The period from 1900 to 1945 was characterized by both surprising continuity and dramatic change in southern agriculture. Unlike the rest of the nation, which urbanized and industrialized at a rapid pace in the late nineteenth century, the South remained overwhelmingly rural and poor, from the 1880s through the 1930s. But by 1945, the region was beginning to urbanize and industrialize into a recognizably modern South, with a population concentrated in urban centers, industries taking hold, and agriculture following the larger-scale, mechanized trend common in other farming regions of the country. Three overlapping factors explain this long lag followed by rapid transformation. First, the cumulative effects of two centuries of land-extensive, staple crop agriculture and white supremacy had sapped the region of much of its fertility and limited its options for prosperity. Second, in response to this “problem South,” generations of reformers sought to modernize the South, along with other rural areas around the world. These piecemeal efforts became the foundation for the South’s dramatic transformation by federal policy known as the New Deal. Third, poor rural southerners, both black and white, left the countryside in increasing numbers. Coupled with the labor demands created by two major military conflicts, World War I and World War II, this movement aided and abetted the mechanization of agriculture and the depopulation of the rural South.
William Thomas Okie
Kristin L. Ahlberg
In the 20th century, US policymakers often attempted to solve domestic agricultural oversupply problems by extending food aid to foreign recipients. In some instances, the United States donated food in times of natural disasters. In other instances, the United States offered commodities to induce foreign governments to support US foreign policy aims or to spur agricultural modernization. These efforts coalesced during the 1950s with the enactment of Public Law 480, commonly known as the Food for Peace program, which provided for a formal, bureaucratic mechanism for the disbursement of commodities. Throughout the second half of the 20th century, successive presidential administrations continued to deploy commodities in advance of their often disparate foreign policy objectives.