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Douglas Brinkley has a few thoughts on NATO, Frank Church and Idaho’s environmental legacy

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Douglas Brinkley, Frank Church Institute, NATO
Historian Douglas Brinkley's newest book is "Silent Spring Revolution."

Douglas Brinkley, one of the most celebrated historians of his generation, isn’t partisan. He’s chronicled the legacies of Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan and has known many others who have occupied the Oval Office.

“I try, as a historian, to call balls and strikes,” he said. “Party affiliation doesn’t matter if you’re good.”

Lately, he’s perplexed and a bit disappointed in party divides on the U.S. support for NATO, particularly in its stand against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“NATO matters. NATO is essential,” he added. It’s smart that we stay united in our democratic beliefs against totalitarian states like Russia.”

Brinkley visited with Morning Edition host George Prentice to talk about NATO, the Ukraine crisis, his new book, “Silent Spring Revolution,” the late U.S. Sen. Frank Church, and Idaho’s deep legacy of environmentalism.

“Frank Church was one of my heroes.”

Read the full transcript below:

GEORGE PRENTICE: It's Morning Edition on Boise State Public Radio News. Good morning. I'm George Prentice. It is not hyperbole to say that Douglas Brinkley is one of the best historians of our time. He has chronicled the American experience through dozens of bestsellers… examining The Cold War, Vietnam, and in his latest book, “Silent Spring Revolution A Deep Look into the Great Environmental Awakening.” It is a pleasure to welcome Douglas Brinkley back to Boise and back to this program. Mr. Brinkley, good morning.

DOUGLAS BRINKLEY: Good morning to you.

PRENTICE: With your permission, I'd like to skip right to the front page. I'm anxious to hear from you about our situation in Ukraine and, in particular, our support of Ukraine and the US standing with NATO. But can you help me with this? Is there any time in recent American history where we have been divided on whether or not we should stand with NATO?

BRINKLEY: Well, I think NATO is the essential institution for the United States foreign policy since Harry Truman created NATO. Each president doubles- and triples down on NATO. We've had a couple of times when the American public seemed angry at NATO. One was during the Vietnam War when France pulled out of the Integrated Military Command. And then the second is during the Trump presidency, where Trump was shaking the NATO allies, saying that they were deadbeats, that they weren't paying their bills. And so that's been the hangover effect. There are some people right now that think, “Why are we engaged in NATO? Let's just have a “fortress America,” isolationist approach. But by and large, it's bipartisan: NATO matters, NATO is essential, the Atlantic alliance - North America and Western Europe-  has to stay together. That's the heart and soul of global democracy. And if anything, you're going to see NATO expand now. It's smart that, you know, we stay united in our democratic beliefs against totalitarian states like Russia.

PRENTICE: What do you think the odds are of Sweden or Finland joining [NATO]?

BRINKLEY: I think they both will end up joining. I would if I were them. You know, one of the things that NATO provides countries is if you attack one NATO country, it's the same as attacking all of them. And that's quite a deterrent. And Finland knows Russia. They've tried to be neutral forever.

PRENTICE: They share about, what, 500, 600 miles.

BRINKLEY: …or 600 miles. But the naked aggression of what Putin's done… I would think that for security reasons, they're going to want to quickly get into NATO now. Sweden could probably get in quite easily, but Finland might create a problem with Russia because as we've seen, they're very sensitive about countries that touch their borders. The Ukraine crisis here seems to be expanding every day, getting more dangerous and larger. So, it's a time for NATO's solidarity. And I would hope most Americans stay unified behind NATO and say, “Let's back Ukraine to the best of our abilities right now.”

PRENTICE: In checking my notes, I'm going back to October of 2014 and a previous conversation of ours. When I asked you, “Do you have a wish list of topics that you still want to tackle?” At the time, you were focused on your upcoming book on FDR, but [you said] quote, “I want to write something on the Silent Spring Revolution that deals with the environmental movement of the sixties and seventies.: And here you are.

