Historian Brian Allen Drake says Barry Goldwater, whatever his other policies, was an enthusiastic environmentalist

Historians in the News
tags: Barry Goldwater, environmentalism, EPA



Barry Goldwater, the five-term Arizona Senator and 1964 Republican presidential nominee, voted against the Civil Rights Act, vigorously defended Senator Joseph McCarthy, attacked Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower for being insufficiently conservative, and raged against federal power so ferociously that his critics joked he aimed to repeal the twentieth century. And yet, Goldwater also bragged about helping to create the Environmental Protection Agency, authored legislation doubling the size of Grand Canyon National Park, and, in his words, “sounded off publicly to let big business know that keeping our natural resources clean and pure is going to have to be a cost of their operations or they might find themselves without any right to operate at all.”

Goldwater joins an expanded roster of the environmental movement in Brian Allen Drake’s Loving Nature, Fearing the State: Environmentalism and Antigovernment Politics before Reagan. Drake begins on Walden Pond and follows the suspicion of state power found in Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” to post-WWII society, where he discovers dual commitments to small government and a healthy environment not only in Goldwater, but also in Edward Abbey, environmental economists, anti-fluoridationists, and even famed soaper Dr. Bronner. Today, in the face of what can seem like hopelessly partisan environmental politics, Drake offers a welcome reminder that environmentalism has not always been, and need not always be, handcuffed by ideology.

I sat down with Dr. Brian Drake to discuss his two recent book projects. Listen to our conversation here, or download the mp3. Edited transcript below.

Brian Hamilton: Was Barry Goldwater an environmentalist? Can we say that? 

Brian Drake: I think he was. My definition of environmentalism is pretty broad and it’s pretty personal. Essentially, it’s this: an environmentalist is someone who believe there are actually environmental problems. There are real problems caused by our lifestyle, and those problems merit action. It’s, I suppose, a matter of debate what sort of action they require. But they are actually real and they need to be addressed. And certainly by that standard, Barry Goldwater was definitely an environmentalist. Many conservatives today, quite frankly, have abandoned not only the pretense of environmentalism, but they’ve denied there are environmental problems. And he certainly did not do that…

Why, despite his intense antistatism, did he come to see government as a necessary actor in protecting the environment? His love for nature—certainly his love for the Arizona desert—was sincere. There’s no doubt about that. Some have said to me, “Are you sure Goldwater wasn’t just pandering?” I have absolutely no doubt that he was not. It was something he cared for a great deal. He was also a middle-class American and, like middle-class Americans of the period, he—even though he would never put it this way—wanted “beauty, health, and permanence.” Those things were important to him.

I think they were important enough that they began to weigh against his ideology, which was equally sincere. He absolutely believed in small government and wanted to reduce the government’s influence, the government’s power, whenever he could. But then this other side hit. And it’s fun to watch him engage in mental and ideological gymnastics to balance those things. He wasn’t always successful; he could be pretty contradictory. His biographer Bob Goldberg once told me in an email, he said, Goldwater can walk around just full of contradictions and never really come to grips with them. That was true his whole life, and I think certainly true of the environment. In the end, I don’t really square it. I don’t know that we’re going to be able to square it. I learned from this project that some things defy clean analytical categorization....




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