Earth Day Turns 50: How the Movement Was Born

The Story Of The First Earth Day Peter McCloskey
The Story Of The First Earth Day 1970: How Grassroots Activism Can Change Our World by Paul N. “Pete” McCloskey, Jr. Photo credit: Eaglet Books
Reading Time: 12 minutes

As a young Republican Congressman from California, Pete McCloskey teamed with Democratic Sen. Gaylord Nelson (WI) and Stanford student body president Denis Hayes to launch the first Earth Day, on April 22, 1970.

Channeling the activism of anti–Vietnam War movements, the young leaders of the first Earth Day went on to target a “dirty dozen” — 10 Republicans and two Democrats — in Congress, five of whom were defeated in primaries or the November 1970 midterm elections. They were targeted for “a singularly bad record on environmental matters” and for supporting the war.

In this interview and in his new book, The Story of the First Earth Day: How Grassroots Activism Can Change Our World, McCloskey explains the political shock wave that made environmentalism a potent force. It was a force that led President Richard Nixon, who was hardly a tree-hugger, to approve creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and sign the Endangered Species Act, which McCloskey co-authored. At age 92, McCloskey shares his account of the activism of the 1970s. His hope: that today’s young leaders can generate the political momentum to address climate change in time to halt our perilous trajectory.

Paul N. “Pete” McCloskey Jr. is the author of The Story of the First Earth Day and five other books. He served 15 years in the House, challenged Nixon in the 1972 primaries over the Vietnam war, and was the first elected Republican to call for Nixon’s impeachment. In 2006, he came out of retirement to challenge Rep. Richard Pombo (R-CA), then chair of the House Resources Committee, who was attempting to scuttle the Endangered Species Act; McCloskey lost in the primary, but Pombo was defeated in the general election. Peter B. Collins served as a media adviser to McCloskey in the 2006 campaign. McCloskey left the GOP in 2007 in protest of the Iraq War and the use of torture during the George W. Bush administration.


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Full Text Transcript:

