All posts by J.D.

“Deepwater Horizon”
Hollywood & Big Oil

DVD cover for 2016 film, "Deepwater Horizon," based on the 2010 BP Gulf of Mexico oil rig disaster that killed 11 workers and resulted in the worst oil spill in U.S. history. Click for DVD.
DVD cover for 2016 film, "Deepwater Horizon," based on the 2010 BP Gulf of Mexico oil rig disaster that killed 11 workers and resulted in the worst oil spill in U.S. history. Click for DVD.
In 2016, Hollywood produced a film that tackled the daunting subject of the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The film took the name of the failed drilling rig, Deepwater Horizon.

The real life BP oil spill of 2010 is mostly remembered as an environmental catastrophe – for the months-long oil hemorrhage spewing from the blown-out well 5,000 feet below the water’s surface.

The spill – the worst in U.S. history — lasted 87 days and spilled an estimated 4.9 million barrels (210 million gallons) of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico. The damage to the region – from Texas to Florida – was extensive, taking a toll on wildlife, fisheries, tourism and more. BP paid out billions in fines and damages, and the full ecological toll is still being studied.

But one part of the Deepwater Horizon disaster that did not receive the media attention the spill did was what happened before the spill, when the well blew out and the rig became a raging inferno and death trap.

This is the story that the 2016 Hollywood film endeavors to tell with the aide of an all-star cast, including: Mark Wahlberg, Kurt Russell, John Malkovich, Gina Rodriguez, Dylan O’Brien, and Kate Hudson.

Turns out that making this film was no easy task. Director Peter Berg, producers, and studio faced some pretty stiff challenges, not least of which was a resistant Louisiana oil culture led by BP, local workers fearful or legally bound from not talking, and having to build an enormous offshore oil rig set that cost tens of millions (more on all of this later). Still, Berg, studio, cast and crew pulled it off in good form, producing an important film that is as much a cautionary tale and valuable history lesson as it is entertainment.

The Deepwater Horizon film focuses on the failed elements and decision making that led up to the 2010 BP blowout. It covers the mayhem of the initial catastrophe, the worker heroics attempting to right the ship, and the final scramble of workers to get off the doomed rig. It is a film “inspired by a true story of real life heroes,” as the film’s promotional material explains.

In fact, the Deepwater Horizon film is based, in part, on an account that appeared in print by New York Times reporters David Barstow, David Rohde, and Stephanie Saul. That 8,500 word story, run on the front page of the Sunday, December 26th, 2010 edition, was titled, “Deepwater Horizon’s Final Hours — Mixed Signals. Indecision. Failed Defenses. Acts of Valor.” It began as follows:

The New York Times story, “Deepwater Horizon’s Final Hours,” ran on the front page, Sunday, December 26, 2010.
The New York Times story, “Deepwater Horizon’s Final Hours,” ran on the front page, Sunday, December 26, 2010.

“The worst of the explosions gutted the Deepwater Horizon stem to stern.

Crew members were cut down by shrapnel, hurled across rooms and buried under smoking wreckage. Some were swallowed by fireballs that raced through the oil rig’s shattered interior. Dazed and battered survivors, half-naked and dripping in highly combustible gas, crawled inch by inch in pitch darkness, willing themselves to the lifeboat deck.

It was no better there.

…Searing heat baked the lifeboat deck. Crew members, certain they were about to be cooked alive, scrambled into enclosed lifeboats for shelter, only to find them like smoke-filled ovens.

Men admired for their toughness wept. Several said their prayers and jumped into the oily seas 60 feet below….”

It was this New York Times story that Lionsgate and its partners, acquired for film rights to use as a starting point for the film. (However, the film’s casting, script writing, set construction, and filming would not be finished until 2016, and during that time there was more detailed information, continued news reporting on the BP catastrophe, as well as government and corporate inquires, a 60 Minutes program, and other information that could be used to help frame the film and its characters.)

In one of the trailers for the film, the principal character and survivor, Mike Williams, a rig electronics supervisor played by Mark Wahlberg, is shown at home before departing for his 21-day shift on the rig, 45 miles out to sea in the Gulf of Mexico. In a kitchen scene with his wife (Kate Hudson) and young daughter, his daughter asks him to find her a dinosaur fossil so she can tell her schoolmates about her father’s work – “my Daddy tames the dinosaurs.” On arrival at the rig Williams greets fellow workers already on the job. A voice over during the trailer — that of the BP man, Donald Vidrine, played by John Malkovich — is heard explaining: “We’re a big company with millions of moving parts… We all work very hard to insure those moving parts are functioning as a means to bear a profitable end for all of us…” This before all hell breaks loose…

 

 

Offshore oil rigs of the Deepwater Horizon variety are enormous and complex structures. On one level they are truly marvels of sophisticated engineering and oil industry derring do. Since the early days of oil extraction when the first flimsy wooden rigs ventured a couple hundred yards offshore into shallow water, the business and technology of oil drilling at sea has become dramatically more capable and powerful. Today’s modern rigs – of nearly aircraft-carrier heft and proportion – are now able to go many miles out to sea and drill in 5,000 to 10,000 feet of water. Total well depth beyond that – i.e, from the sea floor, where the actual drilling begins, to the pay zone, where the oil is – can be 10,000-to-20,000 more feet. This was the case with the drilling at BP’s Macondo oil well prospect in the leased federal waters of the Gulf of Mexico about 45 miles south of Louisiana.

Sample offshore drilling rig shown here, with its main well derrick, construction cranes, and helicopter landing pad. This happens to be another Transocean rig. But for some perspective on the scale of things in the offshore world, note the two “tiny men” standing mid-deck on the supply boat, lower right corner of the photo.
Sample offshore drilling rig shown here, with its main well derrick, construction cranes, and helicopter landing pad. This happens to be another Transocean rig. But for some perspective on the scale of things in the offshore world, note the two “tiny men” standing mid-deck on the supply boat, lower right corner of the photo.

The drilling rig involved, however, was not BP’s. This rig, owned and operated by Transocean, a Swiss company, was leased by BP to drill the well. Transocean and the Deepwater Horizon were hired by BP to drill and open the well, not extract the oil. Once drilled, BP would later move in a production rig or submersible pumping unit to harvest the oil. The disaster occurred, however, at BP’s well; Transocean was then attempting to finish the opening of the well. Both parties, however (plus a third party, Halliburton) each bore some responsibility for what went wrong when the well blew out, as later investigations would find that a series of bad decisions, corner cutting, and failed technology all contributed to the disaster.

What the film dramatizes, in part, is the conflict between BP’s man on the scene, Donald Vidrine (played by John Malkovich), and Transocean’s rig manager and safety guy, Jimmy Harrell (“Mr. Jimmy,” played by Kurt Russell), over BP’s desire to get the job done quickly (i.e. to meet corporate goals and profit targets) vs. Transocean’s desire to get the job done safety (not injuring or killing any workers or fouling the environment). And in fact, in real life, at the time of the blow-out, the Transocean rig was six weeks behind schedule, costing BP half a million dollars a day, so there was no fiction about BP’s push to complete the well as fast as possible.

Transocean’s “Mr. Jimmy” – played by Kurt Russell, the man concerned with rig integrity & safety.
Transocean’s “Mr. Jimmy” – played by Kurt Russell, the man concerned with rig integrity & safety.
BP’s Donald Vidrine, played by John Malkovich, the man concerned with $ 1 million-a-day drilling delays.
BP’s Donald Vidrine, played by John Malkovich, the man concerned with $ 1 million-a-day drilling delays.

Mark Wahlberg’s Mike Williams is the lead character in the film. He is the person who frames the whole movie as he interacts with his family at home, Mr. Jimmy, BP’s Vidrine, and various workers on the drill floor and control bridge. (Williams in real life would later give 60 Minutes’ Scott Pelly an extensive and compelling interview recounting his harrowing ordeal on the rig during the catastrophe. More on this later).

Poking holes into underground geological strata holding fossil fuels is inherently risky business. Geological formations holding oil and gas are typically under great pressure. They hold various mixed proportions of volatile natural gas and oil. In the film, these inherent dangers are “set up” in a family scene at the home of Mike Williams and his wife, Felicia (Kate Hudson), and their elementary school-age daughter, Sydney, who is doing a “what-my-Daddy-does-at-work” project.

Mike Williams (Wahlberg) in film scene at home with wife (Kate Hudson) and daughter Sydney before departing for his shift on the drilling rig, is about to use a shaken Coca-Cola can as “oil reservoir” to illustrate drilling well pressures.
Mike Williams (Wahlberg) in film scene at home with wife (Kate Hudson) and daughter Sydney before departing for his shift on the drilling rig, is about to use a shaken Coca-Cola can as “oil reservoir” to illustrate drilling well pressures.

Sydney correctly, if somewhat fantastically, describes the 300 million year old fossil deposits “where the trapped dinosaurs are” who want to be free and rush furiously to holes poked into their reservoirs. Her father uses a shaken can of Coca-Cola to illustrate the pressures involved, poking a hole in the can as his daughter then applies honey to the hole, simulating drilling mud, “to tame the dinosaurs.”

Floating oil rig in 5,000 ft of water; well on sea bed below.
Floating oil rig in 5,000 ft of water; well on sea bed below.
Here’s some of the exchange between the two as Mike listens to his daughter read her report:

Sydney Williams: My dad is Mike. He works on a drilling rig that pumps oil out from underneath the ocean. That oil is a monster, like the mean old dinosaurs that oil used to be. So for 300 million years, these old dinosaurs have been getting squeezed tighter and tighter and tighter and tighter.

Mike Williams: We get it. Just use two “tighters”.

Sydney Williams: Then dad and his friends make a hole in their roof and these mean old dinosaurs can’t believe it. Freedom! So they rush through the new hole. Then smack, they run into this stuff called mud that they cram down the straw [her pipe/riser in the Coke can] to hold the monsters down and build them a new roof.

But during the end of this table-top demonstration – and as prelude to what actually happens later in the film on the Deepwater Horizon – the “well” in the Coke can sends up an uncontrolled geyser of “untamed dinosaurs.” It’s a clever little lesson, which serves to clue-in viewers of the bigger drama yet to come.

The film also does a good job of capturing the scale and sophistication of modern offshore drilling rigs. In real life, for example, the Horizon’s main deck was nearly as big as a football field. Mounted on that deck was the main 25-story well derrick flanked by two large cranes. Below the main deck there were two floors. These included sleeping rooms for up to 146 people– as crew and officers lived on the rig for weeks at a time. Each room had its own bathroom and satellite television. On board, there was also a gym, a sauna, and a movie theater. Housekeepers cleaned the crew members’ rooms and did their laundry. Some workers called the place “a floating Hilton.”

A New York Times illustration of the Deepwater Horizon rig helps to show the gigantic rig's layout, with helicopter pad and bridge control center at top left, and various other levels, production cranes, engine rooms, drilling floor, and central well shaft area, as well as living quarters, mess hall, movie theater, and life boat areas. It also shows path of mud & gas during blow-out.
A New York Times illustration of the Deepwater Horizon rig helps to show the gigantic rig's layout, with helicopter pad and bridge control center at top left, and various other levels, production cranes, engine rooms, drilling floor, and central well shaft area, as well as living quarters, mess hall, movie theater, and life boat areas. It also shows path of mud & gas during blow-out.

But the Deepwater Horizon rig was also about the business of opening new wells, and could carry up to 5,000 pieces of drilling equipment, pipe, and tools. The rig was ten years old at the time of the catastrophe, but still pretty much a state-of-the-art facility that included lots of redundant safety features. The rig won an award for its 2008 safety record, and on the day of the disaster, in fact, BP and Transocean managers were on board to celebrate seven years without a lost-time accident, which is depicted briefly in the film when Mr. Jimmy is given the award and cheered by the crew assembled in the mess hall.

Film clip.  Mike and Felecia Williams in the family SUV, travel over Louisiana  causeways and wetlands on their way to the regional heliport for Mike's departure to the offshore Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico.
Film clip. Mike and Felecia Williams in the family SUV, travel over Louisiana causeways and wetlands on their way to the regional heliport for Mike's departure to the offshore Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico.

Deepwater Horizon also captures the everyday life of rig workers and the environment of southern Louisiana’s oil culture. Early in the film, Wahlberg’s character travels with his wife in the family SUV over some miles of Louisiana causeways and beautifully green wetlands to the regional helicopter center that ferries hundreds of workers back and forth to the numerous rigs out in the Gulf. There are dozens of copters at this field awaiting others crews, as the Deepwater Horizon group in the film is shown walking to their designated departure pad (In 2013, BP reported that some 12,000 people each month traveled through the Houma, LA heliport on their way to BP rigs and platforms in the Gulf of Mexico).

Mark Wahlberg’s Mike Williams character (right) walks with Mr. Jimmy (Kurt Russell, left), bridge officer, Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez, center), and other crew on their way to waiting helicopter for the 45-minute flight to Deepwater Horizon rig.
Mark Wahlberg’s Mike Williams character (right) walks with Mr. Jimmy (Kurt Russell, left), bridge officer, Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez, center), and other crew on their way to waiting helicopter for the 45-minute flight to Deepwater Horizon rig.

At the heliport, Williams has joined his colleagues, including: Andrea Fleytas (played by Gina Rodriguez), a young bridge officer in charge of the rig’s sophisticated navigation computer; Transocean crew chief, “Mr. Jimmy” (Kurt Russell); two BP executives; and others. They will take a 45 minute helicopter flight out to the rig. (Of the helicopter ride out into the Gulf, the film’s director, Peter Berg, who took a similar trip, would later observe: “I did one of these flights out to a rig. And you get about 5 miles out and you still have 35 miles to go. And you hit weather, you know, there’s a lot of weather in the Gulf. And the isolation is very clear and very palpable. And I found… my anxiety level after about 5 miles, [and] every mile, I just felt unsettled and very alone in that helicopter.” And in the film, during the helicopter ride, there is a bird strike, which brings a brief moment of distress to the passengers.

Film clip showing helicopter with about a dozen BP and Transocean passengers aboard, approaching Deepwater Horizon rig.
Film clip showing helicopter with about a dozen BP and Transocean passengers aboard, approaching Deepwater Horizon rig.

Upon arrival on the rig’s helipad, Williams and Mr. Jimmy notice that the well cementing crew is boarding the helicopter for the return trip back to land, claiming they’ve finished their work, as the BP guy, Donald Vidrine (Malkovich), has said that no further testing was needed. But Mr. Jimmy is distressed by this claim, as he believes checking the integrity of completed cement work on the well – called a “cement bond log”– is critical for the rig’s safety. So Mr. Jimmy sets about verifying from several sources on the rig, with the help of Mike Williams, that yes, in fact, BP has passed on verifying the cement work. Mr. Jimmy has also noticed a boat in the area, the Damon Bangston, and verifies it too has been summoned by BP to take on drilling mud, another verification that BP has by-passed the testing. This prompts Mr Jimmy and Mike to go visit with BP’s Donald Vidrine and other BP officials in their on-rig office, where they have a somewhat testy exchange about the cement work. Mr. Jimmy, reminding the BP folks that a properly done cement job “is the only thing between us and a blow out,” says it would only cost BP $125,000 to do it properly. Vidrine replies that Transocean is 53 days being behind schedule, costing BP millions. Mr Jimmy, who has the final word on rig procedures, insists that a negative pressure test be done, which is reluctantly agreed to by the BP folks.

Film clip of Mr. Jimmy watching monitors as negative pressure testing in underway, with Mike Williams (far right),  BP’s Donald Vidrine (obscured in back), and other Transocean crew.
Film clip of Mr. Jimmy watching monitors as negative pressure testing in underway, with Mike Williams (far right), BP’s Donald Vidrine (obscured in back), and other Transocean crew.

As they gather to monitor the test, there are some anxious moments as the computer monitors record steadily rising well pressure – 100 psi (pounds per square inch), 450 psi, 900 psi, 1395 psi – “enough to cut your car in half,” says Mr. Jimmy on that last reading, and at which point “pressure alert” warnings are also sounding. But Vidrine, drawing on a whiteboard to make his point, dismisses these as an anomaly or false readings, claiming that sensors are picking up “pockets of pressure,” also explained in technical jargon as a “bladder effect.” Still, Mr. Jimmy is not assured and wants further testing. Vidrine then agrees to run a second test, this time on the “kill line” to illustrate his belief they are over-reacting to the first test.

Mr. Jimmy, meanwhile, is called away at that point by two other BP officials for an “urgent safety matter” on another deck, which is pretext for presenting him with a safety award in front of assembled crew in the galley. On his way to the safety gathering, Mr. Jimmy and Mike acknowledge that it’s possible Vidrine’s theory about the pressure test could be correct, but they still have their doubts. Mr. Jimmy, meanwhile, is lauded at the surprise gathering for his safety leadership. Back at the kill line test, however, the readings are still not stellar, and Mr. Jimmy’s Transocean colleague, Jason, is reluctant to give BP’s Vidrine the o.k. until he talks to Mr. Jimmy. Over the intercom, Jason informs Mr. Jimmy of the barely passable results. Mr. Jimmy very reluctantly gives the o.k., and tells Jason he will see him in about a half an hour. He decides to go to his room for a quick shower and some rest before resuming his duties. Vidrine then issues the go ahead to begin pumping out drilling mud, on the way to completing the well opening and closing out that phase of the work.

Film clip. On the drilling floor of the Deepwater Horizon, with well at work at left, floorhand Caleb Holloway (Dylan O’Brien) holding radio speaker, is in communication with the drill operator in the wire-protected Drill Shed behind him, as BP’s Donald Virdrine (John Malkovich) looks in at the well shaft. Things appear to be working O.K.
Film clip. On the drilling floor of the Deepwater Horizon, with well at work at left, floorhand Caleb Holloway (Dylan O’Brien) holding radio speaker, is in communication with the drill operator in the wire-protected Drill Shed behind him, as BP’s Donald Virdrine (John Malkovich) looks in at the well shaft. Things appear to be working O.K.

Donald Vidrine’s gamble appears to work, as the oil well seems to be cooperating with no adverse signs. Mike Williams by this time is back at his workshop office, later talking with his wife on a computer screen over Skype. On the drilling floor, work on the well resumes with the Transocean crew, as BP’s Virdrine walks by occasionally to monitor the work.

However, as the drilling crew is going about their work, floorhand Caleb Holloway (Dylan O’Brien) notices a tiny bit of mud welling up around the drill pipe. It also starts coming up in the seams around the well drilling floor.

Film clip.  Floorhand Caleb Holloway (Dylan O’Brien) discovers some bad news at the drill pipe.
Film clip. Floorhand Caleb Holloway (Dylan O’Brien) discovers some bad news at the drill pipe.

“Are you seeing this?,” Holloway frantically calls into the drill shack monitor on his radio. And just then, a large buildup of mud gushes up through the pipe, causing it to burst, sending drill crew members and BP’s Vidrine flying off their feet, thrown about, and covered in a torrent of mud and spray from the powerful blowback.

Blast of mud and debris from the well sends workers flying on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig.
Blast of mud and debris from the well sends workers flying on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig.

After some struggle, the drill crew and technicians manage to stop the mud from spewing. But Jason in the Drill Shed is still recording rising pressure. Then, as popping bolts and projectiles begin pelting the Drill Shed, he calls for the crew “to get off the drilling floor — now !” But just then the rig shakes violently, and another, more powerful burst of mud and pressure spews, this time rising up through the top of the rig’s huge derrick. Rig floor workers struggle against the torrent, and their attempts at control are futile. Some begin a scramble to the lifeboats.

Film clip.  Transocean floorhand Caleb Hollway (Dylan O’Brien) attempts to help BP’s Donald Vidrine (John Malkovich) to his feet after powerful well blast on the Deepwater Horizon rig.
Film clip. Transocean floorhand Caleb Hollway (Dylan O’Brien) attempts to help BP’s Donald Vidrine (John Malkovich) to his feet after powerful well blast on the Deepwater Horizon rig.

Methane gas is part of the escaping blow-out brew and this volatile substance begins to seep out invisibly all over the rig. Some of the drenched workers can smell and taste the gas; a few begin to panic. Gas alarms are now sounding throughout the rig. Up on the bridge, Andrea is discovering that the rig’s giant underwater thrusters that maneuver the rig are over-revving as escaping gas is being sucked into their on-board engines. She can’t hold the rig in place. Magenta alarms – the most serious of the color-coded alarms – are going off and appearing on the consoles. The leaking gas soon finds an ignition source and a powerful explosion occurs, cascading destructively throughout the rig, and a roaring firestorm ensues.

Mike Williams (Wahlberg) in his workshop on a Skype call to his wife when he hears some strange sounds, moments before he is blown across the room behind the flying metal door of his workshop and knocked unconscious temporarily.
Mike Williams (Wahlberg) in his workshop on a Skype call to his wife when he hears some strange sounds, moments before he is blown across the room behind the flying metal door of his workshop and knocked unconscious temporarily.

Mike Williams, then at his workshop office in conversation with his wife on Skype, hears a few pops and pings, and the lights suddenly get real bright. Just as he starts to get up to see what’s going on, the explosion sends him flying as the heavy steel door to his office is blown off its hinges, sending him across the room and to the ground.

Mr. Jimmy, meanwhile, is then in the midst of his shower. As the terrific blast force ripples through the living-quarters, compressing those compartments as it goes, Mr. Jimmy is blown against the shower wall and bounced out onto the bedroom area like a rag doll. He is knocked out temporarily and lands on the floor. A blast wave of tiny glass, metallic, and plastic particles have hit him and now cover his entire body.

Mr. Jimmy, showering in the living quarters, notices the lights becoming brighter; not a good sign. As a blast wave rips through the living quarters, Mr. Jimmy is bounced around his compartment like a rag doll, covered with debris, and is temporarily knocked out.
Mr. Jimmy, showering in the living quarters, notices the lights becoming brighter; not a good sign. As a blast wave rips through the living quarters, Mr. Jimmy is bounced around his compartment like a rag doll, covered with debris, and is temporarily knocked out.

Mr. Jimmy, upon waking in near darkness, and now with impaired vision, discovers that a long slender piece of glass or metal has pierced through the arch of his foot and is lodged there. He pulls it out with a painful scream. He then pulls on some coveralls and shoes, cursing at the pain. Feeling his way along the walls, he tries to walk, but falls down in a near hallway.

Mike Williams, too, is in a post-blast daze. He wakes up with a door on top of him, pushes it off, and manages to make his way to a hallway with a flashlight, where he finds an injured colleague who he helps to the lifeboat area. He then decides to go to the living quarters to look for Mr. Jimmy.

Mark Wahlberg’s Mike Williams character shown with flash light and crow bar at left, and Mr. Jimmy next to him, trying to free trapped worker whose leg is stuck and severely injured between damaged deck flooring.
Mark Wahlberg’s Mike Williams character shown with flash light and crow bar at left, and Mr. Jimmy next to him, trying to free trapped worker whose leg is stuck and severely injured between damaged deck flooring.

When Mike arrives at the living quarters area, he finds Mr. Jimmy on the floor in a hallway and helps him up to walk. Mr. Jimmy asks Mike to help get him to the bridge to check on the status of the well. But along the way they hear calls for help from a pair of workers, one with his leg caught between heavy steel plates. They work to help free him, buffeted by a secondary blast as they do.

With the Deepwater Horizon now in flames, the nearby Damon Bangston work vessel has also sent in a “may day” call: “the Deepwater Horizon has exploded and is on fire.” The Bangston is the one refuge ship in the area, and it sends out a smaller skiff to look for survivors.

As the Deepwater Horizon burns in a raging inferno, the nearby Damon Bangston vessel sends out a smaller rescue boat to help pick up survivors.
As the Deepwater Horizon burns in a raging inferno, the nearby Damon Bangston vessel sends out a smaller rescue boat to help pick up survivors.

The film cuts briefly to U.S. Coast Guard message center where other reports of an explosion in the Gulf are also coming in, which the Coast Guard verifies and locates with a satellite image that shows the burning rig. Rescue helicopters are dispatched, but it will take more than 35 minutes for them to get to the rig.

Film clip. At the home of Mike Williams, Felicia has learned that there is a fire on the Deepwater Horizon, and that some workers are “jumping into the water”.
Film clip. At the home of Mike Williams, Felicia has learned that there is a fire on the Deepwater Horizon, and that some workers are “jumping into the water”.

At the home of Mike Williams, Felicia has called the company to learn that there is a fire on the Deepwater Horizon, but she is given no further information. She has also called the wife of another rig worker who has learned that some workers “are jumping into the water.” Felicia fears the worst for Mike.

Back on the rig, Mr. Jimmy says he must get the bridge, as he and Mike continue their trek through flames and flying debris. Arriving at the bridge, Mr. Jimmy has a long “if-looks-could-kill” face-off with BP’s Vidrine, curtly ordering him to the lifeboats.

Film clip. At the bridge control center as the rig continues to burn, Mr. Jimmy and BP’s Donald Vidrine have an awkward moment, but Mr. Jimmy contains his anger and orders Vidrine to the lifeboat area.
Film clip. At the bridge control center as the rig continues to burn, Mr. Jimmy and BP’s Donald Vidrine have an awkward moment, but Mr. Jimmy contains his anger and orders Vidrine to the lifeboat area.

At the bridge, Mr. Jimmy, asks for Andrea’s help to guide his hand to the disconnect button on the control panel to activate the blowout preventer on the sea floor below to cut the riser pipe and seal the well. But it doesn’t work. They try a second time. No dice. Mr. Jimmy then decides they must try to hold the rig in place so the riser pipe doesn’t break off without a seal. But the rig is dead in the water; there is no power.

Mr. Jimmy says the emergency generators could work, but they’re on the other side of the rig, a perilous distance given the circumstances. Mike then volunteers to go across the rig to reach the emergency generators. Floorhand Caleb Holloway (Dylan O’Brien) volunteers to go with him. This journey is filled with continuing peril from fire, secondary explosions, and flying shrapnel all over the rig.

Mike Williams (Wahlberg) and colleagues find a worsening situation on the Deepwater Horizon rig as the rig fire intensifies and secondary explosions occur all around them.
Mike Williams (Wahlberg) and colleagues find a worsening situation on the Deepwater Horizon rig as the rig fire intensifies and secondary explosions occur all around them.

Along they way, one of the huge cranes is swinging perilously above the rig, as it has broken free of its cradle. Mike and Caleb see one of their fellow workers scale the fiery tower to get to the operator’s chair attempting to bring the crane back to its cradle. He does so heroically, but soon falls to his death as the continuing inferno claims him.

Mike and Caleb get to the generators and start them briefly. For a moment, back on the bridge, Andrea and others are elated they have power to maneuver the rig, but the power goes out again. Back at the generators, Mike and Caleb try again, and start the generators a second time, successfully it appears, and they try heading back to the bridge across the blazing rig.

A badly beaten up Mr. Jimmy confers with others on the bridge about their worsening situation on the Deepwater Horizon.
A badly beaten up Mr. Jimmy confers with others on the bridge about their worsening situation on the Deepwater Horizon.

Back on the bridge, Mr. Jimmy is flagging, nearly passes out, and is helped by Andrea. The situation on the rig has deteriorated badly by this time, and the captain gives the abandon ship order. Most of the crew have already made it to the lifeboats, and have evacuated the rig. The last of those on the bridge, including Mr. Jimmy, now head to the lifeboat area, only to discover that the last one has already left. Mike and others work to deploy a canister holding an inflatable emergency raft, and after some difficulty, are successful, though Caleb has caught fire and falls into the water during the process, but is shortly rescued.

Mike, Caleb, and others attempt to deploy an emergency raft cannister, their last chance of escape from the blazing Deepwater Horizon.
Mike, Caleb, and others attempt to deploy an emergency raft cannister, their last chance of escape from the blazing Deepwater Horizon.

As conditions on the rig deteriorate in the area of the emergency raft, Mike and Andrea are cut off from the raft area by a small explosion, and are unable to board the raft. Instead, they will have to don life vests and jump into the water. However, they have to climb to a higher level on the rig amid the inferno in order that their jump trajectory will take them beyond flaming seas. They climb up to the helicopter pad level.

Andrea is terrified and refuses to jump, as Mike tries coaxing her. Still she hesitates, then Mike asks her a distracting question and pushes her off the rig with a little run assist. He then follows her with his own run and leap. They each plunge deep beneath the water, surfacing in the oily waters as some flaming seas can be seen not far from them. They are later pulled to safety in a rescue skiff, which heads for the Damon Bangston nearby.

Mike and Andrea contemplating their plight after being unable to board the last emergency escape raft, now have to don life vests and jump from the burning Deepwater Horizon rig into the waters below, much of which is also ablaze.
Mike and Andrea contemplating their plight after being unable to board the last emergency escape raft, now have to don life vests and jump from the burning Deepwater Horizon rig into the waters below, much of which is also ablaze.

As they climb aboard that ship and find some space to collect themselves, they, like others, are shattered emotionally from the horror they have just experienced. Much of the evacuated crew has assembled on the deck of the Damon Bangston, where an injured Mr. Jimmy begins calling the roll to get an accounting of those who have made it. Evacuation helicopters come to take away the most seriously injured. After a time, the survivors on deck are led in a round of the Lord’s Prayer. The nearby Deepwater Horizon is still burning, and would continue to burn for two more days before it would sink to the sea floor more than 5,000 feet below.

Survivors from the Deepwater Horizon blow out and explosions have gathered on board the "Damon Bangston" vessel, here showing Dylan O'Brien's character, Caleb Holloway, at center.
Survivors from the Deepwater Horizon blow out and explosions have gathered on board the "Damon Bangston" vessel, here showing Dylan O'Brien's character, Caleb Holloway, at center.

The surviving crew is then taken away from the scene to hotels on land where they are given medical treatment and rooms to shower and reunite with their families. Mike is swarmed by reporters outside a hotel, and he is shoved against a wall by a distressed man asking him if his son got off the rig. Mike goes up to his room and breaks down as he tries to take a shower. Felicia and Sydney enter the room to comfort him in a family embrace. But throughout his ordeal, Mike has managed to hold onto the fossil he was given for Sydney, which he gives to her. Later, upon leaving the hotel, the camera pans Andrea and Caleb reuniting with their loved ones, while both Mike and Felicia embrace Mr. Jimmy, who is walking on crutches.

After the movie’s ending, the film continues with a tribute and homage to the eleven men who were killed on the Deepwater Horizon. There is also footage of the real Mike Williams, Andrea Fleytas, and James Harrell giving testimony in the aftermath of the disaster. Williams never returned to sea, and lives in Texas with his family. Fleytas lives in California and no longer works in the oil industry. James Harrell continued his work for Transocean. BP’s Donald Vidrine and Robert Kaluza (also portrayed in the film) were indicted on manslaughter charges, but federal prosecutors later dropped those charges.


Making The Film

“To this day, when people think of Deepwater Horizon, they only think of an oil spill,” said film director Peter Berg in 2016 comments to the Los Angeles Times, “– they think of an oil spill and dead pelicans,” said Berg. “Obviously that oil spill was horrific,” he continued. “But the reality is 11 men died on that rig and these men were just doing their jobs and many of them worked hard trying to prevent that oil from blowing out and it was certainly not their fault. As it pertains to the families of those men who lost their lives, I want them to feel as though another side of that story was presented, so that whenever someone talks about the Deepwater Horizon or offshore oil drilling, people don’t automatically go to ‘oil spills.’ ”

However, the families of the workers who were killed in the disaster were initially resistant to the film. “When Pete (Berg) and I reached out to the families we were getting resistance at first, and we didn’t understand,” said Wahlberg, also one of the film’s producers, in a USA Today interview. “I’ve done Lone Survivor [2013], I’ve done many true stories. We figured our reputation would have been enough to at least get us to be able to sit down (with them).”The families of the workers killed on the rig were afraid the film would again cause their loved ones to be blamed for the oil spill. The families, it turns out, were afraid that their loved ones would be blamed, again [as occurred in 2010], for the devastating environmental consequences of the massive oil spill that followed the disaster. But Berg and Wahlberg made clear to the families their intention was to highlight worker efforts to save the rig in doing their jobs, and helping save one another during the rig’s melt down. The film would also include coverage of rig safety measures cut by BP to speed up production – namely, skipping the check on the well cementing. Still, to be sure that they got the story as correct as possible from the workers’ perspective, as well as the work settings used in the film, they signed on Mike Williams as a consultant to the film. “Once I met Mike,” Wahlberg explained, “I just insisted that they bring him on as a consultant. I wanted him to be there with us and make sure we were getting it as accurately as possible.” Caleb Holloway was also consulted. Once Berg and Wahlberg communicated their intent to the families, they had their support for making the film.

May 2010.  "60 Minutes" aired a riveting interview with Mike Williams as part of a Deepwater Horizon story.
May 2010. "60 Minutes" aired a riveting interview with Mike Williams as part of a Deepwater Horizon story.
Mike Williams, for his part, was also apprehensive about the casting of his role. He was hesitant about being presented as any kind of a hero. “He was very nervous about what he called ‘stolen valor,'” Berg said in an Los Angeles Times interview. “He wanted to make sure that we didn’t present him in a way that made him look like he did a bunch of things that he didn’t do, or was any more heroic than any other people on that rig. And I respected that.”

Williams had also given a riveting 2010 interview with Scott Pelly on the CBS 60 Minutes program in which he recounted his harrowing escape from the rig. That interview also helped frame the Williams role in the film.

In making the film, there was also considerable attention to detail on the set, not the least of which was the enormous rig replica they built in Louisiana (see sidebar). On the bridge, for example, there were real drilling rig instrument panels and computer screens, and Berg and some of the actors were tutored in the business and technology of deep water oil drilling.

On the bridge set for the Deepwater Horizon film, real oil rig instrument panels and control monitors were installed to give an authentic look.
On the bridge set for the Deepwater Horizon film, real oil rig instrument panels and control monitors were installed to give an authentic look.

In an interview on National Public Radio, Berg explained that he had the good fortune of attending a kind of “oil school” which was set up for him and others by some of the film’s producers. In that experience, Berg explained, “we were able to spend a lot of time with petroleum engineers and deepwater drilling experts,” who took them slowly and carefully enough through the process that they developed an appreciation and decent understanding of offshore drilling. Likewise, Gina Rodriguez, who plays Andrea Fleytas, the bridge officer who runs the Deepwater Horizon’s navigation controls, was sent to dynamic positioning school in Houston where she learned Fleytas’ duties aboard the rig. Rodriguez also spoke with Fleytas and studied audio tapes of her testimony during one of the government inquiries on the disaster.

Big Oil’s Turf
Filming Not Welcome

As the film-makers sought to be as realistic as possible in making a film about an oil industry disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, they rightly came to the Gulf coast region and to Louisiana to do their filming. But as it turns out, according to director, Peter Berg, the oil industry, and BP in particular, wasn’t exactly excited about the prospect of a film on the Deepwater Horizon disaster. And in fact, according to Berg, BP went out of its way to make filming in Louisiana as difficult as possible.

Peter Berg, director, 'Deepwater Horizon' film, 2016.
Peter Berg, director, 'Deepwater Horizon' film, 2016.

“…BP became a very effective disruptor and prevented us getting any access to any oil rigs. We couldn’t even fly by one. At one point we were in a helicopter on a tour of a rig called the Nautilus and were told if we got any closer we would be perceived to be a threat and they were going to defend themselves. The companies exert so much power because they are such financial engines in that part of the country – anyone who worked with BP basically said they couldn’t talk to us. We had consultants who would work with us for a day or two, but the third day they would call in sick and we would never hear from them again. We had contracts to film on the tenders that go back and forth to the rigs – then the day before, they would say we couldn’t. It became obvious that BP was doing a great job of intimidating most of the people down in that community. We understood it; it wasn’t a news flash. BP pays a lot of bills there, a lot of mortgages, sends a lot of kids to school, pays a lot of medical insurance. We realized our only option was to build our own rig – which we did… [more on this below]

Berg also discovered that several of the people who were involved in the real-life incident had gag orders as a result of their settlement with BP, and “told us they could not speak with us.” And then there was the threat of BP legal action hanging over the production. Says Berg: “…The legal processes were something else.“It became obvious that BP was doing a great job of intimidating most of the people down in that community.” Lionsgate, our studio, had a team of independent lawyers who would review every word in the script… [Also]… in the final edits the lawyers were all over me; it was the first time in my career I have ever had to take mandatory edits from the studio….”

The rig seen in the movie and used in filming was an 85 percent scale recreation of the actual Deepwater Horizon rig. But this “studio rig” was no small project – and in many ways, was an actual smaller rig using real materials. It was located in a rural area of Louisiana at an abandoned amusement park. The rig was constructed using 3.2 million pounds of steel, and was built inside of a giant, five-acre, two-and-a-half million gallon water tank. Peter Berg would say of this project:

…[T]he set we built was about 85 feet in the air, was about size of about one and a half football fields, and underneath it was a 5-acre water tank that we could set on fire… [W]e could…blow up giant pieces of that set and blow oil and mud up in the air about 150 feet and land helicopters on it to do all kinds of things to try and provide the audience with an experience that…felt as authentic…as possible.”

An 85-percent scale recreation of the actual Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, using some 3.2 million pounds of steel, and set in a 5-acre water tank, had to be constructed in rural Louisiana due in part, to oil industry resistance to using an existing rig.
An 85-percent scale recreation of the actual Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, using some 3.2 million pounds of steel, and set in a 5-acre water tank, had to be constructed in rural Louisiana due in part, to oil industry resistance to using an existing rig.

“I’m pretty sure it’s the biggest practical set ever built, really ever, in the history of filmmaking. It’s certainly one of them,” Peter Berg said in a September 2015 Los Angeles Times story on the set. The main deck sat more than five stories in the air, and internally real materials were used from similar oil rigs on the bridge set and throughout other parts of the rig. “On the drill deck, all the mechanics above them, we built that for real,” explained production designer, Chris Seagers. “We thought we’d just rent that stuff, but then you realize each piece weighs 20, 30 tons. So we had to make it all…” The real Mike Williams acknowledged the set’s accuracies — “all the way down to the salt and pepper shakers in the galley.” In addition to meticulously recreating the rig, current and former oil workers and Coast Guard members were cast in smaller roles. In the end, the rig was set ablaze to recreate the explosions and inferno.

The fact that this substitute rig had to be built from scratch, as opposed to using an existing or out-of-commission rig somewhere in the Gulf, meant that huge and unexpected costs were confronted, which certainly cut into the film’s profit, which was meager in the end. The film’s costs of $156 million, minus some production credits from the state of Louisiana, gave it net costs of about $120 million. Worldwide box office for the film was $122 million plus another $16 million in 2017 video sales.


Reviews & Critics

On September 13, 2016, Deepwater Horizon had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, where, after its screening, it received a standing ovation. The film opened in theaters about a week later. Deepwater Horizon received generally positive reviews from critics and viewers. Audiences polled by CinemaScore, for example, gave the film an average grade of “A–”.

The Times-Picayune of New Orleans produced 'Six Steps That Doomed The Rig' in 2010, which includes detailed descriptions of what went wrong in each of those areas. Click for enlarged version.
The Times-Picayune of New Orleans produced 'Six Steps That Doomed The Rig' in 2010, which includes detailed descriptions of what went wrong in each of those areas. Click for enlarged version.
BP’s review of the film, however, was negative – and not unexpected. In late September 2016, as the film began circulating in theaters worldwide, a statement came from Geoff Morrell, BP senior vice-president of U.S. communications and external affairs:

“The Deepwater Horizon movie is Hollywood’s take on a tragic and complex accident. It is not an accurate portrayal of the events that led to the accident, our people, or the character of our company. Morrell also said the film “ignores the conclusions reached by every official investigation: that the accident was the result of multiple errors made by a number of companies.”

Yes, true enough, other companies and the lack of government oversight share the blame. Yet the major errors at the Macondo well, and the setting of a culture of haste at the expense of safety, were those laid to BP,

(For those who might want more detail on the causes of the Deepwater Horizon blowout, click on the New Orleans Times-Picayune graphic at right to explore the enlarged version of “Six Steps That Doomed the Rig.”)

One of the film’s producers, Lorenzo di Bonaventura, explained that Deepwater Horizon sought to steer clear of simplistic depictions of corporate villainy, though it is clear that BP’s Donald Vidrine is wearing the back hat in this film, which is basically supported by the historical record (although perhaps compressed for the purpose of filmmaking).

“In those kinds of events, there is no black and white,” Di Bonaventura said in one interview about the film. “If you have an agenda, you’ll see this movie through your agenda. But it’s very important to us: It’s not an anti-oil movie. It’s not a pro-oil movie. It’s what happened that day.”

Most reviews of the film were positive. Benjamin Lee of The Guardian of London praised Berg’s direction as “admirably, uncharacteristically restrained…[He] stages the action horribly well, capturing the panic and gruesome mayhem without the film ever feeling exploitative. It’s spectacularly constructed, yet it doesn’t forget about the loss of life…”

Gina Rodriguez plays rig navigation expert, Andrea Fleytas, who has a near-death escape scene from the blazing rig.
Gina Rodriguez plays rig navigation expert, Andrea Fleytas, who has a near-death escape scene from the blazing rig.
Deepwater Horizon “evokes the human cost of that calamity from the crew’s point of view,” wrote one Wall Street Journal reviewer, “and does so with impressive pictorial energy.” In other reviews, the film and Berg received high marks for providing context and offering explanations, while not simply making it all explosions and gore.

Reviewers also found the performances of Wahlberg, Russell, Maklkovich, Rodriguez, and Hudson as bringing authenticity to the film.

“…Wahlberg proves a sturdy, sympathetic leader on a journey to an enormous floating hellscape,” wrote Ann Hornaday in her Washington Post review. Another thought Kurt Russell was especially good in his role, worthy of a best supporting actor consideration. And portions of Gina Rodriguez’s performance — especially those at near the end, showing human fear — added to the believability of how people react in life-threatening situations.

There was also one review from CatholicMom.com that found the film’s depictions of marriage, family life, faith – minor as they may appear – all to be pluses, from the Wahlberg-Hudson characters as a married couple in love, to Wahlberg’s sign-of-the-cross-moment and the surviving crew taking a knee to say the Our Father together.

True, there was some criticism of the film for straying too far from the actual events, or not getting things exactly right technically. Some felt there was too much technical detail, others not enough. Time magazine’s Justin Worland, who flagged some of the film’s shortcomings in his September 2016 review, nevertheless concluded: “…No movie is flawless and, as far as films based on true events go, Deepwater Horizon is pretty good. The average viewer will walk away from the movie with a new understanding of a complex disaster. And, as easy as it is to complain about the details, the film gets the gist of it right.”

Sample poster art for "Deepwater Horizon" film.
Sample poster art for "Deepwater Horizon" film.
One viewer in Houston, Texas, David Vaucher, a director specializing in energy issues at the firm Alvarez and Marsal, told the Houston Chronicle in October 2016 after viewing Deepwater Horizon, that the film didn’t need to be completely accurate in order to have an impact. Vaucher went to see the movie because he was concerned about the oil and gas industry’s portrayal. However, he came away thinking that Deepwater Horizon is a cautionary tale the industry should embrace. “This is really horrible to watch,” he said. “Let’s just try and learn something from it. I hope that in 10 or 15 years that people will still talk about this film.”

Whatever the technical, sequential, or composited shortcomings of this film may be, they are few and inconsequential as far as the main story line is concerned. On the whole, Deepwater Horizon is a genre of film that Hollywood should be lauded for making. Thank you, Lionsgate. In fact, Hollywood should make more films like it. Lord knows there are lots of industrial calamities and pollution stories out there that need to be told, many with real human consequences and drama at their core. History is full of examples – from the coal mines, the steel mills, the chemical factories, and more. Hollywood needs to do much more in these arenas as a public service and for public education. Less Marvel, more realism.

For those interested in “Part II” of the Deepwater Horizon disaster – i.e., the oil spill and its aftermath — a bit of that history follows below, along with some of its media coverage. In addition, more than a dozen books on the spill, shown with cover art, are listed in “Sources” at the end of this article.

May 17, 2010 Time magazine cover story, “The Big Spill".
May 17, 2010 Time magazine cover story, “The Big Spill".
New Orleans Times-Picayune graphic showing Deepwater Horizon rig, disconnected riser pipe, and blowout preventer at the well head, all on the sea bed, 5,000 feet below Gulf surface.
New Orleans Times-Picayune graphic showing Deepwater Horizon rig, disconnected riser pipe, and blowout preventer at the well head, all on the sea bed, 5,000 feet below Gulf surface.
“SpillCam,” on the sea bottom at hemorrhaging well spewing thousands of bbls per day, became a split-screen 'star' during CNN and other TV broadcasts probing the spill.
“SpillCam,” on the sea bottom at hemorrhaging well spewing thousands of bbls per day, became a split-screen 'star' during CNN and other TV broadcasts probing the spill.
June 18, 2010. L. A. Times front-page photo & story on BP's Tony Hayward in Washington: “Head of BP Rejects Taking Blame.”
June 18, 2010. L. A. Times front-page photo & story on BP's Tony Hayward in Washington: “Head of BP Rejects Taking Blame.”
June 17, 2010. Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA) with photo of oil-covered pelican during hearings in Congress, as he admonished BP’s Tony Hayward to "keep this image in your mind".
June 17, 2010. Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA) with photo of oil-covered pelican during hearings in Congress, as he admonished BP’s Tony Hayward to "keep this image in your mind".
May 12, 2010. Front-page oil spill headlines from Florida’s ‘Pensacola News Journal’ featuring 'BP Holding Back' story & Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) during Washington hearings.
May 12, 2010. Front-page oil spill headlines from Florida’s ‘Pensacola News Journal’ featuring 'BP Holding Back' story & Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) during Washington hearings.
June 4, 2010. President Obama with Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, and speaking with press, at Deepwater Horizon oil spill response center in New Orleans, Louisiana.
June 4, 2010. President Obama with Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, and speaking with press, at Deepwater Horizon oil spill response center in New Orleans, Louisiana.
June 12, 2010. Portion of the front page of the Press-Register of south Alabama reporting on 'black tide' hitting the beaches.
June 12, 2010. Portion of the front page of the Press-Register of south Alabama reporting on 'black tide' hitting the beaches.
June 7, 2010. During Congressional hearing in Chalmette, LA, Rep. Bart Stupak (D-MI) holds up full-page BP newspaper ad to illustrate  complaint about BP paying for advertising while Gulf Coast region faced financial need.
June 7, 2010. During Congressional hearing in Chalmette, LA, Rep. Bart Stupak (D-MI) holds up full-page BP newspaper ad to illustrate complaint about BP paying for advertising while Gulf Coast region faced financial need.
June 14, 2010. Portion of Newsweek cover, with featured story, "What The Spill Will Kill".
June 14, 2010. Portion of Newsweek cover, with featured story, "What The Spill Will Kill".
June 12, 2010. Front page of The Mississippi Press showing oil on beaches of Petit Bois Island and reporting that latest spill projections look bad for wildlife and BP damages.
June 12, 2010. Front page of The Mississippi Press showing oil on beaches of Petit Bois Island and reporting that latest spill projections look bad for wildlife and BP damages.
June 14, 2010. Chemical & Engineering News cover story: 'Oil Spill Exposes Regulatory, Science Gaps'.
June 14, 2010. Chemical & Engineering News cover story: 'Oil Spill Exposes Regulatory, Science Gaps'.
June 15, 2010. Pensacola, FL newspaper shows President Obama walking the beach with Governor Crist with headline, “BP Will Pay”, and story about Obama speech to nation.
June 15, 2010. Pensacola, FL newspaper shows President Obama walking the beach with Governor Crist with headline, “BP Will Pay”, and story about Obama speech to nation.
Signs of protest – like this one along a Grand Isle, LA highway in July 2010 – were spotted throughout the region, expressing anger of those whose lives and livelihoods were turned upside down by the spill, fishing restrictions, and oil drilling bans.
Signs of protest – like this one along a Grand Isle, LA highway in July 2010 – were spotted throughout the region, expressing anger of those whose lives and livelihoods were turned upside down by the spill, fishing restrictions, and oil drilling bans.
July 2010.  Newsweek cover features a critical story on the Obama Administration's response to the BP oil spill.
July 2010. Newsweek cover features a critical story on the Obama Administration's response to the BP oil spill.
National Geographic offered a special report on the Gulf oil spill in its October 2010 edition, featuring a partially cleaned Brown Pelican at the Fort Jackson Bird Rehabilitation Center.
National Geographic offered a special report on the Gulf oil spill in its October 2010 edition, featuring a partially cleaned Brown Pelican at the Fort Jackson Bird Rehabilitation Center.
January 2011: The Obama-appointed National Oil Spill Commission’s 390pp report on the Deepwater Horizon disaster, titled “Deep Water,” with blazing rig on cover.
January 2011: The Obama-appointed National Oil Spill Commission’s 390pp report on the Deepwater Horizon disaster, titled “Deep Water,” with blazing rig on cover.
Nov 2012. Wall Street Journal Europe on $4.5 billion in criminal fines for BP, with Clean Water Act fines yet to come.
Nov 2012. Wall Street Journal Europe on $4.5 billion in criminal fines for BP, with Clean Water Act fines yet to come.
2015. National Wildlife Federation’s “five-years-later” report on the Gulf oil spill’s wildlife and ecosystem impacts.
2015. National Wildlife Federation’s “five-years-later” report on the Gulf oil spill’s wildlife and ecosystem impacts.

The Real Spill

After the Blowout…

Once the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig sank, the spill phase of the disaster began in earnest. It would last for more than 80 days — and the controversy would continue for years.

But unlike most other oil spills, this one was an underwater hemorrhage — deep underwater, more than a mile. Large oil slicks on the surface would take a while to form, and the oil wouldn’t reach coastal areas for some weeks. Still, national TV news coverage had begun with the rig explosion and would continue, along with extensive print coverage, throughout the spring and summer of 2010.

One prominent TV image became the real-time underwater camera – nicknamed “SpillCam” – that focused on the spewing crude from the blown out well at the bottom of the sea. The volume of oil escaping – originally estimated by BP to be about 1,000 barrels per day—would rise considerably over subsequent weeks as experts got a better fix on the volume, later figured by U.S. government officials and other experts to have been 60,000 barrels per day for much of the spill’s uncontrolled duration.

Magazine cover stories and front-page newspaper accounts lasted for months, including coverage of hearings in Washington and in the Gulf region, as BP executives, rig survivors, and government officials were summoned to answer questions from Congress, the U.S. Coast Guard, Dept. of Interior investigators, and others.

Throughout the ordeal, neither government nor industry fared very well in public opinion polls. Early on, there were some fairly dismissive comments by BP officials, either to press or made during hearings.

BP’s CEO at the time, Tony Hayward, in May 14th, 2010 comments to U.S. Secretary of the Interior, stated: “The Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean. The amount of volume of oil and dispersant we are putting into it is tiny in relation to the total water volume.” A few days later, on May 18th, in other comments Hayward stated: “I think the environmental impact of this disaster is likely to be very, very modest….”

Somewhat later, as Hayward had suffered through a few inquiries and haranguing by the press, he was quoted saying: “…There’s no one who wants this thing over more than I do, I’d like my life back.” That comment was especially hurtful to the families of those killed in the rig explosion, also resented by many Gulf Coast residents whose lives and livelihoods had been turned upside down by the spill.

As plumes of oil formed on the sea surface, strategies were deployed to spray the spill with chemical dispersant to break up, congeal, and sink it. There were also “controlled burns” of corralled portions of the oil slick at sea. Both methods were billed as ways to keep the spill from moving inland, to protect wetlands and beaches. Neither of these strategies were especially popular, and the chemical dispersant, Corexit, was suspect as a toxic problem itself.

At the White House, initially, there had been no verification of a major spill problem. Although briefed by the Coast Guard on the search and rescue operations following the rig explosion, there appeared to be little concern in the Obama Administration about a spill — at least at first. Once the rig sank, there was heightened concern and more briefings, though the requisite federal agencies were assumed to be handling the situation.

Only weeks earlier President Obama had proposed expanding the government’s offshore oil leasing program. And during remarks on April 2, 2010, Obama was quoted as saying: “It turns out, by the way, that oil rigs today generally don’t cause spills. They are technologically very advanced. Even during [hurricane] Katrina, the spills didn’t come from the oil rigs. They came from the refineries on shore.” But soon, the Administration would discover that advanced offshore technologies had their shortcomings.

Once it was clear there was a major spill, the president sent his top energy and environmental officials to the Gulf region to assess the problem. The Coast Guard was already working with BP. On April 29, the president said he would use all in his power to contain the spill, including bringing in the U.S. military if necessary. The following day, the White House ordered that no new offshore drilling would be permitted until the cause of Deepwater Horizon disaster was determined.

Meanwhile, at the main event – i.e., trying to stop the hemorrhaging well – BP struggled with its technology and various jerry-rigged methods.

When the drilling rig sank (see diagram above right), the long riser pipe between it and the well 5,000 feet below broke off at the rig end, though staying connected to the top of the giant blowout preventer atop the well on the sea bed below. It would later be learned that there were leaks along the riser pipe, at the blowout preventer, and at the well head.

First, BP tried, via deep-sea robot, to manually turn on the blowout preventer, but that didn’t work. BP had also begun, by May 2nd, drilling relief wells, one designed to intersect the Macondo well so it could be plugged with cement. But that well wouldn’t be complete until August, nearly two months away.

Then BP began fashioning a giant, 125-ton containment dome on land, later brought to the site on a separate vessel. This massive structure was lowered over the spewing well on May 7th with the hope that it would trap and siphon off some of the escaping oil, sent to surface vessels. But deep-sea ice hydrates foiled that attempt.

Back in Washington, meanwhile, three executives from BP, Transocean and Halliburton testified on May 11th before a U.S. Senate committee, each blaming one or both of the other companies for the incident.

Several days later, on May 15th, scientists reported huge underwater plumes of oil – one six miles wide and 22 miles long. These underwater “clouds of oil” consisted of oil beads believed to be the result of chemical dispersants used on the spill. The underwater plumes were moving with the current toward the coastline.

Back at the well, on May 16th, BP inserted a narrow tube into the riser pipe, capturing a small portion of the escaping oil and pumping it to a surface ship. But the well was still releasing tens of thousands of barrels per day into the Gulf.

By May 19th, the oil was reaching Louisiana wetlands at the mouth of the Mississippi River. “This wasn’t tarballs, This wasn’t sheen,” reported Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal. “This is heavy oil in our wetlands.” Oil had also hit the Chandeleur Islands earlier in May, barrier islands that comprise an eastern boundary for Louisiana and include part of the Breton National Wildlife Refuge.

By late May, NOAA — the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — had closed nearly 20 percent of the Gulf of Mexico to fishing. The toll on wildlife and natural resources mounted day by day, and throughout the ordeal, there were heroic efforts to save and treat oiled wildlife. On June 28th, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission began digging up turtle egg nest on Florida’s Panhandle Gulf Coast and moving them to the state’s Atlantic coast – thousands to be moved this way by November 2010. Reporting by the Los Angeles Times on wildlife losses found that by August 2010, some 516 dead sea turtles had been collected and more than 3,900 dead birds. The Audubon Society would later report that more than one million birds were killed.

On May 22nd, President Obama ordered the creation of a bi-partisan national commission on the spill to report on the root causes of the disaster and options for improved safety and environmental protection. Five days later, on May 27th, he announced a six month moratorium on new deep water drilling.

Obama would make several trips to the Gulf region during the duration of the BP spill, meeting variously with Coast Guard officials, state governors, fishermen, local residents, and walking beaches. His first visit came on May 2nd, 2010, when he traveled to Venice, Louisiana.

Back in Washington, on June 1st, Attorney General, Eric Holder, announced that the Justice Department would begin a criminal and civil investigation of the oil spill.

Meanwhile, attempts to control the hemorrhaging well continued with more of BP’s “technological-trial-and-error.” On May 26th, BP tried a maneuver it called “top kill,” using a 30,000 bbls of mud-like liquid to staunch the flow. Along with that was “junk shot,” using golf balls and shredded tires in an attempt to clog up the blowout preventer to stop the flow. Neither worked. By May 27th the oil was reported to be leaking at a rate of 19,000 bbls per day, a rate later found to be low.

Public opinion polls were extremely critical of BP’s response. Across the U.S. at one point, thousands participated in protests at BP gas stations and other locations, actions which reduced BP sales at some stations by 10-to-40 percent. BP’s stock suffered and its reputation sank to all time lows. By June 1st, BP’s stock value had fallen some 40 percent, a reduction of nearly $75 billion in shareholder value.

On June 3, BP began an advertising campaign in the U.S. aimed at boosting public opinion. Tony Hayward was featured in one of the first TV spots, and also on the company’s Facebook page offering a mea culpa for his earlier “I-want-my-life-back” remark. Here’s Hayward in one of the June 3rd TV ads:

“The Gulf spill is a tragedy that never should have happened.

” … BP has taken full responsibility for cleaning up the spill in the Gulf… We’ve helped organize the largest environmental response in this country’s history… Where oil reaches the shore, thousands of people are ready to clean it up. We will honor all legitimate claims. And our cleanup efforts will not come at any cost to taxpayers.

“To those affected and your families, I am deeply sorry. The Gulf is home for thousands of BP’s employees and we all feel the impact. To all the volunteers and for the strong support of the government, thank you. We know it is our responsibility to keep you informed. And do everything we can so this never happens again. We will get this done. We will make this right.”

The same message appeared in major newspaper ads. BP in fact, more than tripled its advertising budget in the U.S. in the three months after the explosion to combat negative publicity and rising public anger. Between April and early July 2010 by one estimate, BP spent $93 million on advertising.

BP’s campaign also included local newspaper ads, run in 126 markets in 17 states, including the those directly impacted by the oil spill. Rep. Kathy Castor (D-FL), one of those critical of BP’s campaign, said at one point:

“BP’s extensive advertising campaign that is solely focused on polishing its corporate image in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon blowout disaster is making people angry… As small businesses, fishermen, and mom and pop motels, hotels and restaurants struggle to make ends meet, they are bombarded by BP’s corporate marketing largesse day after day.”

