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“Smog Conspiracy”
DOJ vs. Detroit Automakers

Famous “Earthrise” photo, taken from the Apollo 8 spacecraft then circling the moon, beamed to Earth on Christmas Eve, 1968.
Famous “Earthrise” photo, taken from the Apollo 8 spacecraft then circling the moon, beamed to Earth on Christmas Eve, 1968.
The year 1969 was a memorable time in America for technological accomplishment, especially in the space program, as the nation’s Apollo Program to put a man on the moon, was then at full throttle.

Down on earth, however, technological progress was another story. More on that in a moment.

But on January 10th that year, a ticker tape parade was held in New York City to honor the Apollo 8 astronauts – James Lovell, Frank Borman and William Anders – who had recently returned from the first ever space flight to circle the moon, a prelude to the lunar landing later that summer.

The New York Times, reporting on the celebration in its January 11th edition, featured a front-page story with two photos, one with Mayor John Lindsay and Governor Nelson Rockefeller congratulating the astronauts.

Apollo 8 was also the flight from which the famous “Earthrise” photograph was taken. That historic photo had captured the lone, beautiful, blue-ball object that is the home planet, floating singularly in the black void of space, suggesting this was, possibly, the only life-sustaining planet out there, and that we, its occupants, ought to take care of it. Yet on that same fragile, blue ball, the record of mankind’s earth keeping had not been very good to that point.

January 11, 1969 front-page New York Times story reports on a Justice Department lawsuit alleging an automaker conspiracy on anti-pollution technology for automobiles.
January 11, 1969 front-page New York Times story reports on a Justice Department lawsuit alleging an automaker conspiracy on anti-pollution technology for automobiles.
In fact, on the same January 11th front page of the New York Times another story appeared just below the photos of the Apollo 8 celebration.

That story, with a Washington D.C. dateline, reported that the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) had brought an anti-trust lawsuit against American automobile companies for conspiring to hold back and delay the use of pollution-control devices for motor vehicles.

The suit would come to be called the “smog conspiracy” case, as it alleged that Detroit’s then “Big Four” automakers – American Motors, Chrysler, Ford, and General Motors, along with their trade group, the Automobile Manufacturers Association (AMA) – had conspired for sixteen years (1953-1969) to prevent and delay the manufacture and use of pollution-control devices for automobiles.

The DOJ lawsuit made front-page news all across America, and potentially was a very major federal action against some of the world’s most powerful corporations. At stake, was nothing less than clean air and public health.

Chicago Tribune story on the smog conspiracy lawsuit, January 11, 1969.
Chicago Tribune story on the smog conspiracy lawsuit, January 11, 1969.
The lawsuit alleged the automakers purposely agreed among themselves for more than a decade not to compete on pollution-control technology; that no one auto company would go forward with a new pollution-control innovation unless agreed upon by the others. And that vehicles equipped with such devices, would only be brought to market at an agreed-upon time. They also moved to buy up patents on new pollution-control devices by outside firms in order to keep those innovations from being applied, according to DOJ. There were also technologies and technological fixes that were known to the automobile producers capable of reducing pollution from existing internal combustion engines, but that these were also held back and/or delayed in application.

In other words, if the DOJ charges were correct, during the 1953-1969 period, millions of motor vehicles were produced without known pollution-control devices and/or known pollution-control fixes. This meant that millions of tons of auto pollutants were being dumped into urban and rural environments for more than a decade – pollution that could have been prevented – thereby harming public health and causing crop and property damage. Or looked at another way, the “breathable common” was subsidizing auto production.

The Detroit automakers and their trade association vigorously denied DOJ’s allegations. Much of the lawsuit hinged on a 1953 cooperative agreement made among the automakers to jointly research auto pollution and pollution-control technologies – with subsequent and ongoing joint auto company and AMA committee meetings under that agreement during the 1953-1969 period.

However, what DOJ billed as a conspiracy to hold back technology, the automakers claimed was industry cooperation and joint research to ensure technological advance.

Yet for some, the proof was in the pudding, as they say, since few technological advances in automobile pollution control had actually made their way to new vehicles during the 1953-1969 period. More on the legal battle and outcome after a bit of background.


L.A. Smog

The 1969 smog conspiracy case had its origins in Los Angeles, California, a city that had been choking on smog since the early 1940s – though its residents and officials then knew little about what smog really was or how it formed.

Yet this smog – a word formed by a contraction of “smoke” and “fog” – was new and different. There were days when a “pall of haze” would form over the city, as residents noticed that its peculiar yellowish-brown color was different and not benign. The soup would burn the eyes and sear the lungs. One of the first “smog days” came in the summer 1943, when visibility in some places dropped to three blocks, and hospital emergency rooms had visits from those suffering with burning eyes and lungs.

Early 1940s photo of highway leading into downtown Los Angeles, with smog forming over the city there, showing the tall landmark L.A. City Hall building at center in the distance.
Early 1940s photo of highway leading into downtown Los Angeles, with smog forming over the city there, showing the tall landmark L.A. City Hall building at center in the distance.

Then came an episode of September 8, 1943, called a “daylight dimout” when even sunlight was diminished. “Everywhere the smog went that day,” reported the Los Angeles Times, “it left a group of irate citizens. . . Public complaints reverberated in the press. . . . Elective officials were petitioned.” Indeed they were, and some actions followed. A spate of laws and commissions came into being.

The Los Angeles County Air Pollution Control District, established in 1947, was the first of its kind anywhere in the nation. By 1948, L.A. had targeted smokestack industries like oil refineries, foundries and mills, and later, backyard incinerators. But the smog persisted. Autos, for the most part, were not obvious smoke-belching contributors, with exhausts that were mostly invisible and thought to play only a minor role in the smog problem.

January 5, 1948.  Smog formed in downtown Los Angeles, with City Hall building to the left. UCLA photo.
January 5, 1948. Smog formed in downtown Los Angeles, with City Hall building to the left. UCLA photo.

Then, in the fall of 1949, there was an event that occurred hundreds of miles north of L.A., at a University of California-vs-Washington State football game in Berkeley that offered some fairly convincing “cause-and-effect” clues. There, a fairly intense pollution event occurred at the stadium, which later led state legislators to investigate.

On the day of the game that fall, thousands of fans drove into Berkeley with resulting traffic congestion. Later that day, during the game, after the soup had formed, the pollution became so bad that “many thousands of persons attending . . . experienced intense eye irritation.” Game-day pollution at a 1949 Berkeley football game implicated autos – later seen as a microcosm of L.A. smog. Later, in the California General Assembly, the Committee on Air and Water Pollution investigated the incident, noting that the only unusual occurrence that day “was the concentration of automobiles at the football game in Berkeley, accentuated by the idling of motors, starting and stopping, which occurs in such a traffic jam.” There was no other industrial or other source in the area. It could only be concluded, the committee said, “that the cause of this particular eye irritation was in some way directly related to automobile exhaust.” In fact, the committee suggested that the pollution in Berkeley that afternoon was really quite similar–“very striking” in their words–to what was occurring in Los Angeles on a daily basis. The game-day traffic in the stadium area, they suggested, was actually a microcosm of what was happening over a much larger area in Los Angeles, where “the crowding of existing freeways leading to the downtown area results in daily traffic jams as the flood of cars enters the city in the morning, with resulting accentuation of the exhaust problem by idling, stopping, and starting.” Although there was little hard science to verify their hunch, they believed that vehicle exhaust, from auto combustion engines, was certainly contributing to the LA pollution problem.

Dr. Arie J. Haagen-Smit, discovered that the sun “cooked” certain auto pollutants in a photochemical reaction  to make ground-level “ozone,” an unhealthy pollutant.
Dr. Arie J. Haagen-Smit, discovered that the sun “cooked” certain auto pollutants in a photochemical reaction to make ground-level “ozone,” an unhealthy pollutant.
Ozone Man

Meanwhile, back in L.A., one inquisitive scientist, Dr. Arie J. Haagen-Smit, a professor of biochemistry at the California Institute of Technology, had begun researching the region’s air pollution. Haagen-Smit, initially working on how air pollution was damaging crops, began in 1950 researching how smog actually formed.

Haagen-Smit made an important discovery – that unburned hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides, coming primarily from automobile exhaust and some industrial sources, were “cooked” by sunlight in a photochemical reaction to form ground-level ozone, later revealed as a respiratory irritant.

Breathing ground-level ozone can trigger chest pain, coughing, throat irritation, and congestion. It can worsen bronchitis, emphysema, and asthma. It can also reduce lung function and inflame the lining of the lungs. Repeated exposure may permanently scar lung tissue.

As Haagen-Smit’s ozone findings emerged, there was some finger-pointing initially among those in the auto and oil industries, as to whose sources were the bigger culprits. But it soon became clear that the region’s burgeoning auto population was central to the smog problem. By 1954, L.A.’s two million cars were racking up 50 million miles of travel every day. Episodes of dense smog in the L.A. area continued. On one occasion in 1954, the smog was so bad that it reduced visibility to the point where some 2,000 auto accidents occurred in a single day. Life magazine, the popular American weekly of that era, did a brief November 1954 story on L.A. smog titled, “Blight on the Land of Sunshine,” with photos of the city shrouded in smog and citizens in protest clamoring for action.

1956. Traffic on the Pasadena Freeway, which connects L.A. with Pasadena, captures the growing population of motor vehicles then in the L.A. region, where “vehicle miles of travel” for its then 2 million-plus vehicles, was exceeding 50 million miles every day.
1956. Traffic on the Pasadena Freeway, which connects L.A. with Pasadena, captures the growing population of motor vehicles then in the L.A. region, where “vehicle miles of travel” for its then 2 million-plus vehicles, was exceeding 50 million miles every day.

By the mid-1950s, Dr. Haagen-Smit’s findings on the connection between automobiles and smog in Los Angeles became widely accepted in scientific circles – but not in most auto industry circles, at least not publicly.

In fact, as Los Angeles authorities began closing in on the automobile as major smog contributor, the auto industry doubled down and began its “denial-and-delay” campaign that would continue in one form or another for the next 50 years – not only in LA., but nationally as well. But it was in L.A., where the automakers made their earliest stands of denial and obfuscation.

1956 photo of smog in downtown Los Angeles, with the City Hall building at center.
1956 photo of smog in downtown Los Angeles, with the City Hall building at center.

First, the industry insisted on definitive proof that autos were the cause of L.A. smog. General Motors had already written in March 1953, for example, that while Los Angeles studies indicated that exhaust gases “may be contributing factor to the smog,” other cities did not appear to have the same problem. Thus, for GM, “some other factors,” peculiar to Los Angeles, “may be contributing to this problem.” Ford officials, also writing in March 1953, had taken the view that exhaust vapors from automobiles “dissipated in the atmosphere quickly and do not represent an air pollution problem.” Ford officials contended that the need for a device “to more effectively reduce exhaust vapors had not been established.”

Next, after the automakers conceded in 1954 that the automobile was the largest single source of hydrocarbons in Los Angeles, and that auto exhausts were capable of forming ozone, industry officials wanted further work to substantiate the exact cause-and-effect relationship between auto pollutants and smog. In 1955, the automakers held that the evidence did not prove auto pollutants produced smog and its harmful effects, such as eye irritation and crop damage, etc.

September 1955. Front-page New York Times story on Los Angeles smog showing four people reacting to the pollution who were walking near the L.A. Civic Center. The city was then experiencing one of its worst bouts of smog on record.
September 1955. Front-page New York Times story on Los Angeles smog showing four people reacting to the pollution who were walking near the L.A. Civic Center. The city was then experiencing one of its worst bouts of smog on record.

In 1957 when definitive proof was found that the automobile was the primary cause of photochemical air pollution, the automakers reverted to an earlier held position that the smog problem was peculiar to Los Angeles. It continued to espouse this view for three more years.

By 1959 the state legislature passed laws, making California the first to establish air quality standards based on the public health effects of smog. But progress was slow. “Eye irritation” that year was reported in Los Angeles on 187 days; by 1962 it was 212 days.

Headline from Sept 1958 L.A. Times story on a smog alert, a headline that would become all too common in the region during the 1950s-1960s period – and beyond.
Headline from Sept 1958 L.A. Times story on a smog alert, a headline that would become all too common in the region during the 1950s-1960s period – and beyond.
The auto industry, meanwhile, was still bobbing and weaving. In a late February 1960 statement before Congress, the AMA’s Karl M. Richards conceded that Los Angeles’ smog may well come from automobiles, but the aggravating quality was not due to anything in the automotive gases per se, but rather, was caused by the unique nature of the Los Angeles Basin’s topography and meteorology.

Photochemical smog, Richards explained, was only caused when the unique combination of all the L.A. factors came into play: persistent temperature inversion, encircling mountains, very light wind movement, and intense sunlight. Further, photochemical smog, he said, “is not likely to occur anywhere else on earth with the frequency and intensity found in this area.” Richards added that the auto industry would not consider controls on its vehicles in other parts of the country until it was demonstrated that hydrocarbons presented a problem elsewhere.

Yet automobile-fed air pollution was occurring in other cities across America. “Los Angles-type smog” was being reported in New York, Philadelphia, and other cities by the late 1950s, also spreading to rural areas in some locations. Commercial airline pilots in the 1950s and 1960s reported seeing the skies over broad regions of the U.S. becoming less and less clear — and not just over urban areas.


“They Have a Responsibility”
Ken Hahn’s Letters
1953–1967

In February 1953, Kenneth Hahn, a Los Angeles County supervisor, wrote a letter to Henry Ford II to ask what Ford’s company knew about automobile pollution and what the company’s research plans were. Mr. Ford replied, through his staff, that there was really no problem, and therefore, no need for research. “The Ford engineering staff, although mindful that automobile engines produce gases, feels that these waste vapors are dissipated in the atmosphere quickly and do not present an air pollution problem,” replied Ford’s public affairs manager, Dan J. Chabak. “Therefore, our research department has not conducted any experimental work aimed at totally eliminating these gases.” Hahn was later assured by Detroit that an industry wide study of the exhaust problem had begun. Mr. Hahn, however, kept writing, pushing for action.

Ken Hahn, L.A. official.
Ken Hahn, L.A. official.
In 1955 he was told in one reply, “We will soon be in a position to make recommendations which should point the way to reduction of hydrocarbons in automotive exhaust gases.” Nearly two years passed. Hahn again inquired about exhaust controls. Will they be ready for 1957 models? “We have . . . established the 1958 model year as the goal for the production of deceleration devices.” Still, there was little progress. Finally, in October 1960, the president of General Motors replying to Hahn, wrote, “I am gratified to report that positive crankcase ventilation is available on all 1961 General Motors passenger cars being delivered to California. We believe that this relatively inexpensive device will perform a major job of reducing air pollution.” Positive crankcase ventilation (see later below) – based on a technique known to industry since the 1930s – took care of gases in the engine proper, but only about 25 percent of hydrocarbon exhaust. Hahn wrote back to express his disappointment.

