March 14, 2023 | By:

Silent Spring Revolution

Silent Spring Revolution- book cover

Douglas Brinkley, Silent Spring Revolution: John F. Kennedy, Rachel Carson, Richard Nixon, and the Great Environmental Awakening. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2022.

One of historian Douglas Brinkley’s “fortes,” as he puts it, is presidential history, and one project has been to focus on the conservation and environmental records of presidential players in 20th century America. In The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America he recounts how conservation emerged during the progressive era and was vigorously advanced during TR’s administration. Next, he wrote Rightful Heritage: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Land of America, focusing on the conservation and public lands records of the second President Roosevelt’s administration, a side of FDR’s achievements less covered in biographies and histories than his battles against the Great Depression and his leadership in World War II. In Silent Spring Revolution, Brinkley widens his lens to include Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon in a single book pointing out that while these presidencies are not generally considered as historically significant in the realm of conservation as the Roosevelt’s, they made important contributions and, at least collectively, should be. In these big books Brinkley tells stories that will help 21st century Americans understand how and why their environment is where it is today

The context of the conservation story told in Silent Spring Revolution was certainly different than the earlier episodes, and Brinkley emphasizes this. His account covers what he and other historians call the “Long Sixties,” from 1960 – 1973, and his treatment reaches back to the Truman administration, which did little for conservation, and forward to the present, occasionally reflecting on how earlier environmental politics played out in following decades. Part I, titled “Protoenvironmentalists (1945-1959) explains this context. WWII brought the atomic age and the nuclear arms race which, as he explains, resulted in a “Radiated America” as radioactive fallout spread across the nation and globe from atmospheric nuclear testing. “Between 1945 and 1992, the United States conducted 1,054 nuclear tests, 216 of them in the atmosphere.” He describes how Rachel Carson, Aldo Leopold, and Barry Commoner, among others, advanced an ecological perspective with Carson’s spectacularly successful and controversial book Silent Spring bringing it widely to the public’s attention. She explained how radioactivity and especially chemical pesticides were compromising natural systems across America and Earth. Brinkley traces the influence of Carson throughout the book, crediting her body of work, especially Silent Spring, as the major influence on the “Revolution” that became environmentalism.

This period was one of transition in many ways. One was in the very definition of what activists working on environmental issues were concerned about. Brinkley describes the battles over building dams in Dinosaur National Monument and creation of a federal National Wilderness Preservation System. Key players in those fights were Howard Zahniser of The Wilderness Society, and David Brower of the Sierra Club. He writes,

As Zahniser and Brower saw it, by the late 1950’s, the term conservation, so closely identified with Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, had lost its power to move people to action. They were protoenvironmentalists, postwar Americans who had a new ecological awareness that the Earth was being ransacked, polluted in myriad ways and at an alarming rate. Not all activists, no doubt, agreed on tactics. There was the wilderness faction of preservationists, who wanted to ban roads in pristine parts of the federal lands. There was the Mission 66 national parks crowd, who wanted new units added to the Interior Department system, with plenty of amenities provided for tourists. The so-called hook-and-bullet outdoors types … were determined to protect wildlife so humans could continue to hunt and fish. Some forester types continued to latch on to Gifford Pinchot’s maxim that sustainable natural resource development meant “the great good for the greatest number of people.” It was between 1965 and 1975, when mass concern in the United States, Canada, and western Europe arose, that the inclusive terms environmentalism, environmentalist, and the environment took firm hold and became commonplace in the public square. All types of people on the range of “green” activism used them, with core understanding that an environmentalist cared about the Earth – a lot.

This passage from Part I is important in several ways. It summarizes a core theme of the book, the broadening concern about the Earth, informed by ecology, that led to expansion of political action in the forms of new initiatives, organizations, and federal action for which the five presidents covered in the book contributed and took much credit. Also, Brinkley is a master synthesizer of a vast range of events and trends, and this passage illustrates this quality of the book, compressing into several sentences the factions of the conservation movement. While traditional conservationists continued their work, a new lexicon emerged to reflect the broadening of the movement, and as Brinkley narrates the complex maneuvers of environmental politics in the Long Sixties, he might have been clearer about what was conservation and what was environmentalism.