In one interesting move to capture the informational high ground on public queries, BP purchased Google and other search engine page-one positioning (shown as top-of-page sponsored content) for search terms such as “oil spill.”

Further work at the well continued as BP moved with underwater robots to shear off the riser pipe from the gushing well. This was part of a plan to install a containment cap, which was successful, as some siphoning off of escaping oil began. Still, by June 10th, the government was then estimating that 25,000-to-30,000 bbls of oil per day were flowing into the Gulf.

On June 15th BP officials met with President Obama at the White House. The following day, BP announced it was setting up a $20 billion escrow fund for damages and claims and also agreed to set aside $100 million to pay lost wages to oil worker left unemployed by the disaster.

On July 12, BP installed of a “capping stack,” to provide a tighter seal on the well – this until the relief wells were completed. Three days later BP reported that the hemorrhage had stopped. However, there was continuing question that all the leakage had stopped.

On August 4th, BP reported that its ‘static kill’ attempt to stop the oil leak by pumping mud into the well had been successful, though more mud may still have to be pumped into the well. The following day, on August 5th, BP pumped cement into the blown-out well, asserting the leak was permanently sealed. The U.S. government, however, wouldn’t declare the well “effectively dead” until September 19th, 2010, some five months after the blow-out.

Once the well was capped, there was still plenty of drama ahead and years of settling up – cleaning up the mess, investigating the accident, adjudicating blame, assessing damages, parsing claims, and making reparation. While the spill was in progress, a series of inquiries, hearings, and investigations had already begun – one joint investigation by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement and the U.S. Coast Guard. Various committees in the U.S. Congress also conducted hearings, some held in the Gulf region. By early July 2010 at least 19 congressional committees — 11 House and eight Senate — had held hearings on the rig failure and/or the oil spill.

Then came a variety of reports – a few from the companies involved, as well as more weighty tomes from government agencies. Each of the reports, in one way or another, implicated one or more of principals – BP, Transocean, and Halliburton. These reports also enumerated a series of mistakes, bad calls, and failed technology in one way or another, some shifting blame more this way or that, while others tried to remain neutral.

Notable among the reports was that of the Obama-appointed, bi-partisan national commission on the Deepwater Horizon, released in early January 2011. This 390-page report to the President – titled Deepwater: The Gulf Oil Disaster and The Future of Offshore Drilling – concluded the blowout was “avoidable” and resulted from “clear mistakes” made by BP, Halliburton and Transocean. But theses mistakes, said the commission “reveal such systemic failures in risk management that they place in doubt the safety culture of the entire industry.”

At one of the Commission’s earlier briefings it was also stated there had been “a rush to completion” on the Macondo well and, “there was not a culture of safety on that rig.”

One example of that failing came when rig operators were doing a “negative pressure test” to check the integrity of the cement job on the well to prevent gas from leaking. Co-chairman Bill Reilly explained that the operators didn’t like a reading they were getting from the drill pipe test, so they did a second test on another piece of equipment, which came out better.

“Inexplicably,” said Reilly, “a decision was made to take the reassuring test result without trying to figure out why it was inconsistent with the information coming up the drill pipe.” The report blames the operators for failing to communicate the inconsistent results to their onshore operations and states that if they had, the blowout may not have occurred.

In another example, before the accident, Halliburton found that the cement slurry it planned to use was not stable, but Halliburton did little to warn BP.

The report also singled out “government officials who, relying too much on industry’s assertions of the safety of their operations, failed to create and apply a program of regulatory oversight that would have properly minimized the risk of deepwater drilling.”

Commission co-chairman Bob Graham, former US. Senator (D-FL), said at the report’s release: “I’m sad to say that part of the answer is the fact that our government let it happen… Our regulators were consistently outmatched. The Department of Interior lacked the in-house expertise to effectively enforce regulation.”

Meanwhile, in London in November 2011, Tony Hayward, by then no longer BP’s CEO (resigned July 27, 2010), made some fairly stunning revelations about the disaster to BBC television and other news outlets – namely, that “BP’s contingency plans were inadequate,” and “we were making it up day to day.” Hayward added, however, that BP was actually doing “some extraordinary engineering” under the circumstances – “tasks completed in days that would normally take months, numerous major innovations with lasting benefits.” But when these efforts were “played out in the full glare of the media,” he said, “it looked like fumbling and incompetence.”

“While we were able to mount a massive response to contain and disperse the oil on the surface,” Hayward said, “we did not have the equipment to contain and disperse on the seabed. In fact the equipment had never been designed or built. It simply did not exist.” And it wasn’t just BP that was unprepared for a deep water disaster. “The whole industry,” he said, “had been lulled into a sense of false security after 20 years of drilling in deep water without a serious accident…” For BP, he said, the Deepwater Horizon event “was the ultimate low-probability, high-impact event – a black swan to borrow a term used in the financial crisis.”

“Embarrassingly we found ourselves having to improvise on prime-time TV…”

In November 2012, BP and the U.S. Department of Justice settled federal criminal charges with BP pleading guilty to 11 counts of manslaughter, two misdemeanors, and a felony count of lying to Congress. As of February 2013, criminal and civil settlements and payments to a trust fund had cost the company $42.2 billion. In September 2014, a U.S. District Court judge ruled that BP was primarily responsible for the oil spill because of its gross negligence and reckless conduct. In July 2015, BP agreed to pay $18.7 billion in fines, the largest corporate settlement in U.S. history.

All told, BP is on the hook for something north of $60 billion for all Deepwater Horizon related charges, portions of which were being paid by the company over time in smaller annual installments continuing through 2018 and beyond.

Still, today, BP survives and remains one the world’s largest corporations, continuing to drill for oil around the world. In fact, by late April 2012, it was starting work on three new Gulf of Mexico oil rigs – then making a total of eight new BP drilling sites in the Gulf of Mexico, more than it operated before the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

The Obama Administration for its part, did move to reorganize the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Minerals Management Service (MMS), which was found to have exercised poor industry oversight and had internal conflicts of interests. In October 2011, MMS was dissolved and divided into three new agencies: the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, for regulation; the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management for leasing; and the Office of Natural Resources Revenue for revenue collection.

The disaster’s economic impacts on the Gulf region were considerable: the coastal tourism industry lost about $22.7 billion, and the area’s commercial fishing industry, $247 million. BP faced more than 390,000 claims from fishermen, seafood producers, and tourism providers, and most of these were paid, or will be paid, when determined to be valid. Wildlife losses, ecological and natural resources damage have also been significant, with ongoing studies and assessments still being made.

Encyclopedia Britannica map of the Gulf of Mexico and region showing former location of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig and the extent of the oil spill, impacted shoreline areas, and the spill’s relation to Gulf currents.
Encyclopedia Britannica map of the Gulf of Mexico and region showing former location of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig and the extent of the oil spill, impacted shoreline areas, and the spill’s relation to Gulf currents.

The lessons of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster loom large over the world’s offshore oil regions – whether the Gulf of Mexico, the North Sea, Southeast Asia, Eastern Africa, or the Australian Bight. As drillers push into more remote frontier regions with harsh conditions, and move into deeper and deeper waters with attendant geologic pressures, risks and unknowns will rise, and the world will be but one mistake, one unfortunate decision, or one technological glitch away from the next fiasco. Greenland, taking a cue from the Deepwater Horizon disaster, announced it November 2010 that it will require a $2 billion “bond” up front from oil companies who want to drill in its Arctic waters.

Added to the possibility of future Deepwater Horizon-type events, and perhaps more problematic, is the continuing “routine” assault of offshore oil spills, pipeline breaks, and drilling rig mishaps that rarely make the evening news. And of those recorded in recent years since the Deepwater Horizon by Interior’s new Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), there is not much to cheer about. Here are some totals of reported incidents for the 2011-2017 period, occurring across offshore leases in the federal outer continental shelf region (of which the Gulf of Mexico is the largest), based on BSEE categories: 74 collisions, 377 evacuations (or musters for evacuation), 760 fires and explosions, 140 gas releases, 26 loss-of-well-control incidents (which can be a precursor to a blowout), 129 spills (oil, drilling mud and/or chemicals), more than 1,400 injuries, and 13 fatalities. These numbers do not include incidents in state offshore waters or other inland waters. Nor do they include “unreported” incidents. In the Gulf of Mexico, there are thousands of rigs operating.

Map of some 3,858 oil and gas platforms in the Gulf of Mexico as of 2006, also showing the former location of the Deepwater Horizon rig. The yellow dots used to note platform locations are not to scale and exaggerate the density of platforms. NOAA 2012.
Map of some 3,858 oil and gas platforms in the Gulf of Mexico as of 2006, also showing the former location of the Deepwater Horizon rig. The yellow dots used to note platform locations are not to scale and exaggerate the density of platforms. NOAA 2012.

Another concern in the Gulf of Mexico, according to an investigation by Associated Press (AP), are more than 27,000 abandoned oil wells found there from a host of companies, including BP. AP has described the area as “an environmental minefield that has been ignored for decades”. Some of these wells date back to the 1940s, and state officials estimate that tens of thousands of them are badly sealed. There are also 43,000 miles of underwater pipeline and pumping stations in the Gulf.

In any case, the likelihood of more offshore incidents occurring in U.S. waters in the years ahead has increased significantly with recent actions by the Trump Administration. In December 2010, the Obama Administration had backed away from plans to expand offshore oil and gas development, putting the waters off the Atlantic seaboard and the eastern Gulf of Mexico off-limits for at least another seven years. Obama also strengthened offshore regulations in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon disaster. However, Trump has now reversed all of that, and wants to expand offshore oil and gas development in all U.S. waters. Coastal communities and environmental organizations throughout the nation are girding for the battles ahead. Stay tuned.

Additional stories on the environment and the oil industry at this website can be found at the “Environmental History” topics page. Thanks for visiting — and if you like what you find here, please make a donation to help support the research and writing at this website. Thank you. – Jack Doyle

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Date Posted: 14 July 2018
Last Update: 14 July 2018
Comments to: jdoyle@pophistorydig.com

Article Citation:
Jack Doyle, “Deepwater Horizon: Hollywood & Big Oil,”
PopHistoryDig.com, July 14, 2018.

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Deepwater Horizon Blowout & Spill
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“Goffin and King”
Love & Music: 1950s-2010s

For a time in the 1950s-1960s era, Carole King and Gerry Goffin, pictured below, made beautiful music together, both in their love affair and for the millions who listened to the songs they wrote. They became, at a young age, one of America’s most creative and productive songwriting teams. They rose to fame working for the fabled New York City / Brill Building song publisher, Aldon Music. Their story is one of great accomplishment, though touched by personal sorrow, love undone, and rocky travels ahead for each. What follows here is some of that history and cultural context.

1959: In a photo that suggests an air of youthful confidence, young lovers Carole King & Gerry Goffin are about to hit the big time with a string of pop music hits. But their union would not survive the shoals of 1960s’ drugs and entertainment-world temptations.
1959: In a photo that suggests an air of youthful confidence, young lovers Carole King & Gerry Goffin are about to hit the big time with a string of pop music hits. But their union would not survive the shoals of 1960s’ drugs and entertainment-world temptations.

Gerry Goffin and Carole King were each born and raised in the boroughs of New York City. Gerry was born in Brooklyn, though later moving to Queens after his parents divorced when he was five. Carole Klein – later taking the name Carole King in high school – was born in Manhattan, daughter of a firefighter and school teacher. She would be raised in Brooklyn and taught piano by her mother at an early age. As a boy, Gerry had been exposed to show tune music at home, and growing up, he also “played a game with words in my head,” though without music, foreshadowing a talent that would serve him well a few years later. After graduating from Brooklyn Technical High School, Gerry enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserve. He then spent a year at the U.S. Naval Academy, Class of 1961, but resigned from the Navy to study chemistry at Queens College.

Gerry & Carole at work in their early days at Aldon Music.
Gerry & Carole at work in their early days at Aldon Music.
1959: Carole King and singer Johnny Restivo between takes in New York recording studio.
1959: Carole King and singer Johnny Restivo between takes in New York recording studio.
1959, New York: Carole King, Paul Simon, and Gerry Goffin listening to a playback of some music they worked on.
1959, New York: Carole King, Paul Simon, and Gerry Goffin listening to a playback of some music they worked on.
Early 1960s. Carole King at piano, with  fellow Brill Building song writers Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil behind her, and husband/partner, Gerry Goffin, far right.
Early 1960s. Carole King at piano, with fellow Brill Building song writers Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil behind her, and husband/partner, Gerry Goffin, far right.
Carole King & Gerry Goffin, somewhat later 1960s.
Carole King & Gerry Goffin, somewhat later 1960s.

Carole went to public high school in Brooklyn and as a teen had attended Alan Freed Paramount Theater rock `n roll shows in New York, where she had been moved by the music and performers. In high school she formed a band briefly and made demo records with her friend, Paul Simon. Carole sold her first composition in Manhattan for $25 when she was 16. But in 1958, Carole King met Gerry Goffin at Queens College.

“She was interested in writing rock’n’roll, and I was interested in writing this Broadway play [a musical about beatniks],” Goffin would later recall for Vanity Fair. “So we had an agreement where she would write [music] to the play if I would write [lyrics] to some of her rock ‘n roll melodies…” Gerry eventually gave up on his play, as the pair decided to focus on writing rock ‘n roll tunes. And along the way, they fell in love.

Neil Sedaka, who had dated King in high school, had a hit song in 1959 titled “Oh! Carol.” Goffin took the tune and wrote a playful response to it titled, “Oh! Neil,” which King recorded and released as a single. She and Gerry also wrote the B-side song on that single, but neither song was a success.

Their personal relationship, however, was going strong. In August 1959, Carole and Gerry were married in a Jewish ceremony on Long Island after Carol had become pregnant. He was 20 and she was 17. They both quit college and took daytime jobs; Goffin working as an assistant chemist and King as a secretary. They wrote songs together in the evening.

It was about then that Don Kirshner at Aldon Music in Manhattan hired them both to write songs professionally. Carole’s friend, Neil Sedaka, had worked there as well.

Carole would later tell a New York Times reporter of how they worked at Aldon Music:

“…We each had a little cubby hole with just enough room for a piano, a bench and maybe a chair for the lyricist — if you were lucky. You’d sit there and write and you could hear someone in the next cubby hole composing some song exactly like yours…

“The pressure…was really terrific, because Donny [Kirshner, of Aldon] would play one songwriter against an other. He’d say ‘We need a latest smash hit,’ and we’d all go back and write a song and the next day we’d each audition for Bobby Vee’s producer. ‘Take Good Care of My Baby,’ one of our biggest hits, came about that way.”

Initially, Gerry and Carole both worked with other composers and writers. And in one case they would establish a long-lasting friendship, though competitors in songwriting, with Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, another husband-and-wife team at Aldon.

Still, before long, Carole King and Gerry Goffin soon established themselves as a successful team, she crafting the music and he the lyrics. Their big breakthrough came with the 1960 song, “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” It was in 1960, not long after the couple had their first child. They were then based at Aldon Music at the 1650 Broadway, across from the famed Brill Building, and they also worked at home.


Making The Hit

As Carole would later recall in her book, A Natural Woman, the hottest girl group in the country at that time were the Shirelles, four black teenagers just a few years out of Passaic High School in New Jersey – Shirley Owens, Doris Coley, Addie Harris, and Beverly Lee. They had just broken out with the hit song “Tonight’s The Night.” Don Kirshner and Aldon Music wanted the follow-up song to that hit, whatever it might be, and he pushed his writers and composers to come up with it.

Carole King began working from piano on music and melody, using “There Goes My Baby” as the model. Carole also planned to arrange a strings section – this an agreement with the Shirelles, who at first had heard the song on Carole’s demo and found it “like a country-and-Western song,” and didn’t like it. On the strings arrangement, Carole later acknowledged in her book, “I had never before composed a string arrangement.”

“Will You Love Me”
Tomorrow?”

The Shirelles
1960-61

Tonight you’re mine completely
You give you love so sweetly
Tonight the light of love is in your eyes
But will you love me tomorrow?

Is this a lasting treasure
Or just a moment’s pleasure?
Can I believe the magic of your sighs?
Will you still love me tomorrow?

Tonight with words unspoken
You say that I’m the only one
But will my heart be broken
When the night meets the morning sun?

I’d like to know that your love
Is love I can be sure of
So tell me now, and I won’t ask again
Will you still love me tomorrow?

So tell me now, and I won’t ask again
Will you still love me tomorrow?
Will you still love me tomorrow?
Will you still love me..
_______________________
Carol King, music; Gerry Goffin, lyrics

One morning after she dropped off her daughter at her grandmother’s, King traveled to the offices and studio of Scepter Records, the Shirelles’ record label. There she recorded the rhythm track, which took less than an hour.

“…Then the string players arrived,” she would later recount in her book. “The first time I heard the cellos play the rhythmic figure at the beginning of ‘Will You Love Me Tomorrow,’ I was euphoric. Some composers literally hear the sounds in their head as they write; I had to wait until a session to hear what I wrote. As the musicians began to play the parts I had written for ‘Will You Love Me Tomorrow,’ I became giddy with excitement. I was 18.”


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“Will You Love Me Tomorrow?”
The Shirelles: 1960-61

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But the words for this song were also key – and that was Gerry’s department. Goffin came home from a night bowling with his buddies to find a message from Carole on the tape recorder, asking him to write lyrics for the music she had composed for the Shirelles, as Don Kershner was hot to get the tune locked up. Goffin would later say that the lyrics came easily to him.

Hiram Lee, writing some years later on the Goffin-King effect in this song, observes:

…On this pop classic, King’s fragile melody seems to rise nervously from its bed of chords as if she were raising a question she is afraid to ask. To this, Goffin’s lyrics add: “Tonight you’re mine completely/You give your love so sweetly/Tonight the light of love is in your eyes/But will you love me tomorrow?”

As was often the case, Goffin’s words seemed to marry so exactly to King’s melodic line that it was difficult to imagine the two having been written separately.

Yet others would marvel at how Gerry, a guy, could reach into a woman’s thoughts and emotions and express her feelings, as he did in this song, and would do in other songs to come. As former Shirelle, Beverely Lee, offered of the “Will-You-Love-Me-Tomorrow” lyrics in a May 2018 New Yorker story:

“Now that I’m older, I listen to the lyrics. Knowing what’s going on — as women, you have a right to ask: Are you going to still love me if I am your loved one? Are you just going to love me for the moment and leave me? Is this a lasting treasure or just a moment’s pleasure? Can I read the magic of your sighs? Will you love me tomorrow? That tells it all. Are you going to be for real with me, or are you just playing with me and my emotions? What am I worth to you? That’s what it’s saying.”

When the final Goffin-King package came together for “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” they had the follow-up Kirshner wanted, and then some. “…Tomorrow” became a giant hit, reaching No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in January 1961 – the first song by a female group to reach No. 1 on the pop charts since the McGuire Sisters in 1958, and first ever for a black female group.


‘Bye-Bye Day Job!’

Gerry and Carole, a young married couple then living in a Brooklyn basement apartment, were still working other day jobs while they wrote their music. But the hit record they had just composed would change all that, as Carole recalled: “When ‘Will You Love Me Tomorrow?’ sold a million [copies], we went: ‘bye-bye day job!’” Gerry Goffin remembered that day too, as he was still working his chemical company day job: “Carole and [Don Kirshner of Aldon Music] arrived in Donny’s limousine at the chem factory and told me I didn’t have to work anymore. And he gave us a $10,000 advance and we got credit cards, and I’ve never had to do an honest day’s work since.”

Later 1963 photo for the hit song, “The Loco-Motion,” from left: Aldon Music producer Al Nevins; composer,  Carole King,; singer, Little Eva Boyd; songwriter, Gerry Goffin; and Aldon Music producer, Don Kirshner. Click to visit 'Loco-Motion' story.
Later 1963 photo for the hit song, “The Loco-Motion,” from left: Aldon Music producer Al Nevins; composer, Carole King,; singer, Little Eva Boyd; songwriter, Gerry Goffin; and Aldon Music producer, Don Kirshner. Click to visit 'Loco-Motion' story.

The Shirelles’ hit was a turning point for the Goffin-King partnership – and more hits kept coming. In 1961 they did “Take Good Care of My Baby,” a No. 1 hit for singer Bobby Vee and “Some Kind of Wonderful,” a Top 40 hit for The Drifters. Then came “The Loco-Motion” in 1962, another No. 1 hit with their former baby sitter, Eva Boyd, who became “Little Eva.” (see separate story at this website on the history and success of this song). They also wrote and composed “Up On The Roof” in 1962, a No. 5 hit for The Drifters.

Early 1960s photo of the growing Goffin-King family.
Early 1960s photo of the growing Goffin-King family.
Also in 1962, the Goffin-King song, “It Might as Well Rain Until September,” was originally written for Bobby Vee, but became a top 40 hit for Carole King at the time. Don Kirshner liked King’s demo version of “…September” rather than Bobby Vee’s version, and released it as a single on the Dimension label. (King’s demos, in fact, were so well crafted, that they were sometimes copied note-for-note in the final recordings, and some were even squirreled away by A&R people in the music business who had received them but found the piano playing and/or the background arrangements so good that they kept them as collector pieces).

Carole and Gerry had two small children at the time, and Carole was not interested in traveling to promote the song. However, she was persuaded by Kirshner and Gerry to appear on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand, where she performed the song in lyp-sync mode as was the custom there, but received a low score in a Bandstand “rate-a-record” session.

Still, the song peaked at No 22 on the Billboard charts in September 1962, and also rose to No. 3 on the U.K. charts. Yet, according to some accounts, Carole was discouraged from doing further recordings herself at this point by Gerry, who preferred her to focus on the composing part of their partnership. And according to Carole herself, she then lacked the confidence to write lyrics. But that would change.

Goffin-King Music
Sample Top 40 Hits, 1960s

“Will You Love Me Tomorrow”
1960 / The Shirelles / #1
“Take Good Care of My Baby”
1961 / Bobby Vee / #1
“Some Kind of Wonderful”
1961/ The Drifters / #32
“The Loco-Motion”
1962 / “Little Eva / #1
“Up On The Roof”
1962 / The Drifters / #5
“Chains”
1962 / The Cookies / #17
“I’ve Got Bonnie”
1962 / Bobby Rydell /#18
“Go Away Little Girl”
1962 / Steve Lawrence / #1
“It Might As Well Rain Until Sept”
1962 / Carole King / #22
“Don’t Say Nothin’ Bad About…”
1963 / The Cookies / #7
“One Fine Day”
1963 / The Chiffons / #5
“This Little Girl”
1963 / Dion / #21
“I Can’t Stay Mad at You”
1963 / Skeeter Davis / #7
“Hey Girl”
1963 / Freddie Scott / #10
“I’m Into Something Good”
1964 / Herman’s Hermits /#13, #1 UK
“Just Once In My Life”*
1965 / Righteous Brothers / #9
“Don’t Bring Me Down”
1966 / The Animals / #12
“Pleasant Valley Sunday”
1967 / The Monkees / #3
“…Natural Woman”
1967 / Aretha Franklin /#8
___________________
Release / Artist / Billboard / *w/Phil Spector

Over the next several years, through the mid- and late 1960s, more hits came for Gerry Goffin and Carole King, including more No. 1 hits, and others charting in the Top Ten and Top 40. In all, between 1960 and 1968, the Goffin-King team would write more than 50 Top 40 hits together – among those not already mentioned: “Crying in the Rain,” “Some Kind of Wonderful,” “Take Good Care of My Baby,” “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” “Natural Woman,” and others.

They had particularly good fortune with the black girl group sound; a winning formula in the early 1960s. Among these girl group successes were The Cookies, then consisting of Dorothy Jones, Earl-Jean McCrea, and Margaret Ross. In 1962, the Cookies had a Top 20 hit with the Goffin-King song “Chains.”


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“Chains”
The Cookies: 1962

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They scored a second somewhat bigger hit in 1963 with the Goffin-King song, “Don’t Say Nothin’ Bad (About My Baby)”, which peaked at No.3 on the Billboard R&B chart and No.7 on the Billboard pop chart. But it was the earlier Cookies hit, “Chains” that brought the group and Goffin-King some unexpected attention.

The Beatles, who were then coming on the music scene in a big way, had covered “Chains” for their first British LP. The Beatles had recorded it on February 11, 1963 and released it on their debut album, Please Please Me, on March 22, 1963. In fact, John Lennon was quoted as saying about this time that he wanted Paul McCartney and himself to become “the Goffin-King of England.” This helped give the Goffin-King songwriting team more notice, and demand for their talents rose.

Gerry Goffin, meanwhile, went on the road with The Cookies, leaving Carole at home with the two kids. And before long, he was having an affair with one of the Cookies, Earl-Jean McCrea.

By early 1964 it was apparent that Earl-Jean was pregnant and Gerry was the father. The baby was born in July 1964. Gerry had been restless and unsettled, and he had told Carole about his dalliances, not wanting to lie to her. But the McCrea affair was a sign of troubles to come.

The Cookies, mid-1960s: Dorothy Jones, Earl-Jean McCrea, and Margaret Ross. Dimension Records.
The Cookies, mid-1960s: Dorothy Jones, Earl-Jean McCrea, and Margaret Ross. Dimension Records.
The 1960s were perilous times for young marriages, as a more permissive cultural milieu was then coursing through society. There was a new birth control pill, and an emergent youth culture was setting new trends and challenging establishment norms. “Sex, drugs and rock `n roll” was the mantra of the day, and Gerry Goffin was a more willing participant than Carole King.

As Gerry would later explain in a Vanity Fair interview: “I wanted to be a hippie—grew my hair long—and Carole did it modestly… And then I started taking LSD and mescaline. And Carole and I began to grow apart because she felt that she had to say things herself. She had to be her own lyricist.”

McCrea, meanwhile, would leave the Cookies and sign with the Colpix record label, where she recorded the Goffin-King song, “I’m Into Something Good,” which hit No. 38 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1964. However, this Goffin-King tune became a bigger No. 1 U.K. hit for the British group, Herman’s Hermits, that same year.


Suburban Angst

Through the mid-to-late 1960s, the Goffin-King songwriting continued, though now under a good deal of strain given their personal circumstances, but still staying together as a couple. Adding to this strain, no doubt, was the move they made in 1965 to the New Jersey suburb of West Orange. Carole had wanted to make the move, but now there was an added complication. With financial help from Goffin-King song-writing royalties, Earl-Jean McCrea would move into a nearby home in the same suburb.

“Pleasant Valley
Sunday”

The Monkees: 1967

The local rock group down the street
Is trying hard to learn their song
They serenade the weekend squire
Who just came out to mow his lawn

Another pleasant valley Sunday
Charcoal burning everywhere
Rows of houses that are all the same
And no one seems to care

See Mrs. Gray, she’s proud today
Because her roses are in bloom
And Mr. Green, he’s so serene
He’s got a TV in every room

Another pleasant valley Sunday
Here in Status Symbol Land
Mothers complain about
how hard life is
And the kids just don’t understand

Creature comfort goals,
they only numb my soul
And make it hard for me to see
Ah, thoughts all seem to stray
to places far away
I need a change of scenery

Ta ta ta ta, ta ta ta ta
Ta ta ta ta, ta ta ta ta

Another pleasant valley Sunday
Charcoal burning everywhere
Another pleasant valley Sunday
Here in Status Symbol Land

Another pleasant valley Sunday
(A pleasant valley Sunday)
Another pleasant valley Sunday
(A pleasant valley Sunday)
_______________________
Carol King, music; Gerry Goffin, lyrics

Meanwhile, Gerry was not a big fan of the suburbs to begin with, and this would be revealed in the lyrics he wrote for the 1967 song that he and Carole composed for The Monkees – “Pleasant Valley Sunday”, a No. 3 hit in July 1967. The song was pure satire and social commentary on life in suburbia. The inspiration for the song’s title, in fact, derived from a street in West Orange near to where Gerry and Carole were living, named Pleasant Valley Way.


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“Pleasant Valley Sunday”
The Monkees-1967

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At the time Goffin and King wrote “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” suburbia was already topical, with a growing collection of popular books and academic literature, some critical, some not.

Split-Level Trap, 1961.
Split-Level Trap, 1961.
Titles dating from the mid-1950s and early 1960s took on one or more aspects of the suburban experience. Among these, for example, were, A.C. Spectorsky’s The Exurbanites of 1955, and Split-Level Trap of 1961, by Richard and Katherine Gordon. More sympathetic portrayals came with William H. Whyte’s The Organization Man of 1957, examining Park Forest, Illinois, and Herbert Gans’ 1965 sociological study of Levittown, New Jersey, The Levittowners.

Also in music at that time, there was the 1962 song, “Little Boxes,” written and composed by folk singer-songwriter-activist Malvina Reynolds, a song noted for its line mocking the sameness of suburban tract housing as “little boxes” made of “ticky-tacky.” That song became a 1963 hit for folk singer Pete Seeger.

In any case, Goffin and King’s “Pleasant Valley Sunday” captured a bit of the critical vibe at the time for suburbia in the 1960s. The song stayed in the Top 40 for most of that summer and was also featured during the Monkees’ television series that year.

Gerry, meanwhile, was feeling especially isolated in suburbia and was having bigger problems. He was taking LSD and dealing with a crumbling marriage. King would later write in her book that Goffin suffered from mental illness following his use of LSD. He would be diagnosed with manic depression, and was hospitalized for a time. He eventually underwent treatment with lithium and electroshock therapy. He and King would separate in 1967 and divorce in 1968.

Goffin and King, like the rest of America, had gone through some perilous times in the 1961-67 period. The country was still digesting the November 1963 assassination of its promising young president, John F. Kennedy. A certain innocence had died then as well. A rising civil rights struggle was then underway: the Freedom Rides (1961), the March on Washington (1963) and the “Bloody Sunday” beatings of marchers in Selma, Alabama (1965) had all occurred, among others. Anti-Vietnam War sentiment was increasing at home as U.S. troop levels rose and more Americans were being killed. On the music scene, in addition to the Beatles arrival in 1964 and the subsequent “British invasion,” there was also competition from Berry Gordy’s Motown music center in Detroit, as well as the onset of new folk and protest music. Bob Dylan, who had begun performing in Greenwich Village clubs in 1961, released his first album with Columbia in March 1962. And finally, Don Kirchner sold Aldon Music to Columbia Screen Gems in 1963 for $3 million and had begun packaging his songwriters’ music under the new ownership for use in TV, film, and Hollywood – of which the Monkees were one example.

Aretha Franklin in recording studio, 1960s. Click for hits link.
Aretha Franklin in recording studio, 1960s. Click for hits link.

Hit for Aretha

Still, in the midst of the cultural changes and industry upheaval, and the Goffin-King personal struggles, the pair would manage a few more hit songs. One of these is perhaps Gerry Goffin’s tour de force — “A Natural Woman,” or more correctly, “You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman.”

The song became a classic 1967 hit for Aretha Franklin. It’s about a woman who is somewhat down and out, doubting herself, until a new love appears to lift her to a new beginning.

Although written by Goffin and King, the song’s title at least was inspired by Atlantic Records co-owner and producer Jerry Wexler. As recounted in his autobiography, Wexler, a student of African-American musical culture, had been mulling over the concept of the “natural man,” when he drove by Carole King on a New York sidewalk, shouting out to her that he wanted a “natural woman” song for Aretha Franklin’s next album. Goffin and King delivered in short order – and they would also give Wexler a co-writing credit for his part in their song.

“…A Natural Woman”
Aretha Franklin
1967

Looking out on the morning rain
I used to feel so uninspired
And when I knew I had to face another day
Lord, it made me feel so tired
Before the day I met you, life was so unkind
But your the key to my peace of mind

‘Cause you make me feel,
You make me feel,
You make me feel like
A natural woman

When my soul was in the lost and found
You came along to claim it
I didn’t know just what was wrong with me
Till your kiss helped me name it
Now I’m no longer doubtful of what I’m living for
And if I make you happy I don’t need to do more

‘Cause you make me feel,
You make me feel,
You make me feel like a natural woman

Oh, baby, what you’ve done to me
You make me feel so good inside
And I just want to be, close to you
You make me feel so alive

You make me feel,
You make me feel,
You make me feel like a natural woman

You make me feel
You make me feel
You make me feel like a natural woman

You make me feel
You make me feel
_______________________

Songwriters: Goffin / King / Wexler

Yet the lyrics that Goffin would write for this song – powerfully delivered in performance by Aretha Franklin (and a few years later, also by Carole King) – continue to amaze critics to this day for Goffin’s ability to plumb the depths of female emotion. Goffin’s daughter for one, Sherry, herself a musician, would say on camera during a 2017 TV special, that lines from that song, such as – “When my soul was in the lost and found / You came along to claim it,” among others – were pretty amazing. Gerry Goffin had a gift that way.


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“…A Natural Woman”
Aretha Franklin-1967

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“…Natural Woman” is also about spiritual satisfaction from the female perspective: “Oh, baby, what you’ve done to me / You make me feel so good inside.”

The Aretha Franklin version of the song was released in September 1967 and would peak at No. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, and No. 2 on the Billboard R & B chart

Yet, within a year of this single reaching the U.S. Top 10, the Goffin-King partnership was over. Both Carole and Gerry would move to California, where their careers would take new turns.


Carole’s Rise

Carole King’s move to Laurel Canyon in Los Angeles – then a haven for up-and-coming singer-songwriters – would prove beneficial, but not right away. Earlier, she had met James Taylor, who had encouraged her to begin solo recording and performing.

After a false start or two, and a middling debut album, Writer, King would find her footing in a big way in 1971 with her second solo album, Tapestry. That album proved to be a blockbuster, topping the U.S. album chart for 15 weeks and remaining on the charts for more than six years. Tapestry first charged onto the charts April 10, 1971, staying there for 302 consecutive weeks until January 15, 1977. Then it returned to the chart twice — in 2010 and 2016. Tapestry’s record was finally eclipsed by Adele’s album, 21, which logged its 319th week on the Billboard 200 album chart dated April 15, 2017.

Carole King proved herself a capable lyricist on Tapestry, crafting a series of new songs for the album, including: “So Far Away,” “I Feel the Earth Move,” “You’ve Got a Friend.” and “It’s Too Late,” this last song, a Billboard No.1 hit. She would even garner praise from former partner Gerry Goffin for the album: “It was completely original, and Carole really showed me up as a lyricist….”

A portion of the cover art from Carole King's 1971 album, 'Tapestry," with Carole & cat in view. Click for Amazon link.
A portion of the cover art from Carole King's 1971 album, 'Tapestry," with Carole & cat in view. Click for Amazon link.
Still, three of the songs on Tapestry were earlier Goffin-King collaborations – “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?,” “Natural Woman,” and “Smackwater Jack.”

King reinterpreted these older Goffin-King tunes in her own style and voice. Her rendition of “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?,” for example, is far sadder and perhaps a bit wiser than the Shirelles’ version. Or as another observer put it, the slower version showed that the lyrics worked just as poignantly for a housewife stuck in an unstable marriage as they did for an innocent teenager pondering her first love. Delivery and performance of this song matters as well, as historian and writer Kirk Silsbee has observed: “The Shirelles sang ‘Will You Love Me Tomorrow’ like girls. Carole sang it as a woman” — each, however, appropriate for their times.

Women of all ages flocked to Tapestry. The mix of material King used on Tapestry struck a chord with women all over the world.

“Carole spoke from her heart, and she happened to be in tune with the mass psyche,” said her old Brill Building friend and fellow songwriter, Cynthia Weil. “People were looking for a message, and she came to them with… exactly what they were looking for.” Tapestry sold more than 15 million copies over the decades and became a critical influence on other artists.

The album also garnered four Grammy Awards for King: Album of the Year; Song of the Year (“You’ve Got a Friend”); Record of the Year (“It’s Too Late,” lyrics by Toni Stern); and Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female. Tapestry would help propel King to becoming one of America’s most beloved singer/songwriters.

Following Tapestry, Carole King had an incredible run of additional hit albums in the 1970s: Music (No. 1, Dec 1971); Rhymes and Reasons (No. 2, Nov 1972); Fantasy (No. 6, June 1973); Wrap Around Joy (No. 1, Sept 1974); Thoroughbred (No. 3, 1976 ); and Simple Things (No. 17, July 1977). Along the way, there was also touring, and a few notable homecomings, among these, her Carnegie Hall Concert of June 18, 1971, which was her first concert performance in front of an audience, and a free concert she gave in Central Park on May 26, 1973 made the front page of the next day’s Sunday New York Times with the headline: “Carole King Draws 70,000 to Central Park.”

King’s 2nd album of 1971, “Music,” released Dec 9th, entered the charts at No. 8, reportedly selling 1.3 million copies the first day of its release, reaching No. 1 on Jan 1, 1972.
King’s 2nd album of 1971, “Music,” released Dec 9th, entered the charts at No. 8, reportedly selling 1.3 million copies the first day of its release, reaching No. 1 on Jan 1, 1972.
Overall, King would produce some 25 solo albums during her career, and her record sales have been estimated at more than 75 million copies worldwide. She would also have productive collaborations with other musicians and successful touring, and would collect a bevy of music awards and singular notices, a few of which are covered later below.

By virtue of her 1970s success, Carole King was becoming a wealthy woman. Tapestry alone yielded an estimated $10.7 million in earnings in 1971. She also had estimated earnings of $500,000 or more per album for the albums she produced in 1972, 1973, 1974, 1976 and 1977.

And over the next 30 years, there would be additional income generated by her continuing work, as well as a healthy stream of songwriting royalties from the Goffin-King back-catalog.

But during the late 1970s, King would move to Idaho and later buy a 128-acre ranch there, inspiring her environmental activism, including testimony some years later in Congress for protecting the northern Rocky Mountains ecosystem. King would also own other real estate, including a Hollywood Hills West home and an ocean-side home in Malibu, California, the latter acquired in 2003 for $1 million.

However, in her personal relationships following Gerry, Carole King traveled a difficult road. A second marriage to bass-player Charlie Larkey, with whom she had two children, would end after some years in 1976. Her third husband, musician Rick Evers, reported by Carole to have been abusive, died of a heroin overdose in 1978. A fourth marriage to Idaho rancher Rick Sorenson would end in divorce in 1989. Some who have written about King’s life, speculate that part of the reason for her failed relationships lay in her successive husbands’ failures to accept her achievements and celebrity.


One version of a release from Gerry Coffin's 1973 album, "It Ain't Exactly Entertainment'.
One version of a release from Gerry Coffin's 1973 album, "It Ain't Exactly Entertainment'.
Goffin, Pt. 2

Gerry Goffin, meanwhile, had continued success in his music career as well, though not on the scale that Carole King had. In 1973, he tried his hand at recording with a solo album, It Ain’t Exactly Entertainment, but it was not successful. This album was part social protest, as Goffin, an admirer of Bob Dylan, was feeling the social and political turmoil of those times. One of the songs on the album, “Honorable Peace,” was an anti-war song, aimed at the Vietnam War, by then a major point of social unrest.

But in the music business, songwriting collaboration was still Gerry Goffin’s strong suit, as he had collaborated with other songwriters in addition to Carole from his earliest years. And now he continued to do so, with partners such as Barry Mann, Jack Keller, Russ Titelman, Wes Farrell, Barry Goldberg and Michael Masser.

In 1975, Goffin and Michael Masser earned an Academy Award nomination for the “Theme From Mahogany (Do You Know Where You’re Going To?),” a No. 1 hit for Diana Ross from that movie. Goffin and Masser also received a Golden Globe nomination for “So Sad the Song,” from the 1976 Gladys Knight film, Pipe Dreams. They also wrote “Tonight, I Celebrate My Love” a 1983 duet hit by Peabo Bryson and Roberta Flack. In 1985, the Goffin-Masser R&B ballad, “Saving All My Love for You,” became Whitney Houston’s first No. 1 hit and Grammy winner. And in 1989, the Goffin/Masser/Preston Glass tune, “Miss You Like Crazy,” became a major hit for Natalie Cole, reaching No 7 of the Billboard chart, and No. 1 on both the R&B and adult contemporary charts, as well as No. 2 on the U.K. singles chart.


March 1987. Gerry Goffin and Carole King at their induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
March 1987. Gerry Goffin and Carole King at their induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Goffin-King Kudos

As Carole King and Gerry Goffin made their way through their respective separate careers, there was no escaping their earlier joint successes and history together – with all its glories and perhaps a few regrets. They had etched themselves into the American cultural tableau with their music making, and it was not letting go. If anything, their joint body of work was burnishing itself into rock music history more permanently.

By the mid-1980s, the legacy of their earlier Brill Building work, now more than 20 years old, was faring well with the test of time and in the judgement of their peers. In March 1987, Gerry and Carole were among those lauded for their work, along with seven others – including their former Brill Building colleagues, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil – who were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, an arm of the National Academy of Popular Music. Three years later, in 1990, they were again jointly honored for their songwriting, this time inducted into the Rock ’n Roll Hall of Fame.

1990: Carole King and Gerry Goffin at their Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame induction.
1990: Carole King and Gerry Goffin at their Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame induction.
Jon Landau, a writer with Rolling Stone magazine, who had covered their careers, gave the induction speech, as follows:

As songwriters, Gerry and Carole stand as a great bridge between the Brill Building styles of the late 1950s and the early 1960s and the modern rock era. And the fact is, they started looking forward with their very first hit. In 1961, they wrote a little song called “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” It was the first great ‘60s record to be written from a woman’s point of view. It was a first great ballad directed toward a new generation that would soon be labeled “baby boomers.” And for some of the people in this very room, it was the first song they slow-danced too, made out too, and made love to. It was perhaps the first ’60s song about which you and your girlfriend or boyfriend said, “that’s our song.” And by the way, because it meant so much to so many, it is a song and a record – beautifully sung by the Shirelles – that will live on well into the next century. In 1962, the Drifters recorded their sublime “Up on the Roof,” a song that expressed the sensibility that a few years later would be called “60s idealism.” And in 1963 Gerry and Carole extended that idealism with a romantically eloquent “One Fine Day.” And then in 1965 they put themselves at the center of one of rock’s most vital developments – the Phil Spector-Righteous Brothers collaborations. One of the two songs they wrote with Phil was the classic, “Just Once in My Life,” and the other, is one of those great lost masterpieces due for rediscovery in the 1990s, a great song called “Hung on You.” By the time they wrote “Don’t Bring Me Down” for the Animals and “Goin Back” for the Byrds they helped to start an approach that would effect every sing-songwriter to come after them. And in a nice epiphany, in 1967, they closed a cycle they began with “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?,” when they wrote, “You Make Me Feel Like A Natural Woman” for Aretha Franklin. But by then, they had given us more that we could ever give back… Gerry Goffin and Carole King – two of rock’s great writers!

Gerry Goffin's "Back Room Blood" album of 1996, motivated by a conservative wave in Congress, with some Dylan input, but not successful.
Gerry Goffin's "Back Room Blood" album of 1996, motivated by a conservative wave in Congress, with some Dylan input, but not successful.
Landau’s tribute was followed by a brief audio clip of “One Fine Day,” by the Chiffons, including Carole’s signature piano riff on that piece.


Later Careers

Goffin and King, meanwhile, continued their careers through the 1990s and beyond. In 1996, Goffin co-wrote three songs for the soundtrack to Grace of My Heart, a film with a principal character modeled on Carole King.

That year, Goffin also took another stab at solo recording, releasing the album Back Room Blood, inspired by his politics and anger over conservative gains in the 1994 congressional elections. The album was mostly co-written with Barry Goldberg, but included two songs co-written with Bob Dylan.

At the time, Goffin also told a reporter at Billboard magazine: “I depend mostly on my back catalog… Actually, I could afford to retire, but I would go crazy…” Compositions from Goffin’s catalog at the time, in fact, appeared on the Beatles’ Live At The BBC album (1994), the Forest Gump film soundtrack (1994), and Carole King’s Tapesty Revisited album (1995).

Gerry Goffin, however, was also still dealing with his past marriage to Carole King, noting in one 1996 interview with United Press International: “Carole loved me for what I was… I’ve had a lot of guilt [over his role in that marriage]. It’s been almost 30 years, and I’m finally feeling expurgated…. I feel like I’ve worked it off, but maybe you never work it off.”

2010. Carole King/James Taylor, "Live at the Troubadour".
2010. Carole King/James Taylor, "Live at the Troubadour".
Gerry, like Carole, had married again, three more times in fact. In the early 1970s, he married Barbara Behling and they had a son in 1976. After that marriage ended later that decade, Goffin married songwriter Ellen Minasian in the 1980s and they had a daughter in 1984. Following a divorce in that union, Goffin married for a final time to actress Michele Conaway in 1995.

Carole King, meanwhile, continued her busy career. In 1992, she wrote and performed the song “Now and Forever,” for the film, A League of Their Own, a song that received a Grammy nomination.

In 1997, she recorded backing vocals for Celine Dion’s song, “The Reason.” In 2001, after an eight-year break from studio recording, she released the album, Love Makes the World.

Another album, The Living Room Tour, was released in 2005, consisting mostly of live versions of her Tapestry songs. This album debuted at No. 17 in the U.S., becoming King’s highest-charting album since 1977, spurred, in part, by TV ads and Starbucks marketing. For the week of July 18, 2005 it was the No.1 album on Amazon.com.

In 2007 King and James Taylor performed six Troubadour club anniversary shows – as she and Taylor had performed at that famous Los Angeles night club in 1970. These Troubadour shows would inspire the Troubadour Reunion Tour with King and Taylor, which ran globally from March through May 2010, with 58 shows selling more than 700,000 tickets and grossing about $60 million, making it one of that year’s most successful tours. A King-Taylor Live at the Troubadour album was also released, which debuted at No. 4 on Billboard Album Chart that year.

2012: Carole King memoir.
2012: Carole King memoir.
2014: Carole King musical.
2014: Carole King musical.

In 2012, King published her memoir, A Natural Woman, which became a national bestseller. The next year, she became the fifth recipient and the first woman to receive the Gershwin Prize for popular song from the Library of Congress. President and Mrs. Barack Obama hosted the award concert at the White House on May 22, 2013, with the President presenting the prize and reading the citation.

In February 2013, she received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement award. And in January 2014, a Broadway musical covering her life – including the Goffin years – titled, Beautiful – The Carole King Musical, opened in New York. It would go on to great success, wining two Tony Awards, and after its London run, two Olivier Awards. King had been apprehensive about the show’s dredging up of old, painful history, as it focuses on the Goffin-King love affair, their work at the Brill Building, their marriage, and Goffin’s infidelity. The show ends just as King is enjoying fame for her groundbreaking solo album, Tapestry. While Gerry Goffin’s infidelity and emotional problems are part of the stage production, he did attend the show’s opening in January 2014 at the Stephen Sondheim Theater, though he was not then in the best of health.


Gerry’s Death

Gerry Goffin in February 2004, when the Recording Academy presented he and Carole jointly with a Trustees Award for lifetime achievement.
Gerry Goffin in February 2004, when the Recording Academy presented he and Carole jointly with a Trustees Award for lifetime achievement.
About six months after he had attended the opening of the Carol King Musical, Gerry Goffin died on June 19th, 2014 at his home in Los Angeles. He was 75. He left behind his wife Michele, one son, four daughters, and six grandchildren. During his career Goffin wrote or co-wrote some 114 Billboard Hot 100 hits, including eight No.1 songs, and 72 of which were also U.K. hits.

Carole King said in a statement that Goffin was her “first love” and had a “profound impact” on her life. “Gerry was a good man and a dynamic force, whose words and creative influence will resonate for generations to come …His legacy to me is our two daughters, four grandchildren, and our songs that have touched millions and millions of people, as well as a lifelong friendship.”

Barry Goldberg, composer and pianist who wrote many later songs with Goffin said of him: “Gerry was one of the greatest lyricists of all time and my true soul brother. I was privileged to have had him in my personal and professional life.”

Lawrence Downes of the New York Times noted that when he taught a class on writing for New York Times interns, he used “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?”– and specifically the lyrics from that song – to make a point about brevity and beauty in writing. He used the Goffin-crafted lyrics “to show how it’s possible to convey complicated emotions, deep feeling and intricate meanings with the tiniest and plainest of words.” He explained that “you can be short and sweet” or “short and heartbreaking” – all with economy and good effect, as Gerry Goffin did.

Richard Williams, writing for The Guardian newspaper in London, called Goffin “The Poet Laureate of Teenage Pop,” also adding: “…Those who accept the conventional wisdom that nothing happened in pop music between Elvis and the Beatles should listen to these marvelous [Goffin-crafted] records – and to the outpouring of memories of a man who did the best thing a pop songwriter can do: made listeners feel they are not alone with their emotions.”

Richard Corliss, writing a remembrance on Goffin at Time magazine, adds: “A look at Goffin’s lyrics upends the common wisdom that pre-Beatles adolescent pop was all banal optimism conveyed in moon-June-spoon doggerel….Goffin was eerily in sync with the convulsions kids feel during first love, first sex and first breakup.” Corliss continues that Goffin used “the pop-ballad form to offer hard answers to dewy questions, …often saying that life’s most perplexing riddles had no comforting resolutions …[B]ut Goffin educated young listeners to the complexity of love and loss. He wasn’t just the guy who put simple words to [King’s] lovely music. He was a prime ’60s poet of teen yearning.” By the mid-1970s, however, with the No. 1 hit, “Do You Know Where You’re Going To,” made popular in the Diana Ross film, Mahogany, Corliss explains that Goffin “raised the age bar from fretful teen to disillusioned adult, and the stakes from failed romance to existential chill. ‘Now looking back at all we’ve planned / We let so many dreams just slip through our hands. / Why must we wait so long before we’ll see / How sad the answers to those questions can be?’.”

An album of Carole King’s July 2016 Hyde Park performance of her ‘Tapestry’ songs was released in 2017.
An album of Carole King’s July 2016 Hyde Park performance of her ‘Tapestry’ songs was released in 2017.
Carole King, in recent years, has remained in the public eye. In December 2015, she was among Kennedy Center honorees receiving recognition for their lifetime contribution to American culture through the performing arts.

Janelle Monae, James Taylor, Sara Bareilles, Aretha Franklin, and the cast of Beautiful, The Carole King Musical, performed during King’s segment of the awards ceremony.

In February 2016, the PBS TV program, American Masters, featured the profile, “Carole King: Natural Woman,” which included history on the Goffin-King biography and discography.

In July 2016, King was on the top of the bill at the British Summer Time Festival at Hyde Park, London, where she performed all of Tapestry live for the first time. That concert was broadcast on UK TV in October 2016 and in 2017, an album of that concert, Tapestry: Live at Hyde Park, was released.


Goffin-King Legacy

Carole King and Gerry Goffin with Aldon Music owner and creator, Don Kirshner, 1960s.
Carole King and Gerry Goffin with Aldon Music owner and creator, Don Kirshner, 1960s.
The Goffin-King catalog and musical legacy appears to be alive and well in the 2010s, as any number of their songs – some more than 50 years old – are likely being played somewhere in the world every day. Their compositions have been recorded by hundreds of artists, and their songs continue to be used in film and television. Their careers and songwriting mark an important time in the evolution of modern music – from the Brill Building era of love-conquers-all pop hits played on 45 rpm vinyl records, through the singer-songwriter era of folk rock played on 33.3 rpm vinyl albums, to the current internet era of anytime-anywhere digital music. Still, the sentiments they penned and the melodies they made, have stood the test of time and remain a part of cultural history. In all likelihood, they will be loved tomorrow.

See also at this website, for example, “Joni’s Music” (Joni Mitchell), “Linda & Jerry” (Linda Ronstadt & Jerrgy Brown), “Streisand Rising” (Barbra Streisand), and “1960s Girl Groups.” The “Annals of Music” category page offers additional story choices. Thanks for visiting – and if you like what you find here, please make a donation to help support the research and writing at this website. Thank you. – Jack Doyle

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Date Posted: 24 May 2018
Last Update: 30 May 2018
Comments to: jdoyle@pophistorydig.com

Article Citation:
Jack Doyle, “Goffin and King, Love & Music: 1950s-2010s,”
PopHistoryDig.com, May 24, 2018.

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Sources, Links & Additional Information

1960s: Aldon Music songwriters - Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil, Gerry Goffin and Carole King.
1960s: Aldon Music songwriters - Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil, Gerry Goffin and Carole King.
Rich Podolsky’s 2012 book, “Don Kirchner: The Man with the Golden Ear,” on the Brill Building era.
Rich Podolsky’s 2012 book, “Don Kirchner: The Man with the Golden Ear,” on the Brill Building era.
ACE Records, UK, compilation of Gerry Goffin-Carole King songs, “Hung on You”, 2015.
ACE Records, UK, compilation of Gerry Goffin-Carole King songs, “Hung on You”, 2015.
CD cover art for a 5-CD collection of Carole King albums, “Original Album Classics,” from Epic records.
CD cover art for a 5-CD collection of Carole King albums, “Original Album Classics,” from Epic records.
“Troubadours: The Rise of the Singer-Songwriter,”  DVD and CD, from TV film aired on PBS ‘American Masters’ series.
“Troubadours: The Rise of the Singer-Songwriter,” DVD and CD, from TV film aired on PBS ‘American Masters’ series.

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“The Pentagon Papers”
1967-2018

After the first newspaper stories broke on the Pentagon Papers, Newsweek and Time magazines each followed with June 28,1971 cover stories – Newsweek’s shown here with a “map”of Vietnam peopled by those making secret decisions.
After the first newspaper stories broke on the Pentagon Papers, Newsweek and Time magazines each followed with June 28,1971 cover stories – Newsweek’s shown here with a “map”of Vietnam peopled by those making secret decisions.
In 1967, the United States was mired in an ever-deepening war in Vietnam. By year’s end there were 485,000 U.S. troops in Vietnam, with more than 11,300 American war deaths that year and rising discord at home.

Lyndon B. Johnson was then President of the United States, in his first full term following his assumption of the Presidency after JFK’s November 1963 assassination. Johnson had won the 1964 election in a landslide victory over Republican candidate, Senator Barry Goldwater.

Then U.S. Secretary of Defense, Robert S. McNamara, a JFK appointee serving in Johnson’s cabinet, and known for his statistical acumen and penchant for data-driven objectives, commissioned a study that year on the history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, going back to World War II.

McNamara – one of JFK’s brightest cabinet members and a chief architect of American strategy in the Vietnam War since 1961 – was having doubts about American involvement there and wanted an “encyclopedic history of the Vietnam War” that would comprise a written record for historians and military planners in the future.

That study would prove to be an explosive document, comprising some 46 volumes and thousands of pages of secret history – sensitive diplomatic cables, presidential decision documents, military analyses, political manipulations, and more that would reveal the true nature of what had really gone on in American-Vietnam relations over some 22 years. When it was later leaked to the press in 1971, this study would reveal that the American public was misled, deceived, and lied to about the real nature of U.S. involvement in Vietnam for more than two decades. The secret study would come to be known as the “Pentagon Papers,” named for the sprawling, five-sided U.S. Defense Department headquarters just across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. in Arlington, Virginia.

McNamara commissioned the study in mid-June 1967, but neither then President Lyndon Johnson nor Secretary of State Dean Rusk, knew about it.

During 1967-68 a team of some 36 researchers worked on the study coordinated at a Pentagon office adjacent to McNamara’s. Of those who worked on the study, half were high-level Pentagon staff, half security-cleared contract analysts. One of the analysts was Daniel Ellsberg, a Harvard-educated economist and one-time hawk on the war, who would later leak the study to the New York Times, Washington Post, and other newspapers. That top secret Pentagon document, and Ellsberg’s action, touched off one of the country’s fiercest battles over freedom of the press vs. government secrecy; a battle recently given dramatic form in the 2017 Steven Spielberg Hollywood film, “The Post,” starring Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, and others. Here’s one of the trailers for that film:

Stephen Speilberg’s 2017 film, of course, focuses on the inside story at the Washington Post as it struggled with the publication decision, court battles and the Nixon Administration. Yet, the story – both before and after it got to the Washington Post and the U.S. Supreme Court – has a number of heroes and heroines, not least of whom is Daniel Ellsberg, the guy who followed his conscience and got the ball rolling. What follows below is a recounting of some of the Pentagon Papers history and why it remains important today – including a narrative chronology of events, sample newspaper headlines, photos of some of the principles, as well as various books, television productions, and Hollywood films that came in the wake of that controversy through the present day.


Daniel Ellsberg, circa 1970s.
Daniel Ellsberg, circa 1970s.

“Most Dangerous Man”?

In 1971, President Richard Nixon’s national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, would call him “the most dangerous man in America.” Yet, many today regard Daniel Ellsberg as a true patriot for leaking the Pentagon Papers to the press.

Ellsberg, a summa cum laude graduate of Harvard in economics in 1952, was also Woodrow Wilson Fellow at Cambridge for a year following graduation. He returned to Harvard for graduate study for a time, then joined the U.S. Marine Corps in 1954 where he served as a platoon leader and company commander, completing his service in 1957 as a first lieutenant. He later resumed graduate work at Harvard, then worked as a strategic analyst at the RAND Corporation, focusing on nuclear weapons strategy. He completed a PhD in Economics at Harvard in 1962, with an emphasis on decision theory, later becoming known for something in that field called “the Ellsberg paradox.”

By August 1964, Ellsberg was working in the Pentagon under Defense Secretary McNamara as special assistant. When Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs John McNaughton, an expert on nuclear test bans, needed an assistant, Ellsberg got the job. He then volunteered for duty in South Vietnam for two years, working for General Edward Lansdale as a member of the State Department. By 1967, he was back in the States, later that year working on the secret Pentagon study that would become the Pentagon Papers.

