Rachel Carson and JFK, an Environmental Tag Team

Illustration by Joe Ciardiello

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

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-a-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."

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


A very informative article

A very informative article and lots of really honest and forthright comments made ! This certainly got me thinking about this issue, thanks all

Rachel Carson and JFK

I wish that President Obama would read this, and follow through on his campaign promise to label GMO foods.

Rachel Carson & JFK

Thank you for this article reminding us of the shining light these two brought to us. There is an entire generation of adults who need to know who Rachel Carson was and what she & JFK accomplished so that we can move forward to continue the work to save our beloved earth.


We still need Rachel Carson and people like her - This month, Aug., 2012, aerial pesticide spraying is occurring in Dallas, TX, and several other cities across the US, trying to eradicate mosquitoes out of fear of the West Nile Virus. These pesticides have been implicated in the Colony Collapse Disorder in our bees, and is known to kill other insects, bats, aquatic animals, and even our neighborhood cats, and they are being sprayed wholesale over Dallas every night, weather permitting. Why is this being allowed?

Killing West Nile Virus by arial spraying

Perhaps human lives are considered more important than wildlife in Dallas. Y'think? We don't like mosquitoes here.

Rachel Carson

I first became enchanted with Rachel Carson when I read Linda Lear's bio ten years ago and decided to spread the word about her by performing a one woman show about her--Rachel Carson Returns. I read and studied all her wonderful books, watched videos of her from the Rachel Carson Council, and put together my piece in which I do my best to embody her and tell her story and carry on her work.

You can see a version of my show--which is different every time--at Rachel Carson Returns, Lilith on Youtube.

She was an amazing writer and dedicated activist. And thank you Audubon for carrying on her work. Lilith Rogers

Rachael Carson

My mother taught me to love and respect nature. She was a fanatic recycler, believed in reduce, and reuse and as a result set a great example for me from an early age. When I first heard about Rachael Carson I knew I needed to read about her and found her book, “Silent Spring”. This was the beginning for me of a lifelong passion for the protection of the environment and endangered species. Whenever I meet young college aged kids I ask if they have read the book and if not I recommend it.
I cannot imagine this world if people like Rachael hadn’t stood up to the dangers of chemical assaults on our environment and the consequences that take a lifetime to undo. She is an inspiration to me and I thank her and applaud her for the difficult challenges she faced while suffering with cancer.

Rachel Carson

I think we slipped backwards on the pesticide problem. Pesticides are sort of out of fashion as an environmental issue and the new bugaboos are GMO's. But pesticides are still with us and just as harmful as ever. GMO's are a potential risk but nothing compared to the proven environmental havoc that pesticides wreak.

Carson and monarchs

I have become very active on monarch butterfly issues and found a reference in Linda Lear's bio, Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature, Chap. 19 "I Shall Remember the Monarchs". On Sept. 10, 1963, a warm clear day, she sat for a long time by the shore and watched "...drifts of monarch butterflies alighting on the goldenrod as they made their migration south." Later that day in a letter she wrote" 'But most of all I shall remember the Monarchs, that unhurried westward drift of one small winged form after another, each drawn by some invisible force.' "
Needless to say, Carson is one of my heroines. Thanks to Audubon for the article this month.

Rachel Carson and JFK

As I work on a campaign to stop mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia, I wish we had a political leader who believed we must "protect our ranges" from "commercial exploitation"! Do corporate interests have such a stranglehold on national and regional politics as to make this just an impossible dream?

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.