The Greenest President?

Updated on May 16, 2019
harrynielsen profile image

New World history is a rich field that is constantly being analyzed for new material. The complexity of these tales never fails to amaze me.

First observed in 1970, Earth Day is still celebrated today.
First observed in 1970, Earth Day is still celebrated today.

Nixon's Environmental Legacy

Richard Nixon's environmental legacy is astounding. While Theodore Roosevelt may have played an instrumental role in creating millions of acres of public parks, Richard Nixon came through big time in creating the EPA and legislating for clean water, clean air and preservation of endangered species. Though today we often acknowledge the importance of the programs and agencies that Nixon helped to create, we seldom attribute them directly to our 37th president.

Downtown LA in 1973. The smog in Los Angeles was at times intolerable.
Downtown LA in 1973. The smog in Los Angeles was at times intolerable. | Source

A String of Landmark Legislation

Nixon's green bills began in the first year of his office (1969), when he signed into law the National Environmental Policy Act. This act created the President's Council on Environmental Quality and legislated into practice the environmental impact statement. Today, environmental impact statements still stand as the rule of law, but presently, the practice is often under assault by Nixon's own Republican party.

  • In 1970 the Environmental Protection Agency or EPA was created.
  • Also in 1970, Nixon created the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which was delegated the duty of improving protection from natural disasters, the intelligent use of our marine resources and a better understanding of our total global environment. Of all the Nixon bills, this is the one he pushed the hardest, and today is the one that draws greatest fire from environmental and climate change critics.
  • Again in 1970, Congress passed and Nixon signed the Clean Air Act. This was the first Clean Air Act ever passed by Congress and it was long overdue, as America's skies were filthy.
  • In 1971, to commemorate the first year anniversary of Earth Day, Nixon created Earth Week, a time for parades, teach-ins and concerts to celebrate Earth Day. Earth Week may have been a one-shot deal, but Earth Day is still with us.
  • In 1972, Nixon signed into law the Marine Mammal Protection Act, thus initiating the Save the Whales era.
  • Also in 1972, Nixon signed the Clean Water Act. It should be noted that he first vetoed this legislation, but signed it after the Senate sent it back to him with a 98–2 voting margin.
  • In 1973, The Endangered Species Act was passed by Congress and signed by the President.

Nixon signing the Clean Air Act of 1970 with Russell Train and William Ruckelshaus looking on
Nixon signing the Clean Air Act of 1970 with Russell Train and William Ruckelshaus looking on

The Clean Water Act Veto

Of all the environmental legislation passed, there is one that raises some questions. The Clean Water Act was signed in 1972, only after Nixon first vetoed the bill, and then Congress returned the bill to his desk with far more than the two thirds majority required.

Nixon's objections to the bill were economic, not environmental. In 1972, Congress wanted to spend 18 billion, while Nixon wanted a lower figure. Eventually, Congress spent 24 million, leading to an impoundment fight, which Nixon lost in the courts.

Nixon examining the Santa Barbara oil spill, two months after it occurred.
Nixon examining the Santa Barbara oil spill, two months after it occurred.

Why Nixon?

In all probability, Richard Nixon is one of the most unlikely candidates for the greenest U.S. president. Some critics have stated that Nixon's environmental legislation was done as a distraction from the Vietnam War, which in 1969, the year Nixon was inaugurated, was going full blast.

Today, most historians reject this analysis, though there may be a grain of truth to it. More likely, the environmental movement was so strong in the late sixties that Nixon had no choice but to go along.

Besides, at that time, the air was filthy, especially in Los Angeles, which wasn't too far from Nixon's San Clemente mansion. Then there was the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill, which seemed to push the whole nation towards environmental action. This environmental disaster, so close to home, may have helped to galvanize Nixon into his environmental legacy.

Nixon may have acquired some of his environmental awareness from the pristine beaches that bordered the "Western White House" at San Clemente.
Nixon may have acquired some of his environmental awareness from the pristine beaches that bordered the "Western White House" at San Clemente. | Source

A Closer Look at San Clemente

In 1969, just after being inaugurated. Nixon bought a house and some land in San Clemente, California. Reportedly, Nixon put down $100,000 and assumed a $240,000 mortgage for the 10 bedroom house and 5 acres of seaside land. However, during the Watergate investigation the truth behind the purchase came out, for there was some clandestine support, to the tune of $450,000, from two Nixon associates, Bebe Rebozo and Robert Abplanalp. Today, the property is for sale with a hefty price tag around 65 million.

The EPA Today

Now that the EPA has been in place for over forty years, it might be a good time to step back and take a look at the sometimes controversial agency. Though the Environmental Protection Agency often comes under fire from both sides, at this point in time, it looks like the institution is here to stay. The question is, how effective will the EPA be in the near future?

Presented here are two differing viewpoints on how the EPA is doing.

Why most Americans support the EPA

Common Law vs. EPA

Questions & Answers

    © 2019 Harry Nielsen


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      • harrynielsen profile imageAUTHOR

        Harry Nielsen 

        12 months ago from Durango, Colorado

        In 1972 (the voting age had just been lowered to 18) I actually had an opportunity to vote for Nixon as president. I voted for McGovern instead, but did vote for many Republicans down ticket, as I lived near Chicago and did not like the Daley machine.

        I use this example to show how checkerboard, politics were in those days. Many Republican Congressman opposed the War in Vietnam and many Democrats voted against the Voting Rights Act and other similar pieces of legislation.

        I'm not sure how we got so politically polarized like we are today, but in my opinion this process may have started during the Reagan years.

      • justthemessenger profile image

        James C Moore 

        12 months ago from The Great Midwest

        I was stunned to learn that President Nixon was green. In light of the pollution catastrophe that's literally suffocating Mexico City, environmental protection is a timely topic. Enlightening information.


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