In January 1964, when Hahn testified before two U.S. Senate committees, he handed out a little booklet of the collected correspondence he had made with the automakers, explaining to the senators:

. . . I have tried to tell [the auto executives]. . . that they have a responsibility on air pollution and they have not met it. . . .

. . . [T]hey know about the problem. . . .They have been here; there are devices manufactured that have been proven. . . . [A]nd it is strange why they have not put it on all their cars. . . .

. . . Now they have had ten years of warning, all documented with answers back from their own officials saying they are studying the problem and researching it. They can research this to death; in the meantime we haven’t licked the problem. . .

It would not be until 1966–thirteen years after Mr. Hahn began his inquiries of the automakers–that exhaust controls would be required on new California cars. And even then, it would only be by force of law. Meanwhile, Ken Hahn’s 1953-1967 correspondence with the automakers leaves behind a record as good as any on the industry’s attitudes on pollution control at the time.


Birth of Lawsuit

1959 photo, S. Smith Griswold, L.A. County
1959 photo, S. Smith Griswold, L.A. County
The seeds of a possible auto industry conspiracy lawsuit had been planted by L.A. officials who had been questioning the car makers regularly about their efforts to control emissions since the early 1950s. As noted in the Ken Hahn sidebar above, regular inquiries of the industry – and their runaround replies – had been made since 1953.

Another L.A. official, S. Smith Griswold, the Chief Air Pollution Control Officer for the L.A. Air Pollution Control District since 1954, had been quite critical of the auto industry’s lack of progress on pollution. “Patent data,” Griswold once said, “shows that automobile pollution controls were available as far back as 1909.”

But in June 1964, Griswold, by then L.A. County Pollution Control Board executive, gave a speech at the annual meeting of the Air Pollution Control Association. Griswold recalled that in 1953 the automakers had made a joint cooperative agreement with one another, supposedly to pool their research on air pollution and come up with a solution.

The automakers said they would make progress jointly and even set up cross-licensing agreements to insure that progress by one would be progress by all. But a skeptical Griswold wondered what they had actually come up with.

Ralph Nader helped L.A. officials see  legal action against the auto-industry.
Ralph Nader helped L.A. officials see legal action against the auto-industry.
“What has the industry accomplished in the last ten years?” he asked in his speech. “How has this [joint agreement] worked out?” Then he burrowed in with a more stinging observation. “Apparently, it has served to guarantee that no manufacturer would break ranks and bring into this field of air pollution control the same kind of competitive stimulus that spokesmen for the industry frequently pay homage to. . . .”

Griswold had hit upon a possible antitrust issue that was later driven home to him by Washington, D.C. attorney Ralph Nader, who was then beginning his career as a leading consumer advocate. In addition to alerting Griswold of the possible auto industry collusion, Nader also briefed Justice Department officials on what he thought was the basis for a major antitrust suit.

Griswold then drafted a resolution for the LA County Board of Supervisors citing the auto industry’s lack of progress on pollution-control technology.

The resolution, adopted in January 1965, specifically requested the U.S. Attorney General to initiate an investigation and take legal action to prevent the automakers from engaging in “further collusive obstruction.” By this time, the Justice Department had already subpoenaed records from the industry, and a formal investigation was underway. But the full pursuit of the case would take several years

During 1967-68, as the DOJ case moved forward, an eighteen-month grand jury investigation was convened in Los Angeles. The smog in L.A., meanwhile, had not abated, and was a continuing problem.

January 1967.  Time magazine featured a cover photo of a smog-shrouded Los Angeles, around the time the DOJ grand jury investigation began in the automaker conspiracy case.
January 1967. Time magazine featured a cover photo of a smog-shrouded Los Angeles, around the time the DOJ grand jury investigation began in the automaker conspiracy case.
As Time magazine reported in January 1967 – with L.A. smog depicted on its cover:

“Instead of disappearing… Los Angeles’ characteristic whisky-brown smog has actually grown worse. The culprits are Los Angeles County’s 3.75 million autos, which produce 12,420 of the 13,730 tons of contaminants released in to the air over the county every day [emphasis added]… In addition to nearly 10,000 tons of carbon monoxide, autos exhaust 2,000 tons of hydrocarbons and 530 tons of nitrogen oxides daily, enough to form a substantial brew of irritating smog.”

Back inside the Justice Department, attorneys handling the conspiracy case had initially sought a criminal indictment, but “higher ups” hedged and delayed action. As the case evolved, there was debate over whether the grand jury should seek a criminal or civil indictment. The civil route won out.

Four federal judges who might receive the case were strongly opposed to criminal sanctions in antitrust cases. In addition, it had been long-standing Justice Department policy to reserve the criminal route for price-fixing and other traditional cases in which there was
no question of blatantly illegal conduct.

However, this auto pollution case was not traditional. Some, like Ralph Nader, argued for “product fixing;” that restraint of technology was restraint of trade, preventing competition. This, however, was a very novel approach at the time, especially in the conservative world of antitrust litigation.

D.C. attorney, Lloyd Cutler, post-1960s photo, represented auto industry in smog case and helped negotiate DOJ consent decree.
D.C. attorney, Lloyd Cutler, post-1960s photo, represented auto industry in smog case and helped negotiate DOJ consent decree.
But finally, in January 1969, as noted at the top of this story, a civil suit was filed against the automakers. Yet the filing came at an awkward time, just as the Johnson Administration was leaving office, then handing the case off to the Nixon Administration’s new attorney general, John Mitchell. The auto industry, meanwhile, was in very competent legal hands.

Lloyd Cutler, then a well-known and respected 51 year-old attorney at the Washington, D.C. law firm of Wilmer, Cutler and Pickering, was representing the Automobile Manufacturers Association (AMA).

Cutler, in fact, had been in and out of meetings at the Justice Department for weeks during 1969 on the smog conspiracy case, negotiating on behalf of his clients. By late summer 1969, there came rumor of a deal on the smog conspiracy case.

Sure enough, on September 11th, 1969 – nine months after the case was filed – the Justice Department announced that the case would be settled by consent decree. In the legal trade, consent decrees are viewed as a way to save face, save cost, and not drag all the parties through a public display of charge and countercharge. For the automakers, that was good news. There would also be no findings or admissions of illegal activity.


Fight The Decree

September 1969 New York Times story on proposed consent decree.
September 1969 New York Times story on proposed consent decree.
Others supporting the DOJ lawsuit, however, were furious. They viewed the consent decree as a clear victory for the auto industry, a way to avoid a public airing of the case, essentially escaping more than fifteen years of illegal activity. Ralph Nader wrote to DOJ’s antitrust chief, Richard W. McLaren, asserting that criminal wrongdoing was uncovered by the grand jury, that the consent decree was weak by comparison, contained insufficient enforcement procedures, and that key provisions of the decree would expire after ten years. Nader and others asked Justice to rescind the decree and bring the matter to trial.

A key issue became the evidence compiled by the grand jury investigation. Under the consent decree, that evidence would be sealed forever. However, if the case were brought to trial, and the defendants found guilty of conspiracy, under the antitrust laws, any injured parties could then bring their own suits to recover three times the damages suffered. Triple damages are designed to serve as a deterrent to future violations, and in this case, future conspiracies against the public good.

Earlier on Capitol Hill, as rumors swirled about a settlement, a group of nineteen congressmen, led by Reps. George Brown (D-CA) and Bob Eckhart (D-TX), sent a letter to Attorney General Mitchell expressing their concern that a full trial was needed to show the public that corporate law breaking was no different than any other violation of law. The Justice Department, nevertheless, proceeded with its agreement.

In Los Angeles, meanwhile, Supervisor Kenneth Hahn told the press that Los Angeles County would demand the unsealing of “a roomful of federal grand jury evidence” gathered by the grand jury. According to Hahn, the foreman of the grand jury, Martin Walshbren, was quite angry over the Justice Department’s consent agreement. In fact, when asked by a Los Angeles Times reporter if there was more to the case than the consent decree suggested, Mr. Walshbren said, “Yes,” there was, “a great deal more.” Walshbren also believed an indictment of some kind would have been brought by the grand jury if DOJ had sought one.

L.A.’s Kenneth Hahn wanted a trial. “The presidents of General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler should be brought to trial right here in Los Angeles. . . . The big manufacturers all conspired. If one wouldn’t put the devices on, the others wouldn’t either. . . . This case is the most important legal battle in the history of the air pollution fight. If we lose it, we will go back twenty years.” California attorney general, Thomas Lynch, planned to file a separate antitrust action against the auto companies, but said he too was being hampered by the seal on the grand jury records. He was unable to question key grand jury witnesses.

“The presidents of General Motors, Ford, and Chrys-ler should be brought to trial right here in Los Angeles. . . The big manufacturers all conspired.”
– Kenneth Hahn
Still, there was one last chance for those opposing the settlement, as the consent decree had to be approved by a federal judge. A brief but intense campaign to prevent the approval of the decree followed. Thousands of individuals, scores of congressmen, and numerous municipalities petitioned Federal District Court Judge Jesse W. Curtis not to approve the decree. Other related developments at the time included the following:

> the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors asked the federal courts to allow them to intervene in the original suit and to sue the manufacturers for $100 million in damages. At the time, other municipalities were also being asked to join Los Angeles in the intervention. With other parties joining the case, it was thought that the court might be reluctant to agree to the settlement before holding an open trial.

> members of the Judiciary Committees in both Houses of Congress were asked to sign a letter urging the Justice Department to review its whole policy towards the use of consent decrees in antitrust cases.

> Rep. George Brown (D-CA) started a statewide petition drive requesting the Justice Department to withdraw the settlement, and he also introduced a four-part resolution in the House, part of which requested the full transcript of the 1966-67 grand jury investigation, including subpoenaed documents.

October 1969 NY Times story on the smog decree’s final approval.
October 1969 NY Times story on the smog decree’s final approval.
On October 28, 1969, the two sides came before the judge at the US District Court in the Central District of California. Lloyd Cutler rose on behalf of his clients.”. . . [This] is the first case I am aware of that has ever been brought against an industry for cooperating in the exchange of technology in order to solve a public health problem. . . .” A few hours later, Judge Curtis approved the decree; the auto industry had its deal. Yet, the public only had a fleeting glimpse of what this case was all about, and more importantly, what the auto industry had done – or not done – to deserve this level of federal action.

Following the consent decree’s approval, there was a flurry of legal actions related to the DOJ case that continued through mid-1973. Some twenty-eight states and another ten cities and counties brought private actions against the automakers after the federal case was settled. These actions, modeled on DOJ’s antitrust case, sought damages for automotive air pollution. Later consolidated into one case in California, the suits sought a variety of remedies, asking, for example, that auto companies be ordered to take steps to eliminate smog, make contributions toward the establishment of mass transit systems, and provide free emissions testing of automobiles.

In June 1973, the U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled that the plaintiffs could not sue for damages in the case but they could seek equitable protection under the antitrust law. However, in October 1973, Federal Judge Manuel Real dismissed thirty-four of the thirty-eight cases saying that the antitrust laws did not give him the power to force the automakers to find a solution to the pollution problem. The automakers argued that antitrust laws were reserved for the regulation of business conduct and the adjudication of business damage. The cases brought, they argued, were not about business damage in the strictest sense of antitrust tradition, as in price-fixing. Judge Real agreed. He explained, this was “not the result of any conspiracy or combination in restraint of trade.” The antitrust laws, he explained, “are not intended–nor do they purport to be–a panacea to cure all the ills that befall our citizenry by the accident that some damage or injury may have been caused by a business enterprise.” The suits had asked the judge to depart from traditional antitrust law to “find a solution to this most perplexing social problem.” Some later speculated that the states might have fared better had they pursued a public nuisance argument rather than mimicking the federal government’s antitrust case.


Phil Burton’s Disclosure

In 1971, U.S. Rep. Phil Burton revealed DOJ memo from the “smog conspiracy” case.
In 1971, U.S. Rep. Phil Burton revealed DOJ memo from the “smog conspiracy” case.
In any event, more details from the DOJ conspiracy case did emerge courtesy of California congressman, Phil Burton, Democrat from San Francisco In May 1971, nearly two years after the DOJ case was settled, Burton obtained a copy of the original Justice Department memorandum on the case and submitted it to the Congressional Record. According to Burton, the memo–which had been kept under wraps since it was written in 1968–contained “previously undisclosed evidence” not available when the case was settled. It revealed, among other things, that a criminal proceeding was recommended rather than the civil case that DOJ finally did bring. It also provided some detail on the auto industry’s delay tactics and technological foot-dragging on auto emission controls.

“The disclosures are especially painful in light of the settlement of the government’s civil case . . . ,” said Burton, submitting the DOJ memo to the public record on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives, where he was immune from prosecution for revealing court-sealed documents. The settlement, in Burton’s view, “deprived the public of an open trial on all the issues;” a trial that he believed would deter the auto industry from technological collusion at the public’s expense. Burton urged Attorney General John Mitchell to reopen the case, conduct both a Justice Department investigation and convene a new grand jury to consider a conspiracy indictment–none of which ultimately occurred. Yet Burton was especially interested in an investigation to determine whether the alleged conspiracy was continuing. “All indications since the consent decree was approved point to the dismaying fact that nothing has changed,” Burton said. “The automobile companies continue their carefully orchestrated united front — claiming in every public, hearing and in every public docket that they can’t meet the deadlines for anti-smog devices.” (By then, in fact, the 1970 Clean Air Act had been passed by Congress with set auto emissions deadlines that the auto industry also fought).

Yet, Burton’s disclosure of the DOJ memo brought new evidence to the public record, showing how the auto industry and its trade association dealt with the growing auto pollution problem during the 1953-1967 period; how they maneuvered to hold back and delay pollution control technologies even while assuring public officials they were going all out to develop those technologies. Some of the technological delay the DOJ memo reveled follows below.


Crankcase Pollution

Bluster on Blow-By

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, three parts of the automobile were seen as the primary targets for addressing pollution: the crankcase, the carburetor/fuel tank, and the exhaust system. At the time, experts estimated that 25 percent of the pollutants came from the crankcase, 15-to-25 percent from evaporation losses at the carburetor and fuel tank; and 50-to-60 percent the engine’s exhaust.

