Kennedy mixed idealism, pragmatism on energy and the environment

On Nov. 3, 1960, five days before he was elected president of the United States, John F. Kennedy stood on a Phoenix street corner and spoke about Arizona's vast natural resources -- both protecting them and harnessing them for economic good.

Remarkably, his speech wasn't all that different from what presidential candidates are saying about energy and the environment half a century later.

"How much [more] water are you using than is going back into the ground?" Kennedy asked the voters who came to hear him. "How long can Arizona live off the resources built over hundreds of thousands of years? How long before Arizona comes face to face with the reality of the fact that we are not doing enough today?"

Kennedy went on to take swipes at his Republican opponent, Vice President Richard Nixon -- some jocular, others drawing distinctions on policy matters.

Noting predictions of a population explosion for the country, especially in the West, Kennedy said, "This administration, in the critical years of the 1950s, carried on a policy which gutted our hopes for developing the orderly resources of the western United States." He ended by asking the crowd for its help "in picking this country of ours up and moving it into the '60s."

In the weeks leading up to today's 50th anniversary of JFK's assassination, just about every aspect of his record has been probed. The Cuban missile crisis and U.S. relations with the Soviet Union. The creation of the Peace Corps. His tentative alliance with the civil rights movement. The early days of the Vietnam War. His Catholicism. His womanizing. And, of course, the gruesome and still controversial details of the assassination itself.

But little has been said about Kennedy's energy and conservation legacy.

JFK is invariably described by contemporaries and historians as an idealist and a pragmatist, all at the same time. His views and initiatives on energy and the environment were reflections of those two personality traits.

"Kennedy was able and willing to embrace industry and the environment at the same time," said Joshua Fershee, an associate professor at the Center for Energy and Sustainable Development at West Virginia University. "The way he talked about things was unique, it was evolutionary."

In a way, everything about Kennedy was unique. He was elected president, and took office, at the age of 43, succeeding Dwight Eisenhower, who was 70 when his term ended. There were two other living ex-presidents at the time: Harry Truman was 76, and Herbert Hoover was 86.

There was a freshness, a newness to Kennedy that seemed fitting for the times, after the privation of the Great Depression, the devastation and ultimate triumph of World War II, and the relative tranquility and prosperity of the post-war Eisenhower years. The 1960s were, by every account, a more dynamic time, and Kennedy was the harbinger.


"He was a visionary," Ed Moore, a presidential historian who is president of the Independent Colleges and Universities of Florida, said this week. "He inspired people. He made people want to do new and challenging things. ... A true leader has to paint a picture of something that will be better than what it is they have already known, and Kennedy was able to do that."

Certainly JFK was an innovator in some aspects of energy and environmental policy. But not everything he did was new. In fact, some of his policies simply built on the work of his predecessors.

Kennedy pushed to expand nuclear power, picking up where Eisenhower left off. It was still the Cold War, and the United States was in an arms race with the USSR. But advocates for more nuclear energy felt the United States should do more to use the country's nuclear know-how to power its communities -- "atoms for peace," they called it.

"I think this is a good area where we should be first, and we are first," JFK said during an early 1963 visit to the Hanford nuclear weapons facility in Washington state.

Kennedy also was a huge proponent of expanding electrical power into rural areas -- a cause that had first been taken up by Franklin Roosevelt with the Rural Electrification Act. JFK saw this as both a health imperative and a way to extend prosperity into America's forgotten corners, said Fershee, who wrote an analysis of Kennedy's energy and environmental policies in 2009 for the Texas Environmental Law Journal.

"It's like India today," Fershee observed. "There's 600 million people in India without electricity. It's the same problem [the U.S. had]. There's only one solution."

Kennedy also boosted the coal industry, which was slumping at the time, pushing for more coal-fired power plants to provide residential electricity.

"Our experts tell us that coal consumption can be doubled and tripled in the next 20 years -- but this is a challenge, not a guarantee," he said while stumping in Morgantown, W.Va.

In fact, his pro-coal views helped him win the critical West Virginia primary over Hubert Humphrey in 1960 -- and Pennsylvania in the general election. As president, Kennedy facilitated the development of coal slurry pipelines, stressing the importance of ensuring that "energy will flow where it's needed" -- and battling the railroad industry, which transported so much of the mined coal and opposed the idea.

In 1959, Eisenhower had imposed quotas on imported oil; JFK tightened the restrictions further. But Kennedy also advocated lifting an oil depletion allowance that producers had been enjoying for decades, and although it never happened in his lifetime, some assassination conspiracy theorists have suggested that rich Texas oilmen may have been responsible for JFK's murder.

Certainly in Lyndon Johnson the industry got a far more sympathetic president after Kennedy died. But LBJ, according to Daniel Yergin's definitive 1990 book on the energy industry, "The Prize," was a prime conduit for oil and gas contributions to Democratic candidates and causes across the country for decades -- something Kennedy was undoubtedly aware of and appreciated.

