The peace boat Golden Rule sails into a new era of nuclear activism

By Dawn Stover | July 25, 2016

Golden Rule

Dwarfed by the ships from the US Navy, the Royal Canadian Navy, and the US Coast Guard that visited Portland, Oregon, for Fleet Week last month, the 30-foot-long Golden Rule looked like it was from another era. And it was.

The boat, sporting a 6-foot-wide peace symbol on one of its sails, is the same wooden ketch once crewed by pacifists who tried to sail it to the Marshall Islands in 1958, to protest US atmospheric testing of large nuclear bombs. They were prepared to sacrifice the boat and their own lives in an attempt to stop the tests, which were devastating the islands and sending radioactive fallout around the globe.

Like that historic voyage of 58 years ago, the Golden Rule’s 2016 tour of the Pacific Northwest is intended to promote nuclear disarmament. This time around, though, the challenge of raising public awareness may be even more difficult than it was in 1958. The volunteer crew doesn’t expect to bring about change through protest—they have no plans to risk arrest or boat seizure. Instead they’re hoping to appeal to boaters, Rotary club members, waterfront tourists, and others who may not be aware that their country not only possesses thousands of nuclear weapons, but is also working on extremely expensive upgrades to them.

The United States has been waging undeclared wars for so long that many of its citizens now seem to consider the very notion of peace as quaint as the peace symbol on the Golden Rule’s mizzen sail—more of a boho fashion statement than a political movement. “Even the military is treating us with respect and friendliness,” says Helen Jaccard, project manager for the VFP Golden Rule Project, which is led by an organization of military veterans and their allies who oppose nuclear weapons and war. Sailors aboard some of the big warships in Portland saluted as the Golden Rule passed by, probably in deference to the Veterans for Peace logo on the mainsail.

Once upon a time, peace activists fought to bring about change through radical protest, placing themselves at risk of physical harm and arrest; remnants of that tradition still persist through actions such as the 2012 break-in at the Y-12 National Security Complex. But today the Golden Rule team pegs its hopes for nuclear disarmament on incremental cultural shifts and judicial decisions that might eventually tip the scales, as they have done for issues such as same-sex marriage. Says Jaccard, a retired computer programmer who manages the Golden Rule project from a motor home of only slightly more modern vintage: “The tide is starting to turn.” Maybe. But it’s not all fair winds and following seas in 2016.

Sailing for peace. When I visited the Golden Rule a few weeks ago in the port of Hood River, Oregon—the self-proclaimed windsurfing capital of the world—the sailboat had just survived a harrowing leg of its Northwest journey. The Columbia River Gorge’s famously strong winds snapped the boat’s tiller as it approached Hood River, and had the crew not been able to anchor in the river to make an emergency repair, they might have lost the Golden Rule. It was only the latest episode in a series of globe-spanning adventures.

In 1958, the well-publicized plan to sail the Golden Rule to the Marshall Islands drew the attention of the US Atomic Energy Commission. While the sailboat was en route from California to Hawaii, the Commission passed a regulation prohibiting US citizens from entering the nuclear test zone. After arriving in Hawaii, the crew defied a federal court injunction and set sail for the Marshall Islands, but the Coast Guard intercepted the boat before it reached international waters and arrested the captain, Albert Bigelow, a Quaker and former US Navy lieutenant commander. Two men from his crew made a second attempt and reached international waters, but they too were forced back to Hawaii.

The crew’s imprisonment outraged many Americans, and it inspired Earle L. Reynolds and his family to sail their 50-foot yacht, the Phoenix of Hiroshima, into the test zone later that year. Reynolds, an American anthropologist on sabbatical from his job in Hiroshima, where he studied the effects on children of the US atomic bombs dropped in 1945, announced his arrival in the test zone and was promptly arrested and imprisoned.

