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Letter to the President, CIO, on the Flood Control Problem in the Missouri River Basin.

August 06, 1951

[Released August 6, 1951. Dated August 3, 1951]

Dear Phil:

I read with a lot of interest your letter of July twenty-third regarding the Missouri River basin. Your organization is to be congratulated for raising special funds from CIO union treasuries to help out the victims of the recent flood. I also agree with you thoroughly that such emergency relief, while necessary now that the flood has occurred, is no substitute for the real job that needs to be done--to prevent such floods from happening in the first place.

You know there are a lot of people who take little interest in flood control until a disastrous flood occurs. I am sorry to say that a majority in Congress has cut my budget requests for flood control each of the last four years, and just a few weeks ago the House of Representatives cut this year's budget requests by nearly 20 percent. We can spend little enough on flood control in emergency times like these, and I have had to hold my budget requests for flood control far below what I would have liked to recommend. I believe that cuts even below the budget requests would be the most dangerous kind of false economy. I hope very much the Senate will restore the House cuts.

I know your organization has always appreciated the need for long-term, comprehensive planning in this field. You have worked steadily, year in and year out, for sensible, effective control and use of our great rivers to prevent floods, to produce power, to irrigate lands, and to yield the other benefits that can come from wise river basin development. I appreciate your constructive attitude on these problems very much.

But you know the right kind of river basin development cannot be accomplished unless the people elect public officials who will support it. A good while ago when I was in the Senate I joined in suggesting that a Missouri Valley Authority be organized and set up. Most of the Governors and Senators in the Missouri basin opposed it bitterly, and it was clear it could not be passed at that time.

Then we went to work on a flood control navigation-irrigation-power plan for the Missouri basin, knowing it was incomplete and would have to be improved later, but hoping we could at least get started. That was in 1944, and the plan was called the Pick-Sloan plan. There was still a lot of opposition from people who said it was wasteful to spend public funds for river development work, that it was socialism for the Government to build multiple-purpose dams, and so on. But we did manage to get a number of important projects authorized by the Congress and I think that was a step in the right direction. A lot of projects are now authorized--and some of them are under construction right now--which are sound and valuable and would be built no matter who was put in charge of Missouri basin development. In that sense, the work under the Pick-Sloan plan has been a help in getting started with much needed projects, and I think your criticism of it is far too sweeping.

But I do agree with you that we need something that is an improvement on the Pick-Sloan plan.

I am thoroughly aware of the inadequacies of the present situation. We don't have a comprehensive plan for the Missouri basin, we only have pieces of such a plan--and some of the pieces (such as the program of the Department of Agriculture) have not even been authorized by the Congress as yet. We don't have in the Missouri basin--as we do have in the Tennessee--proper arrangements by which the people of the area can participate directly in making decisions and taking actions on their flood control and other resources problems. We don't have a systematic means for arriving at wise decisions from the standpoint of the basin as a whole; too often the right action has been blocked by shortsighted people who can't see beyond their purely local interests. For example, of three key flood-control dams which have been proposed on the Kansas River and its tributaries--right where this flood hit-two have not been authorized by Congress and the third one, while authorized, has not been started, all because of opposition by the officials and Congressional representatives of the State of Kansas.

I suppose now that we've had a disastrous flood, the people who have been blocking action will now support these projects. But that is certainly the hard way to make progress-to wait until a flood forces you to do what should have been done long before.

The best way to handle this problem is the way I have advocated all along--and that you and your organization have supported me on. We ought to have a single agency, with its headquarters in the basin where it is accessible to the people who are most directly affected, and where those people can have a direct part in working out the program. That agency should be given the responsibility for making a sensible over-all plan for coordinating upstream and downstream flood control, navigation, irrigation, power and other programs in the Missouri basin, and for seeing that that plan is put into effect efficiently, and with things being done in the proper sequence. Then we'd get somewhere. It wouldn't have to be modeled after the TVA; I made a series of recommendations for a new agency to handle these problems in the Columbia River valley, and those recommendations were quite different from the way the TVA is set up. The important thing is to have an agency that will get the job done, and that is responsive to what the people of the basin as a whole need and want.

This is what we ought to have, just as you say in your letter. But it seems perfectly plain to me that we won't get efficient river basin development, such as we have had in the Tennessee Valley, in other parts of the country unless the people elect public officials who will work for it. My position on a Missouri Valley Authority has not changed, but it seems to me that there have to be more forward-looking, liberal-minded Members of Congress from these States before you can expect any action to be taken.

In the meantime, we've got to get ahead with the work the best way we can. We should proceed with flood control and navigation, with irrigation and power, with soil conservation and better use of land. We have to take whatever forward steps we can, even though they are not as big as we would like.

I hope the people of the Missouri basin will take to heart the lesson of this terrible flood. But memory is short, and all too often people forget the floods almost as soon as the sun starts shining again. I hope it won't take any more disastrous floods to wake the people of the Missouri basin up to a proper solution.

Sincerely yours,


[Honorable Philip Murray, President, Congress of Industrial Organizations, 718 Jackson Place, N.W., Washington 6, D.C.]

Note: In his letter to the President, dated July 23, Mr. Murray outlined four points on which he urged the President to provide the necessary personal leadership for their implementation. The four points were as follows:

1. Set up immediately by presidential order a President's Emergency Commission on the Missouri Valley to draw up a sound river management program for submission to Congress not later than January 15, 1952.

2. Urge Congress to take action immediately on the water storage features of the Missouri River Basin program of the Department of Agriculture.

3. Throw the weight of the administration behind the establishment of a Missouri Valley Authority with a mandate to take over from the Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation and to "get ahead with sound engineering" on the Kansas and Missouri Rivers along lines to be marked out by the proposed President's Emergency Commission.

4. Set up, or get authority from Congress to set up, a Watershed Review Board in the White House with final authority to pass upon all surveys, programs, and decisions of the Corps of Engineers, the Bureau of Reclamation, the Federal Power Commission, and all the other Federal agencies engaged in river engineering work.

Harry S. Truman, Letter to the President, CIO, on the Flood Control Problem in the Missouri River Basin. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/230549

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