- DDT and the American Century: Global Health, Environmental Politics, and the Pesticide That Changed the World by David Kinkela
The year 2012 marked the fiftieth anniversary of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring; among the significant results of her book was the banning of DDT for use in the United States in 1972. Although first developed in 1874, it was in the immediate post–World War II decades that DDT became the major chemical used in insect control, particularly in killing the malaria-causing female Anopheles mosquito. DDT was cheap, effective, and safe for humans without any apparent side effects. Widely used in the United States, DDT was heralded across the globe by many people as malaria rates fell, and as it became part of the Green Revolution in global agriculture. These early successes did not last, however. Evidence mounted about DDT’s long-term effects in the food chain. The Anopheles mosquito proved a more difficult adversary, withstanding the chemical onslaught, adapting, and prospering. Since 1970 malaria rates have increased, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. With global infections today reaching 30 to 40 million annually, health organizations [End Page 250] have developed a new set of programs to deal with malaria. But DDT is generally not among the new weapons. Recently, conservatives have used the rise in malaria as evidence to rescind the ban on DDT, arguing that such state interference, driven by Carson and environmentalists, has led to the deaths of millions from malaria at the expense of protecting birds and other wildlife.
While the public debate over DDT has often been framed in Manichean terms, David Kinkela shows in DDT and the American Century, there’s much more to it. Instead he argues that there is a “complex history rooted in ideas about human health, science and technology, modernity, and state regulation” (p. 6). In the post–World War II years, amid the Cold War, DDT became a “symbol of two countervailing forces shaping American perceptions about the world,” technological modernity and ecological modernity. Using these twin forces, Kinkela weaves a compelling and largely successful narrative that places “the American story of DDT in an international context” (p. 9) focused upon U.S. international development and foreign policy in the wake of Henry Luce’s 1941 pronouncement of a new, postwar “American century.” If lacking some depth on local histories and efforts at resistance or acceptance by these populations (both human and nonhuman), Kinkela’s work nevertheless is a compelling effort at writing a transnational history of DDT.
DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane) emerged as one of the key innovations of World War II. As U.S. troops spread across the globe, their ability to fight depended not only on their training, logistics, and weapons, but also on their health. Research on DDT in the United States led by Edward Knipling confirmed earlier findings by Swiss scientist Paul Müller, showing no visible signs of poisoning on humans. Knipling then pushed for more field tests, including a massive global one funded by the Rockefeller Foundation that included work on malaria, typhus, and yellow fever. The U.S. military first used DDT against a typhus outbreak in Naples in 1943, and then more extensively in the Pacific to combat malaria. As its use spread, so too did concerns about DDT’s effects. As Kinkela shows, news reports and scientific studies in 1944 and 1945 began to show the ill effects of DDT on wildlife such as fish and birds. But the short-term needs of war trumped such long-term considerations. DDT reduced “a series of complex biological problems into a single solution” (p. 14). More important, the World War II experience set in motion several trends. The U.S. chemical industry used DDT’s success in World War II to launch a postwar domestic sales campaign. The connections between government, scientific foundations, and industry only intensified, and [End Page 251] the war confirmed for many working in these interconnected arenas the power of...