Nature Notes: The Lessons of History

The “domino theory.”

When I dropped out of Cornell University for the second time in 1957 I was about to be drafted. We were not at war then, having settled the Korean police action some four years earlier, but, nevertheless, I didn’t think I was cut out for the infantry so I enlisted. I wanted to go into intelligence so I took my chances on getting into the United States Army Language School in Monterey, Calif. I landed a slot — the last available — in Russian. I thought I would be sent to Europe at the end of the course, but instead I boarded a troop ship in San Francisco, sailed out under the Golden Gate Bridge, and headed for Japan.

At that time the U.S. foreign relations tack hinged on the “domino theory.” As the communist menace grew and nations one by one came under the dominance of it and the Soviet Union, President Eisenhower gave perhaps his most famous speech of his terms in office in 1954 after French Indochina had fallen to Ho Chi Minh and what would become the North Vietnamese state. He vowed that the United States would oppose the communist usurpers and protect those nations that resisted the communist takeovers.

When I got to Japan in January of 1961, I was put on a train headed north on the island of Honshu, then on a ferry, which crossed the sea to Hokkaido, the second largest and northernmost of Japan’s four main islands. A military transport picked me up there and carried me to Chitose, the Asian headquarters of the Army Security Agency, the military’s equivalent of the National Security Agency in Arlington, Va. I soon learned that my tenure there had to do with carrying out the mandate central to the domino theory.

It was a presidential election year, Nixon versus Kennedy. Most of the military was on the side of Nixon, so I had to be careful in espousing my fondness for J.F.K. That was the first time I took the domino theory seriously. In order to keep the unit up on developments, we would regularly hear from the N.S.A.: how they were laying down the groundwork, say, to protect South Vietnam from its northern opponent. I began to realize what my training in the Russian language was all about. I translated the Russian transmissions we intercepted into English and dabbled in decoding some of the more secret ones.

When my stint was over, I returned to the states, then returned to Cornell to finish my wildlife biology major. By that time Castro had taken command of Cuba, the eyes and ears of the U.S. were fixed on that island nation and busy with the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. But, at the same time, we were strengthening our interests in South Vietnam, where we eventually would become involved in a full-scale war with the north.

By the fall of 1961, I was back in San Francisco, married with children and majoring in biology at San Francisco State, teaching, and translating Russian scientific papers to help pay for our room and board. The environmental movement was just starting but was diffuse and playing second fiddle to our growing anti-Vietnam involvement. The feds under Kennedy, then under Johnson, had their hands full with Vietnam and integration issues; the environment came in a very distant third.

In 1964, after I got my master’s degree I found myself at the University of California Santa Barbara, where I continued my biological education, teaching and translating Russian scientific papers on the side. I began to notice the environment. The California condors were almost gone, sea otters were few and far between, California highways were among the most congested in the country, citrus and walnut orchards were being bulldozed to make way for Levittown-type developments, the water was getting mucked up, and Los Angeles was as smoggy as Beijing.

I was torn between the Vietnamese conflict and the environment. At that time there were almost no national environmental laws, the last major one, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, having been enacted in 1918. California was bursting at the seams. What better place than it to enter into full-time environmental activities. 

I left U.C.S.B., helped Get Oil Out fight Union Oil and offshore oil rigs after a major spill of 1969, helped start the Santa Barbara Environmental Resources Center, and edited the “Survival Times,” a monthly environmental magazine. Ronald Reagan was the governor then. Regarding the redwoods that were up for grabs, he basically said, “If you’ve seen one redwood, you’ve seen them all.”

Then came a turnabout, the infamous Richard Nixon was elected in 1968, and lo and behold, he began to champion the environment while he worked to end the Vietnam War. In 1969 he signed the Environmental Policy Review Act, which led to the creation of the environmental impact statement, a formal review of actions that could possibly harm the environment. Then in 1970, he created the Environmental Protection Agency to cover all aspects of environmental degradation. 

Until that time, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service handled environmental matters, but only where protected wildlife and fish were concerned.

In 1970, the Clean Air Act was signed into law and administered by the E.P.A. with the help of other government agencies. In 1972 the Clean Water Act became the law of the land along with the Marine Mammals Protection Act. Whales, dolphins, sea otters, and other marine mammals are protected by this act, which is enforced by the National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Coast Guard. Finally, in 1973 the Endangered Species Act became law and was entrusted to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

State fish and game, natural resources, and environmental conservation departments were created with the federal acts in mind. At last the environmentalists had a comprehensive body of laws by which to work to save the environment and all of its attributes.

Having related all of the above, I also realize that President Nixon had another not so lawful way of acting: One might go so far as to call him a scoundrel. He resigned before he was impeached. However, as I examine the political scene since then, there are many other equally bad politicians on all levels and on both sides of the aisle who, unlike Nixon, have contributed very little. 

If the present-day Republican politicians now in charge choose to retreat from the Nixon administration’s strong environmental policies and actions, that will be a sorry day, indeed, and it could be their downfall. 

They will be kicked out in a jiffy, come the next election.

Larry Penny can be reached via email at