Courageous attempt to halt nuclear testing in 1958 inspires contemporary activism
Driven by a perceived need for military superiority and global dominance immediately after WWII, the US government took control of many Pacific island countries, including the Marshall Islands. From 1946 to 1958 the US dropped 67 nuclear bombs on the Marshalls, contaminating and displacing the indigenous population and throwing Strontium-90 and other radioactive isotopes high in the stratosphere. “Mankind was unconsulted, powerless in the face of these tests (Bigelow 1959, 23). Activists in the US and elsewhere were frustrated after years of writing, speaking, and protesting against nuclear weapons tests to no avail, so four Quakers fearlessly attempted to sail into the US nuclear test zone in the Marshall Islands in 1958. The idea was to risk their health and lives by getting in the way of the weapons tests, living and demonstrating Gandhian nonviolent truth to power.
The captain, Albert Bigelow, had gallantly quit his commission as a Navy Commander, one month prior to becoming eligible for his pension, to protest the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As captain of the Golden Rule, he was charged with leading a difficult ocean crossing in a small 30-foot vessel that was not designed for ocean crossings. The boat had no modern communication, navigation, or satellite weather forecasting equipment. Indeed, the first time they sailed out of Los Angeles, 700 miles offshore a gale broke the mainsail’s top boom and forced their return to California. In addition to limitations of the vessel, most challenging was aligning the crew with compassionate courage and a commitment to
…an ever-conscious awareness of the meaning of nonviolence. It meant that we must be instruments of nonviolence, tenderly and sensitively tuned to the feelings of others. We would have to practice our principles, live our principles, be our principles. We’d have to follow the golden rule. (Bigelow 1959, 37)
On that first attempt, original crew David Gale remained seasick for so long, he barely survived. He was replaced by Orion Sherwood, and along with First Mate Bill Huntington, George Willoughby, and Captain Bigelow, set sail again with repairs completed, fortified with daring determination to accomplish their mission.
The Golden Rule arrived in Ala Wai Harbor in Honolulu to great fanfare. This well-publicized mission was being supported by hundreds of people devoted to the cause. The stop in Honolulu was half way to their destination, so the crew re-supplied and headed back out towards the Marshall Islands. However, the Coast Guard brought them back and arrested Bigelow on felony conspiracy charges. An injunction had hastily been passed against US citizens entering the test zone. Undaunted, Bigelow embraced the high moral ground and refused to be released on his own recognizance, living his truth to power.
Bigelow was still in jail when Bill Huntington returned from a trip to the mainland. Within minutes of his arrival at the Golden Rule, he, Sherwood, Willoughby, and long-time activist Jim Peck made another attempt to fulfill their mission to the Marshalls, this time unannounced. Despite making it to international waters, the Coast Guard again forced them back to Honolulu. Although acknowledging a “daring and gallant try”, Bigelow felt that departing spontaneously without notification to power was going against their Gandhian commitment to act “openly and in a spirit of love and nonviolence… to guard against the appeal, justification, and contamination of ends. The means are the ends” (1959, 199). Bill Huntington was immediately apprehended and pleaded guilty. George Willoughby bravely demanded to also be arrested, and his wish came true when he and Sherwood were also incarcerated. Bigelow and his crew spent nine weeks practicing the tenets of nonviolence while held in the dilapidated Honolulu Jail. Jim Peck protested weekly with community supporters at the Federal Building.
Another sailboat was docked at the Ala Wai Harbor while the crew was jailed. Earle Reynolds, an anthropologist who had been in Hiroshima since 1951 studying the effects of radiation on children, captained the Phoenix of Hiroshima. Reynolds, his family, and crew soon learned about the Golden Rule and attended the trial of the crew. Inspired by the bravery and character of these men, the Reynolds’ became Quakers and decided to take the baton and sail into the testing zone themselves, fulfilling the Golden Rule’s mission. When they reached the perimeter of the forbidden zone, they announced their intention by radio. At 65 miles into the testing area, the Coast Guard arrested Earle Reynolds.
Was the Golden Rule mission a success? Did the courage of all participants—crew and supporters around the world—successfully face the power of US politicians and its military industrial complex, as well as those of the other two nuclear powers, Russia and England? Reynolds states that the Phoenix had become the Golden Rule and thus achieved its goal (Bigelow 1959, 258). Bigelow muses, “The government had its way, made up a law, and jailed us with it. The dismal tests went on to their dreary conclusion.” But there was a shift, with the politicians in all three powers realizing the will of the people: no more “atrocious atomic antics” (259). Reflecting humbly, Bigelow states the Golden Rule and Phoenix did not change the course of history, but they brought awareness to the need for change. He opined that he and the crews were not especially courageous or heroic—others would have done the same. After all, we all are taught to stand up for our principles. He continues,
It is very important to realize that the slight sacrifice we made or the full sacrifice we were willing to make was not an uncommon human experience. Indeed, it is the human experience: to stand for a principle is what it is to be a human… Men, women—yes, and children, too, are being courageous, valiant for truth, in every continent on earth… abused for principle, tortured for principle, and killed for principle (1959, 262).