Vietnam, 1967: Daniel Ellsberg, right, shown with Associated Press photographer Horst Faas.
Vietnam, 1967: Daniel Ellsberg, right, shown with Associated Press photographer Horst Faas.
Ellsberg had been a “hawk” on the Vietnam War early on. But later, in August 1969, while still at RAND, he converted to the other side, beginning as a strategic dissenter after being moved by a draft resistor’s remarks and willingness to go jail for his beliefs. He soon became a more active anti-war activist (“superhawk-turned-superdove” is how Time magazine would later put it). And by this time, given his work at RAND and his security clearance, Ellsberg was in a position to access sensitive government and military information, including the U.S.-Vietnam history.

The McNamara-ordered history was completed on January 15, 1969 – just five days before the inauguration of the Nixon Administration. Officially titled: United States – Vietnam Relations, 1945–1967: A Study Prepared by the Department of Defense, it was a massive and sweeping document: 47-volumes in all, consisting of 4,000 pages of documents, 3,000 pages of analysis, and 2.5 million words — all classified as secret, top secret, or top secret-sensitive.

Among those called in to help with the project for a time was then Harvard University professor Henry Kissinger. The report offered a detailed self-examination of U.S.-Vietnamese relations and the Vietnam War. Only 15 copies were initially authorized and held in secret, made available to selected officials — two at the State Department; two for the National Archives; two copies held by the RAND Corporation (one at its D.C. office, and another at a California office); one for incoming Defense Secretary, Clark Clifford; and seven to remain at the Department of Defense.

Robert McNamara, appointed Secretary of Defense by JFK, and served LBJ until differences over the war emerged, had initiated the secret US-Vietnam history in mid-June 1967.
Robert McNamara, appointed Secretary of Defense by JFK, and served LBJ until differences over the war emerged, had initiated the secret US-Vietnam history in mid-June 1967.
Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, also received one copy. However, McNamara was gone from the Pentagon about year before the study was finished.

In November 1967, McNamara had written a memorandum to President Johnson in which he recommended that the President freeze troop levels, stop bombing North Vietnam, and turn over ground fighting to South Vietnam. McNamara by then believed the U.S. could not win the war in Vietnam. His advice to Johnson at that time was not well received and ignored.

Within a few months of his memo to LBJ — by the end of February 1968 — Robert McNamara was persona non grata in the Johnson Administration. He would resign as Secretary of Defense and move on to head up the World Bank.


Tumultuous Times

Several books have documented the tumultuous events that roiled America & the world in 1968.
Several books have documented the tumultuous events that roiled America & the world in 1968.
The social and political milieu in the U.S. as the secret Vietnam study was being complied was anything but calm. During 1968 in particular, an election year, there came a series of especially volatile events that sent successive shock waves through the nation. “All hell broke loose” is how some described what would become one of the most tumultuous periods of American history – between January 1968 and November 1968.

First came the Tet Offensive in Vietnam in late January 1968 (“Tet” marking the lunar new year holiday), when North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces launched a coordinated attack in South Vietnam that undermined what President Johnson and the U.S. military were saying about the war. At home, Johnson’s well-intentioned Great Society domestic agenda for helping the poor was being circumscribed by the war. Then on February 27th, respected CBS-TV newsman, Walter Cronkite, who had gone to Vietnam after the Tet Offensive, offered an on-air commentary during the regular CBS Evening News program watched by millions, concluding that the Vietnam War was “mired in stalemate.” That broadcast is regarded as seminal in raising doubts among mainstream Americans about U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Johnson, meanwhile, was being challenged for his party’s presidential nomination. On March 12, 1968, anti-war candidate, Senator Eugene McCarthy staged a surprised challenge to Johnson in the New Hampshire primary. Four days later, Senator Robert F. Kennedy announced he would also seek the Democratic Presidential nomination.

Walter Cronkite's February 1968  "stalemate-in-Vietnam" TV commentary was devastating to  LBJ.
Walter Cronkite's February 1968 "stalemate-in-Vietnam" TV commentary was devastating to LBJ.
Then on March 31, 1968, LBJ, in a nationally-televised address in which he announced a partial Vietnam bombing halt while offering the possibility of peace talks, stunned the nation and his party by also announcing he would not seek a second term as President, primarily because of Vietnam. A few days later, on April 4, 1968, civil rights leader Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, and dozens of cities erupted in reaction. On April 23rd, 1968 in New York city, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) seized five buildings on the campus of Columbia University to protest war-related research there. Senator Robert F. Kennedy, meanwhile, had surged to the front of the Democratic pack seeking the Democratic Presidential nomination. But after winning the California primary on June 6th, 1968, Kennedy was assassinated, crushing liberal hopes for a better future. A highly fractured Democratic National Convention opened in Chicago in late August 1968 and became the scene of violent anti-war protests and nationally-televised street battles with Chicago police.

Nixon-Agnew button.
Nixon-Agnew button.
The feeling across the nation was that things were out of control; as if the country had lost its moorings. Republican Presidential candidate Richard Nixon then deftly exploited the Democrats’ chaos using “law & order” rhetoric in his campaign speeches and advertising, appealing to America’s law-abiding “silent majority” and promising to set the nation right again. On November 6th, 1968, in one of the closest presidential elections in history, due in part to third-party candidate, George Wallace of Alabama who garnered 9 million votes, the Republican ticket of Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew defeated the Democrats’ Hubert Humphrey and Ed Muskie. By year’s end 1968, America had 540,000 of its soldiers in Vietnam. Nixon had campaigned to bring an “honorable end to the war in Vietnam,” also saying he had a “secret plan” to end the war.


Early 1970s: Daniel Ellsberg and Anthony Russo, who made late night copies of the Pentagon Papers while at RAND.
Early 1970s: Daniel Ellsberg and Anthony Russo, who made late night copies of the Pentagon Papers while at RAND.

Ellsberg’s Move

Meanwhile, by January 1968, Daniel Ellsberg had spent about 8 months working on the McNamara-ordered Vietnam history, and he regarded the Tet Offensive a troubling development, among others. Still, he continued to work as a government contractor, Vietnam trouble-shooter, and policy advisor, meeting with government officials, presidential candidates – and even in early 1969 — meeting with Henry Kissinger, President Richard Nixon’s national security advisor. Kissinger asked Ellsberg to prepare a list of policy options for the new Nixon administration, which Kissinger did not include in those submitted to Nixon.

Some months later, however, by October 1, 1969, Ellsberg began to cross the line from government contractor and Vietnam analyst to anti-war activist and government whistleblower. As a RAND analyst, he had access to an authorized copy of the 47 volume Pentagon Papers – and he had also read the entire study. Over a three-month period beginning that October, Ellsberg and a RAND colleague named Anthony Russo, began photo-copying the study bit by bit late at night, returning it to the RAND safe each morning. But once copied, Ellsberg would not immediately distribute the sensitive materials to the press.

Ellsberg also tried other avenues to advance his concerns about the Vietnam War. On October 12, 1969, he and several RAND colleagues wrote a letter to the Washington Post opposing the Nixon Administration’s Vietnam policies and statements. As for the secret document he was copying, his first thought was to distribute a few copies to selected U.S. Senators. Members of the U.S. Senate (or the U.S. House of Representatives) could release sensitive papers on the Senate or House floor and face no repercussions, as they could not be prosecuted for anything they said in official proceedings.

Among those receiving early copies of the Pentagon Papers from Ellsberg was Sen. J. William Fulbright (D-AR) a critic of the Vietnam War and a careful foreign policy thinker.
Among those receiving early copies of the Pentagon Papers from Ellsberg was Sen. J. William Fulbright (D-AR) a critic of the Vietnam War and a careful foreign policy thinker.
In November 1969, Ellsberg sent a portion of the secret study to Senator J. William Fulbright (D-AR), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Fulbright was an early critic of the Vietnam War and no fan of the Pentagon.

In 1966, he held some of the first public hearings on the Vietnam War and would publish The Arrogance of Power that year as well, a book sharply critical of the war, in which he attacked its justification and Congress’s failure to set limits on it. As for the Pentagon, in 1970 he would publish The Pentagon Propaganda Machine, a short book focusing on the military’s public relations campaigns.

Fulbright, however, would not release the secret Pentagon study Daniel Ellsberg brought to him. Instead, he decided to request a copy of the full secret Vietnam history from Secretary of Defense, Melvin Laird. On December 20, 1969, Laird replied but refused to release the Pentagon study to Fulbright.


War Protests

Protest over the Vietnam War, meanwhile, had grown. Two large marches on Washington – with hundreds of thousands of protesters — occurred in October and November of 1969. In early November 1969, Nixon made his “silent majority” speech, claiming that most Americans supported his policies to end the war.

May 1970: Four students killed by National Guard during anti-war protest; click for story.
May 1970: Four students killed by National Guard during anti-war protest; click for story.
Then on April 30th, 1970 it was revealed that the U.S. had invaded Cambodia in an effort to stop North Vietnamese using that neighboring country to raid South Vietnam. The Nixon Cambodia incursion is seen as a broadening of the war, and it sets off student demonstrations around the U.S., including one at Kent State University in Ohio on May 4th, where national guard troops are called out to quell the protests. Four Kent Sate students are killed by guardsman on the campus during the demonstrations, setting off further protests across the nation.

Ellsberg, meanwhile, has left RAND and becomes a senior research associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Center for International Studies, where he meets others, including William Bundy, a former Vietnam war architect, and two professors, Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn, with whom he shares the Pentagon Papers. Back in Washington, Ellsberg continued to distribute portions of the Papers to selected Senators and Congressmen, including Sen. George McGovern (D-SD), a leading opponent of the war, and Republican Rep. Pete McCloskey (R-CA). But both choose not to act on the secret document.

On May 13, 1970, Ellsberg testifies before Senator Fullbright’s Senate Foreign Relations Committee, but does not disclose the secret Pentagon study he holds. Several months later, in September that year, Ellsberg publishes an essay, “Escalating in a Quagmire,” presented at a conference of the Political Science Association. He also meets with Secretary Kissinger around this time to discuss his concerns. Kissinger offers him a position as an advisor, which Ellsberg declines. Ellsberg would later confront Kissinger again, publicly, over Vietnam casualty reports, at a January 1971 MIT conference.


Going To The Press

In early March 1971, Ellsberg meets with New York Times reporter, Neil Sheehan. Sheehan had covered the Pentagon and White House for the Times since the mid- and late- 1960s, writing on political, diplomatic and military issues. He was also a former UPI correspondent whom Ellsberg had met in Vietnam. By 1971 Sheehan worked in the Washington bureau of the Times. At his first meeting with Sheehan, Ellsberg only describes the document he has, and wants to be sure that the Times will publish it. He and Sheehan would meet again later.

Tom Oliphant of the Boston Globe
Tom Oliphant of the Boston Globe
Then on March 7th, 1971, the Boston Globe carries a front-page story by its Washington correspondent Thomas Oliphant that is headlined, “Only 3 Have Read Secret Indochina Report; All Urge Pullout,” referring to three Defense Department insiders who had access to the papers – Morton Halperin, Leslie Gelb and Ellsberg.


The Boston Globe story is the first public reporting that a secret U.S./Vietnam history even exists (except for a brief mention in the Oct 25, 1970, issue of Parade magazine). Although Oliphant and the Globe are the first to write publicly about the Papers, no other media picked up on it. Oliphant had interviewed Ellsberg earlier, when Ellsberg acknowledged the study existed. Still, the Globe at this point did not have access to the secret study’s content. Ellsberg and his wife, meanwhile, feared the government might come knocking on their door, so they begin salting away additional copies of the study with friends.

Neil Sheehan of the New York Times had covered the Pentagon and the White House in his reporting.
Neil Sheehan of the New York Times had covered the Pentagon and the White House in his reporting.
A few weeks later, on March 21st, 1971, Ellsberg meets again with New York Times reporter Neil Sheehan in a Cambridge, Massachusetts motel, and Sheehan later photocopies a set of the Pentagon Papers.

By April 5, 1971 Sheehan and New York Times editor Gerald Gold have set up shop in DC’s Jefferson Hilton hotel to begin reviewing the documents. The Times’ winnowing operation on the papers – called Project X – is later moved to a hotel near Times Square. (The Times’ editors and writers had holed up in hotels away from their D.C. and New York offices for fear of FBI raids).

By this time, Sheehan is joined by a broader team of reporters and editors from the Times – Hedrick Smith, Ned Kenworthy, Fox Butterfield and others. During a three-month period, up through early June 1971, while the Times prepared and selected stories to publish from the secret Pentagon study, there was much internal debate over whether and how to publish, with outside counsel recommending not publishing. Among those arguing strongly to run the secret material was senior Times editor, James Reston, who would write an early column titled, “The McNamara Papers.” Finally, on June 11th, 1971, after having the documents for nearly three months, New York Times publisher, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger gave to final approval to publish the secret material.

June 13, 1971: The New York Times publishes its first Pentagon Papers stories (shared with coverage of Tricia Nixon’s White House wedding) – “Vietnam Archive...” by Neil Sheehan , and “Vast Review of War Took A Year,” by Hedrick Smith. A box in the first story directed readers to  further pages of “documentary material from the Pentagon study.”
June 13, 1971: The New York Times publishes its first Pentagon Papers stories (shared with coverage of Tricia Nixon’s White House wedding) – “Vietnam Archive...” by Neil Sheehan , and “Vast Review of War Took A Year,” by Hedrick Smith. A box in the first story directed readers to further pages of “documentary material from the Pentagon study.”

In its Sunday edition of June 13th, 1971 (above), the New York Times published its first Pentagon Papers story on the front page in a story by Neil Sheehan headlined as the “Vietnam Archive.” That headline introduced the secret Pentagon study to Times readers, noting it covered “3 Decades of Growing U.S. Involvement” in Vietnam. There was also coverage of the August 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident, which proved to be a fictitious provocation (of a U.S. vessel fired upon at sea) that the U.S. would use to justify greater U.S. participation in the war via the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution passed by the House and Senate, and used by LBJ as a broad executive power to prosecute a major war. The first New York Times stories, their headlines, and others later, were purposely drawn to be as bland as possible, and not sensationalized, so as to show intent of publisher responsibility, as the Times was then anticipating legal challenges ahead. Still, there was much more in the Times that first day than just these two stories. In fact, that Sunday edition came in at a whopping 486 pages – much of it in supporting verbatim materials from the secret Pentagon study.

On June 14th, 1971, the Times published its second story (below) on the Pentagon Papers – it focused on the February 1965 decision to bomb North Vietnam. This story revealed that President Johnson was planning the bombing on the day he was elected to his second term, despite campaign promises he would not escalate military action. The article also described the decision process that led to the bombing campaign.

June 14, 1971. Cropped front page of the New York times featuring the second in a series of stories on the Pentagon’s secret Vietnam history. This story revealed that planning was underway to bomb North Vietnam before the U.S. 1964 Presidential election, when as a candidate, President Johnson had said he would not escalate the war.
June 14, 1971. Cropped front page of the New York times featuring the second in a series of stories on the Pentagon’s secret Vietnam history. This story revealed that planning was underway to bomb North Vietnam before the U.S. 1964 Presidential election, when as a candidate, President Johnson had said he would not escalate the war.

With the Times’ second story on the sensitive Vietnam history, the Nixon Administration becomes involved in an effort to stop further publication. However, President Nixon had not known of the secret Pentagon study before the Times had run its first stories. Kissinger knew of it, but hadn’t read it. And the secret Vietnam history only covered events up to 1967, and nothing during the Nixon years — with the previous Democratic Administrations of Johnson and Kennedy being skewered initially.

On June 13th, 1971, when the first of the New York Times stories appeared, Nixon did not, at first, want to go after the Times for publishing the material. In fact, he hadn’t read the stories that morning – the day after his daughter had been married at the White House. When he did read them, and after he heard early reaction from his staff and some Cabinet members, Nixon became more concerned with going after who ever leaked the material than he was with the Times’ publication.

President Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, early 1970s.
President Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, early 1970s.
On Monday evening, June 14, 1971, Nixon would remark to his top domestic policy aide, John Ehrlichman, “Hell, I wouldn’t prosecute the Times. My view is to prosecute the [expletive, expletive ] that gave it to ‘em.” However, Nixon’s views about publication would soon change as he held various telephone conversations and meetings with aides, including: National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger; Alexander Haig, then assistant to Kissinger; Secretary of State, William Rogers; Nixon’s top domestic policy aide, John Ehrlichman; and Attorney General John Mitchell.

But Henry Kissinger and others soon convinced Nixon there was plenty to worry about. For if documents as sensitive as these could be photocopied and handed out to the press at will, how could their own Administration carry on the business of national security? They had already had some leaks of their own sensitive material, and the move to publish these Pentagon documents could only embolden others. Indeed, Nixon’s team had their own secrets about how they were conducting the war in Vietnam, Cambodia and elsewhere. There was also the anti-war movement at home that was growing beyond the campuses. In Congress, there were a dozen or so bills calling for an end to the war. Nor did Nixon care much for the press, referring to the Times and other press as “enemies.” So the Nixon Administration — driven by Nixon’s own paranoia about conspiracy efforts out to get him — soon became preoccupied with stopping publication and prosecuting those who leaked sensitive material.

Nixon’s Attorney General, John Mitchell, sent a telegram to New York Times publisher Sulzberger threatening Espionage Act prosecution if the Times does not stop publication. Mitchell cited “irreparable injury to the United States.” Violating the Espionage Act meant prison time for those convicted. The Times girded for a legal fight. They added Yale Law Professor Alex Bickel and First Amendment litigator Floyd Abrams to their legal team. Still, they continued publication.

June 15, 1971: New York Times third instalment of its series on the secret Vietnam study runs with a front page story on how the Johnson Administration began U.S. ground combat operations in Vietnam. There is also the featured top headline story on the Nixon Administration’s efforts to shut down the Times’ publication of the study.
June 15, 1971: New York Times third instalment of its series on the secret Vietnam study runs with a front page story on how the Johnson Administration began U.S. ground combat operations in Vietnam. There is also the featured top headline story on the Nixon Administration’s efforts to shut down the Times’ publication of the study.

On June 15th, 1971, the third installment of the series on the secret Pentagon study is published by the New York Times – this time with a double headline. The first told of the current fight with the Nixon Administration over publication: “Mitchell Seeks to Halt Series on Vietnam But Times Refuses.” On the Vietnam history story, the headline read: “Vietnam Archive: Study Tells How Johnson Secretly Opened Way To Ground Combat.” That story described the decision to commit U.S. ground troops to Vietnam, which was first made on April 1, 1965, beginning with 3,500 Marines, then 18,000-20,000 ground troops, and escalating to 200,000 more requested by General Westmoreland in June of that year (over Ambassador Maxwell Taylor’s objections) which LBJ approved on July 17, 1965.

In this same June 15th edition, the Times wrote that court action over the Vietnam series was likely. In fact, an injunction came later that day, with Nixon’s team filing its action in federal district court in Manhattan. The presiding judge was Nixon appointee, Murray Gurfein, then hearing his first case. Judge Gurfein issued a temporary restraining order barring the Times’ further publication. Back in Washington, the Department of Justice announced that it was considering criminal penalties for the leak and publication. Also at that time, Secretary of State William Rogers, in a press conference, singled out the disclosure of the secret study for harming U.S. relations with its allies.

June 16, 1971. The New York Times reports on the Nixon Administration’s action to halt the Times’ publication on the secret Pentagon study, while also reporting another story from that study and another on related issues.
June 16, 1971. The New York Times reports on the Nixon Administration’s action to halt the Times’ publication on the secret Pentagon study, while also reporting another story from that study and another on related issues.

On the following day, June 16, 1971, the Times runs the dominant front-page headline announcing the government’s action against the paper: “Judge, at Request of U.S., Halts Times Vietnam Series Four Days Pending Injunction.” But the paper also runs another piece from the secret Vietnam archive, as well as a related story on Secretary of State Rogers’ concerns, and another on Senator Mike Mansfield’s (D-MT) call for Senate hearings into the history of the Vietnam War. With the Times being shut down on the story, Daniel Ellsberg then offers the Pentagon Papers to the three television networks (in those days there were only three). But each of the TV networks declines, citing FCC license vulnerability. By this time, Ellsberg and his wife Patricia go underground after Ellsberg is identified as the probable source for leaking the secret Pentagon study.


Post Joins Fray

With the New York Times now legally sidelined, the Washington Post, which had only published wire stories and summations of what the Times had been reporting about the secret study, then began its own effort to pursue the story. Ben Bagdikian, an assistant managing editor at the Post, knew Ellsberg from a time when both had been together at RAND. He had also pieced together that Ellsberg was the likely leaker, and contacted him on behalf of the Post to arrange for a copy of the study. Bagdikian flew to Boston on June 17th, 1971, met with Ellsberg to get the Papers, then flew home to D.C. in an airplane scene now made famous by the 2017 film, “The Post,” with Bagdikian and his big box of papers “belted in” on an adjacent airplane seat (photo below). He was actually carrying two copies, one for a member of Congress (Senator Mike Gravel), later to be incorporated into a formal committee record (see sidebar later below).

Scene from 2017-18 film, “The Post,” showing Ben Bagdikian of The Washington Post (played by Bob Odenkirk ), flying back to Washington after obtaining copies of the 7,000-page “Pentagon Papers” from Daniel Ellsberg in Boston. “Must be precious cargo,” observes flight attendant of his seat companion; “only government secrets” he assures her.
Scene from 2017-18 film, “The Post,” showing Ben Bagdikian of The Washington Post (played by Bob Odenkirk ), flying back to Washington after obtaining copies of the 7,000-page “Pentagon Papers” from Daniel Ellsberg in Boston. “Must be precious cargo,” observes flight attendant of his seat companion; “only government secrets” he assures her.

When Bagdikian arrived in Washington that evening, on June 17th, 1971, he went straight to the home of Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, where a gathered team of reporters and editors were awaiting the secret study to write stories for the following day’s edition. They soon dug into the work as the Post’s lawyers and editors debated the risks of publishing. The Post’s owner and publisher, Katharine Graham, would later approve the publication of the secret material over the telephone during a party being held at her home. Graham’s approval came despite strong objections by the Post’s legal counsel and her own worry about risking the family business. Back in New York, the Times, complying with a court order, released a list of the secret documents it held to the government, but not the documents themselves. The court rejected the government’s request for the copies. Meanwhile, the next day, the Washington Post published its first stories on the secret Pentagon study.

June 18, 1971. The Washington Post runs its first front-page stories on the secret Pentagon study: one from the study during the Eisenhower era in 1954 when the U.S. figured into a delay in South Vietnamese elections; another on how members of Congress were then mostly supporting the earlier New York Times’ publication of the secret study; a third on the Times’ actions regarding the government’s legal requests for documents; and a fourth, in the lower right hand corner, about the government’s pursuit of then suspected leaker, Daniel Ellsberg.
June 18, 1971. The Washington Post runs its first front-page stories on the secret Pentagon study: one from the study during the Eisenhower era in 1954 when the U.S. figured into a delay in South Vietnamese elections; another on how members of Congress were then mostly supporting the earlier New York Times’ publication of the secret study; a third on the Times’ actions regarding the government’s legal requests for documents; and a fourth, in the lower right hand corner, about the government’s pursuit of then suspected leaker, Daniel Ellsberg.

In its debut on the secret Pentagon study (above), the Post featured four related stories on its front page: one from the study during the Eisenhower era in 1954 when the U.S. figured into a delay of South Vietnamese elections; another on how members of Congress were then mostly supporting the New York Times’ publication of the secret study; a third on the Times’ actions regarding the government’s legal requests for the Pentagon documents; and a fourth about the government’s pursuit of then suspected leaker, Daniel Ellsberg. Upon publication, the Nixon Administration immediately goes after the Washington Post.

Assistant U.S. Attorney General, William Rehnquist, calls Post editor Ben Bradlee to inform him that further publication will be a violation of espionage laws. He also requests the Post turn over its documents. Bradlee refuses on both counts.

Some hours later – now June 19th, 2018 at 1:20 a.m – the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals temporarily enjoins the Post from further publication. Two days later, on June 21, 1971, in Federal District court in Washington, Judge Gesell denies the government’s request for a preliminary injunction against the Post, but the government immediately appeals to the D.C. Circuit.

June 21, 1971. Katharine Graham and Ben Bradlee of the Washington Post,, emerging from Federal District Court in Washington, DC after court temporarily ruled in their favor.
June 21, 1971. Katharine Graham and Ben Bradlee of the Washington Post,, emerging from Federal District Court in Washington, DC after court temporarily ruled in their favor.
Then, over the next few days, in both the Washington Post case, and New York Times case, a series of legal maneuvers and appeals and counter-appeals began, culminating in the arrival of both cases together at the U.S. Supreme Court, which first hears oral arguments in a rare Saturday session on June 26, 1971.

By this time, more than 10 other newspapers across the country had received the sensitive Pentagon study and begin publishing their own articles.

At stake in the case as it came before the Supreme Court – New York Times v. United States – is the question of whether the First Amendment allows “prior restraint” (in the form of a legal injunction/prohibition) on the publication of the Pentagon Papers (and by extension, all other information of this kind going forward) by the Times and Post, and generally, the press. It is a fundamental First Amendment challenge.

Meanwhile, as the legal questions were being sorted out in this epic case, Ellsberg was moving from motel to motel to avoid capture by the FBI, still distributing the secret Pentagon study selectively to other newspapers. On June 22nd, 1971, for example, after being contacted earlier by Boston Globe reporter Thomas Oliphant, and with the Globe agreeing to publish the secret material, Ellsberg supplies portions of the study and the Globe runs three related front-page stories; two reporting, respectively, on the JFK and LBJ roles in the secret Vietnam history, and a third reporting that Ellsberg would soon be making a statement on his role. The Justice Department then stopped the Globe from further publication with an injunction and also ordered the Globe’s documents to be impounded. Instead, the Globe’s editor, Thomas Winship, moved the documents off premises to a locker at Boston’s Logan Airport.

June 22, 1971: Boston Globe reports on JFK and LBJ roles in secret Vietnam history – and also Ellsberg.
June 22, 1971: Boston Globe reports on JFK and LBJ roles in secret Vietnam history – and also Ellsberg.
June 24,1971: San Francisco Chronicle reports on secret Pentagon Vietnam history, Ellsberg, & newspaper bans.
June 24,1971: San Francisco Chronicle reports on secret Pentagon Vietnam history, Ellsberg, & newspaper bans.

Ellsberg would continue distributing portions of the secret Pentagon study to other newspapers, a few of which the government also tried to enjoin. The St Louis Post-Dispatch, Christian Science Monitor, San Francisco Chronicle, and Chicago Tribune were among newspapers that published material from the secret Pentagon report. By June 23rd, 1971, Ellsberg himself was interviewed on Walter Cronkite’s CBS-TV news show, when he told the anchorman that Americans were to blame for the war and “now bear the major responsibility, as I read this history, for every death in combat in Indochina in the last 25 years.”

June 25, 1971: St. Louis Post-Dispatch publishes revealing front-page story from the secret Pentagon Vietnam history, running the headlines: ‘M’Namara: Pacification A Failure; Despaired In ‘66 Of Quick Victory, Papers Show,” with front-page photos of Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and President Lyndon Johnson.
June 25, 1971: St. Louis Post-Dispatch publishes revealing front-page story from the secret Pentagon Vietnam history, running the headlines: ‘M’Namara: Pacification A Failure; Despaired In ‘66 Of Quick Victory, Papers Show,” with front-page photos of Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and President Lyndon Johnson.

On June 25th, 1971, the St. Louis Post Dispatch published a front-page story (above) on the secret Pentagon study that headlined the fact that U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara had declared the “pacification” effort in Vietnam a failure, and in 1966 he warned President Johnson there would be no quick victory. This story was a clear indication that more than just the New York Times and Washington Post were involved, as nearly an additional dozen or so newspapers – some in the heartland of the country such as the St Louis Post-Dispatch – were also publishing revealing accounts from the secret Pentagon Vietnam history.

In Los Angeles, meanwhile, a federal grand jury was convened to hear charges on the criminal aspect of the Pentagon study leak. On June 26th, 1971, a warrant was issued for the arrest of Daniel Ellsberg; his attorneys announced he would surrender the following Monday. Also on June 26th, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch came under a restraining order for its publication.

June 28, 1971: Time cover, “Pentagon Papers: The Secret War.”
June 28, 1971: Time cover, “Pentagon Papers: The Secret War.”
By late June 1971 the secret Vietnam history is being called “The Pentagon Papers” by Time magazine, and the story continues to be big national news. On June 28, 1971, Time and Newsweek both run cover stories on the secret Papers (Newsweek’s cover story of this date shown earlier, the first photo at the top of this story). Time, in its cover story, for example, offers its impression of the U.S./Vietnam decision making revealed in the study:

…Each step seems to have been taken almost in desperation because the preceding step had failed to check the crumbling of the South Vietnamese government and its troops—and despite frequently expressed doubts that the next move would be much more effective. Yet the bureaucracy, the Pentagon papers indicate, always demanded new options; each option was to apply more force. Each tightening of the screw created a position that must be defended; once committed, the military pressure must be maintained. A pause, it was argued, would reveal lack of resolve, embolden the Communists and further demoralize the South Vietnamese. Almost no one said: “Wait—where are we going? Should we turn back?”

Also on June 28th, 1971, Daniel Ellsberg surrendered to the U.S. Attorney in Boston. There he was charged under the Espionage Act with theft and unauthorized possession of classified documents and released on $500,000 bail. Ellsberg faced a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison. Meanwhile, the New York Times/Washington Post case over the right to publish was still pending before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Late June 1971: Daniel Ellsberg appears before microphones, surrounded by reporters at the Federal Building in Boston, where he would surrender to Federal authorities after admitting he supplied the New York Times with the secret Pentagon papers.
Late June 1971: Daniel Ellsberg appears before microphones, surrounded by reporters at the Federal Building in Boston, where he would surrender to Federal authorities after admitting he supplied the New York Times with the secret Pentagon papers.

On the following day, June 29, 1971, U.S. Senator Mike Gravel (D-AK) then attempted to read the Pentagon Papers into the Senate record as part of his filibuster on the military draft, but he was stopped by a parliamentary maneuver. He then convened a hearing of his Senate Public Buildings and Grounds Subcommittee in the middle of the night and began reading the Pentagon Papers into the hearing record, continuing to do so for three hours, and later submitting the unread remainder into the formal hearing record. (more on Gravel and these papers in later sidebar).

Then on June 30, 1971, the U.S. Supreme Court announced its decision in New York Times v. United States, with the nine justices voting 6-3, upholding the Times’ and Post’s right to publish, and declaring that all news organizations could publish any excerpt of the report they deemed newsworthy. The landmark decision made front-page news all across the country, and no more happily than at the New York Times and Washington Post – with each of those newspapers, and others, resuming their reporting on the once secret U.S.-Vietnam history.

July 1, 1971: In addition to its front page coverage of the Supreme Court’s decision, the Times continued its series on the Pentagon Papers with two of the stories appearing on the front page – one on JFK decisions  – “...Made ‘Gamble’ Into a ‘Broad Commitment’,” – and another on the overthrow of South Vietnam’s President Diem.
July 1, 1971: In addition to its front page coverage of the Supreme Court’s decision, the Times continued its series on the Pentagon Papers with two of the stories appearing on the front page – one on JFK decisions – “...Made ‘Gamble’ Into a ‘Broad Commitment’,” – and another on the overthrow of South Vietnam’s President Diem.

July 1, 1971.  Washington Post front page following U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding the right of the press to publish secret Pentagon Papers. Photo shows Post owner Katharine Graham, editor, Ben Bradlee, and Post reporters in Post’s newsroom receiving and celebrating the court’s decision.
July 1, 1971. Washington Post front page following U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding the right of the press to publish secret Pentagon Papers. Photo shows Post owner Katharine Graham, editor, Ben Bradlee, and Post reporters in Post’s newsroom receiving and celebrating the court’s decision.

The case marked the first time in modern American history that the U.S. government had actually restrained the press from publication in the name of national security, as the New York Times had been restrained for 14 days from publishing. But the Supreme Court’s decision re-affirmed the right and duty of the press to keep a watchful eye on government. Justice Hugo Black wrote, for example: “In the First Amendment the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors.” Justice Black and Justice William O. Douglas added that no restraints of any sort are permissible under the First Amendment. (For a legal analysis of the importance of New York Times v. the United States, see C-SPAN’s “Landmark Cases” series on this case).

However, the controversy over the publication of the Pentagon Papers did not end with the Supreme Court’s decision upholding the right to publish. The story continued with the arrests and trial of Daniel Ellsberg and Anthony Russo. In fact, on the day of the Supreme Court’s decision in the Pentagon Papers case, June 30, 1971 the U.S. Attorney in Los Angeles indicted Ellsberg on two counts of theft and espionage. And in some ways, this is where “the plot thickens,” as they say, for the Nixon Administration, as would be later revealed, was hot on the trail of Daniel Ellsberg.

July 5, 1971: Time puts Daniel Ellsberg on it cover with story on the “Battle Over the Right to Know.”
July 5, 1971: Time puts Daniel Ellsberg on it cover with story on the “Battle Over the Right to Know.”
July 12, 1971: “Victory for The Press,” Newsweek cover story on Supreme Court ruling.
July 12, 1971: “Victory for The Press,” Newsweek cover story on Supreme Court ruling.

The Ellsberg/Russo prosecution and trial would run nearly two years, from June 1971 through May 1973, and would take several twists and turns. In August 1971, Anthony Russo was called to testify before the grand jury in Los Angeles, but refused, citing his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination. And after he was offered immunity from prosecution, he still refused to testify and was cited for contempt and put in jail. In late December 1971, a second indictment was brought against Ellsberg and Russo that superseded the original, this one containing fifteen counts. By July 29, 1972, with the trial underway, it was learned the government had wiretapped a conversation between one of the defendants and his lawyer or consultants. However, the judge in the trial, Judge Matthew Byrne, refused to stop the trial because of the wiretap. But Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas ordered a stay since an appeal has been filed at the Supreme Court. But the Supreme Court, on November 13, 1972, refuses to hear defense arguments arising from the government’s wiretap. Then on December 12, 1972, Judge Byrne, declares a mistrial in the Ellsberg-Russo case and calls for a new jury to be empaneled. On January 17, 1973, opening statements are delivered in the new Ellsberg/Russo trial. But not long thereafter, some other revelations come to light.

Charles Colson, Nixon aide.
Charles Colson, Nixon aide.
John Erlichman, Nixon aide.
John Erlichman, Nixon aide.
Howard Hunt, "plumber".
Howard Hunt, "plumber".
Gordon Liddy, "plumber".
Gordon Liddy, "plumber".

Nixon’s Plumbers

Two years earlier in the White House, during the New York Times’ publication of the Pentagon Papers, concern about leaks and conspiracies had escalated, as Nixon and his aides fumed over the Pentagon Papers disclosures and Daniel Ellsberg.

During June and July 1971 several of Nixon’s top aides and chief advisors — through a series of memos, telephone calls, and meetings — were involved in a continuing harangue about the leaks, Ellsberg, and what they were going to do about it. All of this led to an internal, self-reinforcing revving up of the group, including Nixon, to stop leaks and take revenge, initially on Ellsberg, the first among a variety of “enemies.”

Henry Kissinger, for example, Nixon’s National Security Advisor – who had once praised Ellsberg and sought his expertise – painted a very dark and damaging portrait of Ellsberg on the evening of June 17, 1971 in the Oval Office with Nixon, John Ehrlichman, and Bob Haldeman present.

Another top Nixon aide, Charles Colson, in a July 1st, 1971 telephone call with retired CIA agent named E. Howard Hunt, helped inspire and recruit Hunt to see what he could come up with on Ellsberg and other projects, suggesting, among other things, that Ellsberg might be “tried in the newspapers.” By July 6, 1971 Hunt was hired as White House consultant.

Meanwhile, the FBI and CIA by this time had been looking into Ellsberg’s past at the request of the White House with some urgency. But this was apparently not sufficient, as a special and covert White House Special Investigations Unit – later to be known as the “plumbers” – had been created on July 24, 1971 to help stop the leaking of classified information. Two junior aides were appointed to administer the unit – Egil “Bud” Krogh, Jr., and Kissinger aide David Young, Jr. This unit would come under the supervision of Nixon’s Domestic Advisor, John Ehrlichman.

On July 28, 1971, Howard Hunt sent a memo to Colson entitled “Neutralization of Ellsberg” with an outline of several proposed actions. “Building up a file on Ellsberg,” Hunt wrote, was “essential in determining how to destroy his public image and credibility.” One of the proposals from Hunt was to burglarize the offices of Ellsberg’s one-time psychiatrist in Los Angeles,…Hunt’s plan to burglarize the office of psychiatrist Dr. Lewis Fielding sought a “mother lode” of infor-mation about Ellsberg’s mental state in order to discredit him. Dr. Lewis Fielding, to obtain a “mother lode” of information about Ellsberg’s mental state in order to discredit him. In August 1971, that plan is fleshed out in more detail at the Old Executive Office Building near the White House and is later approved by Ehrlichman under the condition that it “is not traceable.” On September 3, 1971, the burglary of Fielding’s Beverly Hills Los Angeles office was carried out by “plumbers” Hunt, Liddy, Eugenio Martínez, Felipe de Diego, and Bernard Barker (the latter three, former CIA). In Fielding’s burgled office and crow-barred filing cabinet, Nixon’s plumbers found Ellsberg’s file, but it apparently did not contain the embarrassing information they had hoped for and left it discarded on the floor. Hunt and Liddy then planned to break into Fielding’s home, but Ehrlichman did not approve the second burglary. (This plumbers unit, meanwhile, would be the one and the same group made famous in the 1972 burglary of Democratic Campaign headquarters at the Watergate office complex in Washington DC — the break in and subsequent cover-up that would lead to the Watergate scandal and the resignation of President Richard Nixon).


Back at The Trial…

Back at the Ellsberg/Russo trial on April 26, 1973, a memo to Judge Bryne revealed the White House “plumbers” break-in of Dr. Fielding’s office seeking Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatric records. And there was more. On May 9th, further evidence of illegal wiretapping of Ellsberg was revealed, as the FBI had recorded numerous conversations between he and Morton Halperin without a court order. In addition, it was also revealed that during the trial, Judge Byrne – the residing judge in the trial – had personally met with Richard Nixon’s domestic advisor, John Ehrlichman, who had offered Byrne a position at the FBI. Given the gross governmental misconduct and illegal evidence gathering, Judge Byrne dismissed all charges against Ellsberg and Russo on May 11, 1973. The dismissal was front-page news.

May 12, 1973.  New York Times headlines proclaiming government charges against Daniel Ellsberg and Anthony Russo in their Pentagon Papers trial are dismissed and the are free, with the judge noting “improper government conduct” in that trial.
May 12, 1973. New York Times headlines proclaiming government charges against Daniel Ellsberg and Anthony Russo in their Pentagon Papers trial are dismissed and the are free, with the judge noting “improper government conduct” in that trial.

At the White House, however, President Nixon was not happy with the outcome of the Ellsberg trial, nor with the fact that earlier, on May 2, 1972, the New York Times had been awarded a Pulitzer Prize for “meritorious public service in journalism” for its reporting on the Pentagon Papers. While speaking to Alexander Haig and Bob Haldeman at the White House on the day the mistrial is declared, Nixon says: “…Son-of-a-bitchin’ thief is made a national hero and is gonna get off on a mistrial. The New York Times gets a Pulitzer Prize for stealing documents. They’re trying to get at us with thieves. What in the name of God have we come to?”

Fifteen months later, on August 8th, 1974, Richard M. Nixon announced in a televised address that he would resign as President of the United States the following day to escape what would have been most certain impeachment by the House and removal by the Senate for the crimes of the Watergate Scandal, which began, in part, with the White House paranoia over the publication of the secret Pentagon Papers (see also at this website “The Frost-Nixon Biz,” which covers the 1977 David Frost TV interviews with Richard Nixon and the books, play, and film that followed).


Books & Film

Popular History

In the years following the publication of the Pentagon Papers and the Daniel Ellsberg disclosures, there came a number of books and films on the controversy, its various characters, and related Vietnam War histories and politics. Among the first of these was a July 1971 Bantam Books paperback of some 677 pages that compiled what the New York Times had published in its newspaper series. The cover of that book appears below left, which also provided attribution on the cover for the various Times reporters involved, adding — “with key documents and 64 pages of photographs.”

1971: Bantam Books paperback edition of the New York Times published “Pentagon Papers,” 677pp.
1971: Bantam Books paperback edition of the New York Times published “Pentagon Papers,” 677pp.
1971: NY Times / Quadrangle Books “definitive” hard-back copy of Pentagon Papers & documents, 810pp.
1971: NY Times / Quadrangle Books “definitive” hard-back copy of Pentagon Papers & documents, 810pp.

Also in 1971, the New York Times-owned company, Quadrangle Books, published a hardback volume of some 810 pages (above right) billed at the “definitive edition” of the Pentagon Papers as published by the Times, plus supplementary materials. It was offered as a comprehensive volume for libraries, universities, and private citizens. It included the ten chapters covered by the Times in its June and July 1971 stories, plus the full texts of the government documents that appeared in those stories; the court proceedings in the case of The New York Times Company vs. The United States; pictorial documentation of the Pentagon study in 60 pages of photographs; a glossary of names, code words, abbreviations and technical terms used in the Pentagon study; expanded and illustrated biographies of American and Vietnamese officials prominent in the study; and a 32-page index. Then there was also “the Gravel edition” of the Pentagon Papers, with a little history of its own.


“The Gravel Edition”
Mike Gravel & Beacon Press

Senator Mike Gravel, early 1970s.
Senator Mike Gravel, early 1970s.
In mid-June 1971, as the New York Times and Washington Post were doing legal battle with the Nixon Administration to continue publishing the Pentagon Papers, Daniel Ellsberg wasn’t sure how they would fare. He continued looking for a way to get the entire document on the public record so anyone could read it. He then returned to the idea of having a member of Congress read the papers into the formal proceedings of Congress or the Congressional Record. He hadn’t succeeded with other Senators in earlier attempts. But now he turned to a freshman senator from Alaska, Democrat Mike Gravel, who was then using a filibuster in an attempt to end the military draft as one way to end America’s involvement in Vietnam. Gravel agreed to receive the papers from Ellsberg, who had arranged for a copy through Washington Post editor Ben Bagdikian. Gravel picked up the papers in a midnight exchange in front of the Mayflower Hotel in Washington.

On the evening of June 29, 1971, after being thwarted in his attempt to read the secret study on the floor of the U.S. Senate, Gravel resorted to using his Buildings and Grounds Subcommittee as a way to enter the Pentagon Papers into the formal Congressional record. As he began reading from the papers with the press in attendance, Gravel noted: “It is my constitutional obligation to protect the security of the people by fostering the free flow of information absolutely essential to their democratic decision-making.” He read until 1 a.m., though finally inserting some 4,100 pages of the Papers into the record of his subcommittee. The following day, the Supreme Court, in New York Times Co. v. United States, ruled in favor of the newspapers’ right to publish the Pentagon Papers, which then continued at the Times, Post, and other newspapers. In addition, by July 1971, Bantam Books published an inexpensive paperback edition of the papers containing the material the New York Times had published.

"The Senator Gravel Edition" of the Pentagon Papers, published by Beacon Press, October 1971. Not shown, Chomsky/Zinn Vol. 5.
"The Senator Gravel Edition" of the Pentagon Papers, published by Beacon Press, October 1971. Not shown, Chomsky/Zinn Vol. 5.
Gravel, too, wanted to publish in book form the portion of the papers he had read into the record, believing that “immediate disclosure of the contents of these papers will change the policy that supports the war.” On August 4, 1971, after being turned down by dozens of commercial publishers, some fearful of government retribution, Gravel reached agreement with Beacon Press, the publishing arm of the Unitarian church, the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), of which Gravel was a member. On October 22, 1971, a four-volume set of the Pentagon Papers bearing the name, “The Senator Gravel Edition,” was published. This edition of the Pentagon Papers was edited and annotated by Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn, professors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and also included an additional volume of articles and essays on the origins and progress of the war, also edited by Chomsky and Zinn. Cornell University and the Annenberg Center for Communication are among institutions offering kudos for the Gravel Edition

UUA President Bob West and Senator Mike Gravel respond to the FBI’s attempt to seize UUA bank records in 1971.
UUA President Bob West and Senator Mike Gravel respond to the FBI’s attempt to seize UUA bank records in 1971.
In 1971, however, the response of the Nixon Administration to Beacon Press publishing the Gravel Edition was swift. Days after Beacon Press published The Pentagon Papers: The Senator Gravel Edition, FBI agents showed up at the UUA’s bank asking for their financial records. The UUA and Senator Gravel sued the government to suspend its search in a legal action that made its way to the Supreme Court, which decided in June 1972 that the senator’s official speech immunity did not, however, extend to Beacon Press. Senator Gravel and his staff were also involved in other litigation with the Nixon Administration for their initial disclosure of the Pentagon documents.

Senator Gravel’s involvement with the Pentagon Papers, meanwhile, had made him into something of a national political figure at that time. He became a sought-after speaker on the college lecture circuit and was also sought out for political fundraisers. The Democratic candidates for the 1972 presidential election sought his endorsement, and he later backed Maine Senator Ed Muskie.

Gravel continued fighting the Nixon Administration on Vietnam. In April 1972, he appeared on all three nightly TV newscasts criticizing Nixon’s “Vietnamization” plan for the South Vietnamese to shoulder the war fighting, while also making other secret government war documents public.


Sanford J. Ungar first published this book with E.P, Dutton; shown here in Columbia Univ. Press edition, 1989.
Sanford J. Ungar first published this book with E.P, Dutton; shown here in Columbia Univ. Press edition, 1989.
In 1972, Sanford J. Ungar, a former Washington Post reporter, published The Papers and The Papers: An Account of the Legal and Political Battle Over the Pentagon Papers. The first hardback edition of this book at 319 pages was published by E.P. Dutton. The edition shown at left is the March 1989 Columbia University Press edition of 340 pages.

Ungar had also written on the Pentagon Papers and Ellsberg in 1971-72 for the Washington Post, publishing one story there titled, “Daniel Ellsberg: The Difficulties of Disclosure,” in a Sunday edition, April 30,1972, tracking the difficulties Ellsberg encountered trying to put the secret Pentagon materials on the public record.

Ellsberg himself published his own quick book on the Pentagon Papers in July 1972 titled simply, Papers On The War (Simon & Schuster, 309pp). In 2002, Ellsberg would publish a second account on the Pentagon Papers case, Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers, which reached bestseller lists across the nation and won several awards, including the American Book Award.

One book profiling Ellsberg’s history with the Pentagon Papers is Steve Sheinkin’s Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War, published by Roaring Brook Press in 2015 and was a National Book Award finalist.

Other popular and academic volumes on the Pentagon Papers, some from the perspective of journalism, and others probing the trail of litigation or parsing the Supreme Court’s decision, would also come into print over the next 40 years – not to mention numerous periodical and law review articles.

Daniel Ellsberg, 1972 book.
Daniel Ellsberg, 1972 book.
Daniel Ellsberg, 2002 book.
Daniel Ellsberg, 2002 book.
David Rudenstine’s 1996 book.
David Rudenstine’s 1996 book.
James Goodale's 2013 book.
James Goodale's 2013 book.
David Halberstam's 1972 book.
David Halberstam's 1972 book.
Robert McNamara's 1996 book.
Robert McNamara's 1996 book.
Steve Sheinkin’s 2015 book.
Steve Sheinkin’s 2015 book.
H.R. McMaster's 1998 book.
H.R. McMaster's 1998 book.
Ben Bradlee's 1995 book.
Ben Bradlee's 1995 book.
Kay Graham's 1997 book.
Kay Graham's 1997 book.

Among books exploring the publishing and/or legal aspects of the Pentagon Papers, for example, is David Rudenstine’s 1996 work, The Day the Presses Stopped: A History of the Pentagon Papers Case (University of California Press).

In 2013, James Goodale, the former general counsel and vice chairman of the New York Times, published Fighting for the Press: The Inside Story of the Pentagon Papers and Other Battles, which includes his account representing the Times before the Supreme Court in the Pentagon Papers case.

There are also two books from the Washington Post’s Ben Bradlee and Katharine Graham, which include sections on the Pentagon Papers: Graham’s Personal History of 1997, published by Alfred A. Knopf, and Bradlee’s A Good Life: Newspapering and Other Adventures, published by Simon & Schuster in 1995. Presidential biographies – especially those on Johnson and Nixon – also have history related to the Pentagon Papers and Vietnam era decision making.

Complimenting the early books on the Pentagon Papers is David Halberstam’s well-received 1972 best seller on Vietnam, The Best and The Brightest. Halberstam’s book offers details on how the decisions were made in the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations that led to the war, focusing on a period from 1960 to 1965, but also covers earlier and later years up to the book’s publication.

One of the “best and brightest” featured in Halberstam’s book, former U.S. Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, penned his own book on Vietnam in 1995, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam (Crown Books). McNamara’s best-selling book generated considerable controversy with lots of media time for the former Defense Secretary.

Beyond the literature that covers the Pentagon Papers per se or the decision making at that time, there is of course, a vast array of works on the history of the Vietnam War from multiple perspectives. Among these, for example, are: Frances FitzGerald’s 1975 book, Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam, and Stanley Karnow’s 1984 book, Vietnam: A History (Viking), billed at the time as “the first complete account of Vietnam at war” (This book was also used as a basis for the long form PBS TV series of the same title).

Among books taking a critical look at Vietnam policy making and military strategy is H.R. McMaster’s 1998 book, Dereliction of Duty: Johnson, McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam – one of many probing the whys and wherefores of U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

Neil Sheehan, the former New York Times reporter that broke the early Pentagon Papers stories, also wrote an award-winning 1988 book on the war, A Bright Shining Lie:John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam (Random House), which probes the Vietnam War through the experiences of John Paul Vann, a U.S. military advisor there in the early 1960s who became increasingly critical of U.S. military command and tactics used in the war.

Another Vietnam book by Mark Bowden published in 2017 focuses on one of war’s seminal military engagements during the Tet Offensive: Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam (Atlantic Monthly Press). The titles presented here and above are only samples; not by any means an exhaustive listing of the much larger universe of U.S./Vietnam analysis and the politics of that period.

TV & Hollywood. In September 2003, a television film, The Pentagon Papers, was the first in that arena to explore the Pentagon Papers episode. It aired on the FX cable TV channel. The film is about Daniel Ellsberg and the events leading up to the publication of the Pentagon Papers. It documents Ellsberg’s life starting with his work at the RAND Corporation, and ends with the mistrial in the Ellsberg-Russo espionage case. The film stars James Spader as Ellsberg and cast that also includes Claire Forlani, Alan Arkin, and Paul Giamatti (Rod Holcomb director,Joshua D. Maurer executive producer).

Sept 2003 cable TV movie, “The Pentagon Papers,” with James Spader as Daniel Ellsberg, FX channel.
Sept 2003 cable TV movie, “The Pentagon Papers,” with James Spader as Daniel Ellsberg, FX channel.
2009 documentary film, “The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers.”
2009 documentary film, “The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers.”

In 2009, a documentary film directed and produced by Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith, titled, The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers. The film had a four-month theatrical run and in 2010 it was shown on the PBS series POV, for which it won a Peabody Award. It was also nominated for an Oscar in the documentary film category and won more than a dozen other film festival and other awards. It features Ellsberg and explores the events leading up to the publication of the Pentagon Papers. One Washington Post reviewer of the film called it: “Compelling… (a) gripping mix of politics, history and the derring-do of one of the era’s most audacious capers…deservedly Oscar nominated.” Here’s the trailer for that documentary:



An earlier documentary on the Vietnam war – Hearts and Minds of 1974 (which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature that year) – is also relevant to this period and its history, and includes interviews with Ellsberg and other major figures involved in U.S./Vietnam policy making and military operations. And most recently, of course, the 2017, Oscar-nominated Steven Spielberg Hollywood film, The Post, covers the Washington Post portion of the Pentagon Papers episode (trailer available at the top of this story).


The Post

The 2017 Spielberg film – with Meryl Streep portraying the country’s first female newspaper publisher, Katharine “Kay” Graham of The Washington Post, and Tom Hanks playing hard-driving newsroom editor, Ben Bradlee – was released in America at a propitious time; a time when the sitting president, Donald Trump, much like the historic figure, Richard Nixon during the Pentagon Papers controversy, was at war with many news organizations. In addition, by depicting the struggles of a female executive in a powerful business, the Spielberg film also struck a positive chord with women in a time of renewed calls for female equity and empowerment. But perhaps most of all, the film helped drive home the importance of a vibrant and unfettered press, rising to its “fourth estate” responsibilities.

Scene from Steven Spielberg's 2017-18 film, ‘The Post’, showing, at left, Ben Bradlee (Hanks, w/cup), Kay Graham (Streep) next to him, and Meg Greenfield, seated (Carrie Coon), watching news on table-top TV set in the Washington Post newsroom during the tense days of June 1971 as Pentagon Papers publication was being challenged by the Nixon Adminsistration.
Scene from Steven Spielberg's 2017-18 film, ‘The Post’, showing, at left, Ben Bradlee (Hanks, w/cup), Kay Graham (Streep) next to him, and Meg Greenfield, seated (Carrie Coon), watching news on table-top TV set in the Washington Post newsroom during the tense days of June 1971 as Pentagon Papers publication was being challenged by the Nixon Adminsistration.

Spielberg read the screenplay in early 2017 and decided to direct the film as soon as possible. “When I read the first draft of the script,” he told USA Today in November 2017, “this wasn’t something that could wait three years or two years — this was a story I felt we needed to tell today.” Spielberg also explained that it was “a patriotic film” and that he decided to take it on basically because he believes in journalism. Spielberg’s film helped trumpet the importance of a free and feisty press. “It is an antidote to ‘fake news,’ he said of the film. “Those journalists in the movie are true heroes.”

The film began airing in the U.S. in late December 2017, with full release in January 2018. It was chosen by the National Board of Review as the best film of 2017 and was named as one of the top 10 films of the year by Time magazine and the American Film Institute. It also received six Golden Globe nominations (Best Motion Picture – Drama, Best Director, Best Actress – Drama [Streep], Best Actor – Drama [Hanks], Best Screenplay and Best Original Score), and two Academy Award nominations (Best Picture and Best Actress). And while there were some gripes about not giving the New York Times its due in the film, and that “nice guy” Tom Hanks lacked a certain edge to fully portray the Ben Bradlee character, the film nonetheless achieved an important public education role by underscoring the importance of a free and feisty press.

As for the real Pentagon Papers crisis and confrontations of June 1971, it is at least somewhat heartening to know that good people came forward to expose and publish the truth, and that key institutions generally worked as the Founders intended: to help free up vital information for all citizens to access so that democracy can work to keep power in check.

April 1, 1972. Daniel Ellsberg, addressing a crowd at the State Capitol in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania following an anti-war march that ended at the Capitol. (AP photo/Rusty Kennedy)
April 1, 1972. Daniel Ellsberg, addressing a crowd at the State Capitol in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania following an anti-war march that ended at the Capitol. (AP photo/Rusty Kennedy)

Still, in the world of government secrecy since 1971, the news is not so good, as Dana Priest, Pulitzer Prize-winning intelligence and Pentagon reporter for the Washington Post has written in a 2016 Columbia Journalism Review article titled, “Did The Pentagon Papers Matter?” Citing a number of cases of “government at work” since the days of the Pentagon Papers, she concludes that “secrecy in government…has continued unabated….” All the more reason for the first-amendment protected press to keep digging and afflicting, and for the rest of us to ensure that they do.

_____________________________

New York Times team that won 1972 Pulitzer Prize for public service for publication of the Pentagon Papers; from left, reporter Neil Sheehan, managing editor A.M. Rosenthal, foreign news editor James L. Greenfield & others. AP photo
New York Times team that won 1972 Pulitzer Prize for public service for publication of the Pentagon Papers; from left, reporter Neil Sheehan, managing editor A.M. Rosenthal, foreign news editor James L. Greenfield & others. AP photo
Other related stories at this website include, for example, four on Richard Nixon: “Enemy of the President, 1970s” (profile of Paul Conrad’s political cartoons with special attention to those on Richard Nixon and Watergate); “The Frost-Nixon Biz, 1977-2009” (the David Frost/Richard Nixon interviews and Watergate); “1968 Presidential Race: Republicans” (includes Nixon’s candidacy & election that year and others); and “Nixon’s Checkers Speech” (Nixon in crisis as 1952 VP candidate). See also: “Newsweek Sold!, 1961” (history of Washington Post under Phil Graham, acquisition of Newsweek magazine, and later years); “Four Dead in O-hi-o, 1970” (Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia and Kent State shootings); and “1968 Presidential Race: Democrats” (covers the tumult of 1968 and candidacies of Eugene McCarthy, Robert F. Kennedy, and Hubert Humphrey).

Thanks for visiting – and if you like what you find here, please make a donation to help support the research and writing at this website. Thank you. – Jack Doyle

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Date Posted: 5 February 2018
Last Update: 1 May 2018
Comments to: jdoyle@pophistorydig.com

Article Citation:
Jack Doyle, “The Pentagon Papers: 1967-2018,”
PopHistoryDig.com, February 5, 2018.

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Sources, Links & Additional Information

Cover used on one version of Quadrangle Books edition of “Pentagon Papers as published by the NY Times,” showing LBJ with Robert McNamara, Dean Rusk, and McGeorge Bundy.
Cover used on one version of Quadrangle Books edition of “Pentagon Papers as published by the NY Times,” showing LBJ with Robert McNamara, Dean Rusk, and McGeorge Bundy.
“Inside The Pentagon Papers,” by John Prados and Margaret Pratt Porter, 2004 edition, 260pp.
“Inside The Pentagon Papers,” by John Prados and Margaret Pratt Porter, 2004 edition, 260pp.
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“The Pentagon Papers, Abridged Edition” (1993), by historian George Herring (ed), is billed as “a brief and manageable collection of the most important documents on U.S. policymaking in the Vietnam War between 1950 and 1968”.
Originally titled, “United States-Vietnam Relations, 1945-1967,” the Pentagon Papers were designated “Top Secret-Sensitive,” and despite their 1971 disclosure to the press, were not officially “declassified” by the government until June 2011.
Originally titled, “United States-Vietnam Relations, 1945-1967,” the Pentagon Papers were designated “Top Secret-Sensitive,” and despite their 1971 disclosure to the press, were not officially “declassified” by the government until June 2011.
Neil Sheehan’s “A Bright Shining Lie” (1988), winner of a Pulitzer Prize and The National Book Award.
Neil Sheehan’s “A Bright Shining Lie” (1988), winner of a Pulitzer Prize and The National Book Award.
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Joseph Kraft, “The Plumber’s Assignment: Destruction of Ed and Ted in `72,” New York Magazine, May 13, 1974.