Generalized graphic showing three major areas of auto pollution - crankcase, carburetor/fuel tank & exhaust system.
Generalized graphic showing three major areas of auto pollution - crankcase, carburetor/fuel tank & exhaust system.
The first part of the automobile to receive pollution control attention – courtesy of pressure from California officials – was the crankcase, the engine compartment directly below the combustion chamber in which firing pistons located in sleeve-like cylinders above, connect to and turn a crankshaft that brings drive power to the vehicle. Some unburned gases from the internal combustion engine – known in the industry as “blow-by” since they escaped around the pistons during combustion – went into the crankcase. The gases, however, did not go into the exhaust system, but rather, were vented out of the crankcase and into the atmosphere. In fact, for decades prior, these crankcase pollutants were simply released from the bottom of the engine through a vent pipe opening to the road below. There were no controls– or at least none in use for most vehicles. But there was a simple fix — something called “positive crankcase ventilation” – that took the blow-by gases back into the engine’s intake manifold where they were consumed, at least partially, in the combustion process. GM later patented the Positive Crankcase Ventilation Valve (also known as the PCV valve) in 1959 and was credited with “discovering” that the PCV valve was effective in helping eliminate crankcase gases.

Engine graphic at left shows crankcase pollutants being recirculated for recombustion. Yet for decades prior, crankcase pollutants were simply released from the bottom of the engine through a vent pipe to the road below and into the atmosphere. There were no controls – or at least none in use for most vehicles.
Engine graphic at left shows crankcase pollutants being recirculated for recombustion. Yet for decades prior, crankcase pollutants were simply released from the bottom of the engine through a vent pipe to the road below and into the atmosphere. There were no controls – or at least none in use for most vehicles.

Neither “positive crankcase ventilation,” nor the PCV valve itself, were new concepts or technological breakthroughs. PCV valve was known about since the 1940s – and the principle of vacuuming off the gases from the crankcase back to the carburetor or intake manifold for recombustion – long before that. Howe Hopkins, an industry old-timer, former federal emissions official, and long-standing member of the American Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE), offered this account in 1969:

“. . . From 1921-1923, Ludlow Clayton of the Sun Oil Company wrote numerous papers for the SAE Journal on drawing crankcase gases out by creating a small vacuum. Back in about 1936, I went down to the Studebaker plant to meet W.S. James, the company engineer who demonstrated for me a simple tube attachment from the crankcase to the intake manifold to recirculate and recombust the crankcase gases. They were offering a conversion kit for this which was essentially only a length of copper tubing. . . .”

Although certainly by the early 1950s there was sufficient understanding of crankcase blowby, some in the industry would portray crankcase ventilation as a new development. Almost magically, 1959 had become the year industry “discovered” what to do with crankcase pollutants. “In 1959, through a truly extraordinary stroke of good fortune,” reported one account from the AMA “–the crankcase was discovered to be a more important source of emissions than had been suggested by prior government and other studies.”

Auto industry officials, then eyeing possible statewide regulation in California with strong pressure from local officials in Los Angeles, soon began to see that installing the relatively simple PCV device on California cars might be a way to forestall even tougher regulation by the state.


Exhaust Devices

Catalytic Reaction

As early as December 1959 ??,(earlier??) California had signaled its intent to the auto industry that exhaust-treating devices might be required. The automakers, however, were known to be less than excited by such a prospect. “They [the Big Three] are not . . . interested in making or selling devices. . . ,” wrote Dr. Donald Diggs, a technical manager at Du Pont, in an April 21, 1959 report. “[B]ut are working solely to protect themselves against poor public relations and the time when exhaust control devices may be required by law.”

Graphic showing placement of catalytic converter in the exhaust system to treat engine pollutants, exiting tail pipe.
Graphic showing placement of catalytic converter in the exhaust system to treat engine pollutants, exiting tail pipe.
Cut-away drawing of  later-developed catalytic converter, in this case converting engine pollutants HC, CO, and NOx to water and CO2 after passing through a treatment medium.
Cut-away drawing of later-developed catalytic converter, in this case converting engine pollutants HC, CO, and NOx to water and CO2 after passing through a treatment medium.

In May 1959, Ford’s James Chandler took the position that the smog problem “is not bad enough to warrant the enormous cost and administrative problems of installing three million afterburners.” Chandler, in fact, believed that one of the functions of the AMA working group was to “contain” the smog problem.

J.D. Ullman, another Du Pont technical expert working on auto-related issues noted in April 1960: “We gathered that the automobile industry will continue to do whatever it can within the scope of California legislation and of political pressure to postpone installation of exhaust control devices. . . .” An official of the Maremont Automotive Products Co., also doing business with Detroit, confided to a Du Pont colleague in May 1960 that the automakers “were keeping up a good front, but were not pushing as rapidly as they could toward a solution of the smog abatement problem.”

What the automakers feared most, however, was that some outside interest might begin to meddle in the core of their business in a way that could affect control over what was produced. This fear surfaced as a new group of businesses began working on catalytic devices to be installed in exhaust systems to treat and reduce auto pollution.

Catalysts are substances used to facilitate a chemical reaction without themselves being consumed in the reaction. By the time catalysts were being considered for pollution control in the auto industry, they had been used for years in various industrial processes. Catalysts applied as a remedy to the exhaust fumes of gasoline engines were first used in the coal mining industry to deal with the carbon monoxide problem in enclosed spaces. In the 1920s, researchers at Johns Hopkins and the U.S. Bureau of Mines produced a substance called “hopcalite” to control CO. Separately, in fact, Johns Hopkins researchers had applied the substance to automobiles about the same time and published a research report about the attempt.

June 1955 Popular Science story highlighting some of the early catalytic converter research of Eugene Houdry.
June 1955 Popular Science story highlighting some of the early catalytic converter research of Eugene Houdry.
Eugene Houdry, a French engineer, who came to America in the late 1930s, devised techniques for catalytic cracking of petroleum that helped oil companies make higher grade gasoline and aviation fuels. Following WWII, Houdry also used catalysts to treat various kinds of exhausts from engine-driven forklifts, mining equipment, and warehouse machinery.

Later concerned with possible health risks of automobile and industrial air pollution, Houdry started the Oxy-Catalyst Company, and would build early, generic catalytic converters capable of reducing carbon monoxide and unburned hydrocarbons from auto exhaust.

A June 1955 Popular Science story, shown at right, highlighted Houdry’s work with catalysts to control pollution, suggesting they would soon come to automobiles. In 1956 Huodry received a U.S. patent for his early automobile catalytic converter design.

Detroit, however, was never keen on catalytic devices, especially those made by outside firms. The automakers would do all in their power to delay the day such devices would be required.

True, in 1957 Ford Motor had tested and bragged about its vanadium pentoxide device to the press – (a move that brought Ford a rebuke from its co-conspirators for violating the industry agreement of a united front). Ford’s device, in any case, was an early, crude version of a catalytic converter; so big and cumbersome that some speculated it was purposely put forward to show that such exhaust-treatment devices wouldn’t work.

August 13, 1964 NY Times story.
August 13, 1964 NY Times story.
As California had made it clear that exhaust devices of some sort were going to be required on what amounted to about 10 percent of the nation’s cars, a fairly sizeable market, several non-automobile companies began investigating the catalytic converter in earnest as a business opportunity. Among them, each later teaming up with muffler manufacturers, were American Machine & Foundry Co./Chromalloy; Universal Oil Products/Arvin Industries; W.R. Grace/Norris-Thermador Corp.; American Cyanamid/ Walker Manufacturing; and Engelhard Industries.

The operative “trigger” for setting in motion the state’s requirement for installing exhaust controls was state certification of any two new devices. One year following such certification, automobiles then sold in California would have to be equipped with one or the other device. By the end of 1963 and early 1964, it was clear that two devices being produced by non-auto manufacturers would be certified, thereby triggering the law, and requiring their installation on all 1966 models. At the AMA, meanwhile, a March 1964 memorandum from William Sherman, offered a strategy for how the automakers might gain a one-year delay. Ford was also maneuvering at the time to say it could only meet a 1967 model-year goal.

California, however, did not blink in the face of industry’s delay gambits. The MVPCB notified the automakers that the state was testing four exhaust control devices on an accelerated basis. MVPCB’s chairman, J. B. Askew indicated the board was hopeful industry “would work with us to achieve exhaust controls for 1966 models.” In June 1964, the board approved four exhaust devices manufactured by nonautomotive manufacturers. In July, it requested Detroit’s plans for meeting the 1966 model-year requirement. On August 12, 1964, the automakers formally presented their intentions to comply with the 1966 model-year deadline.

As it turned out, however, none of the automakers used the approved catalytic devices developed by the outside manufacturers. What emerged in place of the catalytic devices was a “combustion control” approach Chrysler had known about since 1957 – something called the “Clean Air Package.” (The catalytic converter debate would resume once the federal 1970 Clean Air Act was passed by Congress, as converters were eventually used to help meet those standards).


Engine Tinkering

Clean Air Package

The Clean Air Package was criticized in the Nader Task Force book, “Vanishing Air.” Click for copy.
The Clean Air Package was criticized in the Nader Task Force book, “Vanishing Air.” Click for copy.
However, Chrysler’s Clean Air Package (also billed as “The Cleaner Air Package” in some accounts), was not exactly rocket science. The “system” for controlling exhaust emissions had two essential elements: more complete combustion and retarding the spark. These fixes were accomplished by adjusting the fuel/air ratio reducing the amount of gasoline burned, thereby reducing the amount of unburned, polluting gases; and adjusting the timing of the spark at the combustion chamber, which had the net effect of making the engine run at higher temperatures, thereby burning up some of the exhaust gases outside the combustion chamber. This, however, was not new technology.

“The technological breakthrough that is the Clean Air Package,” concluded Ralph Nader’s Task Force in Vanishing Air, “consists generally of . . . [a] different rubber hood seal, different cylinder gaskets, reduced production tolerances, and a different manifold heat valve. The carburetor and distributor employ very simple control valves.”

Auto industry veteran, Howe Hopkins, would explain of the long-known engine adjustments: “I knew about the effect of retarding timing on combustion efficiency in 1925,” he said. “But of course, others knew about it before that. The Model-T Ford had a manual device so that the owner could advance or retard the spark. . . .”

All told, concluded the Nader Task Force, “the Clean Air Package can hardly be heralded as a breakthrough in the annals of automotive history.”

It also became apparent that the adjustments in engine timing and spark used as a pollution-control strategy in the Clean Air Package were highly dependent upon regular maintenance and adjustment to local driving conditions to consistently reduce pollution.The Clean Air Package was not new technology; it consisted of engine adjustments known since the 1920s and deteriorated with use. Chrysler’s “package” deteriorated with use and would not cut pollution in 50 to 80 percent of operating vehicles. Engine adjustments made for cars in Los Angeles weren’t necessarily appropriate for stop-and-go driving in major cities of the northeast. The CAP and CAP-like systems also caused the engine to produce higher temperatures by combusting excess gases in the engine compartment, and with that, other pollutants began to form, and most notably, nitrogen oxides (NOx), a chief component of photochemical oxidants, or smog. NOx was then not regulated, so for industry, it did not figure into the pollution control fix at the time. Still, industry knew about the NOx problem at this juncture and knew it would be a problem going forward, but proceeded essentially to engineer around it. But for the auto industry, the CAP was a masterpiece of strategy; it was a low-cost, Band-Aid application when something more like a tourniquet was needed

In any case, GM, Ford, and American Motors eventually adopted the Chrysler CAP, or approaches similar to it, for their 1966 model year cars as well. As for the emerging catalytic converter industry, once it was learned that Chrysler’s Clean Air Package would be certified by California in 1964, most of the outside companies engaged in making catalytic devices either stopped or shelved their programs. CAP-like systems would also be used nationwide and would continue to be the primary “technology” used to control auto pollution, though quite poorly, through the early 1970s.

1968 General Motors print ad. “Air Pollution? They Never Heard of It.”  Once basic pollution control devices and simple engine adjustments began to be used, GM sought to publicly tout its role in reducing pollution, although also, as in this ad, instructing drivers on their maintenance role.
1968 General Motors print ad. “Air Pollution? They Never Heard of It.” Once basic pollution control devices and simple engine adjustments began to be used, GM sought to publicly tout its role in reducing pollution, although also, as in this ad, instructing drivers on their maintenance role.


Much Longer Story

The revealed 1950s-1960s technological foot-dragging by the auto industry, and the travail of the failed DOJ smog conspiracy case, are only a small part of the much longer story of automaker maneuvering and recalcitrance on auto pollution, fuel economy, safety, and alternative engine technology. It’s a story that continued through the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and beyond — and in fact, continues to this day in the current climate debate.

Brock Yates’ 1983 book on big-car myopia & other failings. Click for copy.
Brock Yates’ 1983 book on big-car myopia & other failings. Click for copy.
Following the smog conspiracy case, the automakers discovered they didn’t need to conspire to hold back technological improvements. Rather, their lobbying, political muscle, economic leverage, legal firepower, and public relations campaigns were typically sufficient to thwart the needed technology, whether for pollution-control, fuel economy, or alternative engine development. This is evident from the now 60-year record of their participation in the public policy arena, in which they were able, repeatedly, to water down, extend, delay, and/or subvert emissions and fuel economy standards and deadlines. Indeed, one GM official would later boast that in terms of the original 1970 Clean Air Act’s auto emission goals, “ninety-three [1993] was the first model year we ever built a model certified to seventy-five [1975] standards.”

But it wasn’t just the Clean Air Act they battled – which they fought from its inception in 1970 through subsequent amendment and into the late 1990s when new “smog & soot” provisions were sought. They also won rollbacks on fuel economy standards, learned how to game fleet accounting under the CAFÉ (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) program, and also threatened to use “foreign content” or move plants abroad to skirt MPG goals. When California moved to encourage electric vehicle development with tighter emissions standards, they worked to scuttle that program. And when Northeast states sought to adopt tighter California emissions standards, they fought that as well. They sometimes used front groups and fake grass roots names to oppose new actions in Congress. And they spared no expense in lobbying and PR campaigns to oppose updates to the clean air and fuel economy laws.

David Halberstam’s 1986 book on Ford & Nissan provides period context & perceptive historical analysis. Click for copy.
David Halberstam’s 1986 book on Ford & Nissan provides period context & perceptive historical analysis. Click for copy.
For years, the Detroit automakers were fixated on big car profits, expressed disdain for smaller European and Japanese cars, and were reluctant to make capital plant investments to change product lineups. When their own smaller cars were first produced, they were often poorly engineered, losing market share to European and Japanese competitors.

