Commitment to Nuclear Truthtelling

Editor's note: The author, former managing editor of The Progressive, began working with Nukewatch in the spring of 1981 after leaving the magazine to become more directly involved as a political activist. After almost two decades he remains a director of Nukewatch while spending most of his time as coordinator of the U.S. Campaign to Free Mordechai Vanunu, an Israeli nuclear technician serving an 18-year prison term for blowing the whistle on Israel's unacknowledged nuclear weapons program.

By Sam Day

It was a muggy summer evening in Madison, Wisconsin. For hours the storm clouds had been building over the cavernous University of Wisconsin stock pavilion, where hundreds had gathered to support The Progressive magazine, locked in an historic First Amendment struggle with the Federal government.

One by one the speakers sounded their approval of the magazine's challenge of secrecy in the government's nuclear weapons program-a challenge that had landed it in Federal court and saddled it with an injunction banning publication of an article entitled, "The H-Bomb Secret - How We Got It; Why We're Telling It."

As the heat and humidity intensified, the time arrived for folk singer Pete Seeger to read letters of support from absent dignitaries. First he'd read the message, then he'd identify its author - to appreciative applause from the audience.

It grew hotter and damper in that big barn as Seeger began a letter he had saved until the last. The crowd hung on each word as he read on, citing the dedication and suffering and sacrifices that are sometimes essential in the cause of nuclear truth-telling. Pausing, he concluded: "And that was a message from..."

An ear-splitting thunderclap silenced the speaker's next words, as the storm finally burst with pent-up fury. Seeger raised his hand and looked heavenward. In one motion, the crowd rose to its feet and roared.

The letter, it turned out, was of earthly origin. It came from Robert and Michael Meeropol, the surviving sons of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, whose conviction and execution on spurious espionage charges made them the first victims of the atomic secrecy mystique that still holds society in its thrall.

The din that filled the stock pavilion for a full ten minutes that night marked the first squall of an infant that came to be called Nukewatch. Now a strapping, 21-year-old, the baby came to life on July 13, 1979, at an anti-nuclear rally that its planners, looking for a catchy title, had dubbed "Nuke Watch." True to its name, the organization, with or without blessing from on high, has made a career of keeping watch over nukes.

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Nukewatch emerged that summer as the nickname of The Progressive Foundation, an organization formed earlier in the spring to publicize and raise money for The Progressive's struggle against governmental censorship. After the government gave up its case that fall the organization just kept on going.

At the time there was ample need for a lively, independent group focusing on the growing threat from nuclear weapons and nuclear power. Earlier in the year the partial meltdown of the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor had alerted the world to the dangers of nuclear power. And in 1979, President Jimmy Carter began the nuclear weapons build-up that would soon go ballistic in the Reagan Administration.

Under the early leadership of Bill Christofferson, a talented political writer who had been black-balled by the Wisconsin media for his part in a strike against the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison, Nukewatch struck out boldly against a variety of nuclear excesses.

It challenged the federal government's civil defense programs that called for the evacuation of millions of urban dwellers into the countryside in the event of nuclear war. (With encouragement from Nukewatch, Madison activists ceremoniously "decommissioned" the civil defense shelter in the basement of the city's YMCA.)

It helped organize student groups to investigate nuclear weapons and other military research contracts at universities across the country. (One of the documents uncovered was a University of Wisconsin Dance Department contract with the Air Force to study eye-and-ear coordination for cockpit pilots.)

And, with Nukewatch's help, Wisconsin in 1982 became the first state in the union to endorse a bi-lateral U.S.-Soviet nuclear weapons freeze. The measure carried by a 75 percent margin in a statewide ballot initiative.

Buoyed by the anti-war and anti-nuclear sentiment then sweeping the nation and the world, Nukewatch initiated a national "nuclear free zone" movement. The model for this was an action taken by the "Minutes to Midnight" class at Madison's Malcolm Shabazz alternative high school, which declared itself to be free of nuclear weapons and no longer willing to accept the Pentagon's protection through the threat to use H-bombs against other nations.

By the end of 1993 Christofferson had left Nukewatch for a new career as a political consultant and kingmaker. He managed Ed Garvey's unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate in 1984 and went on to victorious campaigns for Herb Kohl in the Senate, Shirley Abrahamson in the Supreme Court, Paul Soglin for mayor of Madison, John Norquist for Milwaukee mayor, and others. Christofferson is now writing a biography of Gaylord Nelson, the founder of Earth Day, in 1970, who represented Wisconsin in the U.S. Senate until his defeat in the 1980 Reagan landslide.

After Christofferson's departure as Nukewatch director came Cassandra Dixon, who, working with the Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS) in Washington, DC, had joined Nukewatch earlier in a successful campaign to thwart a U.S. Department of Energy effort to build a permanent nuclear waste depository in the woods of northern Wisconsin and Minnesota.

In 1986 Dixon left Nukewatch, eventually to found and manage a hospitality house for spouses of federal prison inmates at Oxford, Wisconsin. The non-profit institution, called Mary House, is still operating under her direction after 11 years. She was succeeded by Bonnie Urfer, who in late 1996 moved the organization to its present home on the Anathoth Community Farm in rural Luck, Wisconsin.

