Book review of Silent Spring Revolution: John F. Kennedy, Rachel Carson, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and the Great Environmental Awakening by Douglas Brinkley


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United Nations Secretary General António Guterres recently declared that the Earth was on “a highway to climate hell.” In “Silent Spring Revolution,” a panoramic history of environmental politics from 1960 to 1973, Douglas Brinkley describes a more hopeful age when awareness of ecological degradation was rising and government and activists were recognizing the need to act together to save the nation’s natural resources and defend the public’s health. Rather than take readers on a path to a Hieronymus Bosch landscape, Brinkley’s book recounts a decade-plus in which liberal action tackled some of the forerunners to our current environmental crises. The narrative captures an extended moment when the federal government implemented a host of laws, rules and regulations to protect rivers, seashores, oceans, parks, the air and wildlife. It was an era when a united effort established the public protections that remain in force today, even if entrenched climate deniers now hinder significant progress in meeting the challenges.

During the 1960s and ’70s, environmental problems demanded national attention. Crises were metastasizing, threatening the lives of Americans and endangering what President John Kennedy called “America the beautiful” during a conservation tour in September 1963. After JFK’s assassination, President Lyndon Johnson took up the mantle, warning Americans on his way to a landslide election victory in 1964: “The water we drink, the food we eat, the very air that we breathe are threatened with pollution. Our parks are overcrowded, our seashores overburdened. Green fields and dense forests are disappearing.”

Unrestrained consumption, technological wizardry and unchecked growth were assaulting the nation’s natural resources. During the early Cold War, ecologically minded citizens, Brinkley writes in his absorbing account, were “shouting into a maelstrom of commercialism.” President Dwight Eisenhower established the interstate highway system in 1956, a step that virtually guaranteed an emissions-heavy future. Federally controlled nuclear testing in Nevada put strontium-90, radioactive isotopes, into the nation’s rivers and soil, while the Army Corps of Engineers embarked on a dam-building spree that provided hydroelectric power to Westerners living in newly built suburbs but also destroyed rivers and habitats. DDT, a chemical spray used to kill crop-eating pests, was ubiquitous. (One university scientist, so sure that DDT was benign, at the beginning of each term’s class poured the chemical in his coffee and drank it in front of a roomful of students, Brinkley reports.)

“Silent Spring Revolution” is the third in a trilogy of books by Brinkley examining the intersection of presidential leadership and environmental politics; the first two covered Teddy, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. In this last volume, the most intriguing theme — and the reason the politics here seem so distant from our own — is the way that activists formed connections with presidents, environmental scientists and lawyers to build a nascent eco-consciousness. The result was a mass movement demanding vast changes in the nation’s environmental laws and attitudes, a movement to defend “the entire system of life on earth.” In contrast to our own time, this “protoenvironmentalism” wedded a politics of idealism to expansive notions of nonmaterialistic progress; a faith in the federal government to act responsibly in the national interest dovetailed with a liberal pragmatism. This movement was unapologetically pro-government, pro-science, pro-facts, and it revered nature as a spiritual home. Activism on the ground and leadership at the top defined these years, and often, the roles of politician and activist became indistinguishable.

The results were impressive. Raised in the sagebrush town of St. Johns, Ariz., and fond of “a rugged outdoors life,” Stewart Udall used his time as interior secretary from 1961 to 1969 to help create 64 new National Park areas, a record sum. Richard Nixon’s chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality, Russell Train, was an expert on flora and fauna and a former director of the World Wildlife Fund who fell in love with wildlife while on safaris in Africa. Train became an “endangered species zealot,” shepherding landmark reforms into law during the early 1970s. Rachel Carson was the unofficial leader of them all, an ecologist whose brilliant prose, scientific precision and Thoreau-like spiritualism enabled the publication of her blockbuster book “Silent Spring” in 1962, exposing DDT as toxic to human health and revolutionizing how many Americans regarded their relationship to the natural world.

American culture became more attuned to the process of degradation during the 1960s. Organizations such as the Sierra Club; the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy, known as SANE (and opposed to nuclear testing); and others massed protests against foul rivers and despoiled forests and polluted air. They drew the news media’s attention to environmental causes. At the same time, many Republican and Democratic leaders used their personal experiences as a springboard for environmental action. The Kennedys adored the ocean; the Johnsons loved the Texas Hill Country. Nixon, a California native, devoted one-third of his 1970 State of the Union address to environmental themes.

During the Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon administrations, a set of reforms came into being, establishing laws, rules and agencies as a defense against growing ecological threats. These steps yielded real progress. The Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty eliminated atmospheric nuclear testing. The U.S. government reversed itself and virtually abolished the use of DDT and other cancer-causing pesticides.

The combined record of three very different presidents is stunning, especially in light of today’s relative paralysis in the face of climate change. Taken together, JFK, LBJ and Nixon won passage of and signed into law the Water Quality Act, the Highway Beautification Act, the National Historic Preservation Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, the National Wilderness Preservation System and multiple endangered-species laws. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, more than 200 national wildlife refuges, and national parks and many national seashores were all established during their tenures. And that’s just a partial list of the environmental wins from that era.

Many Americans came to understand that protecting the environment was important not only to maintain the country’s natural beauty but also to protect their health, the economy and access to recreation. Brinkley’s book is a useful reminder that many Americans viewed the federal government as a reliable ally that traded in facts, championed science and enacted common-sense regulations to protect the planet. “Silent Spring Revolution” also reads as a paean to the individuals, movements and politicians who saw federal intervention as the necessary solution to address the myriad environmental crises triggered by the modern industrial system.

There are a few off-key notes. The book paints Big Oil and other large polluters, along with some government agencies, with a flat brush; these private- and public-sector entities are described simply as pro-pollution. One wonders if there were voices of dissent in the private sector, or how chief executives responded to the environmentalists with anything other than recalcitrance. At times, puzzles remain unanswered. The left criticized LBJ’s war in Vietnam as both a human and ecological catastrophe, but it’s not clear how Johnson attempted to square his brilliant record of environmental protection at home with his desecration of the natural resources of Vietnam. Robert F. Kennedy is depicted as a whitewater-rafting enthusiast and steward of the planet. His son, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who makes a minor appearance in these pages, became an environmental lawyer and activist but later took on a role as a leading anti-science, anti-vaccine voice, an evolution that isn’t mentioned in the book.

Overall, “Silent Spring Revolution” is an impassioned narrative that transports readers to a different, more optimistic world of popular support for eco-awareness and collective action. It is a book that sticks with you. By rendering a time when citizens believed in the nation’s ability to respond to environmental crises with smart national policies, and by portraying the federal government as a pro-planetary powerhouse, Brinkley’s book implies that the “highway to climate hell” is far from our only choice.

Matthew Dallek is a historian and professor of political management at George Washington University. His book “Birchers: How the John Birch Society Radicalized the American Right,” will be published in March.

John F. Kennedy, Rachel Carson, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and the Great Environmental Awakening

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