top of page
  • Mike Martinez

Public Service Exemplars: “A Finer Spirit of Hope and Achievement”: Stewart Udall

Stewart Udall was a three-term United States congressman from Arizona as well as secretary of the interior under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson from 1961 until 1969. During his storied career, Udall became known as a staunch environmentalist as well as an expert in using the levers of government to achieve his goals. He was active in a variety of politically liberal causes until shortly before his death. I discuss Udall in my forthcoming book, Public Service Exemplars: "A Finer Spirit of Hope and Achievement."

He was born Stewart Lee Udall in Saint Johns, Arizona, on January 31, 1920, one of six children. His family was heavily invested in politics. His father, Levi Stewart Udall, eventually became chief justice of the Arizona Supreme Court. His younger brother, Morris, nicknamed “Mo,” became a congressman from Arizona for three decades beginning in the 1960s.

His parents operated a family farm, and young Stewart often worked with the animals. His love of nature was born during these early years. Everyone he encountered notice how curious the child was about environmental issues.

He attended college at the University of Arizona for two years, but World War II interrupted. Like many young men of his generation, Stewart Udall felt it was his duty to serve in uniform. He left college to fly 50 missions in the European theater serving as an enlisted man in the 736th Bomb Squadron, 454th Bomb Group. He was an Air Force gunner on a B-24 Liberator, a heavy bomber aircraft used extensively by American Forces during the Second World War. For his distinguished service, Udall earned the Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters.

Released from the service in 1946, Udall returned to the University of Arizona. He had resolved to pursue a legal career. Accordingly, he enrolled in law school. He also played basketball. Stewart and brother Mo became known around campus as scholar-athletes, with Mo serving as the student body president.

Stewart Udall’s commitment to progressive causes became clear during his law school tenure. He and Mo observed the strict segregation practiced at the University of Arizona, as it was practiced virtually everywhere in the United States during the 1940s. Black students at the university purchased lunch in the school dining hall, but they were forced to eat outside. Stewart and Mo invited one student, Morgan Maxwell Jr., to join them for lunch at an inside table. This simple act of decency and defiance was the beginning of the brothers’ lifelong efforts to champion politically liberal policies.

After graduating from law school and earning admission to the Arizona bar in 1948, Stewart Udall began practicing law in Tucson. Always interested in public service, he considered a career in electoral politics. By 1951, he had been elected to the school board in Tucson. From this position, he urged the board to desegregate the public schools even before the United States Supreme Court announced its landmark decision in a 1954 case, Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka. From these modest beginnings, Udall contemplated a move onto the national stage.

In 1954, he was elected to the United States House of Representatives from the Second District of Arizona. It was the first of three terms. From his perch in the House, Stewart attracted national attention for his environmentalism. After John F. Kennedy won the presidency in 1960, the president-elect selected Udall to serve as his interior secretary. Udall had been reelected, but he resigned from his House seat to join the new administration. His brother Mo won a special election to succeed him in the House.

Stewart Udall was a committed environmentalist, but he was more than that. As with many key figures in the Kennedy administration, his interests extended to issues and concepts far and wide. He believed that cultural centers and projects were crucial to American advancement. Accordingly, he championed the creation of the Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts, the revival of Ford’s Theatre, and what became the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Udall also recommended that the legendary poet Robert Frost compose and recite an original poem at Kennedy’s inauguration. The inclusion of an original poem became an inaugural tradition.

Aside from dabbling in the arts, Udall was ideally suited to head the Interior Department. As a westerner with a long interest in federal land management, he was not satisfied with a business-as-usual approach to the department’s work. He aggressively moved to establish a series of national parks and monuments. In the former category, the Canyonlands National Park, the North Cascades National Park, and the Redwood National Park, among others, were created. Secretary Udall also was an enthusiastic proponent of landmark environmental legislation enacted during the 1960s, including the Clean Air Act, the Wilderness Act of 1964, the Solid Waste Disposal Act of 1965, the National Trail System Act of 1968, and Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968, among others.

Not satisfied to limit his activism to the legislative arena, Udall penned a bestselling book, The Quiet Crisis, published in 1963. He warned readers of unregulated pollution, exhausting natural resources, and the dearth of open spaces. Coming on the heels of Rachel Carson’s popular 1962 book, Silent Spring, Udall’s tract contributed to the growing environmental consciousness of the 1960s.

He suffered his share of blunders, too. Udall initially supported an Army Corps of Engineers project to create the Tocks Island Dam on the Delaware River to provide a water reservoir for New York City. Moreover, a national recreation area would be established to encourage hunting, fishing, hiking, and boating. Planners estimated that more than 10 million visitors could be expected each year.

During the project’s early phases, homeowners were forced off their property through eminent domain and condemnation proceedings. Approximately 6,000 properties were eventually affected, displacing 4,000 families by 1975. Many tracts were bulldozed. Large groups of protestors, including a group calling itself the Delaware Valley Conservation Association, objected to the project. U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, a well-known environmentalist, became a vocal opponent of the project as well.

