The Voyage of the Golden Rule

The “Golden Rule,” the legendary 30-foot ketch that once terrified U.S. government officials, will return to the seas again this coming summer.

The glory days of the “Golden Rule” occurred in 1958, when the atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons sent huge clouds of radioactive nuclear fallout aloft and, later, raining down on people around the world. As popular revolt grew against this toxic practice, as well as against the preparations of the Cold War antagonists for nuclear war, a small group of pacifists, led by Albert Bigelow, a retired U.S. Navy captain, decided that the time had come for action. In January of that year, they wrote to President Dwight Eisenhower, telling him that they intended to sail the “Golden Rule” into the U.S. government’s unilaterally-declared nuclear testing zone in the Pacific.

Appalled, top U.S. government officials immediately began conferring on how to prevent what they feared would be a public relations disaster for the U.S. nuclear weapons program. When Bigelow and his crew — ignoring a special Atomic Energy Commission regulation, as well as a subsequent U.S. court injunction — sailed off across the Pacific for the test zone on board the “Golden Rule,” they were arrested, tried, convicted, and placed on probation. Not easily deterred, the intrepid pacifists set sail once again, this time undergoing arrest, trial, conviction, and imprisonment.

These well-publicized events helped tip the balance against nuclear testing. Inspired by the voyage of the “Golden Rule,” an American anthropologist, Earle Reynolds, and his family promptly sailed their own yacht, the “Phoenix,” into the testing zone. Antinuclear demonstrations sprang up around the country and debate over the issue reached new heights. Later that year, the beleaguered U.S. government agreed to a nuclear testing moratorium. In 1963, still reeling from popular protests, it signed the Partial Test Ban Treaty, banning nuclear tests in the atmosphere. Although nuclear testing continued underwater and underground, it was challenged in a similar fashion by a new organization, Greenpeace. Indeed, Greenpeace’s “Rainbow Warrior” was a lineal descendant of the “Golden Rule.”

Yet, despite its importance as a symbol of resistance to the nuclear arms race, the “Golden Rule” passed into other hands and dropped out of sight over the following decades. By early 2010, it was, quite literally, a wreck, having been battered and sunk off Eureka, in Northern California. Leroy Zerlang, the owner of a local shipyard, raised the “Golden Rule” from its watery grave, but without much hope for its future. “We thought she was a goner,” he recalled. “Nobody knew what to do with her. . . . We were going to cut her up.”

But it turned out that the remarkable voyage of the “Golden Rule” had not ended, after all. Zerlang knew enough about the ship’s history to contact the Swarthmore College Peace Collection about the possibility of its being preserved, perhaps in a museum. The curator of the collection, Dr. Wendy Chmielewski, brought the issue of the ship to the attention of members of the Peace History Society and subscribers to H-Peace (an online listserv), leading this writer and others to put together articles about its significance.

These articles, in turn, began to stir up some interest in preserving the “Golden Rule.” Although the Smithsonian Institution failed to respond to a letter-writing campaign suggesting that it provide a permanent home for the boat, two Northern California chapters of Veterans for Peace — in Garberville and Humboldt Bay — found the idea of preserving the vessel more compelling and voted to establish the Golden Rule Project. They would “repair, restore, and renovate” the boat and employ it to “once again carry on the struggle against nuclear weapons and all warfare.” Meanwhile, Zerlang offered space in his shipyard for the repairs, and promised to serve as a consultant.

The coordinator of the Golden Rule Project is Fredy Champagne, a U.S. Army veteran who served in the 1st Infantry Division during the Vietnam War. In late November, he reported that Veterans for Peace volunteers from San Francisco to Eureka were working together on the ketch’s restoration. They had managed to salvage the old sails, masts, brass, and some other gear, and reconstruction plans called for a new deck, cabin, and interior. The estimated costs are $50,000 and, though some of this money has been raised, further fundraising is necessary. If all goes well, Champagne expects the “Golden Rule” to be seaworthy once more by July 2011. After that, he predicted, “the boat will sail again, operating along the West Coast as a reminder to all of the mission of Veterans for Peace.”

And so it appears that the “Golden Rule” will resume the long journey it began more than half a century ago. Rebuilt by U.S. military veterans, it will (in the words of the project brochure), “renew Bigelow’s and Veterans for Peace’s mission — to abolish war and promote peaceful diplomacy.”

More information about the Golden Rule Project can be obtained on its web site (http://www.heritech.com/goldenrule), by contacting Fredy Champagne at fchampagne@asis.com, or by writing to Veterans for Peace, P.O. Box 5097, Eureka, CA 95502-5097.

Dr. Lawrence S. Wittner is Professor of History at the State University of New York/Albany. His latest book is Confronting the Bomb: A Short History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement (Stanford University Press).




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Dr. Lawrence Wittner is Professor of History emeritus at SUNY/Albany and the author of Confronting the Bomb (Stanford University Press.)

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