Coast Guardsman transports radio reporters detailing the 1927 flood’s devastation. (U.S. Coast Guard photo).
In 1927, the mighty Mississippi River escaped its banks and rose to its highest levels ever seen before—or ever since. From Cairo, Illinois, to New Orleans, some 27,000 square miles of productive landscape, encompassing thousands of farms and hundreds of towns, were underwater. The flood killed somewhere between 250 and a thousand people. Nearly a million Americans became homeless refugees, subject to the ravages of weather, starvation, and disease. Though it only affected river communities, the rising tide was disastrous and left an oozing scar upon the body politic.
Eventually, of course, the waters receded, returning to their natural channel. But the human loss and financial devastation would be felt for years. Neither the Mississippi Valley nor the country itself would ever be the same.
The flood’s lingering impact was probed with potent acuity in a 1997 book by John M. Barry entitled Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How it Changed America. Barry wrote that the flood initially unleashed a struggle of man against nature. But soon it “became one of man against man. For the flood brought with it also a human storm. Honor and money collided. White and black collided. Regional and national power structures collided. The collisions shook America.”
The story of the Great Mississippi Flood is worth pondering in our own time of coronavirus alarm. Americans today are anxious to return to the kind of normal times we knew before the virus emerged. But the Great Mississippi Flood reminds us that, when nature displays its awesome force in unexpected and terrible ways, it often alters the course of history. Normal times, as remembered during the crisis, are often gone forever.
The Mississippi Flood, for example, challenged as never before the notion that the federal government had no mandate to serve as a major agency of succor for those left bereft and homeless by havoc. At the center of the drama was Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, world renowned as the man who had fed Belgium during World War I, then fed millions as head of a massive European relief program after the war. He was the world’s most famous and respected engineer—with an eye fixed on the next presidential election.
As the lead figure in the country’s flood relief program, Hoover embraced the view that it could all be handled through a complex matrix of volunteer efforts, all overseen and managed by himself. Major governmental initiatives weren’t needed—and contrary to the views of the Founding Fathers anyway. This was not considered an outlandish point of view. President Calvin Coolidge, Hoover’s boss, wouldn’t even visit the Southern lands devastated by the flood, nor would he raise a hand in efforts to collect private funds for victims.
Four decades before, President Grover Cleveland, a laissez-faire Democrat, had vetoed a $10,000 appropriation for drought victims in Texas on the grounds that the federal government had no “warrant in the Constitution…to indulge a benevolent and charitable sentiment through the appropriation of public funds.”
But the human devastation in the flood zone was changing public sentiment, and Hoover’s concentration on private endeavors wasn’t getting the job done. Soon the idea that the government did in fact have a responsibility for the welfare of devastated citizens took root. This paved the way for Franklin Roosevelt’s powerful New Deal coalition when, just a few years later, the Great Depression visited upon the country a devastation that was national, not just regional, in scope.
In the meantime, the flood’s aftermath set in motion the great migration of Southern blacks to the north, where industrialization was creating job opportunities. That further assisted FDR in his efforts to woo blacks away from the Republican Party and into his potent new coalition.
All that contributed to one of the great political realignments in the country’s history. Though few perceived it at the time, the Great Mississippi Flood pointed the way toward a major national transformation. As Barry writes, “Like the blues music, born in the Delta, languid and rolling at the same time, [the flood] penetrated to the core of the nation, washed away the surface, and revealed the nation’s character. Then it tested that character and changed it.”
Could the coronavirus stir a similar transformation in our own time? Certainly, if the devastation is as serious as some experts are now saying, some big attitudinal changes could be in the works. Patrick Buchanan wonders whether the virus will be the “deathblow” to what he calls the “New World Order”—the post-Cold War era of globalization, withering borders, and the “interdependence of the world’s great nations.”
Now, he notes, we are in an era of travel bans, tourism curtailments, border enhancements, and concerns that an emerging geopolitical adversary, China, controls the production of so many pharmaceuticals and other products that are crucial to the health of millions of Americans and to America’s military capacity. “Is not the case now conclusive,” asks Buchanan, “that we made a historical mistake when we outsourced our economic independence to rely for vital necessities upon nations that have never had America’s best interests at heart?”
The case may be conclusive, to Buchanan’s mind, but that doesn’t mean it will be widely embraced. The Age of Globalism is a product of American liberalism, and American liberalism continues to exercise a powerful pull on the consciousness of the country. Witness the success in the Democratic primaries of Vermont socialist Bernie Sanders, who cadged far more votes than anyone of his outlook ever could have collected even in the days of the Great Depression, when socialism was considered a serious alternative.
Yet there’s a certain force of logic in the Buchanan formulation. The Trump presidency reflects the fact that four years ago many Americans felt the country was moving in a dangerous direction under its elite leadership. And the border question was probably the single most significant factor in his emergence. Now nations around the world are forced to give a new emphasis to border protection, and to ensuring that citizens come first in the consideration of their governments.
It’s difficult to say just what kind of legacy the coronavirus will leave in America or globally. But the story of the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 suggests we won’t be returning to the same old world we inhabited before.
Robert W. Merry, longtime Washington, D.C., journalist and publishing executive, is the author most recently of President McKinley: Architect of the American Century (Simon & Schuster).