Waking up Washington

About this document: In this letter, Nelson is providing suggestions for President John F. Kennedy's upcoming nationwide conservation tour. Nelson insists the President must "shake people, organizations and legislators," just as Rachel Carson had in her recently published Silent Spring. To that end, he includes several excerpts from the environmental writers he admires, especially famed University of Wisconsin legends Aldo Leopold and Wallace Stegner.

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Nelson puts his hopes in the President

When Nelson arrived to Washington in 1963 to begin his Senate career, he was determined to spur national action on environmental problems.

His experience as governor of Wisconsin from 1959 to 1963 convinced him there was broad, bipartisan interest in pollution control, conservation efforts, and recreational development. He wanted to see President Kennedy's agenda, dubbed the "New Frontier," push into this long-overlooked arena.

Nelson imagined that if Kennedy made a tour of the nation, highlighting environmental crises and proposing solutions, he would be greeted by the same enthusiastic response Nelson had received from the people of Wisconsin. Legislators on Capitol Hill would see then the strength of popular interest in ecological and conservation matters and be willing to act.

Nelson proposed a "conservation tour" to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and presidential aide Arthur Schlesinger, who endorsed the idea and recommended it to the president. As a freshman senator, he knew his influence was marginal, but he boldly drafted correspondence to the President Kennedy (document at right) that included talking points and compelling quotations from key environmental thinkers.

A distracted press, a disappointed senator

On September 24, 1963, President Kennedy - joined by Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall, Secretary of Agriculture Orville Freeman, as well as Nelson and several other senators - embarked on a trip to 11 states in 5 days. Once out on tour, Nelson was disappointed to find the President's speeches "didn't have much sweep or drama to them" and that "the press was more interested in foreign policy than the environment," hounding Kennedy at each stop to remark on the recent Partial Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty with the Soviet Union.

Nelson struggled for the next 6 years to wake up Washington to the environmental dangers threatening the nation. Then he got the idea to stop relying on his own voice and instead amplify the voices of the millions of worried Americans.

On September 20, 1969 he proposed a national teach-in for the environment - an idea that caught fire with the public and resulted in the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970.

Although Kennedy did the national conservation tour in 1963, "the tour didn't achieve what I had hoped for—it did not succeed in making the environment a national political issue," Nelson reflected. "However, it was the germ of the idea that ultimately flowered into Earth Day."

It would take the actions of people, not a President, to bring an environmental awakening to Washington.

Kennedy arrives in Wisconsin during the national environmental conversation tour

This image from the Nelson Papers shows Kennedy during his 1963 conservation tour's stop on Wisconsin's Apostle Islands. With the president are, left to right, Wisconsin Governor John Reynolds, Secretary Udall, Secretary Freeman, local liaison Martin Hanson, and Senator Nelson.