Silent Spring

By Bill Clutter

An excerpt from COAL TAR: How Corrupt Politics and Corporate Greed Are Killing America's Children.

“This is a classic story with very good good-guys and very bad bad-guys, a tale of corporate greed, lethal pollution and sick children and the heroic people who fought to make things right.

A wonderful read” --Scott Turow.

Prologue Part 6

    In 1962, during John Kennedy’s administration, Rachel Carson, a scientist whose book, Silent Spring, described how the pesticide dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, commonly known as DDT, was killing songbirds in Central Illinois in mass numbers. DDT threatened the very symbol of our Democracy--the American Bald Eagle--which was on the brink of extinction from the pesticide farmers were applying to their fields.

    The first widespread use of DDT occurred during World War II. DDT was sprayed on Jews by the Nazis to kill lice that spread typhoid fever. During 1943 and 1944, a pharmacologist working for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Hebert O. Calvery, studied the toxicity of DDT on laboratory animals and discovered it was lethal to animals and damaged the liver. His findings were sent in a “restricted” report to the War Department, which issued a bulletin warning American soldiers not to let the oil or dust come into contact with their skin, and to avoid spraying in areas that drained into waterways or livestock that would be consumed by humans.

    As World War II ended in 1945, DDT was marketed for sale in the United States by chemical companies as an agricultural and household insecticide. Photos of children being hosed with DDT are among the most chilling images from the late 1940s and early 1950s. Chemical farming drastically increased crop yields by eradicating insects. But a new epidemic was emerging in populations of people who were being exposed to DDT—cancer.

    By the time I was a boy growing up in the 1960s, the Eastern Bluebird had all but vanished from Central Illinois. My father remembered that, when he was a child, the bluebirds colored the meadows and sang the most beautiful love songs each spring. The disappearance of songbirds coincided with the application of DDT and with corporate farming that bulldozed the line of Osage Orange trees that was their habitat.

    Rachel Carson was the first scientist to publicly challenge the orthodoxy of the chemical industry. Her book, Silent Spring, persuaded Americans that something must be done to protect the environment. The impact of her book helped change the course of government policies.

    On August 29, 1962, after the release of Silent Spring, a reporter asked President John F. Kennedy, “There appears to be growing concern among scientists of the possibility of dangerous long-range side effects from the wide-spread use of DDT and other pesticides. Have you considered asking the Department of Agriculture or Public Health Service to take a closer look at this?” Kennedy replied, “Yes, and I know that they already are. I think particularly, of course, since Miss Carson’s book, but they are examining the matter.”

    This is an example of the power of the media and the written word.

    The chemical producers, along with major corporate farming interests, hired teams of public relations firms to flood American newspapers and magazines with the benefits of using DDT. They presented reporters with “scientists” who wore lab coats for TV interviews who countered the thesis of Carson’s book, telling Americans it would be impractical to eliminate every risk. They said the benefits of the synthetic pesticide outweighed whatever slight risks there might be.

Rachel Carson being interviewed by CBS reporter Eric Severeid.

    Eric Severeid of CBS interviewed Carson for a special report that would be aired on television at a time when there were only four television networks, CBS, NBC, ABC and PBS. Before the program aired, major advertisers threatened to pull their advertising if CBS aired the program. Executives at CBS believed strongly in a free press as the cornerstone of American Democracy that set America apart from regimes like the Soviet Union, with their state-controlled and censored media that on April 3, 1963, CBS aired The Silent Spring of Rachel Carson. Millions of viewers tuned in.

    The following month, on May 15, 1963, the President’s Science Advisory Committee sent its report to President Kennedy, which he released to the American public. The nation’s top scientist validated Carson’s book. Her thesis was further supported by the National Cancer Institute, which noted that the sharp rise of cancer observed in America after World War II was directly related to the commercial use of chemical carcinogens that had entered our environment.

    Rachel Carson became one of those victims. She died of breast cancer on April 14, 1964, at the age of 56. It started as a lump in her breast and spread throughout her body until finally killing her at the peak of her life. Her obituary said, “Miss Carson’s position, as a biologist, was simply that she was a natural scientist in search of truth and that the indiscriminate use of poisonous chemical sprays called for public awareness of what was going on.”

    This awareness led government leaders to ban the use of DDT, and slowly, the American Eagle made a comeback, and is flourishing today.

    The environmental movement would intensify after the January 28, 1969 blowout of an offshore oil rig off the coast of Santa Barbara, California. Over three million gallons of oil spilled into the Pacific Ocean. The images of over 10,000 dead birds, dolphins, and seals coated in oil and washing up on the beaches inflamed the passion of people who witnessed the devastation on television and on the front pages of newspapers across the country. That event mobilized the conscience of a nation.

    Protecting the environment became a major political movement with impact. Dramatic action was taken. Congress enacted the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, and in the following year, passed the Clean Water Act of 1970, and amended the Clean Air Act of 1963 to expand the authority of the federal government to address air pollution caused by gasoline exhaust from vehicles and industrial smokestacks and chemicals dumped into streams and rivers.

    Public outrage developed into a political movement that led to the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970. Over 20 million Americans assembled peacefully in America’s cities and colleges to protest the destruction of the environment by corporate polluters.

    In Springfield, Illinois, at Lanphier High School, the alma mater of my mother and father, 24-year-old biology teacher Ray Bruzan, led his students on a march to the Capitol that day. The students had been learning how pollution was killing the planet. They turned Room 308 of their classroom into the “Environmental Action Center.” The mother of one of the students stitched together strips of green and white fabric to form the stripes of the flag. Green symbolized a clean earth. White symbolized clean air. The top corner of the mast was punctuated by a dark green Greek theta letter, the symbol of death. The students held a mock funeral procession for the “dead” earth. As they marched, their Earth Day flag was lifted by the gently breeze of Mother Nature.[1] It was an extraordinary display of civic action. They carried petitions they had circulated, bearing the names of one thousand people. They were met at the Capitol by Lt. Governor Paul Simon, one of the most honest public servants in the history of Illinois. He accepted the petitions and commended them for their participation in democracy.

    It was also on that first Earth Day in 1970 when President Richard Nixon created, through executive order, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). And later that year, Congress enacted the Occupational Safety and Health Act which led to the formation of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) under the Department of Labor that established regulations on industry with the aim of reducing workplace exposure to toxins. Black Lung Disease all but disappeared for a new generation of coal miners.

It was a time when our government was more responsive to the will of the people whose opinions were influenced by the images of a relatively new media, television.

    But on that first Earth Day, more than a half-century ago, was a story that failed to get much traction, until now. NBC news anchor Frank Blair reported the warning of a government scientist, J. Murray Mitchell, who started his career in the early 1950s as a climatologist with the United States Air Force in Alaska and by 1970, was working with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). NBC announced Mitchell’s prediction that pollution from burning fossil fuels was creating a “greenhouse effect” that was warming the planet, and that eventually, would lead to the melting of the polar ice caps.

My father, Jim Clutter, is the man with his arm resting on the rail of the caboose, on the Wabash Cannonball. Photo reprinted with permission of The Journal Gazette, Ft. Wayne, IN.

To pre-order copies of the book go to: Release date scheduled for September 2020. Copyright © 2020 by Bill Clutter Published by Investigating Innocence Media | Springfield, Illinois. Cover and book design by Polly Danforth | Morning Star Design

The author will provide a free paperback copy of Coal Tar to individuals who donate $20 or more to a not-for-profit organization of private investigators that he started at

[1] The flag was donated by Brunzan to the Smithsonian Institution, where it is displayed among the collection of Earth Day memorabilia.