Industrial waste discharges into the Cuyahoga River, 1973.
Industrial waste discharges into the Cuyahoga River, 1973.

In June 1969, 45 years ago this month, the Cuyahoga River caught fire. It wasn’t the first time for this industrialized waterway, but on this occasion the fire garnered the attention of the nation, and at a time when environmental degradation was a burning [sic] issue. A waterway catching fire was just what the environmental movement needed to speed along Federal legislation mandating widespread pollution control, with the objective of restoring our rivers and lakes so they would be “swimmable and fishable” once again.

That legislation, the Water Pollution Control Amendments of 1972, was to be both an instrument of recovery for the aquatic environment, and the driving force behind my nascent career as an Environmental Engineer. So what better time than on this 45th anniversary of the conflagration to recall the liberal legends who were so instrumental in elevating and codifying our national health, safety and environmental laws? BUT before I get to the names, let’s recap the history.

The post-war period from the early 1950’s to the mid 70’s was a time for sweeping Federal legislation across many areas related to the “general welfare” of citizens. Our success in manufacturing had created not just an economic juggernaut, but a bunch of “externalities” as well: pollution, negative health impacts, and industrial injuries. So as we prospered it was appropriate to use some of our wealth to reduce the negative side-effects for the benefit of workers and their families.

The defining legislation came in two waves. The first wave occurred in the mid-to-late 50’s, with a combination of infrastructure, social policy, and regulatory legislation that was limited, but a harbinger of more to come. Here’s a list of the notable laws that captured the can-do spirit of that era:

  1. Refugee Relief Act
  2. Federal Unemployment Tax Act
  3. Air Pollution Control Act
  4. Fish and Wildlife Act
  5. Civil Rights Act
  6. National Defense Education Act
  7. Airport Construction Act

Then there was a pause, and for some time Civil Rights was the defining issue of the day. Environmental degradation accelerated; and a movement formed to press for more regulation of polluters, in part inspired by Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring. When the river caught fire in 1969, all hell broke loose. From 1970 to 1973, the following laws were passed, again embodying the spirit of the times:

  1. National Environmental Policy Act
  2. Urban Mass Transportation Act
  3. Family Planning Services and Population Research Act
  4. Occupational Safety and Health Act
  5. Housing and Urban Development Act
  6. Equal Employment Opportunity Act
  7. Federal Water Pollution Control Amendments
  8. Consumer Product Safety Act
  9. Endangered Species Act
  10. Clean Water Act

In each of the two periods outlined above, there was a single man most responsible for the final approvals and implementation of these laws; arguably the most significant, intensive collections of legislation passed in post war America. Those giants who made this happen, our liberal heroes for today, were: Dwight David Eisenhower, and Richard Milhous Nixon.

Ultimately, if one lives long enough, history reveals to us its quixotic path and God reveals his sense of humor. Such is the case today, for it was bedrock Republican conservatives, egged on by their liberal counterparts, who willingly embraced the social and environmental movements, signed the necessary legislation, and saved the Cuyahoga from a fiery death.

Leave a Comment

Please Login to comment
8 Comment threads
15 Thread replies
Most reacted comment
Hottest comment thread
10 Comment authors
sillylittlemeGreenChicaphoenixdogloverMurphTheSurf3monicaangela Recent comment authors
newest oldest most voted
Notify of

I wonder what happened to the GOPer brain between then and now that made them decide that responsible environmental stewardship is anti-American.


Welcome to the Planet….glad you joined us. Excellent first contribution.

Fascinating how you wove all of these threads together to make a point- not one of the ones you stated (although they were excellent)- the point I got out of this was that bipartisanship, cooperation between parties, leadership that was interested in governing as in winning elections did at one time exist in U.S. politics and its existence was robust one.

The current environment- which came to the fore first in the years of Clinton Impeachment and the Contract with American- has so poisoned the waters of inter-party cooperation for Republicans that anyone daring to drink from them on the GOP side dies an elector death.

In such an environment no Ike or Nixon could arise……a warning of a dire future and the necessity of one party rule.


Not so fast….

You can’t really leave this legislation in the lap of Eisenhower and Nixon. The real liberal behind this is Henry M. Jackson.
Jackson authored the National Environmental Policy Act.

Richard M. Nixon was president of the United States from 1969 to 1974. Despite his accomplishments as president, they are often overshadowed by his illegal actions during the Watergate scandal. Rather than face impeachment, Nixon became the only president to resign from office. Although not remembered for his environmental stewardship, Nixon signed into law some of the most important environmental legislation in the nation’s history.

Despite his signing into law some of the most extensive environmental law in U.S. history, many environmentalists criticized Nixon’s environmental record. For example, Nixon constantly placed the need for energy development over environmental protection. After signing the Clean Air Act into law, Nixon often attempted to extend deadlines for emission reductions, impounded billions of dollars that Congress had earmarked to implement the law, and attempted to circumvent NEPA by exempting coal production and use from environmental impact statements.

