Wind in its Sails: the Voyage of the Golden Rule

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War Resisters League - One Hundred Years of Nonviolent Resistance

As the Golden Rule continues its voyage up the East Coast, it is sailing into cities with historic connections. It is now in Philadelphia, home of crew member George Willoughby, American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) and so many Quaker supporters. Onto New York, home of the War Resisters League office which provided staffing and organizing. Stops in Connecticut go from Wilton where Captain Albert Bigelow lived to New London and Groton, the center of protests starting with the 1960 Polaris Action, by the Committee for Nonviolent Action (CNVA, which began as the NVA - the original Golden Rule organizers.)

WRL played a major role in supporting this protest ship. The June 4, 1957 WRL Executive Committee minutes read, “Representative of WRL, FOR, AFSC and WILPF met on May 29th and after exhaustive discussion set up a joint ad-hoc committee – Non-Violent Action Against Nuclear Tests (NVA). Those minutes included plans for an assembly in Las Vegas and a “demonstration of blocking the only roadway leading into the test area.” That nonviolent direct action led to many more actions to stop nuclear tests. By December the first mention of the “Pacific Project” appears in the minutes. “Non-Violent Action Against Nuclear Weapons, the committee of which WRL is a part, and which carried on the nuclear protest, is planning to send a ship to the Pacific to protest the new series of nuclear tests to take place in April. Four men will sail the boat in the test area. At the same time Bayard Rustin, Jim Peck and Ralph DiGia (all WRL staff) will help with the planning ad publicity of those projects.”

In January Bayard Rustin reported on his trip to the West Coast, which focused on the nuclear arms race and testing. It was noted that with George Willoughby, who was chair of the Pacific Project committee, had been chosen as one of the crew, and would need to be replaced. Bayard Rustin, who had been working with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Atlanta on a voter registration campaign, would now put two days a week into the Golden Rule project.

The January February 1958 WRL News headlines read “The Urgency of Peace in the Sputnik Era”, with a side column that a ketch was being prepared “To sail into bomb test area”.

WRL News, Number 88

The March April 1958 WRL News announced that “The ‘Golden Rule’ Sails…” The other significant news was the creation of other campaigns including A Walk for Peace with the objective to “Stop nuclear weapons tests to start nuclear disarmament.” Contingents of walkers went from New Haven and Philadelphia to the UN. A “Cape Canaveral Project” for April 13-15, “income tax deadline day” at the Cape Canaveral missile base was organized by The Peacemakers. And it was reported that 9,000 scientists from 43 countries signed a petition to halt nuclear tests that was presented to the UN. The movement was growing.

WRL News, Number 89The May June 1958 WRL News headline proclaimed “'Golden Rule’ Spurs Actions to Stop Nuclear Tests”. On May 2nd the Golden Rule sailed towards the bomb testing area in the face of a federal injunction. The ship was captured and returned to Hawaii where the crew were put in jail for contempt of court. A sit-in at the AEC (Atomic Energy Commission) Headquarters on the day that the Golden Rule crew were in court to be sentenced for contempt was quickly organized by Nonviolent Action (NVA). Those arrested included family members of the crew and Ralph DiGia. They demanded - and eventually got - a meeting with one of the AEC Commissioners.

With the Golden Rule crew waylaid (including Jim Peck serving a 60-day jail sentence), a 'European Project' grew from the Pacific Project. Plans were made for a five person team headed by Bayard Rustin to go to the Soviet Union, with stops in England, France, West Germany and Finland. This “Mission to Moscow” was hoping to plead with the Russian citizens and officials to stop the production and testing of nuclear weapons,” according to an article by Bayard Rustin in the June 1958 Liberation magazine, much of which was devoted to the Golden Rule's voyage. They were not let in and advised to leave Helsinki and go home.

(More on the historic Mission to Moscow in a later blog.)

While the Golden Rule was never allowed to sail to the test site, they inspired the crew of the Phoenix to sail to the Marshall Islands. They were stopped, but both boats efforts fueled opposition to the nuclear arms race and atmospheric testing. That opposition eventually lead to the 1963 Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty prohibiting nuclear testing in the atmosphere, underwater or in outer space.

The wind in the sails of this project – and most other successful ones – is not only the existence of a creative nonviolent action and those willing to take the risks needed to be effective, but also an internal support network to deal with organizational aspects, and the network they are able to reach to continue to raise the issue through a multitude of nonviolent actions and campaigns.

- blog post by Joanne Sheehan