Farewell, Rainbow Warrior

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Jim Bohlen died on Monday. It was the day after his 84th birthday.

The news probably passed you by. In all likelihood, you have no idea who Jim Bohlen was, never realized he existed. But you have certainly heard of the organization he helped create, although chances are the inspiration behind it may be a surprise.

An engineer by training, Bohlen was a Quaker by belief; by the mid-1960s, with the Vietnam War building, his profession and his pacifism came into inevitable conflict when, he wrote in his autobiography, his company was tasked to develop an anti-personnel shoulder-fired rocket:

The warhead was made of small bits of razor blades calculated to make wounds difficult, if not impossible, to treat [...] were ordered to put work on hold and form a team to develop the rocket launcher. I refused. The writing was on the wall. In 1965, I quit.

Two years later, Jim and his family emigrated to Vancouver, British Columbia; as they had done in the United States, they took part in numerous anti-war demonstrations. It was at one of those demonstrations

that the Bohlens met a pair of fellow Quakers, Irving and Dorothy Stowe. It was Irving Stowe who was the first to hear, and become outraged about, news that the United States military was testing nuclear weapons on the remote island of Amchitka in the Aleutian Island chain. In particular, he was outraged by reports that the island's sea otters were washing up dead on the shore, their eardrums destroyed by the blasts.

He, Bohlen and a young lawyer called Paul Cote formed an organization to stop the tests – which, in reference to fears that one could generate a tsunami large enough to crash against the west coast, they dubbed the Don't Make a Wave Committee.

But how exactly would they stop the tests? The answer was to be found in the Quaker tradition of "bearing witness:" protesting an event by being there to observe and thus draw attention to it. In 1952, Quakers had sailed a boat, the Golden Rule, toward Eniwetok Atoll to bear witness to planned nuclear tests there; Marie Bohlen proposed they do the same.

Then one day in February 1970 (the 8th), as Marie and I sat over our second cup of coffee, me pouring out my frustrations over the campaign, Marie looked at me and said, matter-of-fact, "Why not sail a boat up there and confront the bomb?" A wild idea! [...] As we were discussing how we might conduct a protest voyage to Amchitka, the phone rang. It was a reporter from the Vancouver Sun checking up on various [...] campaigns. Before I knew it, I was laying out plans to go to Amchitka in a boat — to confront the Bomb!

The following morning, the newspaper had reported the Bohlen brainwave as a done deal – which, needless to say, prompted a meeting of the Don't Make a Wave Committee. Despite the unilateral nature of the announcement, the group thoroughly endorsed the idea, although how they would make it happen was another matter entirely. As the meeting broke up, Stowe looked at its youngest member, Bill Darnell, and flashed two fingers.

"Peace," he said.

"Make it a green peace," replied Darnell.

The Don't Make a Wave Committee suddenly had a flashy new name.

Incredibly, the two middle-aged Quakers and their associates were able to organize a fundraising concert, headlined by James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, and Phil Ochs. They found a vessel, a converted halibut seiner called the Phyllis Cormack, and on September 15, 1971, set sail on the first ever Greenpeace voyage.

A combination of inclement conditions and the attentions of the United States Coast Guard prevented them from reaching their goal, but the attempt alone generated enough attention and controversy that the US abandoned its testing program on Amchitka.

A tactic had been developed, a strategy for a new movement had been born, one that would be repeated in opposition to French nuclear tests in the Pacific and Icelandic whaling in the Atlantic, and even extended to the construction of a base camp on Antarctica.

It took 36 years, but eventually Greenpeace did reach Amchitka, now once more established as a nature reserve. Jim was too frail to join us on that voyage, and Irving Stowe had long since passed away; but Irving's daughter Barbara was with us as we hiked our way across the unforgiving terrain to the site of the final test, where a lake marks the location of the bomb crater. On a piece of driftwood, one of the crew carved the names of the first vessel and our own — Phyllis Cormack 1971, Esperanza 2007 — and staked it into the ground on the shore. Presumably it still stands, bearing witness to a journey that Jim Bohlen helped inspire and an organization, even a movement, he helped build.

 

Top Image: Location of Amchitka (Wikimedia Commons)

Middle: Jim Bohlen (seated) and others wearing the first Greenpeace T-shirts, 1971. (courtesy Barbara Stowe)

Bottom: Jim and Marie Bohlen at a Greenpeace reunion, 1990s (courtesy Barbara Stowe).