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Peter B. Collins: Welcome to another radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. In San Francisco, I’m Peter B. Collins. This podcast is being released on the 50th Earth Day here in the U S of A and around the world, and I’m very pleased and frankly honored to be able to bring you a conversation with one of the co-founders of Earth Day. He also was co-author of the Endangered Species Act and I’m referring to my friend, former Congressman, former Republican Congressman, and former Republican now, Pete McCloskey.
Peter B. Collins: He’s also an ex-Marine who was honored for his service in the Korean War, picking up two purple hearts and other awards. He went on to serve seven terms in Congress representing what is now Silicon Valley. He was the challenger in the Republican primary against Richard Nixon in 1972, primarily over the Vietnam War. He also was the first Republican to publicly call for Nixon’s impeachment. He has many other credentials to brag about but the latest is that he has published the story of the first Earth Day and I learned a lot from this book, Pete, and I’m very glad to welcome you to this program today.
Pete McCloskey: Glad to be here.
Peter B. Collins: So, Pete, I was only 17 on the first Earth Day in 1970. I was living in the Mid-West and the little more liberal afternoon paper, the Cincinnati Post, did offer some coverage of Earth Day but it was sketchy and you have filled in a lot of the blanks for me. Could you first describe how you and Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson developed the idea for Earth Day?
Pete McCloskey: Well, it was really Senator Nelson’s idea. He had been in the Senate since 1962 and he was distressed that neither the Senate nor the House was paying much attention to the pollution of the air and water. We’d had, as you know, we’d gone through the years of the Depression and World War II and from the end of World War II to 1969, we had a period of just unprecedented prosperity. We moved from the rigors of the Depression and the War to where everybody had a car and then two cars and television, and we developed much of the United States that had previously been wilderness or rural areas. We were just hell-bent on development at all costs and Gaylord was concerned that we weren’t paying attention to the pollution, that we were getting dirty air and dirty water and fouling up the oceans. There were a lot of endangered species. The DDT was threatening the very existence of the bald eagle.
Pete McCloskey: These issues he felt could only be picked up by Congress if young people in their teens, who were then demonstrating against the war on every campus in the nation, if he could somehow hold teach-ins or a teach-in across the country on April 22nd, 1970, perhaps the kids would pick up the issue of environmental pollution as they had on civil rights and women’s rights and other issues. So it was his idea to have that teach-in. He wanted it to be bicameral and he wanted it to be bipartisan. He couldn’t find any Republican environmentalist in the House except me. I was in my first full term in 1970 and I’d been an environmental lawyer in Palo Alto and I’d seen the same problems occur as California developed that he’d seen in Wisconsin.
Pete McCloskey: So it was a perfect match, and then of course the best thing we did, we hired a guy named Denis Hayes, who had been a student body president at Stanford, and he and a bunch of kids put together a little office in Washington down on P Street in Dupont Circle, and they sent a letter out to all the student body presidents in college and high school saying, “We have an Earth Day on April 22nd and study the issues of air and water pollution.” The response was overwhelming. By April 22nd, 20 million people turned out all over the country to demonstrate their wish that we pay attention to pollution.
Peter B. Collins: And, Pete, in the book, you describe how the infamous-now oil spill near Santa Barbara was drawn to your attention by a bunch of surfer dudes.
Pete McCloskey: Well, California has a thousand miles of coast and Santa Barbara is a bunch of the best of it. It was kids that were surfing out there in wetsuits and they were north of Santa Barbara but the oil spill brought home really more than anything else, I remember the presidents of Union Oil standing out on the beach and looking at a lot of dead birds who were covered in oil saying, “Well, you’ve seen one oil spill, you’ve seen them all,” and the callous nature of corporate America’s attitude towards killing birds with oil spills really triggered me and Gaylord and a hell of a lot of other Americans.
Peter B. Collins: One of the things that I learned from your new book is that not only was Earth Day in 1970, the first one, a pretty serious success, but Denis Hayes then led a political action group, not a PAC but a group of activists, let me put it that way, who identified members of Congress who were in opposition to new environmental regulations and reforms and they ran campaigns. You pick up the story there because in the fall of 1970, a number of incumbents were voted out of office.
Pete McCloskey: I was in the cloak room one day in the Republican corner of the House and the door smashed open and this old guy came running into the cloak room and there’s half a dozen congressmen sleeping on the couches and others are trying to phone their [inaudible 00:06:33], and he’s waving the Washington Star. Down on page six, there’s an article saying “Youth group labels 12 members of Congress the dirty dozen and vows their defeat,” and he was looking at me. He was one of the dirty dozen. He looks at me and he says, “McCloskey, this was your work!” and he starts yelling at me and he wakes up the old guys around the room and it was a lively discussion for a while and he finally cools off and everybody forgets it, but there were two Democrats on that list. One of them was [inaudible] a guy in the House, he was the chairman of Public Works committee. That was it.
Pete McCloskey: We called it the pork committee because they distributed benefits and never got any. Any event, Walter Fallon was one of the two Democrats and another senior guy, Byron Rogers. About two weeks later, people opened their Washington Post and my God, both of the Democrats have lost by narrow margins and Denis Hayes’ group of kids was credited for defeating them. Well, within 24 hours, I suppose Nixon thought the war was terrible. Was environmental lawyer, was not very well liked by Republicans in the House who were all pro-war then, within 24 hours of that defeat, seven of the 10 come to me and say, “McCloskey, what are these figures saying about air and water pollution?” And in the November election, seven or five of the Republicans were defeated and the result was an incredible impact on politicians. Congress convened in January 20th, 1971 and two thirds of the House and Senate of both parties are saying, “We’re now environmentalists.” Nobody had knocked out seven incumbents in 20 years and these were old timers. Any event, that led to 10 years of probably the finest legislation of all time.
Pete McCloskey: We passed the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, coastal zone protection, marine mammals protection. It was mostly bipartisan. Nixon was so affected that he created the Environmental Protection Agency after a day. He wasn’t an environmentalist, but he could see that there was this new political power that hadn’t been taken into account.
Peter B. Collins: Well, and Pete, I want to ask you to flesh this out a little bit because if we go back to the contentious period of 1968 where anti-war protestors disrupted the Democratic Convention and made Mayor Boss Daley pull out his police force, and it was a very ugly scene, but the power of the anti-war movement arguably peaked at that point. And your efforts and Denis Hayes to coalesce people around environmentalism also benefited from the power of the anti-war movement and Nixon-