And although American automakers had studied or knew about improvements such as front-wheel drive, fuel injection, improved transmissions, and multi-valve engines (some, as early as the 1950s, and again in the early 1970s) – all technologies that would improve fuel efficiency and more – they ignored them or were slow to install them, lagging behind their competitors by years in some cases.

When sales went flat on the heels of energy crises, they typically asked Congress for help and regulatory relief. In periods of high profits, they spent their proceeds poorly, some on mergers and acquisitions rather than improved engineering of cars and trucks.

When the “quality revolution” arrived to make them better competitors, environmental and energy elements were not incorporated into the capital goods calculus. All in all, there were missed opportunities in the 1950s-1990s time frame that could have made the outcomes much different.

Maryann Keller’s 1989 book on GM is also good period history. Click for copy.
Maryann Keller’s 1989 book on GM is also good period history. Click for copy.
Most puzzling to those who studied and knew the industry, including any number of engineers inside Detroit, was the fact that the industry clearly had the technical capability to be energy and environmental leaders. Afterall, this was the industry that became the “Arsenal of Democracy” in WWII, converting their plants overnight to turn out a staggering array of fighter planes, tanks, and technologically complex weapons and other munitions. In more recent years, they have helped NASA. So why the decades-long histrionics over energy and environmental improvements?

To be sure, the air in America today is cleaner than it was in the 1950s and 1960s, as the energy and environmental performance of Detroit-made motor vehicles is much improved, no question. But as the annual reports of the American Lung Association typically show, there are too many metro areas in America (and around the world) having bad ozone days. And while “end-of-combustion-engine” deadlines and surging electric vehicle development now hold promise for further reducing the motor vehicle share of bad air and greenhouse gases, we are clearly not out of the woods yet.

Much more detail on the auto industry’s economic and environmental history is found in any number of the books and reports cited in this story and in the “Sources” section below. Additional stories at this website with auto industry content include the following: “The DeLorean Saga” (about John DeLorean’s rise and fall at GM and his bid to build the DeLorean Motor Car); “G.M. & Ralph Nader” (covering Nader’s book Unsafe at Any Speed and GM’s attempt to discredit him); and “Dinah Shore & Chevrolet” (about the popular 1950s TV personality who helped sell Chevrolets).

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

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Date Posted: 22 May 2021
Last Update: 22 May 2021
Comments to: jdoyle@pophistorydig.com

Article Citation:
Jack Doyle, “Smog Conspiracy: DOJ vs. Detroit
Automakers,” PopHistoryDig.com, May 22, 2021.

____________________________________



Sources, Links & Additional Information

Jack Doyle's, “Taken For A Ride: Detroit’s Big Three and The Politics of Pollution,” covers the 50-year clean car fight. Click for copy. (some book excerpts used in the foregoing story.).
Jack Doyle's, “Taken For A Ride: Detroit’s Big Three and The Politics of Pollution,” covers the 50-year clean car fight. Click for copy. (some book excerpts used in the foregoing story.).
Chip Jacobs & William J Kelly’s 2008 book, “Smogtown: The Lung-Burning History of Pollution in Los Angeles,” Abrams Press; updated 2015, 400 pp. Click for copy.
Chip Jacobs & William J Kelly’s 2008 book, “Smogtown: The Lung-Burning History of Pollution in Los Angeles,” Abrams Press; updated 2015, 400 pp. Click for copy.
Dave Cooke’s 2017 report, “Time for a U-Turn: Automakers’ History of Intransigence and an Opportunity for Change,” Union of Concerned Scientists, 56 pp. Click for PDF.
Dave Cooke’s 2017 report, “Time for a U-Turn: Automakers’ History of Intransigence and an Opportunity for Change,” Union of Concerned Scientists, 56 pp. Click for PDF.
James J. Flink’s cultural, economic and political history, “The Automobile Age,” described as “a virtual encyclopedia of automotive history.” MIT 1990 paperback, 472pp, Click for copy.
James J. Flink’s cultural, economic and political history, “The Automobile Age,” described as “a virtual encyclopedia of automotive history.” MIT 1990 paperback, 472pp, Click for copy.
Karen R. Merrill’s book, “The Oil Crisis of 1973-1974: A Brief History with Documents,” Bedford/St. Martin's; 1st edition, 2007, 192pp. Click for copy.
Karen R. Merrill’s book, “The Oil Crisis of 1973-1974: A Brief History with Documents,” Bedford/St. Martin's; 1st edition, 2007, 192pp. Click for copy.
Margo T. Oge’s 2015 book, “Driving the Future: Combating Climate Change with Cleaner, Smarter Cars,” Arcade. 368pp.  Click for copy.
Margo T. Oge’s 2015 book, “Driving the Future: Combating Climate Change with Cleaner, Smarter Cars,” Arcade. 368pp. Click for copy.
Bill Vlasic’s 2011 book, “Once Upon a Car: The Fall and Resurrection of America's Big Three Automakers--GM, Ford, and Chrysler,” William Morrow;  400 pp.  Click for copy.
Bill Vlasic’s 2011 book, “Once Upon a Car: The Fall and Resurrection of America's Big Three Automakers--GM, Ford, and Chrysler,” William Morrow; 400 pp. Click for copy.
Michael Shnayerson’s 1996 book, “The Car That Could: The Inside Story of GM's Revolutionary Electric Vehicle,” an inside account of the EV-1, before its demise.  Random House, 295pp. Click for copy.
Michael Shnayerson’s 1996 book, “The Car That Could: The Inside Story of GM's Revolutionary Electric Vehicle,” an inside account of the EV-1, before its demise. Random House, 295pp. Click for copy.
2006 documentary film, “Who Killed the Electric Car?” (Chris Paine, director, Martin Sheen, narrator). Tells the story of GM’s EV-1, with historical context, through its demise (1 hr, 32 min), and asks the question: “A Lack of Consumer Confidence...Or Conspiracy?”. Click for DVD or video.
2006 documentary film, “Who Killed the Electric Car?” (Chris Paine, director, Martin Sheen, narrator). Tells the story of GM’s EV-1, with historical context, through its demise (1 hr, 32 min), and asks the question: “A Lack of Consumer Confidence...Or Conspiracy?”. Click for DVD or video.
Vitaliy Katsenelson’s short book, “Tesla, Elon Musk, and the EV Revolution: An In-Depth Analysis of What’s in Store for the Company, The Man, and The Industry by a Value Investor and Newly-Minted Tesla Owner,” October 2020. Click for copy.
Vitaliy Katsenelson’s short book, “Tesla, Elon Musk, and the EV Revolution: An In-Depth Analysis of What’s in Store for the Company, The Man, and The Industry by a Value Investor and Newly-Minted Tesla Owner,” October 2020. Click for copy.
Steven Rattner’s 2010 book, “Overhaul: An Insider's Account of the Obama Administration's Emergency Rescue of the Auto Industry,” Houghton Mifflin, 320 pp.  Click for copy.
Steven Rattner’s 2010 book, “Overhaul: An Insider's Account of the Obama Administration's Emergency Rescue of the Auto Industry,” Houghton Mifflin, 320 pp. Click for copy.
Jack Ewing’s 2017 book, “Faster, Higher, Farther: The Volkswagen Scandal” – VW installed emissions-cheating software on 11 million cars. W. W. Norton, 352 pp. Click for copy.
Jack Ewing’s 2017 book, “Faster, Higher, Farther: The Volkswagen Scandal” – VW installed emissions-cheating software on 11 million cars. W. W. Norton, 352 pp. Click for copy.

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“Detroit Promises Clean-Air ’75s…But Ups the Sticker Another $300,” Popular Mechanics, September 1973.

James E. Krier and Edmund Ursin, Pollution and Policy: A Case Essay on California and Federal Experience with Motor Vehicle Air Pollution, 1940-1975, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1977. Click for copy.

Kenneth F. Hahn, Smog: A Factual Record of Correspondence Between Kenneth Hahn and Automobile Companies, Los Angeles, 1970.

Editorial, “How Clean A Car and How Soon,” Life, March 26, 1971, p. 32.

Senator Ed Muskie, “Clean Air,” Letter to the Editor, Life, May 7, 1971, p. 25.

Associated Press, “Auto Makers Win Ruling on Pollution,” New York Times, Nov. 27, 1973.

Agis Salpukas, “Los Angeles Officials Insist the Air is Getting Cleaner,” New York Times, August 7, 1972.

Bennett H. Goldstein and Howell H. Howard, “Antitrust Law and the Control of Auto Pollution: Rethinking the Alliance Between Competition and Technical Progress,” Environmental Law, Vol. 10, No. 3 (Spring 1980), pp. 517-558.

“Energy: Detroit’s Most Difficult Deadline,” Time, December 31, 1973.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “A Review and Analysis of The Good Faith of The Automobile Industry in Attempting to Comply with The Statutory 0.4 NOx Standard,” A Report to the Senate Public Works Committee, U.S. Congress, 1975, 120 pp.

Michael Weisskopf, “Auto-Pollution Debate Has Ring of the Past,” Washington Post, March 26, 1990.

Scott H. Dewey, “The Antitrust Case of the Century”: Kenneth F. Hahn and the Fight Against Smog, Southern California Quarterly, Vol. 81, No. 3 (Fall 1999), pp. 341-376.

U.S. Congress, “Unnecessary Business Subsidies,” Hearing Before the Committee on the Budget, House of Representatives, 106th Congress, 1st Session, Washington, D.C., June 30, 1999· Volume 4.

Martin V. Melosi, “Auto Emissions and Air Pollution,” The Automobile and the Environment in American History, University of Michigan Series, Automobile in American Life and Society.

Tim Palucka, “Doing The Impossible: When Congress Mandated a 90 Percent Cut in Auto Emissions, Almost No One Thought it Could Be Achieved. The Inventors of the Catalytic Converter Proved Otherwise,” Invention AndTech.com, Winter 2004, Vol. 19, Issue 3.

Stan Luger, Corporate Power, American Democracy, and the Automobile Industry, Cambridge University Press, 2005, 220pp. Click for copy.

Harry Stoffer, “GM Fought Safety, Emissions Rules, but Then Invented Ways to Comply,” AutoNews.com, September 14, 2008.

David Traver Adolphus, “1960: The Smog War Begins,” Hemmings.com, August 12, 2010.

Jim Motavalli, “Crying Wolf: 5 Automaker Excuses for Avoiding Innovation,” CBSnews .com, May 17, 2011.

Douglas S. Eisinger, Smog Check: Science, Federalism, and the Politics of Clean Air, 2012.

“Smog Galore! The 10 Most Polluted Cities in America,” Parade, May 1, 2014.

Lauren Raab, “How Bad Was L.A.’s Smog When Barack Obama Went to College Here?,” Los Angles Times, August 3, 2015.

Sam Kean, “The Flavor of Smog. In the 1940s Two Chemists Joined Forces to Fight Los Angeles’s Stinky, Stinging Air,” ScienceHistory.org, October 15, 2016.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “Timeline of Major Accomplishments in Transportation, Air Pollution, and Climate Change,” EPA.gov, January 2017.

John Bachmann, David Calkins, Margo Oge, “Cleaning the Air We Breathe: A Half Century of Progress,” EPA Alumni Association, September 2017.

William K. Reilly and Kenneth Kimmell, Op-Ed, “Automakers Shouldn’t Fight Emissions Standards,” New York Times, October 19, 2017.

Dave Cooke, “Automakers’ Long List of Fights Against Progress, and Why We Must Demand Better,” Blog.USCusa.org (Union of Concerned Scientists), December 6, 2017.

Rian Dundon, “Photos: L.A.’s Mid-Century Smog Was So Bad, People Thought it Was a Gas Attack,” Timeline.com, May 23, 2018.

Tony Barboza, “Must Reads: 87 Days of Smog: Southern California Just Saw its Longest Streak of Bad Air in Decades,” Los Angles Times, September 21, 2018.

Amanda Grennell, “The Decades-Long War on Smog; What History Tells Us About Addressing Today’s Pressing Air Pollution Problems,” ScientificAmerican.com, April 16, 2019.

Lee Vinsel, Moving Violations: Automobiles, Experts, and Regulations in the United States, Johns Hopkins University Press 2019, 424pp. Click for copy.

James Pasley, “35 Vintage Photos Reveal What Los Angeles Looked like Before the U.S, Regulated Pollution,” Insider.com, January 7, 2020.

Daniel Stern, “Automotive History: The Dawn of the Catalytic Converter – Who Put the Cat Out?,” CurbsideClassic.com, February 3, 2020.

Coral Davenport, “U.S. to Announce Rollback of Auto Pollution Rules, a Key Effort to Fight Climate Change,” New York Times, March 30, 2020.

Aaron Robinson, “Fifty Years Ago, the Government Decided to Clean up Car Exhaust. It’s Still at It,” Hagerty.com, October 7, 2020.

Dale Kasler, “California’s Long Game of Tug-of-War With the Auto Industry; California Has Banned the Sale of Gasoline-Powered Cars by 2035 and Automakers Retort with Concern about the State’s Electric Grid and Consumer Preference for Gas Vehicles. This Back and Forth Is Decades Long,” The Sacramento Bee / Governing.com, October 8, 2020.

____________________________



“Nader’s Raiders”
1968-1974

Ralph Nader and his “Raiders” –  law, medical and engineering students – on the steps of U.S. Capitol in late summer 1969.
Ralph Nader and his “Raiders” – law, medical and engineering students – on the steps of U.S. Capitol in late summer 1969.
     Among notable activist “inventions” of mid-twentieth century America, few were more effective in shaking up the federal establishment than Ralph Nader’s swat teams of bright young college and law school students. 

Loosed on official Washington in the 1960s and 1970s and dubbed “Nader’s Raiders” by Washington Post journalist William Greider, these teams of Ralph Nader acolytes churned out all manner of books, reports and investigative probes aimed at improving the law, making government work better, and/or holding corporate powers to account.

A small cottage industry of publisher-worthy paperbacks resulted, some becoming bestsellers, and all with messages that stirred the public policy pot.

In the process, official Washington was challenged and changed, investigative journalism was re-ignited, and public interest advocacy became part of the culture.

What follows in this piece is a look back at some of that history, how the Nader teams and Nader reports came about, and what effect they had.

