It was 21 years ago today I awoke in the middle of the night, got my co-actor up, then roused the others and we all got into two vehicles, drove to a deserted part of the Chequamegon National Forest in the boreal forest of northern Wisconsin, and unloaded our tools, statements, and general gear. My father, in his 70s then, hugged me goodbye and drove off on slushy roads. It was still pre-dawn. We were operating by moonlight.
We had come to a place where the gravel road passed under an antenna that carried command signals to all U.S. thermonuclear submarines, as well as fast attack and hunter killer submarines, and this command facility, for a number of technical reasons, had one and only one mission, to issue the command to launch a pre-emptive nuclear war.
So we hiked in about a quarter mile to where we had done our reconnaissance and hung signs, sprayed painted the wooden poles on which the antenna was strung (one pole every few hundred feet), and, with swede saws, notched three poles. By then the media arrived, including a reporter from the Progressive magazine, a tribal station radio reporter, and a reporter from Wisconsin Public radio, along with a television crew from a Duluth, Minnesota station (the only ones I didn’t know nor invite, but the WPR man did).
I had sent media packets to everyone beforehand, explaining our action and the difference between what we were doing to prevent bombing and the property destruction we sometimes see, unfortunately, in mass actions (broken windows, vandalized mailboxes, etc.). We were the 58th Plowshare action, a tradition begun by Phil and Dan Berrigan and others by “hammering swords into a plowshares” (Isaiah 2:4).
We administered the coup d’grace and three poles, all about 40 feet tall with the antenna strung between them, crashed to the Earth. Happy Earth Day. We knew we had shut if down; I took my metal saw and tossed it to hit the antenna to make sure the 125 million watts weren’t still running through it, and sure enough, we had shut it down. We chatted with the media folks and waited for the sheriff. The Navy crew showed up and the first one out of the snow machine said to me, “You’re going to prison for this.” I said, “Yup. It’s worth it.”
We did. We had a very interesting trial with a world-class defense, and we were acquitted of sabotage but convicted of destruction of property, three-year sentences. We each served about a year, and then released wearing electronic ankle bracelets. That’s when I applied to teach peace at a local college (I had been doing so before our Earth Day action through the U of Wisconsin) and was hired. I taught there until coming to Portland.
So that’s my Happy Earth Day story. We stopped any first strike nuclear war, even if only for a few days until they could repair it. But we kept fighting it, alongside the Lake Superior Ojibwe, and we eventually succeeded. It is now shut down, dismantled, removed, and the forest has been coming back since then, since 2004.
Earth Day was our way to use robust nonviolence to participate in democracy that day. Dr. King said the purpose of direct action is to get to the negotiating table. We did.
Dr. Tom H. Hastings is PeaceVoice Director.