Rachel Carson and JFK, an Environmental Tag Team
One of John F. Kennedy’s favorite books was Henry David Thoreau’s Cape Cod, published in 1865. When in Washington, D.C., Kennedy, a yachtsman, always craved the Cape Cod winds and turbulent Atlantic waves. He restored his health sailing the Nantucket Sound waters around sandbars and shoals. The elemental forces of the sea helped Kennedy cope with the pain of Addison’s disease and cleared his mind of the clutter of retail politics. Kennedy understood exactly what Thoreau meant when the naturalist wrote about the Cape that “a man can stand there and put all of America behind him.”
On his bookshelf in Hyannis Port, alongside Cape Cod, sat two books by Rachel Carson: The Sea Around Us and The Edge of the Sea. When it came to conservation, only marine-related issues regularly caught Kennedy’s attention. In awe of the millions of shore, sea, and marsh birds that used the Cape as a stopover during their seasonal migrations, Kennedy, a Massachusetts Audubon Society supporter, wanted to make sure that the shoreline remained unsullied by industrialization. In this spirit, on September 3, 1959, Kennedy, then a member of the U.S. Senate, cosponsored the Cape Cod National Seashore bill with his Republican colleague Leverett Saltonstall. As a longtime resident of Hyannis Port, Kennedy had no detailed knowledge of the lower Cape area, but he routinely flew over it in helicopters as the seashore legislation circulated through Congress.
Running for president in 1960, Kennedy advocated saving seashores as wildlife refuges and recreational areas. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, a New Dealer and close Kennedy family friend, set the tone and tenor of JFK’s burgeoning environmentalism when he intoned at a Wilderness Conference in San Francisco that the “preservation of values which technology will destroy . . . is indeed the new frontier.”
Biologist Rachel Carson, working feverishly on her eco-manifesto Silent Spring throughout 1960, considered July 15—when Kennedy delivered his acceptance speech after winning the Democratic nomination for president and called for a “New Frontier” to reinvigorate the progressive, can-do spirit of America—a gold-starred day. Most political pundits heard only Kennedy’s vigorous lines about outfoxing the Soviet Union in the Cold War. But Kennedy—who had championed the Wilderness Bill that would eventually be signed into law by Lyndon Johnson, supported expanding bird sanctuaries and advocated the creation of new protected national seashores—offered a promise Carson found irresistible. He called for “mastery of the sky and rain, the oceans and the tides.”
Carson knew exactly what Kennedy meant by mastery: empowering biologists to help rescue America from environmental degradation. Certainly since 1945, the White House under Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower had been, at the most charitable, uninspiring on the conservation front, causing environmental activists to hope that another Theodore or Franklin D. Roosevelt would appear on the political horizon. Between 1945 and 1960 a string of multi-megaton thermonuclear detonations, all in the name of weapons supremacy vis-à-vis the Soviet Union, had released massive amounts of radioactive fallout in the atmosphere. During the Eisenhower era, America wasn’t just the preeminent superpower, it became the world’s leading hyper-industrial giant. This brought Americans a lot of economic lifestyle benefits. But it came at a high cost. The oceans were dying. Rainwater was unsafe to drink. “To dispose first and investigate later is an invitation to disaster,” Carson wrote around the time of Kennedy’s acceptance speech, “for once radioactive elements have been deposited at sea they are irretrievable. The mistakes that are made now are made for all time.”
Besides sounding the Paul Revere alarm about the pesticide DDT in Silent Spring, Carson also promoted nuclear non-proliferation, even dedicating the book to Albert Schweitzer, who had won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952 for his efforts to end the atomic arms race. Carson, one of the best marine biologists alive, feared the oceans would be poisoned beyond redemption in the coming decades, and that a point of no return was fast approaching. The thought of Kennedy in the White House—a new Roosevelt—lifted her hopes that aboveground nuclear testing would be banned. (Her dream came true in August 1963, when Kennedy signed the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty with the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union.)
In the spring of 1960 Carson, even while struggling with breast cancer, viral pneumonia, and ulcers, had signed up to be a New Frontier foot soldier in solidarity with the Kennedy family and Justice Douglas. Only her assistant Jeanne Davis understood how debilitating her health problems were. This was Carson’s big secret. As Linda Lear stressed in Witness to Nature, Carson had to conceal her illness, even wearing a wig when her hair started falling out during chemotherapy, for fear of the chemical companies attacking her Silent Spring research by saying, “She’s dying of cancer and wants to blame the pesticides.”