Rachel Carson and JFK, an Environmental Tag Team
On the 50th anniversary of Silent Spring's publication, a best-selling historian shows the extent to which John Kennedy and his administration defended Rachel Carson's controversial work against the chemical industry's onslaught.
Carson could have brought anybody with her to meet the Kennedys. The fact that she chose a publicist and a tireless Democratic Party networker shows how Carson was gearing up for the inevitable blowback that Silent Spring was bound to receive from the chemical industry, agribusiness behemoths, and other deep-pocketed polluters. Scott made sure that Carson interacted with Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall and Sierra Club Director David Brower at the White House. Justice Douglas, Kennedy's number one unofficial adviser on all things conservation, had read an advance galley of Silent Spring just before the White House conference. Carson was getting her high-powered advocacy ducks in a row. On May 27, shortly before The New Yorker excerpt ran, Paul Knight, a close adviser to Interior Secretary Udall, met with Carson to strategize on how the Kennedy administration and Carson could work in tandem to bring maximum publicity to Silent Spring.
The new frontier was now fully behind the Carson environmental zeitgeist. President Kennedy himself--after reading The New Yorker excerpt along with the first lady--wanted Carson defended from the onslaught of abuse that Big Chemical would hurl her way. The administration, in fact, was helping to publicize Carson's work while simultaneously creating a buffer for the president if her research didn't hold up under peer review. Justice Douglas took the New Frontiersman lead, declaring Silent Spring "the most revolutionary book since Uncle Tom's Cabin." Since the 1950s Douglas and Robert F. Kennedy, the president's brother, had hiked together all over the world, from the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal in Maryland to the outback of Siberia. Justice Douglas was practically an auxiliary member of the Kennedy family. Writing in the Book-of-the-Month Club News about Silent Spring, Douglas threw down a gauntlet impossible to ignore. "This book," he wrote, "is the most important chronicle of this century for the human race. This book is a call for immediate action and for effective control of all merchants of poison."
What companies like American Cyanamid, Velsicol, and Monsanto would soon learn was that the Kennedy administration was setting up Big Chemical as the culprit of the planet's worse environmental desecrations. The New York Times published its first pro-Silent Spring editorial--"Rachel Carson's Warning"--on July 2, 1962. A few weeks later the Times ran a supportive story about Carson called "Silent Spring Is Now Noisy Summer: Pesticide Industry Up in Arms Over a New Book." The die was cast for a king-daddy fight. At a White House news conference, which coincided with Douglas's endorsement of Silent Spring in the Book-of-the-Month Club News, President Kennedy offered Carson his imprimatur--to a degree. While too smart a politician to embrace all of Carson's research, Kennedy made clear that his administration took Silent Spring seriously. Because of "Miss Carson's book," Kennedy said in a televised press conference, the Department of Agriculture and the Public Health Service had launched a full-blown investigation into whether pesticides caused illnesses in humans. What a daring thing for Kennedy to do, the equivalent of Theodore Roosevelt embracing muckraking novelist Upton Sinclair's The Jungle (a searing indictment of unsanitary Chicago meatpacking plants that led to the passage of the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act). Kennedy was using Silent Spring to help push the Democratic Advisory Council's 1960 agenda to combat pollution by connecting old-style conservation to the new-style environmentalism that called for the protection of earth, air, and water (and all creatures dwelling therein).
The day after the White House press event, Kennedy announced the establishment of a special panel of the President's Science Advisory Committee (PSAC), headed by the highly respected Dr. Jerome B. Wiesner, to study various health and environmental questions about pesticide use. The hullabaloo over Silent Spring allowed Kennedy to go on the offensive against chemical polluters. Most other presidents would have gone into duck-and-cover mode because of Carson. But Silent Spring served Kennedy's goal of saving wetland habitats along the Atlantic coast and having the U.S. government regulate the toxic pesticide sprays beloved by huge agricultural concerns. Although Kennedy didn't want to be an alarmist, he didn't mind a fellow New Frontier intellectual--like Carson--leading the gallant charge.
When Silent Spring was at last published in book form on September 27, 1962, the chemical industry went ballistic. Kennedy instantly became Public Enemy No. 1 for propping up Silent Spring as worthy of serious attention. The National Agricultural Chemicals Association rushed its propaganda booklet "Fact and Fancy" into print. The nub of the counterattack was that Mr. Fancy (a.k.a. Kennedy) was an East Coast elite who yachted frivolously around Cape Cod, his treasured national seashore, while allowing DDT manufacturers to be unjustly vilified. The association warned that factory shutdowns would mean thousands of lost jobs. When Kennedy awarded Dr. Frances Oldham Kelsey--a Food and Drug Administration scientist--a public service gold medal for discovering that thalidomide (a sedative frequently prescribed to pregnant women) caused deformities in babies, the pharmaceutical industry likewise felt blindsided. "It is all of a piece," Carson told The New York Post, "thalidomide and pesticides--they represent our willingness to rush ahead and use something new without knowing what the results are going to be."