     In the late 1960s, Ralph Nader was fresh from his own success with a best-selling book, Unsafe at Any Speed, which took the automobile industry and Congress to task about auto safety. In that fight, Nader also became embroiled in a battle with General Motors after the company hired private detectives to follow him and investigate his past, trying to discredit him as a Congressional witness and consumer spokesman.  That incident, covered in a separate story, backfired on GM, with the company’s CEO apologizing to Nader during highly publicized U.S. Senate hearings.  With his new national credential as a rising consumer advocate, Nader sought to expand the range of his activities beyond auto safety.  By summer 1968, Nader began assembling teams of law school students to undertake investigative studies of government agencies. He had a bigger vision of what might be possible and a long list of issues that needed attention – from food safety and environmental pollution, to anti-trust enforcement and energy policy.  What he needed was more Ralph Naders – though he never put it in exactly those terms.  In fact, the idea may have risen by way of students themselves who wrote toNader after his auto safety notoriety.  In January 1968, for example, Andrew Egendorf, a graduate of MIT who had entered Harvard Business School, wrote to Nader with a friend offering to work for him that summer if Nader would consider working with students.  Whether this was the genesis of the plan, or was already something Nader was considering, is unclear.  In any case, by the summer of 1968, Nader began assembling teams of law school students to undertake investigative studies of government agencies that dealt with consumer, environmental, food safety, and other issues.  He would start with one agency and one team. Seven law school students were recruited to focus on the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the federal agency charged with protecting consumers from shoddy products, fraudulent business practices, and deceptive advertising.  The students Nader gathered to focus on the FTC were: Edward F. Cox, Yale Law School; Robert C. Fellmeth, Harvard; John E. Schulz, Yale; Judy Areen, Yale; Peter A. Bradford, Yale; Andrew Egendorf, MIT/Harvard; and William Taft IV, Harvard.

Paperback book cover for a later edition of the first “Nader’s Raiders” report on the Federal Trade Commission, Grove Press, 1970, 241pp.
Paperback book cover for a later edition of the first “Nader’s Raiders” report on the Federal Trade Commission, Grove Press, 1970, 241pp.
     Nader’s team went about the business of investigating the FTC full bore, burrowing in at the agency, interviewing its people, and digging up whatever they could find in Congress and the public record.  In the summer of 1968, the Nader team gathered the material for their report, then returned to school.  Later that year, during the December college break, they returned to Washington for a marathon session of writing.  The full report would be released in January 1969. 

     But even before the official release, the Nader team had begun making waves with some of what they were finding.  They had one dust-up early on with FTC officials in the summer when they were conducting interviews and gathering data at the agency. In that incident, Nader team leader, John Schulz, had words with FTC chairman Paul Rand Dixon after some persistent questioning and was thrown out of Dixon’s office. Shulz had asked for a copy of a monthly FTC memo detailing complaints made to the agency. Dixon told him that the document was for FTC use only. Dixon also decreed by letter there would be no more Nader team interviews that summer, unless cleared with him. 

     However, Dixon’s letter made its way to Time magazine, where a story appeared on the incident in September 1968 titled, “Nader’s Neophytes.”  Time also divulged some of what the Nader team was finding, indicating their study would show the FTC as a toothless watchdog, reluctant to go after big advertising offenders, and sometimes withholding reports from the public.

     Edward Cox, a member of the Nader FTC team, helped generate a Wall Street Journal story in the summer of 1968 on some political dirt he discovered in his research – a purely patronage office in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, which was manned by a friend of FTC Chairman Dixon.  As Cox would later tell this tale, recalling his stint with Nader that summer:

…A memorable event for a Washington newcomer was the impact of a Wall Street Journal article.“…I began to see how our hard work and Nader’s guidance and contacts might have an impact after all.”        – Edward T. Cox My research had identified a patronage office in Oak Ridge, Tennessee manned by a friend of Chairman Dixon’s, Judge Castro C. Geer, Jr. Judge Geer’s patron in Congress was Joe Evins, a Tennessee representative and chairman of the House subcommittee which approved the FTC’s budget.  Nader told me to take the information to Jerry Landauer, one of the premier muckraking reporters in the Journal’s DC office.  I will never forget the scene: Landauer, cigarette in his mouth, calling various sources to confirm the information, pounding out the story on his typewriter, and muttering genuinely sympathetic noises about poor Judge Geer who was about to get skewered by his story.  This was the first major story generated by our [Nader study team] work, and I began to see how our hard work and Nader’s guidance and contacts might have an impact after all.

As the “Nader Raider” study teams were assembling, Ralph Nader was receiving national press as a consumer advocate, as in this November 1968 ‘Newsweek’ story.
As the “Nader Raider” study teams were assembling, Ralph Nader was receiving national press as a consumer advocate, as in this November 1968 ‘Newsweek’ story.
     Though the FTC was charged with protecting American consumers from deceitful and deceptive advertising and harmful and dangerous products, Nader’s team uncovered an agency that failed to detect violations and was reluctant to even use the weak enforcement powers it had.  The FTC then lacked some basic enforcement powers, including the use of temporary injunctions and the ability to levy criminal penalties – and it did not seek Congressional help to obtain the statutory authority it needed to improve its powers.  In mid-November 1968, Bill Greider of the Washington Post did a story featuring Nader’s FTC team, headlined: “Law Students, FTC Tangle Over Apathy,” in which he invoked his famous “Nader’s raiders” tag for the first time.  Greider’s opening line in that story: “The graying members of the Federal Trade Commission, an agency founded in 1914 to protect the little guy, were confronted yesterday by Nader’s raiders, a group of modish young law students who accused the FTC of having ‘tired blood’.”  The Nader team’s report, initially titled, The Consumer and the Federal Trade Commission, ran about 185 pages and was issued in January 1969.  It called for a total revamping of FTC practices and its personnel, describing it as a failed agency due to a combination of “cronyism, institutionalized mediocrity, endemic inaction, delay, and secrecy,” and an “iceberg of incompetence and mismanagement.”

A 1970 edition of the Nader Raiders FTC book showed the three authors during testimony on Capitol Hill. Click for book.
A 1970 edition of the Nader Raiders FTC book showed the three authors during testimony on Capitol Hill. Click for book.
     The Nader FTC study received extensive press coverage including that by Time magazine, New York Times, the Washington Post, and others.  It also found support from a surprising source, as Advertising Age, a trade magazine for the industry, offered an editorial critical of the FTC’s weak enforcement.  That editorial said in part: “No community is well served if its fire department habitually reaches the scene after the last spark has been extinguished.”  The Nader FTC report was also published in the Congressional Record of January 22, 1969 and later that summer it was published as a book.

     In Congress, during the spring and summer of 1969, Sen. Abraham Ribicoff (D-CT), then chairman of the Government Reorganization Subcommittee of the Senate Government Operations Committee, was holding hearings on bills to establish an Office of Consumer Affairs.  FTC issues were also covered at those hearings, with the Nader group offering testimony on their study.  At one point during the hearings, Ribicoff praised the Nader FTC authors for their work, while leveling digs at the establishment press and the government: “Bureaucracy being what it is, I am fascinated by your ability to get in so deep, and get so much information.  I am sure that you gentlemen are the envy of the large number of reporters here.”

     FTC Chairman Paul Rand Dixon, however, described the Nader report for the Wall Street Journal as “a hysterical anti-business diatribe and a scurrilous, untruthful attack on the [FTC’s] career personnel and an arrogant demand for my resignation.”  The report had indeed called for Dixon’s resignation and a complete overhaul of the agency.  And by April 1969, the FTC had come to the attention of the new Nixon Administration.  President Nixon urged the American Bar Association to undertake an independent investigation of the FTC, which they completed that September.  The ABA’s report painted conclusions even more dismal than the Nader team had presented.  Paul Rand Dixon resigned.  When, under the new leadership of Casper W. Weinberger, reforms began taking place within the FTC, the New York Times announced the fact  in a front-page headline on June 9, 1970: “FTC Maps Change to Aid Consumer; Major Reorganization Set by Chairman– Agency Was Nader Target.”

 

Ralph Nader meeting with several of his “raiders,” late 1960s.
Ralph Nader meeting with several of his “raiders,” late 1960s.
More Raiders

     While the FTC study was underway, plans were made to staff up several more Nader study teams to probe other agencies.  On February 10, 1969, a small ad was placed in the Harvard Crimson student newspaper at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts under the title, “Nader’s Raiders.”  The text of the ad read: “Graduate students in medicine, biology, life sciences, engineering, and law are needed this summer to work with Ralph Nader in an investigation of various government programs.  Call Robert Fellmeth, 868-1593.”  An avalanche of responses resulted.  By that summer, more than 100 students had been recruited from thousands of applicants.  In short order, several more study areas were set, generally focusing on food, agriculture, air and water pollution, and interstate commerce.  By this time, Nader had also founded his Center for the Study of Responsive Law based in Washington, which would serve as the operating base for the study teams and research.

Ralph Nader, back to the camera, meeting with “raiders” in 1969 – from left, Julian Houston, James Fallows, Marian Penn, and Robert Fellmeth, Photo, Life magazine.
Ralph Nader, back to the camera, meeting with “raiders” in 1969 – from left, Julian Houston, James Fallows, Marian Penn, and Robert Fellmeth, Photo, Life magazine.
     Life Magazine Story.  In early October 1969, a Life magazine story ran with the photograph that appears at the top of this article showing Nader on the steps of the Capitol with his legions of “Raiders.”  The story, by Jack Newfield, was titled, “Nader’s Raiders: The Lone Ranger Gets a Posse.”  In that piece, Nader explained to Newfield what he hoped to accomplish with his law-student swat teams, and specifically why some lawyers should work in the public interest:

“…Most lawyers are too hung up on clients. The most important thing a lawyer can do is become an advocate of powerless citizens. I am in favor of lawyers without clients.  Lawyers should represent systems of justice. I want to create a new dimension to the legal profession.  What we have now is democracy without citizens. No one is on the public’s side. All the lawyers are on the corporation’s side.  And the bureaucrats… don’t think the government belongs to the people.

“For example, the industries, corporations and lobbyists manipulate the federal commissions and agencies. The Interstate Commerce Commission has always been a tool of the railroads, the bus lines and the trucking industry. The Department of the Interior has been easily influenced by the oil and gas industries.  The Department of Agriculture has been an instrument of the tobacco industry. No one represents the public interest. Lawyers are never where the needs are greatest. I hope a new generation of lawyers will begin to change that.”

     During the 1969-72 period, more than a dozen “Nader Raider” reports were launched, most of which became paperback books. Among the earliest of these were the five Nader reports that followed the FTC study:  The Chemical Feast, Vanishing Air, The Interstate Commerce Omission,Water Wasteland, and Sowing the Wind.  A brief look at each of these studies, as well as a few others, follows below.

 

1970, “The Chemical Feast,” 1st edition paperback, Grossman Publishers, 273pp. Click for book.
1970, “The Chemical Feast,” 1st edition paperback, Grossman Publishers, 273pp. Click for book.
The Chemical Feast

     Work on the background reports that became a landmark “Nader’s Raiders” book on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration began in the summer of 1968.  James S. Turner, a law student at Ohio State University, would become the project director and principal author.  But more than a dozen Nader-recruited researchers worked on the project over two summers, eventually distilling their findings into a 273-page book, The Chemical Feast, published as a paperback by Grossman Publishers in 1970.

     As the title suggests, there was more to the nation’s food system than met the eye, and, in fact, an onslaught of chemical food additives and pesticides was part of the equation, which Nader’s team uncovered in chapters with titles such as: “Cyclamates,” “Hidden Ingredients,” and “Food-Borne Disease.” 

The book exposed the FDA’s lax oversight of the food industry, its corruption, and its connections with big food and drug companies.  FDA appeared more concerned with protecting industry profits at the expense of public health.

“What they turned up was truly shocking,” reported Choice magazine – “evasion of law enforcement, abdication of responsibilities, bureaucratic confusion, incompetence, favoritism, and even fraud… It should prove of interest to concerned citizens of all ages.”

Back cover of “The Chemical Feast,” 1970.
Back cover of “The Chemical Feast,” 1970.


     The major food safety laws – including the pesticide, food safety and color additive laws – were sabotaged by the FDA, according to the study. “While the FDA clings to the claim that American food is better than ever,” explained The Chemical Feast’s back book cover, “the life expectancy of Americans is lower than ever and American food in general is filthier and less nutritious.”

     A New York Times article in early April 1970 by reporter David E. Rosenbaum, used the following headline to describe the study: “F.D.A. Called Tool of Food Industry; Nader Unit Likens Its Rules to ‘Catalogue of Favors’.”  Rosenbaum further wrote that the Nader FDA study revealed an agency “controlled by political pressures and unable and unwilling to protect the consumer.” The standards and regulations of the agency, Rosenbaum said of the report’s findings, “read like a catalog of favors to special interest groups.” 

Time magazine said The Chemical Feast “may well be the most devastating critique of a U.S. government agency ever issued.”  The report was first published in book form by Grossman in 1970, then reprinted three times in 1971, 1972 and 1974.  In 1976, Penguin Books also published it in paperback form.

“The Interstate Commerce Omission” by Grossman Publishers, 1970, 423pp. Click for book.
“The Interstate Commerce Omission” by Grossman Publishers, 1970, 423pp. Click for book.


ICC Blasted

     Another in the first batch of Nader reports was The Interstate Commerce Omission, a scathing review of the failings of the Interstate Commerce Commission, then an 83-year-old federal agency charged with regulating interstate commerce by rail, trucking, shipping and pipelines. The Nader study group undertaking this report was headed up by Robert Fellmeth, and his team delved deeply into the ICC’s record, sending out mail surveys, conducting more than 500 interviews, and doing detailed statistical analyses.  In March 1970, they issued a 1,200-page draft report, which Time magazine called “devastating in detail.”

     The essence of their report was that the ICC really didn’t regulate the 17,000 or so transport entities under its charge so much as operate a cartel on their behalf.  The commission, they found, was in effect presiding over thousands of local transport monopolies, protecting inefficient carriers from competition at the expense of the public.  They also found a cozy relationship between the ICC and the industries they regulate, with industry trade groups also paying for meetings, food and hotel accommodations on junkets to “surface transportation meccas” such as Hawaii, Puerto Rico and the Bahamas.

     The Interstate Commerce Omission argued that the public good would best be served if the ICC were abolished altogether – and along with it, the Civil Aeronautics Board and the Federal Maritime Commission. All three of those entities could be replaced by a single agency, the Nader team charged, an agency that would then be able to set a coherent national transportation policy, relying less on regulation and more on markets to set rates.  Doing so, they argued, would sharpen competition among companies in all forms of transport.

