Failing Safe

The Journals of David E. Lilienthal

by David E. Lilienthal
Harper & Row, 666 pp., $10.00 each

Instinctively one distrusts a dialogue with the self which is designed to be overheard. It is a performance. And except in the hands of a great performer, it is likely to be a bad performance. I find most diaries dull. “These are of the books,” Charles Lamb said, “I give away.”

Having read David Lilienthal’s journals (which, he says, were “made in the beat of daily life,” and now stand essentially as they were written), I have given them away. Mr. Lilienthal has had an interesting and useful life, but he is not an interesting thinker and his journals are neither very instructive, nor edifying, nor intimate, let alone racy. They may safely be kept on open shelves.

Yet this is not the whole story. The parts, if not the whole, of the journals are worth looking into. They are of our time and they illuminate a phase of it. The first volume deals with the American political and economic scene during the New Deal and in particular with Mr. Lilienthal’s work as head of the TVA; the second volume with the years which ushered in the atomic age and spawned an era of folly, paranoia, and enforced conformity to wicked and stupid ideas which continue to infest our house. Throughout both of these periods Mr. Lilienthal was a high civil servant. In 1933 Roosevelt appointed him to the board of directors of the newly created Tennessee Valley Authority. In this post he served for twelve years, earning for himself first a national then an international reputation.

No one was better suited than Lilienthal for the TVA job. He is a man of high intelligence—though not, as he proudly proclaims, an intellectual, nor as he confesses, “profound.” He is immensely energetic, resourceful, imaginative in practical matters, and enviably stubborn. When Lilienthal fixed on a project for TVA, he would not let go, even when his masters were indifferent or opposed, even when odious and venomous politicians such as Senator McKellar did their best to humiliate and crush him. He was a supremely dedicated, incorruptible public servant. Neither flattery, to which, being human, he was not impervious, nor criticism, to which, being thin-skinned, he was not insensitive, deflected him from what he conceived to be his duty.

The TVA was a triumph which owed much not only “to the vision of a Norris and the boldness of a Roosevelt, but to the men who were in charge of its destinies from the beginning”—the two Morgans, and, above all, Lilienthal himself. Yet these journals kept by the principal architect of TVA are largely a busy, overlong chronicle of trivia. It is impossible to follow the grand design. The journals tell us remarkably little about TVA planning and growth, about its major problems, about the questions that must have arisen in day to day administration and the obstacles that had to be overcome to turn the Valley into living proof of what men can accomplish. This is not to say that the journals…

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