Ken Burns’ Dust Bowl Revisits a Tragic Chapter in U.S. History

The world's most famous documentarian returns to television to cover the catastrophic Dust Bowl of the 1930s

Credit: PBS

Ken Burn’s new PBS doc The Dust Bowl looks back at the dust storms that devastated Depression-era America

Ken Burns returns to PBS with the new 1930s ecological disaster documentary The Dust Bowl

No documentary filmmaker has been more successful at revisiting American history than Ken Burns, whose films have provided PBS viewers with new insight on everything from The Civil War to Baseball to Prohibition. In his latest, The Dust Bowl, Burns goes back to the 1930s to examine what he calls “the greatest manmade ecological disaster in American history.” 

As Burns explained during this summer’s TV Critics Association press tour, the common view that the Dust Bowl was a “handful of storms with an inevitable connection to John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath” is only scratching the surface of “a much more complex, tragic and interesting story that continues to resonate today.” 

The Dust Bowl, noted Burns, recounts the “story of our complex and often fraught relationship with the land” during a time when an unprecedented agricultural boom coincided with unforeseen climatic conditions that were unfortunately “superimposed on the greatest economic catastrophe in the history of the world, the Depression.” 

History of the Dust Bowl

The roots of the disaster were fomented during the 1920s when post-Industrial Revolution advances in agricultural technology led to a farming boom in the U.S., with millions of acres of grassland across America’s Great Plains plowed up and converted to farmland. When economic forces during the Depression led to a drop in wheat prices, desperate farmers harvested as much as they could, leaving fields bare and exposed; a severe 1932 drought dried out these fields and created the ideal condition for the devastating dust storms that followed, leading to the deaths of animals and children, many of whom perished from fatal “dust pneumonia.” 

Burns tracked down a number of Dust Bowl survivors in order to capture their emotional stories.

“They are at the end of their own lives now,” said Burns, “but they were children and teenagers then, their searing memories as raw and direct as if this had all happened yesterday. What they were witnessing was unparalleled in American history, yet their perspective is resolutely personal and intimate, as through a child’s eyes watching as their parents’ world collapsed, watched as their farms were lost and their own siblings died.”