On April 22, 1970, Senator Henry M. Jackson (1912-1983) is cheered and heckled during speeches about the environment at the University of Washington and Washington State University on the first Earth Day. In Pullman, he is even pelted with marshmallows. Jackson is invited because of his long record of leadership in environmental legislation. His landmark National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA) has just been signed into law on New Year’s Day, 1970. He warns the students about the dangers of environmental degradation, but also about the perils of environmental extremism. Some students, protesting Jackson’s hawkish stance on the Vietnam War, take the opportunity to question him and shout at him. Jackson earns cheers when he catches some marshmallows and throws them back.
Time Is Running Out
The University of Washington event was the All-King County High School Environmental Day on the UW campus, and it was attended both by high school students and UW students.
"As the relentless degradation of our environment moves at a faster pace, time is running out," Jackson told the students. "We have begun the decade of decision, and the next few years will determine our ability to reverse the tragic course of the present. Whatever problems we face, nothing will seal our collective fate faster than disinterest, apathy or the despair of those who have no faith in our capacity to succeed" ("Earth Day").
Jackson told the crowd that environmentalism has to be measured against many other public needs, including the needs of the poor. "The fundamental human rights of these people cannot be traded off to satisfy environmental goals," he said (Kaufman, p. 205).
Shouting Somebody Down
Yet during this contentious political year, Jackson could not avoid the most divisive issue of the time, the Vietnam War. One UW student held up a sign saying, "Boycott Jackson, Nerve Gas Kills" ("Earth Day"). At one point during the speech, a group of students started to chant, "Ecology for Vietnam, ecology for Vietnam" ("Earth Day").
"You can’t solve these problems by shouting down somebody," said Jackson, to cheers from the high school students in the front rows ("Earth Day"). One high school student asked Jackson during the question-answer period why the country was spending millions on missiles and only "nickels and dimes" on ecology ("Earth Day").
Jackson replied that the first priority was defense, and that it would do no good to worry about the environment "if we have become the victims of a thermonuclear holocaust" ("Earth Day"). After one interruption, which included hissing from the crowd, he decried what he called the "retroactive righteousness" of students who questioned his concern about the environment ("Earth Day").
After a quick trip to Pullman for a second Earth Day speech at WSU, Jackson found that some students were handing out marshmallows at the door. Why marshmallows?
"It's better to throw marshmallows than bombs," said a student (Prochnau and Larsen, p. 310).
Jackson tried to deliver his message of environmental stewardship. Again, he was interrupted by students protesting his stance on the Vietnam War. He told them that these issues involve "agonizing trade-offs between equally valid national goals and policies" ("Comments").
At one point, Jackson admonished a WSU heckler by saying, "Oh, sit down" ("Comments"). He got cheers from the crowd of 1,200 when he caught some incoming marshmallows and threw them back to the audience.