This is a really unexpected find of some significance as I shall explain.
For some years in the 1980s I was running Greenpeace International’s publishing operation, during which I co-authored the official history book - ‘The Greenpeace Story’
Greenpeace’s roots lie in Vancouver and an organisation called the Don’t Make A Wave Committee, founded by Jim Bohlen, Paul Cote and Irving Stowe in 1970. Irving and Dorothy Stowe were Quakers who introduced Bohlen and his wife Marie to the faith. A key Quaker concept was “bearing witness” - ‘a sort of passive resistance that involves going to the scene of an objectionable activity and registering opposition to it simply by one’s presence there.’
Stowe, Bohlen and others aimed to stop US plans to detonate a 5-megaton nuclear bomb on the island of Amchitka in the Aleutians – one of the most earthquake-prone regions in the world. The Committee, later renamed Greenpeace, aimed to find a protest vessel in which to sail to the test zone to ‘bear witness’.
SEE PREVIOUS POST: GREENPEACE: THE RETURN TO AMCHITKA
At the time of writing the history, I remember hearing rumours that such an action had been tried before Greenpeace by the Quakers but was not able to find any further information in those pre-internet days.
The chance find of this amazing book confirms that the Quakers did indeed mount such a protest and this is the full account.
In late March 1958, Albert Bigelow and three companions, all Quakers, set out from Los Angeles with plans to sail into the nuclear test zone in the Marshall Islands where the US were planning to stage an atmospheric nuclear test at Eniwetok in April.
Having repaired the boat and restocked their supplies, they set out once more and made it to Hawaii – some 2000 miles. Here their boat was impounded and captain and crew were imprisoned. Much of the book is given up to the circumstances of their incarceration, their various court appearances and the protests organised to try and obtain their freedom.
In the end, unable to make the journey themselves due to their confinement, Bigelow managed to persuade the crew of another boat, the Phoenix, to pick up the mission. They managed to leave Honolulu without rousing the suspicion of the authorities and they actually made it to the test zone where they were arrested.
‘Among those who met the crew members of the Golden Rule in Honolulu and attended their trial for contempt of court were Earle and Barbara Reynolds, a married couple, and their two children. Travelling around the globe on their hand-built sailboat, the Phoenix, they were heading back to Hiroshima, where Earle Reynolds, an anthropologist, had coordinated research for the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission, established by the U.S. government to gather data on the effects of the atomic bombs. Greatly impressed by the crew members, as well as convinced that the U.S. government had misreported the deadly effects of radioactive fallout and had no right to restrict travel on the high seas, the Reynolds family decided to complete the voyage of the Golden Rule. On July 1, 1958, Earle Reynolds went on the radio to announce that the Phoenix was entering the U.S. test zone "as a protest against nuclear testing. Please inform appropriate authorities." The U.S. Coast Guard boarded the Phoenix the next day, arrested Reynolds, and returned him to Hawaii for trial. Here he was convicted and sentenced to two years in prison.’
[This quote is from an excellent article The Long Voyage: The Golden Rule and Resistance to Nuclear Testing in Asia and the Pacific by Lawrence S. Wittner. He writes that ‘Reynolds also resumed his seaborne activities against nuclear explosions. As a protest against nuclear testing by the Soviet Union, Reynolds captained two additional voyages, the first by the Phoenix to Nakhodka (on the Pacific Ocean) and the second by the Everyman III to Leningrad (on the Baltic Sea).’]
Both voyages became the focus of a big international campaign to try and put a halt to atmospheric nuclear testing. We also learn from Bigelow’s account that the Quakers had seen direct action before his voyage.
Demonstration in favour of the Golden Rule and against bomb tests, June 1958—photo from the Albert Bigelow Papers
A British Quaker Harold Steele tried to organise a ship and crew to sail to the Christmas Islands to protest against the nuclear tests being carried out there by the British. He and his wife only made it as far as Tokyo but their example inspired Quakers in the US.
In June 1957, says Bigelow, they organised an ad hoc committee – Non Violent Action Against Nuclear Weapons – and on August 6th that year, on the anniversary of Hiroshima, 35 of them assembled at the gateway to the Nevada Test Site and stepped over the line. They were arrested, tried for trespassing and given suspended sentences.
Bigelow reports: ‘After leaving court, we returned to the prayer vigil…We continued to play throughout the night. At dawn we experienced, from a distance of about twenty-five miles, a nuclear explosion. This was proof that our intuition, our feelings and our senses were right.’
Bigelow, who commanded combat vessels in world War II, records the whole saga in punctilious detail and succeeds in capturing the mood and feel of those times. His is a very valuable account of a set of actions that are little known of today. Hopefully this post will help the story find its way into the mainstream historical accounts of the environmental, anti-nuclear and peace movements.
Bigelow (1906-1993) is a fine artist and his meticulous drawings pepper the text.
[This edition is 1st Edition hardback published by Doubleday in 1959. According to the book’s inscription, it was owned by Roger Mabey-Merrall of Yacht “6X”, R.N.S.A. [which I think is the Royal Navy Sailing Association]. One wonders how far this book has travelled.
Broken Arrow by Heidi Walters [The Journal, Humboldt County, California]
Albert Bigelow, right, captained the Golden Rule on her mission to disrupt atmospheric nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands. PHOTO FROM THE ALBERT BIGELOW PAPERS held at the Swarthmore College Peace Collection.