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2003-2004 Visiting Fellows

Thomas Robertson
University of Wisconsin-Madison

Topic: The Population Explosion

During the 20th century, the population of Planet Earth increased dramatically. Americans responded to this increase in various ways. At times, such as during the 1950s, most Americans ignored the issue. At other times, they placed population growth atop their national and international political agendas. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, for instance, population growth attained a national prominence not seen before or since. A score of books appeared, several large grassroots organizations sprouted, and a presidential commission was inaugurated to address the issue. In 1975, the National Security Council even made global population growth a national security priority.

My dissertation is a cultural history of the population control movement during the 1960s and 1970s. In particular, I research how the population movement and the environmental movement converged to place population growth atop the public agenda.

One of the most interesting, and unlikely, ecologically-minded population activists of the postwar period was the founder of the Dixie Cup Company, Hugh Moore, whose public-policy papers are housed at Princeton. Although little known, perhaps no one worked harder-and with more success-to bring the issue of population growth to the attention of the American public. Starting with the publication of his pamphlet "The Population Bomb" in the mid-1950s (whose title the biologist Paul Ehrlich would borrow a decade later) and lasting through a massive advertising campaign during the late 1960s, Moore was a tireless and infinitely creative crusader for population control measures. Surprisingly, however, except for a hagiographic biography and a few short mentions, historians have not given Moore the attention he deserves.

Thanks to a generous grant from the Friends of the Princeton Library, I was able to visit Mudd Library twice during the spring and summer to dig through Moore's papers. I went looking for clues about his reasons for fearing population growth, his strategy for influencing policy, and his salesman-like techniques for selling the issue to the America public. In Princeton, I found a staff generously willing to help me navigate the collection, a top-notch workspace, and an invaluable collection of Moore's personal papers. The Moore collection contains papers and correspondence related to his peace activism prior to World War II, his foreign policy projects after the war, such as the Atlantic Union and the St. Lawrence Seaway project, and a fantastically rich collection of his work related to population issues.

Although I can't possibly detail all of the things I discovered at Princeton about Moore, I would like to describe some of what I learned about Moore's Population Bomb pamphlet and, briefly, his advertising campaign during the 1960s. In 1954, impatient for more action and a broader approach, Moore wrote and distributed a punchy pamphlet designed to sell population control to the "leaders of American opinion." Targeting people listed in Who's Who, he sent out 1,000 copies of "The Population Bomb" in the fall of 1954, 20,000 copies two years later, 50,000 copies in 1957, and 100, 000 copies in 1958, and 200, 000 copies in 1958. The pamphlet went through 13 editions by 1967 for a total of 1.5 million copies. The "Bomb" made population control more compelling than ever. It did so by combining Vogt's message about how global people/resource imbalances threatened American national security with a powerful force in American foreign policy-American worries about a rising tide of communism around the world. 1954, the year the U.S. stepped in for the French in Indochina, was an apt moment in America's postwar history to make such an argument.

Moore focused on the underdeveloped world-Latin America, Africa, and especially Asia. Medical discoveries and advances in sanitation in such areas, Moore wrote, "have improved health and prolonged life spans and thus have lowered death rates" but have done nothing about birth rates. The result was a "population explosion" which, because little hope existed for greater food production, threatened economic and political instability. It also threatened war. Drawing from World War II, Moore explained: "Hunger and poverty drive men to war. The struggle for 'lebensraum"-living space-has long been a justification of conquerors-for example Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo of most recent memory." The current conquerors capitalizing on world hunger to threaten America, Moore made clear, were Communists. "Hundreds of millions of people in the world are hungry. In their desperation they are increasingly susceptible to Communist propaganda and may be enticed into violent action." Moore elaborated on this threat in a later section: "As long as two thirds of them [people of the underdeveloped countries] go to sleep hungry every night the odds favor Communism." In a letter to John Rockefeller III in 1954, Hugh Moore made it clear that he was not just using the communist issue to address other international concerns: "We are not primarily interested in the sociological or humanitarian aspects of birth control. We are interested in the use which Communists make of hungry people in their drive to conquer the earth." In a sense, Moore used population growth to articulate an ecological domino theory.

Princeton also houses a wonderful collection of Moore-designed ads and sample ads. Information about some of the better known adds are here, such as Have you ever been mugged? Well, you may be! (from 1968) and Pope denounces birth control as millions starve (1968). But there are many other ads and sample ads that have not been published elsewhere. This include Right now this is a bigger threat than the H-Bomb (picture of fertility symbol from Asia), This Is One Crop That Never Seems to Fail (picture of poor Asians, mothers and kids, about 12 or so), and This may be the most important book written in 1968 (about Paul Ehrlich's The Population Bomb). Such ads reveal a great deal not just about Moore's tactics, but also about the larger political vision informing his views. By placing Moore and the population control movement within its full international and domestic contexts, my research has the potential to make an important contribution to postwar American history. My study could also have significance for many contemporary policy debates, as the complex issues surrounding population growth are still with us today. I'm very grateful to the Friends of the Princeton University Library for helping me pursue this project. Thank you very much.

November 1, 2003


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