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Lawrence Wittner

Lawrence Wittner

Posted: February 8, 2010 05:30 PM

Preserving the 'Golden Rule'

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The Golden Rule is in danger. No, not the famed ethical code -- though proponents of selfishness certainly have ignored it -- but a thirty-foot sailboat of the same name that rose to prominence about half a century ago.

The remarkable story of the Golden Rule began in the late 1950s, as the world public grew increasingly concerned about preparations for nuclear war. In the United States, the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (SANE) was launched in November 1957, and polls showed rising uneasiness about the nuclear arms race -- especially giant atmospheric nuclear weapons tests that spewed radioactive fallout around the globe.

Although SANE quickly became the largest peace organization in the United States, smaller groups, committed to civil disobedience, sprang up as well. One of them, Non-Violent Action Against Nuclear Weapons, drew the participation of Albert Bigelow, a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy during World War II. With the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Bigelow had concluded that "morally, war is impossible," and a month before he became eligible for his pension, he resigned from the U.S. Navy reserve. Joining the Society of Friends, he plunged into the growing campaign of resistance to nuclear weapons.

In January 1958, Bigelow and three other pacifists wrote to President Dwight Eisenhower of their plan to sail the Golden Rule into the U.S. nuclear testing zone in the Pacific. "For years we have spoken and written of the suicidal military preparations of the Great Powers," they declared, "but our voices have been lost in the massive effort of those responsible for preparing this country for war. We mean to speak now with the weight of our whole lives." They hoped their act would "say to others: Speak Now."

Of course, this was just what the U.S. government most feared. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) officials, and the U.S. Navy brass began frantic conversations on how to counter the pacifist menace. The U.S. commander-in-chief in the Pacific warned that this group of "Communists or misguided humanitarians" hoped to either "stop tests by preventing us from firing... or if we did fire and killed a few people" to "create additional anti-atomic test support." Eventually, the administration decided to have the AEC issue a regulation blocking entry by U.S. citizens into the test zone, while U.S. intelligence agencies swapped data on Bigelow, including information on his private telephone conversations and legal plans.

Meanwhile, captained across a stormy Pacific by Bigelow, the Golden Rule arrived in Honolulu, where a U.S. federal court issued an injunction barring the rest of its voyage. Nevertheless, the four pacifists decided: "We would sail -- come what may." And they did. Overtaken by the U.S. Coast Guard on their journey to Eniwetok, they were arrested, tried, convicted, and placed on probation. Undaunted, they set sail once more on the Golden Rule for the very heart of darkness, that section of the Pacific unilaterally cordoned off by the U.S. government for its hydrogen bomb tests. Once again, their voyage was halted by U.S. authorities, and they were arrested, tried, convicted and -- this time -- given sixty-day sentences and imprisoned.

But their example proved contagious. An American anthropologist, Earle Reynolds, his wife Barbara, and their two children attended the final trial in Honolulu, and concluded not only that the U.S. government was lying about the dangers of radioactive fallout, but lacked the constitutional authority to explode nuclear weapons in the Pacific. As a result, determined to complete the voyage of the Golden Rule, they set sail for Eniwetok aboard their own ship, the Phoenix. On July 1, Reynolds went on the radio to announce that they had entered the U.S. nuclear testing zone. Soon thereafter he was arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced to a two-year prison term.

These events, which received considerable publicity, triggered a surge of activism. Picket lines sprang up around federal buildings and AEC offices all across the United States. In San Francisco, 432 residents -- proclaiming that they were guilty of "conspiring" with crew members -- petitioned the U.S. attorney to take legal action against them. Reynolds, out on bail before a higher court ruled in his favor (and, implicitly, in favor of the crew of the Golden Rule), gave a large number of talks on radio and television, as well as to college, high school, and church audiences, on the dangers of nuclear testing.

Not surprisingly, U.S. government officials were horrified. Appearing on CBS television, AEC chair Lewis Strauss, implied -- as he often did when discussing critics of nuclear weapons -- that the whole thing was part of a Communist conspiracy. "At the bottom of the disturbance there is a kernel of very intelligent, deliberate propaganda," he insisted.

Subsequent events went badly from Strauss's standpoint. Within a short time, he was ousted from office, and the Eisenhower administration -- barraged by public protests against nuclear testing -- felt obliged to halt it and begin negotiations on a test ban treaty. In 1963, these negotiations culminated in the signing of the Partial Test Ban Treaty, which ended atmospheric nuclear tests by the great powers. SANE and other peace groups were delighted with this first nuclear arms control treaty, as was Bigelow, who only two years before had challenged authority once more, this time as a Freedom Rider.

As for the aging Golden Rule, it has now drifted into obscurity, and is currently housed in a small shipyard in Eureka California, whose owner, Leroy Zerlang, would like to save it from destruction. If the Smithsonian or another museum decided to preserve the Golden Rule, it would provide a fine symbol to future generations of the courageous men who sailed it, of government efforts to halt their activities, and of a nation that ultimately turned against nuclear weapons and nuclear war.

Dr. Wittner is Professor of History at the State University of New York/Albany. His latest book is Confronting the Bomb: A Short History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement (Stanford University Press).