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“Coal & The Kennedys”
1960s-2010s

In May 2012, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. was in Portland, Oregon speaking out about U.S. coal exports. He was there supporting an alliance of Pacific Northwest citizen groups worried about the impact of a developing “coal corridor” in their region. Some half dozen new export terminals were then proposed for the Pacific coast. Coal, headed to Asian markets from Western strip mines, would bring a daily disruption of long, coal-hauling unit trains through Northwest communities from Montana to Washington. More than 40 years earlier, in 1968, Kennedy’s father – Robert F. Kennedy, then U.S. Senator and former U.S. Attorney General – was visiting the coal mining communities of Eastern Kentucky. And before that, in 1960, his uncle – John F. Kennedy, then running for president – helped bring the spotlight on coal poverty in West Virginia. His other uncle, Ted Kennedy, a U.S. Senator, helped oversee coal mine safety regulations in the 1980-2000s period. What follows here is look back at some of that history – how these Kennedys and others from that Massachusetts family, have brought national attention to the plight of coal communities, coal miners and their families, and/or coal/environment issues.

May 2012: Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., speaking at a Portland, Oregon rally opposing coal exports. More on his coal-related activism – from the 1990s through the 2010s – will be covered later in this article.
May 2012: Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., speaking at a Portland, Oregon rally opposing coal exports. More on his coal-related activism – from the 1990s through the 2010s – will be covered later in this article.

Early history in the Kennedy family, circa 1920s, indicate some investments and other ties to the coal industry. The paternal grandfather of JFK, RFK, and Ted Kennedy – Patrick J., or “P.J.” Kennedy, as he was called – had made an investment in the Suffolk Coal Company, an interest he held in 1929 at the time of his death. “PJ’s” son, Joseph P. Kennedy – father of JFK, RFK and Ted Kennedy – is reported to have made a killing in a 1922 stock deal ($45 million in today’s money by some estimates) speculating on Ford Motor Company’s acquisition of the Pond Creek Coal Co. in Kentucky. And Robert F. Kennedy’s wife, Ethel Skakel (married in 1950) was the daughter of multi-millionaire George Skakel who was a principal in The Great Lakes Coal & Coke Company of the 1920s.

Yet in subsequent generations, as members of the Kennedy family coursed through American politics, they became concerned with the hard lives of coal mining families and/or the unhappy side effects of coal mining, especially in Appalachia. During the mid-20th and early 21st centuries, Kennedy family members – while running for political office, acting on public policy matters once in office, or in various public service roles – worked to help coal miners, their communities and families, or to spotlight coal-related environmental problems and safety issues. First, consider John F. Kennedy in the early 1960s, who became the nation’s 35th president.


1960-1963

JFK & West Virginia

April 1960: JFK greets  a one-armed miner near Mullens, WV while on the campaign trail for the West Virginia primary election. Photo: Hank Walker, Time/Life.
April 1960: JFK greets a one-armed miner near Mullens, WV while on the campaign trail for the West Virginia primary election. Photo: Hank Walker, Time/Life.
John F. Kennedy began his quest for the 1960 Democratic presidential nomination when he was a U.S. Senator in the late 1950s. As he began, he was faced with running in several presidential primaries to show party bosses that he had the ability to appeal to a broad voter base. Two key states with primary elections in 1960 were Wisconsin in April and West Virginia in May. The West Virginia primary became a critical test for Kennedy. At the time, Kennedy’s Catholic faith was an issue, as there had never been a Catholic president, and some believed non-Catholics wouldn’t vote for him.

But in April 1960, Kennedy won the Wisconsin primary, beating rival Senator Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota. Kennedy’s victory was helped by Catholic voters in some districts. Yet, in many non-Catholic districts, Kennedy did not have a strong showing. That meant the next primary that year – in West Virginia, a state that was 95 percent Protestant – would be a more telling test of Kennedy’s non-Catholic appeal. But West Virginia was uncharted territory for Kennedy. As he had done elsewhere in the country in his early informal campaign, Kennedy had visited West Virginia a few times in 1958 and 1959. But now in 1960, ahead of the May 10th primary, he enlisted all the help he could find with friends and family members fanning out across the state to help him get his message out. JFK himself was also a tireless candidate, traveling throughout the rural state to visit voters wherever he could – though engaging voters directly was difficult due to that state’s rugged terrain.

But it would be West Virginia’s coalfields and coal towns – mostly in the southern part of the state – that would provide Kennedy with a new kind of political education and voter support that would help him gain the Democratic presidential nomination.

April 26th, 1960: JFK meeting with a group of coal miners during a shift change at the Pocahontas Fuel Company’s Itmann mine, near the town of Mullens, West Virginia, in Wyoming County.  Photo, Hank Walker.
April 26th, 1960: JFK meeting with a group of coal miners during a shift change at the Pocahontas Fuel Company’s Itmann mine, near the town of Mullens, West Virginia, in Wyoming County. Photo, Hank Walker.

The coal industry then was in the midst of a pretty brutal downturn. No longer the primary fuel source for home heating, locomotive engines, or industrial factories – as oil and gas replaced coal in many of those uses – coal’s share of the nation’s energy supply had dropped precipitously, from 51 percent in 1945 to 23 percent in 1960. West Virginia’s coal production of 173 million tons in 1947 had fallen to less then 120 million tons by 1960. In addition, increasing mechanization of coal mining in the 1950s had wiped out tens of thousands of jobs. West Virginia’s coal miners – more than 116,400 in 1947 — had fallen to 42,900 in 1960. Local economies in more than 20 of the state’s 55 counties were hit hard. Some counties like Mingo and McDowell had 25-to-40 percent of their populations in need of paltry federal food packages (a minimal system then used prior to food stamps).

April 1960: JFK campaigning in rural West Virginia in advance of the state's May 10th primary.
April 1960: JFK campaigning in rural West Virginia in advance of the state's May 10th primary.
John F. Kennedy visited several working coal mines in West Virginia as he campaigned for the state’s May presidential primary. In his early visits, some of the miners would not shake his hand and were stand-offish at first meeting. But once he began talking about their economic problems and what he might do to help them as president, they often became more receptive.

On April 6th, 1960, Kennedy spoke with coal miners at Slab Fork Mine in Raleigh County, a county that had experienced a 20 percent population decline between 1950 and 1960. Kennedy gathered with the miners near the mine entrance, shook hands, and answered questions from miners, holding a microphone between himself and the miners as the exchanges were being filmed by a local TV crew. Kennedy’s answers were crisp and made good sense, as he ticked off a list of several policy actions that could be taken to address coal-related economic issues of concern to the miners.

Kennedy also visited miners in the state’s southern-most county, McDowell – where coal mining dated to the early 1890s after the first rail lines came in. By the 1950s, McDowell had become the state’s leading coal producer, a prosperous place with a population of more than 100,000. Yet in 1960, when Kennedy arrived, a decline has set in, part due to the mechanization of the mines, and Kennedy was seeing its effects.

As he traveled around the state, he learned about the hardships people were facing there and how they were living. As one reporter noted: “He saw wives line up for surplus government food. He heard about kids who saved their school milk for younger siblings at home. He passed abandoned miners’ houses with boards over the windows…” Additional accounts noted his remarks as he made campaign stops throughout the state:

Kennedy talking with children as he campaigned in West Virginia for the state's May 1960 primary.
Kennedy talking with children as he campaigned in West Virginia for the state's May 1960 primary.

Clarksburg, April 18, 1960:

“…We talk about new industries and new products for the future – and we must. But we must also do something right now, before those new industries and jobs are here, about those who are unemployed now, who can’t find a job and who can’t get by on an average unemployment check of $23 a week…There are more than 60,000 of those men in West Virginia today and only half of them are drawing unemployment compensation. It is a double failure of our civilization if we cannot permit them to pay their bills and feed their families while looking for another job.”

Bethany College, April 19, 1960:

“…Today the United States is living better than ever before. We have more swimming pools, freezers, boats and air-conditioners than the world has ever seen. ‘But the test of our progress,’ said Franklin Roosevelt, ‘is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.’ By that test, the last several years have been years of economic failure.”

Glenwood, April 26 1960:

“…Thousands of your citizens — 14,000 here in Mercer County alone — are forced to struggle for subsistence on a diet which consists primarily of flour, rice and cornmeal. A diet which does not permit a healthy, decent existence, a diet which is causing malnutrition, chronic diseases and physical handicaps, a diet which is a disgrace to a country which has the most abundant and richest food supply in the history of the world.”

April 28, 1960. JFK campaigner, 'Bunny' Solomon (North-eastern University, MA, top center) with coal miners in Tioga, WW, displaying "Kennedy For President” bumper sticker.
April 28, 1960. JFK campaigner, 'Bunny' Solomon (North-eastern University, MA, top center) with coal miners in Tioga, WW, displaying "Kennedy For President” bumper sticker.
On May 4, 1960, about a week before the West Virginia primary, Kennedy and Humphrey engaged in a live televised debate that originated from WCHS-TV studios in Charleston. At one point during the debate Kennedy displayed the contents of government surplus food-ration package of corn meal, powered milk and other items on a table before him to illustrate the poverty in West Virginia.. “This is what people are living on,” Kennedy said as the camera panned the display. Kennedy appeared more concern for state’s poor than Humphrey did, and some voters began switching to Kennedy after that. But Kennedy’s concern was no gimmick.

Author Teddy White would later observe about JFK’s discovery of hunger in West Virginia when writing on the 1960 election campaign in his classic book, The Making of a President:

“…[Senator Hubert] Humphrey, who had known hunger in boyhood, was the natural workingman’s candidate – but Kennedy’s shock at the suffering he saw in West Virginia was so fresh that it communicated itself with the emotion of original discovery. Kennedy, from boyhood to manhood, had never known huger. Now, arriving in West Virginia from a brief rest in the sun and the luxury of Montego Bay, he could scarcely believe that human beings were forced to eat and live on these cans of dry relief rations, which he fingered like artifacts from another civilization. ‘Imagine,’ he said to one of the assistants one night, ‘just imagine kids who never drink milk.’ Of all the emotional experiences of his pre-Convention campaign, Kennedy’s exposure to the misery of the mining fields probably changed him most as a man (emphasis added); and as he gave tongue to his indignation, one could sense him winning friends.”

Campaigning in Amherst, West Virginia, Kennedy addresses miners from atop a station wagon, April 1960. photo Hank Walker
Campaigning in Amherst, West Virginia, Kennedy addresses miners from atop a station wagon, April 1960. photo Hank Walker

In April and early May 1960, Kennedy made more than 20 campaign trips to West Virginia, according to the state’s Division of Culture and History. During those visits, he made 96 campaign stops at 63 different cities and towns. He told his listeners as he campaigned that the outcome of the West Virginia primary would determine whether he would have a chance at the Democratic nomination. “Help me,” he said during his speeches, “and I will help you,” he promised, should he be elected president.

Map compiled by The Gazette newspaper of Charleston, WV, based on information from the West Virginia Division of Culture & History, showing JFK campaign stops, some dating to 1956, but most prior to the May 1960 primary.
Map compiled by The Gazette newspaper of Charleston, WV, based on information from the West Virginia Division of Culture & History, showing JFK campaign stops, some dating to 1956, but most prior to the May 1960 primary.

Kennedy defeated Hubert Humphrey in the West Virginia primary with more than 60 percent of the vote, helping dispel doubts that he could win in Protestant territory and that Americans would support a Roman Catholic nominee. He then secured the Democratic presidential nomination at the party’s convention that July in Los Angeles, followed by his November 1960 victory over Vice President Richard M. Nixon to become President of the United States.

JFK signing autographs for workers at the Amherst Coal Company Grill in West Virginia during 1960 campaign stop.
JFK signing autographs for workers at the Amherst Coal Company Grill in West Virginia during 1960 campaign stop.
But Kennedy did not forget what West Virginia had done for him, nor did he forget about the poverty he saw there.

After he was elected president, on January 21, 1961, his second day in office, Kennedy issued his first executive order: a pilot food-stamp program to increase the amount of food distributed to needy people in economically distressed areas. And the first food stamps in this program were issued in McDowell County.

In May 1961, about a year after he had campaigned there, now President Kennedy sent his Secretary of Agriculture to Welch, WV to deliver the nation’s first food stamps — $95 worth — to Alderson Muncy, an unemployed mineworker with 13 children. Three years later, McDowell County would become one of the principal counties in President Lyndon Johnson’s federal War on Poverty legislative effort.

JFK returned to West Virginia in June 1963 for the state’s centennial commemoration. Speaking on the steps of the state capitol in Charleston, he acknowledged that he “would not be where I am now… had it not been for the people of West Virginia.” Five months later, President John F. Kennedy was felled by an assassin’s bullet in Dallas, Texas. To this day, however, photos of JFK can be found hung on the walls of West Virginia homes, alongside those of Jesus Christ, FDR, union leader John L. Lewis, or some such mixture of honored souls.


1968

RFK & Kentucky

After President Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, his successor, President Lyndon Johnson, enacted the federal “War on Poverty,” inspired in part by the poverty found in Appalachia. Johnson’s programs were aimed at alleviating those conditions throughout the region. In February 1968, Robert Kennedy, then on the cusp of jumping into the race for president, toured a string of towns in the coal regions of southeastern Kentucky. He went there to see for himself how this part of Appalachia was faring. His two-day “poverty tour” in February 1968 covered some 200 miles and included stops at a number of towns, among them: Neon, Grassy Creek, Mousie, Fisty, Jackhorn, Cody, and others.

February 1968: Robert F. Kennedy, center, looking down, no top coat, with following crowd of onlookers, staff and media, as he makes his tour of Eastern Kentucky, here on Liberty St., Hazard, KY, photo, Paul Gordon.
February 1968: Robert F. Kennedy, center, looking down, no top coat, with following crowd of onlookers, staff and media, as he makes his tour of Eastern Kentucky, here on Liberty St., Hazard, KY, photo, Paul Gordon.

RFK, who had served as JFK’s Attorney General, was now a U.S. Senator from New York. And on this trip, he would make scheduled and unscheduled visits with the residents of Eastern Kentucky, including walking tours of small communities, roadside visits with individual families, stops at one-room schoolhouses, speeches at courthouses and colleges, and a look at one strip mine site. As a member of Senate’s Labor and Public Welfare Committee’s Subcommittee on Employment, Manpower and Poverty, Kennedy would also hold two field hearings soliciting the views of area residents. A one-room schoolhouse in Vortex hosted one of Kennedy’s hearings, and the other was held in a school gymnasium at Fleming-Neon.

Robert F. Kennedy greeting residents of Eastern Kentucky as he made his way across the region on his two-day tour.
Robert F. Kennedy greeting residents of Eastern Kentucky as he made his way across the region on his two-day tour.
In Vortex, Kennedy listened to local residents from Wolfe, Breathitt and Madison counties. Some who spoke noted how hard it was to make ends meet, others offering suggestions on what the government should be doing.

In the town of Barwick in Breathitt County, Kennedy visited a one-room schoolhouse that was in session. He spoke with each student individually, asking them what they’d had to eat that day.

Reportedly, the teacher there, Bonnie Jean Carroll, always made sure the kids had a big meal at school to be sufficiently nourished. She would send the boys to walk two miles into town to get milk and other things, while the girls cooked. According to some local history assembled at the RFKinEKY.org website, “Bonnie and her students did a lot of cooking in the classroom; they made a big, hot meal every day.”

February 1968: Robert F. Kennedy in Neon, Kentucky where he listened to local residents tell of hardships.
February 1968: Robert F. Kennedy in Neon, Kentucky where he listened to local residents tell of hardships.


Public Hearing

RFK and party traveled from Whitesburg to the gym in Fleming-Neon where they conducted a three-and-a-half hour hearing. Twenty eastern Kentuckians gave testimony, including: nationally known author and Kentucky native, Harry Caudill, Judge Wooton of Leslie County, LKLP director Stafford, coal miner Cliston Johnson, and David Zegeer of Beth-Elkhorn Coal Company.

Evarts High School student Tommy Duff testified about school conditions, while other students protested, some with paper bags over their heads. They were opposing, the proposed flooding of Kingdom Come Creek by the Beth-Elkhorn Coal Company, which would have displaced their community (In 1956, Consolidation Coal Company, which had been the dominant company in the area for decades, sold its coal interests to Bethlehem Steel, and their mining subsidiary was Beth-Elkhorn). During the hearing, Senator Kennedy also debated with David A. Zegeer of the Beth-Elkhorn asking whether Mr. Zegeer’s company had many stockholders from Kentucky. During the exchange with Zegeer, Kennedy asserted: “Outsiders have come in and exploited the great wealth of the area—with great profits going elsewhere in the country.”

Harry Caudill, here walking with RFK, and among those who testified, wrote “Night Comes to The Cumberlands” (1962), a powerful indictment of Appalachian exploitation. Click for story.
Harry Caudill, here walking with RFK, and among those who testified, wrote “Night Comes to The Cumberlands” (1962), a powerful indictment of Appalachian exploitation. Click for story.
Time magazine reported on RFK’s Kentucky visit, noting that he came with “a caravan of 36 cars crammed with out-of-state reporters, committee staffers and electronic gear.” At one stop, Time reported Kennedy being asked: “Why was a man reared to a multi-millionaire’s comforts concerned with the plight of Kentucky’s poor?” Some thought it a simple political calculation, a way to bring the spotlight on himself as a possible contender in that year’s presidential race. Yet others had noted a change in RFK with the assassination of his brother, and that he was looking at social issues in a new way.

Bill Grieder, who covered Kennedy’s Kentucky trip for the Louisville Courier-Journal, noted in a later email recalling the trip: “…Reporters more sophisticated (and cynical) than I assured me he was merely prepping for his as yet unannounced presidential candidacy. Probably so, but you couldn’t imagine any politician slogging through all those hollows and decayed coal camps without some kind of deep conviction.”

Some of those who covered Kennedy on that trip, however, had a different reactions to him. Tom Bethell for one, reporting for The Mountain Eagle newspaper of Whitesburg, KY, had the opportunity to see him in a more private setting, and would later write:

Robert F. Kennedy, listening to a miner relay his concerns during a two-day tour in Neon, KY, February 1968.
Robert F. Kennedy, listening to a miner relay his concerns during a two-day tour in Neon, KY, February 1968.

“…[U]p close, Kennedy was harder to read….[I] was struck by how uncurious, even detached, Kennedy seemed when he wasn’t in a public setting. …I found myself riding with him in his car, en route to his next photo-op, and was shocked when a VISTA volunteer in the car tried to engage him in a conversation about what she had learned on the job, and he cut her off, rudely and brusquely. At that moment I thought he was every bit as arrogant as I’d sometimes heard he was, a stereotypically spoiled and entitled little rich kid if ever there was one, and I couldn’t imagine voting for Bobby Kennedy unless the only alternative was Richard Nixon.”

Bethell added, however, that his first impression “might have been completely wrong,” and that Kennedy “might have been a wonderful president, the first since Franklin Roosevelt to offer real and lasting hope for hard-pressed people, rural and urban alike. Or not….”

Back on the 1968 poverty tour, meanwhile, Time magazine quoted Cliston Johnson, 48, a partially disabled miner struggling to raise 15 children on $60 a month: “Whenever you get another kid to feed, just add a little more water to the gravy.” The government’s “gravy,” however – at the time, totaling some $450 million Federal aid to Appalachia since 1965 – had done little to help. Nor were private-sector companies setting up factories in that part of Appalachia, some dissuaded by the ravaged landscape. Kennedy, as Time reported, did not seem inclined toward more federal handouts, quoting him as saying: “Welfare’s not the answer. It’s jobs. It is a basic responsibility of our society to give every man an opportunity to work.” At the tiny school building in Vortex, Kennedy pulled in an overlfow crowd, where he asked questions about diet, clothing and schooling. Over and over again, he said: “This is not satisfactory, this is not acceptable.” And when he said, “We’ve got to do away with welfare,” the people applauded.


Strip Mine Site

Senator Robert F. Kennedy talking with strip mine owner Bill Sturgill at the Yellow Creek mine site in Knott County, Kentucky, February 1968.
Senator Robert F. Kennedy talking with strip mine owner Bill Sturgill at the Yellow Creek mine site in Knott County, Kentucky, February 1968.
After leaving Hazard, Kentucky, Kennedy and entourage stopped, unannounced, at the Yellow Creek strip mining site Knott County. In trying to gain access to the site, Kennedy’s entourage was blocked by cars of the mine crew several times. After a contentious moment of negotiation between RFK and the mine’s security staff, mine owner Bill Sturgill allowed Kennedy and his group to access the site.

At the final stop of the Eastern Kentucky tour, in a filmed interview with an off-screen reporter on the streets of Prestonberg (see YouTube video), Kennedy was asked, “Is there anything significant that you’ve learned on this trip?” He answered as follows:

“…Well, people are still having a very, very difficult time… There’s hunger; considerable hunger in this part of the country. There’s no real hope for the future amongst many of these people… who have worked hard in the coal mines. And now the coal mines shut down, they have no place to go. There’s no hope for the future. There’s no industry moving in. The men are trained in government [job training] programs and there’s no jobs at the end of the training program because of the cutback – because of the demands on our federal budget in Washington and the war in Vietnam – even these training programs are being cutback. So people are being cut off, and they have no place to turn. And so they’re desperate and filled with despair. Seems to me that this country, as wealthy as we are, that this is an intolerable condition. It reflects on all of us. We can do things all over the rest of the world, but I think we should do something for our people here in our own country.”

RFK did not have the opportunity to do much of substance for Appalachia following his visit, since shortly thereafter he began his bid for the 1968 Democratic Presidential nomination. And tragically, like JFK, Bobby Kennedy was also taken by an assassin’s bullet. Kennedy was murdered June 5th, 1968, on the night of the California primary, shortly after he won that primary and had made his victory speech. It was four months after his visit to Eastern Kentucky.

In February 1972, New York Times reporter, George Vecsey, doing a four-year follow-up story on RFK’s Kentucky visit, noted: “…The issues have not changed much in four years. Poverty is everywhere; coal miners still die, and the hills are being torn apart ever faster by the strip miners.”


Caroline’s Coal Project
1973: Tennessee

During the summer of 1973, Caroline Kennedy, daughter of John F. and Jacqueline Kennedy, then 15½ years old, undertook a brief school project in the coal region of Eastern Tennessee’s Campbell County. At home in Massachusetts, while attending Concord Academy, Caroline had developed an interest in film and photography, and that summer she would work on a documentary film about earlier coal mining and coal camps in Tennessee. During this project, she stayed at the home of former Catholic nun and community advocate, Marie Cirillo, in the Rose’s Creek area near Eagen, Tennessee. Caroline came to Tennessee with a high school friend, Allyson Riclitis, who were among eight students helping to make a film history of the area.

July 1973: Caroline Kennedy, left, poses with local resident Pauline Huddleston at Huddleston's home in Eagan, Tennessee.
July 1973: Caroline Kennedy, left, poses with local resident Pauline Huddleston at Huddleston's home in Eagan, Tennessee.
Kennedy had learned about Marie Cirillo and the Clearfork Valley in Campbell and Claiborne counties, through the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Foundation, established for her uncle. Cirillo, who at age 19 had joined the Catholic Glenmary Home Mission Sisters of America, had worked for a time in Chicago, helping Appalachian migrants adjust to new lives there. However, along with some fellow nuns, Cirillo concluded it might be more effective to work in the Appalachian communities that were sending the migrants.
July 1973. Caroline’s friend, Allyson Riclitis, about to sample some local moonshine as Marie Cirillo looks on. Photo, C. Kennedy.
July 1973. Caroline’s friend, Allyson Riclitis, about to sample some local moonshine as Marie Cirillo looks on. Photo, C. Kennedy.
In the late 1960s, Cirillo and a few others left the religious order and moved to Tennessee. Cirillo soon set her roots there, became a community advocate, and was all about local empowerment.

By 1973, Cirillo, among other projects, had obtained a grant for an oral history project on earlier coal mining in the region and “coal camp” towns that had formerly existed there. The Clearfork area of Tennessee was then made up of twelve unincorporated communities located between the towns of Jellico, Tennessee, and Middlesboro, Kentucky. As Cirillo would later explain: “When I arrived there, the company towns had been dismantled, mainly because of the shift from deep mining to strip mining as new technology made that possible. Big machines now dug the coal. Production no longer required people, so the companies tore down the miners’ homes because they no longer had to provide housing. That was when people realized for the first time that over the years the companies had bought up most of the land.”

Rough copy of July 1973 AP wire story: 'Caroline Kennedy Joins Crew Taping History of Coal Camps'.
Rough copy of July 1973 AP wire story: 'Caroline Kennedy Joins Crew Taping History of Coal Camps'.
Caroline Kennedy, and the other film project volunteers, would work on the history of the area, visiting with local families and former miners to gain some understanding of what had gone before. The resulting film would be used in local schools for educational purposes. During Caroline’s time there, she traveled among the local folks, visited with former miners, and learned about local culture and coal history. Among those she met with, for example, was former coal miner Joe Siler of Prudens, Tennessee. Siler, then 73 years old, had worked in the coal mines for 58 years. Caroline spent about an hour with Siler and his wife, who had several JFK mementos and plaques in their home. “I sure loved her father,” Mr. Siler would say to one reporter of JFK. Siler gave Caroline a statue of a coal miner made from coal and also promised to send her a walnut-framed, brass coin of “scrip” money from 1899 used by mining companies to pay workers. Another miner Caroline visited was Ed Marlow, who had been paralyzed following a mine accident. Near his bed were several pictures of JFK as well as a photo of he and Ethel Kennedy (Caroline’s aunt and Bobby Kennedy’s wife), who had come to Clairfield, Tennessee the previous summer (1972) to dedicate a local factory. Ethel Kennedy was also a friend of Marie Cirillo’s.

Marie Cirillo some years later, undated photo.
Marie Cirillo some years later, undated photo.
Cirillo, then in the early years of her community service and local advocacy, would in subsequent years, become something of a regional activist and important mentor for numbers of students, including those from Vanderbilt University who did research uncovering legal, land, and health issues in eastern Tennessee. In the mid and late 1970s, Cirillo was also as a member of the coalition of citizen groups from Appalachia and across the U.S. that worked for passage of a federal strip mine law in the 1970s. In 1977, when Tennessee’s Save Our Cumberland Mountains (SOCM) and other advocacy groups began pushing for federal strip-mining regulation, some disgruntled locals involved with strip mining blamed Cirillo for the new activity. There were shots fired into Marie’s house and drive-bys with loudspeakers blaring threats. In one case, the brake lines of a car of one of Marie’s volunteers were cut. In subsequent years, other of Cirillo’s projects were targeted by unhappy local arsonists. Still, she persisted and became a positive force in the region, also pushing for micro-enterprise development. By the late 1970s, Marie and the community established the Woodland Community Land Trust, which helped local residents gain access to land and housing. Although she formally retired as director of the Clearfork Community Institute in 2013, Marie Cirillo continued her activism. As of April 2017, she was talking with a group in New York to have teenagers there spend their summer in Clairfield, Tennessee to do oral histories of area residents.

Caroline Kennedy profiled by Parade magazine in Sept 2011 at release of her book, “Jacqueline Kennedy: Historic Conversations on Life with John F. Kennedy.”
Caroline Kennedy profiled by Parade magazine in Sept 2011 at release of her book, “Jacqueline Kennedy: Historic Conversations on Life with John F. Kennedy.”
Caroline Kennedy, meanwhile, stayed in touch with Marie, as Marie attended her wedding to Edwin Schlossberg in 1986 and visited the family in 1988 after Caroline’s daughter, Rose, was born, the first of three Kennedy-Schlossberg children. Some years later, in 2010, Caroline Kennedy was interviewed for a feature story on Marie Cirillo in The Knoxville News-Sentinel. “She’s a saint,” said Kennedy of Cirillo in the story, praising her “incredible career.” Cirillo was “trying to bring change” in the work she did, said Kennedy. “She is one of the more powerful inspirations to me outside my family, making faith real and visible to make people’s lives better,” Kennedy said.

Kennedy, a graduate of Harvard and Columbia Law school, went on to publish several books, and became involved in the JFK Presidential Library and the Profile of Courage Awards. She also served as America’s ambassador to Japan during the Obama Administration.


U.S. Senator Edward Kennedy, Feb. 2004.
U.S. Senator Edward Kennedy, Feb. 2004.

Ted Kennedy

Edward Moore “Ted” Kennedy served as a U.S. Senator from 1962 until his death in 2009. His service of 46 years in the U.S. Senate at that time made him the fourth-longest, continuously-serving senator in U.S. history. In those years, Kennedy became a friend of labor, and held forth on Senate committees helping to craft and watch over occupational health and safety matters. Kennedy was one of the Senate leaders who helped pass the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, which created OSHA, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Prior to passage of the act, there were few federal health and safety protections for workers. And in later years, as well, Kennedy would help to defeat attempts to weaken the law.

Coal mine safety was also one of the areas Kennedy would become involved with as he sought improved worker health and safety regulation. For decades, coal-mine disasters had killed miners regularly. Some mine explosions and fires would kill dozens and even hundreds of miners at a time. The Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969, generally known as “the Coal Act,” was the first meaningful law to help govern mining practices. It came about following the deaths of 78 miners at the November 1968 Farmington Mine Disaster in West Virginia.

West Virginia historic marker for the Farmington mine disaster, which killed 78 miners, and helped spur Congress to pass the Federal Coal Mine Health & Safety Act of 1969.
West Virginia historic marker for the Farmington mine disaster, which killed 78 miners, and helped spur Congress to pass the Federal Coal Mine Health & Safety Act of 1969.
Kennedy Amendment. During Senate floor debate on that legislation in October 1969, Senator Kennedy offered an amendment to make it unlawful to fire, layoff, or otherwise discriminate against any mine employee who sought to report a violation of mine safety standards. “The rationale for this amendment is clear,” said Kennedy at the time. “For safety’s sake, we want to encourage the reporting of suspected violations of health and safety regulations… But miners will not speak up if they fear retaliation. This amendment should deter such retaliation, and, therefore, encourage miners to bring dangers and suspected violations to public attention.” Kennedy’s amendment was approved by voice vote that October, and became section 110(b) of the Act. The Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969 was later signed into law by President Nixon. The new law helped reduce the number of major mine disasters, but it did not eliminate them.

Indeed, a few years later more coal-related disasters would ensue. In February 1972, at Buffalo Creek, West Virginia, 125 persons died when a coal waste dam burst sending a near tidal wave of coal waste water through a seventeen mile-long valley, leaving a trail of devastation as it went. In July 1972, at Blacksville, West Virginia, a fire was sparked by a continuous mining machine that came into contact with an electric wire, igniting the coal seam. Nine miners who had not been adequately trained in emergency procedures, became trapped and died in the mine.

Senator Kennedy in his younger years, shown here at a 1979 Judiciary Committee hearing.
Senator Kennedy in his younger years, shown here at a 1979 Judiciary Committee hearing.
Then in March, 1976 two explosions occurred within days of one another at the Scotia Mine in southeastern Kentucky, killing a total of 26 miners. Fifteen miners were killed in the first explosion, and 11 more, who had entered the mine three days later to investigate the first disaster – eight company workers and three Federal inspectors – were killed in a second explosion.

New Law. These incidents and others stirred Washington to action again, as House and Senate committees investigated and held hearings. On February 11, 1977, S.717, the Federal Mine Safety and Health Amendments Act, was introduced by Sen. Harrison Williams (D-NJ), with Senator Kennedy and 25 others as cosponsors. The Harrison bill revised the 1969 Coal Act with the Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977, also known as “the Mine Act.” It was signed by President Carter in November 1977. This law consolidated federal health and safety regulations for coal and non-coal mining; moved the new Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) to the Department of Labor; strengthened and expanded the rights of miners; and enhanced their protection from retaliation. Mining fatalities would drop sharply in subsequent years, but problems still remained.

The Reagan Years. In the 1980s, as the Reagan Administration and the mining industry sought to weaken mine safety regulations, Senator Kennedy and his staff geared up for battle, focusing a series of hearings on the lax regulatory oversight by Reagan’s MSHA. Kennedy described the record of that agency as “shameful and tragic,” and kept pressure on MSHA to strengthen its programs and enforcement. Among those who testified before Kennedy at a March 1987 hearing was J. Davitt McAteer, a lawyer and coal miner’s son who then headed the Occupational Safety and Health Law Center, a public interest group in Washington, D.C.“We know how to prevent many of the unnecessary deaths in the mines. What we seem to have lost is the will to do what good judg-ment and the law require.” – Senator Kennedy, 1987 McAteer testified that in a six-year period during the Reagan Administration, MSHA had muzzled many of its inspectors, dissolved its most successful criminal investigative team, and administratively reduced serious safety violations to minor ones. Since the Federal mine safety act’s adoption in 1969, McAteer stated there had been 2,029 fatal accidents in American coal mines, but only 38 attempts to prosecute those involved under criminal provisions of the law. Kennedy, referring to the Federal mine safety act and MSHA’s powers during the hearing, said: ”We know how to prevent many of the unnecessary deaths in the mines. What we seem to have lost is the will to do what good judgment and the law require. It makes me angry every time I hear about a miner killed because someone would not do his job.” Although no new mine safety legislation was enacted at that time, the Reagan administration did agree to hire about 100 additional mine inspectors, and also rescinded one rule that had reduced criminal convictions of negligent coal operators.

Ted Kennedy, 2005 press conference.
Ted Kennedy, 2005 press conference.
Mine safety regulation was strengthened somewhat during the Clinton years, when Davitt McAteer was appointed head of MSHA. McAteer instituted more worker training and other improvements. In fact, from 1993 to 2000, there was not a single coal-mining disaster, defined by MSHA as an incident that claims five or more worker lives. In Congress, however, by 1995, anti-regulatory sentiment was high, with legislation proposed to reduce MSHA inspections and enforcement, including one failed attempt to abolish MSHA. In the early 2000s, with the election of George W. Bush, MSHA’s budget was slashed, and a former coal industry executive ran the agency.

In July 2002, Kennedy, still chairman of the Senate Labor Committee, and the late Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-MN), chairman of its Subcommittee on Employment, Safety and Training, held hearings to investigate coal mine safety, focusing in part on MSHA’s enforcement at the Jim Walters Resources coal mine in Brookwood, Alabama where 13 miners had been killed in a September 2001 explosion. At the time, the mine had 31 outstanding violations, and MSHA inspectors had not returned to determine if they had been corrected. During the hearings, Kennedy called MSHA enforcement record “dismal,” while Wellstone noted that mine fatalities were rising but the Bush Administration had cut MSHA’s 2003 budget by 6 percent. However, as Kennedy and Wellstone tried to turn the spotlight on MSHA’s record, two weeks after their hearing, a few MSHA officials received high media attention and national praise in the successful rescue of 9 coal miners trapped in a flooded underground mine in Somerset County, Pennsylvania. MSHA reforms were then somewhat derailed. Then, several years later, there was another mine tragedy.


Sago Disaster

Associated Press map & reporting, Jan 2006.
Associated Press map & reporting, Jan 2006.
On January 2, 2006 in Upshur County, West Virginia near the town of Buckhannon, an explosion and collapse at the Sago Mine caused the deaths of 13 miners who had been trapped for nearly two days before expiring. A lone survivor later told of … The Sago disaster received extensive news coverage worldwide. Adding to the tragic situation, incorrect information had been released to the media that 12 survivors had been found alive.

A few days after the Sago Mine had exploded, Kennedy told an Associated Press reporter that Senate hearings were needed to determine how the tragedy happened. “We owe it to these miners and their families to find out what happened and whether this accident could have been prevented,” Kennedy said. “In addition, we should investigate the troubled history of repeated safety violations at the mine.”

Then, just few weeks following the Sago explosion, another West Virginia mine accident occurred this one on the morning of January 19, 2006, at the Aracoma Alma Mine in Logan County. The accident occurred when a conveyor belt in the Aracoma Alma Mine No. 1 at Melville in Logan County, West Virginia, caught fire. The conveyor belt ignited pouring smoke through the gaps in the wall and into the fresh air passageway that the miners were supposed to use for their escape, obscuring their vision and ultimately leading to the death of two of them by carbon monoxide poisoning when they became separated from 10 other members of their crew. The others held onto each other and edged through the air intake amid dense smoke to make their escape. At the time of the fire, the mine was owned by Aracoma Coal Company, a Massey Energy company.

Map showing somewhat larger area and location of the Sago Mine and Alma Mine tragedies of January 2006.
Map showing somewhat larger area and location of the Sago Mine and Alma Mine tragedies of January 2006.
On January 20, 2006, not long after the Sago disaster, a delegation of U.S. Senators including Ted Kennedy, Mike Enzi (R-WY and chairman of the HELP Committee), Johnny Isakson (R-GA), and Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), visited with the families of the 12 coal miners who were killed in that tragedy. Kennedy and colleagues traveled to Buckhannon, West Virginia to spend time with the families and convey their condolences and their intention to do what they could in Washington to help improve mine safety. The senators had a private, nearly two-hour meeting with the families. Following the meeting, Kennedy, then ranking Democratic member of the Senate Committee, said he was troubled to learn that the families had not yet been involved in the accident investigation. He urged state and federal investigators to take time to talk to the relatives, who he said were extremely knowledgeable about the industry. “Whoever’s doing the investigation, they won’t spend a better two hours than listening to the people we’ve just listened to,” he said.


Low Fines

At a hearing held March 2, 2006, by the Senate HELP committee (Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions) to discuss the state of mine safety, Senator Kennedy was present to voice his concern about mine safety enforcement. In an impassioned statement, Kennedy said that fines as low as $60 give companies “little incentive to make safety improvements.” He added that while he understood that MSHA was then proposing to raise the maximum fines from $60,000 to $220,000, “such gestures are meaningless unless MSHA actually issues those fines.”

2006 Associated Press graphic showing dollar amounts of fines that then could be levied per infraction by various federal agencies, with mine safety fines being the lowest, a limitation Senator Kennedy & others found deplorable.
2006 Associated Press graphic showing dollar amounts of fines that then could be levied per infraction by various federal agencies, with mine safety fines being the lowest, a limitation Senator Kennedy & others found deplorable.
Kennedy noted that MSHA rarely used the maximum fine of $60,000, and that MSHA had also failed to use their “enforcement tool” of shutting down mines where there “have been a pattern of violations,” he said. “It’s time the agency did more about chronic and persistent violations, including dangerous mines, before tragedies like those at Sago and Alma can occur,” he said.

In the year prior to the Sago Mine disaster, the operator reportedly received over 200 safety citations, half of them being serious enough to potentially lead to injuries.

David G. Dye, then acting assistant secretary of MSHA, responding to Kennedy, said that the agency had collected $25 million in fines in 2005 and reductions were the result of actions taken by independent administrative law judges. He also said that the 1977 Mine Act “does not give MSHA the authority to preemptively close entire mines because of the frequency of violations.” Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-WV), who grew up in a coal-mining community, said during the hearing that MSHA “had the legal authority to require higher fines” but “didn’t use it.”

January 2003.  AP file photo of Senators Robert Byrd (D-WV) and Ted Kennedy on Capitol Hill. photo, Susan Walsh.
January 2003. AP file photo of Senators Robert Byrd (D-WV) and Ted Kennedy on Capitol Hill. photo, Susan Walsh.
Byrd also pressed Dye on why a proposed rule to supply coal miners additional emergency oxygen has been delayed by the White House review process. Kennedy noted that “miners in Canada are required to have 36 hours of breathable air. But miners in the U.S. are required to have only one.”

Byrd, frustrated with the agency said at one point, “It’s been 25 years since mine safety rules have been updated,” Byrd said. “How long do we have to wait?”

Byrd, Kennedy, and others in the U.S. Senate did not wait. In 2006, Congress passed the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act (the MINER Act), which President Bush signed into law June 15 2006. The new law required mine-specific emergency response plans in underground coal mines; installation of wireless communications equipment and tracking devices within three years; new regulations for mine rescue teams and sealing abandoned areas; and prompt notification of mine accidents. The MINER Act also raised maximum fines for accidents and gave the government the power to shut down mines when operators failed to pay fines. Senator Kennedy, meanwhile, continued to push for additional mine safety reforms, as yet another mine disaster occurred not long after the MINER Act passed.


Map showing location of Crandall Canyon Mine.
Map showing location of Crandall Canyon Mine.
Crandall Canyon

In August 2007, the Crandall Canyon Mine, an underground coal mine in Utah’s Wasatch plateau near Huntington, made headlines when six miners were trapped by a mine collapse. Ten days later, three rescue workers were killed and six more injured as one of the walls of the tunnel exploded inward, toward the rescuers, as they attempted to reach the trapped miners.

On August 31, 2007 the search for the six trapped miners was called off and declared too dangerous for continued rescue efforts. The six men originally trapped were later declared dead and their bodies were never recovered. The mine was then operated by Genwal Resources Inc., an operating division of UtahAmerican, a subsidiary of the Murray Energy Corporation.

Senator Ted Kennedy, shown here in another Senate proceeding, had his committee staff compile a report on the Crandall Canyon mine collapse in Utah.
Senator Ted Kennedy, shown here in another Senate proceeding, had his committee staff compile a report on the Crandall Canyon mine collapse in Utah.
Investigations of the accident began, and hearings were held in Congress. Shortly after the accident, on August 23, 2007, Senator Kennedy – then Chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee – sent a letter to Labor Secretary Elaine Chao requesting a range of documents and other materials on the mine – documents in the Uniform Mine File on Crandall Canyon; mine plan changes and MSHA consideration of them; inspection reports; meeting minutes, e-mail, handwritten notes; and other communication between the mine owners and MSHA officials.

“The loss of life at the mine, and the devastating emotional toll on families of the victims, underscore the urgent need for a thorough examination of our federal system of mine safety,” Kennedy said in his letter to Chao. In particular, Kennedy said he was “troubled” by reports that roof problems were not reported to MSHA, and that the roof had reportedly collapsed in other areas of the mine where workers were using a dangerous technique called “retreat mining.” Such reports, Kennedy said in his letter to Chao, “raise questions about the integrity of the mine operator’s reporting and the rigor of MSHA inspections.”

Cover of Senator Kennedy’s Committee report on the August 2007 disaster at Utah’s  Crandall Canyon coal mine.
Cover of Senator Kennedy’s Committee report on the August 2007 disaster at Utah’s Crandall Canyon coal mine.
On March 6th, 2008, Kennedy’s senate committee issued the results of its investigation of the Crandall Canyon Mine disaster, a 75-page report. It was the first to reveal the serious lapses by both the mine operator and MSHA that led to the deaths of nine miners and rescue workers.

“The committee’s investigation has revealed that the owner of Crandall Canyon Mine, Murray Energy, disregarded dangerous conditions at the mine, failed to tell federal regulators about these dangers, conducted unauthorized mining and, as a result, exposed its miners to serious risks,” Kennedy said. The report also charged that the operator’s parent company, Ohio-based Murray Energy Corp., bullied MSHA to gain approval of its overall mining plan.

“MSHA also unconscionably failed to protect miners by hastily rubber-stamping the plan,” said Kennedy. “This is a clear case of callous disregard for the law and for safety standards, and hard-working miners lost their lives. This deserves a full criminal investigation by the Department of Justice.”

Kennedy’s report was followed by a report from the Labor Department’s Inspector General which found that MSHA failed to protect workers at the Crandall Canyon mine. That report blamed federal mining regulators for negligence in approving a roof-control plan for the mine. An audit of events preceding the two collapses found that lower-level MSHA officials skipped many of the agency’s own protocols in approving a roof control plan for the Crandall Canyon mine and could have been subject to “undue influence” by the mine’s operator. It also found that MSHA could not show it made the right decision when it approved risky retreat mining at Crandall Canyon and found the agency “negligent” in its duty to protect underground miners in the Crandall Canyon mine disaster, and in mines across the nation. Rep. George Miller’s (D-CA) House Education and Labor Committee also released a May 8, 2008 report on the Crandall Canyon disaster that repeated the call for a criminal investigation.

On July 24, 2008 MSHA issued one of its highest fines then to date for coal mine safety violations at the Crandall Canyon Mine. Genwal Resources was fined $1.34 million “for violations that directly contributed to the deaths of six miners last year,” plus nearly $300,000 for other violations. MSHA also levied a $220,000 fine against a mining consultant, Agapito Associates, “for faulty analysis of the mine’s design.”

September 2008: Dedication of the memorial commemorating the lives of the 6 miners and 3 rescuers killed at the Crandall Canyon Mine in Huntington, Utah. The memorial is titled, 'Heroes Among Us', sculpture by Karen Jobe Templeton.
September 2008: Dedication of the memorial commemorating the lives of the 6 miners and 3 rescuers killed at the Crandall Canyon Mine in Huntington, Utah. The memorial is titled, 'Heroes Among Us', sculpture by Karen Jobe Templeton.

Coal mine health and safety to this day continues to be a vexing issue, with mine disasters such as the April 2010 coal mine explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County West Virginia that killed 29 coal miners, while black lung disease continues to diminish coal miner health and take their lives. Yet in recent decades, the efforts of public servants like Ted Kennedy and others have helped make coal mining and other workplaces safer than they might otherwise have been – although, to be sure, they are not as safe as they should be. In 2008, Senator Ted Kennedy was named one of the 50 most influential EHS leaders by Occupational Hazards magazine (now EHS Today) for his 40-plus years of advocating for workers’ rights and health and safety in the U.S. Senate. After a battle with a malignant brain tumor, diagnosed in May 2008, Ted Kennedy passed away in late August 2009.


December 2009: RFK, Jr. at Charleston, WV rally speaking out against mountaintop mining at the Coal River Mountain site.
December 2009: RFK, Jr. at Charleston, WV rally speaking out against mountaintop mining at the Coal River Mountain site.

RFK, Jr.

Of all the Kennedys who have worked on coal-related issues over the years, few have been more active than Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., son of Robert and Ethel Kennedy. A graduate of Harvard College (1976) with a law degree from the University of Virginia, plus a Masters of Law from Pace University, RFK, Jr. has worked on a wide range of environmental issues, both as a litigating attorney and environmental activist.

He began his environmental work in the 1980s when he joined New York’s Hudson River Keeper, later doing battle with the likes of General Electric and Con Edison in New York over pollution and land development issues. He also joined the staff of the Natural Resources Defense Council in the 1980s, and would become a senior attorney there through the early 2000s.

Kennedy is co-author of the 1997 book, The Riverkeepers, with John Cronin and helped spread the “waterkeeper model” of protecting rivers, bays and estuaries throughout the U.S. and around the world. In 1999, Kennedy and others formed the Waterkeeper Alliance which unites more than 200 Waterkeeper organizations in common action. The work of protecting rivers, harbors and estuaries brought Kennedy and his allies into direct contact with the coal cycle, whether strip mine blasting and mountaintop removal, power plant CO-2 and mercury emissions, or coal ash dumps polluting rivers and lakes throughout America.

In recent years, Kennedy has been in the thick of the nation’s battle to end the excesses of coal mining and coal pollution. He has made numerous appearances at activist and citizen rallies, lent his name to many local fights, written Op-Eds, and helped make and promote a documentary film on mountaintop removal. Like his father and uncle before him, RFK, Jr has pushed economic and policy strategies to help alleviate the hardships on coal communities. But unlike them, he has also worked as an activist and litigator, often taking a more aggressive approach with the coal and utility industries.

In February 2009, the Waterkeeper Alliance launched its “Clean Coal is a Deadly Lie” campaign, which rose in part as a response to a $49 million advertising push by the coal and utility- backed American Coalition for Clean Coal. The Waterkeeper campaign – often in league with other national environmental and local citizen groups – would later include dozens of lawsuits targeting strip mining practices, mountaintop removal, slurry pond construction, mercury emissions, coal ash piles, and coal export terminal expansion in the Pacific Northwest.

Example of mountaintop removal strip mining in progress at Kayford Mountain, West Virginia when this photograph was taken.
Example of mountaintop removal strip mining in progress at Kayford Mountain, West Virginia when this photograph was taken.

In a March 25, 2009 Washington Post Op-Ed by Kennedy titled, “Stopping Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining,” he wrote:

…Having flown over the coalfields of Appalachia and walked her ridges, valleys and hollows, I know that this land cannot withstand more abuse. Mountaintop-removal coal mining is the greatest environmental tragedy ever to befall our nation. This radical form of strip mining has already flattened the tops of 500 mountains, buried 2,000 miles of streams, devastated our country’s oldest and most diverse temperate forests, and blighted landscapes famous for their history and beauty. Using giant earthmovers and millions of tons of explosives, coal moguls have eviscerated communities, destroyed homes, and uprooted and sickened families with coal and rock dust, and with blasting, flooding and poisoned water…

November 2003. Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., National Press Club luncheon speaker, in critique of the Bush Administration’s environmental policies.
November 2003. Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., National Press Club luncheon speaker, in critique of the Bush Administration’s environmental policies.
Kennedy has advocated replacing coal energy with renewable energy, which, he argues, would reduce costs and greenhouse gases and increase jobs, while improving air and water quality and public health.

In an April 2009 interview with ABC News, Kennedy let fly on how the coal industry was in effect ruining the environmental commons and preventing the public from using certain resources because it has polluted them:

…You know, we’re living today, truthfully, in a science fiction nightmare. Our country, where my children and the children of most Americans can no longer engage in the seminal primal activity of American youth, which is to go fishing with their father in the local fishing hole and then come home and safely eat the fish. Because somebody gave money to a politician and poisoned more than half of the fish in this country with mercury. And it’s the coal industry, and they are privatizing a public trust resource, the fish of our country, which belong to us, they belong to the people. But now the coal industry owns them and the utilities. Because they poison them so much we can’t use them anymore….

Publicity poster for the “RFK, Jr./ Don Blankenship” debate held in January  2010 at the University of Charleston.
Publicity poster for the “RFK, Jr./ Don Blankenship” debate held in January 2010 at the University of Charleston.

Coal Debate

In late January 2010, Kennedy debated the notorious West Virginia coal baron, Don Blankenship, then head of Massey Energy, over mountaintop removal, climate change, and coal’s future. The debate was held at University of Charleston and moderated by university president, Ed Welch. It was also broadcast online and on television stations across West Virginia. With advance billing, the Kennedy-Blankenship duel received considerable interest, especially in West Virginia and among some national media.

Blankenship, an outspoken climate change denier and environmental critic, told a packed house that night: “The mission statement for coal is prosperity for this country. This industry is what made this country great and if we forget that, we’re going to have to learn to speak Chinese.” Kennedy countered that giant mining machines have cost thousands of jobs while mountaintop removal was destroying ancient peaks and burying pristine streams. “This is the worst environmental crime that has ever happened in our history,” Kennedy said. “These companies are liquidating this state for cash with these gigantic machines.”

Don Blankenship, RFK, Jr., and moderator, Ed Welsh, president of the University of Charleston during debate.
Don Blankenship, RFK, Jr., and moderator, Ed Welsh, president of the University of Charleston during debate.
One account of the debate, from David Roberts, writing in Grist, noted:

…When Kennedy accused [Blankenship] of leaving behind ghost towns across WV, Blankenship responded that he’d bought up all those homes at fair market value (“those people left voluntarily”). In response to Kennedy’s points on water pollution, Blankenship effectively dismissed the threat of mercury as a bunch of hype on the internet. …When Kennedy listed the social and health damages done by coal — “externalities” the industry charges to taxpayers — Blankenship mumbled, “do we have some of those externalities? I don’t know. Maybe.” When Kennedy pointed out that China is dumping trillions into renewable energy, Massey responded that they were only building windmills to appease the UN. When Kennedy pointed out that Massey’s own disclosure revealed some 12,000 violations of the Clean Water Act last year, Blankenship responded that they’re reducing their violations year to year, now that they’ve been reminded by the EPA that it would be a good idea.

…He simply dismissed Kennedy’s facts and stuck to his narrative: global warming’s a hoax, hippie environmentalists are strangling free enterprise, out-of-staters have no right to question what happens in WV, and China is going to take over if we don’t mine and burn all the coal we can as fast as we can. We’re crazy to be worried about “parts per million” of pollutants when coal is the only thing keeping our life expectancy above Angola’s….

A few months later, in March 2010, Kennedy and Blankenship followed-up with more of their arguments in dueling Op-Eds in The Hill newspaper that circulates on Capitol Hill and in the Washington, DC community. (A few months after Blankenship and Kennedy had debated, in April 2010, on Blankenship’s watch as CEO, the mining catastrophe at Massey’s Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia occurred in which 29 miners were killed. Facing multiple charges in connection with that incident, and much legal wrangling over the next few years, Blankenship in the end, was found guilty of one misdemeanor charge of conspiring to willfully violate mine safety and health standards for which he served one year in jail and was fined $250,000. In 2017, having served his time, Blankenship then filed papers to run for the U.S. Senate).

June 2011, Blair Mountain, West Virginia. RFK, Jr. tells crowd that Big Coal, while forever promising prosperity, had instead left a legacy of devastation and poverty for coal communities.
June 2011, Blair Mountain, West Virginia. RFK, Jr. tells crowd that Big Coal, while forever promising prosperity, had instead left a legacy of devastation and poverty for coal communities.


Blair Mountain

For five days in June 2011, nearly 800 citizen activists marched 50 miles through West Virginia from the town of Marmet to the town of Blair to protest mountaintop strip mine on Blair Mountain. Adding to the protest at this location was the commemoration of the 90th anniversary of the Battle at Blair Mountain, a 1921 bloody fight by coal miners to unionize their mine. (For five days some 10,000 armed coal miners battled 3,000 lawmen and Pinkerton strikebreakers backed by coal mine operators, only ending after the intervention of the U.S. Army by presidential order). The battle site, having been accepted for National Historic Site designation in 2009, was delisted in 2010 after objection from the state of West Virginia and the coal industry. An estimated crowd of 2,000 citizen activists, union workers, historians, environmentalists gathered for the June 2011 rally at the site seeking to end mountaintop removal and restore the historic site designation, among other issues. Joining the speakers that day was Robert Kennedy, Jr., who told the crowd that Big Coal, while forever promising prosperity to West Virginia, had left a legacy of devastation and poverty. As of October 2017, the historic site designation was still under consideration. A relisting of Blair Mountain Battlefield site on the Historic Register would cease surface mining operations on the mountain.

Promotional poster for the 2011 film, “The Last Mountain.”
Promotional poster for the 2011 film, “The Last Mountain.”

Coal River Film

In June 2011, a documentary film on Appalachian coal mining was released, The Last Mountain, co-written by Bill Haney and Peter Rhodes and produced by Haney, Clara Bingham and Eric Grunebaum. The film focuses on the mountaintop mining fight then occurring over Coal River Mountain in West Virginia. In the film, RFK, Jr. is featured joining local activists trying to stop Massey Energy Co. (acquired by Alpha Resources in 2011) from destroying Coal River Mountain. Massey/Alpha then held many of the necessary permits to begin stripping the mountain and fill nearby valleys in the process. Instead, Kennedy and opponents advocate using the Coal River Mountain site for wind generation; a site found to hold high wind potential – high enough, in fact, with wind farm development, to produce 328 megawatts of electricity, which could power 70,000 homes. That option is presented in the film as a better alternative for the environment and nearby communities, while also producing more jobs as well.

In the film, several local activists are introduced along with stories to present some of the problems associated with strip mining and coal development in the Coal River Valley area. Maria Gunnoe describes how the hills surrounding her home in the town of Bob White had been stripped of forest cover and topsoil, resulting in down-mountain flash flooding, imperiling communities below. Ed Wiley, a former mountaintop coal miner, worried about his granddaughter’s school, Marsh Fork Elementary, located a short distance below an earthen dam holding back a slurry pond with 1.8 billion gallons of coal waste. And Jennifer Hall-Massey from the town of Prenter, explains that six of her immediate neighbors have died of brain tumors, and the only thing they had in common was the well water. She and 264 of her neighbors would sue local coal companies and West Virginia arguing that the companies pumped millions of gallons of coal slurry waste into the ground surrounding Prenter, polluting their well water with heavy metals like arsenic and lead, and causing disease.

The 95 minute film premiered at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival and then went into general release in June of that year. Kennedy and Haney also did media interviews to help promote the film.


Coal Exports

As noted at the top of this story, RFK, Jr. also became involved in the coal export issue. In May 2012 he spoke at a Portland, Oregon rally of citizen activists opposing coal export expansion in the Pacific Northwest. At the time, coal companies were targeting the Pacific Northwest with six separate coal export terminals, which would send stunning volumes of U.S. coal from the Powder River Basin through the Pacific Northwest to Asia. One proposal would send a dozen coal trains each day through Portland, Oregon neighborhoods. The Columbia River Gorge would face up to 30 coal trains per day.

Coal Export overview in the Northwest U.S. as of 2013 or so, showing proposed coal export terminals & possible train routes from the surface coal mines in the Montana / Wyoming Powder River Basin. Not all of the proposed Washington and Oregon coal export terminals on this map are still proposed. Map by Think Progress.
Coal Export overview in the Northwest U.S. as of 2013 or so, showing proposed coal export terminals & possible train routes from the surface coal mines in the Montana / Wyoming Powder River Basin. Not all of the proposed Washington and Oregon coal export terminals on this map are still proposed. Map by Think Progress.

