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Stewart Lee Udall -- 1920-2010. A Personal Memoir.
Friday, 26 March 2010 06:08
by Ernest Partridge Ph.D.

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 U.S. 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.


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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 andAndrei Sakharov 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 Santa 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 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.

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