top of page

Silent Spring Revolution: Book Review

Silent Spring Revolution: John F. Kennedy, Rachel Carson, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and the Great Environmental Awakening (2022), Douglas Brinkley. This is a long book, well researched by Brinkley. His heart favors the environmentalists. Granted, the extreme industrialists like oil and gas and chemical companies could behave in evil ways. The plan was to write about the impact of Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon, with Nixon called “a reluctant environmentalist.” Nixon did create the EPA, NOAA, and OSHA.

Thoreau: “In wildness is the preservation of the world,” and “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately.”

In this telling, Rachel Carson more or less started it all, eventually with Silent Spring on the environmental harm of DDT. The focus became increasingly political and expanded to include virtually all environmental and ecological issues. After World War II, the interest of presidents was economic growth and progress. The war was over and GIs and everyone else wanted to reap the rewards of “victory for democracy.” [That included my dad returning from the Army Air Corps.]

The problem was lack of focus on environmental damage and any other “externalities” and “unintended causes.”

Brinkley did claim: “I’m not here to demonize the petroleum industry, the Bureau of Reclamation, the Forest Service, or the Army Corps of Engineers as greedheads” (xxv). Median Voter Guy question: what is the tradeoff between economic growth and all the unintended causes? A developing successful middle class but not at the price of smog or polluted rivers. There was plenty of pushback: anti-regulatory rhetoric by chambers of commerce, Business Roundtable, and right-wing thinktanks like Cato, Heritage Foundation, and AEI. Claims included the end of free-market capitalism and tree-hugging pinko commies.

Enter Rachel Carson. “Sixty years ago, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring exposed the dangers of pesticides, turned environmentalism into a public health crusade, and helped galvanize a whole new generation of green activists” (p. xiii). In 1969 Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River caught fire (once again), emphasizing the need.

Part I: Proto Environmentalists (1945-1959). Chapter 1: The Ebb and Flow of John F. Kennedy. Kennedy liked the ocean around Hyannis port. FDR claimed conservation was a boon to the economy and provided work relief to plant trees and so for the CCC. William O Douglas was a Kennedy friend and conservation supporter, becoming SEC chair then supreme court justice. Kennedy gained fame from PT-109 collision with Japanese destroyer and survival.

Chapter 2: Harry Truman: Polluted and Radiated America. WWII ended after the atomic bombs was dropped on Japan, then the Cold War with the USSR. The US dominated and led the battle against Russia. Nuclear energy would be abused both for war (uranium and detonations) and civilian uses (nuclear waste and pollution, plus catastrophe) under Atomic Energy Commission. Harold Ickes was Interior Secretary and champion of conservation. Truman favored economic growth over conservatism, including “controlling nature,” consolidating farming to industrial agriculture relying on chemical fertilizers and pesticides, more coal, oil and gas. Fracking was pioneered by Halliburton using napalm and gasoline to explode underground. It was full employment and industrial development, plus needed lumber, unfortunately using clear-cutting.

People wanted outdoor recreation; not the same as protecting wilderness. Truman opened public lands to extraction, creating the Bureau of Land Management (the federal government owns about a third of the US land), which was more of a friend to Chambers of Commerce than ecologists. Marjory Stoneman Douglas pushed to protect the Everglades. Everglades National Park was opened in 1947. Smog became an issue, establishing the link between pollution and disease. Corporate power of intimidation continued strong, an “iron triangle of government, industry, and science”—playing down public health concerns. Kennedy became an anti-air pollution leader.

Eco-friendly groups included the Sierra Club (1892), safeguarding national parks; National Audubon Society (1940) protecting birds; National Wildlife Federation (1936) for wildlife protection.

Chapter 3: Rachel Carson and the Shore of the Sea. Rachel Carson worked at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution near Hyannis Port as a researcher. She was hired as a biologist for the Bureau of Fisheries in Washington (FWS). She was a great writer and published articles on tidal pools, surface waters, and the seafloor. She appreciated Albert Schweitzer and his “compassion for everything” and reverence for life. Carson wrote Under the Sea-Wind about the mid-Atlantic Coast and the life cycles of ocean creatures (sanderling, mackerel, and eel). She also started her protests against DDT which poisoned animals: a problem groups like farmers considered it a panacea.

