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TVA on the New Frontier

When President John F. Kennedy came to Alabama on TVA’s 30th birthday, he was met by flag-waving coeds and a grim-faced George Wallace. His purpose was simple: to claim TVA as a forward outpost on America’s New Frontier.

The plain face of TVA’s Chemical Engineering Building in Muscle Shoals, Ala., had never been the focus of so much attention. But on that day in May, 15,000 people were massed in front of it, sweating and waving toy flags passed out by college girls from nearby Florence State College, who worked the crowd in candy-striped blazers.

photo of john f. kennedyThey were all trying to get a glimpse of the dynamic young man on the podium. His topic was TVA. “This has not been made to work in Washington, but by the people in the Valley,” he said, and they cheered.

The year was 1963; the speaker, who wore a dark pin-striped suit and tie with a white handkerchief in his pocket, was President John F. Kennedy; and he was in Muscle Shoals to celebrate a special birthday, TVA’s 30th.

Some of his remarks borrowed from themes he’d already made famous: “The work of TVA will never be done,” Kennedy said. “There will always be new frontiers to conquer.” Looking back on TVA’s founding 30 years before by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Senator George Norris, he characteristically sounded a renewed challenge for the ’60s generation.

“Let us all, whether we are public officials or private citizens, Northerners or Southerners, farmers or city dwellers, live up to the ideas and ideals of George Norris — and resolve that we, too, in our time, will build a better nation for generations yet unborn.”

illustration of Norris

President John F. Kennedy at Muscle Shoals

That bit of bridge-building by this Northern, city-dwelling federal official might have been directed at the Southerner standing to his left on the podium. Three weeks later, Alabama governor George Wallace would take his famous stand against integration on the steps of the University of Alabama. Already at odds with Kennedy over desegregation, the unsmiling Wallace told the press that he was “glad to have the president here to talk about TVA. It’s his visit.”

For his part, Kennedy repeatedly flashed his famous wit. The president had long enjoyed playing off Dwight D. Eisenhower’s old remark that TVA represented “creeping socialism.” He did it one more time for this audience: “The tremendous economic growth of this region, its private industry and its private income,” he said, “make it clear to all that TVA is a fitting answer to socialism — and it certainly has not been creeping.” That drew a laugh from the friendly crowd.

Kennedy had had a long and sometimes misunderstood relationship with TVA. It went back to 1952, when he was just a 34-year-old congressman from Massachusetts. Responding to the concerns of some of his Yankee constituents, the young legislator made a speech in the House comparing power rates in Boston with those in Chattanooga, where, thanks to TVA, electricity cost less than half as much.

Kennedy felt his region deserved something as good as TVA; some listeners thought he resented the advantage TVA lent to the Tennessee Valley region. When Southern congressmen subsequently failed to back a bill popular in Massachusetts and Kennedy retaliated by voting for a measure that cut TVA funding, he found himself in hot water.

The Chattanooga Times labeled him an opponent of TVA. Kennedy protested, explaining frankly that his vote had been a purely political maneuver.

He called TVA “an example of a federal program which has been greatly beneficial to Tennessee, although Massachusetts and New England have no comparable program.” TVA, he said, was “a challenge to us to seek further utilization of our own natural resources. I do not want to see your electric bills for industrial power go up; I want to see our bills go down.”

By early 1959, when Kennedy was considering a run for the presidency, he had put all discussion of a North-South rivalry centered on TVA behind him. In a memorable speech at the Maxwell House in Nashville, he pledged to expand TVA, which, he said, had “lifted the Valley to one of the brightest spots in the nation.”

And as president, he came to regard TVA as an asset that America could and should use in the international contest with the Communist bloc.

TVA, JFK declared, was “the best ambassador that the United States has ever had in the Middle East and Africa and Asia. If we want people to follow us, we have to lead.” He said TVA helped convince third-world countries that America worked, and could therefore serve as a powerful weapon in the Cold War.

“It is one of our nation’s greatest assets,” he stated, “not only for what it has accomplished for the Tennessee Valley and for the nation, but also for its great contribution to the free world’s efforts to win the minds of men.”

 

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