 

Vanishing Air

Cover of “Vanishing Air” in paperback edition by Grossman Publishers, July 1970. Click for book.
Cover of “Vanishing Air” in paperback edition by Grossman Publishers, July 1970. Click for book.
     The release of the Nader study-group report on air pollution – titled Vanishing Air – was a well-timed report, coming exactly as the public and Congress were beginning to focus on environmental issues. On April 22,1970, the first Earth Day – the brainchild of Senator Gaylord Nelson (D-WI) to organize students and other citizens with teach-ins and demonstrations on behalf of action to clean up the environment – was a huge success, with more than 20 million people becoming involved in events and demonstrations across the nation. Meanwhile, the U.S. Congress and the Administration of Richard Nixon were then maneuvering with proposals for needed changes to an old and outdated Clean Air Act, as urban pollution episodes – fueled largely by automobile-generated smog – had raised national concerns about public health.

     The Nader study-group report on air pollution came right in the middle of the growing national outcry over environmental pollution. The work of the study group had begun in 1969 led by John C. Esposito, who held degrees from Long Island and Rutgers universities as well as a law degree from Harvard. He was assisted by Larry Silverman, associate director of the project, who was a graduate of St Johns College and held a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania. This Nader task force included at least ten other members, including graduate students in medicine and engineering. They set about documenting air-pollution health hazards around the nation, using case studies of various cities while also focusing on the role of Congress and the outdated National Air Pollution Control Administration (NAPCA), which operated under the very weak 1967 Clean Air Act.

Automobile pollution became a major concern in the late 1960s, and a topic for political cartoonists, illustrated by this sample from the “Washington Star” newspaper.
Automobile pollution became a major concern in the late 1960s, and a topic for political cartoonists, illustrated by this sample from the “Washington Star” newspaper.
     “…NAPCA bureaucrats never had a chance,” wrote Kirkus Reviews in its account of the Vanishing Air book in 1970.  “The report piles on incriminating facts, figures, and failures and devastating dismissals of NAPCA,” which the report called “a disorganized band of government officials acting out a pollution-control charade.” Among key chapters in Vanishing Air were two that skewered the auto industry – titled respectively, “Twenty Years in Low Gear” and “Nothing New Under The Hood,” a devastating critique of Detroit’s failure to innovate with pollution control technology. 

     Other polluters targeted in the Nader study included big manufacturing and the energy industry.  Congress and the political process were also hit hard, including a presumed champion of clean air, Senator Edmund Muskie (D-ME), whose subcommittee on pollution and federal environmental laws, the report charged, “resulted in a ‘business-as-usual’ license to pollute for countless companies across the country.” The report also charged that Senator Muskie had issued “politically expedient platitudes” rather than “real leadership.”

     Borrowing a page from Rachel Carson and her landmark 1962 book Silent Spring, which used an opening fictional story on pesticide health threats to introduce the urgency of her message, the Nader Study Group on Air Pollution also used this devise in Vanishing Air, including a fictional account of an atmospheric inversion in a major city that trapped pollutants endangering public health.  In fact, as the paperback version of Vanishing Air came out in July 1970, a mass of stagnant air lodged itself over the eastern seaboard of the U.S., putting a meteorological lid on the entire region for several days and trapping all manner of industrial and automotive pollutants. The episode got public attention, while provoking a few editorials (see sidebar below) and several U.S. Senate speeches.


“The Great Dirty Cloud”
July 1970

     In July 1970, as an atmospheric inversion trapped pollutants all along the East Coast, the incident became the main topic of discussion throughout the nation and the media –including the possibility of banning cars from urban centers.  In one editorial, The New York Times wrote:

“Through the polluted haze that for days has hung over the East Coast cities from New York to Atlanta, nothing is clear but a timely warning.  Urban areas are getting perilously close to the point where they have to choose between the internal combustion engine and breathable air…”

“…[W]hat has up to now been regarded as personally hysterical and economically unthinkable may yet become a reality. Until the gasoline engine can be made pollution-free or a clean substitute for it developed — eventualities at least ten years in the future — the automobile may actually have to be banned from the centers of major American cities…  In the present New York crisis a prohibition on all non-essential traffic may yet have to be invoked in certain areas… “

A 1970s’ episode of smog enveloping New York’s Manhattan. Photo from EPA Documerica gallery /National Archives.
A 1970s’ episode of smog enveloping New York’s Manhattan. Photo from EPA Documerica gallery /National Archives.
     The Washington Post also used the occasion to raise questions about the smog-control timetable that was then being considered by Congress for the auto industry – a ten-year timetable proposed by the Nixon Administration and supported by the automakers.  Calling the East Coast pollution cloud a “dangerous cesspool of air that now hangs over this city,” the Post said the incident “raises the immediate question of whether the public can wait the 10 years the automobile industry has said it needs to produce clean cars.”  The Post, in fact, wondered, “Has an independent group thoroughly looked into this timetable to see if 10 years really is needed?  Or is it a comfortable pace the industry has set for itself?”  On Capitol Hill, apparently, there were a few people listening to such appeals, among them Senator Edmund Muskie.  President Nixon’s pollution control package – offering a ten year timetable – was essentially industry’s proposal.  Muskie, however, would cut that in half, making the deadline for achieving auto emissions standards 1975, not 1980.


     Vanishing Air and the Nader Study Group on Air Pollution, meanwhile, continued to have an impact that year, helping to create the pressure for enactment of the 1970 Clean Air Act.  That law, in fact, was the toughest anti-pollution measure ever approved by Congress up to that point and was signed grudgingly by Richard Nixon in December 1970, as Senator Ed Muskie in the end had proved a clean air champion and leader in the fight, setting tough 1975 goals for the automakers.

 

The Ralph Nader report, “Water Wasteland,” Grossman Publishers, 1971, 494pp. Click for book.
The Ralph Nader report, “Water Wasteland,” Grossman Publishers, 1971, 494pp. Click for book.
Water Wasteland

     During the late 1960s and early 1970s water pollution, like air pollution, was a growing problem across the nation. In northeast Ohio, the Cuyahoga River was so polluted with oil and petrochemicals that is caught fire, and nearby Lake Erie was biologically dead. Added to these were any number of other lakes and rivers across the nation that were severely polluted, among the worst rivers, for example were: the Buffalo, the Escambia, the Passaic, the Merrimack, the Rouge, the Ohio and the Houston Ship Canal. Ralph Nader had formed a student Study Group in 1969 to investigate these and other water pollution problems across the country.

     David Zwick was a young Harvard law school student when Ralph Nader recruited him to begin work on water pollution. After nearly two years of study, with a team of 26 student researchers and Radcliffe co-author/editor Marcy Benstock, Zwick released the study group’s 700-page report in April 1971. The study was later published in paperback book form by Grossman Publishers under the title, Water Wasteland.

     What the Nader team found was a federal water pollution control program that was “a miserable failure.”  After 15 years of programs and $3.5 billion in spending dating to 1956, the level of pollution they found – except in isolated instances – had not been significantly reduced.  In fact, it had grown worse. Industrial pollution , they found, was by far the major problem, eclipsing domestic sewage sources by 4-to-5 times the volume.  More problematic were the 500 some new chemicals that industry was releasing into waterways, many of which were not being removed by water treatment systems.

Water pollution was a major problem in the 1970s.
Water pollution was a major problem in the 1970s.
     At the time, the nation’s water pollution control system was administered by Federal Water Quality Control Administration (FWQA) in the U.S. Department of the Interior, an agency then in transition to the newly created Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). FWQA and the pollution laws had given the states primary responsibility for enforcing water pollution controls. But the states yielded to industry pressures to either put off setting standards or to set them as low as possible. The result was no surprise: thousands of industrial polluters and very little prosecution. The Nader team documented numerous cases of pollution, but only rare FWQA requests for Justice Department legal action against polluters. In some localities, there were no actions at all, despite thousands of identified polluters. Nor was the Nader team optimistic about new legislation then pending in Congress; bills submitted by both the Nixon Administration and Senator Edmund Muskie (D-ME), calling those measures far short what was needed to clean up the nation’s waterways.

Ralph Nader meeting with some study team members in Washington, 1969.
Ralph Nader meeting with some study team members in Washington, 1969.
     David Zwick and his team had a long list of recommendations, including that individual citizens be given the right to sue industrial polluters, and that employees who inform on corporate polluters be rewarded by government and protected by law from reprisals by employers.  Water Wasteland also had a key high-profile supporter: William Ruckelshaus, then administrator of the new Environmental Protection Agency. “I agree with Ralph Nader,” he said at one point. “We are in danger of creating a water wasteland if we permit to happen in the future what has happened in the past.” Ruckelshaus promised “radical changes” in water-pollution law enforcement. 

     In October 1972, a revised Clean Water Act passed in Congress with a bipartisan majority overriding a veto by President Nixon. The new law included a “citizen suit” provision allowing citizens to initiate legal action to enforce the law when the government failed to do so. That provision — an important new tool for environmental enforcement — was soon incorporated into other environmental laws.  It had been pushed by David Zwick, who also created a new organization — Clean Water Action — to implement the new law. Zwick’s co-author on Water Wasteland, Marcy Benstock, went on to her own activist glories, stopping the Westway highway project in New York City and heading up the Clean Air Campaign.

 

Sowing The Wind

Cover of “Sowing The Wind,” book by Harrison Wellford, 1972, 384 pp. Click for book.
Cover of “Sowing The Wind,” book by Harrison Wellford, 1972, 384 pp. Click for book.
     Billed as the Nader report on “food safety and the chemical harvest,” Sowing the Wind was the name of the study that investigated the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).  It focused mostly on meat and poultry inspection, but also pesticide use and other agriculture-related topics. 

This Nader study team began their work in 1969 under the direction of Harrison Wellford, one of the original raiders and also the first executive director of Nader’s Center for Study of Responsive Law.

     Sowing the Wind found that USDA was failing to protect Americans from bad meat and dangerous chemicals.  It charged that the 1967 Wholesale Meat Act – once thought to be a reform measure – had succumbed to business as usual within USDA. 

The report found there was no regular monitoring for bacteriological contamination in federal meat inspections even though there were at least 30 diseases then believed to be transmitted through meat and poultry. USDA also continued to permit the use of herbicides such as 2,4,5-T, despite evidence indicating dangers to human and animal life. 

Also reported in Sowing The Wind were lab and field data that raised concerns about possible birth-defects and cancers linked to the synthetic hormone DES, used to fatten cattle. USDA’s ties to big agribusiness in the meat, poultry, and pesticide industries were probed as well.

Ralph Nader, left, pushed back from table, meeting with students who produced, "Old Age: The Last Segregation"(see cover below).
Ralph Nader, left, pushed back from table, meeting with students who produced, "Old Age: The Last Segregation"(see cover below).
     At the study’s release and Washington press conference in mid-July 1971, Ralph Nader charged USDA with “lawlessness,” that the meat and poultry laws were routinely violated, and that the Secretary of Agriculture, Clifford Hardin, “doesn’t know what’s going on in his department.”  Newspaper headlines across the country trumpeted the bad news. “Nader Task Force Accuses USDA of Allowing Bad Meat,” said one. Another charged: “Government Regulators Bowed To Agribusiness.” In any case, changes were soon on the way for USDA – at least for some of its responsibilities – as pesticide regulation would soon shift to the newly created U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

     Meanwhile, the first round of “Nader Raider” reports – and the first four or five books to result from these studies – had sold in the neighborhood of 450,000 copies or more. And there were many more reports and books to come. In fact, there were at least 17 raider reports published as books by 1972.  And the money from the sales of these and forthcoming books would be plowed back into Nader’s organizations. On the back covers of many of Grossman Publishers’ editions, for example, was the note:  “All royalties from the sale of this book will be given to the Center for Study of Responsive Law, the organization established by Ralph Nader to conduct research into abuses of the public interest by business and government.”

 

More Raider Reports

     By early November 1971, plans had been announced for a very ambitious “Nader Raiders” project: an investigation of the U.S. Congress —  its members, its committees, and its effectiveness.  In this vast undertaking, Nader would enlist the aid of some 1,000 researchers across the country. But as work on the Congress study began, other Raider reports kept coming (click on any book cover for Amazon page on that book).
In November 1971, a study of the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation came out – Damning The West – which concluded the Bureau of Reclamation had “outlived its usefulness” and should halt its “senseless damming of the West.”  Later that month another Nader team, headed by James Phelan and Robert Pozen, both Yale law school students, issued The Company State – a report on the giant chemical company, E.I. du Pont de Nemours Co., commonly known as DuPont.  That study charged that DuPont essentially ran the state of Delaware for its own narrow corporate interests over those of the general public.  Jerry Cohen of the Washington Post called it  “a classic work on the impact of corporate power.”  Publishers Weekly said it was “well written, well organized,” and “bristling with data” — a study that  portrayed “dynastic family power in a velvet glove.”  Also in 1971 came The Water Lords, a Nader report by James M. Fallows and his team focusing largely on the environmental impacts of the pulp and paper industry in Savannah, Georgia.  And there were others in 1971, among them: Old Age: The Last Segregation, by Claire Townsend, on the indignities and frauds practiced by nursing homes; and, The Workers, by Kenneth Lasson, which profiled nine workers in an attempt to bring the circumstances of worker lives more clearly to the general public.  Among researchers on this project, for example, was Peter Lance, who spent one month each living with the families of a brick layer, a garbage collector and a policeman in Boston as part of the workers profiled in that study.  For many of the Nader studies, the initial raw reports, usually longer and more detailed, were first released to the press, followed by a final, more polished paperback book for the general public, which may account for some variation in publication dates.

     In September 1972, a Ralph Nader Study Group at the Center for Auto Safety released the book, Small – On Safety: The Designed-in Dangers of The Volkswagen, by Lowell Dodge. Previously in 1965, when Nader did his landmark book, Unsafe at Any Speed, which skewered the Corvair, he was criticized for not looking at the Volkswagen in the same way.  With Small–On Safety, he and the Center for Auto Safety did just that – and they found the VW bug and the microbus to have a range of problems.  Among some of the issues they documented from court records and files at the Center of Auto Safety were the Beetle’s erratic handling, its rollover potential, and its “up-in-flames” riskiness following an accident, this due to a poorly-designed fuel system and defective gas cap.  Volkswagen mounted a public relations campaign to deflect the book’s criticisms.

     Another Nader report first released in 1972, was The Politics of Land, which investigated the land use game in California, highlighting in part, the role of developers and land speculators in the state.  This study was headed up by Robert Fellmeth, who had already worked on two other Nader reports.  A paperback version would be published a year later.  Also in 1972, came The Madness Establishment, a Nader Study Group report on the National Institute of Mental Health.  It was authored by Franklin D. Chu and Sharland Trotter and it found, among other things, that the Community Mental Health Centers Act had resulted in a mismanaged and ineffective bureaucracy.  The Madness Establishment was issued in book form by Grossman Publishers in 1974.