Silent Spring Revolution is a large book, 857 pages with appendices, notes, bibliography, and index, but such scale is necessary to tell the story of what happened in this period of intense environmental activity. The account is not too long. Brinkley writes at the length necessary to cover the story of this period in American environmental history. Countless lengthy books have been written about the details of many of the episodes, such as passage of federal laws like the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), creation of agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency, and battles like those over plans to build a massive hydroelectric facility at Storm King Mountain in the Hudson River Valley, or a ski area in Mineral King Valley in California.

Silent Spring Revolution is comprehensive, narrative history, loosely organized chronologically. It is environmental and political history. In addition to the change of activists’ mission from conservation to environmentalism, other threads and trends woven through the book are the evolution of the environmental movement with creation of many new organizations during the Long Sixties, expansion of government involvement in environmental protection on many fronts, increasing efforts to protect both marine and freshwater shorelines beginning with Kennedy’s favorite on Cape Cod, and efforts to provide outdoor recreation opportunities to urban populations resulting in such additions to the National Park System as Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Point Reyes and Fire Island National Seashores, and the Chesapeake and Ohio National Historic Park, among others.

The three presidencies provide the structure of the narrative, and the presidents are obviously key players in the story. Other players given starring roles are Rachel Carson, Stewart Udall, and William O. Douglas. Carson’s role has been previously mentioned. Udall served as Interior Secretary for eight years in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations and was a key driver of many conservation and public lands initiatives in both administrations. Brinkley considers him the most effective Interior Secretary in American history and makes a strong case for this while recognizing that Udall had his blind spots on issues like dams on the Colorado River and the Central Arizona Project. As for Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, or “Bill” as Brinkley refers to him throughout the book as though he knew him personally, he pops up throughout the story, first as a friend of the Kennedy family and then as energetic and persistent critic of government environmental policies, or lack thereof. “Bill” advocated for many environmental causes from wilderness preservation to wild river protection, lacing on his hiking boots for long treks to publicize protection of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal and the Olympic coastal beaches. Fighting a proposed dam on the Potomac River, Douglas mounted another hike, and Brinkley writes “Once again, Douglas’s hike drew glowing press coverage; power brokers in baggy clothes and boots reciting Robert Frost poems such as ‘Spring Pools’ and ‘The Bear’ made for colorful copy.”

There are many “minor” characters in the story – all important but none as ubiquitous as Carson, Udall, and Douglas – David Brower of the Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth, eminent photographer and Sierra Club activist Ansel Adams, crusading scientist Barry Commoner, senators Gaylord Nelson, Frank Church, Ed Muskie, and Henry M. Jackson among them. Lady Bird Johnson receives much attention, traveling the country more than her husband advocating for special projects and the Johnson administration’s environmental initiatives. Brinkley writes,

Perhaps if Johnson had dubbed his management of natural resources “New Environmentalism,” instead of clinging to “conservation,” he’d be remembered now as one of the great public land and river protectors in US history. Lady Bird Johnson later claimed that it was Lyndon’s “White House boys” that wouldn’t allow her to use the word environment. The First Lady believed that only Lyndon could have built a congressional coalition around a series of environmental laws that made America a better place. Fortunately, Lyndon and Lady Bird, working in tandem, made conservation mainstream in the 1960s and prepared the ground for 1970s environmentalism; once that took hold, as Nixon soon found out, there was no turning back.

Brinkley, after exhaustively reviewing the conservation, or the environmental record of the Johnson administration, quite convincingly makes the case that Johnson deserves more credit than he was given when in office and now. He writes that “Because the environmental intelligentsia of America didn’t like Lyndon Johnson, rightfully blaming him for the mistaken Vietnam War, he never won awards from the Sierra Club or the National Audubon Society. ‘The men of ideas think little of me,’ he confided to the biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin a few years later, ‘they despise me.’” Udall, Lady Bird, and the many other players in the environmental politics of this period did much of the work, while Johnson gave them lead to do it, gave pro-conservation speeches, and signed the legislation. At the time, according to Brinkley, he didn’t do much to burnish his image as a conservationist.

