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

Propped up on pillows at her home in Silver Spring, Maryland, trying to heal, working away on her Silent Spring manuscript, Carson managed to find time to volunteer for Kennedy's campaign. In the weeks leading up to Kennedy's nomination, Carson served on the Natural Resources Committee of the Democratic Advisory Council. She hoped that in late 1962, when Silent Spring would be published, Kennedy would occupy the White House, leading a mainstream effort to slay the dual dragons of pollution: radioactive and chemical contamination of the environment. The advisory council embraced Carson's anti-pollution ideas. Her dear friend Pare Lorentz, a film producer, wrote the council's far-reaching report on pollution control, with input from Carson. They recommended that Kennedy, if elected, create a Bureau of Environmental Health within the U.S. Public Health Service. Carson envisioned this prototype for the Environmental Protection Agency wielding regulatory jurisdiction over "our one imperative resource: the environment in which all of us live." Kennedy received the Lorentz report--titled "Resources for the People"--that October.

In the fall of 1960 most outdoors enthusiasts considered themselves conservationists. But Carson, using the advisory council as a bully pulpit, turned the public debate toward a new environmentalism, one properly informed of the perils of mass chemical usage. The monumentalism of Theodore Roosevelt (who protected such American wonders as the Grand Canyon and Crater Lake) and the conservation ethos of FDR (who planted trees and expanded wildlife refuges) were great accomplishments. But Carson wanted to connect the movement to public health. No longer would conservation be a cult of birdwatchers, fair-chase hunters, and outdoor recreationalists. The new ecological awareness would extend to every mom and dad striving to protect their children's precious health. Nobody wanted to give their child cow's milk containing dangerous levels of strontium-90 or serve fish contaminated with toxic mercury. "Ecology" became the new buzzword.

That October, while Kennedy read the council's report, his wife, Jacqueline, invited Carson to join the Women's Committee for New Frontiers. Not only did Carson accept, but she also met with the future first lady at the Kennedys' Georgetown home. This wasn't a garden club Carson was joining; it was the brain trust of the smartest women in the Democratic Party. Word spread among the liberal Washington doyennes--including Evangeline Bruce (wife of the famed diplomat David K.E. Bruce), former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, and former Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins--that Carson was writing about how the residue of insecticides and pesticides had been discovered in soil and water all over America. Mrs. Kennedy was pregnant with John, her baby due in December, and the mere thought that pesticides might have a genetic effect on her unborn child would have been harrowing to her.


On November 4, Kennedy beat Vice President Richard Nixon and was elected the 35th U.S. president. Carson was overjoyed. It heartened her that Kennedy, shortly before winning, issued a statement saying, "We must restore our own woodlands as a source of strength for the Nation's future. . . . The Nation should set aside shoreline recreational refuges, and ranges must be protected to serve the purposes to which they are dedicated without interference by commercial exploitation." Perhaps now the federal government would address her crusade against pesticides and nuclear fallout in a more pronounced, regulatory way.

For most of 1961 Carson continued slaving away on Silent Spring. She was ecstatic that Kennedy, the lover of the great Atlantic Ocean, had pushed to create new national seashores at Cape Cod (Massachusetts), Padre Island (Texas), and Point Reyes (California). In June of 1961 Elbert N. Carvel, the Democratic governor of Delaware, tried to hinder the creation of the Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge--considered one of the preeminent stopover sites for migratory shorebirds in the fall and spring. Kennedy wrote him a threatening letter, demanding that he "retract his objections." In 1963, under the authority of the Migratory Bird Conservation Act, the president established Prime Hook--located on the west shore of Delaware Bay--as a national wildlife refuge.

After Carson completed Silent Spring in early 1962, she once again hitched her wagon to the star of the New Frontier. With The New Yorker slated to run the first excerpt of Silent Spring in its June 16 issue, Carson went on a pre-publication alliance-building charge. She attended a White House conference on conservation convened at President Kennedy's request. Still receiving cancer radiation treatments, Carson asked two key female allies to accompany her to the conference: Ruth Scott (a Pennsylvania conservationist and friend) and Nicki Wilson (an Interior Department publicist). "This is not an easy book to tell people about," Carson's editor at Houghton Mifflin had warned. "We are going to have to work up something of a crusade--on a local level--if we are to reach a really wide audience."

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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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