Barry Commoner was a cellular physiologist and had experience with DDT during WWII—which was adverse. Scientists were making untenable claims to advance their careers and make money. Carson wrote a series of FWS booklets on wildlife refuges. City dumps destroyed wildlife, were wiping out natural resources, and had public health issues. Carson’s The Sea Around Us was published in 1951 and seashore protection became Carson’s job. She was fighting against commercial developers.

Chapter 4: William O. Douglas and the Proto-environmentalists. “Kennedy was hard to pigeonhole. He was apparently guided by his father’s advice: ‘Can’t you get it into your head that it’s not important what you really are? The only important thing is what people think you are. … Bobby was more into the fight for wilderness, ecosystems, and the like. Jack was about living in a clean, decent country” (p. 65-66). Jacques Cousteau introduced underwater diving. The science of ecology (the term ecosystem was coined in 1935) started in the 1950s in universities. Professor Eugene Odum believed ecology drove nature with evolution being secondary.

Douglas had a passion for wilderness protection. Auto sales boomed, with the oil industry unprepared for the explosion of demand for oil products. Then smog, like in Los Angeles, which became a public policy issue there. Then “Killer Fog of 1952” in London. Congress passed the Air Pollution Control Act in 1955. Douglas did not like that the Dept. of Agriculture and Corps of Engineers had no ecological accountability. He also emphasized direct action like walking to C&O Canal, which Eisenhower designated as a national monument. Nuclear weapons grew to about 20,000 under Eisenhower. Chemist Linus Pauling estimated that 10,000 people died of leukemia because of aboveground nuclear testing.

Chapter 5: Wilderness Politics, Dinosaur National Monument, and the Nature Conservancy. Eisenhower’s first Secretary of the Interior was “Giveaway” Douglas McKay, a front-man for business: timber, oil, gas, and mining, with a goal of privatizing public land. Dams were major projects (electricity versus nature). Eisenhower did ban dams in national parks. Uranium led to radiation issues near mining sites. Army Corp of Engineers’ motto was “controlling nature” like dams, not protecting nature.

Nature Conservancy formed in 1951 to buy nature’s beauty and protect it from commercialization, now some 120 million acres and 5,000 miles of rivers worldwide. That helped save sandhill cranes. “To many Indigenous people, mountains, lakes, soil, earth, skies, wind, and waterways were sacred” (p. 113). One fight was leaving nature in pristine condition versus amenities for tourists and auto use.

Chapter 6: Saving Shorelines. Rachel Carson finished The Edge of the Sea in 1955 on marine mysteries along the Atlantic coast. What is the balance between habitat protection and economic development? Eisenhower was funding the Interstate Highway System, with externalities of flooding, runoff, and weeds. Drivers added litter. Laurance Rockefeller invented the idea of ecotourism. Kennedy wanted federal action to clean up pollution.

Chapter 7: Protesting Plastics, Nuclear Testing, and DDT. Barry Commoner became a proponent of anti-nuclear testing and anti-DDT activist. WWII increased chemical manufacturing, especially DDT; also, synthetic rubber, plastics (not biodegradable), phosphates, other pesticides, and artificial fibers derived from coal tar: “better things for better living through chemistry.” Linus Pauling warned about the fallout from nuclear testing. In the McCarthyite era, Pauling was called a Communist. Carson’s discontent with DDT started in 1945 based on wildlife research, like the mass killing of robins and falcons. Douglas also pointed out problems with drinking milk and eating sprayed foods. EO Wilson noted how pesticides alter insect life cycles.

Part II: John Kennedy’s New Frontier (1961-3). Chapter 8: Forging the New Frontier: Stewart Udall and Lyndon Johnson. Udall was secretary of the interior 1961-9. Kennedy had a progressive conservation agenda. Udall was elected to Congress and served on the House Interior and Insular Affairs Committee, which included western issues. Kennedy and Udall became allies in 1959. Arguments about wilderness and clean air and water were resonating. Nixon was in the Eisenhower camp of economic growth. Kennedy won [but I recall questionable vote counts in Chicago and Texas].

Carson became a Democratic ally, introducing habitat, reverence for life, ecosystem, endangered species, DDT poisoning, and strontium 90. Pollution control and curtailing pesticides, and national seashores were her major issues. Henry (Scoop) Jackson and Frank Church were senators favoring the environment.