     By September 1972 Nader had released his study of Congress as a Bantam paperback book titled, Who Runs Congress: The President, Big Business, or You?  Distilled from the work of hundreds of researchers and thousands of pages of material, a team of three Nader analysts –Mark J. Green, James Fallows, and David Zwick – wrote the final product.  At the book’s release, Nader charged that Congress was giving away its powers to committee chairmen, the executive bureaucracy, and special interests.  The book was well-received by critics and the American public, and Who Runs Congress? shot to No. 2 on the New York Times bestseller list in October 1972, and hit No. 1 for the month of November.  The book eventually went through four different editions and print runs of more than one million copies.  The book remains one of the best-selling volumes written on Congress.  When it first appeared, it was widely read by the incoming class of newly-elected Congressional legislators in 1974 following the Watergate crisis, including the 47 freshmen Democrats that year dubbed the “Watergate Babies.”  Who Runs Congress? also helped change the climate of public opinion toward Congress and Congress’ own perception of itself.

 
Other Studies

“Citibank,” by David Leinsdorf & Donald Etra, was published by Grossman, 1973. Click for book.
“Citibank,” by David Leinsdorf & Donald Etra, was published by Grossman, 1973. Click for book.
     In the early 1970s, Nader teams also undertook studies of the financial system and corporate America.  In the summer of 1970, Nader formed a study group to examine one of the banking industry’s leading institutions, First National City Bank, later named Citibank, then headed by Walter Wriston.  In 1973, a 406-page Nader report titled Citibank was released, written by David Leinsdorf and Donald Etra.  The study, also released in book form by Grossman, explored Citibank’s secrecy and its conflicts-of-interest.  It also examined the bank’s concentration of power and charged, among other things, that Citibank cheated customers and underpaid employees.  Citibank fought back, issuing a point-by-point rebuttal with their own 97-page book in 1974, titled Citibank, Nader, and The Facts.  That reply volume included a forward by Walter Wriston in which Nader was accused of a “reckless misuse of facts.”  Still, the Nader book on Citibank was given high marks for its detailed analysis and was also one of the first assessments of how well a major bank was serving consumers and its community.  Inside Citibank, meanwhile, managers undertook a serious evaluation of the Nader criticisms.  Although Citibank did not lead to wholesale banking reforms, it did succeed in shaking up a secretive industry, alerting Congress and the public to the consumer stake in banking law and regulation.

The Nader Study Group report on antitrust enforcement, “The Closed Enterprise System,” with Mark Green & others, 1972. Click for book.
The Nader Study Group report on antitrust enforcement, “The Closed Enterprise System,” with Mark Green & others, 1972. Click for book.
     Another plank of Nader’s work and Raider report writing grew out of his Corporate Accountability Research Group, set up in 1971 to explore corporate power – from shareholders’ rights to corporate crime.  And one of Nader’s key lieutenants in this work was Mark Green, a Cornell graduate and Harvard law school student when he first came to work for Nader.  In 1972, with Green heading up the Nader Study Group on Regulation and Competition, The Monopoly Makers was released, also published in book form by Grossman. 

The Monopoly Makers examined the cartel behavior of numerous industries, their collusion with federal agencies meant to regulate them, and the costly consequences for the public.  Other volumes followed, including: The Closed Enterprise System, a report on antitrust enforcement by Green, Beverly C. Moore, Jr., and Bruce Wasserstein in 1972; Corporate Power in America in 1973, a collection of essays examining business abuses, edited by Nader and Green; and in 1976, Taming the Giant Corporation: How the Largest Corporations Control Our Lives, with coauthor Joel Seligman. 

There were also Nader documents and reports released on how to organize and build public interest organizations at the state and local level, such as Action for A Change: A Student’s Manual for Public Interest Organizing, by Ralph Nader and Don Ross.

 

The Raider Legacy

By 1972, there were 17 “Nader’s Raiders” reports published as books, with many more to come in subsequent years.
By 1972, there were 17 “Nader’s Raiders” reports published as books, with many more to come in subsequent years.
     The “Nader Raider” reports of the 1969-1973 era were only the first round of many more such reports to come.  In the ensuing decades, hundreds more such reports, papers, and books would be published, not only by the Nader groups – i.e., Public Citizen, Congress Watch, Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs), and others – but also from consumer and environmental organizations that emerged in the 1970s and beyond as the public interest movement flourished.  But the Raider style, in any case, was replicated and used as a model in spurring other investigative studies.  Nader didn’t invent the technique, of course, which dates to much earlier times and writers such as Ida Tarbell, Upton Sinclair, and others.  But Nader and his student teams did help revive it.  The Raider reports and books became important works of investigative journalism at a time when the pre-Watergate press had become somewhat complacent.  The student reports were newsworthy, drew attention, and permeated popular culture, and as shown, some became bestsellers.  By the early 1970s, the Nader reports had gained the respect of the mainstream media, and were also reviewed in scientific journals and law reviews.  They were taken seriously in public policy circles, their findings cited in Congressional debates, often spawning changes in legislative outcomes.


“The Powell Memo”
August 1971

     One measure of the effectiveness of Ralph Nader and his Raiders came in the summer of 1971.  A corporate lawyer named Lewis F. Powell, Jr., would write something of a famous memo in which Nader’s work was cited as harmful.  Powell at the time was with a law firm in Richmond, Virgnia, and would also represent tobacco interests on occasion at the state legislature.  He was also a member of the boards of directors of 11 corporations, including tobacco giant Phillip Morris.  In August 1971, Powell wrote a long memo to his friend Eugene Sydnor, Jr., Director of the Education Committee for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.  The memo’s title was, “Attack on The American Free Enterprise System.”  It was dated August 23, 1971, two months prior to Powell’s nomination by President Richard Nixon to become a U.S. Supreme Court judge.  The “Powell Memo,” as it later came to be known, was confidential and not available to the public at the time it was written, and did not surface until after his confirmation to the Court.

Lewis F. Powell, Jr., in a U.S. Supreme Court portrait.
Lewis F. Powell, Jr., in a U.S. Supreme Court portrait.
     At the outset of his memo Powell declared that “the American economic system is under broad attack,” and he proceeded to outline a series of steps that industry and their trade associations should take to counter the threat.  Powell listed Ralph Nader as among the key threats to the system, describing him as follows: “Perhaps the single most effective antagonist of American business is Ralph Nader, who — thanks largely to the media — has become a legend in his own time and an idol of millions of Americans.” In describing Nader, Powell cited a May 1971 Fortune magazine profile that had cast Nader as a man out to get big business; a man whose passion “is aimed at smashing utterly the target of his hatred, which is corporate power.”  Fortune found it audacious that Nader was a man who thought “that a great many corporate executives belong in prison — for defrauding the consumer with shoddy merchandise, poisoning the food supply with chemical additives, and willfully manufacturing unsafe products that will maim or kill the buyer.” And Fortune added that Nader wasn’t just referring to “fly-by-night hucksters,” but rather, “the top management of blue chip business.”

     Nader was not alone among those Powell singled out for special attention in the “assault on the enterprise system.”  But it was clear he did not hold in high regard the work that Nader and his associates had undertaken. So Powell set about, with his memo, to offer a detailed plan of public education, politics, and other activities to counter what he believed the activists were out to damage.

     The Powell Memo would come to be regarded as something of a blueprint for business and allied organizations to do battle with the perceived politics of the left. It is credited with influencing a round of corporate activism and conservative think tank capacity-building that occurred in subsequent years designed to shift public attitudes, leading to the creation of organizations such as the Heritage Foundation, the Manhattan Institute, the Cato Institute, Citizens for a Sound Economy, Accuracy in Academe, and other similar organizations. Since Powell’s memo, business and conservative organizations have in fact, “out-Nadered Nader,” copying many of his techniques, but building even more powerful legal, fundraising, political action, and research organizations to further their agendas. And Powell himself, in his Supreme Court tenure and opinions, helped advance “corporate free speech” and corporate financial influence in elections, the latter of which many believe has put America on a perilous course.

 

2010: Joan Claybrook & Clarence Ditlow (Center for Auto Safety) on Capitol Hill.
2010: Joan Claybrook & Clarence Ditlow (Center for Auto Safety) on Capitol Hill.
James Fallows became a speechwriter for Jimmy Carter and a top journalist.
James Fallows became a speechwriter for Jimmy Carter and a top journalist.
Joe Tom Easley, former Nader Raider. became a professor of law.
Joe Tom Easley, former Nader Raider. became a professor of law.
Robert Fellmeth, former Nader Raider, at the University of San Diego.
Robert Fellmeth, former Nader Raider, at the University of San Diego.
Harvey Rosenfeld, former Nader activist, founded Consumer Watchdog.
Harvey Rosenfeld, former Nader activist, founded Consumer Watchdog.
Andrew Egendorf, former Nader Raider, co-founded tech company, Symbolics.com.
Andrew Egendorf, former Nader Raider, co-founded tech company, Symbolics.com.

     As for the Raiders, many of them moved on to government service; to careers in politics and journalism; or to heading up activist, environmental, or community organizations.  For example, by 1977, after the election of Jimmy Carter, a number of the Nader activists rose to positions within the Administration.  Joan Claybrook, who ran Nader’s Public Citizen, became head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.  James Fallows, now a nationally-known journalist, became head speechwriter for Carter.  And Harrison Wellford, after leaving Nader in 1973 and serving as chief of staff for Senator Phil Hart, became Carter’s associate director of the Office of Management and Budget.

     But years later, after Nader’s Raiders had gone on to other work and into their own professions, several offered their recollections and perspective on those earlier years in Washington.  “We bought Ralph’s idea,” explained former Raider, Joe Tom Easley, describing the motivation behind the Raiders’ work during an interview for the documentary film, An Unreasonable Man.  Easley by then had taught at several law schools, including the University of Virginia, the University of Georgia, and American University. 

“…We were going to make the country what it ought to be,” continued Easley, “– by working and pressing the system to work.  Ralph had decided to do about six or eight teams attacking different agencies… And the quality of the reports that came out was on the whole pretty high.  There was never one of the Nader reports of that summer or any summer since then that was exposed as a fraud.”

     Robert Fellmeth, one of the original Nader’s Raiders in 1968 who went on to become executive director of the Center for Public Interest Law at the University of San Diego and the Children’s Advocacy Institute, observed of his earlier days as a Raider:

…When you’re young, you don’t realize you’re doing something you have no business doing. How are you qualified?  There are professors who should be there who have studied the agency for 20 years. What are you doing?  It doesn’t even occur to you. And in fact, we did write a good critique [the FTC report] that stands the test of time. And the year after we wrote it, President Nixon asked the ABA [American Bar Association] to look at the agency. Sure enough, they came up with the same critique that we did, and it lead to some changes in the statute.

     Fellmeth and other Raiders praise Nader for his vision and his “letting-us-run-with-it” style – with the Raiders doing the work and “Ralph orchestrating it from a distance,” as Fellmeth put it. “He was the kind of person who said, ‘You’re in charge of this. Here’s the mission. Do it.’ And then he’d review the final product and give you a sign off at the end.”

     Harvey Rosenfield, who worked as a Raider in the late 1970s and early 1980s with Congress Watch, and later headed up a consumer watchdog group in California, explained in a similar context:

“I think that the people [Nader] attracted came principally because they wanted the opportunity to work for justice in the country, and he created an environment where you could do that.  If you did it well, there was no limit to how much you could achieve.  He never stood in the way of anybody.  He never demanded the credit if somebody else was doing the work.  He was happy to have them get as much credit as they could from the public or the news media.”

     Andrew Egendorf, one of the original Raiders from 1968, went on to co-found a technology company named Symbolics.com.  He offered this view of Nader and business:

…Everyone gives Nader, I think, an unfair reading.  Everyone says he’s anti-business, and he wants to tear down the capitalistic system.  He’s not like that at all.  His view was simply that the interest of the producers ought to be to support the interest of the consumers, because the whole system is based on consumption.  So why don’t we have a system that has constraints on it that require the producers interest to be aligned with the consumers interests?

The problem was that the producers were all monopolies or oligopolies, and the consumers were just all individuals with no clout at all.  All he wanted to do was level the playing field, give consumers the same kind of clout as an oligopoly.


One Man’s Vision

Ralph Nader, circa 1975.
Ralph Nader, circa 1975.
What is interesting about the “Nader’s Raiders” activity that exploded in the late 1960s and early 1970s, is that it sprang, essentially, from one man’s vision and initiative – at least initially. Here was a guy who had hitchhiked to Washington, D.C. in 1963 with little more than his law degree and a notion of trying to raise some public policy questions.

Ten years later, there were at least a half dozen new Nader or Nader-related organizations at work with dozens of staff, publications pouring from each of them, and measurable public policy change on at least a dozen or more fronts. That, of course, was just the beginning, as there would be three more decades of  Nader-styled advocacy to follow.

Today, nearly fifty years later, the investigative spirit and techniques that Ralph Nader and his “Raider” teams brought into the public square are still at work in numerous organizations in Washington and elsewhere, with researchers and policy analysts digging into the public record, tracking government regulations, and watchdogging corporations.

     See also at this website, “GM & Ralph Nader, 1965-1971.”  For other story choices on “Politics & Culture,” “Print & Publishing,” or “Environmental History,” please visit those respective pages, or go to the Home Page for additional choices.  Thanks for visiting — and if you like what you find here, please make a donation to help support the research, writing and continued publication of this website. Thank you. — Jack Doyle

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Date Posted: 31 March 2013
Last Update: 2 April 2020
Comments to: jdoyle@pophistorydig.com

Article Citation:
Jack Doyle, “Nader’s Raiders, 1968-1974,”
PopHistoryDig.com, March 31, 2013.

