Stewart Lee Udall -- 1920-2010. A Personal Memoir.
Ernest Partridge, Co-Editor
The Crisis Papers
March 24, 2010
Last Saturday I heard the news that I had been dreading: my
good and great friend, Stewart Udall, had died.
In the coming days, many tributes to Stewart will no doubt be written and
published about his distinguished service to our nation as the
Secretary of the Interior under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, and as an
environmental lawyer, activist and writer. So there is little need for me to
add to these accounts of his public life. Instead, I would like to share
some personal reflections.
I first met Stewart some thirty years ago, through the initiative of my
mentor, the late Sterling M. McMurrin, a professor of Philosophy and
graduate school dean at the University of Utah, and the Commissioner of
Education in the Kennedy Administration. I was, at the time, completing work
on my anthology, Responsibilities to Future Generations (Prometheus
Books, 1981), and looking for some noteworthy individual to write a Foreword
to the book. Sterling immediately suggested his friend, Stewart Udall, who
promptly and graciously accepted my invitation.
In that Foreword, Udall wrote:
I recall well the infatuation
Americans had with “atomic age” science in the 1960s: we believed
implicitly in those days that the energy problem was ‘solved’ (i.e., by
nuclear electricity, which would be ‘so cheap it wouldn’t have to be
metered’) and had a soaring belief that the kinds of minds that had
unlocked the secret of the atom could literally ‘create’ whatever
resources we needed from air, sea, water, or common rock....
It goes without saying that this prospect has withered. In the remaining
years of this century, we who inhabit this planet will have a preview of
the future, as nations are forced to lower their sights and deal with
the consequences of resource overutilization.
Stewart's fascination with the atomic age
and its implications prompted him to write his penultimate book, The
Myths of August, sub-titled "A personal exploration of our tragic Cold
War affair with the atom." Broad in scope and deeply disturbing in content,
Myths is, in my opinion, his most provocative work. Not surprisingly,
because of its severe criticism of political and economic establishments and
its debunking of "popular wisdom," the book received meager promotion by the
media and has not attracted appreciable public notice. Sadly, then as now,
it seemed that the American public "can not handle the truth."
I was privileged to witness the development of The Myths of August
from start to finish, as Stewart honored me with a request that I review and comment on each
chapter draft as he wrote them. As many journal editors will testify, as a
referee I am not renowned for my tact and gentleness, and thus some authors
have taken offense at the candor of my responses to their efforts. Not
Stewart. He was unfailingly appreciative of my comments as he treated me,
undeservedly to be sure, as an equal.
The Myths of August is a bombshell of a book. In it, Stewart Udall
deplores the decision to drop the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki,
pointing out that the Japan was then at the point of military collapse and
was actively seeking to negotiate an end of the war. He thus debunks the
oft-stated dogma that the atomic bombs saved the lives of a million invading
American troops. To this day, Udall’s repudiation of the “official”
justification for “the bombs of August” remains a radically heretical idea.
The book continues with Udall's account of his personal efforts, as an
attorney representing Navaho uranium miners, to win compensation for these
victims of radiation-induced cancers. He also exposes the government
cover-up of the radiological havoc visited upon the Utah and Nevada "downwinder"
residents resulting from the atmospheric atomic testing in Nevada.
Especially chilling is the account of reassurances by AEC officials of the
"safety" of the tests, while at the same time these officials were quietly
moving their families out of the affected areas.
Throughout the book, Udall validates President Eisenhower's warning of the
"unwarranted influence... by the military-industrial complex" as he writes
in the Preface of the "abnormal political and cultural changes which were
the outgrowths of the Cold War." He continues:
My experiences and observations told
me that the cold warrior's contempt for restraint had poisoned our
politics. In the 1980s, I cringed as Mikhail Gorbachev and
emerged as the world's most effective partisans for peace at the same
time that two U.S. presidents, imbued with military machismo, were
saddling future generations with trillions of dollars of debt by
amassing an unprecedented array of superexpensive weapons of mass
destruction. (p. xi)
Unlike George Bush and Dick Cheney, who
enthusiastically promoted wars though manifestly unwilling to personally
fight them when it was their turn, Stewart was an indefatigable advocate of
peace and non-violence who had put his life on the line in defense of his
country. As a member of bombing crews in World War II, he flew fifty
missions, including the fabled “tree-top” B-24 raid on the Ploiesti oil
refinery in Romania, which resulted in the loss of 53 out of 177 aircraft.
Stewart Udall was both a conservative and
a liberal. In their original senses, uncontaminated by contemporary media
rhetoric, these concepts are complementary rather than contradictory.
Janus-like, Stewart looked both backward and forward, cherishing the proven
traditions and ideals of the past, and valuing innovative policies for the
future. This conservative-liberal dualism is eloquently summarized in the
closing pages of "The Myths of August:"
. . . Through our media and
educational institutions, we must be constantly reminded of just who we
are as a people, and what we stand for — that when we are called upon to
sacrifice for "national defense," what we are defending are moral and
philosophical traditions that proclaim the dignity of human beings and
the inviolability of their rights.
In short, during the sad history of the atomic age and the Cold War, our
political institutions have not failed us; our leaders have betrayed
those institutions, and thus the American people. The remedy lies, not
in a replacement of those political institutions or a reconstruction of
our laws, but rather in a re-affirmation of those institutions and a
determination to enforce and extend the rule of law.'
