King Cotton's Advocate: Oscar G. Johnston and the New Deal

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King Cotton's Advocate: Oscar G. Johnston and the New Deal. By Lawrence J. Nelson. (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1999. Pp. xviii, 330. $38.00, ISBN 1-57233-025-2.)

Oscar Goodbar Johnston claimed that he "never liked the term `New Deal'" and detested the nation's capital as "a veritable madhouse" (p. 206). Yet in the 1930s he was a leading figure in the Department of Agriculture, a close associate of Henry Wallace and other top administrators. His views and advice were sought by the president, and he was highly regarded by most members of Congress. His primary loyalty was to cotton, and he performed yeoman service in stabilizing the precarious plight of the cotton economy.

A failed Mississippi politician, Johnston lost a hotly contested race for governor in 1919 and thereafter devoted his life to cotton. In 1927 he became president and manager of a prosperous 38,000-acre Delta plantation served by thousands of black sharecroppers. The Delta and Pineland Company of Mississippi was largely British-owned. During the New Deal, until Congress put a limit on the amount of money planters could receive for curbing production, the company and Johnston received much adverse publicity. The fact that a good portion of the federal funds went to the sharecroppers received little notice. Johnston pursued a managerial style predicated on welfare capitalism. If the croppers prospered, so too would Delta and Pineland.

Johnston, however, spent most of the New Deal in the public sector helping to develop a cotton loan program in the Commodity Credit Corporation, traveling to Europe at the request of the president to prevent a free fall of cotton prices through international cooperation and, most important, through his brilliant management of the federal cotton pool. The Federal Farm Board during the Hoover Administration had accumulated huge quantities of cotton. Rather than dump what supplies remained on the open market, Johnston husbanded the cotton along with the equally large amounts that the New Deal acquired through its program of cotton loans. He released quantities for consumption as market conditions warranted. It was a complex operation necessitating a deep understanding of how the cotton market functioned and the role of speculators seeking "to make a killing" through manipulating it. …

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