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Sources, Links & Additional Information

1971: Ralph Nader and Don Ross wrote, “Action For A Change: A Student’s Manual for Public Interest Organizing,” which also chronicles the formation of Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs) in Oregon and Minnesota. Click for book.
1971: Ralph Nader and Don Ross wrote, “Action For A Change: A Student’s Manual for Public Interest Organizing,” which also chronicles the formation of Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs) in Oregon and Minnesota. Click for book.
1971: Kenneth Lasson, “The Workers: Portraits of Nine American Job Holders,” Prepared for Ralph Nader's Center for Study of Responsive Law. Afterword by Ralph Nader, Grossman Publishers, 269 pp. Click for book.
1971: Kenneth Lasson, “The Workers: Portraits of Nine American Job Holders,” Prepared for Ralph Nader's Center for Study of Responsive Law. Afterword by Ralph Nader, Grossman Publishers, 269 pp. Click for book.
1971:  Ralph Nader, Lowell Dodge & Ralf Hotchkiss, “What to Do With Your Bad Car: An Action Manual for Lemon Owners,” Grossman Publishers, hardcover, 175 pp.  Subsequently published in several revised editions as “The Lemon Book” by the Center For Auto Safety. Click for book.
1971: Ralph Nader, Lowell Dodge & Ralf Hotchkiss, “What to Do With Your Bad Car: An Action Manual for Lemon Owners,” Grossman Publishers, hardcover, 175 pp. Subsequently published in several revised editions as “The Lemon Book” by the Center For Auto Safety. Click for book.
1973:  Ralph Nader & Mark J. Green (editors) “Corporate Power in America,” Ralph Nader's 1971 Conference on Corporate Accountability, Grossman Publishers, hardcover, 309 pp. Click for book.
1973: Ralph Nader & Mark J. Green (editors) “Corporate Power in America,” Ralph Nader's 1971 Conference on Corporate Accountability, Grossman Publishers, hardcover, 309 pp. Click for book.
1973: Joseph A. Page & Mary-Win O’Brien, “Bitter Wages: Ralph Nader’s Study Group Report on Disease and Injury on The Job,” Penguin Books, paperback, 314 pp. Click for book.
1973: Joseph A. Page & Mary-Win O’Brien, “Bitter Wages: Ralph Nader’s Study Group Report on Disease and Injury on The Job,” Penguin Books, paperback, 314 pp. Click for book.
1974: Paul Starr with James Henry& Raymond Bonner, “The Discarded Army: Veterans After Vietnam,” The Nader Report on Vietnam Veterans and the Veterans Administration, David McKay Co., hardcover edition, 304pp. Click for book.
1974: Paul Starr with James Henry& Raymond Bonner, “The Discarded Army: Veterans After Vietnam,” The Nader Report on Vietnam Veterans and the Veterans Administration, David McKay Co., hardcover edition, 304pp. Click for book.
1974:  William C. Osborn, author, “The Paper Plantation,” Ralph Nader's Study Group Report on the Pulp and Paper Industry in Maine, Grossman Publishers, hardcover edition, 300pp. Click for book.
1974: William C. Osborn, author, “The Paper Plantation,” Ralph Nader's Study Group Report on the Pulp and Paper Industry in Maine, Grossman Publishers, hardcover edition, 300pp. Click for book.
1975: Ralph Nader & Mark Green (editors), “Verdicts on Lawyers,” Ty Crowell Co., 1st edition, 376 pp. Deals with accountability of corporate and government lawyers & judges and “guns-for-hire” legal power. Contributors include: John Conyers, Fred Harris, Joseph Califano, Ramsey Clark, Jack Newfield and John Tunney. Click for book.
1975: Ralph Nader & Mark Green (editors), “Verdicts on Lawyers,” Ty Crowell Co., 1st edition, 376 pp. Deals with accountability of corporate and government lawyers & judges and “guns-for-hire” legal power. Contributors include: John Conyers, Fred Harris, Joseph Califano, Ramsey Clark, Jack Newfield and John Tunney. Click for book.
1977: Ralph Nader, Mark Green & Joel Seligman, “Taming the Giant Corporation: How The Largest Corporations Control Our Lives,” W. W. Norton, 316 pp. ‘Business Week’ blurb on cover says: “A book that no one interested in business and public policy can afford to ignore.” Click for book.
1977: Ralph Nader, Mark Green & Joel Seligman, “Taming the Giant Corporation: How The Largest Corporations Control Our Lives,” W. W. Norton, 316 pp. ‘Business Week’ blurb on cover says: “A book that no one interested in business and public policy can afford to ignore.” Click for book.
1979: Ralph Nader & John Abbotts, “The Menace of Atomic Energy,” W. W. Norton & Co., revised edition, paperback, 432 pp. Click for book.
1979: Ralph Nader & John Abbotts, “The Menace of Atomic Energy,” W. W. Norton & Co., revised edition, paperback, 432 pp. Click for book.
1998: Ralph Nader & Wesley J. Smith, “No Contest: Corporate Lawyers and The Perversion of  Justice in America,” Random House, paperback: 460 pp.
1998: Ralph Nader & Wesley J. Smith, “No Contest: Corporate Lawyers and The Perversion of Justice in America,” Random House, paperback: 460 pp.

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Maggie Savoy, “Nader Hits ‘Violence’ of Big Business,” Los Angeles Times, May 27, 1970, p. E-1.

“FTC Maps Change to Aid Consumer; Major Reorganization Set by Chairman– Agency Was Nader Target” New York Times, June 9, 1970.

“Nader to Examine Pulp Industry,” Washington Post, Times Herald, June 10, 1970, p. A-12.

“Nader’s Raiders Ready to Study U.S. Banks,” Los Angeles Times, June 16, 1970, p. E-12.

John D. Morris, “Nader Plans Expanded Summer Investigations of Government and Business,” New York Times, Sunday June 21, 1970.

Review of, “Vanishing Air: The Ralph Nader Study Group Report on Air Pollution, By John C. Esposito,” Kirkus Reviews, July 1970.

Philip Hager, “Nader Group Inspects State Land Policies,” Los Angeles Times, July 12, 1970, p. D-6.

Robert Kirsch, “Nader’s Raiders Volumes Keep Heat on Bureaucrats,” Los Angeles Times, July 21, 1970, p. E-6.

John Leonard, Books of The Times “Nader’s Raiders Ride Again” (Review of Vanishing Air. The Ralph Nader Study Group Report on Air Pollution: by John C Esposito and Larry J Silverman), New York Times, Friday, July 24, 1970.

Robert Dietsch, “How Crusader Ralph Nader ‘Raids’ For Consumer,” Congressional Record, August 3, 1970, p. E7284.

Robert J. Samuelson, “CAB Hires a Nader Raider,” Washington Post, Times Herald, October 22, 1970, p. F-12.

Peter Braestrup, “Nader Group Probing Civil Service Agency,” Washington Post, Times Herald, October 30, 1970, p. A-2.

Stuart Auerbach, “Nader Group Faults Standards for Medical Treatment,” Washington Post, Times Herald, November 9, 1970, p. A-2.

Morton Mintz, “Nader Asks Students to Give to Public Interest Projects,” Washington Post, November 16, 1970, p. A-3.

Philip D. Carter, “Nader Charges Ga. Paper Plant Is Outlaw Polluter of Savannah,” Washington Post, Times Herald, January 22, 1971, p. A-2.

Nan Robertson, “Nader-Raiding No Plush Job,”New York Times, Friday, January 29, 1971.

Barnard Law Collier, “The Story of a Teen-Age Nader Raider; Nader Raider,” New York Times, Sunday, March 14, 1971.

UPI, “Ralph Nader Attacks Industrial Polluters,” The Times-News (Hendersonville, NC), Monday, April 12, 1971, p. 8.

“Nader Hits Anti-Pollution Effort,” St. Petersburg Times (Florida), April 12, 1971.

“Study Belittles Pollution Effort,” The Tuscaloosa News (Alabama), April 12, 1971.

Associated Press, “Ohio River Pollution On Increase; Nader Task Force Says Mills Here Add to Problem,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, April 13, 1971, p. 2.

UPI, “Environmental Chief Backs Nader on Water Pollution,”New York Times, April 14, 1971.

“Environment: Nader on Water,” Time, Monday, April 26, 1971.

Donna Scheibe, “Patti Agrees With Nader on Convalescent Homes,” Los Angeles Times, July 4, 1971, p. SF/A-4.

“Business: How It Feels to Be Naderized,” Time, Monday, July 5, 1971.

“Nader ‘Raider’ Probe of Auto Assn. Planned,” Los Angeles Times, July 6, 1971, p. 9.

UPI, “Nader Group Plans Study Of Comsat’s Operations,” New York Times, Monday, July 12, 1971.

Peter Braestrup, “Nader Task Force Accuses USDA of Allowing Bad Meat,”Washington Post, Times Herald, July 18, 1971, p. A-2.

Walter Rugaber, “Nader Group Calls U.S. Lax on Meat Inspection and Pesticides,” New York Times, Sunday, July 18, 1971.

UPI, “Nader Hits Meat Quality,” The Deseret News (Salt Lake City, Utah), Monday, July 19, 1971, p. 4-A.

“Nader Hits US Meat Inspection,” Boston Globe, July 18, 1971.

“Nader Claims…Government Regulators Bowed To Agribusiness,” Times Daily, July 18, 1971.

David C. Wallace, Associated Press, “Nader Hits Farming Regulators,” Daily News (Bowling Green, Kentucky), Sunday, July 18, 1971, p. 5.

“Cattleman Calls Nader’s Meat Report ‘Inept and Outdated’,” Los Angeles Times, July 22, 1971, p. H-20.

William F. Buckley, Jr., “Tables Turned on Nader: ‘He Puts Out…a Shoddy Product’,” Los Angeles Times, August 4, 1971, p. B-7.

Mike Causey, “Nader’s Raiders Make Waves in CSC,” Washington Post, Times Herald, August 5, 1971, p. G-5.

Leonard Ross, Review, “The Chemical Feast; The Food and Drug Administration, by James S. Turner, 273pp., New York: Grossman Publishers,” New York Times, Sunday, August 8, 1971.

William L. Clairborne, “Tedious Study is Key Tool of Nader’s Raiders,” Washington Post, Times Herald, August 16, 1971, p. A-3.

“Planner Lauds Nader Report on Land Use,” Los Angeles Times, September 3, 1971, p. A-21.

“Auto Assn. President Calls Nader ‘Dictator’,” Los Angeles Times, September 21, 1971, p. A-12.

Eliot Marshall, “St. Nader and His Evangelists,” The New Republic, October 23, 1971, p.13.

“Nader Plans Investigation Of Congress,” Washington Post, Times Herald, November 3, 1971, p. A-3.

Paul Houston, “Ralph Nader: The Man and His Crusaders,” Los Angeles Times, November 3, 1971, p. A-1.

John D. Morris, “Congress Facing Inquiry by Nader; 1,000 People Expected to Take Part in Study,” New York Times, Wednesday, November 3, 1971.

United Press International (UPI), “Nader Group Scores Reclamation Unit,” New York Times, Sunday, November 7, 1971.

Walter Rugaber, “Nader Study Says du Pont Runs Delaware,”New York Times, Tuesday, November 30, 1971,

“Delaware Is Du Pont ‘Company State’: Nader,” Los Angeles Times, November 30, 1971, p. A-7.

Kenneth Lasson, The Workers: Portraits of Nine American Jobholders. Prepared for Ralph Nader’s Center for Study of Responsive Law. Afterword by Ralph Nader. New York: Grossman Publishers 1971.

John Rothchild, “Finding the Facts Bureaucrats Hide,” The Washington Monthly, January 1972.

Arthur Allen Leff, Book Review, “The Closed Enterprise System; Ralph Nader’s Study Group Report on Antitrust Enforcement. By Mark J. Green,” New York Times, Sunday, April 30, 1972.

Robert H. Harris, and Daniel F. Luecke, “Pollluters and Regulators,” Review of Water Wasteland, Ralph Nader’s Study Group Report on Water Pollution, Science, May 12, 1972, pp. 645-647.

Angus Macbeth, “Book Review: Water Wasteland,” Fordham Urban Law Journal, Vol. 1, No. 1, 1972, Article 8.

UPI, “Nader Report Scores U.S. Unit On Mental Health Center Plan,” New York Times, Sunday, July 23, 1972.

Book Review, “Small – On Safety: The Designed-in Dangers Of The Volkswagen,” Kirkus Reviews, September 1, 1972.

“Nader Says Probe Shows Congress Is Abdicating Power,” Los Angeles Times, October 3, 1972, p.2.

Mary Russell, “President, Big Business Control Congress, Nader Says in Book,” Los Angeles Times, October 4, 1972, p. A-1.

Mary Russell, “Nader’s Profiles of 485 Members of Congress Unveiled,” Washington Post, Times Herald, October 22, 1972, p. A-20.

Book Reviews of Harrison Wellford, Sowing The Wind, in American Journal of Agricultural Economics, August 1973, pp. 541-542.

Michael W. Kuhn, Book Review [Water Wasteland], Santa Clara Lawyer, January 1,1973, pp. 356-359.

Simon Lazarus and Leonard Ross, “Rating Nader” (Reviewing two Nader books: The Monopoly Makers edited by Mark J. Green Sowing the Wind by Harrison Wellford ), New York Times, June 28, 1973.

David J. Weber, Book Review, Politics of Land, Ralph Nader’s Study Group Report on Land Use in California, in The Journal of San Diego History / San Diego Historical Society Quarterly, Fall 1974, Volume 20, Number 4.

Robert G. Vaughn, “The Freedom of Information Act and Vaughn V. Rosen: Some Personal Comments,”The American University Law Review, Vol 23, 1974, pp. 865-879.

Martin Gittelman, Book Review of The Madness Establishment, at “Community Mental Health: Problems and Prospects,” International Journal of Mental Health, Vol. 3, No. 2/3, (Summer-Fall 1974), pp. 195-200.

Associated Press, “Nader’s Raiders Have Moved Up To Capitol Hill,” Lakeland Ledger (Lakeland FL), April 17, 1977, p. 16.

“Nader’s Raiders,” An Unreasonable Man, Documentary Film on Ralph Nader, Independennt Lens/PBS.org.

Federal Trade Commission, 90th Anniversary Symposium, Speakers Panel, “The First 90 Years: Promise and Performance,” Moderator: Ernest Gellhorn; Speakers: William E. Kovacic, Marc Winerman, and Edward F. Cox, Federal Trade Commission Conference Center, Washington, D.C., September 22, 2004.

Edward F. Cox, “Reinvigorating the FTC: The Nader Report and the Rise of Consumer Advocacy,” Antitrust Law Journal, Vol. 72, No. 3, 2005, pp. 899-910.

“Robert Fellmeth,” Wikipedia.org.

“Andrew Egendorf,” Cheltenham High School Hall of Fame.

“The Powell Memo,” ReclaimDemocracy.org.

David Bollier, Citizen Action and Other Big Ideas: A History of Ralph Nader and the Modern Consumer Movement, Chapter 5, “Citizen Action: Chapter 5,” The Nader Page, Nader.org.

Karen Heller, “Ralph Nader Builds His Dream Museum – of Tort Law,” WashingtonPost.com, October 4, 2015.

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