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

Image of Silent Spring Revolution: John F. Kennedy, Rachel Carson, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and the Great Environmental Awakening
Release Date: 
November 15, 2022
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“As its story unfolds from Kennedy to Johnson to Nixon, Silent Spring Revolution proves consistently captivating, and it takes its place alongside trilogy-mates The Wilderness Warrior and Rightful Heritage as an essential addition to 20th century presidential history . . .”

Douglas Brinkley’s Silent Spring Revolution forms the third installment in an expansive and revealing presidential history of the environmental movement in America in the 20th century. Just as the previous two volumes, Wilderness Warrior and Rightful Heritage focused on the conservationist impulses and efforts of Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, respectively, Silent Spring Revolution examines the environmental records of the three presidents of the “Long Sixties”—John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon—in contrast to the conservation-indifferent presidencies that preceded them (Harry Truman’s and Dwight Eisenhower’s) and the significant retreat that followed in the energy crisis that dominated the last year of Nixon’s presidency and complicated Jimmy Carter’s, and the aggressive environmental rollback of the Reagan years.

To a noticeable degree (though certainly to a lesser extent than in Wilderness Warrior), Brinkley’s gift for fashioning a rich and seamless narrative may give the impression to some readers that these presidents focused all of their energies on addressing environmental concerns, which is somewhat ironic, given that Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon are far less identified with conservationism and their love of the natural world than Theodore Roosevelt in particular. In fact, most biographies of these “Long Sixties” presidents (particularly Kennedy and Johnson) pay scant attention to their engagement with environmental issues, which is one reason why Silent Spring Revolution sheds so much new light on their presidencies.

Brinkley’s book is also susceptible to the trap that nearly any historian who brings Richard Nixon into his narrative risks falling into: Nixon, due his scheming, vindictiveness, and consuming paranoia, emerges as the most interesting character in the book and often overshadows the others.

That doesn’t quite happen here. In fact, with Nixon’s attention to the Endangered Species Act of 1973, which Brinkley acknowledges as possibly the first piece of environmental legislation signed with no concern for how it might benefit humans, Brinkley makes a convincing case that Nixon’s conservationist record was not only substantial, but in some instances driven by unimpeachable motives.

This is not to say that Nixon comes across as particularly non-Nixonian in Silent Spring Revolution. As early as the book’s preface, Brinkley unveils Nixon’s telltale logic for ordering, in June 1972, the dismissal of every environmental activist in the Environmental Protection Agency—an agency Nixon signed into being just 18 months earlier—in a meeting with presidential chief of staff H.R. Haldeman. “They believe in it [the environmental movement],” Nixon complained. “You can’t have an advocate dismantle something they believe in.”

Silent Spring Revolution takes its name from the work of the visionary marine biologist, conservationist, and nature writer Rachel Carson, whose 1962 book Silent Spring awoke a global audience to the catastrophic impact of pesticides such as DDT on the planet and its inhabitants, and perhaps more than any other single book or event set the modern environmental movement in motion. Published at a time when consideration the potential harmful effects of DDT and other chemicals largely took a back seat to their primary functions—in the scientific community as well as the business and political worlds—Silent Sprint swam largely against the tide and provoked tremendous backlash against the movement in general and Carson in particular, although it did have significant champions even before it appeared in bookstores.

Foremost among these proponents was Supreme Court Associate Justice William O. Douglas, who saw Silent Spring chapters in galleys. In addition to being a dynamic and colorful justice, Douglas was an unflinching, outspoken environmental activist and advocate, a conservationist mentor to the Kennedys, and a hero of Silent Spring Revolution much as in Brinkley’s 2011 book The Quiet World, which chronicled the decades-long battle to preserve Alaska’s wilderness (and something of a bridge between Rightful Heritage and Silent Spring Revolution).

Douglas among others helped tie the alarm Silent Spring sounded against pesticides to the contemporaneous threats of atmospheric and underwater nuclear testing and the unchecked growth of hydroelectric power without regard for its impact on rivers. “To Douglas,” Brinkley writes, “producers of synthetic chemicals, like the public works engineers, were hoodwinking Americans. ‘Those who doubt this thesis,’ [Justice Douglas] said, ‘should read Rachel Carson’s forthcoming book Silent Spring and learn how dangerously far the expert chemists have taken us toward ruination of the earth and its waters through poison.’” In recommending Silent Spring to the Book-of-the-Month Club, Justice Douglas heralded Silent Spring as nothing less than “the most important chronicle of this century for the human race.”

Other sometimes surprising figures that emerge as key players in the process of making environmental legislation national policy and the progression from conservation to preservation to environmentalism in the Long Sixties include Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall, Idaho Senator Frank Church, financier Laurance Rockefeller, Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson, antinuclear activist Coretta Scott King, labor organizer Cesar Chavez, Nixon White House Counsel and convicted Watergate conspirator John Ehrlichman, and biologist Barry Commoner, whom Time described in 1970 as the “Paul Revere of ecology” for exposing links between environmental and social and economic justice. Brinkley also describes how Martin Luther King became an early crusader for environmental justice, “rallying against toxic waste dumps and garbage incinerators in minority communities,” and linking it with racial and economic inequality much as Commoner did.

Fascinatingly, Brinkley reveals from the early stages of Silent Spring Revolution how many of the “New Frontiersmen” of the Kennedy and Johnson eras were drawn to environmental concerns, even as environmental priorities often lost out to oversold Cold War imperatives or passed only in tandem with dams and the like. Brinkley also documents how most of the key players in the story, however cognizant of the recklessly destructive implications of the bilateral nuclear testing program, failed to see the risks of implementing nuclear power on a grand scale.

