Sam Day: A Life Moved by a Conviction for Peace

from the Minneapolis Star Tribune
February 6 2001
an editorial

Sam Day's politics were not everyone's cup of tea. He was way out there on the left edge, asking hard questions. Questions such as: Why was Iraq's nuclear research program destroyed but Israel gets to keep its actual nuclear arsenal, no questions asked? Why is Mordechai Vanunu still languishing in an Israeli prison when all he did was confirm the existence of that arsenal?

That's the kind of guy Sam Day was, not one to paper over inconvenient truths, especially where nuclear weapons were concerned. Day died Jan. 26 in Madison, Wis. He was 74. His passing requires notation.

Sam Day's 15 minutes of fame, unsought, came in 1979, when he was managing editor of the Progressive, a magazine based in Madison that deals with peace issues and social justice. Day set out to publish a piece by free-lancer Howard Morland, "The H-bomb secret: How we got it, why we're telling it." The article contained diagrams and explanations on how a nuclear weapon was built -- all gleaned from published sources, which was the point.

That alarmed Washington, and President Jimmy Carter authorized the Energy and Justice departments to ask the magazine to kill the story. The magazine refused, and the government sought a restraining order prohibiting publication. The government argued that the article would do "grave, direct, immediate and irreparable harm" to the country's security.

Incredibly, a federal judge did issue the order, one of the few instances of prior restraint against a newspaper or magazine in American history. Coming so soon after the U.S. Supreme Court sided with the press in the Pentagon Papers case, the order seemed destined for a short life.

It was. Day and the Progressive fought the issue out and won in appeals court. The article appeared six months after its publication initially had been scheduled. The victory was a huge one for the magazine and for the First Amendment. No apparent damage was done to American security.

Before coming to the Progressive, Day had served as managing editor of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists and as a reporter and editor at the Intermountain Observer in Boise, Idaho. Day and a scrappy, small group of crusading journalists kept the feisty Observer going for more than a decade, quite a feat in conservative Idaho.

After his days at the Progressive, Day got involved as an antinuclear activist. Over two decades, he participated in scores of protests and spent numerous periods in prison. During one prison stay, he suffered a stroke and was left blind.

But that did not stop Day. He continued to write and speak about subjects related to international peace. Until his death, he remained the coordinator of the movement to get Mordechai Vanunu released from his Israeli prison. He failed at that, but not for lack of trying.

If fame, fortune or ensured success were what moved him, Day would not have gotten involved in the peace movement. But he was moved instead by conviction. Some share that conviction, some don't. All, however, can honor and respect a man who so clearly heard the call of his heart and answered it as well and as long as Sam Day did.

© Copyright 2001 Star Tribune