Rachel Carson and JFK, an Environmental Tag Team
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.”