Rachel Carson and JFK, an Environmental Tag Team

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.

By Douglas Brinkley/Illustration by Joe Ciardiello
Published: May-June 2012

In June 1962, National Audubon Society President Carl Buchheister had read a galley of Silent Spring just as The New Yorker installment was running, and decided to back Carson. Lawyers from Velsicol lobbed veiled threats at John Vosburgh (Audubon's editor) and Charles Callison (assistant to the NAS president) over lunch, warning them to beware of associating with Carson. Big Chemical was gearing up to blast her out of the water. Bravely, Vosburgh and Callison ignored the Velsicol bullying, though they were fearful of lawsuits. Audubon published an excerpt of Silent Spring and criticized, in an editorial, Velsicol's pesticide programs (though it didn't entirely endorse Carson's argument).

Furthermore, Audubon Society branches in different cities and states banded together to serve as refuges for Carson throughout the summer and fall of 1962. Fighting a kind of guerrilla war against Big Chemical, Carson spent time at the Audubon Camp in Maine and attended a book signing at the Audubon Society in Washington, D.C. Roland Clement, vice president of Audubon and a staff biologist, publicly embraced Carson's Silent Spring research; others at the nonprofit, more timid, expressed varied doubts. In September 1963, Audubon courageously reprinted a Carson lecture about New England wildflowers as "Rachel Carson Answers Her Critics." But National Audubon never supported a ban on DDT. Instead, the nonprofit simply gave Carson's defense real estate in its own organ of reform.

Not that Audubon was taking much of a risk. The Great Debate over Silent Spring ended in Carson's favor on May 15, 1963, when President Kennedy's 46-page President's Science Advisory Committee report--titled "Use of Pesticides"--was made public. (It might as well have been called "Rachel Carson Wins.") Although the report wasn't definitive concerning any human health concerns about pesticides, it did contain a bombshell recommendation to increase public education about the biological hazards of pesticides. It was as if WARNING had been stamped on every page. "Until the publication of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, people were generally unaware of the toxicity of pesticides," the PSAC report stated. "The Government should present this information to the public in a way that will make it aware of the dangers while recognizing the value of pesticides."


Carson had three aims in writing Silent Spring: creating an enduring work of literature on par with The Sea Around Us; alerting the public to the health dangers of pesticides; and forcing the U.S. government to regulate the chemical industry more stringently. That May she accomplished all three goals. The wheels of Congress now started turning in her direction. Senator Abraham Ribicoff of Connecticut demanded subcommittee hearings, which started the very day after the PSAC report came out. Secretary Udall heralded Carson as a "far-sighted and alert writer [who] has awakened the Nation." Having achieved her goals, Carson headed north to rock-ribbed Maine for the summer. With her friend Dorothy Freeman she relaxed, watching the advancing and retreating tides from an oceanfront deck. She enjoyed the diving terns, nesting parula warblers, and scavenging gulls more than ever before, though radiation treatments had ravaged her body and shrunken her frame. When summer ended, Carson headed back to Silver Spring. Awaiting her on her desk was a letter from the National Audubon Society, informing Carson that it was awarding her its highest honor for conservation achievement. More than 500 dinner guests attended the award ceremony at the Hotel Roosevelt in New York on December 3, 1963. "Conservation is a cause that has no end," she said in her acceptance speech. "There is no point at which we will say 'our work is finished.' "

President Kennedy had been killed in Dallas just 11 days earlier. Carson mourned for months. But as solace, the New Frontier regulatory attitude toward the use of pesticides and other chemicals had taken hold of the national psyche. The Kennedy-Carson vision of an America with "mastery of the sky and rain, the oceans and the tides" lived on in Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, igniting the grassroots modern environmental movement that would bring us such landmark legislation as the Clean Air Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, and the Endangered Species Act--all signed into law by President Richard Nixon.

