Formed in March 1933, the Civilian Conservation Corps, CCC, was one of the first New Deal programs. It was a public works project intended to promote environmental conservation and to build good citizens through vigorous, disciplined outdoor labor. Close to the heart of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the CCC combined his interests in conservation and universal service for youth. He believed that this civilian “tree army” would relieve the rural unemployed and keep youth “off the city street corners.”
The CCC operated under the army’s control. Camp commanders had disciplinary powers and corpsmen were required to address superiors as “sir.” By September 1935 over 500,000 young men had lived in CCC camps, most staying from six months to a year. The work focused on soil conservation and reforestation. Most important, the men planted millions of trees on land made barren from fires, natural erosion, or lumbering—in fact, the CCC was responsible for over half the reforestation, public and private, done in the nation’s history. Corpsmen also dug canals and ditches, built over thirty thousand wildlife shelters, stocked rivers and lakes with nearly a billion fish, restored historic battlefields, and cleared beaches and campgrounds.
Although professing a nondiscriminatory policy, the CCC failed to give a fair share of work to blacks, especially in the South where local selection agents held sway. But in spite of rigid segregation and hiring quotas, black participation reached 10 percent by 1936.
In all, nearly 3 million young men participated in the CCC The army’s experience in managing such large numbers and the paramilitary discipline learned by corpsmen provided unexpected preparation for the massive call-up of civilians in World War II.