Nixon and the Environment
In 1967, the Liberian-flagged tanker 7brrey Canyon ran aground near England's Land's End, the first supertanker accident and still among history's worst oil tanker spills.(1) In 1989, the Exxon Valdez grounded in Alaska's Prince William Sound, causing the largest U.S. oil spill ever. Responding to accidents and to growth in the oil tanker trade, U.S. policy makers sought national and international rules to reduce ship pollution. Although dramatic incidents such as the Exxon Valdez might create the opposite impression, the efforts of these policy makers have met success.(2) Important international initiatives occurred during Richard M. Nixon's presidency, when the United States led international negotiations for a comprehensive new treaty to regulate ship pollution.
Why did the United States lead on this international environmental issue during a Republican, pro-business president's term? The answer lies partly in the U.S. national interest. Yet, policy in the national interest does not occur automatically. Fragmented political systems such as those in the United States should rarely achieve such results. How did the United States do so?
Four years before 7brrey Canyon, Rachel Carson's influential Silent Spring had "sounded an alarm" about the planet's endangered state, a cry crucial to the rise of environmental consciousness.(3) Two years following Torrey Canyon, only a month into Nixon's first term, an offshore oil well near Santa Barbara, California, blew out, fouling many miles of beach and drawing the nation's attention to oil pollution. Such events set the stage for Earth Day, April 22, 1970. In 1972, the international community registered its concern at the Stockholm United Nations (UN) Conference on the Human Environment. In short, the modern environmental movement emerged from the mid-1960s to the early 1970s.(4)
In 1968, Richard Nixon won the White House. No one had reason to expect that the Nixon administration would lead on environmental policy. By 1972, the League of Conservation Voters would sponsor a book on Nixon subtitled The Politics of Devastation, giving the president little credit for environmental leadership.(5) Yet, Nixon presided over the most productive period in U.S. history for environmental legislation and policy.(6) Russell Train observes,
By 1973, the president could point to the passage into law of major legislative proposals of his administration, including: air quality legislation, strengthened water quality and pesticide control legislation, new authorities to control noise and ocean dumping, and legislation establishing major national recreation areas at New York City and San Francisco as well as regulations to prevent oil and other spills in ports and waterways.(7) Besides legislation, the Nixon administration employed executive actions to advance environmental protection, including use of the Refuse Act of 1899 to control pollution and waste dumping into the nation's waters, regulations governing the use of poisons and pesticides on public lands, and declaration of parks and historic sites. The administration put whales on the endangered species list, ending U.S. commercial whaling. Nixon ordered federal agencies to review their activities' environmental impact, and he canceled the Cross-Florida Barge Canal and an Everglades jetport for Miami. In foreign policy, the administration achieved international cooperation to strengthen oil pollution control, regulate ocean dumping, condemn whaling, manage the U.S.-Canada and U.S.-Mexico borders, and support the 1972 Stockholm UN Conference on the Human Environment.(8) If due to Nixon, the domestic and international initiatives represent "an extraordinary environmental record in almost every respect."(9)
Was Nixon the Environmental President?
Although the Nixon era produced much new environmental policy, opinion on Nixon's responsibility ranges widely. Train argues that the Nixon administration's environmental record "speaks for itself" and is "without parallel in any administration that has followed." Nixon White House staffer John Whitaker claims a number of accomplishments for the administration.(10) Joan Hoff asserts that Nixon's domestic policy record, including environmental achievements, is underestimated.(11) Charles S. Warren, somewhat less favorably, credits Nixon for environmental progress, especially during his first term.(12) By contrast, Michael A. Genovese finds Nixon politically right-wing and pro-industry, and he credits Congress for environmental leadership.(13) Michael E. Kraft attributes environmental progress to "an extraordinary group of policy entrepreneurs on Capitol Hill."(14) James Brooks Flippen's studies of land use policy and wildlife protection led him to conclude that Nixon's "commitment to the environment was tenuous at best."(15) Jacqueline Vaughan Switzer asserts that Nixon "initially opposed the [environmental] initiatives but eventually succumbed to increasing public pressure and instructed his staff to rush through new environmental legislation."(16) The League of Conservation Voters volume is most critical, finding shortcomings in Nixon policy on water development, pollution, energy, public lands management, wildlife protection, pesticides, population, the workplace, and urban environments. Hence, reviews of Nixon's environmental record range from fully crediting the administration for the legislative program passed during his term to attributing policy to Congress and outside pressure groups.
Foreign Environmental Policy
The neglected dimension in this debate is the differences between foreign environmental policy and domestic environmental policy. Most studies of the presidency acknowledge that presidential autonomy is greater in the international than domestic realm. Train, the only writer to place emphasis on international environmental policy, asserts justifiably that "internationally the United States was recognized and accepted as the world leader in environmental protection programs."(17) Yet, inquiry into Nixon's environmental record either focuses on the domestic side or lumps all environmental policies together as if the administration acted similarly in both issue domains.
Differentiating foreign and domestic environmental policy allows finer judgments about the Nixon administration's role. In light of presidential foreign policy autonomy, if Nixon had been hostile to environmental protection and only was pushed along by public opinion and congressional pressure, then the administration's resistance ought to show up more strongly in foreign environmental policy than in domestic policy. Also, because the United States did lead on many international environmental issues, to credit that leadership to congressional and public pressure implies an unexpected absence of presidential autonomy and dominance in foreign policy and, by the same token, a surprising degree of congressional and interest group influence. If instead the administration showed leadership in the international realm, then that could indicate commitment to environmental protection.
A related issue is foreign environmental policy's rationality. Presumably, the president possesses greater powers in foreign policy to pursue a unified, coherent course in international affairs; politics stops at the water's edge. Success in international politics' anarchy supposedly requires "strategic rationality,"(18) rare if domestic political struggle determines policy. Especially true in security matters, even in economic and environmental affairs, other sovereign states' participation in policy making mandates centralized direction and control over policy. If this conventional view is valid, then presidential dominance ought to mean a more coherent, rational approach than if domestic politics determines foreign environmental policy.(19)
Students of foreign economic policy, in research suggestive for studying foreign environmental policy, have focused on whether the state (understood as the foreign policy executive--in the United States, the president and his inner circle) plays an independent role, rather than reflecting international or domestic forces. The state-centered approach offers an alternative to system-centered and society-centered approaches. The latter two argue respectively that (1) the international system limits policy choice so domestic politics hardly matters, or (2) domestic struggles determine policy so the state merely ratifies domestic political outcomes.(20) The state-centered approach accords the foreign policy executive considerable freedom of action to overcome the American political system's fragmentation and to pursue policies it deems in the national interest. Attention to Nixon's foreign environmental policy can illuminate important evidence bearing on these debates.
Protecting the Marine Environment
The oceans were a focus of environmental policy during Nixon's term. In particular, Nixon's term saw a major international treaty dealing with oil and chemical pollution from ships (International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships of 1973, hereafter MARPOL). The United States initiated, furthered, and concluded international negotiations to produce this important environmental treaty. In 1979, M'Gonigle and Zacher observed, "Virtually all recent advances in international regulations for oil pollution control have resulted from American pressure.(21)
Marine Oil Pollution Control, 1920-69
Marine oil pollution had been a subject of international attention since shortly after World War I. Long before the supertanker threatened massive accidental oil spills, states had confronted intentional oil pollution. Most oil pollution resulted from using cargo tanks for ballast when running empty of oil. The ballast water would pick up oil residue from dirty tanks, which would go overboard with ballast water discharged in preparation for the next load. Normal port...