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The Golden Rule and Phoenix voyages in protest of U.S. nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands, 1958
Shortly after World War II, the United States began nuclear testing, mainly in Nevada. In September 1957, the United States announced its plan to conduct atomic testing in the Marshall Islands, starting April 5, 1958. In response to the adverse effects of the Nevada nuclear tests, the Committee for Nonviolent Action (CNVA) launched a protest to stop the United States from nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands, first by petitioning and then sailing to the test site in protest.
CNVA aimed to apply Gandhi’s principles of nonviolence. Its first action was on December 31, 1957, when Albert Bigelow presented 17,500 petitions against the nuclear testing to the president. An ally of the CNVA, the American Friends Service Committee sponsored and contributed 10,000 of these petitions and defended this action as an exercise of their right to the first amendment.
Subsequently, Bigelow and the CNVA sent a letter to President Dwight D. Eisenhower on January 8, 1958, asking him to stop the scheduled tests in the Marshall Islands. They proposed that the President announce this decision in his State of the Union address. Bigelow gave the president an ultimatum: if he stopped the plans for the nuclear tests, CNVA would not attempt to sail into the nuclear test zone. The President did not respond.
Bigelow was a World War II veteran (he had commanded a U.S. warship in the Pacific), who became a pacifist after the war. CNVA chose him to be the captain for the sailing ship, and recruited crew members George Willoughby, William R. Huntington, Orion Sherwood, and James Peck. The project was coordinated by Lawrence Scott. CNVA bought a ketch, a sailboat with two masts, which they named The Golden Rule.
The five men planned to sail openly into the atomic test site at the Marshall Islands to protest the testing, which Bigelow considered to be a case of “considerate disobedience”. CNVA deliberately publicized the voyage in order to get other people to support the issue. They set sail in early March from California to Hawaii.
On April 11, in anticipation of the protest, the Atomic Energy Commission issued a ban against sailing into the Eniwetok Proving Grounds where they would be operating the tests. This hasty ruling was put into effect when The Golden Rule was en route to Honolulu. On May 1, 1958 The Golden Rule set sail from Honolulu towards the Marshall Islands despite the court injunction against them. The US Coast Guard arrested Bigelow and his crew only five nautical miles from Honolulu and brought them back to the port.
The Golden Rule attempted another trip on June 4 to the Eniwetok Proving Grounds in the Marshall Islands, but they were arrested again and the court sentenced Bigelow and the crew to sixty days in jail.
The interrupted voyage and statements of the crew inspired Earle and Barbara Reynolds, a U.S. couple who were in Honolulu at the time of the court proceedings. Earle Reynolds was an anthropologist who studied the effects of the Hiroshima bombing on Japanese society. Speaking with Bigelow inspired him and his wife to take a second ketch, The Phoenix of Hiroshima, and continue on The Golden Rule’s route. In early July, The Phoenix of Hiroshima sailed successfully to the testing area at the Proving Grounds, but the Coast Guard promptly arrested them. The court sentenced Earle and Barbara Reynolds to a nine-week jail time for sailing to the nuclear test site in the Marshall Islands.
Although the Golden Rule and Phoenix protests did not stop the nuclear testing, the publicity of the events gained international support. In London, Montreal, and many U.S. cities, groups of sympathizers formed picket lines in support of the Golden Rule and Phoenix protests. In San Francisco, over 400 people sought arrest by petitioning the District Attorney’s office to arrest them because they supported the Golden Rule crew. The Golden Rule protest and work by CNVA heavily influenced Marie Bohlen to start the Vancouver-based Don’t Make a Wave Committee, which would later become Greenpeace.