The Golden Rule sailboat

The Golden Rule sails by her farewell gathering on Magic Island, Honolulu, May 1, 2021.

(Photo: Ann Wright)

The Golden Rule and a Floating Future for Peace

What it looks like to build a movement of ordinary people... creating a sane future, one human being at a time.

It’s 10 p.m. at Montrose Harbor in Chicago. Kiko and Tamar help me step from the dock into the wobbly rowboat. Kiko rows us out to the Golden Rule and I climb aboard in wonder. Oh my God! This is it—the 30-foot, anti-nuke sailboat with a history going back almost seven decades . . . back to the era of atmospheric nuclear testing and the Cold War at its simmering height.

The Golden Rule: “Floating for sanity in an insane world.”

Well, somebody’s got to do it! The United Nations has tried. In 2017 it passed the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which was finally ratified (by 50 countries) in 2021. Technically, nuclear weapons are now “illegal”—what a joke. The possibility of nuclear war, i.e., Armageddon, is more alive than ever. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ Doomsday Clock is now set at 90 seconds to midnight.

But the nuclear-armed nations and their allies haven’t given an inch. Their motto remains: Nukes forever (or at least until the end of the world as we know it). This is the case despite an overwhelming global opposition to nukes and “mutually assured destruction.”

Perhaps humanity’s primary—or only—hope is a global reunification from the ground up: the creation of one world, which is not at perpetual war with itself and realizes that power results not from domination but connection: power with others, not over them.

And this, I believe, is where the Golden Rule comes in. Let’s return for a moment to 1958, when hell was still naked and visible: when atmospheric nuclear testing was the order of the day. For the United States, the chosen test site was Bikini Atoll, a coral reef in the Marshall Islands. The inhabitants were relocated and their home destroyed. A total of 67 nuclear tests were conducted, beginning in 1946, with nuclear fallout spreading across the island chain.

A man named Albert Bigelow, unable to shrug off what could be the end of the world, finally felt driven to action, declaring; “How do you reach men when all the horror is in the fact that they feel no horror?” He bought a boat, which was named the Golden Rule, and he and three other Quakers took it upon themselves to sail to the Marhsall Islands and disrupt the testing – you know, with their own lives. As they prepared to do so, they declared their intention to the world.

What happened, however, was that the Golden Rule was stopped by the U.S. Coast Guard before it reached the island chain and the four men were arrested. They were jailed for several months, but the publicity surrounding the event was enormous, igniting outrage. The eventual outcome was the end of atmospheric nuclear testing—step one, you might say, in the process of global nuclear disarmament.

Bigelow eventually sold the Golden Rule and, by 2010, it was just a forgotten fragment of history, sitting derelict in Humboldt Bay, California. One day it sank. Though it was pulled up, the plan was to burn it. This is where Veterans for Peace—aware of the boat’s history—stepped in. The organization purchased and restored the Golden Rule, and it became, once again, a floating force for peace.

The Golden Rule is reborn. And its most recent journey is something called the Great Loop. The boat was transported from Humboldt Bay to Minneapolis, where it set sail down the Mississippi River, captained (for much of the journey) by Kiko Johnston-Kitazawa, a Hawaiian educator, sailor and canoe builder, who responded when Veterans for Peace began seeking a crew and captain.

Kiko described the Great Loop to me thus: “one year, 10,000 miles, a hundred stops.” It went down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico, then sailed around the tip of Florida, went over to Cuba to reconnect with that island (ah, site of the infamous “Cuban Missile Crisis” of 1962), then came back to the U.S. coast. Up to New York, into the Hudson River and the Erie Canal, then across Lake Erie, up the Detroit River and around the Great Lakes. Its final stop was Chicago, which was where I met Kiko and connected with the Golden Rule, at a reception hosted by Nuclear Energy Information Service.

This is a peace journey extraordinaire. Kiko was adamant, when he talked to me, that reaching beyond the community of committed peace activists was a crucial part of their mission—connecting with people regardless of their political viewpoints: simply talking about nuclear weapons and the danger humanity is facing: building, you might say, a movement of ordinary people... creating a sane future, one human being at a time.

The Veterans for Peace website describes the Golden Rule’s Great Loop journey thus: “We’ve had great reception from local peace activists, politicians, and people of faith. Brass bands, Raging Grannies, musicians and artists have welcomed us in many towns. . . Media coverage has been outstanding, with frequent interviews on local radio, TV and newspapers. Twenty mayors, city councils and state legislatures welcomed the Golden Rule with proclamations supporting the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Thousands of volunteers helped with events, hosting and crewing the Golden Rule!”

It was when I was talking to Kiko at the NEIS event that he invited me to see the Golden Rule, which was docked just a few miles away. There’s no way I could turn down this invitation, despite my balance issues and untrustworthy joints. We drove to the harbor, then rowed beneath a shimmering moon out to the boat. I was able to climb aboard. They showed me around. I stood on the historic vessel—this floating future of peace—and took in its cramped quarters with reverence and awe.

We’re all on this journey—to transcend war and nukes, to evolve, to create a world at peace with itself.

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