By the mid-1980s Nukewatch had become the focus of peace action in Madison and much of Wisconsin, organizing rallies, conferences, street demonstrations, blockades and sit-ins in opposition to everything from deploying new nuclear weapons, to burying old nuclear waste, to the menace of U.S. imperialism in Central America. In time it would acquire a national focus and a national reputation.

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In 1993, from the door of his house overlooking the railroad tracks at a back entrance to the nuclear submarine base at Bangor, on Puget Sound in western Washington, anti-nuclear activist Jim Douglass noticed a freight train painted a ghostly white. He had never seen anything like it before. Questioning railroad workers, he learned that the train was loaded with nuclear warheads hauled under armed guard more than a thousand miles from the final assembly plant in Texas for installation into the long-range missiles of the Navy's new Trident submarines.

The White Train, as it came to be known, galvanized peace activists in the western states for the next few years. Mobilized by Jim and Shelley Douglass and others at the Ground Zero Center for Nonviolent Action near Bangor, thousands lined the tracks from Amarillo to Puget Sound, calling national attention to the passage of the deadly cargo. The White Train also sparked a parallel campaign by Nukewatch. Through the long hours of a July weekend in 1984, I stood watch at a suburban park-and-ride lot at a crossroads leading to the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons trigger factory near Denver, Colorado.

I was looking for evidence of nuclear weapons traffic. In my hand I held a Department of Energy photograph, furnished by the agency's public relations office, of a highway rig specially designed to haul nuclear warheads and related strategic materials. Near the end of the last day two volunteers from the Denver Catholic Worker community joined me.

"Here she comes," cried Shirley Whiteside, pointing excitedly to an 18-wheel tractor-trailer bearing down on us from the direction of Rocky Flats. Sure enough, the square-looking radio antenna atop the truck cab and other tell-tale features identified the vehicle as a government "safe secure transport" (SST), one of 50-odd armored vehicles that haul 80 percent of the Pentagon's nuclear weapons cargoes in heavily armed unmarked convoys on highways all over the United States.

This was the first of scores of convoys Nukewatch was to spot over the next four years in a campaign to alert the U.S. public to the presence of nuclear weapons in their midst-no farther away than the big rig just ahead on the freeway, no more out-of-place than the 18-wheelers lining up at the next truck stop, no more alarming than the inconspicuous crew, looking like run-of-the-mill knights of the road stopping for coffee and doughnuts at Burger King or McDonalds. We called our campaign the H-Bomb Truck Watch.

From Rocky Flats the truck watch moved to the Pantex nuclear weapons final assembly site in the Texas panhandle, to the Y-12 uranium fabrication factory at Oakridge, Tennessee, and to Kirkland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, New Mexico, hubs in the Energy Department's far-flung nuclear weapons transportation system. With the Benedictine Peace House in Oklahoma City as our communication center, volunteers would stake out the gates of these nuclear weapons facilities, fall in behind the convoys as they emerged, and follow them for hundreds of miles, alerting local newspapers and broadcast stations to the approach of the death-dealing cargoes.

By putting peace activists in touch with nuclear weapons as the convoys rolled past schools and churches and shopping centers of Middle America, the truck watch helped raise the curtain of secrecy which shielded the inner workings of the nuclear weapons complex. It helped transform the nuclear weapons complex from an invisible abstraction to a concrete reality. It equipped and strengthened a network of activists intent upon confronting the system. The truck watch inspired a similar campaign that persists to this day in Britain.

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On a cold night in January 1985, I found myself in conversation with a Missouri state police officer outside a fenced enclosure where demonstrators had gathered to honor four peace activists who were to go on trial the next day for having broken into the facility with a pneumatic jackhammer.

The officer had been sent to the site to keep order. He shrugged when I asked him what had been the purpose of this innocuous looking facility a few yards off busy Interstate Highway 70.

"I don't know for sure," he replied. "They tell me it's an underground anti-aircraft battery to shoot down Russian planes."

The off-hand remark reflected most Missourians' blissful unawareness of the network of underground nuclear-armed ballistic missiles that dot the northwest quadrant of their state. Like the 850 similar launch sites planted in six other states, the 150 missile silos of Missouri, installed decades earlier, had melted into the landscape - out of sight and out of mind. The disarming of Launch Site N5, 30 miles east of Kansas City, two months earlier had shone the first bright light into that darkness.

The dramatic action of the "Silo Pruning Hooks," as the four activists called themselves, and their subsequent prison sentences of up to 18 years, prompted the start of a Nukewatch campaign to shine the light into all the missile silos of Missouri and then into the other five missile silo fields blanketing large areas of North and South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, Nebraska and Colorado.

Through the spring, summer and early fall of 1985, volunteers fanned out through northwest Missouri, searching for the features that identify missile launch sites and launch control centers that look more like utility substations than military installations. By October they had located all but a handful. Nukewatch incorporated its findings into large maps positioning each silo with precise directions for finding it:

"Launch Site A-7:  From the junction of I-70 and County Road T south of Aullville, take the northern frontage road west .6 miles. Missile is on the right."

