One of the speakers at the Missouri River Conference we attended last weekend was Mike Lawson, formerly a historian for the National Park Service and currently a partner in a Washington DC public policy consulting firm, but best known for his book, Dammed Indians: The Pick-Sloan Plan and the Missouri River Sioux (recently revised as Dammed Indians Revisited). It is shocking (although not surprising) how illegal the process was that led to the building of the five dams along the Missouri River in the Dakotas.
Americans, since the founding of the country, have always held the Constitution and the rule of law in high regard in principle, while generally holding them in contempt when they wanted to do something different. (It’s one of our quirks that so endeared us to Tocqueville.) Teaching American History I was shocked at the antics of the Washington administration during the Whiskey Rebellion. (If you weren’t paying attention during that class, it makes booth Homeland Security and Obama-care look quite civil.) And from that first administration the Constitution and rule of law increasingly became an afterthought culminating with the Jackson administration. (When I was teaching that chapter, the cadets worried I was going to pop a vein and keel over on the spot … although I suspect that they weren’t so worried about me, just that Steve Pollard, the math teacher across the hall, would see me on the floor and make them do pushups … but I digress.) And since Jackson, the constitution has often been considered a mere inconvenience — a speed bump on the path toward pet legislation.
But I was totally unaware of the Pick-Sloan legislation and numerous and sundry ways the Army Corps of Engineers dodged, not only constitutional requirements, but even the requirements of Pick-Sloan (which “dodged” the constitution … to put it politely … in the first place) in order to get the dams built.
All this was in the name of national necessity. (The 1952 Missouri River flood was a national disaster, after all. As we have learned in various wars and crises, most recently after Katrina and 9-11, no American government wants to waste a perfectly good disaster.)
It would be easy to be totally cynical about Pick-Sloan and the Army Corps of Engineers and simply group them in with that whole series of national projects which steam rolled everything from personal rights to personal property to constitutionally guaranteed freedoms. (And it is admittedly loads of fun to write cynical essays!) But in this case I find it hard to play the cynicism card.
Frequently the welfare of the group outweighs the welfare of individuals. And when that happens in a society which guarantees individual liberty it can become impossible to legally and constitutionally do the right thing.
(It stands for Not In My Back Yard.) It’s probably the primary reason we are so utterly incapable, as a nation, of doing significant public works. But in the 1950s, after a series of compromises and back-room deals, Pick-Sloan was passed and a few years later, dams began to be built.
It is unconscionable that we didn’t properly reimburse the people whose land and livelihoods we, as a nation, stole (the overwhelming majority of whom were native Americans). But, the fact that the government (and if the truth be known, it wasn’t the government, but a very small handful of visionary and energetic leaders, such as Pick and Sloan) muscled this project, that sought the good of the whole in spite of the protests of a whole host of individuals, through is breathtaking.
Who knew bureaucrats could do such good through means that were so detestable?
It gives me hope that we might get a pipeline through Nebraska before I die.