My time at the British Library as Eccles Centre Fellow 2016 has allowed me to take a closer look at the role of US officials in promoting the use of the pesticide DDT in Nicaragua, writes Hilary Francis. The archives revealed the imagery of America’s past was employed by those who were suspicious of DDT as a justification for care and scrutiny.
Thanks to support from the Eccles Centre I spent two months at the British Library in May and June 2016, with follow up visits in July and August. The time spent in London was a real luxury, partly because I was able to focus entirely on research in such convivial surroundings, but also because the project I was working on was in its very early stages, so every new discovery and shift in my thinking was a cause for excitement (rather than angst, backtracking, and endless rewrites). My research project explores the role of US officials in promoting the use of the pesticide DDT in Nicaragua. Between 1945 and 1980 US officials promoted
DDT as a means to spark a ‘green revolution’ in developing countries, including Nicaragua. All over the world this ‘excellent powder’ was used to boost crop production and combat malaria. However, in 1962 Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring led to widespread concern about the chemical, and DDT was banned in the United States in 1972. Nonetheless, USAID continued to support the use of DDT overseas. The effects of DDT use in Nicaragua were particularly pronounced – a survey in 1980 found that Nicaragua had the highest rates of DDT ingestion in the world.
I had originally intended to explore the way in which USAID officials justified the use of DDT overseas, even after it had been banned in the United States in 1972. There is material in the British Library’s collection of congressional materials which addresses this issue, but it suggests that US officials did not seek to reconcile the contradiction created by the US ban on DDT. Rather, they saw the law itself -which required attention to environmental impact in the US, but not overseas – as a justification for the continuing anachronism. Responding to a question from the Senate subcommittee on foreign assistance in 1975, one USAID official explained that a promised report on the impact of pesticides overseas had not been carried out “because of State and A.I.D.’s views that it is essential to distinguish between domestic projects having environmental effects and assistance activities in foreign countries which do not significantly affect the environment of the US.” In other words, there was no legal requirement to consider the impact of DDT abroad, so officials avoided doing so where possible, in spite of considerable opposition from Congress and environmental groups.
As I began looking at the collections though, I realised that the debates that took place in the early 1970s as a result of the DDT ban could not be studied in isolation. Questions about DDT were raised almost immediately after it was approved for civilian use in 1945, and indeed these early doubts were foreshadowed by conflicts over the use of arsenic as a pesticide in the 1920s and 30s. David Kinkela has argued that the promotion of DDT was emblematic of US confidence in the period after World War Two, a sign of triumphalist faith in the power of the United States’ scientific expertise to drive development overseas. There is much evidence of this in the archives at the British Library: in 1963 Albert H. Moseman of the Rockefeller Foundation told a United Nations conference on the use of science and technology in developing countries that the United States had much to offer, because “agricultural advances in the United States have been continuous from the time of the first settlement to its shores.” But the imagery of America’s past was also employed by those who were suspicious of DDT: it could be deployed as a justification for care and scrutiny, as well as a rhetorical device to crush all doubt. During a 1950 congressional hearing on the use of chemicals in foods, Dr Morton Biskind gave an early, impassioned statement about the dangers of DDT. Congressman James Delaney defended Biskind’s testimony when other representatives objected. He described Biskind as a pioneer, and noted that “pioneers have always been in the minority… Not only in scientific study, but I think in most other things.“
My time at the British Library has allowed me to take an initial look at the congressional papers on DDT, as well as USAID’s own publications and the extensive secondary literature on this topic, but much remains to be done. Thanks to the the Eccles Centre’s support, I was able to put together a successful application to the British Academy Small Grant Scheme. The British Academy award will fund further research on this topic at the US National Archive in College Park, between September and December 2016, and the Institute of Nicaraguan and Central American History in Managua between January and June 2017.
Hilary Francis is a postdoctoral fellow at The Institute of Latin American Studies at the University of London.