Executives of Solvay Process, the chief corporate polluter in the country, lived in swank houses overlooking the dead body of water, even as their company’s waste, including PCBs, gushed into it. There was no shame, there was no shock. Effectively, every city had a horribly polluted body of water attached to it” (p. 158).

Chapter 9: Wallace Stegner’s ‘Wilderness Letter.’ “Measure the world in its natural balance against the world in its man’s-made imbalance” (p. 184), a moral underpinning for the Wilderness Bill. Brinkley compared Udall at Interior to FDR’s Harold Ickes. Interior: 760 million acres of federal land with 55,000 employees. “Pacific Northwest timber barons, working in sync with the Forest Service, dominated the forests like a colony of termites, illegally cutting down trees in the park” (p. 193).

Chapter 10: The Green Face of America. Mo Udall served in the House, prioritizing ecology. Douglas: “We deal with values that no dollars can measure” (p. 199). National seashore status for Cape Cod versus rights of homeowners and business. Declared in 1961. Reference to Thoreau’s “Walking” viewing people as part of nature. The world as more beautiful than useful.

Chapter 11: Rachel Carson, the Laurence Rockefeller Report, and Kennedy’s Science Curve. “The New Frontier got it: nothing in nature was independent of all else” (p. 218). Technology made dams easier to build, but no environmental impact was considered. DDT, nuclear fallout, water pollution, smog: the industrial attack on nature. Environmentalism as preservation and the complex web of ecological interactions. Centered on Kansas, prairie land was replaced by wheat a thousand miles in every direction. Beginning with Kennedy more emphasis on civil rights including indigenous people. Indian land not subject to environmental protections, like uranium mining or nuclear detonations. Roger Revelle studies CO2 in oceans and the atmosphere for the Scripps Institution. The first paper was in 1957 on the impact on global climate.

Chapter 12: The White House Conservation Conference (May 24-5, 1962). Republicans in two camps: wilderness proponents versus mining and logging proponents. Wayne Aspinall, chairman of interior affairs committee, favored ranchers and oil and gas. In 1962 the Bureau of Sport Fisheries & Wildlife spend $150,000 in poisons which killed 450 tons of fish. Some 250,000 rivers in the US, which conservationists wanted protected. Politically, conservation was drifting to liberal Democrats—pro-environment regulators versus laissez-faire capitalism. Walter Reuther favored environmental quality and pollution control.

Chapter 13: Rachel Carson’s Alarm. Various scientists and government people wanted DDT and downplayed environmental concerns for “the gospel of technological progress.” Carson developed a strong case for regulating pesticides, including “the obligation to endure,” at risk by poisons and radiation. The chemical company threatened to sue the publishing company. Robert Caro discovered the relationship between the USDA and pesticide industry.

Kennedy and New Frontier conservationists linked public health, balance of nature, wildlife protection, and nuclear testing problems. Chemical companies called Kennedy an East Coast elitist, Carson as a hysterical pseudoscientist and nature freak: “priestess of nature, hysterical woman, member of mystical cult” (p. 264).

Chapter 14: Point Reyes (California) and Padre Island (Texas) National Seashores. Saving Padre Island, a barrier strip of white sand and shifting dunes, was difficult. LBJ opposed it. The Army was holding bombing practices. Ralph Yarborough wanted it, included to save the Kemp’s ridley turtle. It passed in 1962. An endowment was set up by journalist Ed Harte for TAMU Corpus Christi as a marine institute.

Chapter 15: Campaigns to Save the Hudson River and Bodega Bay. Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. Many of the men making waves had enormous egos. Women’s movements started to have a voice, with the lack of “ego baggage” including Coretta Scott King. Con Ed wanted a huge hydroelectric plant on the Hudson River, a major confrontation in the 1960s. Opponents noted that the Hudson was an ecological wonderland. They won.

Senator Gaylord Nelson was a co-founder of Earth Day in 1970. Nelson and George McGovern were both first elected to the Senate in 1962. A national conference was held in 1962 on air pollution, which noted that oil and gas were the worst polluters. The dilemma of nuclear as an electricity source.

Chapter 16: The Tag Team of John Kennedy, Stewart Udall, and Rachel Carson. AEC started to analyze nuclear fallout because people were getting cancer and other diseases. Schweitzer: “Man has lost the capacity to foresee and to forestall” (p. 301). Carson versus scientists viewing DDT as a solution, not a problem. Her focus was the entire ecosystem. By 1963 came the label “tree hugger.” In 1963 80 million kilograms of DDT were sprayed in the US.

