The First Boat to Protest Nuclear Weapons Is Back!!
The first boat to protest nuclear weapons is back to inspire a new generation
65 years ago, the Golden Rule ignited protests that led to a partial ban on nuclear weapons testing. Now it’s back to fight for nothing short of abolition.
Arnie Alpert for Waging Nonviolence May 1, 2023
Fredy Champagne has been a peace activist ever since he returned from combat in Vietnam. He’s been kicked out of college, where he was accused of starting a riot. He’s opened health clinics in Vietnam. He’s delivered school buses to Cuba. But in 2010, he received a call that opened his eyes to a story of resistance he had never heard before.
The call was from one of Champagne’s fellow members of Veterans for Peace, or VFP, asking him to go check out a boat that had been hauled out of the water in Humboldt Bay, California — only an hour’s drive north from his home in Garberville, where he was serving as the president of the local VFP chapter.
The boat — named the Golden Rule — wasn’t much to look at. It was far from seaworthy, and those who had already looked it over thought it was better suited for firewood than seafaring. “A lot of the side planking was gone,” Champagne said. “There was absolutely no interior. It was all rotten. And there was no steering mechanism, no mast, no motor, no nothing.”
But there was more to this broken-down old ship than what the eye could see. This vessel was a piece of history — having once played a consequential role in making the world safe from above-ground nuclear weapons testing. In 1958, the Golden Rule’s former owners, a group of peace activists, tried to sail it into the American nuclear weapons testing zone in the Pacific as a form of protest. While the authorities cut their voyage short, the Golden Rule still managed to spark an upsurge of opposition to nuclear testing, leading five years later to the adoption of the Partial Test Ban Treaty.
When Champagne learned this history, he was shook. “I was standing there. It was real quiet at the shipyard… And I felt the boat was talking to me. I felt the boat’s spirit. And you know what it said? I sensed that the boat was telling me, ‘Get off your ass and do something.’”
So, do something he did. Champagne set about restoring the boat along with a small team of several other VFP members. Five years later, the Golden Rule was sailing down the West Coast to the 2015 VFP National Convention in San Diego.
Now, in the midst of its Great Loop Tour circling the entirety of the eastern United States, the 21st century Golden Rule aims to be more than a history lesson. Veterans for Peace and the project’s many supporters are working for nothing less than igniting a new movement to abolish nuclear weapons altogether.