Next: Table of Contents

James R. Melcher and
"America's Perestroika"

In 1977, Professor James R. Melcher was one of the first 25 members of the Boston Area Bicycle Coalition, which evolved into today's MassBike.

Despite his high accomplishment and prestigious academic position, he conversed with his students and Bicycle Coalition members as an equal. Professor Melcher lived according to his beliefs, commuting 9 miles each way by bicycle between his home in Lexington and his work at MIT in Cambridge, year-round. His friends, students and colleagues remember the unassuming, native elegance of his demeanor, the twinkle in his eye and wry smile with which he put us at ease.

Jim Melcher at 1978 BABC rally

Jim Melcher at a Boston Area Bicycle Coalition rally on Boston Common, 1979
Photo by Anita Brewer-Siljeholm

From the 1970's on into the 1980's, Professor Melcher's political activism expanded beyond bicycling issues to address issues of national economic and military policy.

His teaching and his bicycle commuting ended at the age of 54 years when illness -- which turned out to be a fatal cancer -- made it impossible for him to continue. His activism did not end even then. He wrote the paper "America's Perestroika" in the months preceding his death on January 5, 1991. His wife, Janet Melcher, distributed it to friends and family along with their 1990 Christmas card. It is his parting message to us, who survive him.

The paper, republished here, includes stories that have a familiar ring for any bicycle commuter, a discourse on the role of academics in formulating national policy, and an uncompromisingly straightforward description of political issues as well as Professor Melcher's illness.

At the time of writing, Iraq had invaded Kuwait and American forces had amassed in the Gulf, but the counterattack against Iraq had not yet begun. The paper is much taken up with issues related to the Persian Gulf War.

The war turned out to exact a very small number of American casualties, softening its impact on American popular opinion. The prosperity of the 1990s, borne on a wave of new technologies and a flood of imported oil, clouded public opinion about some of the issues that Professor Melcher raises. The years since have been even more troubling. The paper stands the test of time as testimony of a true patriot, a man of deep honesty and abiding courage, though in one sense it is both prescient and dated: Jim saw the promise of American fossil fuel reserves in reducing dependence on overseas sources, but never discussed the need for a transition to carbon-free energy sources.

I thank Janet Melcher for permission to republish "America's Perestroika" on the Internet and Jessica Mink for capturing it when Massbike dieleted the older material on its site.

I have added links in the Table of Contents to biographical sketches. Other than that, and the formatting as Web pages and correction of a few typographical errors, "America's Perestroika" is presented here exactly as Professor Melcher wrote it.

John S. Allen
January 24, 2017

Next: Table of Contents