Chapter 17: The Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. From 1951-8 70 nuclear tests at the Nevada Test Site, after 70 in the South Pacific after WWII. Then 135 in two years beginning in 1961. Reporters mislead public claiming no fallout. Khrushchev agreed to limited inspections for a test ban treaty, with Averell Harriman to represent the US in negotiations. A deal was made in 1963, ratified by the Senate 80-19. Unfortunately, the US started conducting underground tests, some 713 from 1963-92.

Part III: The Environmentalism of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon (1963-1973). Chapter 18: JFK’s Last Conservation Journey. Kennedy: an obligation for a beautiful country. National seashores: Cape Cod, Point Reyes, Padge Island. Problems: pesticides, water pollution, soil erosion, habitat destruction, and lack of open spaces. Indigenous lands: not much interest in tribal lands. Carson defined ecology as “a science focused on the interconnectedness of organisms and their ecosystem” (p. 346). Kennedy administration ended November 22, 1963.

Chapter 19: The Mississippi Fish Kill, the Clean Air Act, and American Beautification. Mississippi under ecological assault, with dying fish (pesticide endrin from a Memphis factory). Chemical companies used 3.7 trillion gallons of water for manufacturing with no regulation of discharge. “LBJ was not known as a friend to environmental causes” (p. 353). LBJ was bitter about Kennedy and his crowd (“Georgetown crowd”). Udall urged him to surpass JFK in conservation policies. Clean Air Act passed. California set auto emissions standards including catalytic converters. Would LBJ be a visionless powerbroker? Like Robert Moses, a New York builder insensitive to poor people. Similar for Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway laying cement from coast to coast not considering natural preservation.

Chapter 20: The Great Society: Rachel Carson and Howard Zahniser’s Legacies. Carson died in 1964. “Thoreau is credited with making the nature essay a literary form … Rachel Carson has done the same for the science book” (p. 367). Fast progress with the potential for destruction or preservation of the earth. Insect management should not ravage the rest of nature. Environmental law did not exist. Lawsuits required tangible property losses. LBJ came up with the Great Society, including the Civil Rights Act, War on Poverty, Medicare and Medicaid, and more. Problem that so many people believed everything was available to exploit.

Chapter 21: The Wilderness Act of 1964. The post-war economy constantly needed more lumber, minerals, and oil. Wilderness was in the way. Wilderness or dams. Ogden Nash: “I think that I shall never see / a billboard lovely as a tree / Indeed, unless the billboards fall /I’ll never see a tree at all” (p. 405).

Chapter 22: Ending the Bulldozing of America. LBJ defeated Goldwater 486-52 and had large majorities in both houses, promising a Great Society agenda. Water Quality Act in 1965 before the Clean Water Act of 1972. Then auto emission standards for 1968. Like chemical companies with Carson, auto companies tried to discredit Ralph Nader. But resentment over the war in Vietnam. Lady Bird focused on Highway Beautification Act.

Chapter 23: America’s Natural Heritage: Cape Lookout, Big Bend, the Grand Canyon. There was “an unprecedented environmental crisis. Treasured landscapes had been compromised by synthetic pesticides, industrial debris, poor planning, and pollution of every type” (p. 436). Rivers had untreated raw sewage dumped, leading to the Water Pollution Control Act of 1965, which authorized sewage treatment facilities. William Ruckelshaus favored the legislation as an environmental attorney. Johnson’s effectiveness was overshadowed by Vietnam. Chavez was an advocate in charge of the United Farm Workers. Pesticides were a health hazard to the farm workers.

Chapter 24: Defenders: Historical Preservation, Endangered Species, and Bedroll Scientists. Various legislation to assist specific wildlife and habitat.

Chapter 25: Sue the Bastards and Environmental Justice. Some 16,000 pesticides used in California. 14 nuclear power stations were operational by 1967. DDT was still legal.

Chapter 26: The Unraveling of America, 1968. “LBJ got it completely right about environmental stewardship but was all wrong about Vietnam” (p. 508). That included Native American equality, creating the National Council on Indian Opportunity. Nixon became the Republican candidate in 1968, facing Humphrey. Nixon’s environmental advisor was John Ehrlichman, who would become chief domestic advisor. Russell Train undersecretary of the interior. The Democratic Convention was in Chicago, causing bloody riots in Richard Daley’s city, the year of assassinations of MLK and RFK.

