Nelson, Gaylord Anton

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Nelson, Gaylord Anton

(b. 4 June 1916 in Clear Lake, Wisconsin; d. 3 July 2005 in Kensington, Maryland), lawyer, Wisconsin state senator and governor, U.S. senator, and environmental activist best known as the founder of Earth Day in 1970.

Born to a family of Norwegian and Irish ancestry, Nelson was one of four children of Anton Nelson, a country doctor, and Mary (Bradt) Nelson, a registered nurse. His father was active in local politics, and his mother was a reformer who fought for women’s causes and served as the district Progressive Party chairperson. Nelson often said that he obtained his interest in the environment “by osmosis” while growing up in Clear Lake. He attended the local public schools, graduating from Clear Lake High School in 1934. He earned a BA in economics at San Jose State College in California in 1939. Many expected him to follow his parents into medicine, but he chose to study law and pursue a political career. He earned a law degree from the University of Wisconsin Law School in Madison and was admitted to the Wisconsin bar in 1942.

During World War II Nelson served almost four years in the U.S. Army and saw action in the Okinawa campaign. While he was in training, he met Carrie Lee Dotson, a smart and witty nurse whom he met again in Okinawa, Japan. Nelson ended his tour of duty as a first lieutenant in 1946. He and Dotson were married on 15 November 1947 and had three children. The family settled in Madison, where Nelson established a law practice and began his political career. Given his parents’ loyalty to the Progressive Republicans, Nelson campaigned as a Republican for the state assembly in 1946 and lost. Two years later he ran as a Democrat for the state senate. As part of a statewide shift of Progressives to the Democratic Party, Nelson won and was reelected in 1952 and 1956. He served on several committees, but characteristically most of his attention went to the Committee on Conservation.

After an unsuccessful bid for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1954, Nelson ran a successful campaign in 1958 for the Wisconsin governorship. He drew 53.6 percent of the vote to become Wisconsin’s first Democratic governor since 1932. Governor Nelson championed tax reform, reorganized state government, and created automobile safety standards. In 1961 he also established a model state recreational resources program that used revenue from cigarette taxes to acquire and preserve one million acres of open space. By the end of his second term, political observers around the country were taking note of the “bold, sensational” Nelson, a “hard-working man of direct and unpretentious manner.”

Nelson was reelected in 1960 and two years later decided to make a bid for the U.S. Senate, challenging the incumbent Alexander Wiley, a Senate veteran. Wiley held important committee positions and brought the benefits of seniority to his Wisconsin constituents. Nelson, by contrast, could boast little experience in national politics, but his success as the governor made him a serious contender. The contrast between the youthful, energetic Nelson and the elderly, irascible Wiley became a popular media topic. Reporters used words like “courageous” and “vigorous” to describe Nelson, who touted his pro-labor and pro-farmer record, as well as a string of legislative successes. While tradition favored Republican gains in the 1962 midterm election, the Democrats gained two seats in the Senate, one by Nelson.

As a U.S. senator Nelson supported the policies of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson’s administrations, particularly their efforts to increase educational opportunities and provide increased health care benefits. When Johnson announced his War on Poverty in 1964, Nelson was already a veteran in that war, having proposed a plan to create jobs on conservation and recreation projects. He was also a strong supporter of civil rights legislation. In August 1963, when 250,000 people marched on Washington, D.C., most of Nelson’s staff joined the march, and Nelson himself stood on the platform at the Lincoln Memorial as Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his “I have a dream” speech. He conducted extensive hearings on the need for drug industry regulation and consumer protection. He investigated the use and production of chemical weapons, and he launched a new series of hearings on the role of large corporations in the world economy.

Nelson’s opposition to the Vietnam War never wavered. In 1964 he denied an expansive interpretation of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and proposed an amendment to limit presidential authority. He agreed to support the resolution only after being assured by the Foreign Relations Committee chair, William Fulbright, that it would not provide the president with open-ended authority. The following day Nelson went on record calling for limited involvement, arguing that the U.S. role was “not to substitute our armed forces for those of the South Vietnamese government, nor to join them in a land war, nor to fight their war for them.” When Johnson asked for the first supplemental appropriations for Vietnam the next year, Nelson was one of only three senators to oppose it, calling instead for an “orderly disengagement.” When asked why he opposed the funding measure, Nelson commented that he needed his conscience more than Johnson needed his vote. Nelson’s opposition remained consistent into Richard M. Nixon’s administration. He opposed Nixon’s plan for Vietnamization and the bombing of Cambodia. He abhorred the environmental destruction caused by the use of Agent Orange. From 1965 to 1973 Nelson supported every legislative effort to end the war.