Suffering terribly from myriad illnesses, Carson died on April 14, 1964. In the same way Abraham Lincoln was forever tied by history to Harriet Beecher Stowe and Theodore Roosevelt to Upton Sinclair, so, too, had Carson been linked to Kennedy's New Frontier conservation. There is no shortage of conflicting opinions about the controversial DDT analysis in Silent Spring. But no one disputes that by 1964 the environmental revolution was on, and Kennedy and Carson were among its John the Baptist figures. Their shared love of the Atlantic seaboard--particularly the migratory shorebird areas from Maine to Virginia--fused together an alliance that uplifted outdoors enthusiasts in all 50 states. "Kennedy loved marine conservation," Udall recalled. "And Carson was his muse."

Magazine Category

Author Profile

Douglas Brinkley

Douglas Brinkley is Professor of History at Rice University. His latest book, Cronkite, will be published this May. He is currently working on the third volume of his Wilderness Cycle, Silent Spring Revolution.

Type: Author | From: Audubon Magazine


political leaders

Ruth, Have you tried your locals? Gone to the next level of state? Fort Worth Audubon teamed up with a wildlife group over the past five years to fight the destruction of habitat on beloved Chalk Mountain, southwest of Fort Worth. We were successful in getting the attention of a local councilman, and he in turn garnered the interest of higher officials. You may have already tried to rally your local troops and not had any luck but wanted to suggest it.

Rachael Carson's legacy lives on...

Rachael Carson is my "Personal Hero"! Her unequaled dedication to protecting our nation's wildlife and the environment........will always remain in me as a permanent source for inspiration. Her books "The Sea Around Us" and "Silent Spring" which I did my college thesis on in Biology/Ecology courses was the very reason I became a Special Agent with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service carrying on the same way I thought she would have from 1973 until 2004 when I retired. I investigated Olin Chemical, FMC Corporation, Rid-A-Bird Inc., and others in the same areas Ms Carson worked documenting migratory bird deaths associated with Pesticide use. I was able to substantiate what Ms. Carson found wrong with DDT. Was successful in getting Fenthion, Furidan 15G, Malathion, Chlordane, and Diazinon banned for use on American soils....just the same way I thought Ms. Carson would have done IT. GOD BLESS HER SOUL!!!

Rachel Carson's legacy

To Daniel Hurt re your comments on Rachel Carson article: Thank you ever so much for what you were able to do in a professional job situation. You were the way her legacy lives on. We need legions of you to carry on.

Thank You! For me it was so

Thank You! For me it was so intriguing, rewarding.... an Honor actually following along her marks on Indian Creek, Flint Creek all flowing down into the Tennessee River at Wheeler National Refuge through a canal that would harbor a huge size Greyhound Bus releasing DDT residue from Olin Chemical Plant. Ducks we collected there (shot officially) about 9 ducks at dusk, sent them to Laurel Maryland wildlife lab and after 5 years in which DDT those ducks came back from the lab at 95 to 98 parts per Million DDT.
DDT and DDE do Not break down quickly....put a teaspoon in a hole in the Ground...go back there 15 years later and test that spot and 80% of chemical is still there. It breaks down very poorly, and very slowly. WE were able to substantiate a 20 million dollar law suit payable to a small fishing town on banks of Tennessee river called Triana, Alabama. But we either could not have, or would not have.... had not Rachel Carson wrote about it. g2

Rachel Carson Article

Would it be possibe to publish this in our Field Naturalist monthly magazine giving all appropriate credits?
Thansk Neil


Hello, Neil,
Thanks very much for your interest. If you'd still like to republish this article, please email audubonmagazine [at] audubon.org, and someone should be able to help you with your request.
Julie Leibach
Senior Editor/Audubon Magazine


RACHEL CARSON was an important part of history and the environment keep her memory alive save the Rachel Carson Home.

Really interesting article.

Really interesting article. I look forward to reading Brinkley's book Silent Spring Revolution.

Rachel Carson

Where would we be now without her?

Add comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.