BRINKLEY: I did it. It was a lot of work. “Silent Spring” was a book written by Rachel Carson in 1962; and it seemed to have triggered the environmental movement, no matter whether you think there were excesses of the environmental movement, and it went too far or not. There's no getting around what a catalyst that book was for a lot of energy. Mainly, Rachel Carson was talking about public health and saying that all of these chemicals that were developed during World War Two were making fish and wildlife sick, and they're making humans sick. And so, it brought conservation into the backyard in a way that was new. But my book really looks at three presidents: John F Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. It's bipartisan - the environmental movement. Nixon, for example, a Republican, created our National Environmental Policy Act, created the EPA, the Clean Air and Water Acts, Endangered Species Act, NOAA. I could go on and on. It was a very ripe time during the Nixon years for environmentalism. And so, all three presidents come out pretty well in my book Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon. In history, we look at it as the Third Wave of Conservation. The first one was Theodore Roosevelt. The second one was FDR. And the third is John F Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Nixon and a senator from Idaho named Frank Church.

PRENTICE: And I want to talk exactly about the late Senator Church. You are in Boise to again participate in the Frank Church Conference. But in reference to Senator Church, he was floor sponsor in 1964 of the National Wilderness Act and in 1968 sponsor of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, an important chapter in that environmental movement in those years.

BRINKLEY: Frank Church is one of my heroes, so I'm here in Boise at the request of the Frank Church Institute, and it's just they do remarkable work on keeping the legacy of Senator Church alive. I always admired Frank Church, but I didn't realize what courage and guts it took for somebody from Idaho to stand up and say, “We need to have and protect roadless wilderness. We need places that you can hunt and fish that aren't filled with ticky-tacky tourist shops or interstates or excessive timbering and mining” And he fought for that and he got it passed. And so, the Wilderness Act gives us great, vast swaths of land that we can explore and save for future generations to enjoy. Also, for a veteran from war in the military, to come and go hunt and be away from the noise, try to look for a little bit of solitude in this crazy modern world. There became a movement that we were over-damming rivers… the Hells Canyon fight was a big one. You know, “dam-a-mania.” That was FDR who wanted to dam everything, and it brought pork back to your district. But in truth, not every river needs to be dammed… and the Army Corps of Engineer and the Bureau of Reclamation weren't doing overkill. They were just building dams anywhere they could get a contract for. And Frank Church stepped up and said, “No, we need to have some parts of rivers that are pristine and beautiful that you could swim in or that you could drink the water, or you could fish and eat the fish that you caught. “And so we owe Frank Church a lot. I there is no senator that did more for conservation and the environment than Frank Church.

PRENTICE: Isn't it stunning, that when you have a conversation with someone under the age of 30, and you tell them about a Democrat from Idaho and the legacy that he has left and impact so much of our lives, not only in Idaho, but across the nation?

BRINKLEY: Idaho was a big state for Franklin Roosevelt. There should be a monument for FDR in Boise and that history should be honored. And Frank Church, really, honestly, one of the great senators in U.S. history and in my field that I'm writing about conservation, there's nobody like him. But luckily the Frank Church Institute and Boise State University remind people of Frank Church, bring conferences, give church scholarships around Idaho. You also have the fact that we have wilderness named after Frank Church. So his name is on a map, if you look at it. And I just hope that that high school teachers will start teaching Church’s legacy. And that's not partisan or a Democratic statement. His party affiliation doesn't matter if you're good. You know, I've written books on John F Kennedy, a Democrat, and Ronald Reagan a Republican. I try as a historian to call balls and strikes. And when you see somebody like Frank Church, you realize what an extraordinary senator he was. And he ended his career looking into CIA over-abuses. And, you know, that was brave. Who would want to take on the CIA? And here Frank Church did. And he was such a moral man, a kind man, family person, somebody who just loved the Idaho wilderness. And when you travel the state and see the beauty that's here and realize what's so special about living here, why people want to move here…people are just in awe that it is so clean and beautiful in Idaho. And Frank Church is probably, principally responsible for that.

PRENTICE: Douglas Brinkley, thank you so very much for returning to Idaho. We look forward to many visits of yours… to this program and to the state. And for now, thanks for giving us some time this morning.

BRINKLEY: Thank you so much.

Find reporter George Prentice on Twitter @georgepren

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