Forty five years ago, Edmund S. Muskie argued that the first Earth Day — and the environmental movement more broadly — offered a unique and vital opportunity to unify a polarized nation.

In 1970 the Maine senator embodied the emerging spirit of environmentalism, especially as it pertained to public policy. As chairman of an influential Senate subcommittee on air and water pollution, he had helped raise ecological concerns in the public consciousness. The Kennebec Journal even referred to Muskie as “Earth Day’s Big White Father.”

During the spring of 1970, Muskie appeared at the University of Michigan’s “Give Earth a Chance” teach-in. He spoke at Harvard University. He headlined a conference on pollution at the Riverside Church in Manhattan. He addressed symposia held at Tulane University and the University of Alabama. Even his graduation speech at Maine Maritime Academy focused on oceanic pollution.

Organizers of “Earth Week” in Philadelphia, one of the largest commemorations of the first Earth Day, invited Muskie to serve as a keynote speaker. “The heart of Earth Day was public speaking,” notes historian Adam Rome. Indeed, Muskie was among an estimated 35,000 speakers across the nation. In his Philadelphia speech, he sounded something more than a generic call for environmental awareness. What distinguished Muskie’s Earth Day remarks was his capacious interpretation of environmentalism.

Muskie was certain that those who gathered in April 1970 “to save the Earth” were “willing to pay the price to save our environment.” Yet he hoped their “view of the environment” would “not be a narrow one.” As he contended, “the great danger of the environmental issue is that we may not recognize that the total environment is at stake in America.”

There is an obvious irony that Muskie — “Mr. Pollution” himself  — warned against focusing too narrowly on the environment. But it reflected his hope that the nation’s new-found fascination with ecology could galvanize a polarized polity into a “whole society.” It offered, he believed, perhaps the only possibility of finding common ground in a fractured nation.


“The environmental conscience that has gripped the nation should hold great promise,” Muskie argued, because it “may be the way to turn the nation around.”

The Muskie Archives at Bates College contains a trove of documents related to this tumultuous period 45 years ago, including transcripts of Muskie’s speeches, copies of his syndicated column “So Goes the Nation,” as well as voluminous constituent correspondence.

It’s staggering to consider the amount of correspondence — letters, telegrams, postcards — that Muskie received. At one point in 1970, between 2,000 and 3,000 inundated his office each day. The filing system his staffers established reflects the turmoil of the time. Bulging folders labelled “Dissent” and “Silent Majority” reveal the extent of anxiety and disunity in the United States at that time.

Sifting through these communications suggests why Muskie was inspired to use Earth Day to promote a unifying rhetoric. They contain frustrated and despairing thoughts on the Vietnam War, the befouled environment, student radicalism — as well as the Nixon administration’s deliberately partisan political tactics. As historians such as Rick Perlstein have demonstrated, by 1970 the Nixon administration had forsworn forging a national consensus in favor of exploiting the cleavages so sundering American society. While Vice President Spiro Agnew called for identifying traitors in a process of “positive polarization,” President Richard Nixon alluded to an ominous “Silent Majority” who could stifle dissent.

Many wrote to Muskie for an alternative vision of national leadership. A woman from La Jolla, California, penned a representative plea for comity. Although from Orange County — Nixon territory and the heart of the nascent New Right that Nixon sought to mobilize — she and her husband had no wish being associated with a “Silent Majority.” In fact, they were fundamentally disturbed by the president’s tactics. “What we would like to see is more of this ‘Bringing the country together’ and less ‘polarization.’ It frightens us.” Another man put his appeal to Muskie more bluntly: “Please give them hell.”

Though Muskie was perfectly capable of evincing outrage, he was more apt to strive for statesmanship. “The Administration would do our country more of a service,” Muskie intoned in typical fashion, “if — instead of appealing to the so-called ‘silent majority’ which may not even exist — it worked on the issues on which we are all united. Appealing to our fears does not bring us together again.”


To Muskie, the first Earth Day promised a chance to foster national unity.

The scope of Earth Day events suggested the environment had, in fact, provided a common cause for the country to rally around. “Sparked by students,” Muskie observed, “millions of Americans are participating in the teach-ins and public rallies which reach their climax on Earth Day.”

In Maine, they included a Biddeford man who donned a 55-gallon oil drum, then marched 16 miles up Route 1 to a participate in a rally at Portland City Hall. They included patrons who perused the display of environmental literature at the Lewiston Public Library. And they included Maine’s college students, who held a campus clean up at St. Joseph’s College, protested at a polluting potato processing plant near Aroostook State College, rallied at the University of Maine in Orono, sponsored a teach-in at Colby College, and doled out tongue-in-cheek pollution awards at the University of Maine at Portland. “Earth Day Focuses Attention on Pollution Problems” ran an Associated Press headline typical of how the first Earth Day was reported in Maine.

Though Muskie extolled scrutiny of humanity’s seemingly infinite “capacity to clutter the landscape,” he warned of focusing on pollution in isolation of other woes afflicting the nation. “If the environmental conscience which has brought us together this day is to have any lasting meaning for America,” he argued, “it must be the instrument to turn the nation around. If we use our awareness that the total environment determines the quality of life, we can make those decisions which can save our nation from becoming a class-ridden and strife-torn wasteland.”

“The whole society that we seek,” Muskie told audiences from Michigan to Maine during the spring of 1970, “is one in which all men live in brotherhood with each other and with their environment. It is a society where each member of it knows that he has an opportunity to fulfill his greatest potential.”

The “whole society” that Muskie heralded drew upon multiple voices for progressive change. It echoed Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society.” It also invoked the legacy of the recently martyred Martin Luther King. For King, Muskie observed, “every day was an Earth Day — a day to work toward his commitment to a whole society. It is that commitment we must keep.”


Though an “environmental conscience” had arisen, holding “great promise for reclaiming our air, our water and our land,” Muskie insisted that it ought to consider the larger sum of the human environment: homes, schools, workplaces, and those fellow beings “who share this planet and this land.”

To Muskie it was imperative to consider humanity’s shared, fragile common ground. “In the cold and infinite expanse of space, only one small planet is known to sustain life in any form. The common environment is the great leveler of persons. While it fails to sustain the least of us, it will fail to sustain the greatest of us.”

As we commemorate the legacy of Earth Day, and rededicate ourselves to sustaining our lived environment, it remains worthwhile to consider Edmund Muskie’s broad interpretation of environmentalism. Although Muskie argued for a “whole society” in response to the particularly polarized political climate of 1970, his unifying message continues to resonate in 2015.

Eben Miller is a professor of history in the Social Science Department of Southern Maine Community College in South Portland.

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