And so, paramount among the tenets of this report to future generations,
is this: We give to you, in our Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and
other founding documents of our republic, and in the institutions and
law which embody them, the supreme expression of political wisdom and
morality of our civilization. And in the failures of our own generation,
we offer you a lesson and extend a warning: this priceless political
legacy is forever vulnerable to subversion by special interests, by
inflated fear, by self-serving rhetoric, and by public ignorance and
indifference. Jefferson's maxim is timelessly true: 'Eternal vigilance
is the price of liberty.' (p. 358)
There is so much wisdom and insight in
this book that it is tempting to go on and on with extended quotations from
it. Instead, I can only urge that you purchase and read this valuable work
by an author who participated in and favorably affected much of the history
about which he wrote. If wiser heads eventually prevail over the current
political, economic and military insanity, The Myths of August will
be recognized as prophetic.
In the spring of 1993, as the book was nearing completion, I visited Stewart
and his incomparable wife Lee, at their canyon home in Sante Fe. Stewart led
me on a walking tour of "old Santa Fe," where he introduced me to his oldest
son, Tom, who was then the Attorney General and is now the Senator from the
state of New Mexico. Stewart was a font of historical knowledge, as he
pointed out old colonial buildings and sites and told of the founding of
this city by the Spanish conquistadores. Established in 1609, Santa Fe is
the oldest European city west of the Mississippi River.
As I walked through old Santa Fe with the Udalls, I recalled a moment
several years earlier when, as a radio talk-show host in Salt Lake City, I
received a call from in irate citizen: “Why don’t these Hispanics go back to
where they came from?,” he said. That call was immediately followed by
another: “Go back where we came from?! I am one of those ‘Hispanics,’ and I
grew up on a ranch in New Mexico that was given to my family three hundred
and fifty years ago by the King of Spain!” I don’t recall if I told Stewart
about that incident. I hope that I did.
A couple of years later, at my suggestion, Stewart was invited to give the
commencement address at Northland College in northern Wisconsin. I was, at
the time, a member of the Northland faculty. Stewart's contribution to the
region was well-known and much appreciated, for while he was the Secretary
of the Interior, he successfully promoted the establishment of the Apostle
Islands National Lakeshore, located in Lake Superior a few miles north of
the Northland campus.
Stewart Udall was a consummate gentleman: gracious, generous and
soft-spoken. He was genuinely interested in hearing and weighing the
opinions of others, which he was pleased to assimilate into his own world
view when presented with a compelling argument. The appearance of empathy
with one’s constituents is an essential asset for a politician: (“above all,
be sincere – if you can fake that, you have it made”). With Stewart, that
empathy was 100% authentic. No one, outside his family, knew this better
than those of us who worked with him on his writing projects, as he yielded
to sound criticisms and, when warranted, gratefully accepted our
Immediately after the publication of “Myths,” Stewart commenced work on his
final book, The Forgotten Founders (Island Press, 2002). As he told
me at the time, his primary objective in writing the book was to debunk the
myth, promoted first by “Buffalo Bill” Cody and Zane Grey, and later by
Hollywood, that the Old West was settled by “rugged individualists” and
dominated by gun-slinging outlaws, occasionally tamed by fearless lawmen. On
the contrary, he continued, “the West was won” by community-builders, who
labored cooperatively in common purpose at the ageless task of establishing
secure homes for themselves, their families, and their neighbors.. As he
later wrote in The Forgotten Founders:
No aspect of western history has been
so inflated and overdramatized as the activities of ... legendary
figures [such as Billy the Kid]. Those who insist that robbers such as
Jesse James were widely admired in some circles as American Robin Hoods
too easily ignore the high value attached to law and order in
communities where the great bulk of westerners resided. (172)
The Forgotten Founders celebrates
community at this moment of our history (hopefully temporary) when
libertarian individualism is ascendant. For this reason alone, it is an
urgently timely book.
Stewart Udall, like myself, was the descendant of Mormon pioneers who
settled Utah and much of Arizona and New Mexico after fleeing persecution in
Missouri and Illinois in the mid-nineteenth century. And while,
like myself, he found himself unable to accept the theological doctrines
of that religion, he cherished his Mormon heritage. And so, in The
Forgotten Founders, he draws engaging portraits of his and his wife
Lee’s Mormon forbearers – exemplars of the courage, self-sacrifice, and
mutual support that were crucial to the settlement of the west.
Two years ago, High Country News published
“A Message to Our Grandchildren” signed by Stewart and his late wife,
Lee, which I urge you to read. The final paragraphs, which eloquently
express Stewart’s abiding optimism and vision even during these bleak times,
serve as an fitting epitaph for this great man:
Americans must finally cast aside our
notion that we can continue the wasteful consumption patterns of our
past. We must promote a consciousness attuned to a frugal, highly
efficient mode of living. In closing, I leave you with these thoughts,
and hope you will hold to these ideals throughout your lives:
Foster a consciousness that puts a premium on the common good and the
protection of the environment. Give your unstinting support to all
lasting, fruitful technological innovations. Be steadfast enemies of
waste. The lifetime crusade of your days must be to develop a new energy
ethic to sustain life on earth.
In the 1960s, when the carbon problem and the exhaustion of the world's
petroleum were still beyond our gaze, I advocated a new ethic to guide
our nation's stewardship of its resources. I realize now this approach
was too narrow, too nationalistic. To sustain life on our small planet,
we will need a wider, all-encompassing planetary resource ethic based on
values implemented by mutual cooperation. This ethic must be rooted in
the most intrinsic values of all: Caring, sharing, and mutual efforts
that reach beyond all obstacles and boundaries.
Go well, do well, my children. Cherish sunsets, wild creatures and wild
places. Have a love affair with the wonder and beauty of the earth.
Copyright 2010 by Ernest Partridge