John Bertram Oakes, editor of the New York Times editorial page from 1961 until 1976, was the creator of the contemporary op-ed page, featuring the opinions of both the newspaper and external writers. Under his guidance, the Times editorials moved from cautiously worded dispassionate views to more rousing, liberal calls for social change, particularly for ending the war in Vietnam, promoting civil rights, and protecting the environment. Through his Times environmental editorials, Oakes became a key coalescing force in the modern environmental movement.
Oakes was born into a powerful newspaper family in 1913. His father, George Washington Ochs, was a magazine and newspaper editor, as well as one-time mayor of Chattanooga, Tennessee; and his uncle, Adolph Ochs, had owned the New York Times since 1896. His mother died early and Oakes was raised by his father and an aunt. He graduated valedictorian of his Princeton class in 1934, where he wrote his thesis on newspaper history. He then studied in France and as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University. Independent-minded, Oakes chose to write not for the family paper, but for the Trenton Times and Washington Post. During the Second World War, he served in Europe, rising to the rank of major and earning a Bronze Star. He married Margery Hartman in 1945.
He joined the New York Times in 1946 and became an editorial writer three years later. In 1951, he began writing an occasional environmental column. Oakes was named editor of the editorial page in 1961, where he voiced early and outspoken opposition to the Vietnam War. Under Oakes, the Times sounded one of the first public calls for President Richard Nixon's resignation after Watergate. Other issues that Oakes took strong stands on were the upholding of constitutional rights, the strengthening of gun control, and the curbing of nuclear proliferation. Oakes was also responsible for hiring the first female and African American editorial writers for the Times. In 1970, Oakes inaugurated the modern two-page editorial section, featuring current-affairs essays by distinguished outside commentators as well as staff writers, thereby abandoning the one paper, one point of view approach. Newspapers around the country soon copied Oakes's innovation, making a wider range of informed public opinion available in a single newspaper.
Oakes's writing was respected for the strength of his voice and his reasoning. But his advocacy of certain issues, particularly environmental issues, led to tension with some Times advertisers, and eventually Times upper management. In 1976, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, the Times publisher and Oakes's cousin, pressed Oakes to take an early retirement in what was leaked as a conflict over the endorsement for Democratic congressional primary. After several years in less powerful positions at the Times, Oakes officially retired in 1978, although he continued to contribute to the editorial pages until the early 1990s. His writing won him two George Polk Awards, the Catherwood Award for responsible international journalism, as well as awards from the National Audubon Society, the Sierra Club, and the Natural Resources Defense Council (of which he was a founding trustee). Today, the John B. Oakes Award for Distinguished Environmental Journalism annually honors the best environmental writing in the American press. The award is underwritten by Oakes's widow and their four children. Oakes recorded a series of oral-history interviews with Columbia University during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1990s.