“Knowledge is power as never before:” John F. Kennedy’s Natural Resources Philosophy

Conservation of natural resources was a recurring topic during the administration of President John F. Kennedy. In fact, a favorite book of Kennedy’s was Henry David Thoreau’s Cape Cod, published in 1865. While president, Kennedy, a yachtsman, found restoration by sailing the Nantucket Sound waters around sandbars and shoals. Running for president in 1960, Kennedy advocated saving seashores as wildlife refuges and recreational areas.

In a swing through western states in September 1963, President Kennedy visited the University of Wyoming, riding from the Laramie airport to the campus in an open convertible, much like the one he was tragically riding in during a visit to Dallas two months later. More than 10,000 people assembled in the War Memorial Fieldhouse to hear Kennedy’s speech. It was the largest crowd ever to hear a speaker in Wyoming.

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American Heritage Center, Gale W. McGee papers, Accession Number 09800, Box 12, Folder 3.

His speech that day at UW outlined prospective uses for natural resources. After all, he was in Wyoming, a state that relies heavily on the mining of its natural resources. During the speech, he mentioned converting oil shale into usable fuels, coal gasification at the mines, liquefaction of coal into gasoline, and mining Wyoming’s soda ash. However, his speech also recognized his predecessor Theodore Roosevelt who set land aside for protection and public enjoyment.

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American Heritage Center, Gale W. McGee papers, Accession Number 09800, Box 12, Folder 3.

Excerpts of President Kennedy’s speech indicate his perception that scientific technology was going to be the key to unlocking wise use of natural resources. For example, the most “significant fact in conservation,” to Kennedy’s mind, was that “valueless” resources, though scientific research, can become the most valuable:

“The fact of the matter is that the management of our natural resources, instead of being primarily a problem of conserving them or saving them now require the scientific application of knowledge to develop new resources. We have come to realize to a large extent that resources are not passive. Resources are not merely something that was here put by nature. Research tells us that previously valueless materials, which ten years ago were useless, now can be among the most valuable natural resources of the United States, and that is the most significant fact in conservation.”

In Kennedy’s world view, the natural resources of the United States were limitless due to up and coming scientific technology:

“In the short space of 18 years, almost 20 years, the wealth of this country has gone up 300%. In 1970, 1980, 1990, this country will be, can be, must be, if we make the proper decisions, if we manage our resources, both human and material, wisely, if we make wise decisions in the nation, the state, the community, and individually, if we maintain a vigorous and hopeful pursuit of life and knowledge, the resources of this country are so unlimited and science is expanding them so greatly, that all those people who thought 40 years ago that this country would be exhausted in the middle of the century, will have been proven wrong.”

Ending the speech, Kennedy acknowledged the place held by the United States in the protection of the planet’s natural resources:

“Knowledge is power today as never before…the future of the free world depends in the final analysis upon the United States and upon our willingness to reach those decisions on these complicated matters which face us with courage and clarity.”

A transcript of the entire speech can be found on the website of The American Presidency Project at http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=9433

  – Leslie Waggener, Associate Archivist

  • References
    Douglas Brinkley. “Rachel Carson and JFK, an Environmental Tag Team,” Audubon Magazine, May-June 2012.
  • Phil Roberts, “President Kennedy’s Visit to Wyoming, September 1963,” Buffalo Bones: Stories from Wyoming’s Past. Accessed May 30, 2017.
  • Philip White, Jr. “50 Years Ago Today: Inspiring JFK Drew Crowds on Wyoming Tour,” Casper Star-Tribune, September 25, 2013. Accessed May 30, 2017.

 

About Tyler Cline

Digital Archivist and head of digital services at the UW American Heritage Center.
This entry was posted in energy resources, environmental history. Bookmark the permalink.

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