About 63 years ago, the small sailing vessel the Golden Rule became the first civilian ship to ever attempt to disrupt a nuclear weapons test. From July 1946 to August 1958, the United States detonated 23 of its largest nuclear weapons at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands, directly killing at least one person through radioactive fallout, irradiating the ecology of the atoll to fatal levels, and directly causing the world’s first nuclear diaspora (read our post on it here: https://www.facebook.com/VoluntownPeaceTrust/posts/1959579410859051). By 1958, calls for a ban on atmospheric and other nuclear weapons testing had been ringing out for years worldwide, but no one had yet attempted to actually stop the largest of these tests with direct action. Part of the challenge was that Bikini Atoll and the rest of the US Pacific Proving Grounds were in the middle of the largest ocean on Earth. But by the late 1950s, a new generation of activist groups, including the Committee for Nonviolent Action (CNVA) began experimenting with novel forms of civil disobedience to protest unjust government policies. On June 4, 1958, the four-person crew of the CNVA-sponsored ketch the Golden Rule attempted such an experiment: by risking their lives to sail into the middle of the Pacific Ocean, into the middle of an active nuclear weapons testing site, to try to halt their own government’s belligerently provocative testing of these weapons of mass destruction.
The planned Pacific voyage was not the first nuclear protest the CNVA had organized. On August 6, 1957, the twelfth anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, about 35 people gathered outside of the gates of the Nevada Proving Grounds and held a group prayer, a conscience vigil, and an act of civil disobedience by crossing the line into the restricted zone. Among those arrested in the action was Marj Swann, cofounder of the Voluntown Peace Trust, as well as Albert Bigelow, a former lieutenant commander in the US Navy. The story of Swann’s involvement, and the sexist chastising she experienced from the judge of her case, inspired an article in the popular women’s magazine Redbook titled “You Are a Bad Mother.” Bigelow had resigned from his position in the US Navy soon after learning of the US atomic bombing of Hiroshima, just one month from eligibility for his pension, and in the years after the Second World War, Bigelow joined the Quakers and became a pacifist. Within the next few months, Marj Swann, Albert Bigelow, and others came to form the Committee for Nonviolent Action, which over the next several years became known for several of their dramatic actions in resistance to nuclear arms.
When the announcement for another round of nuclear weapons tests at Bikini Atoll came in September, just a month after the action in Nevada, the newly formed Committee for Nonviolent Action (CNVA) and National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (SANE), as well as the Religious Society of Friends began a protest campaign to halt them. Albert Bigelow joined the effort, ultimately delivering a petition of 17,500 names against nuclear weapons testing to the office of President Eisenhower. Because no one actually wanted a nuclear war, and President Eisenhower himself had called for “a giant step toward peace,” the petition argued to cancel all planned tests, to allocate those funds to the Special United Nations Fund for Economic Development (SUNFED), and to challenge the Soviet Union to do the same. But when the petition disappointingly received no response from the White House, the CNVA began planning a new action the government could not ignore: to sail a ketch into the test site and disrupt it themselves. After some hesitation, due to his nautical experience, Albert Bigelow was convinced to captain the little boat. They named the Golden Rule for the principle they requested their government apply to its nuclear arms program and spent the first few months of 1958 in preparation for the voyage.
Around the same time across the Atlantic, the British Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament held their first public meeting in London. There, artist Gerald Holtom presented a circular symbol with a vertical line through the center and two diagonal lines falling at 45° from the center, meant to be a stylized combination of the semaphore signs for N and D: nuclear disarmament. The symbol originally debuted to the world at the first Aldermaston March for nuclear disarmament on Easter 1958. The American antiwar and civil rights organizer Bayard Rustin participated in the march and, when he returned home, shared the new symbol with his cohorts in the various US antiwar and racial justice groups. At some point, it was introduced to the crew of the Golden Rule, who eventually got a flag with the ND symbol to fly from their mast, spreading the symbol even further.