But it was frustration with LBJ that brought JFK to Dallas that fateful day 50 years ago. A split among leading Texas Democrats threatened the president's re-election prospects in 1964, and dismayed by Johnson's inability to make peace, Kennedy planned a three-day swing through the Lone Star State.

Chillingly, a speech that Kennedy was to deliver to a Democratic dinner in Austin, Texas, on the night of Nov. 22, 1963, boasted about the state's economic prosperity under his administration and the rule of Texas Democrats. Energy played prominently in the message.

"It was the policies and programs of the Democratic Party which helped bring income to your farmers, industries to your cities, employment to your workers, and the promotion and preservation of your natural resources," according to the speech, which is available at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston. "No one who remembers the days of 5-cent cotton and 30-cent oil will forget the ties between the success of this state and the success of our party."

JFK was also set to remind the audience of his pledge "to step up the development of both our natural and our human resources."

"We have launched 10 new watershed projects in Texas, completed seven others and laid plans for six more," Kennedy was planning to say. "A new national park; a new wildlife preserve; and other navigation, reclamation and natural resource projects are all underway in this state."

Udall and more

The modern environmental movement did not dawn until a decade after Kennedy was elected president. But even as he pushed an aggressive pro-energy agenda, JFK launched several environmental initiatives and compiled a strong conservation record during his 1,000 days in office.

Kennedy's choice of Stewart Udall as Interior secretary helped set the tone. Udall, then a three-term congressman from Arizona, worked feverishly for JFK in 1960, helping to flip the state's delegation to the Democratic convention from LBJ to Kennedy -- against the wishes of most of the state's party establishment. Udall was the first dignitary Kennedy called out during his speech in Phoenix five days before Election Day and soon after he rewarded Udall by inviting him to join his Cabinet.

Udall was already a well-known conservationist and spent the next five decades burnishing his reputation. When he died in 2010, he was the last surviving member of JFK's Cabinet.

"Stewart Udall, more than any other single person, was responsible for reviving the national commitment to conservation and environmental preservation," Bruce Babbitt, a former Arizona governor who later served as Bill Clinton's Interior secretary, once said.

During the Kennedy years, Udall at Interior created the nation's first national seashore -- Cape Cod, Mass., in the president's home turf -- and established the Bureau of Outdoor Recreation, to coordinate all of the nation's outdoor programs. In 1963, he wrote a best-selling book, "The Quiet Crisis," which warned Americans about the dangers of jeopardizing the nation's natural resources.

After Kennedy's death, Johnson kept Udall on -- reluctantly, by most accounts, but at the urging of Lady Bird Johnson, who shared his views on conservation. Udall's tenure saw the addition of four national parks, six national monuments, eight seashores and lakeshores, nine recreation areas, 20 historic sites and 56 wildlife refuges to the National Park System.

With Udall at Interior, Johnson signed into law the Wilderness Act, Water Quality Act, Wild and Scenic Rivers Act and National Trails System Act.

But Udall played a less well-known role during the Kennedy administration as well. Before there was a National Endowment for the Arts or a National Endowment for the Humanities, Udall as Interior secretary became something of a cultural czar for the young president. He was responsible for getting poet Robert Frost to read at JFK's inauguration, and he launched initiatives that reopened Ford's Theatre and Ellis Island and eventually established performance venues like Wolf Trap and the Kennedy Center.

Beyond his reliance on Udall, Kennedy expressed interest in several other environmental measures. He was alarmed by Rachel Carson's book about the dangers of pesticides, "Silent Spring," and convened a commission that eventually banned the use of DDT. He pushed for ways to modernize the nation's agricultural industry but with an eye on stewardship of the land.

"Automation does not need to be our enemy," Kennedy said at a news conference.

JFK also created the Youth Conservation Corps, and he insisted that government scientists work to protect the oceans -- for both economic and environmental reasons.

"Mineral resources on land will ultimately reach their limits. But the oceans hold untapped sources in virtually limitless quantities," Kennedy wrote to senators in 1961, urging them to support his funding initiatives for oceanographic research.

It seems hard to imagine, in the current political climate, a president of either party simultaneously promoting the development and protection of the nation's natural resources. A fraction of modern environmental regulations existed then. There was no organized environmental movement pressuring Democratic candidates. The Republican Party wasn't a wholly owned subsidiary of the extractive industries, the way it often appears to be now.

But Fershee, the West Virginia law professor, said Kennedy had vision, mettle and a knack for strategic thinking that most of his successors have lacked.

"He really was able to bridge some divides," Fershee said.

Kennedy's last public appearance in California, seven weeks before his death, was at a dedication of a dam that would divert water from the Trinity River to the San Joaquin Valley, where it would be used by farmers for crops and local planners to bolster the water supply and create parks and other recreational opportunities.

Instead of the water washing out to sea, Kennedy said, the project "will add to our natural beauty and will show that man can improve on nature and make it possible for this state to continue to grow."

"Every time we bet on the future of this country," the president said, "we win."

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