At the May 2012 Portland, Oregon rally, Kennedy said: “Oregon and Washington leaders are faced with a choice between healthy communities with a clean energy future or becoming tied to trafficking coal, the most toxic fuel on earth… “ Kennedy argued that the proposals to bring coal to Oregon and Washington state would lead to political corruption and environmental damage, while the actual number of jobs created would be minimal. And while some may believe the U.S. can simply “export away” the environmental problems associated with coal, Kennedy warned that mercury and other coal pollutants from coal combustion in Asia will still come back to America’s Pacific shores.


Coal Ash

Coal ash, generated by hundreds of coal-fired power plants in the U.S., is one of the nation’s single largest waste streams. Fly ash, a byproduct of burning coal is generated at power plants, as are other coal-burning related wastes, such as bottom ash, boiler slag, and sludges from flue gas desulfurization. Coal ash waste, in one form or another, is found in all regions of the country. The amount generated annually is staggering – currently exceeding 140 million tons a year. A portion of the nation’s coal ash is recycled in construction and other materials. But the lion’s share, for many years, had been dumped or “stored” in coal ash waste lagoons and landfills which have been poorly regulated. There are more 1,100 known coal ash impoundments and nearly 400 known coal ash landfills in the U.S., many of which do not have liners and/or pollutant collection systems. Coal ash wastes contain harmful pollutants, including arsenic, cadmium, lead, selenium, and other toxic metals that can damage the environment, kill aquatic organisms and cause cancer and neurological harm in humans.

December 2008. The failure of a giant 84-acre coal ash impoundment (upper right) at TVA’s Kingston Fossil Plant in Tennessee, released 5.4 million cubic yards of coal ash slurry into the Emory and Clinch rivers and the downstream community of Harriman, TN.
December 2008. The failure of a giant 84-acre coal ash impoundment (upper right) at TVA’s Kingston Fossil Plant in Tennessee, released 5.4 million cubic yards of coal ash slurry into the Emory and Clinch rivers and the downstream community of Harriman, TN.

Coal ash received national attention in December 2008 with the failure of a giant 84-acre coal ash impoundment at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston Fossil Plant in eastern Tennessee, which released 5.4 million cubic yards of coal ash slurry into the Emory and Clinch rivers. The downstream community of Harriman, TN was hit with a gigantic toxic mess, with sludge deposits as thick as six feet. Three years later they were still cleaning up. Less catastrophic, however, and perhaps even more serious, is the out-of-sight leakage and ongoing discharges from hundreds of coal ash impoundments all across the country.In July 2013, RFK, Jr. was among those trying to bring more public attention to this issue.

In North Carolina, Kennedy appeared at a press event with a group of environmental leaders and activists highlighting toxic discharges into local waterways from a Duke Energy coal ash pond at the company’s former Riverbend powerplant location near Charlotte, North Carolina. The discharges there were making their way into Mountain Island Lake, a drinking water source for more than 800,000 people in Charlotte and other communities. During the event, which also included release of report on the failures of coal ash regulation and extent of the problem nationwide and in North Carolina, Kennedy joined project leaders from Sierra Club, the Environmental Integrity Project, and the Catawba Riverkeeper showing local media where illegal discharges from the Duke Energy coal ash pond were occurring.

Coal Ash Pollution, July 2013: RFK, Jr. joins Sierra Club's Mary Anne Hitt (left); Catawba Riverkeeper, Sam Perkins (black shirt); and Environmental Integrity Project's Eric Schaeffer (far right) in press event showing reporters illegal discharge locations of toxic heavy metals from Duke Energy’s Riverbend, NC coal ash pond. Photo: Waterkeeper Alliance
Coal Ash Pollution, July 2013: RFK, Jr. joins Sierra Club's Mary Anne Hitt (left); Catawba Riverkeeper, Sam Perkins (black shirt); and Environmental Integrity Project's Eric Schaeffer (far right) in press event showing reporters illegal discharge locations of toxic heavy metals from Duke Energy’s Riverbend, NC coal ash pond. Photo: Waterkeeper Alliance

“…[T]his is harming people,” Kennedy said during a press conference at the Mountain Island Lake boat ramp. “We know it’s causing illness. Hundreds of thousands of people are being injured by it every year. And yet this industry continues its assault on the American public and the environment…” One section of the report released that day by the groups was titled, “Coal Rivers: Duke Energy’s Toxic Legacy in North Carolina,” covering the impact of the company’s 10 power plants in the state. Some months later, in fact, in February 2014, another closed Duke Energy coal-fired power plant near Eden, North Carolina, spilled tens of thousands of tons of coal ash and 27 million gallons of contaminated water into the Dan River, coating 70 miles of that river with a gray sludge.

Dec. 2014. RFK, Jr., Op-Ed: “Coal, An Outlaw Enterprise,” NYT.
Dec. 2014. RFK, Jr., Op-Ed: “Coal, An Outlaw Enterprise,” NYT.
Through the 2010s, meanwhile, RFK, Jr., continued to take on the coal issues of the day. In mid-December 2014, he published an Op-Ed in the New York Times, titled, “Coal, an Outlaw Enterprise,” in which he cited details of cases in West Virginia and Kentucky where coal interests routinely flouted the law or gained influence and favorable treatment after making large campaign donations.

In his writing and speeches, Kennedy often singles out “money in politics” as the chief driver of environmental woes – the fact that corporate polluters are essentially buying the politicians to service their industries and protect them from regulation. So for him, campaign finance reform – getting the big money out of politics – is a top priority, along with electing politicians that will support that goal.

Since 2016, Kennedy and his various Waterkeeper organizations in the U.S., have been following closely the regulatory actions of the Trump Administration, filing lawsuits when necessary to challenge industry and Administration proposals that will weaken or remove key EPA, Clean Water Act, and other regulations. In July 2017, for example, RFK, Jr. “If you believe in markets, you have to believe that the era of coal has ended.”
– Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.
testified before an EPA panel in Washington on EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s move to overturn an Obama Administration coal ash rule that established new standards for coal ash disposal sites, including inspections and monitoring to prevent leaks and spills.

Meanwhile, in terms of the overall coal economy, Kennedy believes that market forces will win out, with renewable energy sources – especially wind and solar – generating the more favorable economic results. “Anything that Trump does is not going to bring back a single coal job – not one,” Kennedy has said. “If you believe in markets, you have to believe that the era of coal has ended.” As an example, in his speeches, Kennedy has often ticked off the costs of various energy alternatives. “An industrial utility scale solar plant in this country costs $1 billion a gigawatt. A coal plant costs $3-5 billion a gigawatt, an oil plant or gas plant costs $3-5 [billion per gigawatt], and a nuke plant costs $9-15 [billion per gigawatt].” Given these economic realities, he believes renewables will eventually drive out the “incumbents,” i.e., coal, oil, etc.,. Still, the policy battles will continue.


The Fights Ahead

The Kennedy family involvement in the nation’s coal travails for nearly 60 years has not, of course, been the singular force in helping alleviate the hardships and damage found throughout the coalfields during those years. Hundreds of activists, politicians, journalists, union leaders, government officials, and others have also been involved. Still, the nation has been fortunate to have had members of this politically prominent family doing what they could to help rein in the excesses of coal power and push reforms. Indeed, in the continuing battles ahead with coal and the broader fossil fuels industry, political leadership of that kind will be needed on many levels – plus widespread public support – to bring about lasting change.

For additional stories at this website on energy/environment issues see the “Environmental History” topics page. See also the “Kennedy History” page for stories in that category. And if you like what you find here, please make a donation to help support the research and writing at this website. Thank you. – Jack Doyle

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Date Posted: 19 December 2017
Last Update: 23 December 2017
Comments to: jdoyle@pophistorydig.com

Article Citation:
Jack Doyle, “Coal & The Kennedys: 1960-2010s,”
PopHistoryDig.com, December 19, 2017.

____________________________________




Sources, Links & Additional Information


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Peter Galuszka's 2012 book, "Thunder on the Mountain".
Thomas Andrews' 2008 book, "Killing for Coal".
Thomas Andrews' 2008 book, "Killing for Coal".
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Harry Caudill's 1983 book, "Theirs Be The Power".
Davitt McAteer's book on the 1907 Monongah mine disaster.
Davitt McAteer's book on the 1907 Monongah mine disaster.
Chad Motrie's 2003 history of Appalachian strip mining.
Chad Motrie's 2003 history of Appalachian strip mining.
Penny Loeb's 2007 book, "Moving Mountains".
Penny Loeb's 2007 book, "Moving Mountains".
Robert Shogan's 2004 book, "The Battle of Blair Mountain".
Robert Shogan's 2004 book, "The Battle of Blair Mountain".
Rebecca Bailey's "Matewan: Before The Massacre",
Rebecca Bailey's "Matewan: Before The Massacre",

John F. Kennedy

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_________________________

Robert F. Kennedy

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_________________________

Caroline Kennedy

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_________________________

Ted Kennedy

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“S.717, Federal Mine Safety and Health Amendments Act,” Congress.gov, 95th Congress, 1977-1978.

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David S. Hilzenrath, “Mine Safety Nominee Defeated,” Washington Post, August 6, 1987.

Steven Greenhouse, “Rise in Mining Deaths Prompts Political Sparring,” New York Times, July 26, 2002.

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“Senators Pay Visit to Sago Families: Jay, Ted Kennedy, Two From GOP, Vow to Find Answers for Victims’ Families,” Charleston Gazette (Charleston, WV), January 21, 2006.

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_________________________

Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.

Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., Website.

“Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.,” Wikipedia.org.

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Kimberly Johnson, “Coal Leaves Deep, Wide Wake in West Virginia,” America. Aljazeera.com, March 24, 2014.

Cheryl K. Chumley, “RFK Jr Wants Law to Punish Global Warming Skeptics,” Wash-ington Times, September 23, 2014.

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______________________________________




“Burn The Beatles!”
1966: Bigger Than Jesus?

August 1966: A two-photo collage of “burn-the-Beatles” protests following John Lennon’s “more-popular-than-Jesus” remarks. Top: sign advertising a Beatles burning. Bottom: A radio station disc jockey – center w/microphone -- possibly delivering “on-the-air” reporting during  a "Beatles bonfire.”
August 1966: A two-photo collage of “burn-the-Beatles” protests following John Lennon’s “more-popular-than-Jesus” remarks. Top: sign advertising a Beatles burning. Bottom: A radio station disc jockey – center w/microphone -- possibly delivering “on-the-air” reporting during a "Beatles bonfire.”
Fame and celebrity can sometimes be very fragile and fleeting. One moment they’re here, next minute they’re gone. One moment the adoring masses are tearing your clothes off because they love you, next they’re burning you in effigy because they hate you.

For popular matinee idols, sports stars, politicians, and rock musicians, public pirouettes in adoration can come rather sharply. In fact, sometimes, an adoring public following or fan base will pivot en masse, turning on its idols for something they have said or done. Often it’s for trivial reasons. But sometimes it’s more serious and the reaction is explosive – and in these cases, the cause is sometimes due to an insensitive comment made in sensitive territory; a verbal trespass that touches a raw nerve on matters of class, race, religion, politics, or civil society.

For the Beatles — the famous British rock`n roll band of the 1960s –the pivot of the masses from adoration to something closer to hate came by way of that most sensitive of topics: religion.

The controversy first broke in the U.S. in late July 1966, right before the Beatles were slated to begin a major 14-city North American concert tour. However, the beginning of the controversy had its origins months earlier, back in London, England.


The Interview

It all began in March 1966, during one of hundreds of media interviews the Beatles had given on their rocket ride to international stardom and pop music fame. In this case, it was John Lennon being interviewed by Maureen Cleave a reporter with the London Evening Standard.

Cleave, in fact, was also a friend of Lennon’s, and John had agreed to be interviewed by her at his home for a Beatles series she was planning. Cleave’s series would eventually run in four parts, one for each Beatle. During the Lennon interview, and in the writing of her article – which appeared on page ten of the London Evening Standard of March 4, 1966 – a paragraph written by Cleave described Lennon’s views on religion, noting at the end of the graph, that Lennon was then reading a lot about religion.

March 4, 1966: Portion of the original London Evening Standard newspaper story & layout interviewing John Lennon about his life as a Beatle, in which he made remarks about religion and Jesus, which weren’t given any special attention by the paper, nor did they bring any noticeable reaction from British readers at the time.
March 4, 1966: Portion of the original London Evening Standard newspaper story & layout interviewing John Lennon about his life as a Beatle, in which he made remarks about religion and Jesus, which weren’t given any special attention by the paper, nor did they bring any noticeable reaction from British readers at the time.

Here’s the passage Cleave wrote (which was only part of a wide-ranging interview profiling Lennon on a number of topics):

…Experience has sown few seeds of doubt in him [Lennon]: not that his mind is closed, but it’s closed round whatever he believes at the time. ‘Christianity will go,’ he said. ‘It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue about that; I’m right and I will be proved right. We’re more popular than Jesus now; I don’t know which will go first-rock ‘n’ roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It’s them twisting it that ruins it for me.’ He [Lennon] is reading extensively about religion…

Paul McCartney on Sept 1966 “Datebook” magazine cover, which also featured story on Lennon’s remarks about Jesus.
Paul McCartney on Sept 1966 “Datebook” magazine cover, which also featured story on Lennon’s remarks about Jesus.
In the Evening Standard article, Lennon’s remarks on Jesus and religion were not given any special attention, used as a pull quote, or accorded any other special treatment. In fact, after that story ran in the U.K., there was no wild popular reaction to Lennon’s remarks. Nothing seemed to have come of it.


DATEbook

Then, five months after Lennon’s interview with Cleave had appeared in London, parts of the same interview were scheduled to be republished in the September 1966 edition of the American teen magazine, DATEbook.

However, some of the DATEbook material appears to have been released ahead of newsstand arrival and reached the American media by late July 1966.

When the magazine’s final edition hit the newsstands in September (shown at left) – with Paul McCartney on the cover – it also used a tagline that ran second in a column of multi-colored taglines on the left side of the cover, quoting Lennon’s remark: “I don’t know which will go first — rock `n roll or Christianity.” That line was also used as the headline for the story that ran inside the magazine.

[Interestingly, the first tagline listed on the DateBook cover, using a quote from Paul McCartney, apparently commenting on state of American society where the Beatles were about to tour, noted: “It’s a lousy country where anyone black is a dirty nigger!” By today’s standards, that comment might have been more incendiary than Lennon’s remarks, but at the time, it did not generate the attention that Lennon’s comments had. McCartney, for his part, was likely reacting to the news reports on civil rights protests in America at that time.]

Two-page layout of the September 1966 “DateBook” magazine article on John Lennon (from the March 1966 London Evening Standard) using the headline, “I Don’t Know Which Will Go First – Rock `n Roll Or Christianity”.
Two-page layout of the September 1966 “DateBook” magazine article on John Lennon (from the March 1966 London Evening Standard) using the headline, “I Don’t Know Which Will Go First – Rock `n Roll Or Christianity”.

Lennon’s comment, in context, was an observation about religion losing its connection to youth. It was taken, especially in the South, as an anti-Christian boast.


Boycotts & Bonfires

July-Aug 1966: Birmingham, Alabama radio disc jockeys, Tommy Charles, top, and Doug Layton, right, of  WAQY, ripping up Beatles record albums and other materials.
July-Aug 1966: Birmingham, Alabama radio disc jockeys, Tommy Charles, top, and Doug Layton, right, of WAQY, ripping up Beatles record albums and other materials.
By Sunday, July 31st, 1966, two disc jockeys at radio station WAQY in Birmingham, Alabama – Tommy Charles and Doug Layton – had read the DateBook story, became outraged by Lennon’s remarks, and kicked off a drive to ban the Beatles music from the airways. Their radio station would no longer play records by the Beatles, they said – the British group who “grew wealthy as the music idols of the younger generation.” The DJs encouraged listeners to throw away or burn the band’s records. They called for a “Beatles Burn-In,” to be held around the time the Beatles tour was to arrive in nearby Memphis, Tennessee.

The photo at right shows the two Birmingham disc jockeys, Tommy Charles, upper left, and Doug Layton of Radio Station WAQY, ripping up and breaking Beatles record albums and other materials They are credited with starting a “Ban the Beatles” campaign, which would spread to other stations and protest actions.

Charles in particular took exception to Lennon’s statement as “absurd and sacrilegious.” He went on to say, “something ought to be done to show them they cannot get away with this sort of thing.” Charles then began making spot broadcast announcements on the air every hour urging WAQY’s audience to turn in their Beatles records, pictures, magazines and souvenirs for a Beatles bonfire. Other radio stations would soon follow suit. And the anti-Beatles sentiment grew from there. Overnight, it seemed, teenaged Beatles fans in states like Georgia and Mississippi turned out to smash records and throw their Beatles paraphernalia on bonfires.


News Coverage

Newspapers throughout the country soon picked up on the story as well. An August 4th, 1966 United Press International story on the developing radio ban, appearing in a Camden, New Jersey newspaper, used the headline, “DJs Ban The Beatles for Lennon Remarks.” The News and Observer newspaper of Raleigh, North Carolina that same day used a more descriptive headline: “Stations Ban ‘Sacrilegious’ Beatles.” Another that day, The Republic newspaper in Columbus, Indiana, ran the headline: “Christianity Will Go, Says Prophet Lennon; Beatles ‘More Popular Than Jesus’?”

August 4th, 1966: United Press International story on Beatles radio ban, appearing in a Camden, New Jersey newspaper with headline, "DJs Ban The Beatles for Lennon Remarks."
August 4th, 1966: United Press International story on Beatles radio ban, appearing in a Camden, New Jersey newspaper with headline, "DJs Ban The Beatles for Lennon Remarks."

Meanwhile, a spokesman for Capitol Records, which then distributed Beatles recordings in the U.S., had already issued a statement explaining that Lennon was “quoted out of context and misconstrued.” Rather, Lennon was being “conjectural” on the topics of Christianity and rock `n roll, said the spokesman, and “only intended the broadest comparison…. He definitely intended no irreverence.” Nonetheless, the radio bans of Beatles music continued.

August 4, 1966: “The News and Observer” newspaper of Raleigh, North Carolina ran the headline,“Stations Ban ‘Sacrilegious’ Beatles,” for its story about radio bans of Beatles music in reaction to John Lennon’s remarks.
August 4, 1966: “The News and Observer” newspaper of Raleigh, North Carolina ran the headline,“Stations Ban ‘Sacrilegious’ Beatles,” for its story about radio bans of Beatles music in reaction to John Lennon’s remarks.

“Anyone making a sacrilegious remark like that has no place on our station,” said George Nelson of WRNB in New Bern, North Carolina, quoted in Raleigh’s News and Observer August 5th, 1966 story, announcing his station’s ban. Bob Latham of station WTYC in Rock Hill, South Carolina reported a telephone poll of 177 supporters of his station’s Beatles ban, as opposed to 10 who wanted the group’s music continued. Another station using a poll to decide on a Beatles ban was WORG of Orangeburg, South Carolina, which found 144 in favor and 2 opposed.

August 4th 1966 headlines from “The Evening Republican” newspaper of Columbus, Indiana: “Christianity Will Go, Says Prophet Lennon; Beatles ‘More Popular Than Jesus’?”
August 4th 1966 headlines from “The Evening Republican” newspaper of Columbus, Indiana: “Christianity Will Go, Says Prophet Lennon; Beatles ‘More Popular Than Jesus’?”

Bobby Dark of radio station WYNA of Raleigh, North Carolina reported that his station had a Beatles bonfire scheduled. According to the News and Observer, as of August 4th, among other stations then banning Beatles music were: WKDK of Newberry, South Carolina; WLSC of Loris, South Carolina; WPET of Greensboro, North Carolina; WBBB of Burlington, North Carolina; WVCB of Shallotte, North Carolina; WRKB of Kannapolis, North Carolina; and WTYN of Tryon, North Carolina.

Although many of these stations were in the south, there were boycotts elsewhere as well. WAKR of Akron, Ohio decided to ban Beatles music on August 5th: “WAKR banned the playing of the Beatles records on the station Thursday in light of comments by John Lennon,” said Roger G. Berk, vice president and general manager of Akron’s Summit Radio Corp. “The ban will continue until such time as it’s in the public interest to play them again.”

 
Brian’s Mea Culpa

August 6th, 1966: Beatles manager, Brian Epstein, holds NY press conference in attempt at “damage control” re: Lennon remarks.
August 6th, 1966: Beatles manager, Brian Epstein, holds NY press conference in attempt at “damage control” re: Lennon remarks.
From a business standpoint, the reaction to Lennon’s statement had the potential to become a major economic disaster for the group, as millions of dollars were in the balance with the pending 14-city tour about to begin. On August 6th, 1966, the Beatles’ manager, Brian Epstein, then on a brief vacation following the Beatles’ Asian tour, decided to fly to New York City where he held a televised press conference at the Americana Hotel. During that appearance, in which Epstein delivered a calm and professional defense of Lennon, he tried to quell the emerging American controversy over Lennon’s remarks:

“The quote which John Lennon made to a London columnist has been quoted and misrepresented entirely out of context… Lennon is deeply interested in religion and was at the time having serious talks with Maureen Cleave…of the London Evening Standard. The talks were concerning religion. What he said and meant was that he was astonished that in the last 50 years the Church in England, and therefore Christ, had suffered a decline in interest. He did not mean to boast about the Beatles fame. He meant to point out the Beatles effect appeared to be, to him, a more immediate one upon certainly the younger generation. John is deeply concerned and regrets that people with certain religious beliefs should have been offended.”

The media, of course, had more questions for Epstein, who at one point, even allowed that if any of the promoters for the upcoming concert events had concerns and wanted to cancel, he wouldn’t stand in their way:

Press: We’re wondering whether you’re going to change the itinerary of The Beatles to avoid areas where the radio stations are now burning their records and their pictures?

Epstein: This is highly unlikely. I’ve spoken to many of the promoters this morning. When I leave here, I have a meeting with several of the promoters who are anxious that the concerts should not be cancelled, at all. Actually, if any of the promoters were so concerned and wish that the concerts be cancelled, I wouldn’t, in fact, stand in their way.

August 1966: Collage of some of the newspaper headlines, Beatle protests, and “Beatle bonfires” that erupted in the U.S. following John Lennon’s “more popular than Jesus” remark, republished in ‘DateBook’ teen magazine.
August 1966: Collage of some of the newspaper headlines, Beatle protests, and “Beatle bonfires” that erupted in the U.S. following John Lennon’s “more popular than Jesus” remark, republished in ‘DateBook’ teen magazine.

Meanwhile, in Alabama two days later, on August 8th, 1966, The Daily Gleaner of Birmingham published the following notice:

…Hundreds of Beatles records are to be pulverized in a giant municipal tree-grinding machine here because of what Beatle John Lennon said about Christ, a disc jockey revealed today. ‘After going through the “Beatle-grinder,” borrowed from Birmingham City Council, all that will be left of the records will be fine dust.’ A box full of the dust will be presented to the British pop stars when they arrive in Memphis, Tennessee, not far from here, for a concert August 19th, said local disc jockey Rex Roach…

There were also reports of protests in Spain, South Africa, Costa Rica, and other locations. Yet the U.S. reaction, also covered by the world press, was the primary focal point, especially since the Beatles were about to begin their American tour.

 
Politicians Jump In

August 1966. AAP-Reuter wire story about Pennsylvania legislator who sought to ban Beatles music and performances in the state via a proposed resolution.
August 1966. AAP-Reuter wire story about Pennsylvania legislator who sought to ban Beatles music and performances in the state via a proposed resolution.
In Pennsylvania, state Senator Robert Fleming, a Republican, said he was “shocked” by Lennon’s remarks, and announced he would offer a resolution in the Pennsylvania legislature on August 8th calling on all talent agents in the state to refuse to book the Beatles and to cancel any engagements already made – as one in Philadelphia was already scheduled for the Beatles’ planned tour. Senator Fleming’s resolution also proposed contacting radio and TV stations to request they stop playing Beatles records and that owners of juke boxes also remove Beatles records from their machines.

“We can all get along very well without the Beatles,” Fleming was quoted as saying in a AAP-Reuter news story, “but there are multitudes of us who cannot get along without Jesus Christ.” Fleming’s resolution was not approved.

In Boston, too, state representative Charles Iannello, a Democrat drafted a petition to be offered in the Massachusetts House of Representatives, for the city of Boston to revoke the Beatles permit for their scheduled August 18th show at the Suffolk Downs race track venue. “Who are these four creeps to put themselves above the High and Mighty”, Iannello asked. “Do you think they will do anything for the morals of out teenagers? We’ve got enough problems.” Iannello, however, was unable to obtain a suspension of House rules to permit the introduction of his petition. In Indiana, meanwhile, there was a Catholic youth group organizing a Beatles burning, and other such protests were in the offing elsewhere.

 
Cusp of Change

For the Beatles, however, then in their third year of international acclaim, the troubles of 1966 – and their forthcoming concert tour – would contribute to a major shift in their career. A combination of forces would be at work on the group’s thinking, and would not fully form until the end of the tour. As it was, they were already evolving from the “she-loves-you” style of music, to more sophisticated compositions. The release of their Revolver album – their seventh studio album – would set something of a new standard once it was digested by fans and critics. However, that album – released on August 5th in the U.K, and August 8th in the U.S. – came just as the furor over Lennon’s remarks were spawning protests in America.

August 1966: Roadside sign along route 93 near Hazelton, Pennsylvania expressing disapproval with the Beatles, then in reaction to John Lennon’s “more-popular-than-Jesus” remarks.
August 1966: Roadside sign along route 93 near Hazelton, Pennsylvania expressing disapproval with the Beatles, then in reaction to John Lennon’s “more-popular-than-Jesus” remarks.

So sitting in London and hearing about the outrage in the States over Lennon’s remarks, the Beatles must have certainly thought about cancelling their tour. This would be their third trip to America in as many years, having arrived to wild acclaim in 1964, the year they first broke out, and again during their 1965 American tour. But now, as they contemplated coming to America for their August 1966 tour in the wake of the heated reaction to Lennon’s remarks, they surely had concerns about coming. Still, they came. But now, their popularity and staying power would be tested in ways they had never experienced before.

 
Meet the Press

By August 11th, 1966, the Beatles had arrived in Chicago, the first stop on their American tour. They had flown into Chicago from a connecting flight from Boston on American Airlines, and at their first class seats they found copies of the Bible, thoughtfully provided for each member of the group. In Chicago, the four young Brits held a press conference at the Astor Towers Hotel. During that meeting, Lennon attempted to apologize for his “more-popular-than-Jesus” remarks, as other Beatles also joined in the session:

August 11, 1966: John Lennon of the Beatles, center, is flanked by George Harrison, left, and Ringo Starr as he apologizes for his remark that "the Beatles are more popular than Jesus," at a Chicago news conference.
August 11, 1966: John Lennon of the Beatles, center, is flanked by George Harrison, left, and Ringo Starr as he apologizes for his remark that "the Beatles are more popular than Jesus," at a Chicago news conference.

Associated Press wire story reporting on John Lennon’s August 11, 1966 apology.
Associated Press wire story reporting on John Lennon’s August 11, 1966 apology.

John:“I’m sorry, I’m sorry I said it, really. I never meant it as a lousy, antireligious thing…

If I had said television is more popular than Jesus, I might have got away with it…

“[O]riginally I was pointing out that fact in reference to England– that we meant more to kids than Jesus did, or religion, at that time. I wasn’t knocking it or putting it down, I was just saying it as a fact…”

“I’m not saying that we’re better, or greater, or comparing us with Jesus Christ as a person or God as a thing or whatever it is, you know. I just said what I said and it was wrong, or was taken wrong. And now it’s all this…”

Paul: “And this is the point– you know, this is why we’re getting in all these messes with saying things. Because, you know, we’re just trying to move forward. And people seem to be trying to just sort of hold us back and not want us to say anything that’s vaguely sort of, you know, inflammatory… I think it’s better for everyone if we’re just honest about the whole thing.”

George: “Well, in the context that it was meant — it was the fact that Christianity is declining, and everybody knows about that, and that was the fact that was trying to be made… I agree that it’s on the wane.”

Ringo: “Well, I just hope it’s all over now, you know. I hope everyone’s straightened out, and it’s finished.”

But it wasn’t finished.

Later that same evening, in fact, August 11th, 1966, in Chester, South Carolina, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) held a “Beatle Bonfire” at a cross burning.

The Associated Press photograph below shows South Carolina KKK Grand Dragon, Bob Scoggin, tossing Beatles records into the fire.

Still, the Beatles hoped for the best as they began their tour.
 

August 11, 1966: South Carolina KKK Grand Dragon, Bob Scoggin, tossing Beatle records into the fire of a burning cross at Chester, South Carolina. Photo, Associated Press.
August 11, 1966: South Carolina KKK Grand Dragon, Bob Scoggin, tossing Beatle records into the fire of a burning cross at Chester, South Carolina. Photo, Associated Press.

Beatles’ 1966 Tour
Dates & Locations

12 August 1966*
Chicago / Int’l Amphitheatre

13 August 1966*
Detroit / Olympia Stadium

14 August 1966
Cleveland / Cleveland Stadium

15 August 1966
Washington, D.C./ D.C. Stadium

16 August 1966
Philadelphia /JFK Stadium

17 August 1966*
Toronto /Maple Leaf Gardens

18 August 1966
Boston / Suffolk Downs

19 August 1966*
Memphis/ Mid-South Coliseum

21 August 1966 (noon)
Cincinnati / Crosley Field

21 August 1966 (8pm)
St. Louis / Busch Stadium

23 August 1966
New York / Shea Stadium

25 August 1966*
Seattle /Seattle Center Coliseum

28 August 1966
Los Angeles /Dodger Stadium

29 August 1966
San Francisco / Candlestick Park
______________
*two shows scheduled.
 

August 12th & 13th

Tour Amid Protest

By August 12th, as the Beatles began their American tour, they performed two shows at the International Amphitheater in Chicago, at 3:00pm and 7:30pm. Each performance was at near full capacity, seen by 13,000 fans. Press coverage was favorable. One story filed by United Press International (UPI), which appeared in newspapers nationally, and ran, for example, on the front page of Salt Lake City’s Desert News, used the headline, “Fans Hail Beatles in Chicago.” The reporting in that story began as follows:

Their theology didn’t matter. The Beatles were in town and teenagers were in ecstasy.

Beatle fans who had forgiven or forgotten or who were unconcerned about John Lennon’s reported statement that his group was more popular that Jesus, streamed into the 13,500 seat International Amphitheater….

…The Beatles…played to near packed houses for two tumultuous concerts… If any of their Midwest fans were bothered by Lennon’s comments, he apparently smoothed things over with this statement that he was sorry he had ever said it and that he merely mean to deplore the decline in religious zeal…”

In Detroit as well, where the Beatles performed two shows the following day at 2:00 pm and 7:00 pm before a total of 28,000 fans, an Associated Press account gave the performances a positive report, with the Milwaukee Journal using the headline: “Detroit Teens Give Beatles Big Welcome”:

A throng of screeching youngsters greeted Britain’s Beatles in Detroit Saturday in what appeared a second American vote of confidence for the controversial mopheads.

Not deterred by the story of protest kicked up recently by Beatle John Lennon, an estimated 30,000 fans bought tickets for two performances here.

The near sellout crowds were similar to the large and vocal audiences the British rock `n rollers drew in two Chicago performances Friday…

Still, in Detroit there were some pickets that carried signs in protest, one that read, “Jesus Saves – John Sins.” Two Beatles fans, however, tore down another sign that read, “Limey Go Home.”

August 15, 1966: UPI wire photo showing Donna Woods of Longview, Texas applying torch to pile of Beatles material, ending a 10-day “Burn the Beatles” campaign.
August 15, 1966: UPI wire photo showing Donna Woods of Longview, Texas applying torch to pile of Beatles material, ending a 10-day “Burn the Beatles” campaign.

Texas Bonfire

On the same day that thousands of fans were cheering the Beatles in Chicago, radio station KLUE-AM in Longview, Texas organized one of the “Beatles bonfires” (shown at left). For that event, ex-Beatle fans over a ten day period brought their Beatles records and other memorabilia to be burned in protest.

According to the Associated Press, “Hundreds of youths contributed records and pictures of the vocal group for the bonfire,” and “several thousands persons witnessed the burning.” (Interestingly, in a possible sign of divine intervention on the Beatles’ behalf, KLUE’s radio tower was struck by lightning the next morning, throwing the station off the air.)

In addition, by August 13, the music industry magazine, Billboard, was also reporting that a number of radio stations were calling for a ban on Beatles music. Some twenty-two radio stations by that date, mostly in the South, had begun to boycott Beatles music. Billboard also noted that New York’s WABC station had then reportedly put Beatles records on a “no play” list.

Meanwhile, back in Birmingham, Alabama, where the “Ban the Beatles” campaign had begun, WAQY disc jockey Tommy Charles said in a statement of August 12th that he accepted Lennon’s apology made at the Chicago press conference, and that Charles would call off the Beatles bonfire that had been scheduled there for August 19th. And at their first performances on the 1966 tour, The Beatles appeared to be doing quite well, playing to full venues, at least in Chicago, as shown in the photograph below.

August 12th, 1966: The Beatles in Chicago at the  International Amphitheater, first stop on their 1966 American tour, taking a bow on stage after their performance, which appears to have drawn a full house.
August 12th, 1966: The Beatles in Chicago at the International Amphitheater, first stop on their 1966 American tour, taking a bow on stage after their performance, which appears to have drawn a full house.

 
August 14th

Cleveland

For the third city on their concert tour, the Beatles were scheduled for one show in Cleveland, Ohio on August 14th at 7:30pm at Cleveland Stadium, then also known Lakefront Stadium or Cleveland Municipal Stadium.

AAP-Reuter wire story on Cleveland pastor who told his parishioners they would be expelled from the church if they attended Beatles concert.
AAP-Reuter wire story on Cleveland pastor who told his parishioners they would be expelled from the church if they attended Beatles concert.
However, on the day of that concert, Sunday morning, during church services at Cleveland’s New Haven Baptist Church, Rev. Thurmann H. Babbs warned his parishioners that if they attended the Beatles concert that evening he would expel them from the congregation – and he backed up his warning by reading passages from the third book of Daniel. The previous evening, Rev. Babbs had told reporters that he felt it was time for Christians to speak out against John Lennon’s remark that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus.

Yet, the very same day came a report from Rome that the Vatican paper of record, L’Osservatore Romano, had accepted Lennon’s public apology, noting in its editorial that Lennon’s remark was made “offhandedly and not impiously.” Though adding: “This is a sign that some subjects must not be dealt with lightly, in a profane way, even in the world of beatniks.” But the Vatican also noted: “It cannot be denied that there is some foundation to the latest observations of John Lennon about atheism or the distraction of many people.”

In Cleveland, meanwhile, it is not known how many members of Rev. Babbs’ congregation did not attended the Beatles concert, but there were some 20,000 or so fans in Cleveland who did go to that concert.

In fact, during that show, about 3,000 of the more enthusiastic fans in Cleveland broke through a four-foot security fence around the stage area just as the Beatles played “Day Tripper.” The police were overwhelmed, and stood back as fans ran over the stage and surrounding grassy area. The Beatles sought refuge in their caravan/trailer dressing room behind the stage. The concert was halted for about 30 minutes until police reinforcements arrived to restore order. Still, as reported by Beatles media manager, Tony Barrow, at the end of that show some fans tried stealing Beatles instruments from the stage as souvenirs.

 
August 15th

Washington, D.C.

On Monday, August 15th, 1966, in Washington, D.C., the Beatles performed one show at 8:00 p.m. at the DC Stadium (later named RFK Stadium). The stadium was then used by the Washington Senators professional baseball team. Prior to the concert, the Beatles held a press conference in the Senators’ locker room, where more than 50 reporters and TV camera crews had assembled. One reporter there suggested the Beatles were using the “more-popular-than-Jesus” flap as a publicity stunt to increase ticket sales. In response, Lennon, no doubt incensed by the reporter’s remark, said it was one of the “most stupid versions” he had heard yet of his controversial remark, adding the incident was “not a publicity stunt…We don’t need that publicity; not like that.”

Washington., D.C., August 15, 1966: Beatles press conference in Washington Senators’ baseball locker room, prior to show.
Washington., D.C., August 15, 1966: Beatles press conference in Washington Senators’ baseball locker room, prior to show.

Outside D.C. Stadium, five members of the Prince George’s County Ku Klux Klan, dressed in red, white and green robes, and led by the Imperial Grand Wizard of the Maryland clan, picketed in protest of Lennon’s earlier remarks about Jesus. Still, the D.C. concert took place without incident, as the Beatles performed before 32,164 fans. “Steering steadfastly clear of amateur theology,” wrote one Associated Press account of the D.C. concert, “the Beatles resumed their American tour today, having sent thousands of the capital’s teenagers into cheering fits.” Newspaper columnist, Charles McDowell, Jr., who attended the earlier press conference and also the concert, noted the stadium reception for the Beatles was “the loudest. most blood-curdling screams these old ears had ever heard,” adding, “The Goodyear blimp was overhead, and it flinched perceptibly.”
 

Washington Post Interview
John Lennon: August 1966

In advance of the Beatles arrival in Washington D.C., Washington Post reporter Leroy Aarons did a 40-minute interview with John Lennon, then in Cleveland. Aarons came away from that interview with a sympathetic view of Lennon and his plight, having digested from Lennon what had happened to him between the time of Maureen Cleave’s interview in London through the emerging American controversy. He noted, for example, that Lennon was reading quite a bit on religion and spiritual matters, including one book, The Passover Plot, popular at the time, which claimed that Jesus’s message had been distorted by his disciples to the point where it had become irrelevant to many in modern times.“…I believe that what people call God is some-thing in all of us…”

As Aarons explained in his piece, Lennon had a childhood of indifferent religious training, then went through a period of cynical atheism, and in more recent years, a reshuffling of his thinking given his various worldly exposures and travels. Said Lennon during the interview: “I’m more of a Christian now than I ever was… I don’t go along with organized religion and the way it has come about. I believe in God, but not as one thing, not as an old man in the sky. I believe that what people call God is something in all of us, I believe what Jesus and Mohammed and Buddha and all the rest said was right. It’s just that the translations have gone wrong…”

Aarons found that Lennon’s views on Jesus were part of a growing process that Lennon was then going through at age 26 – “more of a groping than a finding.” And that process would continue, soon apparent in the changes coming to Beatles music as well, with lyrics and sound, reflecting social concerns, eastern mysticism, and transcendental meditation, and drug-influenced spiritualism…

On a personal level, Lennon was genuinely concerned about the reaction to his remarks. The Beatles Bonfires were especially unsettling. “….But the record burning. That was the real shock, the physical burning. I couldn’t go away knowing that I created another little piece of hate in the world.“….But the record burn-ing. That was the real shock, the physical burn-ing. I couldn’t go away knowing that I created another little piece of hate in the world….” Especially with something as uncomplicated as people listening to record and dancing and playing and enjoying what the Beatles are. Not when I could do something about it.

“If I said tomorrow I’m not going to play again, I still couldn’t live in a place with somebody hating me for something irrational… But that’s the trouble with being truthful. You try to apply truth talk, although you have to be false sometimes because the whole thing is false in a way, like a game. But you hope sometime that if you’re truthful with somebody they’ll stop all the plastic reaction and be truthful back and it’ll be worth it. But everybody is playing the game and sometimes I’m left naked and truthful with everybody biting me. It’s disappointing.”

Lennon, like other twenty-somethings of his day, searching for spiritual meaning, and was reading extensively about religion, as the Cleve article noted. He and other Beatles, like thousands of other young people at that time, were searching in various venues –eastern and western – for spiritual meaning and guidance… For Some / some ventured This became part of the psychedelic and transcendental movements… The Beatles would go to India, in fact, two years later in search of spiritual guidance.
__________________________
Source: Leroy Aarons, “‘Can’t Express Myself Very Well’, Beatle Apologizes for Remarks,” The Washington Post, August 15, 1966, p. A-1; and Leroy Aarons (Washington Post News Service), “Beatle Tells How Religion Got Into Act,” August 16, 1966.

Portion of front page of the August 17th, 1966 metro edition of The Miami News has Beatles’ Philadelphia concert story & photo appearing below Vietnam War-related headline.
Portion of front page of the August 17th, 1966 metro edition of The Miami News has Beatles’ Philadelphia concert story & photo appearing below Vietnam War-related headline.
Portion of front page from Aug 13th Desert Sun (Palm Springs, CA) noting Beatle’s earlier concert in Chicago (left column), amid other news on Vietnam (McNamara headline) and lower on page, civil rights march and “racial rampage” stories .
Portion of front page from Aug 13th Desert Sun (Palm Springs, CA) noting Beatle’s earlier concert in Chicago (left column), amid other news on Vietnam (McNamara headline) and lower on page, civil rights march and “racial rampage” stories .
Texas newspaper, ‘The Victoria Advocate’ of August 12th, 1966, features ‘Beatles Bonfire” photo on its front page, but also a dominant LBJ/Vietnam War headline, and lower on page, story headline about race-related rioting in Chicago.
Texas newspaper, ‘The Victoria Advocate’ of August 12th, 1966, features ‘Beatles Bonfire” photo on its front page, but also a dominant LBJ/Vietnam War headline, and lower on page, story headline about race-related rioting in Chicago.

August 16th

Philadelphia

In Philadelphia, the Beatles performed one evening show on Tuesday, August 16th 1966, at the John F. Kennedy Stadium, before an audience of 20,000, which was about a third of that venue’s capacity.

An Associated Press story that ran in The Reading Eagle of Reading, PA, used the headline, “Philadelphia Fans Enthusiastic; 20,000 Cheer The Beatles at Stadium.” As in other tour cities, the reporting on the Philly concert in this story also noted the Christianity issue:

Beatle John Lennon’s remarks about Christianity and his subsequent apology apparently haven’t dampened the enthusiasm of the quartet’s fans, their cheers indicated last night.

And a sampling of fans, most of whom said they weren’t offended by his first remarks, stood up for this right to speak his mind about the popularity of Christianity and rock n roll music.

“The church isn’t doing its job – that’s what he meant when he said it,” said Eninise Sevellia, 14, a Philadelphia high school student. “If the church was doing its job, rock `n roll wouldn’t be more popular than religion.”

 
…In the News

The Beatles, of course, were not the only news of the day, as larger issues loomed for the nation and the world. In fact, while reporting on the Beatles’ tour during August 1966 often appeared on the front pages of American newspapers, and those around the world, there were also more dire news reports on those front pages – notably headlines about the Vietnam war or racial strife in American cities, as American involvement in the war and civil rights issues were both pressing issues of the day.

In The Miami News of August 17, 1966, for example, a front-page story appeared on the Beatles in Philadelphia with a photo of two female Beatles fans and front-page headline noting: “Teens Still Love Beatles: They’re Big in Philly.” But the big lead headline in that Miami News edition that day was about a military jet in Vietnam slamming into a Vietnamese village.

At the Beatles earlier shows on the tour as well, newspapers had Beatles stories on front pages that also carried news about Vietnam War related issues, civil rights marches, and/or racial strife.

The front page of the August 13th, 1966 Desert Sun of Palm Springs, CA, for example (above right), noted the Beatles’ earlier August 12th concert in Chicago (left news column), amid related news on Vietnam War (McNamara headline) and a Civil Rights march (lower on page).

In Texas, The Victoria Advocate featured a photograph of a Beatles Bonfires on a front page but also had a major Vietnam headline, and lower on the page, a story about Chicago racial strife – “Chicago Rioting Continue as Police Battle in Park.”

 
August 17th

Toronto

Back on the Beatles tour, meanwhile, on Wednesday, August 17th – one day after their show in Philly – the Beatles were scheduled to performed two shows at the Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto, Canada. The first show took place at 4 pm and was seen by 15,000 people and the second began at 8 pm and was attended by 17,000.

During a press conference between the two shows, the Beatles created a bit more controversy by appearing to side with American “draft dodgers” who moved to Canada rather than be drafted into the U.S. military to fight in the Vietnam War. Harrison noted, for example: “‘Thou shalt not kill’ means that – not amend section A… We all just don’t agree with war for any reason whatsoever. …People have a right not to go into the army.” There were also questions about Christianity, to which Lennon replied that he recommended “the basic idea” of Christianity to young people, and Harrison added, “there are lots of things right about Christianity, but people don’t follow it.”

One columnist for The Toronto Star, Robert Fulford, writing in an August 17th column, that Lennon was in good company raising the issue of youth’s declining interest in Christianity, as some “substantial portion of the ordained clergyman of the English-speaking world” had been saying much the same thing for years. Fulford also noted that newspapers – always looking for controversy “to fill that otherwise white space” – were having a field day hyping Lennon’s remarks and fanning the reaction that followed. There was also a spate of letters-to-the-editor at The Toronto Star on Lennon and The Beatles that appeared the day before their concert, some defending Lennon’s right to his own opinion or calling his remarks “thought-provoking.”

 
August 18th

Boston

In Boston, on Thursday, August 18th, 1966, their seventh stop, the Beatles played one show at Suffolk Downs, a horse race track. That concert began at 8 pm, and went off without incident, save a few fans who tried reaching the performers on stage. Among the 25,000 attending the Boston show were 13 year-old Joseph and 15 year-old Kathleen Kennedy, teen children of Robert and Ethel Kennedy, along with 33 other friends and Kennedy family members who had driven up from Hyannis Port, Massachusetts for the show. According to The Boston Globe, the Kennedy group had a block of seats in the front section of the venue.

On August 18, 1966 the Beatles performed one show in Boston, MA at the Suffolk Downs Racetrack, as this photo shows the Beatles performing, far right, on a make-shift stage set up on the race track turf, facing the grandstand audience.
On August 18, 1966 the Beatles performed one show in Boston, MA at the Suffolk Downs Racetrack, as this photo shows the Beatles performing, far right, on a make-shift stage set up on the race track turf, facing the grandstand audience.

 
August 19th

Memphis

The most southern of the venues for the Beatles’ 1966 American tour was the Mid-South Coliseum in Memphis, Tennessee, where they were slated to perform two shows on Friday, August 19th, at 4:00 and 8:30 p.m. When Lennon’s “more popular than Jesus” remarks had first broke, the mayor of Memphis, William Ingram, sought to have them banned from performing in the city. He asked the city council to request that the Beatles withdraw from their performance contract, which the Beatles would not do. Instead, the mayor and board of commissioners adopted a unanimous resolution on August 10th to express “official disapproval,” and “advise the Beatles that they were not welcome in the City of Memphis.” Brian Epstein, meanwhile, tried to quell their concerns with a telegram to Mayor William Ingram that read: “I wish to assure yourself, the people of Memphis and the Mid-South, that the Beatles will not, by word, action or otherwise in any way offend or ridicule the religious beliefs of anyone… Furthermore, John Lennon deeply and sincerely regrets any offense he many have caused.” The Beatles had also considered at one point that they might arrange for a recording session at the famous Stax music studios in Memphis, but that deal was never completed.

August 2006 story by John Bifuss for ‘The Commercial Appeal’ newspaper of Memphis 40 years after the Beatles visit recalls “the icy reception” they received from city fathers.
August 2006 story by John Bifuss for ‘The Commercial Appeal’ newspaper of Memphis 40 years after the Beatles visit recalls “the icy reception” they received from city fathers.

At the time of the August 18th concerts in Memphis, however, the anti-Beatles sentiment over Lennon’s remarks was still strong in the area. A local preacher, the Reverend Jimmy Stroad, staged a rally outside the Coliseum. There were also six members of the Ku Klux Klan who picketed the venue wearing full robes. Just before their first show in Memphis, the Beatles received an anonymous phone call warning them that at least one of them would be shot on stage, and a bomb scare caused an hour delay in the first show while authorities checked the facility. Still, the Beatles proceeded with their performances. Midway through the evening show, however, a lit cherry bomb was thrown on stage, frightening them, each thinking one of them had been shot. This incident, among others, was one of those contributing to the Beatles rethinking their career plans, and live touring in particular.

August 1966: Paul McCartney walking toward an  infield stage at Crosley Field, Cincinnati, Ohio.
August 1966: Paul McCartney walking toward an infield stage at Crosley Field, Cincinnati, Ohio.
The Mid-South Coliseum would normally accommodate 13,300 people, and the Beatles drew 7,589 for the 4 pm show and 12,539, for the evening show. Across town that evening, a group of ministers held a youth rally and a Beatles protest gathering that drew some 8,000 attendees, prompting some news outlets to report that the Beatles outdrew the Christian protest. One 17 year old female fan at the concert, wearing buttons that read “I still love you Beatles,” told a UPI reporter, “I love Jesus, but I love those Beatles, too.”

 
August 20th-21st

Cincinnati

The next city on the tour was Cincinnati, Ohio, where the Beatles were scheduled to do a Saturday concert on August 20th, 1966 at Crosley Field, a baseball stadium. As the show progressed, the warm-up and opening acts that had been traveling with the Beatles, and performing at every stop as well, included: the popular 1960s girl group, The Ronettes; a Boston garage band, The Remains; the pop group, Cyrkle (“Red Rubber Ball” hit), and Nashville R& B singer Bobby Hebb (“Sunny” hit). Each of these performers in Cincinnati managed to get their acts in before a rain storm there became worse. At that point, the Beatles were advised that touching any of the stage’s rain-soaked electrical equipment could be lethal, so Brian Epstein had no option but to call off the concert. However, it was announced to the audience that the Beatles would perform their portion of the show the following day, Sunday, August 21st at noon – although later that same day the Beatles were scheduled to perform an evening show in St. Louis. “We had to get up early and get on and play the [Cincinnati] concert at midday,” George Harrison would later recall in Anthology (published in 2000), “then take all the gear apart and go to the airport, fly to St Louis, set up and play the gig originally planned for that day. In those days all we had were three amps, three guitars, and a set of drums. Imagine trying to do it now!”

August 20, 1966: Ren Grevatt's column, for UK's ‘Melody Maker’ magazine, was also reporting that Beatles music was receiving air play.
August 20, 1966: Ren Grevatt's column, for UK's ‘Melody Maker’ magazine, was also reporting that Beatles music was receiving air play.

 
Better News

Meanwhile, by August 20, Billboard magazine was reporting that a number of Hot 100 “powerhouse” radio stations – those in big markets – were not involved in any Beatles boycotts, and in fact, were playing Beatles music as part of their regular programming. Among these stations were: KIMN in Denver; KLIF in Dallas, Texas; KDWB in Minneapolis; EFUN in Miami; WDKO in Louisville; KDKA in Pittsburgh; WCBG in Chambersburg, PA; WPRO in Providence, Rhode Island; and EMCA in New York. The Chambersburg, Pennsylvania station, in fact, aired an editorial supporting the Beatles. And according to Capitol Records, Southern stations were also among those playing Beatles music, including WMPS in Memphis; WAPF in Jacksonville, Florida; WVOK in Birmingham, Alabama; WBAM in Montgomery, Alabama; and WFLI in Chattanooga.

Radio program directors, Billboard noted, were in no hurry to ditch Beatles music. “For a program director to say ‘I’m not going to play the Beatles’ is tantamount to committing rating suicide,” said Ted Atkins of KIMN in Denver. “When the story first broke,” Atkins said, “we conducted a two-hour poll during a radio show and found 900 listeners were for the Beatles, while only 200 were against playing the [Beatles] record. We had a couple of heated comments, but nothing serious…”

 
August 21st

St. Louis

The Beatles’ St Louis concert had been expected to sell out in the brand new, three-month old Busch Stadium. But ticket sales had slowed there when Lennon’s comments about Christianity first broke, although picked up again as the controversy cooled. Still, before the concert began, some 85 people from two Baptist churches distributed 20,000 pamphlets on the Lennon statement. The Rev. Bob Wright of the First Baptist Church in Ferguson said his membership tried to take a positive approach, as the pamphlets acknowledged there was an element of truth to what Lennon had said, but that popularity was fickle, and that those who once praised Christ were also those who later demanded his crucifixion. The Christian pamphleteers, however, were not always well received by many of the St. Louis concert goers.

John Lennon shown performing during the rain storm at the Beatles' St. Louis concert, August 21, 1966.
John Lennon shown performing during the rain storm at the Beatles' St. Louis concert, August 21, 1966.
There were 23,143 fans who attended, and neither rain nor religious controversy appeared to dampen their enthusiasm. The Beatles and the other acts played in the rain, under a makeshift shelter. Busch Stadium then also had a brand new public address audio system with 200 speakers, but the echo effect in the stadium made the listening experience something less than stellar. It was at this concert when Paul McCartney became convinced that The Beatles should cease touring, as he later recalled in Anthology:

…It rained quite heavily, and they put bits of corrugated iron over the stage, so it felt like the worst little gig we’d ever played at, even before we’d started as a band. We were having to worry about the rain getting in the amps and this took us right back to the Cavern days – it was worse than those early days. And I don’t even think the house was full.

After the gig I remember us getting in a big, empty steel-lined wagon, like a removal van. There was no furniture in there – nothing. We were sliding around trying to hold on to something, and at that moment everyone said, ‘Oh, this bloody touring… I’ve had it up to here, man.’

I finally agreed. I’d been trying to say, ‘Ah, touring’s good and it keeps us sharp. We need touring, and musicians need to play. Keep music live.’ I had held on that attitude when there were doubts, but finally I agreed with them.

George and John were the ones most against touring; they got particularly fed up. So we agreed to say nothing, but never to tour again. We thought we’d get into recording…

…But now even America was beginning to pall because of the conditions of touring and because we’d done it so many times.

 
August 22-23

New York

After the St. Louis concert, the Beatles took a night flight to their next stop, New York city, arriving there in the wee hours of August 22nd, at 3:50 a.m. They lodged at the Warwick Hotel, where they gave a press conference the following day (and also a junior press conference for teens). At the main press conference, John and George came out against the war in Vietnam, and war in general, and John was reluctant to answer any more questions on his Christianity remarks, feeling played out on the subject, with nothing new to say. Some concern arose when two teenage girls, who walked out on to a 21st story building ledge of the nearby Americana Hotel, threatened to jump unless they met the Beatles. The two were rescued by New York police.

August 22, 1966: New York city police rescue two teenage girls on the 21st story of the Americana Hotel who threatened to jump 'unless we get to see the Beatles,' who were in the Warwick Hotel, a block away.  AP wire photo.
August 22, 1966: New York city police rescue two teenage girls on the 21st story of the Americana Hotel who threatened to jump 'unless we get to see the Beatles,' who were in the Warwick Hotel, a block away. AP wire photo.

The following day, on August 23rd, the Beatles did their show at Shea Stadium, which a year earlier was among their biggest and most successful venues. This time, however, their August 23rd show did not sell out, with 11,000 of the 55,600 tickets still available. Still, the Beatles made more money from this appearance than they did their previous Shea concert, receiving $189,000 – which was a 65 per cent cut of the $292,000 gross. Some of those traveling with Beatles, such as Judith Sims, editor of TeenSet magazine, thought the New York concert was one of the most exciting of the 1966 tour. During the performance hundreds of fans broke through barriers at one point and attempted to reach the stage. They were held back by security guards and none managed to reach The Beatles. Following the New York show, the Beatles flew to Los Angeles where they rented a home on Curson Terrace in the Hollywood Hills of Los Angeles to use as a West Coast base and a more amenable non-hotel retreat, as they finished up their last three show dates scheduled for Seattle, L.A., and San Francisco.

 
August 25th

Seattle

Special souvenir Beatles edition of the 'Seattle Post-Intelligencer' newspaper for the Beatles' August 25th, 1966 concerts in Seattle, Washington.
Special souvenir Beatles edition of the 'Seattle Post-Intelligencer' newspaper for the Beatles' August 25th, 1966 concerts in Seattle, Washington.
On August 25th, 1966, departing from their adopted temporary base in Los Angeles, the Beatles took a chartered flight to Seattle for their two scheduled shows at the Seattle Center Coliseum. They also held a press conference in Seattle prior to the first show, as they had at other tour stops. In Seattle, meanwhile, a special issue of The Seattle Post-Intelligencer newspaper had been prepared for the Beatles’ visit, shown at right. And in the front-page section entitled, “Beatlemania Returns to Puget Sound Area,” the editors noted that the Beatles “appear to be as hot as ever,” despite the remarks by Lennon on Jesus and Christianity. In further explanation, the editors added:

…Lennon, who made an offhand comparison of the Beatles with Jesus, said he was misunderstood. It now appears that his millions of teen-age fans all over the world are agreeing with him, for they are buying tickets and records as in the peak year of the Beatles’ popularity.

As a result, Lennon’s remarks are now being studied in a new light. By pinpointing the fact that worship and church attendance have fallen off everywhere in the world, the performer shocked millions of persons into recognizing the alarming status of international morality.

At any rate, there can be no doubt the Beatles are making a comeback…

Still, in protest over Lennon’s earlier remarks a small group of pickets set up outside the Seattle Coliseum bearing hand-lettered signs with Biblical and other phrases, such as “Beware of False Prophets,” “Christ first, Beatles last,” and, “Teenagers who support the Beatles continue to crucify Christ.” One of the pickets handing out leaflets noted: “We are protesting against the atheistic, anti-Christ Beatles. It’s a sad day for America when we fall for this. It’s straight out of the pits of Hell.”

Ticket for the Beatles Thursday, August 25th, 1966 concert at the Seattle City Center Coliseum, 3 pm.
Ticket for the Beatles Thursday, August 25th, 1966 concert at the Seattle City Center Coliseum, 3 pm.
In addition, as the Beatles’ evening show ran, the Reverend Thomas Miller, Pastor of the Calvary Bible Presbyterian Church, arranged for a concert of sacred music in the Rainier Room at the Coliseum, at which some 250 attended. Yet earlier that day, each of the Beatles had been presented with official certificates designating them honorary citizens of the state of Washington.