Pete McCloskey: It was more than that, Peter. It was entirely the energy and the rage of those kids on the campuses across the country that, they wanted to do something affirmative and being against the war was one thing, but to protect the environment was something the whole country could sympathize with and all of the good movements of our time, civil rights, women’s rights, environment had been led by kids. And that can happen again. We’d hoped it would happen again this year. People like the Parkland School kids and the kids that have come forward about global warming and saying, “Listen, Congress. Listen up.” If that could happen this year, the country will be a lot better next January.
Peter B. Collins: And Pete, you mentioned that Nixon tried to triangulate. He couldn’t or he wouldn’t end the war in Vietnam, but he saw a way to try to address the protests and to, as I say, triangulate by forming the Environmental Protection Agency. And as you point out in the book, a whole swath of new laws were passed, protected lands, the wilderness areas were vastly expanded. And this comes as a surprise to many people who know the mentality of Dick Nixon. And so tell us a little about that.
Pete McCloskey: Peter, the best way that I can say it is to quote a wonderful American Bob Dole, who lost a hand in World War II, was an infantry officer, and Bob once said, he said, “Gerry Ford, see no evil. Ronald Reagan, hear no evil. Richard Nixon, evil.” He was evil and he was terrible man but he could see the writing on the wall.
Peter B. Collins: And-
Pete McCloskey: I can tell you a funny story about it if you’re interested.
Peter B. Collins: Well, I want to set you up for this because many listeners today wouldn’t recall John Ehrlichman, but he and Bob Haldeman were the two top advisors in the White House to President Nixon, and they both went to prison for their roles in the Watergate coverup. But you were a friend of John Ehrlichman’s from back in the day and-
Pete McCloskey: Well, we were law school partners. We’d gone to the finals of the moot court debate, but all of a sudden the Korean War started. I went to Korea and with a pregnant wife and John and Jean Ehrlichman looked after my wife and baby for the year until I got back from Korea. So we’d stayed friends and he was an environmental lawyer in Seattle. I was in Palo Alto. We exchanged cases and when he came to Washington and Nixon, we stayed friends until I made that first speech to impeach Nixon when he invaded Cambodia. I said, “We just refuel the Gulf of Tonkin resolution. He doesn’t have the power to invade Cambodia.” Well, that pretty much got me thrown out of the party and ended our friendship. But before that happened, after Earth Day occurred in April 22nd, 1970, a couple of days later, I got a call from John from the White House.
Pete McCloskey: He’s laughing so hard. I never heard him laugh that hard. He says, “Pete, you won’t believe it. Nixon was so paranoid that Earth Day was going to be an anti-war demonstration that he ordered FBI to put all of the Earth Day events across the country, 20 million people, and put them under FBI surveillance.” And you can picture these FBI guys with field glasses watching a bunch of kids in grassy hillsides. He said, “Let me read you a couple of paragraphs from the report.”
Pete McCloskey: “Dear Mr. President.” This is J. Edgar Hoover writing. He said, “Dear Mr. President. Earth Day turned out to be only not involving the war.” He said, “It’s a lot of girls that were wearing T-shirts and shorts and not much else, flowers in their hair, sitting on grassy hillsides petting their dogs and maybe smoking a little pot and listening to some guy at a microphone up on top of the hill talking about oils and ocean pollution. And they were drinking a little beer and maybe smoking a little pot and once in a while somebody’s making love out in the bushes. But Mr. President, I can assure you there was no anti-war discussion at any Earth Day event. Respectfully, J. Edgar Hoover.” I bet he’s still laughing about that.
Peter B. Collins: That’s quite a story. Now Pete, as we observe the 50th Earth Day, number one, many events can’t be held because of the reaction to the COVID pandemic. And in the bigger picture, the planet is under assault from global warming and just today I reported on the efforts or the analysis of the ice melt last summer in Greenland, which is escalating quite rapidly and that extinction of many species is accelerating at a remarkable rate. And with the trillions that have been borrowed to bail out corporate America primarily I can hear that for the next few years they’re going to say, “Oh, we can’t afford to address climate change,” and we become a net exporter of oil. We are continuing to burn the carbon instead of leaving it in the ground. So at your age, 92 years young, what is your sense of the legacy of the environmental movement?
Pete McCloskey: Well Peter, before the coronavirus, we had hoped that the kids of America would turn out as they did 50 years ago because they’re doing the effort on global warming. It’s their grandchildren that are going to be suffering if the oceans rise and the poles melt and Greenland glaciers continue to melt. Clearly much of the east coast, the barrier islands, Florida is going to be under water and it’ll be these kids’ grandchildren or children that suffer. There’s clear evidence that the emission of CO2 in the atmosphere from all the automobiles and trucks and cement plants is what’s leading to global warming and it’s going up. It’s going up 1.2 degrees Celsius over the last several years, and in 50 years it’ll clearly lead to maybe three degrees Celsius and ocean warming, which could destroy the world as we know it. So hopefully the kids can once again rise up and convince McConnell and all those Senators and people that say it is a hoax and the only way we’re going to attack it is if what happens is what happens 50 years ago.
Pete McCloskey: The kids force a change in the makeup of the Congress and the White House and by the force of young people and their idealism and their energy, if they register to vote instead of just listening to their car phones every day or their telephones, we could have the same kind of political change. So that’s what us 90 year-olds are hoping for is that the kids will once again rise up.
Peter B. Collins: Well Pete, it’s great to visit with you today. I want to thank you for being the co-sponsor, the co-founder of Earth Day, the co-sponsor of the Endangered Species Act and I really recommend your book. It’s a fascinating look at this period of time from around 1970 and it’s a short read but a lot of fascinating details. Where can people get your book?
Pete McCloskey: You can order it from Amazon. Amazon’s can put it on. They’ve already, I’ve been amazed that anybody would buy it, but it’s attracted a lot of interest and if you order it from Amazon and they get it shipped to you within a couple of days, as I understand it.
Peter B. Collins: All right, so the book is The Story of the First Earth Day, 1970. Subtitled: How Grassroots Activism Can Change Our World. We’ve been talking with Paul N. “Pete” McCloskey. Thank you, Pete.
Pete McCloskey: Take care. Good to talk, Peter.
Peter B. Collins: Thanks for listening to this radio WhoWhatWhy podcast with my guest, Pete McCloskey. Send your comments to peter@peterbColllins.com and we do apologize for the scratchy audio on the phone line that Pete was on today. If you can, please chip in and support the work here at WhoWhatWhy.

Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from U.S. Department of Defense Current Photos / Flickr.

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