With red spots denoting each missile silo, the maps dramatized the depth and extent of the missile silo field, making it look like measles had broken out in the "Show Me" state. The maps created a sensation at a rally held that November at Knob Noster State Park, in the heart of the missile field. With maps in hand, scores left the rally that day to spend the night next to underground nuclear warheads a hundred times more powerful than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.

As it was in Missouri, so it was in the other missile silo states. Volunteers located the silos and launch control centers, Nukewatch produced the maps, and activists held rallies to introduce their neighbors to the death-dealing strangers in their midst. Commenting on one such rally, then Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger accused Nukewatch of aiding and abetting the enemy, an ironic commentary on the fact that it was the U.S. public, not the Soviets, that was in the dark about the location of the Pentagon's land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles.

The last of the six missile silo maps made their debut in September, 1987, in Cheyenne, Wyoming, at a gathering which also incorporated a watch for an H-bomb convoy then being tracked north from Texas. It marked a symbolic merger of two major Nukewatch campaigns, both an outgrowth of the organization's commitment to seek, tell, and act on the truth about North America's nuclear weapons.

* * *

The missile silo campaign intensified one aspect of Nukewatch activity that had begun to grow much earlier. In the early 1980s, taking leave of the civil rights movement and earlier social justice causes, our campaigns against nuclear weapons policies sometimes took the form of sit-ins at federal buildings, bank lobbies, university research facilities, and the like. These sometimes led to arrests, trials, and brief jail sentences. The missile silos, guarded only by sensors hooked up to remote Air Force security patrols, invited that sort of civil disobedience.

Map-making led to silo demonstrations, and demonstrations led to unlawful entry, which led to arrests, trials, and much stiffer sentences imposed by federal judges intent on protecting the Pentagon's "nuclear deterrent" and its image of invincibility. Inevitably, Nukewatch became a part of this process of nuclear truth-telling by breaking the law in the name of peace. This culminated on an August morning in 1988. We called it the "Missouri peace planting."

Dressed in a clown suit to bring a note of levity to the occasion, I cut through the lock of Launch Site J-9 near Rich Hill, Missouri, and pushed the gate open for a companion and myself. We were two of 15 peace activists arrested that morning for simultaneous entries at a dozen missile silos in Missouri. The others included Bonnie Urfer, who had become first a staff member, then the director of Nukewatch.

By the time the dust had settled over several federal trials in Kansas City, I was on my way to six months in prison and Bonnie had begun a 19-month term. Nukewatch spent most of 1989 in the care of a faithful fellow-activist, Susan B. Nelson of Brodhead, Wisconsin.

The same year also brought a U.S.-Soviet agreement to begin the reduction of nuclear weapons and the imminent demise of the Soviet Union and the Cold War. By creating the false impression that nuclear weapons were no longer a threat, these developments pulled the plug on much of the peace movement here and abroad. However, convinced that the nuclear arms establishment remained alive and well and still in control of national policy, Nukewatch was determined to stick to its program of nuclear truth telling through nonviolent confrontation.

One of the most visible manifestations of the continuing nuclear arms policy was the Navy's Extremely Low Frequency (ELF) facility in northern Wisconsin, which broadcasts first-strike signals to missile-firing Trident and Fast Attack submarines in the ocean depths. For years the closing of ELF had been a goal of local peace activists. In the 1990s Nukewatch added its weight to their cause.

For a while in the early '90s Bonnie and her sister Linda ran Nukewatch out of their home about 30 miles west of Madison with the help of a longtime associate, John LaForge, who, with his partner, Barb Katt, in 1987-88 had conducted a four-month, 30,000-mile inspection of all 1,100 U.S. missile sites in order to double check their locations for a book, "Nuclear Heartland," published by Nukewatch in 1988.

Then came the move to the Anathoth Community, where LaForge and Katt make their home and where LaForge now serves as Nukewatch co-director. The campaign to shut down ELF, with civil disobedience as a strategic core, became a centerpiece for Nukewatch activity. Since 1991 more than 500 trespass citations have been issued to protesters for crossing into the ELF facility secluded in the Chequamegon National Forest. Collectively, ELF resisters who have conscientiously refused to pay fines have served more than 48 months of jail time. On one occasion, as a result of Nukewatch lobbying, Congress came close to cutting off the funds for ELF.

Today, Nukewatch continues its mission of nuclear truth-telling to a world grown complacent about the continuing threat of nuclear oblivion. The truck watch continues in the form of tracking the trains and trucks that carry deadly nuclear waste from one part of the country to another. The silo campaign resurfaces from time to time in the form of silo vigils in Colorado, North Dakota, and other states, and entries that provoke draconian prison sentences. And the tradition of nonviolent civil disobedience in the cause of peace continues to thrive, nourished by the example of Nukewatch's own leaders and their friends, who do their resistance from behind prison bars.