For the Beatles’ first Seattle show at 3 pm, about half of the Coliseum was filled – roughly, 8,200 seats in a 15,000-seat arena. The evening show, however, was a sell-out with the gross gate for both shows reported at $118,071 (nearly $900,000 in today’s money) – then “the biggest single day’s gross ever in (Seattle’s) entertainment history,” according to Zollie M. Volchok, for the sponsoring agent. Of that amount, the Beatles received some $73,717.81 for the two shows (about $560,000 in today’s money). Following the evening show that night, the Beatles and their supporting acts flew back to Los Angeles.

 
August 24th-28th

Los Angeles

August 24th, 1966: Beatles at the Capitol Records Tower Building in Los Angeles, for press conference and to receive Gold Record award.
August 24th, 1966: Beatles at the Capitol Records Tower Building in Los Angeles, for press conference and to receive Gold Record award.
In Los Angeles, the Beatles stay had two parts. On the 24th of August, 1966, ahead of their Seattle show date, the Beatles had some time to themselves, but also held a press conference that day at the Capitol Records Tower building in Los Angeles. During the press conference, they were asked again about Lennon’s “more-popular-than-Jesus” remarks, which Lennon, now tired of explaining himself, begged off once more, saying he’d tried clarifying it “about 800 times, you know.” They were also asked if the controversy had hurt of helped their careers, to which Paul replied: “It hasn’t helped or hindered it, I don’t think. I think most sensible people took it for what it was… and it was only the bigots that took it up,” thinking it was something they might “get the Beatles” on, trying to cast John as arrogant in the process. And that once people read it, “they saw that there was nothing wrong with it really.” Meanwhile, at the Capitol Records building following the press conference, the Beatles were also awarded Gold records by Capitol and RIAA for their latest album, Revolver.

August 28th, 1966: The venue at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, where the Beatles and their opening acts appeared on a temporary stage constructed just behind second base on the edge of center field, then typical of early stadium set ups, which many performers felt as remote from their audience.
August 28th, 1966: The venue at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, where the Beatles and their opening acts appeared on a temporary stage constructed just behind second base on the edge of center field, then typical of early stadium set ups, which many performers felt as remote from their audience.

On the second part of their L.A. stay, after their Seattle show, the Beatles had some time off prior to their August 28th show at Dodger Stadium. They used the time to relax at their rented home with swimming pool in the Hollywood Hills, and also to visit with other musicians who lived and worked in the L.A. area. Among those that one or more of the Beatles met with informally at various homes and other locations during this time (along with Barry Tashian of the Remains on some visits), were: Brian and Carl Wilson of the Beach Boys; David Crosby, then with the Byrds; Cass Elliott, Michelle Phillips, and Denny Doherty of The Mamas & The Papas; photographer Barry Feinstein and his wife, Mary Travers, of Peter, Paul & Mary; Jim McGuinn (known as Roger McGuinn, then with Byrds); Peter Tork of The Monkees, and others. A number of these artists that year, had or would have, top charting hits of their own, including, for example: “Eight Miles High by the Bryds”(No. 14, April-May); “Monday, Monday” by The Mammas & The Papas (No. 1, May-June); “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” by the Beach Boys (No. 8, Aug-Sept ); and, “Last Train to Clarksville,” by The Monkees (No.1, Oct ).

August 28th, 1966: The Beatles performing at Dodger Stadium, from left: Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and John Lennon. Not shown, drummer Ringo Starr, set up behind the three frontmen, outside of the photo's right frame.
August 28th, 1966: The Beatles performing at Dodger Stadium, from left: Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and John Lennon. Not shown, drummer Ringo Starr, set up behind the three frontmen, outside of the photo's right frame.

On Sunday evening, August 28th, the Beatles performed before an audience of 45,000 in Los Angeles at Dodger Stadium, with their stage set up behind second base on the edge of center field, the typical set up for stadium venues on the tour. After their performance, however, the Beatles had some difficulty escaping enthusiastic fans, as their ground transportation was waylaid by hundreds of fans who blocked their exit in a first vehicle. Flattened tires on a second armored vehicle brought further delay and a retreat back into some inner stadium rooms before they again departed. They were even pursued into the Hollywood Hills by some fans before making it back their rented home safely with the help of police. Bob Eubanks, the promoter of the L.A. show and well known TV game host, would later recall the Beatles as being far more jaded in 1966 than they were in 1964 and 1965 when they played the Hollywood Bowl. “It was much different because the band was different,” Eubanks told a Los Angeles Times reporter. “I believe they were tired of it all. They were different people in ’66.”

 
August 29th

San Francisco

San Francisco was the last stop for the Beatles’ 1966 American tour – and as it turned out, it would also be the last time they would ever appear publicly in a live concert format. Few of their adoring fans knew that at the time, but the Beatles certainly did, and they were happy to be at the end of their 1966 tour. Back stage, before the show began, there were some visits from American musicians – Joan Baez, her sister, and a teen neighbor visited with George and Ringo briefly.

August 29th, 1966: Pickets from Sunnyvale, CA outside Candlestick Park protest John Lennon's "more-popular-than-Jesus" remark. These demonstrators were seen by some concert goers, but missed by the Beatles, who used a different entrance. AP photo.
August 29th, 1966: Pickets from Sunnyvale, CA outside Candlestick Park protest John Lennon's "more-popular-than-Jesus" remark. These demonstrators were seen by some concert goers, but missed by the Beatles, who used a different entrance. AP photo.

Yet, in San Francisco, as at other tour locations, there were also pickets protesting the much-publicized Lennon statements about Jesus and Christianity. However, inside the venue, one fan offered a cheeky home-made sign hung over the stadium railing that read, “Lennon Saves.”

In San Francisco, the Beatles and their opening acts were again playing in a baseball stadium set up, this time Candlestick Park, home of baseball’s San Francisco Giants, a stadium known for its sometimes finicky and chilly winds. The stage, once again, as in the other stadiums, would be set up behind second base, well away from fans, and surrounded by fencing.

Some Beatles fans inside Candlestick Park offered home-made signs of cheeky support for John Lennon, like this one.
Some Beatles fans inside Candlestick Park offered home-made signs of cheeky support for John Lennon, like this one.
Barry Tashian, with The Remains, one of the opening acts on the tour, would recall later: “…on stage, a wild sea wind was blowing in every direction. There was a double fence around the stage. The only entrance was behind the drums. The audience was about 200 feet away–much farther than usual. It made us feel extremely isolated… But it was the last show, and we were determined to have a good time. All the acts did a great job to wind up the tour on a high note…”

At Candlestick, the Beatles played their 30-minute set of tunes – “Rock and Roll Music,” “She’s A Woman,” “If I Needed Someone,” “Day Tripper,” “Baby’s In Black,” “I Feel Fine,” “Yesterday,” “I Wanna Be Your Man,” “Nowhere Man,” “Paperback Writer,” and “Long Tall Sally.” Their share of the gate that night was about $95,000 (roughly $725,000 today). For the entire tour – 19 shows in 14 cities – they would make something in the vicinity of $4 million ($30 million today). At the end of the San Francisco show that night, the Beatles and their opening acts flew back to Los Angeles, and the following day, August 30th, the Beatles flew home to England. It would prove to be the end of an era for them, and in many ways also, a beginning for more sophisticated rock music and better quality rock concerts.

 
Jesus Controvery

Little Impact

As for the Jesus controversy that had dogged the Beatles from late July 1966 throughout their August tour – with Beatle bonfires, radio station protests, threatening messages, endless questions from the press, some picketing, etc – the uproar did not really have a “material effect” on the Beatles fan base or their business. True, their popularity may have been temporarily dented and their activities more closely examined. And there were a couple dozen or more radio stations that did boycott Beatles music for a time. Yet it appears they were the exception, as most U.S. radio stations ignored the boycott, while those who did boycott, later returned to playing Beatles music. And yes, attendance was down in a few of the concert venues on the 14-city tour that August – but overall, the Beatles still appear to have drawn record numbers at these concerts for the most part. Nor did their record sales appear to be noticeably affected.

“Eleanor Rigby” sheet music cover. Click for separate story on “Eleanor Rigby” song, a Beatles hit in 1966.
“Eleanor Rigby” sheet music cover. Click for separate story on “Eleanor Rigby” song, a Beatles hit in 1966.
In fact, while they were on tour, their single, “Yellow Submarine”/“Eleanor Rigby,” released on August 5th, was being played regularly by many Top 40 American radio stations and became the No. 1 hit in the U.K. within a week. By the end of the month, this single would also hit No. 1 in the Los Angeles market and reach No. 11 nationally, on the Billboard Hot 100. (However, there were also reports that Capitol Records was wary of religious references in “Eleanor Rigby,” given the Jesus controversy, and favored “Yellow Submarine” in some of its marketing and promotion).

The studio album, meanwhile, Revolver – which was released on August 5th in the U. K. and August 8th in the U. S., at the very outset of the Jesus controversy – also managed to scale the pop charts. Revolver sales, in fact, would reach $1 million in the first two weeks, with the album hitting No. 1 on the American charts by September 10th and remaining there for six weeks.

The Jesus controversy, meanwhile, would still sprout up on occasion in subsequent years, and there would also be some enterprising research analysts and graphics artists who set out to investigate whether, in fact, the Beatles really were more popular than Jesus (one suggested they were not, for example, with Bibles sold outdoing Beatles albums sold).

 
Tour Captives

Repressed Musicians

What did happen on the 1966 American tour, however, was that the Beatles came to a consensus among themselves that they were finished with touring – and the “Jesus reaction” that had occurred on that tour was only one factor contributing to that conclusion. Earlier that year, also on tour, they’d had some rough moments in Germany and in the Philippines. They were also fed up with the Beatlemania scene; the screaming fans even prevented them from hearing their own music on stage in order to stay in sync with each another. And the general chaos and mob scenes surrounding their visits and security concerns had made them virtual prisoners on tour. Ringo Starr would later comment that the chaos had gone on “24 hours a day without a break. Press, people fighting to get into your hotel room, climbing 25 stories up drain pipes. If it had carried on, I would have gone insane.”

A photographer's film contact sheet showing a series of headshots of the Beatles as they were performing at Candlestick Park, San Francisco, August 1966 – from left: Ringo Starr, George Harrison, John Lennon, and Paul McCartney.
A photographer's film contact sheet showing a series of headshots of the Beatles as they were performing at Candlestick Park, San Francisco, August 1966 – from left: Ringo Starr, George Harrison, John Lennon, and Paul McCartney.

But the central problem for the Beatles on tour was what the craziness was doing to their advancement as musicians. They had been trapped by Beatlemania; for three years playing essentially the same music. And on tour, especially in stadiums, the sound quality of what they did play — when any sound could be heard — wasn’t very good. They weren’t happy with that, of course. Having worked in the studio, discovering news ways to produce more sophisticated music – like that on Revolver – they wanted more of that and more advancement for themselves as musicians. In fact, the Beatles had actually begun a new phase of their careers in late 1965 – before they began the 1966 tour – with their Rubber Soul studio album (released December 1965). But as they were breaking new ground in the recording studio, on the road they were playing the same old hits at teenage rock shows, and that was holding them back. So for them, touring was over and done with. They would now turn their energy and talents toward the recording studio, and along with their producer, George Martin and his engineers, the Beatles would become a powerhouse of studio production and innovation.
 
1967-1970

Studio Tour de Force

From the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s” album, May 1967.
From the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s” album, May 1967.
During the next four years — 1967-1970 — the Beatles would do some of their best work, turning out a stunning array of high quality and musically complex albums that would top the charts and have a significant influence on the composition and quality of popular music for years to come. Among their albums in that period would be: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (May 1967), Magical Mystery Tour (Nov 1967), The White Album (Nov 1968), Yellow Submarine (Jan 1969), Abbey Road (Sept 1969), and Let it Be (May 1970), all of which were No. 1 in the U.S. with the exception of Yellow Submarine (No. 2)

Additional history on the Beatles at this website can be found at the “Beatles History” topics page, which includes more than a dozen story choices on Beatles music, song histories, and Beatles’ biography. See also the “Annals of Music” page for additional stories.

Thanks for visiting — and if you like what you find here, please make a donation to help support the research and writing at this website. Thank you. – Jack Doyle

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Date Posted: 11 October 2017
Last Update: 15 March 2018
Comments to: jdoyle@pophistorydig.com

Article Citation:
Jack Doyle, “Burn The Beatles, 1966: Bigger Than Jesus?,”
PopHistoryDig.com, October 11, 2017.

_______________________________________




Sources, Links & Additional Information

August 1966: Beatles material aflame in a bonfire of protest following John Lennon's "more-popular-than-Jesus" remarks.
August 1966: Beatles material aflame in a bonfire of protest following John Lennon's "more-popular-than-Jesus" remarks.
August 20, 1966: UPI story from Pittsburgh Post Gazette suggesting Beatle critics could have been more Christian.
August 20, 1966: UPI story from Pittsburgh Post Gazette suggesting Beatle critics could have been more Christian.
August 11th, 1966: Beatle George Harrison quizzed by reporter on tarmac at Boston’s Logan Airport as Beatles made connecting flight to Chicago to begin their American concert tour.
August 11th, 1966: Beatle George Harrison quizzed by reporter on tarmac at Boston’s Logan Airport as Beatles made connecting flight to Chicago to begin their American concert tour.
August 12th, 1966 AP story appearing in The Miami News (FL) on John Lennon’s apology at Chicago press conference.
August 12th, 1966 AP story appearing in The Miami News (FL) on John Lennon’s apology at Chicago press conference.
Ticket for Beatles' concert at Washington, D.C., Aug 15th, 1966.
Ticket for Beatles' concert at Washington, D.C., Aug 15th, 1966.
August 21st, 1966. Paul McCartney and John Lennon per-forming at rescheduled Crosley Field concert, Cincinnati.
August 21st, 1966. Paul McCartney and John Lennon per-forming at rescheduled Crosley Field concert, Cincinnati.
Ticket for Beatles' August 1966 concert, Cincinnati, Ohio.
Ticket for Beatles' August 1966 concert, Cincinnati, Ohio.
Portion of the crowd that turned out for the Beatles' August 23rd, 1966 concert at New York's Shea Stadium.
Portion of the crowd that turned out for the Beatles' August 23rd, 1966 concert at New York's Shea Stadium.
Poster image advertising  Beatles’ August 29th, 1966 concert at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park.
Poster image advertising Beatles’ August 29th, 1966 concert at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park.
Aug 29th, 1966: Joan Baez, center, with sister Mimi Farina, backstage at Candlestick Park; George Harrison in foreground. Baez also brought along 10 year-old neighbor, Naomi Marcus, to meet the Beatles.
Aug 29th, 1966: Joan Baez, center, with sister Mimi Farina, backstage at Candlestick Park; George Harrison in foreground. Baez also brought along 10 year-old neighbor, Naomi Marcus, to meet the Beatles.
Ticket for the Beatles' August 29th, 1966 concert in San Francisco at Candlestick Park.
Ticket for the Beatles' August 29th, 1966 concert in San Francisco at Candlestick Park.
August 29th, 1966: Paul McCartney and George Harrison performing at Candlestick Park in what would be the last time the Beatles would perform together in a public concert.
August 29th, 1966: Paul McCartney and George Harrison performing at Candlestick Park in what would be the last time the Beatles would perform together in a public concert.

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“The Beatles Beat a Retreat From Fans in Cleveland,” New York Times, August 16, 1966.

“Guarded Beatles Whisked to Hotel On Arriving Here for Stadium Show,” The Washington Post, August 16, 1966, p, A-1.

AP (Washington, DC), “The Beatles A Smash in D.C., Lennon Grateful to The Vatican,” The Miami News (FL), August 16th, 1966.

UPI, “Beatles Lure Big Crowd,” The Spokane Daily Chronicle (Spokane, WA), August 16th, 1966.

Raymond J. Crowley, AP, “Amid Cheers, The Beatles Steer Clear of Theology Pittfalls,” The Fort Scott Tribune (Kansas), August 16th, 1966.

AP (Washington, DC), “Beatles Carefully Keep Clear of Own Theology In Their American Tour,” The Lawrence Journal World (Lawrence, KS), August 16th, 1966.

Art Buckwald, “Burn, Beatles, Burn, I Cried,” The Miami News (Florida), August 17th 1966.

“Fewer Fans, Fainters — But Beatles Took $96,000,” The Toronto Daily Star (Tornoto, Canada), August 18th, 1966, p. 1.

Associated Press (Toronto), “Beatles Heard on War Views,” The Spokane Daily Chronicle (WA) August 18th, 1966.

Sara Davidson, “25,000 Teens Cheer Beatles at Suffolk,” The Boston Globe, August 19th, 1966, p. 1.

Charles McDowell, Jr., “Kookiness And Beatle Theology,” The Evening Independent (FL), August 20th, 1966.

Times Wire Service, “Memphis De-Emphasizes Beatles,” The St. Petersburg Times (FL), August 20th, 1966.

UPI (Memphis), “Beatles Outdraw Religion,” The Dispatch (North Carolina), August 20th, 1966.

UPI, (Memphis), “Debris Is Hurled at Beatle Concert,” New York Times, August 20th, 1966.

UPI (Memphis), “Beatles Show Outdraws Church Rally,” The Reading Eagle (Reading, PA), August 20th, 1966.

Ren Grevatt, American Viewpoint, “Radio Stations Ignore Ban On Beatle Records,” Melody Maker, August 20th, 1966.

Claude Hall, “Beatles Running Strong — With Powerhouse Stations’ Blessings,” Billboard, August 20th, 1966.

Robert K. Sanford, “The Beatles Sing in the Rain for Wet, Enthusiastic Audience; 23,000 Pay to Hear them – Firs Air Stations Busy,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 22nd, 1966, p. 1.

Associated Press, “John Lennon Says He’s Hated, But Thousands Flock to Beatles’ Concert,” The Lawrence Journal World (Lawrence, Kansas), August 22nd, 1966.

“Flock Circling Warwick A Harbinger of Beatles,” New York Times, August 22nd, 1966.

Paul L. Montgomery, “The Beatles Bring Shea to a Wild Pitch of Hysteria,” New York Times, August 24th, 1966.

Robert E. Dallos, “Beatles Strike Serious Note in Press Talk; Group Opposes the War in Vietnam as Being ‘Wrong’,” New York Times, August 23rd, 1966, p. 30.

AAP-Reuter (Johannesburg, Sourth Africa), “Beatle Music Banned,” The Canberra Times (Australia) August 25th, 1966.

“Beatles Storm Seattle,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, August 26, 1966, p. 1.

“Rumors Fly In With Beatles,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, August 26, 1966, p. 3;

“6 Teenagers Defend Christ, Protest Beatles,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, August 26, 1966, p.3.

“Beatles Engaging; Show, Dull,” The Seattle Times, August 26, 1966, p. 26.

“Beatles Planned No Religious Dispute,” The Seattle Times, August 26, 1959, p. 59.

UPI (Los Angeles), “Screaming Teenagers Storm Beatles Car,” The Desert Sun (CA), August 29th 1966.

AP, “Beatles’ Closing Concert On Coast Attracts 25,000,” New York Times, August 31, 1966.

Leonard Gross (European Editor), “Beatle on His Own,” Look, December 13, 1966.

“More Popular Than Jesus,” Wikipedia.org.

“Beatles in the News,” blogspot.com.

John C. Stoskopf, “The Beatles 1966 International Tour (Part 2 of 2),” Thursday, September 8, 2016.

Barry Tashian, Ticket to Ride: The Extraordinary Diary of The Beatles’ Last Tour, August 1996, Dowling Press, 142pp (Tashain toured with the Beatles as a member of The Remains).

“Friday, March 4, 1966: ‘We’re More Popular Than Jesus Now’,” The60sat50.Blogspot.com.

Robert Fontenot, “…And Now It’s All This: Frequently Asked Questions About the Beatles’ ‘Bigger Than Jesus’ Controversy,” About.com, Updated March 3, 2015.

Robert Fontenot, “The Beatles Backlash: Jesus, War, and Raw Meat: A Timeline of the Beatles in 1966,” About.com.

Vince Kowalick, “25 Years Later: Recalling The Beatles’ Last Stand,” Los Angeles Daily News, September 3, 1991.

Harry Sunrall (San Francisco), “Beatles’ Last Show A Hard Day’s Night,” The Canberra Times (Australia), September 1st, 1991.

David Willey, “Vatican ‘Forgives’ John Lennon,” BBC News (Rome), November 22nd, 2008.

Mark J. Price “Local History: Akron Radio Station’s 1966 Beatles Ban Recalled,” Ohio.com (Akron Beacon Journal), August 1st, 2011.

Chris Erskine, “In 1966, the Beatles Brought a Whole New Ballgame to Dodger Stadium,” Los Angeles Times, August 26th, 2011.

Brian Ward, “The ‘C’ is for Christ: Arthur Unger, Datebook Magazine and the Beatles,” Popular Music and Society, August 1st, 2012, pp. 541-560.

Mark Murrmann, “Burn Your Beatles Records!,” Mother Jones, August 12th, 2014.

Jordan Runtagh, “When John Lennon’s ‘More Popular Than Jesus’ Controversy Turned Ugly; How an Offhand Remark Led to Protests, Death Threats and the End of the Beatles’ Touring Career,” Rolling Stone, July 29, 2016.

“Revolver, Jesus and the Beatles – August of ’66,” 1966myfavoriteyear.blogspot.com, Fri-day, August 5, 2016.

Jeff Suess, “The Beatles, When They Played Crosley Field,” Cincinnati.com, August 19, 2016.

“A Look Back at the Fab Four’s U.S. Tours,” The Orange County Register (California), September 16, 2016.
________________________________________








“Pop Music, 1950s”
Artists, Songs, Bios

Sultry Saxophone

“Harlem Nocturne”

1939-1980s

The Viscounts’ 1959
sax-powered instrumental
gave old tune new life.

No.1 R&B Hit

“Love is Strange”

1956-2007

Mickey & Sylvia’s hit song
has 1987 pop encore
in “Dirty Dancing” film.

1950s R&B Rocker

“Fats Domino”

1950s-2000s

“Boogie-woogie” pianist
helps invent rock `n roll;
becomes nat’l sensation.

Rock `n Roll Rising

“Rock Around The Clock”

Bill Haley: 1951-1981

Bill Haley & Comets
become major force in
1950s rock `n roll.

Late ’50s Beginnings

“1960s Girl Groups”

1958-1966

The innocent & upbeat
“girl group” sound began
in the late `50s.

1950s Doo-Wop

“Dion DiMucci”

1950s-2012

Dion & Belmonts score
hits w/ “Wonder Why” and
“Teenager in Love.”

1950s TV Dance Show

“American Bandstand”

1956-2007

Dick Clark’s “American
Bandstand” brought 1950’s
music to millions via TV.

Danny & The Juniors

“At The Hop”

1957-1958

“At The Hop” got a
boost from Bandstand;
hit No.1, sold 2 million.

1950s Radio DJ

“Moondog Alan Freed”

1951-1956

He coined the term
“Rock ‘n Roll” & gave
exposure to R&B artists.

Finding His Audience

“Elvis on the Road”

1955-1956

Elvis Presley’s concert
tour, w/town-by-town
itinerary, southeast U.S.

Versatile Entertainer

“Dream Lover”

1962 & 1988

Bio of Bobby Darin,
who had six Top 40
pop hits in 1958-59.

Coal Mining Song

“Sixteen Tons”

1955-1956

Tennessee Ernie Ford’s
“sold-my-soul” song
tops the charts.

1958 Hit Song

“To Know, Know Him”

1958-2010

Phil Spector, before
the Wall of Sound,
as Teddy Bears singer.

Seattle Soft Rock

“Come Softly To Me”

1959-1963

In 1959, The Fleetwoods
scored big with two
No. 1 “soft pop” hits.

Newsreel/Commentary

“Drew Pearson on Elvis”

1956: Video

National newsman
reviews the rise of
Elvis Presley.

Music Controversy

“Elvis Riles Florida”

1955-1956

Elvis Presley’s music
& dancing on stage
brings judicial threat.

1950s Love Song

“Sea of Love”

1959

Phil Phillips wrote
this No.1 R&B hit
to woe his girlfriend.

1957’s Top Songs

“Bandstand Performers”

1957

American Bandstand
brought dozens of top
acts to national TV.

1950s Power Guitar

“Rumble Riles Censors”

1958-1959

Link Wray’s guitar song
prompts some radio
managers to ban its airing.

Enchanting Sound

“I Only Have Eyes
For You”

A 1959 remake of
an old standard has
resonance for the ages.

“See The U.S.A.”

“Dinah’s Chevy Tune”

1951-1963

Her 1950s PR anthem
for General Motors was
like a pop hit.

Popular Musicals

“The Sound of Money”

2009

Story covers music of
Rodgers & Hammerstein which
permeated 1950s & beyond.

 

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this Website

Donate Now

Thank You

Date Posted: 11 October 2017
Last Update: 17 October 2017
Comments to: jdoyle@pophistorydig.com

Article Citation:
Jack Doyle, “Pop Music, 1950s: Artists, Songs, Bios”
(Topics Page),PopHistoryDig.com, October 11, 2017.

_______________________________________________


 






“Plastic Infernos”
A Short History

Among the “wonder products” generated by the synthetic chemical revolution of the mid-20th century are an array of plastics that today permeate all manner of products and structures throughout the world. And tragically, as learned recently in the June 14th, 2017 London Grenfell high-rise fire that has claimed at least 80 lives, the building’s exterior skin – consisting of aluminum composite panels with a polyethylene core (and possibly, polyisocyanurate insulation behind the panels) – is believed to have played a role in aiding the fire’s spread and severity. A formal investigation is still underway.

June 2017.  Photo of the Grenfell Tower high-rise fire in progress in London, believed to have been aided in its rapid spread by the building’s exterior cladding; panels which incorporated a polyethylene-filled core, and also, possibly, plastic insulation.
June 2017. Photo of the Grenfell Tower high-rise fire in progress in London, believed to have been aided in its rapid spread by the building’s exterior cladding; panels which incorporated a polyethylene-filled core, and also, possibly, plastic insulation.

But beyond the role the plastic-filled exterior building panels and/or insulation may have played in the Grenfell Tower blaze, another issue raised in fires of this kind is the toxic gases given off by multiple burning plastic substances – from furniture and carpeting to wall coverings and plastic piping. In fact, “toxic fires” fueled by an array of plastic products remain a serious problem worldwide, and one that was not foreseen at the invention stage of the “miracle plastics.”

1927 headlines for Cleveland Clinic fire; other headlines note “poisonous fumes from burning x-ray films continue to claim victims” – one of the early plastic-fueled fires.
1927 headlines for Cleveland Clinic fire; other headlines note “poisonous fumes from burning x-ray films continue to claim victims” – one of the early plastic-fueled fires.
Headlines for 1942 Cocoanut Grove fire in Boston, where nitrocellulose decor was a later-implicated fuel.
Headlines for 1942 Cocoanut Grove fire in Boston, where nitrocellulose decor was a later-implicated fuel.
1972 White House report, “America Burning,” was the first such report to signal the special dangers of plastics in fires.
1972 White House report, “America Burning,” was the first such report to signal the special dangers of plastics in fires.

For decades, little was known about the special toxicity that came with plastics that burn in accidental fires in homes, office buildings, cars and trucks. But over the years, as major fires have occurred in which plastics have been implicated, more has been learned about their toxicity.

Most plastics are carbon-based materials and will burn and give off gases and smoke when subjected to a flame.

Burning polyurethane foam, for example, instantly develops dark smoke along with deadly carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide gas. Inhaling this smoke only 2 or 3 times would cause rapid loss of consciousness and eventually, death by internal suffocation.

Yet, sadly, protective regulations, safety standards and building codes to deal with these and other dangers have lagged behind the learning.

The trail of tragedies dates to the earliest uses of plastics, some implicating substances such as nitrocellulose used in celluloid. A 1927 fire at the Cleveland Clinic killed 135 people as an acrid brown-black smoke was generated from the nitrocellulose x-ray film used at the clinic. That fire was among the first to be fueled by synthetics. But it wasn’t the last.

The famous catastrophic 1942 Cocoanut Grove nightclub fire killed more than 400 people. An investigation highlighted some obvious issues in that fire. But only a handful of scientists and investigators knew that the nightclub’s copious decor of nitrocellulose cocoanut fibers was a contributing cause of the resulting death and injury.

By the 1950s and 1960s, a wide array of synthetics began filling up homes and office buildings, such as nylon carpeting, urethane foam mattresses, plastic filled soft furniture. and PVC wire insulation. Automobiles, trucks and planes added synthetics material to their construction and interiors as well.

During the 1960s and 1970s, airplane crashes in which victims survived the crash but died in a toxic fire began to raise questions about the plastic material inside planes. And the 1969 New York Harbor fire aboard the USS Enterprise killed many sailors after plastic-coated electric cables burned.

Following these incidents, a White House report on fire in 1972 — America Burning — noted that plastics were being sold and used without adequate attention to the special fire hazard they presented. But when the National Fire Protection Association tried in 1975 to require by code that material used in construction be no more toxic than wood, the Society of the Plastics Industry blocked the move.

In 1974–75, some plastics manufacturers advertised that urethane foam was fireproof and self extinguishing, a claim the Federal Trade Commission challenged, but only resulted in industry’s “rehabilitating the product” to improve its public image.


‘Dragon Fires’

Deborah Wallace’s 1990 book, “In the Mouth of the Dragon,” details the dangers of plastic-fueled toxic fires.
Deborah Wallace’s 1990 book, “In the Mouth of the Dragon,” details the dangers of plastic-fueled toxic fires.
In her eye-opening 1990 book, In The Mouth of the Dragon: Toxic Fires in The Age of Plastics, Deborah Wallace notes:

“No one thought to test [the] early synthetic polymers for their combustion toxicity. These products were virtually untested when they were put on the market. Instead, the public became the test animals.”

Wallace describes in detail the “plastics effect” in a number of toxic fires occurring in recent history, among them:

> the 1975 New York Telephone Exchange fire that injured 239 out of 700 firefighters who battled a blaze fueled by polyvinyl chloride (PVC);

[ One later description of that fire from The New York Daily News noted: “…A 16-hour blaze followed in which more than 100 tons of PVC sheathing in a rat’s nest of wires went up in smoke at a phone switching high-rise south of 14th St. on Second Ave. Clouds of hydrochloric acid and fumes of cancer-causing benzene and vinyl chloride filled the air as the conflagration boiled within a sealed vault three stories below ground. At one point, an explosion of accumulated hydrocarbon gas knocked firefighters outside to the pavement. Men inside used up their air cylinders, unable to escape in dense, black smoke without gulping the toxic air….” The Daily News also noted later-reported, PVC-related cancer deaths among Telephone Exchange firefighters.]

> the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire of 1977, in which 165 people were killed in an electrical and PVC-fueled blaze;

> the 1978 Cambridge, Ohio Holiday Inn fire in which 10 died from smoke from burning PVC and nylon;

> the 1978 Younkers Brothers Department Store fire in which 10 people died in another PVC-electrical fire;

> the 1980 MGM Grand Hotel fire in which 85 died and 600 were injured in a fire largely fueled by plastics;

> the 1980 Stouffer’s Inn fire in which 26 people died in a blaze fueled by PVC and nylon/wool;

> the 1983 Westgate Hilton fire in which 12 died from smoke that came mainly from PVC and urethane foam; and,

> the 1983 Fort Worth Ramada Inn fire in which five died from PVC and nylon fumes.

Early L. A. Times headlines on the November 1980 MGM Hotel fire that would finally take 85 lives, with plastics heavily implicated.
Early L. A. Times headlines on the November 1980 MGM Hotel fire that would finally take 85 lives, with plastics heavily implicated.
Added to these are the toxic fires that came during and after the September 2001 terrorist attack on the Twin Towers at the World Trade Center, and the February 2003 fire at The Station nightclub in West Warwick, Rhode Island that killed 100 and injured 230. Burning plastic material played a role in the death, injury and/or debilitation of victims and workers in both of these catastrophes.

Although The Station nightclub fire was caused by pyrotechnics set off as part of the Great White rock band’s act that night, the fire’s spread and intensity were aided by ignited plastic foam used as sound insulation in the walls and ceilings surrounding the stage, materials that generated considerable carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide within a few minutes.

Plastic material was implicated in the September 23, 2007 fire at the Water Club Tower at the Borgata Casino Hotel in Atlantic City, New Jersey where fire raced up 38 stories on the face of the building. And since 2012, fires fueled by metal composite cladding with plastic cores have occurred in high-rise buildings in France, Dubai, and South Korea. Thousands of structures worldwide may be similarly vulnerable.

Fires at plastic manufacturing facilities and in storage areas can also yield catastrophic results. In March 2017, spools of high density polyethylene (HDPE) conduit stored below a freeway in Atlanta, Georgia fueled an intense fire there that caused an elevated portion of I-85 to collapse on March 30th. In the spectacular blaze, flames shot 40 feet into the air, and the heat was so intense that it melted supporting metal structures. Both directions of I-85 were closed in a key area of Atlanta near its busy downtown hub.

Meanwhile, individual homes continue to be vulnerable to the toxic effects of plastic-fueled fires, as everything from urethane-filled sofas and mattresses to PVC siding, wall coverings, plumbing lines, and molded furniture can provide toxic fuel.


“Burning Plastic”
by Stephen Fenichell*


Stephen Fenichell's 1996 book, "Plastic: The Making of A Synthetic Century" (Harper-Collins).
Stephen Fenichell's 1996 book, "Plastic: The Making of A Synthetic Century" (Harper-Collins).
. . . That burning plastic could release noxious gases equal to any biochemical weapon . . . was dismally proven in January 1970 when an elderly resident of the Harmar House nursing home in Marietta, Ohio carelessly tossed a lighted cigarette into a polypropylene wastebasket filled with waste paper. The burning paper caused her plastic basket to flare up, throwing out flames that rapidly consumed her polyurethane foam mattress, touched off her nylon wall-to-wall carpet, and instantly ignited the carpet’s styrene-butadiene foam underlayer. By the time rescue workers arrived on the scene to evacuate the ward, they were met by a dense, black wall of smoke that obscured their view of survivors still trapped inside. The billowing smoke not only blinded the firemen but was so viciously toxic that it overcame scores of enfeebled patients who might otherwise have been able to escape on their own. By the time the fire was brought under control five hours later, twenty-two elderly people had died. The vast majority, coroners concluded, had been felled by the toxic fumes, not the flames.

Eight months later, on a steamy day in August 1970, a twelve-alarm fire broke out on the thirty-third floor of One New York Plaza, a modern high-rise office building in Manhattan’s financial district. A stray electrical spark ignited a welter of computer cables concealed within a dropped ceiling in a telephone equipment room, which was itself filled floor to ceiling with mile after mile of exposed polyethylene- insulated cable. As the heat intensified, flammable and toxic gases were distilled from the polyurethane foam padding cushioning office furniture in the suites below. As the toxic gases burned, the blaze exploded, as if shot from an aerosol can. Fed on this rich diet of toxic, flammable gas, the fire consumed two entire floors covering over forty thousand square feet of office space in under twenty minutes. During the six hours it took to extinguish the flames, two firemen died of smoke inhalation.“Plastics ignite like excel-sior, contribute heat like kerosene, and produce four to thirty times the amount of smoke as non-synthetic materials.” Thirty more were hospitalized with potentially life threatening lung injuries—as the result of inhaling burning, noxious plastic fumes.

Only three weeks later, at 8:30 on the morning of August 26, a third blaze broke out in the recently completed British Overseas Airways terminal at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport. As flames licked across six hundred polyurethane foam-padded benches clustered by the gate entrances, clouds of toxic gas distilled from the benches’ foam padding caused the fire to gallop off down the 35-foot- wide, 330-foot-long corridor at lightning speed . . . As the roaring fire leapt wildly from seat to seat, blowing out dozens of large plate-glass windows in its wake, it took a mere fifteen minutes to consume the entire west gallery of the newly completed airline terminal, at an estimated cost of $2.5 million in damages.

Awestruck insurers would later term it “the shortest large-loss fire in the history of mankind.” [A] flammability expert retained by BOAC’s insurance company to investigate the blaze, delivered the bad news to plastic manufacturers on . . . the issue of plastic fire safety: “Plastics ignite like excelsior, contribute heat like kerosene, and produce four to thirty times the amount of smoke as nonsynthetic materials.”
___________________

*Excerpted from Stephen Fenichell, Plastic: The Making of A Synthetic Century, Harper- Collins: New York, 1996, pp. 308–11.


Grenfell Update: In addition to the suspected role that the polyethylene-filled exterior cladding panels may have played in the June 2017 Grenfell Tower fire, an insulation foam product named Celotex RS5000, a polyisocyanurate product, was also used in that building, installed behind the cladding. Some have stated that this insulation was more flammable than the cladding.

Grenfell Tower fire near its end, with bits and fragments of exterior cladding and insulation  seen in the charred remains.
Grenfell Tower fire near its end, with bits and fragments of exterior cladding and insulation seen in the charred remains.
Wikipedia’s entry on the Grenfell Tower fire, with citations, notes that the polyisocyanurate product “will burn if exposed to a fire of sufficient heat and intensity” and that such insulation foams, when ignited, “burn rapidly and produce intense heat, dense smoke and gases which are irritating, flammable and/or toxic,” among them carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide.

Building and fire codes in recent years have no doubt been updated in many jurisdictions to take account of the toxic effects of plastic materials, leading to safer installations and products. But certainly not everywhere, as the Grenfell tragedy attests. Given the ubiquity of plastics in modern use, plastic-fueled infernos are likely to remain a danger throughout the world.

And beyond the fire dangers of modern plastics, there are a whole host of other problems associated with this miracle of inventive science – not least those being, for example: plastics in municipal waste incineration, in landfills, worker exposures in “upstream” chemical manufacturing, plastic chemicals leaching from food packaging and containers, the tons of plastics floating in the world’s oceans, and plastic chemicals and their breakdown products found in human blood and body tissue.

See also at this website, the “Environmental History” topics page which offers additional stories on spills, fires, and explosions in the oil industry; agricultural pesticide history; and surface coal mining in Kentucky. Thanks for visiting – and if you find the reporting and story development at this website useful and informative, please make a donation to help support its continued publication. Thank you. – Jack Doyle

Please Support
this Website

Donate Now

Thank You

____________________________________

Date Posted: 5 July 2017
Last Update: 5 July 2017
Comments to: jdoyle@pophistorydig.com

Article Citation:
Jack Doyle, “Plastic Infernos: A Short History,”
PopHistoryDig.com, July 5, 2017.

____________________________________




Sources, Links & Additional Information

“London Fire: What We Know So Far About Grenfell Tower” and, “London Fire: Six Questions for the Investigation,” BBC News, June 23, 2017.

“Grenfell Tower Fire,” Wikipedia.org.

Robert Moulton, “The Cocoanut Grove Night Club Fire, Boston, November 28, 1942,” National Fire Protection Association, 1943.

D.L. Breting, Underwriters Laboratories, “Pretty Plastics–Ugly Fires,” 1954.

J. Harry DuBois, Plastics History U.S.A, 1972.

Ronald K Jurgen (Editor), “The Great New York Telephone Fire,” IEEE Spectrum Magazine, Vol. 12, No. 6, June, 1975.

Richard Best, Investigation Report on The MGM Grand Hotel Fire, Las Vegas, Nevada, November 21, 1980, National Fire Protection Association, Report revised January 15, 1982.

Deborah Wallace, In the Mouth of the Dragon: Toxic Fires in the Age of Plastics, Avery Publishing Group, Garden City Park, New York, 1990.

Stephen Fenichell, Plastic: The Making of A Synthetic Century, Harper- Collins: New York, 1996.

Robert Burke, “Plastics & Polymerization: What Firefighters Need To Know,” Firehouse, February 28, 1999.

Bob Port, “Three Decades After an Infamous New York Telephone Co. Blaze, Cancer Ravages Heroes,” New York Daily News, Sunday, March 14, 2004.

James M. Foley, “Modern Building Materials Are Factors in Atlantic City Fires,” Fire Engineering, May 1, 2010.

Susan Freinkel, Plastic: A Toxic Love Story, April 2011.

Thunderthief, “PSA–Burning Plastic Can Kill You,” DailyKos.com, June 2, 2012.

Associated Press, “Fire That Killed Newark Family Fueled by Plastic Flowers,” New York Post, June 17, 2014.

Carla Williams, “Smoked Out: Are Firefighters in More Danger than Ever Before? New Construction Materials Are Making Firefighting More Hazardous to the Health and Well Being of First Responders, As Well as Building Tenants and Homeowners,” EHSToday.com, September 7, 2016.

Catherine Kavanaugh, “Plastic Conduit Fuels Fire That Brings Down I-85 Overpass,” PlasticsNews.com, March 31, 2017.

Justin Pritchard, Associated Press, “Insulating Skin on High-Rises Has Fueled Fires Before London,” ABC News.com, June 18, 2017.

“Grenfell Tower Fire” (Polyisocyanurate insulation), Wikipedia.org.

_________________________







“Shields, Brooks, Trump”
PBS: 30 June 2017

Mark Shields, analyst, The PBS NewsHour.
Mark Shields, analyst, The PBS NewsHour.
David Brooks, analyst, The PBS NewsHour.
David Brooks, analyst, The PBS NewsHour.
Donald J. Trump, President of the United States.
Donald J. Trump, President of the United States.

If you’re not a regular watcher of The PBS News-Hour, one reason to check in more often is the commentary and political analysis of New York Times columnist, David Brooks, and syndicated columnist, Mark Shields. They have been regulars on the show, along with moderator Judy Woodruff, since 2004.

Every Friday, this threesome tries to make sense of the political insanity that has transpired in the previous week. Their analysis is usually fair, insightful, and done in respectful form with good humor. There is also a personal decorum in the exchanges among these three that is often lacking in many other such forums.

As one example, take their analysis on the PBS NewsHour of June 30, 2017, focusing on Donald Trump’s latest “tweetstorm” regarding cable TV commentators Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough.

If you’ve not heard about this, here’s the gist of it: President Trump, reacting to criticism of him made by Brzezinski and Scarborough on the CNBC politics show, Morning Joe, launched one of his Twitter commentaries (short internet messages known as “tweets”) on Thursday June 29th (8:52-8:58 a.m.) aimed at the pair as follows:

I heard poorly rated @Morning_Joe speaks badly of me (don’t watch anymore). Then how come low I.Q. Crazy Mika, along with Psycho Joe, came…..to Mar-a-Lago 3 nights in a row around New Year’s Eve, and insisted on joining me. She was bleeding badly from a face-lift. I said no!

President Trump’s tweet — with its personally-laden insults, and street-style language — elicited a furor of criticism just prior to the 4th of July weekend, many condemning the president for his remarks.

On that same morning, for example, three U.S. Senators responded to the President’s tweet — Sen. Lindsey Graham (“your tweet was beneath the office”); Sen. Ben Sasse (“this isn’t normal and it’s beneath the dignity of your office”); and Sen. Susan Collins (“this has to stop…we must show respect and civility”). It also brought back into the arena a review of similar coarse comments and/or tweets made earlier by either candidate or President Trump.

But on the PBS NewsHour that Friday evening, Shields and Brooks, responding to Judy Woodruff’s questions about the incident, offered some cogent and compelling perspectives on the incident — as well as the continuing problem of our nation’s declining discourse. Here’s a video excerpt of their comments during that segment of the PBS NewsHour, followed by the transcript.



Transcript

JUDY WOODRUFF: ….Well, speaking of the tweets, David, we have seen some eyebrow-raisers. We have heard some gasps. But I guess the president’s tweet yesterday morning about the “Morning Joe” MSNBC cable hosts, Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, where the president tweeted very personal insults, low I.Q., face-lift, and so forth, it seemed to reach a new low.

Do we learn anything new about this president at this point?“…It’s morally objection-able. And I do wish more senators would say that…”

“…[T]he issue here is the corruption of our public sphere. And that’s what Donald Trump does with these things. And it makes it harder for us, our country, to ever get back to normal, when these things are corrosive to just the way people talk to each other.”

DAVID BROOKS: Well, one of the nice things, if we can find a silver lining here, is, it’s possible for everybody to be freshly appalled, that we are not inured to savage, misogynistic behavior of this sort.

And I saw a lot of people around. And I certainly felt in myself a freshness, a freshness of outrage.

And I must say, when I hear Roy Blunt say it’s unhelpful to himself, well, that’s true, but it’s more than unhelpful to Donald Trump to tweet in this way. It’s morally objectionable. And I do wish more senators would say that. Lindsey Graham and Ben Sasse have said it, but a lot of others, oh, it’s just not helpful.

It’s more than that. And the issue here is the corruption of our public sphere. And that’s what Donald Trump does with these things. And it makes it harder for us, our country, to ever get back to normal, when these things are corrosive to just the way people talk to each other.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Corruption of the public sphere, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: I think David is guilty of understatement.

No, I think he put it very well. This is hateful and it’s hurtful. Judy, I don’t know what a parent or a grandparent is supposed to say to a 10-year-old or a 12-year-old who said anything comparable to this and was sent — banished to their room or whatever else for it, I mean, that the president of the United States can talk this way, and there are no consequences.

The irony is that he’s more engaged on the back-and-forth with Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski on this than he has been on health care or any other issue. He obviously — this is what matters to him. And it’s just that classic — not to be sectionally biased, but it’s sort of a New York bully approach to life, I mean, that you say anything, you do anything, because the important thing is winning.“…This is hateful and it’s hurtful…I don’t know what a parent or a grandparent is supposed to say to a 10-year-old or a 12-year-old… I mean, that the president of the United States can talk this way, and there are no consequences…”

“…[I]t’s sort of a New York bully approach to life, I mean, that you say any-thing, you do anything, because the important thing is winning.

And I just — you know, I don’t know what else there is to say, other than you want to put yourself through a car wash after you listen to the president talk this way.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Are there consequences, David? I mean, I heard what you said about some senators are just saying, well, it’s not helpful, but other senators are going further and saying, this is really wrong.

But are there ever consequences? Do we just go on like this?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. Well, we will see if people eventually get disappointed and get tired.

I do think if it — one of the things that may begin to offend people is potential mafioso behavior. One of the things we heard this morning in the op-ed piece in The Washington Post by the two hosts was that the White House sort of threatened sort of extortion, that, if the show becomes more Trump-friendly, then a National Enquirer investigation into their relationship will be spiked.

And that’s sort of mafioso, extortion behavior. That’s beyond normal White House behavior. It’s beyond political hardball. It’s sort of using your media allies, The National Enquirer and the Trump administration, to take down enemies. And that’s not something we have seen in America since maybe Nixon, or maybe never.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It’s true, Mark, we haven’t seen anything like this in a while.

MARK SHIELDS: We haven’t.

But I think David’s point about extortion certainly strengthens the position of James Comey, that threats and extortion or a hint of extortion is part of the modus operandi. To Republicans …

JUDY WOODRUFF: I mean, we should say the White House is denying it.“…[D]o we snapback? Do the norms that used to govern politics reestablish themselves after the Trump administration, or are we here forever?

“…[T]he politics is broken up and down. And Trump may emerge from a reality TV world that is much more powerful than we think. And there is the prospect that this is where we are, which is an horrific thought.”

MARK SHIELDS: The White House is denying it. Jared Kushner, I guess, is denying it, or perhaps somebody else through him is denying it.

But the fact that there’s negotiations going back and forth or communications on this subject, you do this and we won’t print an injurious and harmful article in The National Enquirer, one of the great publications of our time.[said facetiously].

But, Judy, I remember when Republicans used to get upset and angry at Bill Clinton because he didn’t wear a suit and tie in the Oval Office. And Donald Trump, who is supposed to be this great deal-maker, I mean, Joe and Mika Brzezinski have Morning Joe, which is a show that’s watched very much in this area, but it doesn’t have a great national audience, and probably 1 percent of the people.

And he just made them a national — everybody now knows about this show. It’s probably increased their ratings, juiced them up. So I don’t understand where — if anything, it’s but counterproductive in every sense.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, it is true, David, that this is — it’s hard to find; you said there may be a silver lining in fresh outrage, but beyond that, I’m not sure where it is.

DAVID BROOKS: No.

And, you know, the big question for me is, do we snapback? Do the norms that used to govern politics reestablish themselves after the Trump administration, or are we here forever?

And I hope, from the level of outrage, that we have a snap back. But the politics is broken up and down. And Trump may emerge from a reality TV world that is much more powerful than we think. And there is the prospect that this is where we are, which is an horrific thought.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Horrific thought.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, it is that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mark Shields, David Brooks, we thank you both.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you, Judy.
_________________________________________


Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough on their show, June 2017.
Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough on their show, June 2017.
The Shields-Brooks commentary, and the PBS NewsHour generally, offer some of the more intelligent oases in TV news analysis these days, especially important in these current times, and one more reason to be thankful that there is public broadcasting.

Readers of this story may also find “Brian’s Song: C-SPAN, 1977-2012” of interest. See also at this website, the “Politics & Society” page for additional stories on politics, or the “TV & Culture” page for stories in that category. Thanks for visiting, and if you like what you find here, please make a donation to help support the research and writing at this website. Thank you. – Jack Doyle

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Date Posted: 3 July 2017
Last Update: 3 July 2017
Comments to: jdoyle@pophistorydig.com

Article Citation:
Jack Doyle, “Shields, Brooks, Trump: PBS – 30 June 2017,”
PopHistoryDig.com, July 3, 2017.

____________________________________




Sources, Links & Additional Information

The PBS NewHour Website.

Jenna Johnson, “President Trump Angrily Lashes Out At ‘Morning Joe’ Hosts on Twitter,”
Washington Post, June 29, 2017.

Glenn Thrush and Maggie Haberman, “Trump Mocks Mika Brzezinski; Says She Was ‘Bleeding Badly From a Face-Lift’,” New York Times, June 29, 2017.

“Shields and Brooks on GOP’s Health Care Bill Gridlock, Trump Tweet Backlash,” YouTube.com, posted by, The PBS NewsHour, June 30, 2017.

“PBS NewsHour,” Wikipedia.org.

Daniella Diaz, “GOP Lawmakers Blast Trump’s ‘Morning Joe’ Tweets,” CNN.com, June 29, 2017.

Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough, Op-Ed, “Donald Trump is Not Well,” Washington Post, June 30, 2017.

J. Freedom du Lac and Jenna Johnson, “Mika Brzezinski Explains What President Trump’s Tweets Reveal About him,” Washington Post, June 30, 2017.

Callum Borchers, “The Strange Saga of Trump and ‘Morning Joe’ Now Involves The National Enquirer,” Washington Post, June 30, 2017.

Emily Jane Fox, “Joe and Mika Defend Themselves Against the Haters; The Morning Joe Hosts Talk Access to Donald Trump, Ratings, and Their Critics,” Vanity Fair, December 15, 2016.
______________________________







“Reggae Breaks Out”
Jimmy Cliff: 1972-74

Original album cover for Jimmy Cliff’s “The Harder They Come” soundtrack, July 1972, Island Records.
Original album cover for Jimmy Cliff’s “The Harder They Come” soundtrack, July 1972, Island Records.
In 1972-73, The Harder They Come, a Jamaican film about a poor country boy who becomes a music star and then a criminal, arrived at the box office with a very upbeat and powerful soundtrack of Jamaican reggae music.

The Harder They Come is the most important movie ever to come out of the Caribbean,” says iTunes, “and its soundtrack helped put reggae, in all its variants, on the world map.” The effusive iTunes praise for the film may be a bit of a stretch, but the part about the music is right on the money.

First released in the U.K in 1972, the film was slow to capture much attention. And in the U.S., too, at least with its initial release in February 1973, the film did not receive much notice. About a year later, however, it became more popular with audiences in midnight showings. And from that point on, the film’s music also began to take off.

The soundtrack became a breakthrough for reggae music in the U.S., introducing many listeners to the distinctive sound for the fist time. The Harder They Come soon became a favorite dance album at parties across the U.S. It left a lasting impact and its influence on the music scene continues today.

One commentary on the film’s music in 2009 from the blog, DK Presents gave The Harder They Come its top rating, noting: “The soundtrack gathers legendary performances that not only enhance the action of the film, but on their own play out as nothing less than the greatest reggae album of all-time… Whether or not you’re familiar with the movie, this is an impeccable collection that remains the best possible introduction to the genre.”

The soundtrack’s selections are also loaded with Jamaican nuance and political meaning, as the lyrics, both directly and between the lines, refer frequently to oppression, inequality, and social injustice. What follows here, is an exploration of the film’s music along with historical background on Jimmy Cliff and the album’s other artists, as well as the film’s producer, Perry Henzell.

Cover of David Katz’s book, “Jimmy Cliff: An Unauthorized Biography,” 2011.
Cover of David Katz’s book, “Jimmy Cliff: An Unauthorized Biography,” 2011.
The Harder They Come was the first Jamaican-produced feature film shot in Jamaica with a full Jamaican cast and director. The film starred Jimmy Cliff, who plays a role in the film which, in part, is not unlike his own early years. Cliff had left his country home as a teenager in 1962 heading to Kingston where he began cutting tracks for DJs to consider. With the help of producer Leslie Kong, he had a couple of hits, including a No. 1 Jamaican hit,”Hurricane Hattie” and others. By 1965, Cliff was in London, and eventually scored there with another Top Ten international hit 1969, “Wonderful World, Beautiful People,” one of the first big reggae hits heard outside of Jamaica. He also wrote and sang “The Harder They Come” title track for the 1972 film.


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“The Harder They Come”

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In the 1960s, Cliff had also written a number of songs for other Jamaican artists. In 1969, he had written, “You Can Get It If You Really Want,” which became a hit for Desmond Dekker. That year as well, Cliff wrote and recorded the song “Many Rivers to Cross.” It was also the year Cliff met Jamaican film maker Perry Henzell, as he would later explain to the Wall Street Journal’s Marc Myers in a 2013 interview. Henzell would offer Cliff the lead role in The Harder They Come:

…In 1969, I was at Dynamic Sounds Studio in Kingston recording a song I had written, ‘You Can Get It If You Really Want.” When we finished, I walked outside and met a gentleman named Perry Henzell, who had been waiting for me. He said he was making a movie and asked if I could write music for it.

“The Harder They Come”
Jimmy Cliff – 1972

Well they tell me of a pie up in the sky
Waiting for me when I die
But between the day you’re born and when you die
They never seem to hear even your cry.

So as sure as the sun will shine
I’m gonna get my share now of what’s mine
And then the harder they come
the harder they’ll fall, one and all
Oh, the harder they come
the harder they’ll fall, one and all.

Well the officers are trying to keep me down
Trying to drive me underground
And they think that they have got the battle won
I say forgive them Lord,
they know not what they’ve done.

So as sure as the sun will shine
I’m gonna get my share now of what’s mine
And then the harder they come
The harder they’ll fall, one and all
Ooh the harder they come
The harder they’ll fall, one and all

And I keep on fighting for the things I want
Though I know that when you’re dead you can’t
But I’d rather be a free man in my grave
Than living as a puppet or a slave.

Repeat Chorus: “So as sure…”

By that point, I was pretty well known in Jamaica and the U.K. I had recorded quite a few hits. I had always wanted to be a movie actor, so I asked Perry to send me the script. When I read it, I felt I had known Ivanhoe Martin [the main character] all my life. In the script, he was a guy from the country who came to the city to make it as a musician but was held back by the trickery of a record-company owner. Eventually Ivan turns to crime and is killed at the end.

I told Perry that the script was great, and he decided to cast me as Ivan. The film at the time was called “Hard Road to Travel,” after one of my songs, and we filmed over the next year or so. When we shot the scene where Ivan cuts the bicycle-store owner who came on really hard, a line came to my mind—”the harder they come.” In real life, if you come on hard like that, you’re going to die hard.

When I told Perry my line, he loved it. He thought it was a stronger film title and asked me to write a theme song to go with it….

…The lyrics came from my past. I grew up in the church and had always questioned what they were telling me. Like the promise of a pie in the sky when you die. The second verse about oppressors trying to keep me down kind of reflected my own life—coming out of the ghetto in Jamaica and fighting the system. I wanted the song to have a church feel and to reflect the environment I grew up in—the underdog fighting all kinds of trickery.

In the film, Cliff plays Ivanhoe “Ivan” Martin, a country boy who heads to Kingston, Jamaica, to seek fame as a singer.

Jamaican director and writer Perry Henzel, later describing his film in a 2003 National Public Radio (NPR) interview: “The theme of The Harder They Come is: Can the little man get through? The character, Ivan Martin, has no education, and is coming into the city from the country with no advantages at all – a young, impoverished, ambitious guy who is trying to make it. And [he] has so much going against him that he ends up as a renegade…”

Album Tracks
The Harder They Come
1972

1. “You Can Get It If You…”
Jimmy Cliff
2. “Draw Your Brakes”
Scotty
3. “Rivers of Babylon”
The Melodians
4. “Many Rivers to Cross”
Jimmy Cliff
5. “Sweet and Dandy”
The Maytals
6. “The Harder They Come”
Jimmy Cliff
7. “Johnny Too Bad”
The Slickers
8. “007 (Shanty Town)”
Desmond Dekker
9. “Pressure Drop”
The Maytals
10.”Sitting in Limbo”
Jimmy Cliff
11.”You Can Get It If You…”
Jimmy Cliff
12.”The Harder They Come”
Jimmy Cliff

After being taken advantage of by a record producer who pays him only $20 for recording his first song, Ivanhoe Martin turns to a life of crime, dealing marijuana, and becoming a cop-killing folk hero – a character modeled in part on an actual 1940s Jamaican criminal who was not a musician.

In the film, it is Ivanhoe’s criminal notoriety and folk hero standing that ironically sends his record to the top of the Jamaican charts.

The title song, by Cliff, is also central in the film story, as it is the song that Ivanhoe Martin records to launch his own career. It is also a song that intimates the hard life of Jamaica’s poor.

In the end, the film wasn’t exactly Oscar material – though it still has its fans to this day. Yet the film’s soundtrack was eventually a blockbuster, opening the door to reggae big time.

