For this week’s Peace of History:
On next Tuesday, June 16, we will celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Polaris Action that brought the Committee for Nonviolent Action (CNVA) and a tradition of nonviolent direct action to southeastern Connecticut. As many groups around the country today are currently attempting to affect positive change in their local communities (some for the first time), let us review the CNVA’s remarkable flurry of activity that summer in New London and Groton, and how it permanently affected our region, if not the greater national and global peace movement.
First, what was Polaris Action? After months of preparation, organizing and promotion, the CNVA launched a nonstop summer-long campaign to “educate Americans to the realities and dangers of the nuclear deterrent policy typified by the Polaris submarines and their deadly cargoes of nuclear missiles,” which were being built at General Dynamics/Electric Boat in Groton. These were the very first nuclear-armed submarines ever built -- each one a genocidal weapon built for a cold war in which people of color were the most common victims. The United States had already used nuclear weapons twice on the Japanese -- a people widely considered in the United States as an “inferior race.” This fact was not lost on people of color in the United States, and Polaris Action was a multiracial effort -- indeed, legendary African-American civil rights strategist Bayard Rustin was a CNVA leader.
Headquartered on Bank Street in New London (where the city later put up a parking lot), Polaris Action members would often meet down the street at what is now the Hygienic Art Gallery. CNVA supported and organized hundreds of visitors as well as local residents as they held a wide variety of activities: daily vigils and marches, weekly documentary movie screenings and other educational events, handing out leaflets to Electric Boat workers day and night -- even when the leafletters were met with aggression and accusations of Russian influence. The CNVA helped visiting participants find housing and meals, and assisted individuals who may have found trouble with aggressive locals. A whole coalition of groups were invited: one of these groups, the Peacemakers, co-sponsored trainings on nonviolent civil disobedience and protesting to people who had never experienced them. A few especially daring activists chased submarines on little sailboats, attempting to and ultimately succeeding in boarding the massive death machines -- making international news. And yet despite the whirlwind of activity, Polaris Action members also knew the value of social recreation: one time, they participated in a local dance at Connecticut College for Women.
The CNVA won publicity by reaching out to high profile individuals, groups, and publications not just in Connecticut, but in the surrounding states as well (The New York Times and others ran multiple stories, as did our local Bulletin and The Day). The CNVA published and distributed its own weekly newsletter, Polaris Action Bulletin, that communicated the upcoming plans and summarized the main events of the last week. This newsletter would continue to publish long after the summer of 1960 ended, keeping all those participants connected even as many of them returned home to distant places across the country, and bringing on many additional readers as it eventually became the Direct Action Bulletin.
One summer of passionate protesting, leafleting, training, educating, and generally cross-pollinating ideas and people inspired movements across the country -- and continued to have lasting effects into the decade and beyond. Remember, Polaris Action happened in 1960 -- before U.S. involvement in Vietnam, before the Beatles or “hippies,” before even the Cuban Missile Crisis. As we watch in awe today at Minneapolis, Seattle, and other cities where feats unthinkable a month ago are now manifesting and spreading -- let us remember that only 60 years ago, that incredible place where the impossible became possible was right here in New London.
To learn more about Polaris Action, please visit our Peace of History from 10/31/2019.