In addition, Nixon mandated that all environmental regulation must undergo cost-benefit analysis, which contradicted the provisions of NEPA and often overestimated the economic costs of protecting the environment. Nixon also gave the EPA authority to decrease more restrictive state clean air standards, ultimately increasing air pollution in areas that were previously well below federal emission standards.

Many of Nixon’s successes as president are obscured by the events that eventually led to his resignation. Did he sign the legislation? Yes, But…..

Miles Long
Miles Long

Nixon, along with the top-tier management of Kaiser Permanente, pretty much created the for-profit healthcare industry.

Miles “Only Nixon Could Go To China – Spock” Long


Kudos PDL, well done. Thanks for writing this informative piece of history.

Funny, but today’s radical ideologues in the GOPTP would label Nixon AND Eisenhower as liberals. Probably Barry Goldwater, as well.

In today’s GOPTP, the phrase “general welfare,” is almost meaningless. To them it’s just an old phrase they interpret as meaning to take from the rich to give to lazy people and old hippies that are very concerned about global climate change. This is the general attitude that is so prevalent among our Republican congressmen and women.


Wow. I was living in Louisville Ky back then and had to spend a month in Cleveland at a Burroughs computer training class for my job. I had forgotten about classmates that told me that astonishing tale but was not surprised since downriver where I lived it was considered stupid to actually get into the Ohio river. The funniest part was when Ralph Perk, the Mayor of Cleveland, was at a big plumbing convention and was waving a welding torch! He caught his own hair on fire!!! Bwahahaha and it made the news. You just can’t make this shit up…. or forget it either. The bartender at the Holiday Inn where we were staying told us that when God gives merika an enema the tube goes up and in Cleveland through the Cuyahoga river.


PDL, first thing, WELCOME to the Planet. Great article, too. I was in Vietnam when the river caught fire.
Ad said to give LBJ some credit and I agree. He signed more Bills into law than anyone.
Eisenhower was the last decent Republican to be President IMO.
I too am an environmentalist just not by profession. To me the environment is almost my religion. We must take care of it as it is finite. We need to get off the oil standard and use solar and other renewable energies ASAP.
Thanks for the article.


PDL, it is pretty astounding to read that list of accomplishments that took place during that era, so many we take for granted as being cornerstones of environmental and social protections yet didn’t exist beforehand (and some of which have been whittled down by Republican politicians).

Of course when it comes to the Civil Rights Act which was arguably the biggest achievement to come out of that era, JFK and LBJ should get their well deserved nods.

What seems to have happened in the times since Nixon signed a variety of environmental laws and the current GOP that believes in terminating all of those laws and the EPA, is that a vision for America being prosperous has shrunken down to just the wealthiest being prosperous…at any cost.

Theodore Roosevelt was a Republican too and his aggressive actions to set up a national park system and preserve the environment was unprecedented. Of course, he was his own man as a Republican, he may not have much in common with today’s Republicans but he was one of the greatest Presidents (along with Lincoln) that the GOP ever brought America.

There is nothing political about Americans having unpolluted air to breathe, water to drink and land to live on. I think most Republicans and Democrats would agree about having a healthy environment in which to raise their families.

It is the wealthy though who see the environment as irrelevant to their growing their wealth and since they call the tune for the mainstream GOP, it is Republican policy to despise pollution control because it interferes with corporate greed.

With all the disasters that Climate Change, fracking and deep sea oil drilling are causing, dwarfing that iconic day when the Cuyahoga River caught fire (NYC and New Orleans have flooded, drinking water can be set on fire in fracking areas and earthquakes are being generated, the BP gulf oil spill and many spills from pipelines in the US since then), it is a pity that there seems to be less pressure today about government stopping the ongoing pollution and destruction (the RW is frantic about building the Keystone Pipeline and increasing the probable pollution of land, air and water).

At the very least, anyone who has kids, nephews or nieces or grandkids, should be very vocal about recognizing that we are not the last generation to live on this Earth and that leaving a poisonous world for those we claim to care about would be a horrible thing to do.

Miles Long
Miles Long

And let’s not forget the pinnacle argument for your thesis PDL: Abraham Lincoln…

This reminds me of a story:

One day a man left home to go to work and one of the neighbor boys was giving away puppies from a new litter. The sign said: “Free Republican Puppies.”

The same scene played out for the next two days. On the third day the word “Republican” was scratched out and replaced by the word “Democratic.”

The man just had to know why the little boy had changed the sign, so he asked. The boy explained, “When the puppies were born they hadn’t opened their eyes yet. Now they’re old enough so that their eyes are opened so now they can see.”

Miles “Kids Say The Darnedest Things” Long