How a crew of peace activists challenged the nuclear arms race — and won a major victory

The 1958 voyage of the Golden Rule, an anti-nuclear peace boat, offers important strategic lessons on how to confront an overwhelming evil and win.
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In today’s polarized context, progressive movements need their best strategic thinking. One source for inspiration should be the Golden Rule, a historic sailing ship that’s currently visiting ports along the Eastern U.S.

Organized by Veterans for Peace, this national tour puts the 1958 Golden Rule voyage back in the news. Nearly 65 years ago, the Golden Rule defiantly sailed toward the Pacific Ocean site where U.S. nuclear weapons were being tested, sparking a movement that forced the U.S. government to sign the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.

As a young activist, I got to know and learn from some of the original crew members and organizers. So, it was a delight to set foot on the Golden Rule last week for a sail in the Philadelphia harbor.

While taking in the sights — and reminiscing about the historic 1958 voyage — I couldn’t help but think about the original crew’s brilliant strategy and the useful lessons it offers today’s activists looking to further empower a variety of movements.

The planners of the 1958 voyage were tuned into what was working for the emerging civil rights movement in the Deep South, and that gave them a powerful strategic perspective on the issue they were aiming to impact. After all, the nuclear arms race had similarities to white racism in the South — in that both were systemic, profitable and widely supported within many institutions. While progressive activists felt good saying “End racism” or “Stop the nukes,” rhetoric is no substitute for offering a strategy for change.

While progressive activists often feel good saying “End racism” or “Stop the nukes,” rhetoric is no substitute for offering a strategy for change.

For civil rights, the strategic breakthrough leading to a Southern mass movement came from the choice to focus specifically on something that could be won. Leaders from student sit-ins to Martin Luther King realized the importance of attacking an overwhelming evil at its weakest point. That’s where you stand the best chance of winning — and winning is far more empowering than chronic losing.

In 1955, racism had a major weak point in Montgomery, Alabama’s segregated seating on buses. To mark the chosen battlefield civil rights organizers chose a dramatic tactic: Blacks could refuse to sit in the back of the bus. That tactic initiated a year-long nonviolent campaign that could not be stopped even by arrests and Ku Klux Klan terrorism. The victorious bus boycott led to student lunch counter sit-in campaigns in multiple states — another result of choosing to target one of racism’s weak points.

By organizing such campaigns — rather than one-off protests — the civil rights movement won victory after victory in the most violent and segregated part of the country.

The nuclear arms race’s structure

Similarly, the anti-nuclear strategists who came up with the Golden Rule voyage understood that the nuclear arms race was systemic. Leaders like Lawrence C. Scott knew their only chance of building a movement of sufficient scale to defeat nukes was to start by breaking off a smaller piece. In other words, it was going to require a succession of campaigns — like the Montgomery bus boycott and the student sit-ins — to rouse a mass response and produce confidence-building victories.

Looking for a particularly vulnerable aspect of nuclear weapons, they saw their chance: nuclear testing in the atmosphere, which resulted in grass-fed cows giving radiated milk that produced leukemia in babies. Atmospheric testing was the weak link in the chain that maintained the nuclear arms race, so it was the place to start.

Like civil rights strategists, anti-nuke strategists knew that dramatic tactics would be necessary to energize growing activism. In Montgomery, the arrest of volunteer Rosa Parks, a widely-known and respected woman in the Black community, sparked a large response. For opposing nuclear testing, the dramatic equivalent might be to sail a crew of concerned citizens into the testing area, where deadly radiation waited.

The crew’s display of courage was key. It reached me, a teenager in the 1950s who was scared to join demonstrations in the midst of anti-Communist hysteria. Moved by the bravery of the Golden Rule, I travelled an hour to the federal building in Center City Philadelphia to join a picket line protesting the crew’s arrest. Once there, I was coached by Lillian Willoughby — wife of crew member George Willoughby — who saw the need to bolster my courage.

Mass media slowness as an advantage

We can learn more about movements through direct action by contrasting the Montgomery boycott and the anti-nukes struggle. In Montgomery, organizing had already been done before the direct action because a critical mass of Black people were church-goers or members of other Black organizations. When Rosa Parks was arrested, the word spread overnight, along with the campaign leaders’ urging to boycott the buses.

For anti-nukers, it was a completely different story. The peace media were small, so mass media were needed, even though they are often slower to respond to activist campaigns. George Willoughby later explained to me the advantage of the long sail to the expected point of confrontation: Moving a sailboat a considerable distance in an ocean takes time, which allows the mass media to catch up. In the process, progressives can find each other, then enroll others to build a larger movement against the arms race.

Much like the Montgomery campaign’s decision to have the highly-credible Rosa Parks be the first to face arrest, the choice for the Golden Rule’s captain was also strategic. Albert Bigelow not only had a U.S. Navy background, but he commanded a warship during World War II. When I got to know and work with him years after the Golden Rule voyage, I found Bert to be an excellent speaker whose military background forced many people to listen who otherwise wouldn’t. And that includes Malcolm X, who once debated Bert on the merits of violence and nonviolence on a radio show I helped facilitate.