Nelson’s interest in the environment exceeded that of any president he served with and became the landmark issue of his political career. In his maiden speech to the Senate in 1963, he endorsed a bill to ban detergents from water supplies. He also proposed legislation to ban the use of DDT and other pesticides and waged a tireless campaign to clean up America’s rivers and lakes. He was also instrumental in preserving the 2,100-mile Appalachian Trail. One of his proudest accomplishments was the creation of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in 1970, followed by a successful effort to save the Saint Croix River from development and pollution. In 1970 he set forth an ambitious environmental agenda, a list of goals to achieve during his lifetime, including a constitutional amendment to give every U.S. citizen the “inalienable right to a decent environment.” Perhaps most important, he hoped to educate Americans about the environmental crisis ahead.

Nelson had long sought a way to raise awareness about the environment. In 1963 he persuaded President Kennedy to take a multistate “conservation tour,” but the effort was largely ignored. He participated in the creation of the Clean Air Act of 1963, the Wilderness Act of 1964, and the Land and Water Conservation Fund of 1964, and in 1966 he sponsored and saw passed the Clean Water Restoration Act (and a more comprehensive Clean Water Act came in 1972). Repeatedly, Nelson asked himself “how to get the nation to wake up and pay attention to the most important challenge the human species faces on the planet.” The answer came with Earth Day. Modeled on the teach-ins used by the antiwar movement, Earth Day was created by Nelson to teach young Americans about the growing crises of pollution, overpopulation, and depletion of natural resources. He promoted the idea with dozens of articles, mostly for college newspapers. The first Earth Day, on 22 April 1970, was a tremendous success. More than 20 million people participated in seminars, town gatherings, and school programs. Congress recessed to allow members to participate in events, and New York City’s mayor closed Fifth Avenue to accommodate an ecology fair attended by 100,000 people. In the decades that followed, Earth Day became an annual, worldwide event.

By 1980 Nelson had reached near iconic proportions in American politics. He was easily reelected to the Senate in 1968 and 1974, and few doubted that Nelson would seek and win a fourth term. Even his opponent in the 1980 election, Robert Kasten, acknowledged Nelson’s status as “a man who is as close to living legend as is likely to be found in American politics. He lives on his salary, he is free of taint, and he thinks he was sent to Washington to lead, rather than follow.” But the political tide had changed in America. Voters were dissatisfied with the lackluster performance of Jimmy Carter’s administration and embraced the “revolution” offered by the Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan. Nelson had been on the Republicans’ electoral hit list since the Nixon era, and in 1980 the Republican Party targeted him for defeat. Nelson saw it coming. “If [Reagan] wins,” he told a colleague, “it will bring out people who normally don’t vote. That means I’m done.”

Nelson was out of political office in 1981, but he hardly retired. Resisting the lure of high-paid lobbying, he continued his environmental activism as a counselor of the Wilderness Society in Washington, D.C. The United Nations awarded him the Environmental Leadership Award in 1982, and President Bill Clinton presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1995. Nelson was the author of numerous articles and several books, including “What Are Me and You Gonna Do?” Children’s Letters to Senator Gaylord Nelson About the Environment (1971) and, with Susan Campbell and Paul Wozniak, Beyond Earth Day: Fulfilling the Promise (2002). Nelson died of heart failure at his Kensington home at age eighty-nine. He is buried in his family’s plot in Clear Lake Cemetery.

Nelson emerged from the Progressive tradition of Wisconsin politics to help define the modern Democratic Party and became a leading voice for consumer protection, opposition to the Vietnam War, and environmental protection. He mastered the ability to forge the bipartisan coalitions that bring legislative success, and by all accounts he was one of the most respected senators of his day. Nelson’s greatest legacy lies in his tireless devotion to the environment and his successful efforts to raise the level of awareness about an ongoing environmental crisis.

The largest collection of papers related to Nelson’s political career is located at the Wisconsin Historical Society in Madison. A small collection of correspondence and briefings can be found at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The best biography is Bill Christoffers on, The Man from Clear Lake: Earth Day Founder Senator Gaylord Nelson (2004). See also Thomas R. Huffman, Protectors of the Land and Water: Environmentalism in Wisconsin, 1961–1968 (1994). Obituaries are in the New York Times and Washington Post (both 4 July 2005). The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston, Massachusetts, has an oral history done with Nelson in 1964. Several oral histories in the Senate Historical Office collection in Washington, D.C., include insights into Nelson’s Senate career, particularly the 2005 interview with Dennis Brezina, Nelson’s legislative assistant in 1970.

Betty K. Koed

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Nelson, Gaylord Anton

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