In March 1958, Skipper Albert Bigelow, First-Mate William R. Huntington, and Crewmembers George Willoughby and Orion Sherwood set sail from San Pedro, CA to Honolulu. As the CNVA informed President Eisenhower of their plan beforehand, the US Atomic Energy Commission issued an injunction against all Americans sailing into the testing zone while the Golden Rule was en route to Honolulu. The little ketch successfully sailed across the open ocean, but by the time they arrived in Hawai’i, the US Coast Guard was waiting for them. On May 1, the Golden Rule set sail from Honolulu towards the Marshall Islands, but was stopped just five nautical miles from shore. The US Coast Guard arrested the four men and tugged the boat back to port, but released them quietly, hoping not to add to the significant publicity the endeavor had already generated. Just over a month later, on June 4, the crew tried once more. They were again stopped and arrested, this time receiving a 60-day jail sentence.
After their stint in jail, the crew returned to the mainland and continued in the peace and civil rights movements for some years. And although the crew of the Golden Rule was unable to complete the action that they had set out to accomplish, they inspired another crew to do it in their stead. Within a month of the Golden Rule crew’s sentencing, the Phoenix of Hiroshima successfully sailed into the testing zone near the Marshall Islands. The combined public exposure of the Golden Rule’s dramatic saga and the successful, surprise conclusion of the project by the Phoenix of Hiroshima inspired a new wave of global calls to limit nuclear weapons testing. Five years later, the United States and the Soviet Union signed the 1963 Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, banning all atmospheric, underwater, and outer space tests of nuclear weapons. But the Golden Rule and the Phoenix of Hiroshima did not just try to sail into restricted waters and kickstart the antinuclear movement: they invented a whole new method of protest. Within a couple years of the voyage, many others would copy and expound upon the idea of protest sea vessels such that by 1960, peace activist Scott Herrick would be sailing his sloop Satyagraha up and down the Thames River in Connecticut to protest the construction of the world’s first nuclear-armed submarines at General Dynamics - Electric Boat near the mouth of the river: the words “End the Arms Race” in big letters on one of its sails and the ND “peace” symbol on another. In the late 1960s, activists in Vancouver, British Columbia organizing against underground nuclear weapons testing at Amchitka, Alaska decided to try their own version of the 1958 project. Starting in 1971, the group that would become known as Greenpeace began to attempt disruptions to the tests using civilian sea vessels, successfully forcing the United States government to cancel the rest of the tests after the government received immense criticism from the first. Today, Greenpeace is far from the only organization using protest vessels to take action and spread a message. But in 2015, members of the organization Veterans for Peace completed the restoration of a particularly special protest ship: the original Golden Rule. Today, Veterans for Peace operates the vessel to “advance… opposition to nuclear weapons and war, and to do so in a dramatic fashion.”
We commit a significant amount of research and writing to produce A Peace of History each week. If you like our weekly posts, please consider supporting this project with a one-time or recurring donation. Your gift will be used to continue producing more A Peace of History posts as well as the greater mission of VPT. You may type in however much you would like to give; contributions of all sizes are appreciated. Click this link to learn more about what we do and how you can donate: https://www.mightycause.com/organization/Voluntown-Peace-Trust
“1958–1961: Nuclear Protests.” Phoenix of Hiroshima Project. (Accessed 2 June 2021). https://phoenixofhiroshima.wordpress.com/our-history/pleasure-yacht/
Bigelow, Albert. The Voyage of the Golden Rule: An Experiment with Truth. Doubleday, 1959.
“Friends Journal 1958 coverage of the Golden Rule.” Friends Journal. 31 July 2013 (accessed 2 June 2021). https://www.friendsjournal.org/golden-rule-1958/
“The Golden Rule and Phoenix voyages in protest of U.S. nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands, 1958.” Global Nonviolent Action Database. (Accessed 2 June 2021). https://nvdatabase.swarthmore.edu/content/golden-rule-and-phoenix-voyages-protest-us-nuclear-testing-marshall-islands-1958
“History.” VFP Golden Rule Project. (Accessed 2 June 2021). https://www.vfpgoldenruleproject.org/history/
Little, Jane Braxton. “Restored Anti-Nuke Sailboat Launches Again on a Peace Mission.” National Geographic. 19 June 2015 (accessed 2 June 2021). https://www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/article/150619-golden-rule-ketch-restoration-nuclear-weapons?loggedin=true
Miles, Barry. Peace: 50 Years of Protest. Essential Works Limited, 2008.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.