Another advantage of the strategy deployed by the Golden Rule and the Montgomery bus boycott was that both chose tactics that could be used by others in similar or different ways. When the Golden Rule was stopped by the U.S. government near Hawaii, Earle and Barbara Reynolds used their family’s sailing ship the Phoenix to continue the voyage toward the testing area. A decade later, activists with A Quaker Action Group, or AQAG, in turn used the Phoenix to bring medical aid to Vietnamese civilians suffering from the U.S. Naval blockade of the Vietnamese coast.

Taking its cue from the Golden Rule voyage a decade earlier, the Phoenix’s voyages to Vietnam had the aim of launching a mass movement at a moment when none existed. Where the Golden Rule targeted Americans’ fears of radiation, the Phoenix targeted Americans’ sympathy and compassion for innocent civilians suffering widespread violence.

The drama of the Phoenix voyages, like the Golden Rule, included suspense: What will happen when confronting warships? And the courage of the Phoenix crew, like that of the Golden Rule, made an implicit invitation for movement activists to step up their own level of activity.

Finally, the inherent slow-moving nature of the tactic gave time for the mass media to report, while also incentivizing activist newcomers to find each other — all of which grew the movement.

In these and many other examples of direct action, a straight line can’t be drawn between the action and a win like gaining the atmospheric nuclear test ban treaty. The direct action impact is often to build a movement sufficiently large and powerful enough to force the needed changes.

Putting the opponent in a dilemma

The strategy deployed by the voyage of the Golden Rule — and the civil rights movement before it and the Phoenix after it — builds the kind of power more activists could be using today. It comes from a tactic I call a “dilemma demonstration,” which basically puts the opponent in a lose-lose situation.

The Montgomery city government, for example, was in a dilemma. If it allowed Rosa Parks to continue to sit wherever she pleased, it would have lost its segregated transit policy. At the same time, however, it also lost by arresting her, because it stimulated a widespread resistance movement.

Similarly, if the U.S. government allowed the Golden Rule crew to reach the nuclear testing zone and the crew members developed cancer, the government would have lost. It would publicize the growing medical evidence that the U.S. government was actively spreading cancer among American babies.

These early anti-nuclear activists won by confronting the U.S. Navy with a dilemma: bomb a church, or stop its rebuilding and arrest its nonviolent builders.

In 1958, the U.S. chose the other horn of its dilemma: arresting the gallant crew of the Golden Rule, which of course also benefitted the nuclear test ban movement. The impetus helped the movement grow large and pressure the U.S. government into signing the 1963 treaty banning nuclear weapons tests in the atmosphere.

Dilemma demonstrations have shown their power in a wide range of situations. When Puerto Ricans wanted to stop the U.S. Navy from using the island of Culebra for target practice, they launched a nonviolent direct action campaign in 1970, recruiting AQAG as its stateside ally. Together they decided to re-build a historic chapel on the Culebran beach frequently targeted for bombing and strafing practice.

That choice of tactic confronted the Navy with a dilemma: bomb a church, or stop its rebuilding and arrest its nonviolent builders. Either way, the Navy would look bad and the movement would gain support. The Navy arrested the chapel-builders, resulting in the campaign’s first article in the New York Times.

Within a year, the Navy gave up its training practice in Culebra. Encouraged by the victory, the Puerto Rican movement against U.S. military domination switched its attention to the much larger Navy training installation on Vieques, where the stakes were far higher for the Navy. Vieques had been a U.S. Navy base since World War II and was used by allied navies from as far away as Britain and the Netherlands.

The Puerto Rican movement’s strategy was similar to that of the U.S. civil rights movement in 1955: When there’s a huge problem to be tackled, like racism or U.S. dominance of Puerto Rico, choose a piece of the problem that is more vulnerable. With the encouragement of a dramatic win, a larger goal becomes more feasible.

The Vieques campaign began its direct action phase in 1999. According to the account in the Global Nonviolent Action Database, “protesters acting as human shields were able to stop military maneuvers for a year by scaling fences and traveling by boat to occupy military sites.”

The Vieques campaign quickly grew to mass proportions, joined by the Puerto Rican Roman Catholic Church and the U.S. Council of Churches. By 2001, military training operations ceased, and the land was given to the Department of Interior for building a wildlife refuge.

We’re lucky that Veterans for Peace rebuilt — and is sailing — the Golden Rule once again. It gives all of us activists inspiration and the opportunity to think more about how to use direct action for building our movements.

This story was originally published by Waging Nonviolence, a nonprofit news organization shining a light on those who are organizing for just and peaceful solutions.

George Lakey is an activist sociologist who recently retired as a professor at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. His books include Viking Economics, Toward a Living Revolution and How We Win: A Guide to Nonviolent Direct Action Campaigning.