The soundtrack album was released in America in 1973, and proved to be a steady seller, though it didn’t enter Billboard‘s album chart until March 1975.

In any case, the early- and mid-1970s was the dawning of a golden time for reggae. By then, Bob Marley and Wailers had broken through (their first U.S. charting song came about two months after The Harder They Come film was first shown in the U.S.), and others followed.

Part of the success of The Harder They Come album then, and still today, is its notable collection of other reggae artists in addition to the songs by Jimmy Cliff. Half of the tracks on the album are by Cliff, including: two performances each of “The Harder They Come” and “You Can Get It If You Really Want,” plus two others – “Many Rivers to Cross” and “Sitting in Limbo.”

The other six tracks, however, are fine reggae offerings as well, and include Jamaican singles that had been previously released in the 1967-1972 period that were also popular, including: “Draw Your Brakes” by DJ Scotty; “Rivers of Babylon” by the Melodians; “Sweet and Dandy” and “Pressure Drop,” both by Toots & the Maytals; “Johnny Too Bad” by the Slickers; and “007 Shanty Town” by Desmond Dekker. Dekker also had a hit with “You Can Get It If Your Really Want.” Some of these songs and their context are reviewed briefly below.


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Scotty – “Draw Your Brakes”

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“Draw Your Brakes”

The second track on the soundtrack album, for example, is “Draw Your Brakes,” by Scotty, also known as DJ Scotty, and formally, David Scott (1951-2003). Scotty’s song is a 1971 Jamaican deejay version of Keith & Tex’s hit, “Stop That Train.” It is a lament of man who has just lost his woman to another man. A review of this song at an earlier blog titled, DK Presents 2009, stated that ‘Draw Your Brakes’ is one of the most important tracks on the album –along with The Slickers’ “Johnny Too Bad,” noted later below — Jamaican songs “which take on the twin cultures of violence and grief that are at the heart of the Jamaican ghetto, and the center of the movie.” See also Scotty – “Draw Your Brakes” for full lyrics and additional interpretation.

Cover of record sleeve  for “Rivers of Babylon” song by The Melodians, Island Records, Germany, 1978.
Cover of record sleeve for “Rivers of Babylon” song by The Melodians, Island Records, Germany, 1978.


“Rivers of Babylon”

The third track on The Harder They Come album is “Rivers of Babylon,” a song by the Jamaican group The Melodians. The group was formed in 1963 by Tony Brevett, Brent Dowe. and Trevor McNaughton. “Rivers of Babylon” was written by Dowe and McNaughton and was recorded as a Rastafarian song in 1970, two years before it was used on The Harder They Come.

Rastafarianism is a religious movement among black Jamaicans that teaches the redemption of blacks and their return to Africa, employs the ritualistic use of marijuana, and venerates Haile Selassie as a god. (Selassie was Emperor of Ethiopia in 1930).

Interestingly, the lyrics of “Rivers of Babylon” are adapted from the texts of Psalm 137 and Psalm 19 in the Bible ( there, in the original, as a hymn expressing the lamentations of the Jewish people in exile following the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem). In further explanation, Wikipedia notes: “In the Rastafarian faith, the term “Babylon” is used for any governmental system which is either oppressive or unjust.

“Rivers of Babylon”
The Melodians, 1970

By the rivers of Babylon
Where he sat down
And there he wept
When he remembered Zion

‘Cause the wicked carried
us away in captivity
Required from us a song
How can we sing King Alpha’s song
In a strange land?

[ Repeat above]

Sing it out loud
Sing a song of freedom, brother
Sing a song of freedom, sister

So, let the words of our mouth
And the meditation of our heart
Be acceptable in Thy sight
Oh, Fari!

[ Repeat above]

We got to sing it together
Everyone
La la la la la

By the rivers of Babylon
Where he sat down
And there he wept
When he remembered Zion

‘Cause the wicked carried
us away in captivity
Required from us a song
How can we sing King Alpha’s song
In a strange land?

[ Repeat above, fade out]

In Jamaica, Rastafarians also use ‘Babylon’ to refer to the police, often seen as a source of oppression because they arrest members for the use of marijuana (which is sacramental for Rastafarians).

Therefore, ‘By the rivers of Babylon’ refers to living in a repressive society and the longing for freedom.

Brent Dowe, the lead singer of the Melodians, told Kenneth Bilby that he had adapted Psalm 137 to the new reggae style because he wanted to increase the public’s consciousness of the growing Rastafarian movement and its calls for black liberation and social justice.

Traditional Rastafarian worship often included psalm singing and hymn singing, and “Rastas” typically modified the words to fit their own spiritual conceptions; Psalm 137 was among their sacred chants.


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“Rivers of Babylon”

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In Jamaica, the song became well known in 1970 after its release. But then, it was initially banned by the Jamaican government because of “its overt Rastafarian references” then considered “subversive and potentially inflammatory.”

But after a round of criticism for banning a song that was taken almost entirely from the Bible, the government backed down. Three weeks later “Rivers of Babylon” was a No. 1 hit in Jamaica. The Harder They Come film and soundtrack album then took it to an international audience.

In 1978, the song was further popularized in Europe by the Boney M. cover version, which became one of the Top Ten all-time best-selling singles in the UK.

The song was later used in the 1999 Nicolas Cage movie, Bringing Out the Dead, and again in 2010 in Philip Seymour Hoffman’s film, Jack Goes Boating.


Cover art for “Many Rivers to Cross” single by Jimmy Cliff, issued by Trojan Records in 1969.
Cover art for “Many Rivers to Cross” single by Jimmy Cliff, issued by Trojan Records in 1969.


“Many Rivers…”

“Many Rivers to Cross” – also on The Harder They Come soundtrack – is a song written in 1969 by Jimmy Cliff, released on his earlier 1969 album, Jimmy Cliff. The song has often been described for its church-like or hymnal quality, arranged with organ and a gospel backing.


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“Many River to Cross” – Jimmy Cliff

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But Tom Moon, writing in 1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die, points out that the song also has some culture-specific conveyance: “Though ‘Many Rivers’ sounds like a plainspoken sermon of persistence, it was heard in Jamaica as a rallying cry of rude-boy culture, a bold street kid talking openly about getting what he could.” (The “rude boy” subculture arose from the poorer sections of Kingston, Jamaica, and was associated with violent discontented youths, who also had their own fashion and music preferences, including Jamaican reggae in the 1970s.)

“Many Rivers To Cross”
Jimmy Cliff – 1969

Many rivers to cross
But I can’t seem to find my way over
Wandering I am lost
As I travel along the white cliffs of Dover

Many rivers to cross
And it’s only my will that keeps me alive
I’ve been licked, washed up for years
And I merely survive because of my pride

And this loneliness won’t leave me alone
It’s such a drag to be on your own
My woman left me and she didn’t say why
Well I guess, I have to try

Many rivers to cross
But just where to begin, I’m playing for time
There are times I find myself thinking
Of committing some dreadful crime

Repeat 1, fade out…

Cliff has stated that the song emerged from his frustrations in early career when he wasn’t making much headway:

When I came to the UK, I was still in my teens. I came full of vigor: I’m going to make it, I’m going to be up there with the Beatles and the Stones. And it wasn’t really going like that, I was touring clubs, not breaking through. I was struggling, with work, life, my identity, I couldn’t find my place; frustration fueled the song.

Rolling Stone has ranked “Many Rivers to Cross” at No. 325 on their list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

The song has been covered by a number of artists, including: Harry Nilsson, John Lennon, Joe Cocker, Percy Sledge, Desmond Dekker, UB40, Cher, Eric Burdon & The Animals, Marcia Hines, Toni Childs, Oleta Adams, Linda Rondstadt, and Annie Lennox.

In 2013, Tessanne Chin performed a cover of “Many Rivers to Cross” on a live round of NBC-TV’s The Voice. Her rendition spurred some interest in the original Jimmy Cliff version, as Billboard’s Digital Singles chart indicated that “Many Rivers to Cross” sold 707 downloads the week Chin performed. As of mid-November 2013, Cliff’s song had sold more than 87,000 downloads since Neilsen Soundscan began tracking digital sales of reggae singles in 2008.

“Many Rivers to Cross” has also been featured in the film Rush (2013) and during episodes of TV shows such as: the Australian-American comedy series Wilfred (2011-2014); the Netflix TV series, Daredevil (2015-16),based on the Marvel Comics character; and the post-apocalyptic series, Falling Skies (2011-15), produced by Steven Spielberg.


Promotional photo from “The Harder They Come” with Jimmy Cliff featured as pistol-packing Ivanhoe Martin.
Promotional photo from “The Harder They Come” with Jimmy Cliff featured as pistol-packing Ivanhoe Martin.

Cover art for Slickers’ 2006 reissued “Breakthorugh” album by Tad's Records, which includes 'Johnny Too Bad'.
Cover art for Slickers’ 2006 reissued “Breakthorugh” album by Tad's Records, which includes 'Johnny Too Bad'.

“Johnny Too Bad”

“Johnny Too Bad,” the 7th track on The Harder They Come, is a song recorded by the Slickers, a Jamaican group that began in the mid-1960s.

The lyrics in this case fit some of the action in The Harder They Come film, as Ivanhoe becomes a renegade criminal and folk hero, though the song is also asking what will happen when it all catches up with him. Here’s the song along with a portion of the lyrics:


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“Johnny Too Bad”-The Slickers

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…Walking down the road
With your pistol in your waist,
Johnny you’re too bad (oh boy)…

You’re just robbing and you’re stabbing
and you’re looting and you’re shooting
Now you’re too bad (too bad)….

…One of these days when you hear,
a voice say come,
where you’re going to run to (oh boy)…

…You’re gonna run to the rock
for rescue…
There will be no rock…

After its use on the soundtrack album, the original version of “Johnny Too Bad” became one of the most celebrated tracks ever recorded in Jamaica. The Slickers toured the U.S. and the U.K. on the success of the song, continuing until they recorded their album Breakthrough in 1979. Some version of the Slickers group continued touring in both the U.S. and Europe, releasing occasional singles through the 1970s before ceasing as a group sometime in the late 1970s.

Countless versions of “Johnny Too Bad” have been recorded by other musicians in a variety of styles. The song was covered by the British reggae group UB40, the American reggae punk band Sublime, American power pop band, The Silencers, and blues artist Taj Mahal. John Martyn covered it with additional lyrics on his 1980 album Grace and Danger.


Desmond Dekker

Cover of 2-CD set of “Th e Best of Desmond Dekker” on the Trojan label, London, 2016.
Cover of 2-CD set of “Th e Best of Desmond Dekker” on the Trojan label, London, 2016.
Desmond Dekker is another Jamaican artist who had an earlier hit song – his “007 (Shanty Town)” – featured on The Harder They Come soundtrack album. Dekker (1941 – 2006) was a popular Jamaican ska, rocksteady, and reggae singer-songwriter and musician who had already had several Jamaican hit songs in the early 1960s.

But in 1967, Dekker’s “007 (Shanty Town)” became his first international hit, rising to No 1 in Jamaica and No. 14 on the UK singles chart – the first Jamaican-produced record to reach the UK top 20, which then demonstrated the viability of Jamaican music in England. It was followed by another much bigger hit with Dekker’s “Israelites” in 1968 (U.S. pop, No. 9, 1969), which uses lyrical imagery from the Biblical Exodus story.

“007 (Shanty Town)” was released in the U.K. as a 1967 single on the Pryamid label. The song has been called “the most enduring and archetypal” rude boy song. Its title and lyrics also hint at James Bond and Oceans 11 film imagery, then admired by Jamaican rude boys.

“007 (Shanty Town)”
Desmond Dekker

0-0-7, 0-0-7
At ocean eleven
And now rude boys have a go wail
‘Cause them out of jail
Rude boys cannot fail
‘Cause them must get bail

Dem a loot, dem a shoot,
dem a wail (a shanty town)
Dem a loot, dem a shoot,
dem a wail (a shanty town)
Dem rude boys get a probation
(a shanty town)
And rude boy bomb up the town
(a shanty town)

0-0-7, 0-0-7
At ocean eleven
And the rude boys a go wail
‘Cause them out of jail
Rude boys cannot fail
‘Cause them must get bail

Dem a loot, dem a shoot,
dem a wail (a shanty town)
Dem a loot, dem a shoot,
dem a wail (a shanty town)
Dem rude boys get a probation
(a shanty town)
And rude boy bomb up the town
(a shanty town)

According to Dekker, the song was also inspired in part by news coverage he had watched of a student demonstration protesting construction of an industrial complex near the beach in the Shanty Town area, where violence had erupted. The song also deals with rude boy violence and rude boys being released from prison, but continuing to commit crime.


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“007(Shanty Town)”-Desmond Dekker

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AllMusic.com’s Jo-Ann Greene notes in her review of the song:

“If any song can be said to epitomize the entire rudeboy era, ‘007 (Shanty-Town)’ is it. The song has it all: a melody that once heard is never forgotten, a brilliant arrangement that’s all stomping beats emphasized by every one of the instruments, references to cool movies — from the Bond films’ hero to the equally hip Rat Pack flick Ocean’s 11 — and lyrics aimed directly at the rudies. Desmond Dekker succinctly sums up rudeboy ways, looting and shooting their way across the shanty-towns that surround Kingston. Amongst a clutch of pithy lyrics, “Rudeboys have no fear [or cannot fail]” was the line that inevitably brought whoops from every rudie on the dancefloor.

In The Harder They Come film, with Ivanhoe Martin doing his looting and shooting, Dekker’s tune also hits the mark — though in his earlier career, Dekker’s music had been associated with tamer, more traditional values.


“Pressure Drop”

Cover of CD with selections by Toots & The Maytals, The Definitive Collection, Trojan.
Cover of CD with selections by Toots & The Maytals, The Definitive Collection, Trojan.
“Pressure Drop,” by the Maytals, is another fine example of the infectious reggae sound. The song was written by Frederick Hibbert and recorded by The Maytals in 1969 for producer Leslie Kong. It was released as a single and on their 1970 album, Monkey Man and ….


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“Pressure Drop” – The Maytals

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“Pressure Drop,” as offered in this song, can also have some interesting social meanings. The phrase, in one common usage can refer to a change in barometric pressure, the meteorological term, which in weather forecasting, with the technical aid of an instrument called a barometer, is used to predict adverse weather conditions and approaching storms, certainly important for island populations like Jamaica. A rapid barometric “pressure drop” can signal, for example, an approaching hurricane. And on a personal level, in a social context, a pressure drop as suggested by these lyrics, might also mean, that “a storm is coming for you.” Toots Hibbert, elaborating, has also added in one 2016 interview with The Guardian of London, that this song can serve a further purpose: as a calling for a kind of karmic justice:

It’s a song about revenge, but in the form of karma: if you do bad things to innocent people, then bad things will happen to you. The title was a phrase I used to say. If someone done me wrong, rather than fight them like a warrior, I’d say: “The pressure’s going to drop on you.”

“After this song appeared on The Harder They Come soundtrack, The Maytals enjoyed success beyond Jamaica. In one example, Clifton ‘Jackie’ Jackson, bass-player for the group, in the same 2016 interview with The Guardian mentioned above, recalled that in 1975 the Maytals were on the bill with The Who, playing to a crowd of 90,000 people in California. At that concert the Maytals were kind of stunned, “because the crowd just stood there staring, like they were going to have us for their supper. We said: ‘What the hell are we going to do?’ Then someone suggested opening with ‘Pressure Drop.’ The place erupted.”

In 2004, Rolling Stone rated “Pressure Drop” at No. 453 in its list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. The song has been covered by other artists including, The Specials and The Clash, and it is also featured in the 2004 video game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.

Disc label for Jimmy Cliff’s “Sitting In Limbo” single, released in 1971, Island Music Ltd.
Disc label for Jimmy Cliff’s “Sitting In Limbo” single, released in 1971, Island Music Ltd.


“Sitting in Limbo”

In 1971, Leslie Kong died – the producer Jimmy Cliff (and other Jamaicans) had worked with since his early youth, at age 14. According to AllMusic.com, Cliff was racked by the loss, and was not sure how to proceed.


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“Sitting in Limbo”- Jimmy Cliff

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“Sitting in Limbo” is a song he wrote about that time; a song which also had origins in Cliff’s travels and his return to Jamaica from England where his career had stalled. He was seeking direction on several fronts. But Cliff did proceed that year, recording the album, Another Cycle, at the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Alabama. “Sitting in Limbo,” co-produced with Gully Bright, is included on that album and was also released as a single in 1971. It was added to The Harder They Come soundtrack in 1972. Jo Ann Greene at AllMusic.com notes of the song: “This gentle song perfectly captures [Cliff’s] mood, determined to somehow carry on, but unsure just how to begin…” Greene, citing its musical detail, calls the song “a true masterpiece.”


“You Can Get It…”

Jimmy Cliff on cover of later released CD of "You Can Get It If You Really Want."
Jimmy Cliff on cover of later released CD of "You Can Get It If You Really Want."
The next-to-the last track on The Harder They Come soundtrack album – as well as the album’s opening song – is also a song by Jimmy Cliff: “You Can Get It If You Really Want.” This is a song Cliff had originally written for Desmond Dekker in 1969. Dekker’s version of the song became a hit first, released as a single in a number of markets. It rose to No. 2 on the U.K. Singles Chart. It was also ranked at No. 27 on the 1970 year-end U.K. chart.


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“You Can Get It If You Really Want”
Jimmy Cliff

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Over the years, “You Can Get It If You Really Want” has become something of an anthem for can-do optimism, and an inspirational tune for individuals seeking success or persevering in personal struggles of one kind or another. It has also been used in political campaigns. In 1990 it was used as a campaign anthem during the 1990 Nicaragua elections by the ruling left-wing Sandinista National Liberation Front. And SongFacts.com has noted the song was used in the U.K. in 2007 to close the British Conservative Party’s leader David Cameron’s speech during the party’s annual conference that October. In fact, the Conservatives liked it so much, apparently, the song was used again by the party as a catchphrase for a media package of newspaper ads, billboards, broadcast and web messages by Cameron calling for a shift away from “old politics.” Paraphrasing from the song’s lyrics, Cameron said: “Rome was not built in a day, opposition will come your way; but the hotter the battle you see, it’s the sweeter the victory; you can get it if you really want.” Jimmy Cliff, noted SongFacts, had his own views: “I’m from the lower class of society and I tend to support them rather than the upper class.”


Perry Henzell
Film Producer
The Harder They Come


In 1969 Perry Henzell heard Jimmy Cliff’s song, “Many Rivers to Cross,” and sensed it would be a good fit for a film he had in mind about a Jamaican’s struggle to make it. He also asked Cliff to work up some other songs for the film. But once the film was made, bringing it to a wider audience beyond Jamaica was the next step, and one fraught with challenge.

Perry Henzell, Jamaican film producer, at work, 1970s.
Perry Henzell, Jamaican film producer, at work, 1970s.
Henzell had something of an uphill fight to get his film distributed. “Nobody would take it,” he later explained to Variety in a 1995 interview. “They’d never heard of reggae music, and nobody was interested in black people in Jamaica.” The film, although told through the life of its main character, was also an unflinching look at what Henzell called “the harsh reality of Jamaican life.”

In London, he tried distributing the film himself, resorting at one point to handing out 5,000 fliers at bus and subway stops. He eventually hooked up with producer Roger Corman to help distribute the film, but that effort did not fare well initially either. In the U.S., midnight showings of the film in some college towns helped bring word-of-mouth cache, and by 1974-75 its music in particular helped broaden its marketing. Respectable reviews soon arrived (see samples in reproduced poster below).

Roger Ebert, reviewing the film February 9th, 1973, noted it was “sort of two movies in one.” First, he explained, “we get a Jamaican version of the standard black exploitation movie, with guns and gangsters and a flashy superhero turned folk hero.” But the second movie, he continued, “the one that makes the experience worthwhile – is a celebration of Jamaican music and style. This was the first extensive American movie exposure for reggae, the insinuating Jamaican music that was just then beginning to make itself heard over omnipresent rock.”

“I didn’t make the soundtrack of The Harder They Come until the last two weeks of editing,” Henzell would later note in a 2003 interview. “And I just chose all the of the music that I really loved that I thought [others would like]. And sure enough, it’s been selling ever since…”

Henzell had plans for what he hoped would be a trilogy of films centering on Jamaica and Ivanhoe Martin. A next film in that series, No Place Like Home, was started by Henzell in the 1970s but later abandoned for lack of funds. Some years later, Henzell rediscovered bits of the film and reworked it. Eventually, No Place Like Home was shown at the Toronto International Film Festival to sold-out audiences in September 2006. The film was then scheduled to be screened at the Flashpoint Film Festival in Negril, Jamaica in early December 2006. However, Perry Henzell died of cancer in November 2006. He was 70 years old. In 2015, a documentary film – Perry Henzell: A Filmmaker’s Odyssey, which explores Henzell’s journey in making No Place Like Home – was released by David Garonzik and Arthur Gorson.


1970s promo piece for film “The Harder They Come,” with a headlined review contrasting it with the Marlon Brando film of that era, ‘Last Tango in Paris.” A selection of other reviewer comments are also offered.
1970s promo piece for film “The Harder They Come,” with a headlined review contrasting it with the Marlon Brando film of that era, ‘Last Tango in Paris.” A selection of other reviewer comments are also offered.

In later years, both the film and the music would collect kudos and spawn a number of other projects. The Harder They Come soundtrack was ranked No.12 on one list of the “100 Best Film Soundtracks,” those described as “soundtracks that moved us the most” by Entertainment Weekly. In 1980, Jamaican-American author Michael Thelwell published a novel based on the film, using the same title. In August 2003, the Universal Music Group issued a two-disc deluxe edition of The Harder They Come soundtrack album, remastered with the second disc featuring additional reggae singles from 1968-1972. In 2005, the film story was developed into a stage musical by the Theatre Royal Stratford East and U.K. Arts Productions in London. The script for that production was overseen by Perry Henzell who also served as production consultant. It opened in London in March 2006 and played through 2008, going on international tour thereafter. The stage production used the original soundtrack as well as a couple of additions. In 2006, The Harder They Come film was also digitally restored, frame by frame, and issued in a remastered DVD version. In 2013, there was a 40th anniversary celebration of the film and its re-release.

Rolan Bell, one of the stars in the London musical stage production of "The Harder They Come," 2006-2009
Rolan Bell, one of the stars in the London musical stage production of "The Harder They Come," 2006-2009
Jimmy Cliff, meanwhile, was propelled to international fame by The Harder They Come. Not long after the film became popular, Cliff helped introduce reggae to America by performing two songs from the film on the first season of the Saturday Night Live TV show, episode 12, on January 31, 1976. Cliff that night sang the title track, “The Harder They Come” and “Many Rivers to Cross.” Since those heady years of the 1970s, Cliff has done a variety of work in film and music, much of which is detailed at his Wikipedia page and elsewhere. Cliff provided backing vocals on The Rolling Stones’ 1986 album Dirty Work, and appeared in the comedy Club Paradise, co-starring with Robin Williams and Peter O’Toole, also contributing several songs to the soundtrack, including “Seven Day Weekend,” which he sang with Elvis Costello. In 1988, his song “Shelter of Your Love” was featured in the hit film Cocktail. Cliff returned to the American music charts in 1993 with his Top 20 cover of “I Can See Clearly Now,” from the soundtrack for Cool Runnings. In March 2010 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. As of this writing he continues to perform and lives in Jamaica.

For additional stories on music, song histories, and artist biography at this website see the “Annals of Music” category page. Thanks for visiting – and if you like what you find here, please make a donation to help support the research and writing at this website. Thank you. – Jack Doyle

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Date Posted: 25 June 2017
Last Update: 16 December 2017
Comments to: jdoyle@pophistorydig.com

Article Citation:
Jack Doyle, “Reggae Breaks Out: Jimmy Cliff, 1972-74,”
PopHistoryDig.com, June 25, 2014.

____________________________________




Sources, Links & Additional Information

40th anniversary film poster for “The Harder they Come,” 2013.
40th anniversary film poster for “The Harder they Come,” 2013.
“Jimmy Cliff,” in Holly George-Warren and Patricia Romanowski (eds), The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, Rolling Stone Press, New York, 3rd Edition, 2001, pp. 185-186.

“The Harder They Come,” Wikipedia.org.

Tom Moon, “Reggae Rises Here: The Harder They Come, Jimmy Cliff,” 1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die, New York: Workman Publishing, pp 174–175.

Loraine Alterman, “Pop; It’s Here–Reggae Rock,” New York Times, February 4, 1973, p. 132.

Tom Shales, “’Harder They Come’: Good Work, Mahn,” Washington Post, Times Herald, February 14, 1973, p. F-1.

Ian Dove, “Records: Black Music; Soundtrack Albums of 2 Films Include Reggae Pieces From West Indies,” New York Times, February 14, 1973.

John Rockwell, “Jimmy Cliff Makes His American Debut Exciting, Formal [at Carnegie Hall],” New York Times, November 18, 1974.

John Rockwell, “The Pop Life; Toots and Maytals in a Reggae Year,” New York Times, September 26, 1975.

Tom Zito, “Jimmy Cliff: Bringing the ‘Freshest Form of Music’ From Jamaica to the U. S.,” Washington Post, October 28, 1975, p. B-9.

Stephen Davis, “Reggae Jamaica’s Inside-Out Rock and Roll; Reggae It’s Inside-Out Rock,” New York Times, November 30, 1975.

“80th Straight Weekend for Reggae Film,” New York Times, April 30, 1976.

John Rockwell, “Jimmy Cliff And Reggae In the Park,” New York Times, September 1, 1976.

National Public Radio, Morning Edition, “’The Harder They Come’ – Jimmy Cliff Film, Soundtrack Sparked the ’70s Reggae Explosion,” NPR.org, October 22, 2003.

Toby Ball, “The Harder They Come,” AllMusic.com Review.

“Jimmy Cliff, Biography,” RockHall.com.

“Jimmy Cliff, Biography,” AllMusic.com.

“The Harder They Come”(song), Wikipedia.org.

“The 20 Greatest Reggae Albums Of All-Time,” DK Presents, June 2009.

“Rivers of Babylon,” Wikipedia.org.

“Desmond Dekker,” in Holly George-Warren and Patricia Romanowski (eds), The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, Rolling Stone Press, New York, 3rd Edition, 2001, p. 249.

“Many Rivers to Cross,” Wikipedia.org.

Adam Jones, “The Harder They Come”-Jimmy Cliff,” Anthems for A New Generation, January 13, 2012.

Neil McCormick, “Jimmy Cliff Interview: ‘I Still Have Many Rivers to Cross’,” The Telegraph(London), July 12, 2012.

Colin Jacobson, Review, “The Harder They Come: The Criterion Collection (1973),” DVD Movie Guide.

“Pressure Drop (song),” Wikipedia.org.

Dennis McLellan, “Perry Henzell, 70; His Movie `The Harder They Come’ Brought Reggae to the World,” Los Angeles Times, December 2, 2006.

“The Harder They Come (remastered) – Jimmy Cliff,” iTunes.com.

Song Review by Jo-Ann Greene, “Sitting in Limbo,” AllMusic.com.

Emily Dugan, “‘I Always Support the Lower Classes’: Jimmy Cliff’s Response to His Adoption by Cameron,” The Independent, October 5, 2007.

“You Can Get It If You Really Want, by Jimmy Cliff,” SongFacts.com.

Mike Riggs. “Is Reggae Classic ‘You Can Get It If You Really Want’ ‘Conservative’? Jimmy Cliff Weighs In,” The Washington Times, June 6, 2012.

Marc Myers, “Anatomy of a Song; The Song That Put Reggae on The Map,” Wall Street Journal, updated February 14, 2013.

Dave Simpson, “Toots and the Maytals: How We Made Pressure Drop,” The Guardian, September 6, 2016.

“Perry Henzell, 70, Filmmaker of ‘The Harder They Come,’ Dies,” New York Times, December 5, 2006.

“Perry Henzell,” Wikipedia.org.

Entertainment Weekly, “America’s 100 Best Movie Soundtracks,” FilmSite.org.

Kevin Jackson, “Chin, Cliff Surge, Dancehall Stumbles,” Jamaica Observer, Sunday, November 17, 2013.
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“The DeLorean Saga”
Car Guy: 1960s-1980s

Sketch of the DMC - "the DeLorean" sports car -- later built by the DeLorean Motor Co. in 1981-82.
Sketch of the DMC - "the DeLorean" sports car -- later built by the DeLorean Motor Co. in 1981-82.
It was the September 1973 story in Fortune magazine that turned heads at the General Motors Corporation, then the world’s largest automaker. Featured in the story was one of GM’s top executives then leaving the company. His name was John Z. DeLorean and he had risen to the very top of the company with astonishing speed.

This would be the same guy who would later found the DeLorean Motor Company, inventing and producing the DMC-12 sports car, also known as “the DeLorean” — and also the guy whose name would appear on a “tell-all” book about GM titled, On A Clean Day You Can See General Motors. But at the moment, Mr. DeLorean was caught up in the “leaving-GM” controversy.

John Z. DeLorean, in fact, had been a rising star on the GM fast track; a good bet to run the place and become CEO. But DeLorean had done the unthinkable: he had quit his high-level post at General Motors (some say he was fired), doing so with controversy and in his own style.

Early 1970s photo of John Delorean that ran in Fortune magazine. By then he had gone through some personal changes, lost weight, became fit & lived a full social life, clashing with the expected GM executive model. Photo, Anthony Edgeworth.
Early 1970s photo of John Delorean that ran in Fortune magazine. By then he had gone through some personal changes, lost weight, became fit & lived a full social life, clashing with the expected GM executive model. Photo, Anthony Edgeworth.
Earlier that year, in May 1973, DeLorean had walked away from his $650,000-a-year job (about $8 million in today’s money). He had been a group vice president, one of an elite cadre of managers at the very top of the corporation.

The Fortune piece was a post-mortem on the whys and wherefores of DeLorean’s departure. But it also became hot fodder for water-cooler gossip at GM since it showed the six-foot-four Delorean shirtless in one photo, a buff 48 year-old in good trim, and also working out with weights in another.


‘Picture Star’

“He looked like a million-dollar picture star,” remarked Hollywood producer Pierre Cossette, who had met DeLorean about that time, “like he had been put together by the property department of M-G-M.,”

No, John DeLorean wasn’t your typical, every day GM executive, especially in those last few years near the top of the company. In fact, the guy had quite a reputation on his climb up the corporate ladder – known for dating Hollywood starlets and models, wearing tapered Italian suits, and roaring around town in high-performance Maseratis and Lamborghinis. Yet John DeLorean was also a dedicated automotive professional. He had become a highly competent GM executive in a leadership role, boosting GM’s fortunes in two of its divisions and operating at the industry’s highest levels.


GM Wunderkind

John Z. DeLorean as he appeared in August 1965, a rising star at General Motors featured here in a “Car Life” magazine spread on his success with the Pontiac GTO.
John Z. DeLorean as he appeared in August 1965, a rising star at General Motors featured here in a “Car Life” magazine spread on his success with the Pontiac GTO.
In fact, during the 1960s and early 1970s, John DeLorean was a General Motors wunderkind. He ran the Pontiac Division in 1967 and 1968, leading it to record sales in both years. In 1969, he was tapped to help turn around GM’s troubled Chevrolet Division, which he did in spades.

In 1971, he was featured in Business Week. In 1972 he appeared on the cover of Automotive Industries magazine with his overhead cam engine. By 1973, he was GM’s vice president and group executive for North American cars and trucks — a huge swath of the General Motors empire, encompassing Chevrolet, Buick, Oldsmobile, Pontiac, Cadillac, GMC, and Canadian car and truck operations. Total sales of this group at the time were $25 billion, placing it among the top echelon of only a handful of other businesses worldwide.

John DeLorean, then 48, was one of four other group-level vice presidents, and he held more GM turf than his peer Roger Smith, who would later run the company. In fact, many believed John DeLorean, too, was on the “candidate track” to run GM, and those who worked with him thought he was a sure bet to do just that.

Yet, when he made it to the company’s prestigious “14th floor”headquarters – the inner sanctum sanctorum of global auto power in those years – John DeLorean, by the early 1970s, was not exactly fitting in. Rather, DeLorean was running counter to GM’s management culture.

John DeLorean doing the company’s bidding on his way to the 14th floor, before his cultural makeover.
John DeLorean doing the company’s bidding on his way to the 14th floor, before his cultural makeover.
It was not his work – which was spotless for the most part, as his track record proved he was a valuable and creative asset to the company. At issue was his style; he was not meeting GM’s expectations of the model executive. He had become, in fact, the Willie Joe Namath of the automotive industry; a guy with plenty of ability but a personal style that grated on the conservative, button-down ways of the industrial heartland. Higher ups in the company would complain about DeLorean’s dress, his hair, his cowboy boots, his women.

In the mid-1950s when DeLorean was recruited to GM’s Pontiac division by Bunkie Knudsen, he was viewed as a hard worker and straight-arrow; just the kind of creative young man the company would want to groom for its top leadership positions. “He wasn’t flamboyant or anything; just a nice young man,” Knudsen would say of DeLorean when he hired him. And before rising to the lofty heights of GM’s command center, DeLorean had toiled for many years in the engineering bowels of the auto industry, notching some impressive accomplishments. He would later claim to have a number of patents, and would be credited for a number of automotive innovations, including the concealed windshield wiper, the overhead cam engine, and the windshield-embedded radio antenna.

John DeLorean began his rise in GM's Pontiac Division.
John DeLorean began his rise in GM's Pontiac Division.
John DeLorean with Pontiac Firebird model, later 1960s.
John DeLorean with Pontiac Firebird model, later 1960s.

Streets of Detroit

John DeLorean’s roots were in the hard scrabble streets of Detroit, where he played stickball as a kid. His father had worked in a Ford foundry. Young John proved a bright kid who applied himself in school, landing at Cass Technical High School for Detroit’s honor students, considered a feeder school for the Big Three.

At “Cass Tech,” as it known locally, DeLorean excelled, then winning a scholarship – not in engineering, but in music – to attend the Lawrence Institute of Technology. Delorean would later study industrial engineering there. At night for pocket money he played the saxophone at “black and tan” clubs, as the mixed-race jazz clubs were then called.

In 1943, during WWII, his education was interrupted when drafted into the U.S. Army. After his three-year hitch, he returned to Lawrence to complete his degree in mechanical engineering.

He then had a series of odd jobs thereafter, including a stint selling insurance before enrolling in a post-graduate engineering program at the Chrysler Institute, earning an M.A. there in industrial engineering in 1952. He was also working at Chrysler by then as well.

DeLorean would later add an MBA from the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, attending at night, and he also studied law briefly.

In the mid-1950s, DeLorean moved to the Packard car company where he became director of research and development. At Packard, among other things, DeLorean improved the efficiency of their automatic transmissions by adding something called “a lockup clutch” that directly linked the engine to the wheels. Eliminating slippage in an automatic transmission provides much better fuel economy and lower temperatures.

1968 magazine ad for Pontiac GTO: “Get One, Before You’re Too Old to Understand.” DeLorean’s GTOs of the 1960s pitched power & speed to American youth.
1968 magazine ad for Pontiac GTO: “Get One, Before You’re Too Old to Understand.” DeLorean’s GTOs of the 1960s pitched power & speed to American youth.
After Packard merged with Studebaker, DeLorean in 1956 was offered a choice of jobs at General Motors. He decided to work at GM’s Pontiac division as an assistant to chief engineer Pete Estes and general manger “Bunkie” Knudsen, the son of former GM CEO Bill Knudson. Bunkie and DeLorean would become fast friends, even after Bunkie went to Ford Motor Co.

At Pontiac, in September 1956, DeLorean’s first title was director of advanced engineering. He was 31 years old.

After a few years at Pontiac, DeLorean rose to assistant chief engineer, and then chief engineer of the Pontiac division.

But in the early 1960s, working with Estes and Knudsen, DeLorean helped turned the fortunes of the Pontiac division around. What they came up with was a new “wide track” design; producing cars with longer axles and powerful engines. Initially, new high-powered Catalina and Bonneville models were quite successful. But the best was yet to come.


The GTO

1960s: John Delorean receiving a Motor Trend award for his work on the Pontiac GTO.
1960s: John Delorean receiving a Motor Trend award for his work on the Pontiac GTO.
At Pontiac, DeLorean made his mark in the early 1960s by creating a new Pontiac model called the GTO – one of the first “muscle cars,” as the high-performance street cars would be called. DeLorean and his team in 1963 took a big 389 cu. in V-8 engine outfitted with three carburetors and placed it in a smaller but newly-styled Pontiac Tempest body that was relatively light at 3,200 pounds. The result was a very hot car, with “blinding acceleration” as Brock Yates would later describe it for Sports Illustrated. This “supercar” as Delorean saw it, was perfect for the emerging new market of testosterone-brimming baby boomer males who saw themselves as street racers. DeLorean, and others – most notably Lee Iacocca at Ford with his Mustangs – saw the “boomer-hot-car” market emerging in the early 1960s, and the Pontiac GTO would lead the “muscle car” parade, touching off one of the most successful industry makeovers and product introductions in auto history.

From 1964 through 1974, each of Detroit’s then “big four” automakers all offered muscle cars – among these were AMC’s Rebel SSTs, Plymouth Road Runners, Chevrolet Chevelles, Dodge Chargers and more. [ However, with the 1973 OPEC oil embargo and the emergence of the Clean Air Act and 1975 auto emissions standards, the muscle car era cooled off considerably by the mid-‘70s.]

“GTO Marketing”
Revving Up the Kids
1969

In 1969, Brock Yates, writing in Sports Illustrated, would describe some of the GTO marketing that ensued under Pontiac ad executive, Jim Wangers:

“… Realizing, with DeLorean and Estes, that rival manufacturers were plunging into the performance market with bigger, hotter cars than the GTO, [Wagners] launched a text book sales promotion campaign that included the pop hit, Little GTO record by Ronnie and the Daytonas [the writer of the song, reportedly, had come to Pontiac for advice and accuracy of lyrics]. While by-passed in the Grammy awards, Little GTO got to No. 3 on the charts, sold 1.2 million copies and got played an estimated seven million times on the nation’s rock radio stations – ground zero for the GTO market. At the same time Wangers flooded the nation with GTO shoes, emblems, T-shirts and more records until every kid from Portland, Maine to West Covina, California was stuffing his piggy bank in anticipation of the day he could purchase a GTO. In 1965, 65,000 GTOs were sold. The following year sales soared to 83,000.” (Brock Yates, Sports Illustrated, 1969).

But in the mid-1960s, the GTO was immensely popular with young drivers when it first came out. Nearly 250,000 of the fast and classy “hot rods” were sold in the first five years of production. As a result, Pontiac’s sales tripled.

It was also during DeLorean’s years leading the Pontiac division that he developed a prototype sports car – a 1964 concept model named the Pontiac Banshee. However, this project was halted since it would have been direct competition for the Chevrolet Corvette, GM’s marquee performance sports car. But it was this idea that would later lead to DeLorean’s plan for a future automotive venture, the DMC-12. More to come on this later. Still, it is alleged that DeLorean’s Banshee model was raided by others at GM for features incorporated into the 1968 Corvette.

By 1965, the high-flying success of the GTO helped send Bunkie Knudnsen up the ladder to GM corporate, Pete Estes to become general manager at Chevrolet, and DeLorean as top man at Pontiac. He was now making more than $200,000 a year. It was at this juncture in John DeLorean’s rise in the auto establishment that he appeared to begin something of personal metamorphosis.

“After giving Pontiac its new style,” Newsweek would report, “DeLorean gradually transformed himself from a button-down conformist to a vain, middle-age clotheshorse. He lost 60 lobs., began lifting weights and started draping his 6-ft’ 4-in. frame in brightly colored shirts, turtlenecks and nipped-at-the-waist suits…” He also dyed his hair, and according to some sources, had facial work done as well.

DeLorean began to enjoy the freedom and celebrity that came with his position, and spent a good deal of his time traveling to locations around the world to support promotional events. His frequent public appearances helped to solidify his image as a “rebel” businessman with his trendy dress style and casual conversation.

DeLorean also became more of a free spender, and open to new business opportunities. By 1966 he had acquired a 10 percent share of the San Diego Chargers football team, and could be found at times visiting with the team’s head coach, Sid Gilman, or star players like receiver Lance Alworth.

General Motors executive John DeLorean, shown on first of a 2-page spread in ‘For Men Only,’ June 1969.
General Motors executive John DeLorean, shown on first of a 2-page spread in ‘For Men Only,’ June 1969.
Fast cars, flashy females, and sideline access to pro football games were part of this DeLorean story.
Fast cars, flashy females, and sideline access to pro football games were part of this DeLorean story.

In June 1969, the magazine For Men Only, ran a feature story on DeLorean (above) with the title, “The Women-and-Wheels Life of Johnny DeLorean – General Motors’ 200 M.P.H., Million Dollar Swinger.” As a tag line on the article’s next page put it, “At the wheel of the world’s fastest cars, dating the flashiest females of the Jet Set, or being on the field with your own pro football team are dreams to most men, just another day to ‘Johnny Z’.”

Delorean, then age 43, had divorced his wife of 15 years. In late May 1969 he married Kelly Harmon, 21, the daughter of football legend Tom Harmon, described by one writer as “the uncrowned Miss America.”

1969: John DeLorean relaxing with his young wife, Kelly Harmon, outside their home. Photo, Sports Illustrated.
1969: John DeLorean relaxing with his young wife, Kelly Harmon, outside their home. Photo, Sports Illustrated.

After his success at Pontiac, DeLorean was promoted to the top job at the company’s Chevrolet division, GM’s flagship brand. He was the youngest man ever to head up the huge division. DeLorean was recruited for the job by GM’s CEO at the time, as Chevy was in some difficulty, with declining sales and dealer profits down. Over the next few years, DeLorean executed a turn around at Chevy, which helped solidify his management bona fides (although there were some “misses” in this period, as well, including a rather mixed record on GM’s sub-compact, “import fighter,” the Chevrolet Vega, related to the vehicle’s quality, durability and performance. Delorean, for his part, would later claim that he was “called upon by the corporation to tout the car far beyond my personal convictions about it.”). Still, under his leadership at the time, Chevrolet in 1971 became the first Big Three division to sell more than 3 million vehicles a year. And dealer profits that year had also soared by 400 percent.

1972: John DeLorean in car, ‘Signature’ magazine.
1972: John DeLorean in car, ‘Signature’ magazine.
Newsweek photo of John DeLorean shown with actress Ursula Andress at an outdoor event.
Newsweek photo of John DeLorean shown with actress Ursula Andress at an outdoor event.

But during his Chevrolet years, because he was on the road so much, and working long hours back in Detroit, there were problems at home. He was not spending enough time with his wife, Kelly, or the son they were adopting. And Kelly, younger than most other executive wives, wasn’t fitting in well either. She missed California. The pair separated in the fall of 1972 and were later divorced.

By October 1972 DeLorean was promoted again, this time as GM’s VP for its entire car and truck group. And after his separation from Kelly, he resumed a free-ranging life style, as described by Paul Ingrassia, former Detroit bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal, in his book, Engines of Change:

… DeLorean started dating Ursula Andress, Raquel Welsh, and other Hollywood starlets. He appeared in gossip tabloids as often as car magazines. On Thursday nights he would commandeer a General Motors jet from Detroit to Los Angeles, where a GM junior executive would meet him with keys to a company car and hotel room in Beverly Hills or Bel Air, He would party through the weekend and fly back to Detroit Monday nights, showing up in the office on Tuesday morning. On Thursday nights, it was back out to Hollywood again.

His bosses tolerated this flight pattern because DeLorean sill produced results. He eliminated layers of management, reorganized engineering,… slashed inventory, and installed computerized financial controls… On September 19, 1971, Business Week touted him on its cover with the headline: “John Z. DeLorean: A Swinger Tries to Cure Chevy’s Ills.”

In 1972, under Delorean’s leadership, Chevrolet became the first automotive nameplate on earth to sell more than 3 million vehicles in a single years. It was a major milestone, and in October of that year, DeLorean was promoted yet again: to group vice president in charge of GM’s entire car and truck business….

On his way up the corporate ladder at GM, DeLorean had leapfrogged ahead of several promising engineers, some with more seniority. At Pontiac, DeLorean had already been the youngest GM division head at 40. And with his arrival as head of GM’s North American operations, he began collecting his $650,000-a-year paycheck. In his rise, he had occasionally rubbed colleagues the wrong way, made unflattering public statements about other auto executives, or offended important politicians, calling Michigan’s Republican U.S. Senator, Robert Griffin, for example, a “moron.”

Still, in his last couple of years at GM, he continued his jet-setting lifestyle, seen in celebrity circles with noted businessmen and entertainers. In Hollywood, he became friends with James T. Aubrey, president of Metro-Goldwyn -Mayer studios, and was introduced to entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. and The Tonight Show TV host, Johnny Carson. He also met financier Kirk Kerkorian. By then, DeLorean also held a 1.5 percent interest in the New York Yankees baseball team.

Cristina Ferrare on the July 1974 cover of Cosmopolitan magazine.
Cristina Ferrare on the July 1974 cover of Cosmopolitan magazine.
Cristina Ferrare in a 1975 magazine advertisement for Max Factor eye makeup.
Cristina Ferrare in a 1975 magazine advertisement for Max Factor eye makeup.

In 1972 DeLorean began dating Cristina Ferrare (above), an American supermodel, who had graced fashion magazine covers. Hired as a model by the makeup company Max Factor when she was 16, Ferrare at 20 signed with the New York modeling agency Eileen Ford. She soon became a cover girl for major fashion magazines and later did TV and film work as well. DeLorean and Ferrare would marry in 1973.


14th Floor Blues

DeLorean’s disaffection with his position at GM began to surface when he moved from heading up the Chevrolet division to becoming a regional vice president. As a head of a car company line, auto executives had public visibility and more hands-on involvement with the business. On the 14th floor, however, although at the center of GM power, life was considerably more boring, filled with lots of meetings, and as some would later speculate, not at all in the style of John Z. DeLorean.

Late 1960s: John DeLorean, far right, at meeting when he was head of the Chevrolet division, where he felt more engaged, could meet with dealers, travel the country, etc., as opposed to life on the 14th floor.  Sports Illustrated.
Late 1960s: John DeLorean, far right, at meeting when he was head of the Chevrolet division, where he felt more engaged, could meet with dealers, travel the country, etc., as opposed to life on the 14th floor. Sports Illustrated.

As one friend noted, it was “like putting a straitjacket on Secretariat”(famous thoroughbred race horse). Another observed, “instead of [being] the big cheese at Chevy or Pontiac, he was just another vice president upstairs at the GM staff level.” DeLorean himself would recount one meeting with an executive who told him he should “disappear into the wallpaper up here.” DeLorean, in other words, was being told to tone down his act.

In addition, on the 14th floor, DeLorean’s ideas for GM’s business were being rejected, which was something of a new experience for him. His idea for making restyling changes earlier in the design cycle was nixed, as was the plan to make model changeovers at night and on weekends to keep plant shutdowns at a minimum, which would have saved the company $1 billion by his accounting. His suggestion to meet the 1975 federal air pollution emissions standards (then three years away) with catalytic converters was also rejected – as GM and the Big Three would instead lobby Washington for a one-year extension the Clean Air Act deadline ( the first of many such delays the automakers would win from subsequent administrations and/or Congress). DeLorean, in fact, had caught the attention of some environmentalists and safety advocates who viewed him as someone who might help turn GM in a better direction.


Little Innovation

According to some accounts, DeLorean had misgivings about GM and what he was seeing in the business well before his rise to the 14th floor. Detroit Free Press writer, Paul Hendrickson, noted in a Detroit magazine profile shortly after Delorean had left GM:“…My concern was that there hadn’t been an important product innova-tion in the industry since the automatic transmis-sion and power steering in 1949…”    – John DeLorean

“…By late 1972, there were new rumblings [for DeLorean]. More and more, many of America’s cars were becoming to him just big, vulgar hunks of tin and chrome. At the auto show in [Detroit’s] Cobo hall that fall, DeLorean was repulsed by what he later said was the gaudiness everywhere he looked. He began to question all over again the validity of bending the tin a different direction each year.”

DeLorean’s disenchantment with GM he would later say, actually began “sometime in the late 1960s,” when “a nagging suspicion about the philosophy of General Motors and the automobile business began to overtake me…” At that point he began looking at the company more critically, recalling what he had witnessed over 17 years. “My concern was that there hadn’t been an important product innovation in the industry since the automatic transmission and power steering in 1949. That was almost a quarter century in technological hibernation.”

In place of product innovation, DeLorean charged that the automobile industry “went on a two-decade marketing binge which generally offered up the same old product under the guise of something new and useful.” There really wasn’t much that was new, DeLorean said. “But year in and year out we were urging Americans to sell their cars and buy new ones because the styling had changed. There really was no reason for them to change from one model to the next, except for the new wrinkles in the sheet metal…”“Soon,” he would later write, “I found myself questioning the bigger picture; the morality of the whole GM system…” DeLorean felt that more emphasis on innovations that made a car safer, easier to drive, more trouble free, or more economic to operate would bring true benefit to the consumer. These were new found concerns for DeLorean, who admitted he had been among the stylists who pushed for superficial model changes in the past.

“Soon,” he would later write in a tell-all book, “I found myself questioning the bigger picture; the morality of the whole GM system… The undue emphasis on profits and cost control without a wide concern for the effects of GM’s business on its many publics seemed too often capable of bringing together, in the corporation, men of sound, personal morality and responsibility who as a group reached business decisions which were irresponsible and of questionable morality.” At GM, DeLorean charged, “the concern for the effects of products… was never discussed except in terms of cost or sales potential…”


Small Cars
Delorean & GM

In the late 1960s, small cars produced by foreign manufacturers, notably Volkswagen, and later the Japanese, were beginning to penetrate the American market in a noticeable way. But such sales — and the emerging trend — were dismissed for the most part by Detroit’s Big Three automakers, preferring to sell large cars. This was occurring a few years before the 1973-74 arab oil embargo and resulting U.S. energy crisis, revealing America’s big-car culture to be energy profligate and vulnerable. John DeLorean then headed GM’s Chevrolet division, and he became a voice for trying to move GM away from its large-car bias, a task that proved difficult and bucked up against GM tradition and culture. Here is an excerpt from Jack Doyle’s book, Taken For a Ride, on that period:

…Detroit’s heart and soul — and its leadership — just weren’t in the small-car business, a fact often admitted, and for some like Ford engineer Hal Sperlich, deeply lamented. But like Sperlich at Ford, there were a few voices within the industry that tried to push efficiency and smaller car design well before the energy crisis.Cole and DeLorean…were up against the fundamen-tal Alfred Sloan growth dictum of…trading up to bigger cars. At General Motors, Ed Cole and John DeLorean, then head of the GM’s Chevrolet division, had argued for smaller cars in the late 1960s. They pointed to the VW Beetle and the fact that much of the sales growth in the U.S. since 1965 had been in the small car segment. Smaller families, congested roads, higher costs and shifting values were also part of a trend toward a new market segment. But Cole and DeLorean were voices in the wilderness at GM; for they were up against the fundamental Alfred Sloan [formative and legendary GM CEO] growth dictum of GM’s success: trading up to bigger cars. By this rule, every American had a fundamental right (if not an economic obligation) to “trade up” to bigger cars — an idea that has never lost favor in management, even today. Cole and DeLorean — prodding GM to design smaller and lighter compacts and intermediates, while scaling down full-size cars — were bucking tradition. And they ran into GM’s powerful finance committee; then dominated by executives who had served with Sloan, and who were solidly committed to the big-car world view.

At John DeLorean’s departure from GM in 1973, he also made remarks on this topic in an October 28, 1973 New York Times story as follows:

…The thing that disappointed me was that most of the growth in the auto business in the last 10 years [ 1963-1973] has gone to the foreign cars. [That] business is 1.5 million units, and it’s gone overseas. This is an indictment of our industry.

…It was my feeling that we had a moral responsibility to build smaller cars, especially in G.M.’s case as America’s major supplier of transportation equipment.

Clip from October 28th, 1973 New York Times story  & interview with John DeLorean by reporter Robert Irvin.
Clip from October 28th, 1973 New York Times story & interview with John DeLorean by reporter Robert Irvin.

We had a responsibility to do that — whether it was profitable or not. And what happened is that we didn’t, and we left those cars to overseas.

Then we got to the point where the trade deficit on automobiles alone was $3.5-billion or $4-billion a year and that was the total amount of the nation’s trade deficit. That was the principal reason the dollar had to be devalued three or four times and we had no credibility in the financial world.

These guys refused to step up to their responsibility. Some guys say you should not do anything that’s not profitable. That is a matter of opinion.

…[I] wanted to bring out a sub-Vega size car long before the Vega [ was introduced in 1970].

We had worked out a line of smaller cars, that really combined the Camaro and Nova in a considerably smaller car so that today’s [i.e., 1973’s] intermediate-sized Chevelle would have been the size of the present compact Nova and the Nova would, have been somewhat smaller but with the same amount of size inside…. [ That program was cancelled ].

However, during DeLorean’s watch as head of the Chevrolet division, the Vega was launched, a small car whose first five years of production saw erratic fuel economy (23 mpg in 1971; 13 mpg in 1973), body rusting within a few months of purchase, a problem-plagued aluminum engine, and various brake, drive-train and rear-axle problems. These shortcomings and others in GM and Ford small cars [i.e., the Pinto] raised troubling questions about the U.S. auto industry’s engineering capabilities — a harbinger of things to come in later years. It also brought forward for the first time in Detroit “the quality issue.”


Greenbrier Speech

DeLorean’s growing disaffection with GM seemed to bubble up in a speech he was preparing to give at a November 1972 gathering of GM’s top 700 managers in Greenbrier, West Virginia. GM held such meetings every few years or so to have its managers talk candidly about needed internal changes and new perspectives. DeLorean was asked to talk on Product Quality, and his earlier drafts were quite pointed and critical, but later toned down by management. None of the material, in any case, was intended for the public beyond GM. But an earlier draft of DeLorean’s speech was leaked, and made its way into the Detroit News in November 1972.

While John DeLorean was having his doubts about GM, the press was still featuring him in cover stories, here with Signature magazine in November 1972 – “Man on the Move John Delorean: The New Mr. Cool at General Motors.”
While John DeLorean was having his doubts about GM, the press was still featuring him in cover stories, here with Signature magazine in November 1972 – “Man on the Move John Delorean: The New Mr. Cool at General Motors.”
DeLorean’s speech included a number of topics, including some discussion of the Wankel engine, an alternative internal combustion engine then thought to be a low-polluting alternative to the conventional ICE, later found to have poor fuel economy and was dropped. However, it was his critique of the company’s poor product quality at the time that appeared to wound GM most deeply.

DeLorean revealed that GM was then spending as estimated $500 million annually in warranty repairs — a huge sum in the early 1970s. “Poor quality,” DeLorean wrote for his prepared remarks, which were printed in the newspaper, “threatens to destroy us.” DeLorean also noted, “every defect, each recall, only diminishes the credibility of whatever amount of advertising we do.” Poor quality in GM’s cars, he continued, “has already resulted in seriously declining owner-loyalty… and reduced credibility of our promises to do better next time.”

After that speech, GM Vice Chairman Thomas Murphy, who generally had judged DeLorean on his ability and solid business performance, began to lose confidence in him. It was about then as well that DeLorean himself began to realize he was on his way out.

In December 1972, DeLorean wrote a 19-page single-spaced memorandum to Murphy. The memo recounted in great detail what DeLorean believed to be GM’s failings and poor record — on safety and pollution, among other concerns. One small portion of that memo, pertaining to the company’s views on emissions control, is excerpted below:

…In no instance, to my knowledge, has GM ever sold a car that was substantially more pollution free than the law demanded — even when we had the technology. As a matter of fact, because the California laws were tougher, we sold “cleaner” cars there and “dirtier” cars throughout the rest of the nation. This approach of just doing the bare bones minimum to just scrape by the pollution law when GM could do much better by spending a few dollars is not socially responsible. With our virtual monopoly position in the industry we also, in effect,DeLorean argued that GM, with its dominant market position, could lead the industry with socially-re-sponsible technology and push its competitors in that direction as well. control our competitors — who would be economically devastated if they tried to do better socially but at a greater product cost.

We of Chevrolet proposed to the EPG [Engineering Policy Group] that we make our cars cleaner than the law demanded — we were told that the other divisions did not need a $15.00 air pump to meet the law — we were to take it off our cars. Our next proposal was to have all optional engines exceed the law (do the best we knew) since the customer would pay the extra cost anyhow — once again we were not permitted to do so for fear we would lose a few sales…

…Our corporation has lost credibility with the public and the government because each new emissions standard has been greeted by our management’s immediate cries of “impossible,” “prohibitively expensive,” “not economically responsible” — usually before we even knew what it involved. The remarkable thing is that with all of our resources and the amount we tell the government we are spending on emissions research that most of the significant developments in this field have come from someone else — for example, our first answer, the “Clean Air Package,” was developed by a handful of engineers at Chrysler, the manifold reactor which meets the 1975 standard now (and should be in production) was developed by Du Pont with less than 10% of our facilities and manpower. The other 1975 answer, the catalytic converter with EGR, was developed by a small grant given by Ford, several oil companies and several Japanese manufacturers. Not a very good record for a corporation that professes to be vitally interested in emissions. When we tell government about our large expenditures for emissions controls we don’t bother to tell them that very little is being spent on R and D and that most of our money is spent on adapting hardware to our wide variety of engines.

Feb 1974: John DeLorean shown in a reflective pose on the cover of Detroit magazine: “The Private Side of John Delorean: Designing a New Life at 49.”
Feb 1974: John DeLorean shown in a reflective pose on the cover of Detroit magazine: “The Private Side of John Delorean: Designing a New Life at 49.”
Murphy gave the memo back to DeLorean without any response or comment, and before long, John DeLorean knew he would have to resign.

