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

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."

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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?

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