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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 660

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This is the grave of Morris Cooke.

Born in 1872 in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, Cooke graduated from Lehigh University in 1895 as a mechanical engineer. He worked as a journalist for awhile, for the Philadelphia Press and the Denver News. He also served in the Spanish-American War as an engineer on a gunboat. In 1903, he met Frederick Winslow Taylor, the notorious pioneer of industrial efficiency. Taylor’s ideas were summed up by a guy standing behind workers with a stopwatch to time their actions in an effort to make them more efficient. When this actually happened, workers erupted in fury. Cooke was among the first four engineers Taylor hired to implement his ideas. Cooke was a true believer and thought that applying industrial efficiency to all of society would improve the world.

But Cooke was also a more flexible thinker than the rigid mind of Taylor. The early twentieth century was a transitional moment in the history of capitalism and government. Increasingly complex societies required increasingly complex solutions to problems. Some of this was reflected in the workplace, as Cooke knew very well. Despite our attention on big violent strikes over wages and working conditions in these years, the biggest reason for strikes was over workers’ losing control over their work culture, as automation and efficiency undermined the daily control over their work and bodies that had been brought over from the pre-capitalist workshop into many of the industrial factories. The world’s workers were indeed becoming Charlie Chaplin’s automaton in Modern Times. Cooke played an active role in this process.

But Cooke also went beyond the workplace. To make a functional America, Cooke believed that big organization needed to take over. This put him pretty squarely in the mainstream of the Progressives that were increasingly powerful in society, such as Theodore Roosevelt, Gifford Pinchot, and Jane Addams. And by 1911, he was already moving beyond the workplace into larger forms of industrial engineering and management. That year, he took a job with the city of Philadelphia as Director of the Department of Public Works. Urban governments were filled with corrupt inefficiencies during these years and like any good Progressive, he took this head-on, instituting a variety of reforms that streamlined government and lowered the overall cost to taxpayers.

By the 1920s, the modern world that Cooke helped create was attracting greater attention from those who were the old enemies of centralization–organized labor. Slowly dragging themselves into the modern world, labor leaders in the American Federation of Labor and Cooke began thinking along similar lines and even corresponded about projects to improve the lives of all. Cooke became particularly interested in electrification. Even in his time in the Philadelphia city government, Cooke had led an effort to force the city’s electric company to lower their high rates that were keeping customers from using electricity. Although Pinchot is primarily known for his time running the U.S. Forest Service, after his sacking by Taft, he became a powerhouse in Pennsylvania politics and was elected governor in 1923, still a Progressive Republican in the anti-Progressive Republican Party of the era. One of his big projects was what became known as the Giant Power Survey. Pinchot hired Cooke to run this survey of the state’s waters to figure how out to build dams that would electrify not only urban but rural Pennsylvania and bring industry and the luxuries of modernism to the state. Cooke became a major leader in the idea that the modern state should engage in widespread planning to bring prosperity to the masses, including through electrification. This was vociferously opposed by the electrical industry, conservatives, and really most engineers, who were still dedicated to the ideal of the free market Gilded Age. The Giant Power Survey’s plans did not succeed against this opposition, but did lay the groundwork for much of the New Deal.

Long a Republican, the party’s complete failures under Hoover and the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt to the presidency led Cooke to switch his affiliation to the Democrats and went to work for FDR. In fact, Roosevelt had tapped Cooke as governor as a member of the New York State Power Authority. Roosevelt, knowing a good organizational man when he saw him, placed Cooke in charge of the Rural Electrification Administration. Cooke also headed up several of Roosevelt’s committees, including the Great Plains Drought Area Committee within the Natural Resources Board, the Mississippi Valley Committee in the Public Works Administration, and the Upstream Engineering Conference. He also remained interested in working with organized labor. His 1940 book written with Steel Workers Organizing Committee head and CIO #2 man Philip Murray, Organized Labor and Production: Next Steps in Industrial Democracy demonstrated how far he had come since his early stopwatch Taylorist days. By this time, Cooke was all about working with organized labor, now a major part of the Democratic Party, to create a nation that worked for all Americans. He also served as a labor arbiter in the early years of labor law, most notably on a 1930 hosiery strike.

Like many New Dealers, Cooke sought in the postwar years to expand these ideas globally. This was especially prominent among the water engineers and electrification people and creating mini-Tennessee Valley Authorities was a big part of early Cold War foreign policy. Although Cooke was pretty old by the time this started, he participated too, writing a 1944 book titled Brazil on the March: A Study in International Cooperation. He wrote this after participating in a 1942 conference there. The book argues that those who say nations such as Brazil are inherently backwards are simply wrong. He simply noted that all Brazil needed was modernization, schooling, and the tools of an industrial society to raise itself up to the equal of any other nation on the planet. And while he was oversimplifying the situation, at least he wasn’t falling into the racism so common at the time when discussing Latin America. He also led the commission to adjudicate the claims between U.S. oil companies and the government of Mexico when the latter nationalized the oil industry in 1938. This was the greatest test of Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy. Previous presidents would have sent in the Marines and overthrown the government. Cooke helped find a different path.

In 1945, President Harry Truman named Cooke to head a water resources policy committee and to be a part of a committee to review the American patent system. He seems to have retired by around 1947. He died in 1960, at the age of 87.

Morris Cooke is buried in Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

This grave visit was sponsored by LGM readers. Many thanks! If you would like this series to visit other New Deal planners, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. David Lilienthal is buried in West Tisbury, Massachusetts and Arthur Morgan is in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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