Bigelow clarifies that the idea is important; the people are not. The lesson learned is to “dare to be true, to know what it is you are doing, tell the truth about it, and tell it in a plain and simple way. ‘Right action is its own propaganda,’ said Gandhi” (1959, 267).
Despite Bigelow’s modesty, the voyage of the Golden Rule and the arrest of the crew sparked protests across the globe to ‘Free the Crew of the Golden Rule’ and ‘Stop Nuclear Tests’. A growing world-wide anti-nuclear movement convinced President Kennedy to sign the Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963, along with the UK and Russia. The strategy of boldly sailing a vessel for protest later inspired the founding of Greenpeace. The Golden Rule was sold into private hands in Honolulu, and the small spirited sailboat disappeared from public consciousness.
In 2010 the Golden Rule was re-discovered by peace activists in Northern California. The sad sailboat was in deplorable condition with no mast or engine, and after sinking in a gale, Leroy Zerlang dragged its skeleton into his boatyard for a bonfire. His friend Chuck Dewitt, a Veteran for Peace, got the local chapter involved when they researched the boat’s history. Golden Rule had just escaped a watery grave, then a fiery grave! Zerlang became project director, and Dewitt was the Restoration Coordinator. For five long years, a few professionals and dozens of volunteers worked to bring the peace boat back to life. Veterans for Peace, Quakers, and wooden boat lovers dared to accomplish a nearly impossible feat: 95% of boat rebuild projects are never completed!
The resurrected Golden Rule ‘splashed down’ in June 2015 and since then has been sailing for peace and disarmament on the West Coast and in Hawai‘i as a project of Veterans for Peace. New crew learn the boat’s storied history, perhaps read Bigelow’s book, and get inspired to take bold actions for peace. Reaching beyond the choir in these days of extreme political division is not for the faint of heart!
Now Veterans for Peace is preparing for one of the most important actions of our time—to bring this inspiring little boat to central and eastern US and sail for peace in this time of war! Retired Colonel Ann Wright, board member of the Golden Rule Project, commented,
Now, with the threat and awareness of nuclear war greater than ever, is the time to bring this boat—an icon of peace—to the rest of the country and give people hope by taking action. Let’s show people what they can do to stop the possibility of nuclear war! (2021)
Golden Rule will soon begin an epic 15-month 11,000 mile voyage throughout the eastern half of the US. In September 2022 the boat will arrive by truck to Minneapolis and sail down the Mississippi River, along the Gulf Coast and East Coast, around the Great Lakes, and down inland rivers (The Great Loop). The journey will end in the Gulf of Mexico in December 2023 and likely return to California via the Panama Canal.
Gerry Condon, President of the Golden Rule Steering Committee and former National President of Veterans for Peace commented,
We will have events in 28 big cities and 68 smaller towns along the way.Dozens of people are volunteering, as organizers and crew. People are excited to host the Golden Rule peace boat and to spread her message of nuclear disarmament, peace, and sustainability. (2022)
The Golden Rule Project advocates for the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and supports local initiatives to press the US government to join the 86 countries that have either signed or ratified the treaty. The Golden Rule Project supports a negotiated plan for multilateral, time-bound, verifiable, and irreversible elimination of nuclear weapons.
Great Loop Programs!
At each port-of-call, Golden Rule Ambassadors pair with local organizers to plan events and actions. There are plans for peace poles, city resolutions in favor of nuclear disarmament, petitions, articles, and letters to the editor.
There will be opportunities to schedule presentations, potlucks, gala dinners, music, dancing, poetry, day sails, and boat tours for any group that would like to participate.
“There’s lots of excitement about this next phase of the storied history of the Golden Rule,” Condon continued. “This is a positive-energy communal effort—just what we need at this time” (2022).
Bigelow, Albert. The Voyage of the Golden Rule: An Experiment with Truth. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1959.
Condon, Gerry. Personal, May 29, 2022.
Veterans for Peace Golden Rule Project, http://vfpgoldenruleproject.org/
Wright, Ann. Personal, April 2021.