Chapter 27: Lyndon Johnson: Champion of Wild Rivers and National Scenic Trails. “Forest Bills” passed in 1968, wilderness lobby still alive. Dams banned from designated sections of rivers. National Trails System Act, many following CCC firefighting trails, Lewis and Clark, Trail of Tears.

Chapter 28: Taking Stock of New Conservation Wins. Nixon won over Humphrey. Barry Commoner: “The proper use of science is not to conquer nature, but to live within its scope” (p. 554). Russell Train led EPA 1973-77.

Chapter 29: Santa Barbara, the Cuyahoga River, and the National Environmental Policy Act. Nixon did conservation things (“wax and wane”) mainly out of political calculations. It started with a major oil spill off Santa Barbara. Union Oil president Fred Hartley’s response: “I am amazed at the publicity for the loss of a few birds” (p. 565). The spill became a battle cry for industrial pollution. Nixon: “Santa Barbara touched the consciences of the American people” (p. 570).

Also in 1969, the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland again caught fire. “Suffering through racial violence, high crime rates, and a shrinking economy, Cleveland was still a great manufacturing metropolis. … The Cuyahoga had long been treated as a sewage canal for industrial debris. … Lake Erie appeared to be dying” (p. 572). Ditto, Buffalo, Toledo, and Detroit. Cleveland: mistake on the lake. Cleveland passed a $100 million bond bill for environmental cleanup. Many cleanup efforts followed, especially around the Great Lakes. Time magazine listed severely polluted waterways with multiple rivers on it. Nixon would pass the EPA and Clean Water Act. Of course, Armstrong and Aldrin landed on the moon.

Chapter 30: Generation Earth Day, 1970-1971. National Environmental Policy Act of 1970 made environmental impact important. Earth Day protests against commercial developments started at universities. Joni Mitchell added Big Yellow Taxi including “they paved paradise / and put up a parking lot.” Napalm and chemical defoliants in Vietnam, then Kent State shooting. The EPA was created to consolidate programs regulating pollution, forests, dam building, and so on. William Ruckelshaus was the first director, a terrific administrator, creating clear goals and procedures. Marine scientist Sylvia Earle would become chief scientist of NOAA.

EPA determined 85% of water pollution came from point sources like sewage treatment or industrial discharge. Congresspeople were in league with oil and gas (anti-greens) and considered environmental issues an electoral loser or pro-environment. Indian tribes were treated better under Nixon including self-determination. Clean Air Act reduced car pollution including lead. OSHA also created in 1970.

Famous add featuring Iron Eyes Cody, who was in fact an Italian wearing a wig and makeup.

Chapter 31: Nixon’s Environmental Activism of 1972: The Great Lakes Protection, the DDT Ban, and the Stockholm Conference. Nixon was paranoid: “You better watch out for those craze enviros. They’re a bunch of commie pinko queers” (p. 629). Nixon was cynical but his administration had precedent-setting accomplishments. Republicans were anti-regulatory, but EPA worked on meeting EPA standards. Nixon visited China and signed an Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. The Buffalo Creek West Virginia flood was a 1972 catastrophe, with coal slurry devasting multiple coal towns. Pittston ignored government regulations, increasing black lung and coal-gas explosions.

DDT was still not banned, with it allowed for some uses. It was finally banned in the 1980s. Bird populations recovered with the ban. UN-sponsored Earthwatch was a global network for monitoring environmental problems in 1972.

Nixon won in a landslide in 1972 over McGovern.

Epilogue. Last Leaves on the Tree. Nixon as a transactional politician. Nixon tried to navigate Watergate including the Saturday Night Massacre, firing the special prosecutor and more. He ended Vietnam, shrank government costs, and a nuclear arms deal, supplied Israel in Six-Day War. Too late. Nixon resigned in August 1974.

Corporations were demonized as super-polluters (still). Instead of correcting the problems, they attacked the environmentalists as kooks, hippies, mystics, tree huggers. Earl Butz and Pete Peterson started advising Nixon, with no interest in the environment. OPEC started an oil embargo. Speed limit set at 55. Time to blame the EPA.

Reagan won the 1980 election and environmentalism stopped in the GOP—ecology types were socialist fools. Corporate allies tried to undue it all. Oil and gas prospered.

bottom of page