Stewart Udall was the most important secretary of the interior in postwar America, the architect and champion of an impressive array of federal environmental initiatives. Now, seven years after his death, the time has come for an extended examination of his influence. The past year saw the publication of two new biographies, with Thomas G. Smith’s version joining Scott Einberger’s With Distance in His Eyes: The Environmental Life and Legacy of Stewart Udall (University of Nevada Press, 2017) in summarizing and analyzing Udall’s contributions. Udall’s early life was the crucible of his later environmental and social ethic. The future secretary grew up in St. Johns, Arizona, during the 1920s and 1930s, the eldest son in a tight and loving Mormon family with decidedly New Dealish political leanings and a commitment to stewardship of both land and people. After a stint at the University of Arizona and time practicing law, the Democrat Udall went to Washington, D.C., as the House representative for Arizona’s second district. There he backed liberal causes like civil rights, education, and, especially, federal reclamation. Like so many westerners, Udall also craved federal support for exploiting the region’s water resources, particularly for the Central Arizona Project. “His appreciation for nature,” Smith concludes, did not yet “match the more pragmatic goal of economic growth” (p. 94). Udall’s reputation as a Pinchotesque conservationist inspired John F. Kennedy to tap him as Interior secretary in 1960. It was a disappointing experience because Udall felt marginalized by Kennedy’s general disinterest in nature. It did not help that Udall himself was initially no great bureaucratic manager, with a tendency to stick his hiking boot in his mouth during public statements, even as his book The Quiet Crisis (1963) earned acclaim. Lyndon Johnson’s ascension changed things as the Texan strove for an environmental legacy to match that of his hero Franklin Roosevelt. Udall’s triumphs in this period included the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, and a clutch of national parks and monuments, trails, and other protected landscapes. He had also moved beyond old-school conservation to embrace a more ecological view, inspired by Rachel Carson and the decade’s flourishing wilderness movement that convinced him to oppose plans to dam and flood parts of the Grand Canyon. Yet Udall’s deepening opposition to the war in Vietnam drove a wedge between him and LBJ despite Udall’s warm working relationship with the environmentally minded Lady Bird Johnson. After Lyndon Johnson’s self-imposed retirement, Udall eschewed the continuation of his own political career. He returned to the private sector, where he helped found and operate an environmental consulting firm, and later managed the ill-fated campaign of his brother, liberal Arizona congressman Morris Udall, to secure the Democratic Party nomination for president in 1976. He also found a passionate new calling in fighting for compensation for Native Americans, former soldiers, and ranchers who had been exposed to high levels of radiation from aboveground nuclear testing in the 1950s. He continued to write and speak on environmental topics until he died in March 2010. Like his treatment of congressman and wilderness advocate John Saylor (Green Republican: John Saylor and the Preservation of America’s Wilderness [University of Pittsburgh Press, 2006]) Smith’s Udall biography is dense with blow-by-blow accounts of trips, speeches, and the tricky negotiations involved in writing, marking up, and passing congressional bills. Colorado’s Wayne Aspinall, chair of the House Interior and Insular Affairs Committee and stalwart advocate of economic growth, was a serious foil to Udall, and Smith has a gift for explaining the give-and-take of political negotiations and an eye for revealing detail. Sometimes this can overwhelm less dedicated readers, as when Smith quotes extensively from family correspondence or when he spends several pages describing every aspect of Udall’s interesting but not-entirely-consequential 1962 meeting with Nikita Khrushchev. As a result, the book could be slimmer without losing its effectiveness. Yet it also has many strengths. While it is long and detailed, it is also easy to read. Smith also avoids hero worship, unafraid to call Udall out for moral hesitancy in his failure to confront Johnson about Vietnam, and for his less than charitable private grumblings about other administration officials. In the end, Stewart L. Udall: Steward of the Land is likely to stand for the foreseeable future as the definitive treatment of the man. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Society for Environmental History and the Forest History Society. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: email@example.com This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
Environmental History – Oxford University Press
Published: May 10, 2018
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