Stewart Lee Udall -- 1920-2010.
A Personal Memoir.
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
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 Andrei
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
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 suggestions.
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
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