In January 1973, after 17 years of making his way to the top of the auto game, John DeLorean took the final plane ride from Detroit to New York to meet with three GM executives to tender his resignation. Some say DeLorean’s departure from GM was not his decision but GM’s, choosing to rid itself of a bothersome critic. Upon leaving, however, DeLorean was awarded a Cadillac dealership in Florida and was owed over $500,000 in bonus pay. And while he planned his next venture, he would also run the National Alliance for Businessmen for one year, an organization that helped find jobs for disadvantaged minorities. GM would pay him a $200,000 salary while he held this post. The resignation letter, which DeLorean signed at GM’s headquarters in New York city after meeting with GM Chairman Richard Gerstenberg and Vice Chairman Thomas Murphy, would become effective on May 31, 1973.

Meanwhile, in his personal life, Delorean and Cristina Ferrare were married that same month, May 1973. By February 1974, in addition to his home in the Bloomfield Hills of Detroit, he had a string of real estate holdings that included a cattle ranch in Salmon Idaho, an avocado farm in southern California’s Puma Valley, and a D.C. townhouse. Later, a New Jersey estate and a New York city residence would be added.


The Bombshell

1st edition of, “On A Clear Day You Can See General Motors,” John DeLorean's GM account, as written and published by J. Patrick Wright.
1st edition of, “On A Clear Day You Can See General Motors,” John DeLorean's GM account, as written and published by J. Patrick Wright.
“On a Clear Day…”

Upon leaving GM, DeLorean agreed to collaborate in writing a “tell all” book about his GM experience with J. Patrick Wright, a former Detroit Business Week bureau chief. Wright had covered the auto industry for 13 years.

As the book project got underway in the mid-1970s, and Wright proceeded with the writing, DeLorean began his quest for a new automotive business venture. He planned to build a new sports car, and would found a new auto company to do it; a company he called the DeLorean Motor Company (DMC). The car he planned to build and sell would be called the DMC-12 (more on the venture later below).

However, as DeLorean set about raising money and making connections in the auto industry for suppliers and production, he began to worry about the forthcoming book he and Wright were doing, and possible retaliation from GM on his new-car venture.

For several years, in fact, DeLorean vacillated about publication, frustrating Wright to the point of Wright mortgaging his house to stake the book’s publication. Wright persisted because he believed that what DeLorean had told him about GM, and big business generally, was important for the public to see. Finally, in November 1979, after four years of holding the book off the market, and at least one blown publishing contract with Playboy Press, the book was published — and some controversy began.

J. Patrick Wright, former Business Week Detroit Bureau Chief.
J. Patrick Wright, former Business Week Detroit Bureau Chief.
“It is his book,” said Wright of DeLorean and the story, which was written in the first person as told to Wright by DeLorean. “He told me several times that it is exactly what he wanted.”

Wright, who had staked his personal reputation on the book’s publication, also added in the introduction that “much of the factual content, anecdotes, tenor and tone of the book has been confirmed in my own outside reporting.” Wholesalers sold all 20,000 copies of the first edition. Another 20,000 copies were quickly printed.

DeLorean, for his part, gave a two-hour interview on the book that November (1979) with several reporters. By then he was well along with plans for his DMC car idea and was then working out of a suite of ultra modern offices atop a Manhattan office building – which had a clear view of GM’s office tower a few blocks away.

Regarding the book, DeLorean acknowledged On A Clear Day to be a true account, and said there were no significant errors of fact and no misrepresentations of his own views about GM. In fact, DeLorean reiterated that he didn’t see a dramatic difference in the GM of that day (1979) compared to the company he had left in 1973. He also offered comment on one current hot Detroit topic: the financial troubles of the Chrysler Corporation. Chrysler at the time, prior to Lee Iaccoca, was near bankruptcy, and complained that government regulation was the cause. “That’s bullshit,” DeLorean said, pointing to stumbles by mistake-prone management, adding however, that he did support government aid to bail out Chrysler.

John DeLorean, in his Manhattan office suite during his DMC planing years in the 1970s, high above New York city.
John DeLorean, in his Manhattan office suite during his DMC planing years in the 1970s, high above New York city.

On A Clear Day, meanwhile, exposed a whole laundry list of GM misdoings — from industrial espionage and contempt for workers, to poor quality in manufacturing and misleading advertising campaigns. The book showed GM’s fledgling attempt to produce the 1968 Vega, a car that was supposed to compete with the VW bug, but instead became an engineering disaster, and was dropped by the end of the 1977 model year.

First edition, Wright/DeLorean book, 1979.
First edition, Wright/DeLorean book, 1979.
DeLorean also revealed that the Corvair in 1959 “was unsafe as it was originally designed” and that GM knew it was unsafe and made “an immoral business decision” to produce the car. The Corvair had also been the central subject of Ralph Nader’s 1965 book, Unsafe At Any Speed, to which DeLorean’s charges helped lend further substantiation. On a Clear Day also described the efforts of the company to “squelch information which might prove the [Corvair’s] deficiencies.”

In the book, DeLorean also recounts one tale in 1971 of the company’s attempt to destroy 19 boxes of microfilmed complaints from Corvair owners, only to have those boxes come back to GM by way of two Detroit junk dealers who found them, selling them back to GM for $20,000. DeLorean’s management critique of GM, including the increasing centralization of management at the expense of its individual car divisions, would prove to be prophetic as GM and all of Detroit became victimized by their own inertia and myopia during the 1980s.

A number of journalists gave the Wright /DeLorean book glowing reviews. “What we have spread on the record is a stunning account of the venality, narrow-mindedness – yes, even immorality – of one big American business,” wrote Washington Post business reporter Hobart Rowan.

June 1980: Avon paperback edition of “On A Clear Day You Can See General Motors.”
June 1980: Avon paperback edition of “On A Clear Day You Can See General Motors.”
Others, however, were more critical, challenging DeLorean’s motives. Detroit News columnist Robert Irvin found DeLorean’s memory a selective one, and the book “full of gossip” and detailed accounts of office politics and executive pettiness. Still, even Irvin said the book “should be read by students of the auto industry because DeLorean offers some interesting insights and opinions about GM corporate life.”

The back jacket of the June 1980 Avon paperback edition leads with a series of press blurbs and offers a summary description:

“Controversial.” – The New York Times

“Damming.” – Saturday Review

“Riveting.” – Chicago Sun Times

In the spring of 1973. John Z DeLorean stunned the business world by handing in his resignation as a Vice President of General Motors. His rise had been meteoric. By his mid-forties he was their most brilliant and flamboyant young executive, earning $650,000 a year and destined to become the next president of the industrial giant. But the higher he rose, the more disillusioned he became. When he saw what really went on along Executive Row – the corruption, the mismanagement, the total irresponsibility at every level – he decided the climb to the top was no longer worth it. He got out.

This is John Z. DeLorean’s story, the unprecedented and unforgettable expose of America’s most powerful supercorporation – the book that blows the lid off the king of carmakers.

On A Clear Day You Can See General Motors sold more than 1.6 million copies, and the book is still used today in schools and colleges for reference and the study of the automobile industry. Meanwhile, Part 2 of the John Delorean story was already in motion.


The DMC Dream

DeLorean in a happier moment, promoting his DMC.
DeLorean in a happier moment, promoting his DMC.
After leaving GM, and mulling over his options for a time, DeLorean managed to do what few others in the auto business had done: begin a new automobile company. He set up the DeLorean Motor Corporation (DMC) in Ireland, with the partial backing of the British government, delivering by the fall of 1978, a prototype “gull-wing” sports car. Production models for sale, however, would take a bit longer.

The fact that he could raise the money alone was something of a coup. “No one had ever doubted his talent, for he was one of the most creative young men of his generation,” wrote David Halberstam in his 1986 book on the auto industry, The Reckoning. “Many thought, that his was the most plausible attempt by an American at a start-up [auto] company since that of Henry Kaiser…” Halberstam observed that DeLorean’s flamboyant style and Iacocca-like national recognition, helped him raise the money.

DeLorean needed $175 million to finance his dream. He enlisted more than one hundred investors, including Johnny Carson and Sammy Davis, Jr., who put over $12 million into a partnership for research and development while the British government produced $156 million in grants and loans in return for DeLorean locating the DMC factory in Northern Ireland. (Britain liked the idea of creating 2,000 new jobs in a region suffering a 20 percent unemployment rate.) He also had more than 250 U.S. car dealers sign up as partner/investors, with many of those filing early orders for the car. DeLorean, however, according to some accounts, risked relatively little of his own money — $700,000 by one estimate — but he seemed to be on the road to having his dream come true.

1981: John DeLorean at right showing famous late night talk show host, Johnny Carson  – also a DMC investor – some of the internal controls of a DeLorean Motor Car.
1981: John DeLorean at right showing famous late night talk show host, Johnny Carson – also a DMC investor – some of the internal controls of a DeLorean Motor Car.

And as he pursued his DMC, DeLorean lived in the style of the well-paid business executive that he had become accustomed to. Among his multiple residences in 1982 were, for example: a $7.2 million, 20-room Fifth Avenue duplex; a $3.5 million estate in New Jersey; and a $4 million California ranch. His estimated net worth at the time was $28 million. As DMC’s CEO, his salary was nearly half a million dollars a year. DMC’s New York city offices, meanwhile – in a GM- comparable skyscraper – ran a costly $25,000-a-month.

The DMC and DeLorean received quite extensive publicity both in advance of the car’s actual production and as it first became available for sale in 1981-82. The car was featured in a number of prominent auto magazines well before it became available, helping to stoke expectations. And DeLorean himself appeared on magazine covers and in numerous media stories.

Oct 1979: DeLorean w/DMC, billed by Success mag. as a “pioneer in a new era of individual opportunity.”
Oct 1979: DeLorean w/DMC, billed by Success mag. as a “pioneer in a new era of individual opportunity.”
John DeLorean & his DMC featured in a laudatory 1982 Cutty Sark profile.
John DeLorean & his DMC featured in a laudatory 1982 Cutty Sark profile.

One 1982 Cutty Sark Scotch whisky advertisement — featuring Delorean’s face and his DMC — offered a profile that was especially laudatory, opening with the headline: “One Out of Every 100 New Businesses Succeeds. Here’s to Those Who Take the Odds.” And the ad’s text gave DeLorean rave reviews:

John DeLorean was on the way to the presidency of General Motors when he quit to build his own car company. In his 17 years with GM he helped quadruple Pontiac sales, built Chevrolet into a 3-million seller and was awarded 44 automotive patents. While his bosses railed at him for wearing his hair too long.

Now his stainless steel DeLorean Sports Car is here. Designed to last 20 years rust free. And the first year’s production is sold out.

John DeLorean anticipates the needs and wants of car buyers. He does no less for the scotch drinkers he invites to his home. That’s why he selects and serves the impeccably smooth Cutty Sark… The Scotch with a following of leaders…

Automobile suppliers were also eager to use DeLorean and his upcoming DMC in their product advertising. Goodyear, for example, ran a double page magazine spread in about the DMC’s use of their tires on the new model, with DeLorean along for the photo shoot. “Goodyear. Quality A Man Can Stake His Reputation On,” read the ad’s headline, with DeLorean getting good press in the ad’s copy (below):

Circa 1981-82. Goodyear’s double-page magazine ad touted the man and the car -- and of course, its own tires on the car.
Circa 1981-82. Goodyear’s double-page magazine ad touted the man and the car -- and of course, its own tires on the car.

John Z. DeLorean. A legend in the car industry long before he ever decided to build his dream car. And when he did decide to build his dream car, he went to Lotus for the suspension; to Giugiaro for the design.

And to Goodyear for the tires.

Working with Goodyear engineers, and drawing on Goodyear’s unequalled racing experience, John Z. decided on race-type sizing for optimum balance and handling:

Goodyear NCT 195/60 HR14s for the front: larger Goodyear NCT235/60 HR15s for the rear.

Given John Z’s knowledge of the automobile industry, he could have decided to have just about any major tire manufacturer provide him with tires for the first car bearing his name.

But when John’s first car rolled off the line, the only name other than John’s that appeared on the exterior was ours.

Our name is Goodyear, And we make high-performance radial tires.

Radial tires that a man can stake his reputation on.

March 2, 1981. Automotive News reporting on the first DMCs produced in Ireland.
March 2, 1981. Automotive News reporting on the first DMCs produced in Ireland.
DeLorean the GM critic, meanwhile, would also surface from time to time in the media, goading GM or the industry generally on one or more topics, a favorite being lack of innovation.

“Today’s transverse engine front-wheel-drive layouts,” he wrote in an April 1981 New York Times Op-Ed piece, “differ little from the British Layland mini [car] of 25 years ago…” In that same piece, he also suggested that a then-advertized GM efficiency feature was hardly cutting edge:

“I remember my first visit to the GM proving ground in October 1956. I rode in a 1956 Chevrolet with John Dolza, GM’s noted engine engineer. In this particular car, he had rigged the V-8 engine to run on all eight cylinders when maximum power was required and to cruise at highway speeds on only four cylinders to save fuel. That was 24 years ago. [emphasis added]. A Cadillac advertisement recently touted that a V-8 that accelerates on eight cylinders and cruises on four is 1981’s hottest feature…”

After a fair amount of hype and numerous false starts, the production of his $25,000 V-6-powered, stainless-steel, gull-winged DMC-12 finally began in Belfast, Northern Ireland. The snazzy car debuted in February 1981. In Los Angeles there was an unveiling of the car at the Biltmore Hotel on February 8th, 1981 with Johnny Carson, DeLorean, wife Cristina Ferrare and others.

One of the print ads that ran in 1982 for the DMC, using the theme, 'The DeLorean: Live The Dream'.
One of the print ads that ran in 1982 for the DMC, using the theme, 'The DeLorean: Live The Dream'.
Some advertising for the car had also begun, using the theme, “The DeLorean: Live The Dream,” with ad copy hyping the car’s special features and noting the company’s 345 U.S. dealers would deliver a “superb standard of service.”

But the DMC’s introduction and early sales were not without glitches. There were some quality problems with the cars, though these for the most part were quickly addressed with a series of Quality Assurance Centers set up to correct problems before the cars went to the dealers. But entering the market in 1981 there was lower priced competition in the sports car class from Datsun, Mazda, and Porsche. The DMC, at $26,000, cost $8,000 more than a Chevy Corvette. There was also a recession during 1981-82. The hoped-for sales of 12,000 DMCs a year fell short by half.

DeLorean then faced a raft of DMC-related financial difficulties – not least of which was money owed against some very weak cash flow. He had sought a second round of financial help from the British Government without success (which some believe could have helped the company survive and was shortsighted by the Thatcher government). Other sources of financial help were limited, with earlier backers tapped out. And that’s when some believe John DeLorean ventured into desperate territory.


“Busted”

In the fall of 1982, DeLorean’s fortunes changed rather abruptly when he walked into the middle of an FBI drug sting in Los Angeles. There he was videotaped in an airport hotel meeting with 50 pounds of cocaine in a breifcase while saying, “it’s as good as gold,” a reference to the drug’s possible street value. This was DeLorean’s assumed move to help generate the large amounts of capital he needed to keep his car company afloat. But now he was busted; arrested and charged with conspiring to sell drugs. But the arrest was just the beginning of a very public prosecution and trial that would stretch over nearly 2 years.

Time’s Nov. 1st, 1982 cover story: “DeLorean’s Shattered Dream.”
Time’s Nov. 1st, 1982 cover story: “DeLorean’s Shattered Dream.”
New York Daily News front page on DeLorean drug bust, Oct. 22, 1982.
New York Daily News front page on DeLorean drug bust, Oct. 22, 1982.
Newsweek’s Nov. 1st, 1982 story on DeLorean: “From Cars to Cocaine.”
Newsweek’s Nov. 1st, 1982 story on DeLorean: “From Cars to Cocaine.”

The bust was something of a media event, with Time, Newsweek and many newspapers giving the story top billing and front-page treatment. DeLorean’s trial following his arrest fueled the tabloids for months. There were stories in People magazine featuring DeLorean and wife Cristina. One unflattering profile of DeLorean appeared in a New York magazine cover story by Michael Daly titled, “The Real DeLorean Story.” Rather than the well-intentioned maverick businessman with tendencies toward ethical car production and righting callous corporate decision making, DeLorean, in this piece, was characterized as a ruthless operator and something of a con man, leaving a trail of unhappy business partners, self-interested investments, and litigation by various wronged parties. According to this piece, a range of creditors, former partners, and government agencies all had him in court for a variety of charged offenses, from breach of contract an unpaid attorney fees to racketeering and income tax evasion.

People, Nov. 29, 1982: Cristina “telling the kids about Dad.”
People, Nov. 29, 1982: Cristina “telling the kids about Dad.”
Nov. 1982. New York magazine cast DeLorean in unflattering story.
Nov. 1982. New York magazine cast DeLorean in unflattering story.
April 1984. People magazine at trial time asks: “Will He Get Off?”
April 1984. People magazine at trial time asks: “Will He Get Off?”

Back at the main event, however – DeLorean’s drug trial and the government’s alleged conspiracy case against him – he had pled not guilty and his attorney mounted a defense that charged the government agents (who had first posed a legitimate investors) with entrapment and luring Delorean into the drug deal. It was a strategy that won the day. DeLorean was acquitted of all charges in 1984 – “not so much because the jury believed him,” wrote David Halberstam in his book, The Reckoning, citing those who had followed the case, “but rather because ordinary Americans did not like the idea of their government setting up its citizens…”

Detroit Free Press headlines of August 17th, 1984 on “not guilty” verdict in DeLorean’s drug case. Second headline: “Tapes Were Dramatic, But Didn’t Sway Jurors.”
Detroit Free Press headlines of August 17th, 1984 on “not guilty” verdict in DeLorean’s drug case. Second headline: “Tapes Were Dramatic, But Didn’t Sway Jurors.”
In addition, DeLorean’s wife, Cristina Ferrare, appeared to be a particularly strong and loyal companion throughout his drug ordeal and trial. She put her modeling career on hold to devote time to family and helping her husband raise money for his defense, including, reportedly, selling parts of her personal diary to People magazine for $110,000. And she was also an invaluable public relations asset throughout the trial. People’s Michael Ryan would later write of her in late December 1984, post verdict:

“…But the most telling argument for the defense was the woman who sat at [DeLorean’s] side most days, descended like a fairy princess from the ether of her high-fashion world to give the jury a lesson in wifely devotion. Surely Cristina Ferrare DeLorean — loyal, chic, and smart – would not be the moll of a drug peddler. Nobody ever said that in so many words, but it was a question the jury had to ponder every time the faithful wife appeared in the courtroom. The government said that DeLorean acted out of greed; his lawyers said he acted out of fear, to protect his family from drug dealers. The jury, weighing the model of matrimonial devotion against the testimony of often bumbling government operatives, decided that evil was not in the mind of John DeLorean.”

By this time, the British Government had closed down DeLorean’s DMC plant in Ireland in 1983, which still had several hundred cars in stock and others on the production line. He and his company, meanwhile, would become ensnared in business-related litigation for years thereafter. In the end, fewer than 10,000 DMC cars were produced. But many of those cars have had an amazing second life, with more than 6,000 in fact still in use today, testament to their “no rust” billing. More on that in a moment.

Poster for the film “Back to The Future,” now a three-film, $1 billion franchise with a universe of related products.
Poster for the film “Back to The Future,” now a three-film, $1 billion franchise with a universe of related products.

Back To The Future

One happy development for DeLorean’s legal troubles and his legacy, however, came in 1985, when a movie named Back to the Future — starring Michael J. Fox as Marty McFly and Christopher Lloyd as the slightly unhinged but lovable Doc Brown – used the DMC-12 as one of its main characters: the time-travelling machine aiding Marty and Doc in their adventures.

In fact, there were three Back to the Future films (1985, 1989, and 1990) and the then-defunct DeLorean DMC-12 car received a huge popularity boost throughout the world. The three films have grossed nearly $1 billion to date, and DeLorean through the 1980s and 1990s collected millions in licensing fees from all three, plus a piece of the action from a related animated television series, toys, games, and other Back to the Future paraphernalia.

In fact, the income generated by the DMC’s starring role in the Back to the Future franchise helped to keep DeLorean afloat as creditors, partners, and government agencies pursued him for various damages, taxes, and fees. The DMC, meanwhile, lives on.

In 1995, a Liverpool-born mechanic and business entrprenur Stephen Wynne started a separate company using the “DeLorean Motor Company” name. He would also acquire the remaining parts inventory (in fact, quite substantial and enough to build a couple hundred new DMCs) and the “DMC” logo trademark. Now based in the Houston, Texas area, and known informally as “ DMC Texas”, this company has five franchised dealers in Florida, Illinois, California, Washington and the Netherlands helping to service existing DMCs, of which some 6,000 are believed to be still in operation. And as of January 2016, this company was also building new DMCs in limited numbers, some priced around $100,000. The DMC has also became something of a car-collectors favorite, with a number of clubs and/or fan websites devoted to the car and its history.

“De Lorean: Stainless Steel Illusion,” by John Lamm, published, April 1983.
“De Lorean: Stainless Steel Illusion,” by John Lamm, published, April 1983.
Hillel Levin’s book, “John DeLorean: The Maverick Mogul,” published in October 1983.
Hillel Levin’s book, “John DeLorean: The Maverick Mogul,” published in October 1983.
“Dream Maker: The Rise and Fall of John Z. Delorean,” Ivan Fallon & James Srodes, 1985.
“Dream Maker: The Rise and Fall of John Z. Delorean,” Ivan Fallon & James Srodes, 1985.

Tougher Times

John DeLorean, meanwhile, had a tougher life following his failed car effort and his battles with the government. He divorced again in 1985, married for a fourth time, and led a much quieter life through the 1990s. Still, he was seen occasionally in media photos, attending social events. However, by 1999, after fighting some 40 court cases related to his failed car company, he filed for bankruptcy. Among assets and personal property sold were his 1978 Yankees World Series ring (he held a minority stake in the team) and his 434-acre estate in Bedminster, New Jersey. The estate was purchased by Donald Trump for part of a golf course.

John DeLorean did not, however, let go of his new car ideas. In May 1999, a wire story noted he had another new car in the works – this one built with structural composite that could go zero-to-60 mph in 3.2 seconds and would cost $18,000. “Cars are in my blood,” he said at that time, “they’re really the only thing I’ve ever worked at.” But he never returned to the industry. In March 2005, John DeLorean died after a stroke. He was 80 years old. Still, to this day, DeLorean remains an intriguing figure for journalists and auto historians. At least half a dozen books have been written about him, along with several TV and film documentaries. In 2017, a new Hollywood film on DeLorean was reported to be in the works, and there is also a DeLorean Museum located in Humble, Texas.


“…Heart of a Hippie”?

Charles Madigan, writing a profile of DeLorean for the Chicago Tribune in October 1982 at the news of his drug arrest, offered the following sketch:

John Z. DeLorean was a man tailor-made for success, a bold and brilliant engineer with a plan to ride to glory in a stainless steel sports car.

He was a Henry Ford with some rock ‘n roll mixed in. He was fireworks instead of stuffiness. He built cars and talked about the ethics of industrial America. He became a media favorite.

It was almost too good to be true, a man with the brains of a capitalist and the heart of a hippie, the kind of character who would walk away from one of the most powerful positions in American industry to “do his own thing.”…

Dan Neil, writing a 2005 retrospective on the DeLorean/ GM era in the Los Angles Times, suggested that GM and DeLorean needed each other, and implied that if each side had come half way in working with each other, perhaps the historic outcome would have been different:

What if DeLorean and GM had reconciled?

It certainly seems now they needed each other. GM needed the bold strokes of an unconventional thinker such as DeLorean. He needed the coat-and-tie discipline of the 14th floor. If the collapse of the DeLorean Motor Co. proves anything, it’s that the bean-counters have their place.

With the DMC-12, DeLorean had in mind an “ethical sports car”: a car that would be fun to drive, practical, safe, offer good fuel efficiency and value… And — as the stainless steel body suggests — he wanted it to last a long time. He argued that the endless churn of automotive obsolescence was a waste of money and resources.

In this respect, DeLorean was one of the rare Detroit auto executives who — along with futurists such as Buckminster Fuller and Norman Bel Geddes — saw the automobile as part of a progressive vision of the world, where transportation was framed by social and environmental imperatives….

Unfortunately, that progressive vision of transportation has not yet reached fulfillment, and is certainly not apparent in most of what General Motors turns out today, or for that matter, the rest of the automobile industry either. As for the DeLorean saga, on one level, it illustrates the difficulty in trying to make modest change in an automobile culture that – with all its moving parts, resource requirements, urban congestion, pollution, wastes, and parallel consumption – is now well into its second century of roiling the planet and most major cities.

For additional stories on General Motors at this website see, for example: “Dinah Shore & Chevrolet” and “G.M. & Ralph Nader.” See also the “Business & Society” and “Environmental History” topics pages for stories in those categories. Thanks for visiting – and if you like what you find here, please make a donation to help support the research and writing at this website. Thank you. – Jack Doyle

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Date Posted: 15 June 2017
Last Update: 31 May 2018
Comments to: jdoyle@pophistorydig.com

Article Citation:
Jack Doyle, “The DeLorean Saga: Car Guy, 1960s-1980s,”
PopHistoryDig.com, June 15, 2017.

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Sources, Links & Additional Information

Aug 15, 1965. John DeLorean, then General Manager of GM’s Pontiac Division, posing with new 6-cylinder overhead cam engine, among America's first mass-produced overhead-cam engines, ahead of its time on several fronts.
Aug 15, 1965. John DeLorean, then General Manager of GM’s Pontiac Division, posing with new 6-cylinder overhead cam engine, among America's first mass-produced overhead-cam engines, ahead of its time on several fronts.
October 1972. Delivering the Chevy vision in the company magazine, “Friends” as top man at Chevrolet.
October 1972. Delivering the Chevy vision in the company magazine, “Friends” as top man at Chevrolet.
March 1975: John DeLorean and Cristina Ferrare at The Balloon Ball, Hotel Pierre, New York, NY.
March 1975: John DeLorean and Cristina Ferrare at The Balloon Ball, Hotel Pierre, New York, NY.
July 1977: Early media attention for DeLorean’s DMC-12 prototype helped stoke expectations for the car.
July 1977: Early media attention for DeLorean’s DMC-12 prototype helped stoke expectations for the car.
Feb 1981. John & Cristina DeLorean featured on cover of United Airlines’ “United Mainliner” in-flight magazine with tagged story, “DeLorean Motors Revs Its Engines.”
Feb 1981. John & Cristina DeLorean featured on cover of United Airlines’ “United Mainliner” in-flight magazine with tagged story, “DeLorean Motors Revs Its Engines.”
Print ad used to pitch DMCs mid-1981 during U.S. Open tennis tournament; also mentions DMC’s debut TV ad.
Print ad used to pitch DMCs mid-1981 during U.S. Open tennis tournament; also mentions DMC’s debut TV ad.
November 8, 1982: People, “Downfall of an Auto Prince.”
November 8, 1982: People, “Downfall of an Auto Prince.”
May 1984. DeLorean and Cristina during drug trial in L.A. Cristina filed for divorce in 1985. Photo, Ron Galella.
May 1984. DeLorean and Cristina during drug trial in L.A. Cristina filed for divorce in 1985. Photo, Ron Galella.

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“Giant Shovel on I-70”
Ohio Strip Mine Fight: 1973

Colossal earth-moving machines became symbols in the 1960s-1970s environmental battles over surface coal mining, also known as “strip mining.” These machines – some capable of scooping two-to-three Greyhound bus-size equivalents of earth with each bite – laid waste to tens of thousands of acres as they uncovered near-surface coal to feed electric power plants. In 1972-73, a trio of these machines, then chewing through southeastern Ohio, became involved in a controversial proposal: to cross, and temporarily shut down, a major interstate highway to get to the coal on the other side. The event became a symbolic and actual “line-in-the-sand” confrontation between those opposed to strip mining and those who saw it as vital for energy, jobs, and local economies.

The February 1973 issue of Smithsonian magazine ran a dramatic shot of “The GEM of Egypt”  in operation in the Egypt Valley of Ohio, just north of I-70, as the magazine featured a story on “the need for energy vs. strip mining.” Note size of the shovel’s bucket relative to the vehicles on the road below. Photo, Arthur Sirdofsky.
The February 1973 issue of Smithsonian magazine ran a dramatic shot of “The GEM of Egypt” in operation in the Egypt Valley of Ohio, just north of I-70, as the magazine featured a story on “the need for energy vs. strip mining.” Note size of the shovel’s bucket relative to the vehicles on the road below. Photo, Arthur Sirdofsky.

There were three of the giant machines at issue: The Tiger, The Mountaineer, and The GEM of Egypt. All three were then in the service of the Hanna Coal Company, which by 1970, had been strip mining in Ohio for decades and was then a division of the much larger Pittsburgh Consolidation Coal Company, later known as “Consol,” itself then owned by Continental Oil. More on Hanna/Consol and the big machines in a moment, first some background on Ohio’s coal.


Ohio’s Coal

Various coalfields in the tri-state OH-PA-WV area are shown in color, overlaying county boundaries – a region where coal has been mined for decades in the Appalachian Coal Basin.
Various coalfields in the tri-state OH-PA-WV area are shown in color, overlaying county boundaries – a region where coal has been mined for decades in the Appalachian Coal Basin.
Coal is found in 32 counties in Ohio, though primarily in the southeastern part of the state which is located on the northwestern edge of the Appalachian Coal Basin, one of the largest coalfields in the U.S.

Coal has been mined in Ohio since the early 1800s, initially with crude mining techniques working surface outcroppings, to more sophisticated mechanized technologies that evolved following WWI and WWII. Most of the mining in Ohio through the 1930s was in deep mines or shaft mines that bore into mountainsides. Surface mining existed as well, but it wasn’t until the big shovels came on in the 1940s and 1950s that strip mining began to take a larger portion of the state’s annual coal production.

Generally it is economic to strip mine when there is a 20:1 ratio of overburden-to-coal seam, meaning, for example that a three-foot coal seam can be surface mined economically when the overburden is up to 60 feet. However, at some surface mines in Ohio, highwalls of up to 200 feet high remain where five-foot-coal seams have been extracted. And in these cases, the size and power of the giant shovels and draglines used in those areas made that level of extraction possible.


The Big Shovels

The smallest of Hanna Coal Company’s earth movers involved in the I-70 controversy, The Tiger, was among the company’s first big shovels, built in the early 1940s. But even for that “small” shovel, mining historians noted that it took about 63 trainloads to ship its parts from Marion, Ohio to Hanna’s Georgetown coal complex south of Cadiz, Ohio in Harrison County, where it was assembled. The shipping and assembly of the shovel began in 1943, and by the following year, The Tiger was ready to begin digging. At the time, it was considered to be the world’s largest shovel, used to help mine coal for the steel mills during WWII. The photo below shows a portion of The Tiger in 1957 near Cadiz, Ohio.

The Tiger shown during a 1950s field tour. This shovel first began its work in Harrison County, Ohio in 1944, moving on to other coal fields in Ohio through the 1970s.
The Tiger shown during a 1950s field tour. This shovel first began its work in Harrison County, Ohio in 1944, moving on to other coal fields in Ohio through the 1970s.

The Hanna Coal Company, meanwhile, was quite an Ohio industrial power, evolved initially from Rhodes & Co., a firm in the 1840s that mined coal in Ohio’s Mahoning Valley area. Hanna expanded into iron ore mining in the Lake Superior region in the mid-1860s, establishing roots in the steel industry. Some years later, after considerable growth over the decades, and various business transactions, stock trades, mergers, and restructurings, including the sale of its iron and steel interests, Hanna, by 1945-46, became part of what was then called the Pittsburgh Consolidation Coal Company (Pitt-Consol). In this deal, Hanna brought to Consol its eastern Ohio coal properties, which then accounted for about 20 percent of Ohio’s production. A few years later, Pitt-Consol acquired more Hanna coal lands in Ohio’s Harrison, Belmont and Jefferson counties. But Hanna, as a Consolidation company, continued to operate in these areas under its name.

Undated photo (probably circa 1950s) of a smaller Bucyrus-Erie electric shovel loading a 55-ton Euclid truck at one of Hanna's coal mines. The loaded coal would then go to Hanna’s Georgetown prep plant for cleaning and shipping.
Undated photo (probably circa 1950s) of a smaller Bucyrus-Erie electric shovel loading a 55-ton Euclid truck at one of Hanna's coal mines. The loaded coal would then go to Hanna’s Georgetown prep plant for cleaning and shipping.

Hanna became one of the major players in the Eastern and Southeastern Ohio coalfields for many years. By the 1950s at Duncanwood, Ohio, near Cadiz in Harrison County, Hanna had a complex of offices and shop buildings, and also a major coal processing center at its giant Georgetown complex of coal mines, tipples, and railroads. The company’s coal cleaning operations there, which opened in 1951, was then one of the largest preparation plants in the world, and could process 1,275 tons/hour – which was quite formidable in the 1950’s. Hanna was also one of the first to use a coal slurry pipeline to transport coal over a long distance. In 1956 the company built a 10-inch, 108-mile-long pipeline that linked the Hanna’s Georgetown prep plant near Cadiz with the Cleveland Electric Company’s Eastlake Generating Station in Cleveland. Crushed coal was mixed with water at a Hanna plant and the slurry mixture then pumped through the line to Cleveland. Between 1957 and 1963, this pipeline supplied about six million tons of coal to Cleveland Electric.

Headlines from July 1966 when Hanna made a big investment in a nearby West Virginia deep mine.
Headlines from July 1966 when Hanna made a big investment in a nearby West Virginia deep mine.
Hanna made front-page news whenever it was inovled in a new coal investment. On June 10, 1966, for example, the company made headlines in the Steubenville Herald-Star of Steubenville, Ohio, for its plans at the Shoemaker Mine in the nearby West Virginia panhandle south of Wheeling. Just across the Ohio River there, at Benwood, West Virginia, a deep mine and related facilities were being planned. In the newspaper, an aerial photo on the front page showed the complex of coal haulage roads and preparation facilities to service the deep mine, which also included rail transport from the mine, conveyor system, and coal crushing and coal washing.

At its deep mine locations, especially in earlier years, Hanna built company housing for its miners, such as those built for workers at the Dunglen mine at Newtown, Ohio. It also operated company stores – those invoked generally by the Tennessee Ernie Ford song, “Sixteen Tons.” Two of Hanna’s stores were those named Dillonvale and Lafferty, and another one was located at Willow Grove, Ohio. First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, had visited Hanna’s Willow Grove deep mine in April 1935. Below is an enlarged map of several Ohio counties where Hanna Coal Company mines and machines exploited the Pittsburgh No. 8 Coalfield for many years.

Map showing the Pittsburgh No. 8 Coalfield, running beneath Southeastern Ohio counties where Hanna Coal Co and others operated strip and deep mines and other facilities for decades. Source: CoalCampUSA.com
Map showing the Pittsburgh No. 8 Coalfield, running beneath Southeastern Ohio counties where Hanna Coal Co and others operated strip and deep mines and other facilities for decades. Source: CoalCampUSA.com

Hanna’s Ohio strip mining, meanwhile, was aided through the 1950s by another of the big machines, The Mountaineer, built by the Marion Co. The Mountaineer was among the first of the big “super strippers.” This colossus was also assembled in pieces, near Cadiz, Ohio, a build that began in June 1955. The big shovel didn’t start digging until January 30, 1956. The Mountaineer had a 65-cubic-yard dipper, stood 16 stories tall, with a 150 foot tall boom. Its shovel could hold a 100-ton payload. The Mountaineer was the first shovel to have a built-in elevator for the crew to reach the operating controls, in this case, located in dual cabs at the front of the machine, one on each side.

The Mountaineer shovel, from a Life magazine photo in the 1950s, shows the colossal size of this earth mover relative to nearby vehicles, locomotive, and group of workmen.
The Mountaineer shovel, from a Life magazine photo in the 1950s, shows the colossal size of this earth mover relative to nearby vehicles, locomotive, and group of workmen.

The GEM of Egypt (“GEM,” an acronym for “Giant Earth Mover” or “Giant Excavating Machine”), the largest of the three shovels in Hanna’s employ, went into service in January 1967 (There was also a fourth giant shovel that Hanna used, The Silver Spade, sometimes called the “sister” to The Gem of Egypt, also used in Ohio, but not involved in the I-70 crossing. The Spade in 1965 had worked at Hanna’s Georgetown Mine near Cadiz, among other places, active through 2008). The Gem of Egypt was 20 stories tall and weighed 7,000 tons. It had a 170-foot boom and a 130 cubic yard bucket. It first went to work at the opening of the Egypt Valley mine in January 1967.

Photo of The Gem of Egypt shovel, believed to be around the time it began operating in the Egypt Valley of Ohio in the late 1960s.  Note the size of the machine relative to the people standing near its shovel and around its base.
Photo of The Gem of Egypt shovel, believed to be around the time it began operating in the Egypt Valley of Ohio in the late 1960s. Note the size of the machine relative to the people standing near its shovel and around its base.

Hanna invited the public to attend the grand opening of the Egypt Valley Mine in late January 1967. An estimated 25,000 people traveled to the site, many from Ohio cities such as Cleveland, Akron, and Canton, as well as those from neighboring states. The centerpiece of the tour was the colossal GEM of Egypt, which towered over the visitor’s cars parked near it that day. The GEM, in fact, was capable of holding the equivalent of at least two Greyhound buses in its bucket. The giant earth mover was slated to operate in Hanna’s 96,000-acre Egypt Valley surface mine in Belmont County. Production there was expected to average 20,000 tons a day until the vein ran out, which the company then forecast to last for the next 30 to 40 years.

January 1967 “open house” at Hanna Coal Co’s Egypt Valley surface mine, unveiling the GEM of Egypt shovel.
January 1967 “open house” at Hanna Coal Co’s Egypt Valley surface mine, unveiling the GEM of Egypt shovel.

Hanna also used the 1967 mine-opening event to public relations advantage, offering hand-out literature for the public that touted the virtues of reclamation and post-mining uses, some of which bordered on the far-fetched, such as suggesting spoil piles could be used for ski slopes. The reality was that this mine, and others that had preceded it, were ripping through farmland, and despite laws on the books, leaving in their wake, highwalls, spoil piles, acid mine drainage, damaged homes, silted streams and polluted water supplies.


1940s-1960s

Weak Ohio Laws

The state of Ohio has not had a happy environmental history with strip mining; and to this day, its ravages are still taking a toll. Although Ohio was one of the earliest states to adopt a strip mining law in 1947-48, that law had very little impact in terms of environmental protection or land reclamation. As documented in Chad Montrie’s book, To Save The Land and People, Ohio farmers were among the first to rail against the ravages of strip mining.“We believe that strip mining is a menace to agriculture and the very life of our county, unless some control measure is taken.”
    -Morgan County Grange, 1947
Farm groups such as the Grange and Farm Bureau, concerned about losing good farmland to the strippers, helped pass the Ohio law in 1947. Wrote one member of the Morgan County Grange in 1947 in support of Ohio’s first strip mine law: “We believe that strip mining is a menace to agriculture and the very life of our county, unless some control measure is taken.” A member of the Western Tuscarawas Game Association, also supporting the legislation that became law, noted: “Strip mines must level their spoil banks and the land put in a tillable condition.” But despite the 1947 law, that wasn’t happening, and didn’t happen. Essentially, there was no reclamation.

1940 post card from the Cadiz News Agency, with four photos by E.C. Kropp Co., showing coal mining scenes near Cadiz, Ohio, Harrison County with caption: “Scenes From Cadiz, Ohio. Where They Destroy Good Farms to Get The Coal.” Some stripping shovels at that time were mounted on rails and/or temporary rail lines & hopper cars serviced the mining area.
1940 post card from the Cadiz News Agency, with four photos by E.C. Kropp Co., showing coal mining scenes near Cadiz, Ohio, Harrison County with caption: “Scenes From Cadiz, Ohio. Where They Destroy Good Farms to Get The Coal.” Some stripping shovels at that time were mounted on rails and/or temporary rail lines & hopper cars serviced the mining area.

By 1949, the Grange and Farm Bureau were back in the legislature seeking strengthening amendments to the law. Still, little changed. In 1953, the Conservation Committee of the Ohio Grange noted that “land in the strip mining areas of Ohio [is] left in such condition that it is practically worthless.” By 1965, the Grange and Farm Bureau again lobbied the Ohio General Assembly for tougher strip mine regulations, but only minor changes resulted.“Land in the strip mining areas of Ohio [is] left in such condition that it is practically worthless.”
      -Ohio Grange, 1953
Some of the adopted language now called on coal operators to grade spoil banks “so as to reduce the peaks thereof …to a gently rolling, sloping or terraced topography, as may be appropriate, which grading shall be done in such as way as will minimize erosion due to rainfall, [and] break up long uninterrupted slopes.” Large boulders were also to be removed and acid mine drainage and stream siltation on adjacent lands prevented, “if possible.” Needless to say, such language wasn’t exactly iron clad. Farm organizations by then were filing reports of strip mine siltation and clay washing onto adjacent lands in depths of up to two feet. They called on legislators to deny strippers their license when they damaged neighboring lands. But that didn’t happen either. Further reform wouldn’t come until 1972, covered later below.

During the late 1960s, meanwhile, The GEM of Egypt was chewing through Ohio farm country at a rate of 200 tons per bite, continuing to work through the Egypt Valley of Harrison and Belmont counties where Hanna held thousands of acres of land with strippable coal. The GEM gradually worked its way to within sight of the interstate highway, I-70, as it dug through the hills just north of the highway. Motorists traveling on I-70 would sometimes stop to marvel at the giant shovel while it did its handwork.

The Gem of Egypt working its way through the Egypt Valley strip mine of Ohio in the late 1960s early 1970s. The  giant machine is removing the earth over the coal seam on the right, and then, swinging its boom and loaded shovel  left, depositing the “overburden” on the spoil banks. A tiny vehicle mid-photo appears to be riding on a road that is  the unearthed coal seam. At right, atop the hillside being mined, is a line of powdered-white blasting holes where dynamite will be used to loosen the “overburden” the giant shovel will continue to remove.
The Gem of Egypt working its way through the Egypt Valley strip mine of Ohio in the late 1960s early 1970s. The giant machine is removing the earth over the coal seam on the right, and then, swinging its boom and loaded shovel left, depositing the “overburden” on the spoil banks. A tiny vehicle mid-photo appears to be riding on a road that is the unearthed coal seam. At right, atop the hillside being mined, is a line of powdered-white blasting holes where dynamite will be used to loosen the “overburden” the giant shovel will continue to remove.

Hanna, at this point, had new plans for The Gem of Egypt. Hanna wanted to use the machine ten miles south, to begin stripping coal lands near Barnesville, in Belmont County. Barnesville then had a population of 4,300. But in order to move the big machine to that location, it would have to cross, and temporarily shut down, a major interstate highway, I-70. While Hanna and other coal companies had worked their will with local and state roads – sometimes taking them over completely for hauling coal, or taking them out of service – a federal interstate highway was in something of a different league. And this particular east-west segment – running between Wheeling, West Virginia and Columbus, Ohio – would become heavily traveled.


The I-70 Deal

In the 1950s and 1960s, as President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway system was taking form across the U.S., one of the segments to be built in Ohio was the East-West running Interstate I-70. This highway would cut across Southeastern Ohio’s coalfields, including counties in the vicinity where Hanna and others were operating. Hanna, in fact, had acquired some 12,000 to 13,000 acres of coal lands (more??) in the area prior to the laying of the I-70 route. So when the Federal and state governments started planning for I-70, Hanna was one of the parties at the table– and by that time Hanna was part of Consolidated Coal Co., or Consol.

Map showing I-70 running through a portion of S. E. Ohio near the town of Barnesville, where strip mining was headed in 1973.
Map showing I-70 running through a portion of S. E. Ohio near the town of Barnesville, where strip mining was headed in 1973.
In the 1960s, the State of Ohio attempted to negotiate with Hanna/Consol for the necessary right-of-way for that part of I-70 which divided the Egypt Valley coalfield.

Consol claimed $8-to-$10 million in damages for the dividing of its coal field by the highway. However Ohio agreed to construct two underpasses at I-70 to permit Consol’s coal trucks to travel under the highway. The state also agreed to permit Consol to cross over the surface of the I-70 highway with mining equipment 10 times during a period of 40 years. The U.S. Secretary of Transportation also approved this agreement in early September 1964.

By 1968, Interstate highway I-70 was built, with about 27 miles traversing Belmont County, bisecting the coal lands held by Hanna/Consol. During this time, Hanna’s Gem of Egypt and the strip mining of the Egypt Valley site had proceeded, moving closer and closer to the Interstate.


1960s-1970s

New Activists

Through 1967, the Ohio farm groups continued to seek stricter strip mine enforcement in the state legislature, though with little success. By this time, however, new public environmental awareness was rising across the nation and in Ohio, where the Cuyahoga River had caught on fire from pollution in June 1969, raising the state’s environmental profile. New activists were entering the strip mine fight there as well, and throughout the region. A 1970 strip mining symposium held in Cadiz, Ohio drew 400 attendees, including many students, but with sponsors such as the Ohio Conservation Foundation, state chapter of the Sierra Club, the Ohio Audubon Council, and others. By late December 1970, some local members of the United Steelworkers Union and the Belmont County AFL-CIO, along with others from Ohio State University’s Marion extension campus, formed an organization called Citizens Concerned About Strip Mining. This group planned to lobby the Ohio legislature for strip mine reforms, and in the summer of 1971, sponsored a meeting that drew prominent strip mining opponents from nearby states, including a regional representative of the Sierra Club.


“The Ravaged Earth”
NBC-TV: Cleveland
1969

Title screen for “The Ravaged Earth” TV program pro-duced by WKYC-TV, Cleveland, 1969. Click for film.
Title screen for “The Ravaged Earth” TV program pro-duced by WKYC-TV, Cleveland, 1969. Click for film.
In Ohio and across the nation during the late 1960s and early 1970s, the media began to play an important role in bringing environmental issues to the attention of the general public.

In Cleveland, a small group of TV producers and writers at NBC’s WKYC-TV station, produced a 1969 documentary that focused in part on strip mining in Ohio’s Perry County and the environmental ruin it was causing there. The film was part of WKYC’s Montage series of documentary programs on local and regional subjects that aired in Cleveland from 1965 to 1978. The title of the strip mine program was “The Ravaged Earth.” Linda Sugarman, one of the associate producers at the time, wrote a July 31, 1969 memo, statement of need, and description of the planned program, to be broadcast in late September 1969:

For twenty five years giant steamshovels have been clawing their way across the beautiful hills of Southern Ohio, unearthing shallow veins of coal and leaving a scene of utter devastation. The strip mines, which are dug instead of deep mines when the coal is close to the surface, bring about in their wake a stark, and almost worthless wasteland of steep spoil banks whose overturned earth is so acidic weeds can barely grow on it. Rivers and streams become red with sulfuric acid pollution. Public heath hazards are created by uncontrolled clouds of coal dust and carbon monoxide fumes. Property damage, caused by blasting goes uncompensated. Many of the mining interests seem to be in almost total disregard of the local laws, property rights, safety, and health of the nearby residents.

Although a few of the coal companies attempt to renew and reclaim the land they have strip mined, the ones who have made so much damage seem to be able to continue their activities without much opposition. Since the coal companies bring in most of the income in many of these counties, most public officials seem hesitant to prosecute or even confront them. Residents of the area who depend directly or indirectly upon the mines also seem hesitant to complain about the coal companies’ actions…

Montage will talk to these conservationists, as well as local citizens, elected officials, and mine representatives. The film will also show the damaged as well as the reclaimed areas of Southern Ohio.

Screen shot from “The Ravaged Earth” of light green automobile (center) moving through unreclaimed strip-mined area with remaining highwall, spoil debris, and rugged terrain.
Screen shot from “The Ravaged Earth” of light green automobile (center) moving through unreclaimed strip-mined area with remaining highwall, spoil debris, and rugged terrain.
The program included extensive footage of strip-mined lands, eroded hillsides, miles of highwalls, polluted run-off, closed and detoured local roads, and more (especially in Perry County, Ohio). Some mining operations of the Ohio Power Company were shown, featuring its gigantic dragline, “Big Muskie.” A Peabody Coal Co. roadside billboard was also shown with its boastful “Operation Green Earth” headline and wildlife mural, as the camera slowly panned across an adjacent and continuous view of poorly-reclaimed spoil piles and strip-mined lands. One official interviewed during the program explained that problems such as the acidic run-off and lack of successful reclamation, resulted from “turning the land upside down” and not saving and segregating topsoil during the mining process so it could be used in reclamation. Other officials were also interviewed during the program – from Perry County Planning Commissioner, James Brown, to former U.S. Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall.

In fact, Udall, who served as Interior Secretary from 1961-1969, made extensive comment during the program. Below are excerpts from his remarks and voice-overs during that program:

Stewart Udall, as he appeared  in the 1969 TV report, “The Ravaged Earth.”
Stewart Udall, as he appeared in the 1969 TV report, “The Ravaged Earth.”
“…Of course, the whole history of coal mining in this country is a rather sad story, of lack of any control or regulation… And lack of any conscience on the part of the industry, until very recently. And as someone said, in those parts of the country that were fortunate to have coal, when you look at the long haul, coal has been a curse.” [here Udall may have been referring to Harry Caudill].

“Coal as an extractive industry, like all extractive industries, once the mineral or product is mined, the values are gone, and the industry usually walks away and you’re confronted then with the long haul with what people will do with what is left…”

“…We calculated once in a strip mine study we made about two years ago what the cost would be of restoring all the stripped areas in the United States. As I recall it was a very big cost, something like $2 billion…And it’s also an uneconomic cost because this should have been done at the time the coal was mined and should have been charged as part of the cost of the mining… So I fear this [reclamation] will have a very low priority, that it will not be done in the near future, and the result is that we’re going to be denied the use and benefit of these lands for recreation,“…[T]here’s no damage to the land that is more permanent, and really more devastating, than what you see in the worst strip mining areas of the United States…”
         – Stewart Udall, 1969
as watershed lands, and for the contribution that they can make to the country…

“…I’ve probably seen as much of this nation from a helicopter in the last 6 or 8 years as anybody – and that’s the best way to see it.. Because you see the beauty, you see the scars, you see the damage. And of course, there’s no damage to the land that is more permanent, and really more devastating, than what you see in the worst strip mining areas of the United States… The reason this is damaging is that if action is not taken to restore these stripped areas, they’re left there; they can’t revegetate themselves — at least it will take many, many tens or hundreds of years for anything to occur… And that these become sort of permanent, man-made wastelands. …We have too many people; we have too many things we need to do with our land; too much need for outdoor recreation and playgrounds…We can’t afford to have wastelands created by man in this country. And this is the reason all of us have to regret the mistakes of the past and we have to determine that we’re not going to repeat those mistakes now.”

All in all, WKYC-TV’s “The Ravaged Earth” was one of the first of its kind on strip mining, and helped educate the public about what was happening in the coalfields.


In the Ohio academic community, meanwhile, Arnold Reitze, from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, wrote a 1971 law review article entitled, “Old King Coal and the Merry Rapists of Appalachia,” in which he focused on some of strip mining’s effects in the Egypt Valley where Hanna was mining. Reitze found that in Belmont County, some 200,000 of the county’s 346,000 total acres had been sold, leased, or optioned to coal interests. “That beautiful county,” he wrote, “like scores of others, seems destined to become a wasteland of silted, acid waters, barren land, and patches of crown vetch, all legally reclaimed.”New activists and a new governor were changing Ohio’s strip mine politics. Another professor who became involved was Dr. Theodore “Ted” Voneida, a professor of neurobiology also at Case Western. Voneida and his wife had built a cottage on Piedmont Lake in the Egypt Valley in the 1960s and soon began to see first hand the results of strip mining in that area. Voneida didn’t like what he saw, and was amazed at what the strippers were doing to the land and communities. He began gathering documentation of strip mining’s impacts in the area – measuring water pollution, taking photographs, and generally chronicling what was going on there. He also succeeded in getting The Plain Dealer newspaper of Cleveland, the Akron Beacon Journal, and others news outlets interested in the strip mining story. By the early 1970s, Voneida would be quoted in newspaper stories on strip mining’s harmful effects, sometimes opposite Hanna Coal’s CEO, Ralph Hatch.

New political developments in Ohio also brought more attention to the lack of effective strip mine reclamation. John J. Gilligan, a democrat from Cincinnati who had served in the U.S. Congress for one term in 1965-1967 and had run unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate, was elected Ohio’s Governor in November 1970 (Gilligan was also the father of Kathleen Sebelius, who would later serve as Governor of Kansas and U,S. Secretary of Health and Human Services in the Obama Adminstration). Governor Gilligan took on strip mining as one of his top priorities, and he specifically backed a bill in the legislature that would bring tougher reclamation standards to Ohio’s coalfields.

Hanna Coal, meanwhile, made plans for mining south of I-70 and sought to exercise its highway crossing agreement with Ohio and the federal government. However, by late 1970, Hanna, and strip mining in Ohio, were getting some unwanted national attention, now cast in an Appalachian regional and national context over how best to deal with surface coal mining. And Hanna’s hulking machines were part of the theater – and the damage being done.


Ohio in Spotlight

On December 15, 1970, Ben Franklin, a reporter with The New York Times, did a story on strip mining that his editors ran on the front page with a photo of a ravaged Ohio strip mine scene. “Strip-Mining Boom Leaves Wasteland in Its Wake,” was the headline. Franklin filed his story from St. Clairsville, Ohio. And while the story covered strip mining nationally, it featured particular problems in Belmont County, where Hanna was then operating day and night.

Dec 15, 1970: Front-page story in the New York Times with photo of strip mine damage in Belmont County, Ohio and story that prominently featured Ohio strip mining, environmental issues there, and the Hanna Coal Company.
Dec 15, 1970: Front-page story in the New York Times with photo of strip mine damage in Belmont County, Ohio and story that prominently featured Ohio strip mining, environmental issues there, and the Hanna Coal Company.

In his story, Franklin described the strip mining problem in Ohio as follows:

…This rolling, unfarmed farm land, just west of the Ohio River, is being chewed into billions of tons of rocky rubble by strip mining for coal. More than five billion tons of it, long considered low-grade fuel too marginal for mass mining, lies less than 100 feet from the sur face in eastern Ohio, and a boom is on to recover it.

It is bringing an upheaval of terrain unmatched since the glaciers of the last Ice Age scoured these hills and valleys as far south as Cincinnati, compacting thick bituminous coal beds that have aged 300 million years…

“They’re turning this beau-tiful place into a desert…”
   – U.S. Rep., Wayne L. Hays (D-OH)

Strip mining—a cheaper, quicker and more efficient method than digging under ground—now produces more than 35 per cent of the nation’s annual coal output…

…To lay bare the coal, farms, barns, silos, houses, churches and roads are being dynamited, scooped up by mammoth power shovels that tower 12 stories high, and piled in giant windrows of strip mine spoil banks.

Scores of aggrieved persons here have lost well water, have suffered sleepless nights from blasting, or have seen timbered acreage at their property lines turned into the 100-foot-deep pits of strip mines.

In his story, Franklin also quoted U.S. Congressman Wayne L. Hays, an Ohio Democrat who then lived in Flushing, Ohio, a Belmont County town which Franklin described as “isolated on three sides by abandoned strip mine highwalls, the sheer, quarry-like cliffs where the strip mine excavation stopped.” Congressman Hayes, cited in Franklin’s story, had this to say: “They’re turning this beautiful place into a desert … They’ll take anything that’s black and will burn… It costs them more to really reclaim this land than the land is worth when they’re finished. No one has figured out what will happen to us here when they’re through, but I can tell you it isn’t going to be pretty.”

The GEM of Egypt at work in Ohio, circa 1960s-1970s, also illustrates the problem of “highwalls” – the sheer-face cliffs, seen here on the right – often left as unreclaimed “final cuts” when the mining was finished.
The GEM of Egypt at work in Ohio, circa 1960s-1970s, also illustrates the problem of “highwalls” – the sheer-face cliffs, seen here on the right – often left as unreclaimed “final cuts” when the mining was finished.

During 1970, environmental concerns continued to rise across the nation. On December 20th that year, President Richard Nixon established the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In the strip mine fight, just after Christmas 1970, West Virginia’s Secretary of State, Democrat John D. “Jay” Rockefeller announced that he would seek a ban on the surface mining of coal in West Virginia, with bills to that end introduced in the legislature in late January 1971. At the federal level too, by July 1971, West Virginia’s Congressman, Democrat Ken Heckler, had introduced legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives to ban surface coal mining. The prohibition efforts, however, at state and federal levels, would prove to be uphill fights.

A New York Times Op-Ed by Belmont County, Ohio resident brought further attention to the impact of strip mining on Ohio’s land and small towns.
A New York Times Op-Ed by Belmont County, Ohio resident brought further attention to the impact of strip mining on Ohio’s land and small towns.
Ohio coal mining, meanwhile, continued to receive more national attention as a local Belmont County resident and former newspaper man named Doral Chenoweth wrote a January 1972 Op-Ed piece on that topic in the New York Times. The title line used for the piece was, “Say Good-by to Hendrysburg,” a small town then in the cross hairs of Hanna’s strip mining.

As the article contended, Hendrysburg would be ruined as a viable small town given what the strippers were doing to depopulate the area, having bought out many landowners. A pull quote used in the piece noted: “All the farms started going in 1967 when the big shovels were moved in.”

Barely a town by that point, Hendrysburg had been badgered day and night for several years by the hulking operations of The GEM of Egypt. Blasting and digging to get at the coal — as well as 100-foot-deep excavations made around and near the town — had unnerved residents. Wells were disrupted in some places. And since the shovel worked around the clock with lights, the town’s homes were sometimes “bathed in an eerie electric glow,” as one reporter described it.

Florence Bethel, a Hendrysburg resident who worked as a telephone operator, had first-ha