The political pressure against the dam was unrelenting. The project encountered funding problems, too. Many members of Congress balked at appropriating the $384 million required to construct the dam. After the project faltered, the land was abandoned. Years later, during the Reagan administration, the federal government officially deauthorized the project. Later efforts to resurrect the program fell short as well. It was an embarrassing setback for Udall, who saw himself as a committed environmentalist.

Udall was involved in other federal issues aside from strictly environmental causes. In 1961, the secretary insisted that the Washington Redskins football franchise integrate the team as other National Football League (NFL) teams had done. If team owner George Preston Marshall refused to comply, he would be prohibited from using the new, federally financed District of Columbia stadium. Marshall complied with the requirement in 1962.

Udall’s commitment to improving racial and ethnic relations extended to other areas as well. In 1962, he contacted the United States Geological Survey’s chairman of the board to change the use of negative ethnic names on the Survey’s topographical maps. The USGS eventually developed a policy against using racially or ethnically objectionable names and labels.

The secretary was a creative public administrator, always searching for a means of improving the Interior Department. When he realized that the National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA) had perfected the technology to produce images of earth from space to aid in research, he seized the initiative. During the ensuing decades, NASA published topographic maps of earth based on the mapping data, allowing researchers to improve their understanding of their planet. The data and maps were invaluable in publicizing the fragility of Earth’s systems.

Udall played an unexpected role in the Cuban Missile Crisis. While he was touring the Soviet Union in September 1962, the secretary received a surprising invitation to meet with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. Udall was not a member of the president’s foreign policy team, and it was far beyond the scope of his authority to discuss such matters with a foreign leader. Nonetheless, he soon found himself face-to-face with the Soviet leader. During their discussions, Khrushchev cryptically commented that “It’s been a long time since you could spank us like a little boy. Now we can swat your ass.” The premier was famous for his bombastic rhetoric, and it was difficult to know what he meant by the remark. Udall passed it along, only later realizing that Khrushchev was alluding to his decision to place nuclear missiles on the island of Cuba, only 90 miles from the United States.

Udall remained active even after he left government service early in 1969. He taught as a visiting professor of environmental humanism at the Yale University School of Forestry for a year. He practiced law as well. In addition, Udall devoted time to writing books and articles on energy and environmental public policy. In 1972, he published an article, “The Last Traffic Jam,” in The Atlantic Monthly lamenting the short-sightedness of Americans faced with scarce resources. In a series of books, Udall extolled the virtues of America’s national parks and monuments as well as the need to embrace energy conservation policies.

He left Washington, D.C., at the end of the 1970s, returning to Arizona. There he was elected to the Central Arizona Water Conservation District Board. He remained an active figure in the national environmental movement, penning books, speaking at numerous engagements, and always advocating for conservation and judicious public policy. His most influential works included The Quiet Crisis (1963), America's Natural Treasures: National Nature Monuments and Seashores (1971), To the Inland Empire: Coronado and our Spanish Legacy (1987), The Quiet Crisis and the Next Generation, a revised edition of his seminal 1963 book (1988), and The Forgotten Founders: Rethinking the History of The Old West (2002).

Udall was active until shortly before his death. He died at his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico, on March 20, 2010. Recalling the former secretary’s contributions in a public statement 10 days later, President Barack Obama noted that “For the better part of three decades, Stewart Udall served this nation honorably. Whether in the skies above Italy in World War II, in Congress or as Secretary of the Interior, Stewart Udall left an indelible mark on this nation and inspired countless Americans who will continue his fight for clean air, clean water and to maintain our many natural treasures.” On June 8, 2010, the president signed a law officially naming the Interior Department’s office building the “Stewart Lee Udall Department of the Interior Building.”

Stewart Udall received numerous awards and commemorations during his life as well as after his death. The National Audubon Society awarded him the Audubon Medal, the organization’s highest honor, in 1967. Point Udall, on the island of St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands, was named in his honor in 1968. Point Udall in Guam was named for his brother, Mo Udall.

The Wilderness Society bestowed the Ansel Adams Award, group’s highest conservation award, on Udall in 1986. The United Nations presented him with the Gold Medal for Lifetime Achievement. Common Cause awarded him the Public Service Achievement Award for his environmental protection efforts as well as his defense of American victims of nuclear weapons testing.

In 2009, four months before Udall’s death, Congress renamed the Morris K. Udall Foundation, which was named for his brother, the Morris K. Udall and Stewart L. Udall Foundation to honor Stewart’s contributions. The Foundation awarded annual scholarships and fellowships to students pursuing careers in environmental science and management as well as to Native American students intent on forging careers in health care or tribal public policy. The Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy (NNI), an outgrowth of the Foundation’s work, provided leadership education for tribal leaders. The Foundation also provided funds to assist young people in visiting state and national parks. Finally, the Foundation funded a research program for environmental conflict resolution at the Udall Center for Public Policy Studies at the University of Arizona. Related to this effort, the Foundation supported the work of the U.S. Institute for Environmental Conflict Resolution.

The next generation of the Udall family became involved in politics even before Stewart and Mo Udall passed from the scene. Stewart’s son, Tom, eventually became a U.S. congressman and a U.S. senator from New Mexico. Mo Udall’s son, Mark, also served as a U.S. congressman and a U.S. senator, but he represented Colorado.

26 views0 comments


bottom of page