Little Known Presidential Population Leadership

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Those of us familiar with the issue of U.S. population growth are well-acquainted with seeing it summarily ignored by each successive White House administration. Less commonly known are the presidents who initiated studies which led, in some cases, toward policy innovation and broader discussion of the issue of population growth.

In this Forum, Otis L. Graham, Jr. (Professor Emeritus of history at the University of California, Santa Barbara) examines several presidential administrations over the last 75 years and their involvement with this issue. This essay was adapted from material originally published in Professor Graham’s Toward a Planned Society (1976), as well as his new research for an upcoming book titled Presidents and the Environment.

All of our presidents are politicians who yearn for voter approval and contemporary esteem. But they also lust for a high place in the  historians’ rankings inaugurated by Harvard historian Arthur M. Schlesinger in 1948. When Bill Clinton entered the White House in 1993 there was not on the horizon a national crisis of the sort our great presidents such as Washington, Lincoln and FDR engaged with memorable leadership. But surely a Near Great ranking might be earned with a storehouse of achievements short of wartime leadership.

We know William Jefferson Clinton (whom I focus on for a reason) well enough to recognize that he yearned for opportunities to rise toward the Greatness category. We know also that since first grade he had been an insatiable resume builder for whom any opening for a political success was not to be overlooked.

And that he liked to talk, late at night or any other time, especially talk about how he could continue to expand his political achievement and reputation. Taylor Branch has compiled a hefty book out of his after-work conversations with Clinton, and Branch was only one of Clinton’s well-educated late-night conversationalists during the years he spent at Georgetown and Oxford universities, as Governor of Arkansas, then at the White House. It seems likely that, as Clinton moved into the presidency, he probed friends for ideas for his future policy triumphs. It is easy to imagine a history-soaked friend or aide mentioning to pre-president or President Clinton that a bloc of six consecutive modern presidents had qualified (in some circles) for extra credit from president-rankers for White House quiet leadership in an almost hidden but important subfield of environmental protection – we might call it Population Stabilization Policy (PSP), lacking an accepted label.

If told this, one can readily imagine Clinton’s appetite for more information on this little discussed tradition of president-led innovation. His informant perhaps tells him that Nixon in 1969 commissioned the fourth and best known of the PSP initiatives – which had taken the form of a population growth report from a group chaired by John D. Rockefeller, III. Little had been said about the first four presidential initiatives, or of Truman’s conversion on the issue after he was no longer president (so, seven supportive presidents, some would say). There had been some sort of controversy when the Nixon-Rockefeller report was published in 1972 as Population and the American Future. The report’s basic recommendation was memorable – that “the nation welcome and plan for a stabilized population.”

Otis L. Graham, Jr

Professor Emeritus of history at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is the author or editor of more than fifteen books, including “Debating American Immigration, 1882-Present” (with Roger Daniels) and “Environment Politics and Policy, 1960s to 1990s”. He lives in Santa Barbara, CA.

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