By the late 1990s, the Golden Rule was moored in California’s Humboldt Bay and owned by physician Laurence Badgley—better known as “Dr. Feelgood,” a name he acquired while traveling with the Rolling Stones in the 1970s. After the boat sank in a 2010 storm, a local boatyard owner hauled it to the beach and planned to exercise his salvage rights by burning it in a giant bonfire. But when he learned of the boat’s anti-nuclear history, he changed his mind. A local chapter of Veterans for Peace expressed interest in the boat, and volunteers spent five years restoring it.

A weapon of mass education. The Golden Rule left Humboldt Bay in May and will be calling at ports in Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia until mid-October. Project organizers are giving presentations at boat shows, farmers’ markets, and churches to raise public awareness of local munitions depots, naval bases, and a nuclear power plant; and also to call attention to the plight of the Marshall Islands.

Seventy years ago this month—in July, 1946—the United States detonated two atomic weapons at Bikini Atoll, its first nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands. From 1946 to 1958, the United States went on to test dozens of nuclear weapons at its Pacific Proving Grounds, an area that included the Marshall Islands, and residents are still dealing with the radioactive fallout. Today the islands are also threatened by rising sea level attributed to global warming. More than 22,000 Marshallese (as of the 2010 Census), approximately one-third of the population, have relocated to the United States, where they are permitted to live and work by the Compact of Free Association Treaty, which gave the US military authority over more than two million square miles of ocean.

In 2014, the Republic of the Marshall Islands filed suit against the world’s nine nuclear-armed nations for failing to meet their obligation, under the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and customary international law, to pursue negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament. A federal judge dismissed the suit in the United States, but cases against India, Pakistan, and the United Kingdom are being heard in the International Court of Justice.

A symbol of peace. When the Golden Rule’s red sails are unfurled, it’s hard to miss the big white peace symbol and the equally large Veterans for Peace dove-and-olive-branch logo. Most Americans are familiar with the international peace symbol, but more know it as “a fun necklace to wear to a concert” than a political statement.

In fact, while the symbol has become widely known as generally signifying peace, its roots are specific to maritime nuclear activism. Invented by British designer Gerald Holtom in the same year that the Golden Rule set off for the Marshalls, the peace symbol combines two semaphore signals used by sailors: N (as in nuclear) is signaled by pointing two flags toward the ground at 45-degree angles from the body, and D (for disarmament) is indicated with a straight line made by raising one flag above the body and pointing a second one at the ground. When combined, the two semaphore signals also resemble an individual in despair, with outstretched arms.

War without end. Experts tell us that we are living through the “most peaceful era” in history. And yet here in the United States, by far the most heavily defended nation on Earth, the fear level is extremely high. Perhaps that’s not surprising when you consider our nation’s recent history of lengthy, undeclared wars. The Cold War and the “war on terrorism” are still wars, after all. The latter has already lasted longer than the Vietnam War, and more than twice as long as World War II.

A recent article in Foreign Policy suggested that peace may be bad for a nation, because it offers a lull in which national cohesion breaks down. The Cold War was “perfect” (for the United States, that is) in the view of political scientist Michael Desch, because it never escalated to an actual war but was threatening enough to unify the nation.

But what if unwinnable, unending wars are actually terrible for a nation’s soul? What if they inure us to conflict, to the extent that we no longer hope or plan for peace? That’s when it’s time for a peace symbol with teeth: one that reminds us that the world’s arsenal of nuclear weapons poses a far more serious threat than any mad gunman or deranged truck driver, and that we can have no real peace without disarmament.

Achieving disarmament will probably take more than volunteers sailing into town to host a potluck picnic for yachters and stand-up paddlers. It will probably take more than “people who have never thought about war and peace,” as Jaccard calls them, spotting a sailboat with a peace symbol and wondering what it’s all about. Sometimes it takes something brave and brazen to catch a nation’s attention, something like four men in a wooden boat setting sail for a nuclear test zone against government orders, or an unarmed nun breaking into the “Fort Knox of uranium,” to rouse a public that has been numbed by complacency and fear. If enough people do begin to think about peace and all of its possibilities, they might put wind in the sails of the nuclear disarmament movement.

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