburn University Archives.
9. See Edmund P. Russell III, "'Speaking of Annihilation': Mobilizing for War
against Human and Insect Enemies, 1914-1945," Journal of American History 82
(March 1996), 1505-29. For a broad treatment of synthetic chemicals, see Russell, War
and Nature: Fighting Humans and Insects with Chemicals from World War I to Silent
Spring (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001). See also, Thomas R. Dunlap,
DDT: Scientists, Citizens, and Public Policy (Princeton: Princeton University Press,
1981); Robert L. Rudd, Pesticides and the Living Landscape (Madison: University of
Wisconsin Press, 1964); Frank Graham Jr., Since Silent Spring (Boston: Houghton
10. Assistant USDA Secretary Charles F. Brannan claimed that "a great deal of
experimental work has been done" with DDT and that "it is safe to recommend the use
of certain types of DDT insecticides for the control of certain insect pests." See Charles
F. Brannan to Edwin Arthur Hall, October 11, 1945, chemicals, SOA, RG 16, NARA.
See also Science in Farming: The Yearbook of Agriculture, 1943-1947 (Washington:
U.S. Government Printing Office, 1947) and Virginia Scott Jenkins, The Lawn: A
History of an American Obsession (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office,
11. Interview with Reverend John Harris, May 28, 1988, Franklin, Louisiana, by Lu
Ann Jones, Oral History of Southern Agriculture, National Museum of American
12. W. L. Popham to B. T. Shaw, January 12, 1960, regulatory crops, no. 253,
Records of the Agricultural Research Service, Record Group 310, National Archives
and Records Administration (Hereafter cited ARS Records, RG 310, NARA). R. A.
Moncrief to David R. Obey, October 30, 1969, pesticides, box 5081, SOA, RG 16,
NARA. For an overview of the use of chemicals in the post-World War II South, see
Pete Daniel, Lost Revolutions, 61-87.
13. M. R. Clarkson to E. D. Burgess, October 26, 1956, plant pest control division, no.
376; Clarkson, memorandum for the files, September 10, 1957, regulatory crops 1, no.
752, ARS, RG 310, NARA.
14. E. F. Knipling, office memorandum, March 11, 1960, Entomology Research
Division, Director's Correspondence, 1959-65, Box 3, cotton insects research branch,
15. The testimony and relevant papers can be found at the Mississippi State Archives in
Jackson in the trial transcript, Charles Lawler v. W. T. Skelton et al., (no. 7868), 241
16. Lawler v. Skelton, 130 So. 2d 569; B. F. Smith to Boswell Stevens, July 17, 1961,
Boswell Stevens Papers, subject files, 1959-73, Boswell Stevens Papers, Special
Collections Department, Mitchell Memorial Library, Mississippi Sate University,
Mississippi State, Mississippi.
17. Lawler v. Skelton, 130 So. 2d 569; "Memorandum of Conference with Dr. Hogan,"
n.d. (ca. August 15, 1958); Elizabeth Hulen to Pascol Townsend, August 15, 1958, in
Townsend/Hulen files, Lawler v. Skelton, Townsend, McWilliams, and Holladay Office,
18. Petition for Approval of Settlement, Lawler v. Skelton, et al., Circuit Court of
Jefferson Davis County; Hulen to Townsend, May 9, 1962; Townsend to Hulen, May
16, 1962, in Townsend/Hulen files, Lawler v. Skelton, Townsend, McWilliams, and
Holladay Office, Drew, Mississippi.
19 Interview with John McWilliams and Lawson Holladay, June 27, 2002, Drew,
Mississippi, by Pete Daniel.
20. Interview with Juanita Russell, June 30, 2002, Helena, Arkansas, by Pete Daniel.
21. W. A. Williams, "The North Carolina State Board of Health Pesticides Project,"
July 31, 1970, attached to Anne R. Yobs to T. C. Byerly, October 12, 1970, box 5268,
pesticides; Herbert S. Harrison to G. G. Rohwer, August 25, 1970, box 5269,
pesticides, SOA, RG 16, NARA.
22. Griffin v. Planters Chemical Corporation, 302 F. Supp. 937; Griffin v. Planters
Chemical Company, plaintiff's trial brief, civil actions no. 68-170, 68-171, Federal
Records Center, East Point, Georgia.
23. International Paper Company v. Gilbourn, 240 S.E.2d 722 (1977); Mississippi
Valley Aircraft Service v. Brown, 111 So.2d 28 (1959).
24. Bill Robinet, By the Skin of my Teeth: A Cropduster's Story (Veneta, Oregon,
25. Jose G. Gonzalez v. Virginia-Carolina Chemical Company, 239 F. Supp. 567.
Jose G. Gonzalez v. Virginia-Carolina Chemical Company, container 169, AC 874,
Federal Records Center, East Point, Georgia.
27. Kenneth C. Walker to H. A. Rodenhiser, April-May 1967 folder, office of the
administrator, central correspondence file, 1967-73, Box 2, chemicals 1 folder, ARS,
RG 310, NARA.
28. Harry W. Hays to R. G. Anderson, April 11, 1967, box 2; Hays to Hiram Fong,
November 21, 1967, box 16, ibid.
29. Kenneth C. Walker to Frank McLaughlin, April 6, 1967, box 2; Walker to R. G.
Anderson, May 3, 1967, Box 10, office of the administrator, central correspondence
30. Linda Lear, Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature (New York: Henry Holt, 1997),
470; Ned Bayley to John W. Byrnes, July 29, 1968, box 4851, pesticides, SOA, RG 16,
31. Ned D. Bayley to Jamie L. Whitten, October 17, 1969; T. C. Byerly to N. D.
Bayley, September 2, 1969, Box 5081, Pesticides, SOA, RG 16, NARA.