Then came Richard Nixon, whom Brinkley characterizes as “an extremely transactional politician.” “Nixon,” writes Brinkley, “always harbored a suspicion that environmentalism was a left-wing attempt to ‘system destroy’ capitalism.” Conservation and environmentalism were not causes he embraced until he saw how he might benefit from doing so, but when he saw it as in his interest, he said the right things and signed the landmark environmental legislation that came to him. Brinkley writes, “Nixon, from 1969 to 1974 truly sought to return the Republican Party to the conservation tradition of Theodore Roosevelt when it came to natural resource management and environmental leadership. Where he suffered was that the press was always suspicious of his motives while never giving him proper coverage of his leadership regarding Golden Gate and Gateway National Recreation Areas, clean air, endangered species, and anti-pollution laws.” Much good environmental legislation passed during the Nixon years, and he signed it into law. He vetoed the Federal Water Pollution Control Act Amendments of 1972 only to be overridden by Congress. One of the attractions of this book is that the reader can digest this complex story of presidential influence in a period when environmental protection reached its highest point and then decide whether Brinkley is right to give the credit he does to Johnson and Nixon.

Brinkley admires John F. Kennedy and credits him with setting up the success of the Johnson administration on the environmental front which in turn made the achievements of the Nixon administration in this arena possible. The key moment, in Brinkley’s view, came on August 29, 1962, in a presidential press conference when Kennedy was asked a question about DDT. A reporter asked “Mr. President, there appears to be growing concern among scientists as to the possibility of long-range side effects from the widespread use of DDT and other pesticides. Have you considered asking the Department of Agriculture or the Public Health Service to take a closer look at this?”

After reading the New Yorker excerpts [of Silent Spring] along with the First Lady, Kennedy knew that Carson would receive an onslaught of abuse from the Big Chemical companies. At the White House press conference, he was ready. And that alone put the issue on a high policy level. What Kennedy said next put Silent Spring there, too. The president replied, “Yes, and I know they already are. I think particularly, of course, since Miss Carson’s book, but they are examining the matter.”

It was a crisp exchange, only a few lines. But it proved to be a turning point. New Frontier conservation began its transformation into what would become environmentalism, linking together public health, the balance of nature, wildlife protection, and objections to nuclear testing. By referring to the existence of government investigation into the poisoning of the environment by products that unassuming consumers used – and that Fortune 500 companies were manufacturing with the approval of the USDA and the Public Health Service – Kennedy’s utterance was brave. One would be hard pressed to find a precedent for it.

The Silent Spring Revolution began that day, in Brinkley’s view, and he explains how this proved to be so. It is quite a story.

The thoroughly documented tale told in this book will be familiar to some of the older generation who lived through it, and remarkable to later generations who know little or nothing about what happened in the postwar period and up to 1973. After reading the book one is compelled to ask what the American environmental situation today would be like had the “revolution” Brinkley describes not occurred. Some might think “revolution” too strong a term to apply to what happened since there are many risks to the environment and public health decades later. The job of environmental protection was not completed in the Long Sixties, but great strides were made. Were there no Wilderness Act, Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, Endangered Species Act, Clean Air Acts, Clean Water Act, NEPA, and EPA, and many other pieces of legislation of that time, the present environmental situation would be much worse, as it is in many other parts of the world today. Many of the current environmental battles are being fought over how and even whether to enforce the regulations that came out of legislation of those days. Many national seashores, lakeshores, recreation areas, and national parks enjoyed today might never have been achieved, pressed as they were, as Brinkley makes clear, by development. And, we might not have bald eagles, ospreys, brown pelicans, and many other species harmed by DDT and other pesticides had the Silent Spring Revolution not happened.

Many thanks to Douglas Brinkley for this book and those on TR and FDR. There is concern in this digital age that people lack the time and patience to read any books, let alone big ones like Silent Spring Revolution. But if one is interested in or concerned about the environment today, they will be richly rewarded by making the effort and taking the time to read these books. Perhaps “revolution” is the right term for the events described in this book because science, translated into literature by a writer of Rachel Carson’s ability, led to a political upheaval inconceivable during the Eisenhower years. What will it take today, with the crises of climate change and biodiversity loss, to spark another “revolution” resulting in a political, societal, and global action? The story told here is cause for hope that something – a book, a leader, a confluence of disasters or, as in the story in this book, all three – will provide such a spark.

Get your own copy of the book here:
Silent Spring Revolution: John F. Kennedy, Rachel Carson, Richard Nixon, and the Great Environmental Awakening

Spread Rewilding Around the Globe!
Subscribe To Comments On This Article
Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x