Peace of History
Around this time in September sixty years ago, three peace activists met at the Hygienic Restaurant (now Hygienic Gallery) in New London, Connecticut to plan the next steps in the campaign for nuclear disarmament. What they decided on was ambitious, unprecedented, and potentially dangerous: they were going to spread their message of peace across the United States, Western Europe, and the Soviet Union -- on foot. Over coffee and eggs in that historic restaurant on Bank Street, the idea for the San Francisco to Moscow Walk for Peace was born.
Since June 1, 1960, the Committee for Nonviolent Action (CNVA) had been in New London and Groton, CT for Polaris Action, a summer-long campaign to disrupt the production of nuclear-armed submarines at General Dynamics: Electric Boat and to educate the public about the dangers of the nuclear arms race. Most participants traveled in from other places and, according to the Hilary Harris documentary Polaris Action (1960), included “men and women, old persons and the very young, ministers and atheists, Negro and White, ex-servicemen and conscientious objectors.” Some picketed and marched with signs promoting peace. Others leafletted the workers of Electric Boat. Scott Herrick, a peace activist with a considerable personal fortune, sailed his sloop Satyagraha up and down the Thames River with the words “End the Arms Race; Polaris Action” on its sails. A few boarded the floating dry docks by rowing or even swimming over to talk to workers on the job and to hold “vigils of conscience.” Despite the signs around these facilities threatening a fine of up to $10,000 or 30 years in prison for trespassing, as well as the resignation of one research director as a result of the protesters’ arguments, no trespassers ever got arrested.
And now summer was over, and Polaris Action hadn’t ended in the spectacular, highly publicized arrests that they had expected. So the three men at the Hygienic Restaurant -- Bradford Lyttle, Scott Herrick, and Julius Jacobs -- discussed what to do next. The anti-nuclear project here in New London-Groton was shaping up to be a long-term campaign; Bob and Marj Swann (who would later be founders of VPT) had recently committed to continuing with it. Lyttle, Herrick, and Jacobs were restless for the adventure and high drama of the next big action, and felt that the future of Polaris Action was in good hands without them. But where to go next? Brad Lyttle proposed taking up the challenge presented to them by so many Electric Boat workers: “Buddy, you’re in the wrong place. Go and talk to the Russians.”
The three men knew of only one other attempt by Western peace activists to demonstrate in a Communist country. From July to November, 1951, Ralph DiGia, Bill Sutherland, Art Emery, and Dave Dellinger (later to be one of the Chicago Seven) attempted the Paris to Moscow Bicycle Trip for Disarmament. The trip was sponsored by the Peacemakers, who also provided training workshops in nonviolent action during Polaris Action. The three made it as far as the Soviet Army headquarters at Vienna before being turned away, but not before leafleting many soldiers and civilians.
There was good reason to think the Communist countries would welcome the Western pacifists this time. The three men, working with CNVA, would organize the walk with more support, more participants, and more publicity. The Communist world had already established the World Peace Council, which primarily argued that the Communist governments were peaceful and that the Western capitalist countries were the aggressors. Lyttle had already been arrested in the US for protesting the Atlas nuclear missile. Herrick and Jacobs had risked life and freedom for protesting the Polaris submarines, backbone of the new US nuclear naval policy. By the time the walkers got to Eastern Europe, the whole world would be watching. It would make bad propaganda for the Soviets if they mistreated these high-profile pacifists.
No peace walk of this scale had ever been attempted before. The last record was the 125-mile stretch from New York to New London: the one held a few months previously that had brought Jacobs and so many other Polaris Action participants to New London in the first place. Previous walk speeds averaged 15 miles/day up to 21 miles/day. The route they eventually settled on would require an average of 23 miles/day, covering roughly 6000 miles in 10 months if they wanted to reach Russia before winter. They would start on December 1 in San Francisco, head south for the winter to leaflet military industries around Los Angeles, then east to the Titan missile bases in Arizona and New Mexico, as well as the Strategic Air Command bases in New Mexico and Texas. As early spring arrived, the group would head north to Chicago, then east to Cleveland and southeast to Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C. After one more swing up northeast to Baltimore, Wilmington, Philadelphia, and New York City, they would fly to the UK and proceed on through Europe.
