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Douglas Brinkley on America’s ‘Silent Spring Revolution’

The noted historian traces the "great environmental awakening" of the mid-20th century for a Hatfield Lecture Series audience.

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Historian Douglas Brinkley spoke in Portland on the “great environmental awakening.”

In a far-reaching and in-depth talk on Tuesday at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, historian Douglas Brinkley discussed his book Silent Spring Revolution, the third installment of his history of the environmental movement in the United States during the twentieth century. 

The previous two volumes, The Wilderness Warrior and Rightful Heritage, focused on the conservation efforts of Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Brinkley’s ability to keep the attention of his audience with his wonderful story-telling ability makes him one of the top historians today.

Silent Spring Revolution explores the environmental record of three presidents during the twentieth century: John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Richard M. Nixon. In contrast to the presidencies of their predecessors Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower, who were indifferent to environmental concerns, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon were much more progressive with their stance toward environmental pollution. Brinkley traces this environmental movement from its beginning in 1945 to 1973.

According to Brinkley, whose Portland talk was part of the Hatfield Lecture Series presented by the Oregon Historical Society, what started the environmental movement in the twentieth century was the work of the noted biologist Rachel Carson, who noticed in the 1950s the harmful effects of DDT and nuclear testing on wildlife, humans, and the nation’s food supply. 

DDT was called the “miracle of World War II,” because it protected American soldiers from ticks, fleas, and mosquitos during the war. After the war it was adopted by big agriculture and sprayed extensively on food supplies in the United States and worldwide to eliminate pests. The result was an increase of cancer and the detection of Strontium 90 in the nation’s milk supply from the use of DDT and nuclear testing.

Agribusiness opposed Carson’s ideas about DDT, and so she began to write about the oceans. Eventually, Carson’s books on the ocean and conservation articles caught the attention of Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas (a close Kennedy family friend and mentor), who began to advocate for her ideas on the environment.

In addition, President Kennedy’s mother, Rose, read Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring and persuaded her son to read the book. After reading Carson’s book, President Kennedy began to see the need to preserve the environment. He was successful in getting Congress to pass legislation that preserved national seashores at Cape Cod in Massachusetts, Cape Reyes in California, and Padre Island in Texas. Kennedy also felt the need to eliminate nuclear testing, which resulted in the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (1963). 

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The publication of Carson’s book was extremely controversial, according to Brinkley, and provoked a negative response from the chemical industry. Kennedy formed a blue-ribbon committee that focused on Carson’s findings, and that found her to be correct. The committee recommended regulation of DDT, which was finally banned in 1972.

 After JFK’s assassination in 1963, President Johnson assumed Kennedy’s mantle on the environment. Johnson, who wanted to be remembered as one of the great protectors of public lands and rivers, called his management of natural resources “New Environmentalism.” He was persuaded to keep Kennedy’s excellent Secretary of the Interior, Stewart Udall. Johnson’s wife, Lady Bird, and Udall traveled to many primitive areas and scenic rivers in the United States.

Brinkley believes that Johnson did in fact become an environmental president, realizing the passage of the Wilderness Act (1964), the establishment of Canyonlands, North Cascades, and Redwood national parks, and passage of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. Johnson was also important in helping to create the environmental justice movement during this time, Brinkley said, alongside notables as Martin Luther King Jr., Cesar Chavez, and Dolores Huerta, who believed that poor people and people of color were oftentimes exposed to more pollution and poorer environmental conditions than their white counterparts. The culmination of the environmental justice movement, Brinkley noted, was the passage of the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act.

When Richard Nixon became president in 1969, Brinkley said, he, too, wanted to be an environmental president. One of his first hires was environmental lawyer John Ehrlichman, who had made a name for himself in the Puget Sound area. During Nixon’s administration, Brinkley declared, Ehrlichman was an “environmental unsung hero.” 

Eight days into Nixon’s administration a massive oil spill hit Santa Barbara, California, and Nixon’s wealthy Republican donors wanted him to do something about the spill to protect their homes in the area. In addition, a fire broke out on the heavily polluted Cuyahoga River in Ohio, a disaster that  Nixon blamed on former President Johnson. In response to these two events the Nixon administration signed many environmental bills into law, including the National Environmental Policy Act (1970), the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (1970), the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Environmental Protection Act.

By 1973, Brinkley said, this environmental movement in the United States had run its course. Due to the influence of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring the administrations of Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon together were responsible for the passage of numerous bills that banned the use of DDT, stopped nuclear testing, and led to the creation of numerous national parks, recreation areas and seashores, as well as the protection of endangered species. 

With climate change and other compelling issues, of course, environmental concerns are far from over in the 21st century. Brinkley concluded his talk by encouraging all citizens to get involved by joining groups such as the Nature Conservancy, and to remain upbeat and positive with regard to ongoing environmental efforts to improve life in the United States, adding that Americans have to consider new ways to think and reimagine America’s past.

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Portland Center Stage at the Armory Quixote Nuevo Portland Oregon

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Photo Joe Cantrell

William C. Stack has been an educator for 37 years, teaching history during that time with a focus on U.S. history and world history. He also worked for the Pew Charitable Trust. Mr. Stack earned his undergraduate degree in history and a master’s degree from the University of Portland. He earned two fellowships to study American history at Oxford University and was a recipient of a Fulbright Teacher Exchange award. Mr. Stack has written several articles and a book about various aspects of American and Pacific Northwest history: Historical Photos of Oregon (2010), John Adams (2011), George Flavel (2012) and Glenn Jackson (2014).

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