Still, the three presidents stand at the center of the book, and Brinkley finds the impassioned conservationist in each of them, with Kennedy’s impulse stirred by his love of the ocean and the Cape Cod National Seashore initiative that emerged during his time in the Senate; Johnson’s lifelong devotion to the Texas Hill Country and Pedernales River (albeit best experienced from the comfort of his convertible and his custom-made amphibious vehicle); and Nixon’s determination to save marine animals and wildlife. 

Sometimes conservationist initiatives, like establishing the Redwood National Park in LBJ’s case, advanced these presidents’ re-election ambitions. At other times, as in the fight over the Clean Water Act in 1972, Nixon ignored his top advisors and shot his own conservationist legacy in the foot when he decided to veto the legislation rather than cede despised Democratic rival and principal sponsor Edmund Muskie a signature win. (Hours later, the Senate overrode Nixon’s veto 52-12.)

But Brinkley makes a compelling case for how much each of these presidents proclaimed and accomplished in support of conservationist causes, regardless of mixed motivations and at times with mixed results. All of LBJ’s biographers have highlighted his desire to elevate himself to equal footing with his political hero, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, through the triumph of his Great Society and War on Poverty programs. Brinkley also shows how much LBJ wanted to align his legacy with Wilderness Warrior Theodore Roosevelt, whom he quoted repeatedly his his landmark “To Renew a Nation” speech in March 1968, a “Special Message to the Congress on Conservation.” Brinkley writes, “It was as if Johnson painted the same dystopian landscapes in words that Rachel Carson had used in her opening fable in Silent Spring. It’s not unreasonable to claim that the voice of Carson had melded into that of LBJ. Both were visionary conservation leaders who espoused an American heritage of not only raw wilderness, clean shorelines, and unbroken forests but, as the president put it, ‘safe environment for the crowded city.’”

Johnson’s disastrous and expensive Vietnam policy overshadowed and limited his environmental legacy just as it did his social and economic programs. Whereas the youthful and energetic Kennedy “seemed to flood the nation’s capital with conservation ideas,” Johnson blundered badly when managing the optics of his environmental achievements, repeatedly failing to stage events around his conservationist legislation out in the wild country they preserved.

Given how much Johnson’s habitual lying about the Vietnam War did to erode trust in the presidency—not to mention his rampant and reckless use of harmful defoliants in the war effort—it’s not surprising that Americans don’t remember LBJ as a friend of the environment. Brinkley nonetheless maintains that “Johnson was the leader who established the era’s most important milestones in conservation, public health, and environmental protection. . . . [He] was one of the great American conservationist presidents, one who did not receive enough credit.”

Nixon, by contrast, proved adroit at taking credit for the conservationist policy initiated and advanced by the Democratic-majority Congresses with whom he battled throughout his presidency, although (as with the Clean Water Act debacle) he often tripped over his own personal vendettas. Nixon also remained convinced that the environmental movement was riddled with the familiar assortment of “commie pinko queers,” so he often found himself caught between policies he recognized as sound and just and his determination to subvert and discredit their most passionate advocates. As a result, Brinkley writes, “The president’s persistent cynicism about the environmental movement was in blinding contrast to his administration’s precedent-setting accomplishments in the field.”

If Nixon’s response to social movements in general might be critically summarized as defamation, sabotage, and no-knock armed invasion, the most charitable characterization of his approach might be (in much the manner of the Kennedy Justice Department and LBJ’s reliance on sweeping legislation) “just shut up and let me fix it.” Though no endorsement of this sentiment, Silent Spring Revolution is, first and foremost, a book about how presidential leadership addressed conservation problems among other competing national and international priorities in the Long Sixties, rather than a chronicle of contemporaneous popular movements to save the planet. Unlike complementary works such as Keith Makoto Woodhouse’s The Ecocentrists and Chad Montrie’s A People’s History of Environmentalism in the United States, the part of the “revolution” Douglas focuses on (in this book and in The Wilderness Warrior and Rightful Heritage) comes primarily from the top. Brinkley in no way minimizes the grassroots elements of the environmental movement, but as presidential history, that’s simply not the story Silent Spring Revolution tells.

The sheer abundance of congressional and presidential-level conservationist activity in the Nixon era makes Silent Spring Revolution’s Nixon chapters a source of constant fascination, as numerous successes like the first Earth Day, the National Environmental Policy Act, the establishment of the EPA, the Clean Air Act, Nixon’s Legacy of Parks initiative, the Federal Environmental Pesticide Control Act, and more, establish a record worlds apart from Republicans of the Reagan era and beyond—who found no room for even Nixon/Ehrlichman-style moderate conservationists in their “big tent.” Yet nearly every Nixon environmental win came about through some Machiavellian motivation or manipulation or defensive or retributive maneuver. As with all good Nixon books from Nixon Agonistes to Nixonland, these chapters make irresistible reading.

As its story unfolds from Kennedy to Johnson to Nixon, Silent Spring Revolution proves consistently captivating, and it takes its place alongside trilogy-mates The Wilderness Warrior and Rightful Heritage as an essential addition to 20th century presidential history and the saga of American environmentalism, from its Roosevelt-era origins to the Long Sixties transformations that laid the groundwork for fighting the existential global climate crisis we face today.