Word spread quickly. Participants were organized into eight “Team” members who would walk the entire route, and various “supporters” who would join temporarily. All participants had to agree to a “Discipline” to maintain safety and order. Specific slogans for signs were decided upon in advance, as well as iconography: notably, the walkers decided to prominently feature the circular nuclear disarmament symbol which had only been invented two years earlier in the UK. (Story of the nuclear disarmament / peace symbol here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/voluntownpeacetrust/permalink/10157689009237978)
As with any such organizing effort, all of this needed money and support. The men were confident that thousands of dollars could be raised at meetings and events after the participants had succeeded and returned home, but they needed funding to start. The proposal that the three men presented to CNVA required a budget of about $54,000 for transportation, food, equipment, communication, salaries and office overhead expenses for support staffers. Among the needed equipment were boots, winter clothes, rain protection, a gas stove, lanterns, pots & pans, groundcloths, first aid / snake bite kits, a flare gun to signal in case of an emergency, and sign frames, much of which would be loaded up in Herrick’s 1955 De Soto station wagon -- the walkers would go on foot, but most of their provisions and gear would be driven for them. All of this would come to be supplemented by “Gifts in kind and hospitality… donated in incalculable amounts” along the walk itself. The peace movement had perennial financial issues, but after Herrick proved his commitment by personally pledging $6000, the CNVA Executive Committee agreed to sponsor the walk in early November.
For the next few weeks, Lyttle, Herrick, Jacobs and supporters worked furiously to organize enough to make the December 1 start date. Funds were raised via appeals to the CNVA mailing list, at rallies, and in private conversations. The average contribution was $8; the highest was Herrick’s $6000. At some point, Hilary Harris Films, Inc. decided to accompany the walkers with cameras and their own equipment in a Volkswagen minibus -- they had already shot footage that would become Polaris Action, and the footage they would get on the San Francisco to Moscow Walk for Peace would make up the 1962 documentary The Walk. Word continued to spread, and the organizers continued to reach out to other peace organizations and sympathizers along the planned route for assistance in the walk. As a result, volunteers continued to sign up to help secure donations as well as churches and private residences for the walkers to stay the night. The American Friends Service Committee and Acts for Peace in Berkeley, in particular, helped to organize support for the walkers. Bob Pickus, director of Acts for Peace in Berkeley, organized a send-off including a press conference for the participants, which by his own estimation was the best press conference about pacifism in Berkeley ever up to that point. On December 1, the eight Team participants set off from San Francisco, determined to walk to Moscow.
Renowned pacifist A.J. Muste wrote two pieces to promote the project. Here is the first, “The Walk’s Meaning,” in its entirety:
Readers will, we think, readily see the symbolism involved in this project. That people are stirred by seeing pacifists who walk for peace has often been proved in this country and abroad. This is a walk across two continents. The message of unilateral disarmament will, by means of this walk across the US and Europe, reach great multitudes, suggesting that peace recognizes no national boundaries; the call for unilateral disarmament goes out to all people. If by next spring, as is very likely, a serious effort to supply NATO with Polaris missiles is under way, West European pacifists will certainly welcome support from US pacifists who have practiced direct action and civil disobedience here, and our walk will be coordinated with their efforts. In particular, we who have, through many projects over a number of years, called for unilateral action by the US, now show that we are prepared to exert every effort to bring that message also to the government and people of the Soviet Union.
“Anti-war activists march to Moscow for peace, 1960-1961.” Global Nonviolent Action Database. https://nvdatabase.swarthmore.edu/content/anti-war-activists-march-moscow-peace-1960-1961
Lyttle, Bradford. You Come with Naked Hands: The Story of the San Francisco to Moscow Walk for Peace. Greenleaf Books, Raymond, New Hampshire: 1966.
“Pacifists Picket Atomic Submarines in a Rowboat.” The New York Times. August 26, 1960. https://www.nytimes.com/1960/08/26/archives/pacifists-picket-atomic-submarines-in-a-rowboat.html (pdf version available upon request)
Polaris Action. Hilary Harris Films, Inc. 1960. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3WjEXGm5hx4
“Timeline of a Life of Activism.” Ralph DiGia Fund for Peace & Justice. http://www.ralphdigiafund.org/life-work-of-ralph-digia/timeline/