Interview by Terry Messman
Street Spirit: After Robert Aldridge alerted you that first-strike Trident nuclear submarines would be based near Seattle, what were the first steps in planning a campaign that could resist such an overwhelming weapons system?
James Douglass: Number one, every worker on the Trident nuclear submarine base is Robert Aldridge.
Spirit: A potential Robert Aldridge, meaning a person of conscience?
Douglass: Yes, potentially. Therefore we must respect, understand and grow in truth through dialogue with every worker, and every civilian military employee on the Trident nuclear submarine base. We lived alongside it and worked alongside it. So everything we did had to fulfill that purpose.
On the one hand, we had to block the system — that systemic violence we’re talking about. That’s the Trident system which could literally destroy the world through nuclear fire and radioactivity. We had to block that through nonviolent and loving resistance.
And secondly, we had to engage in dialogue and respectful relationships with the people who were involved in that system, just as all of us were, and are, involved.
We are all involved. That goes from paying taxes, which we all do, even those of us who are military tax resisters because they collect the taxes in other ways. And through our silence, which we all do to the extent that we all aren’t constantly out there speaking against the evils in our society. And the number one evil is our capacity to destroy all life on earth, since we are U.S. citizens with the most powerful arsenal ever devised.
So on the one hand, resistance. On the other hand, dialogue.
The Trident Peace Blockade
Spirit: Let’s look at these two dimensions — resistance and dialogue. What forms of resistance did Ground Zero organize that were visionary enough to confront an entire fleet of first-strike nuclear submarines?
Douglass: Well, we decided in our little group, the Ground Zero Center for Nonviolent Action, to create our own navy to block the U.S. Navy that was bringing the submarines into the Trident base. Our navy consisted of two sailboats and 20 rowboats. You know all about this, to put it mildly, because you were there on the boat. [laughing]
We had the Pacific Peacemaker, a sailboat that had come all the way from Australia to join the boat blockade, and the Lizard of Woz, a trimarin sailboat. The Pacific Peacemaker and the Lizard of Woz were the two larger boats, and we also had 20 rowboats, most of them to be strung out behind the Pacific Peacemaker and a few to be thrown into the water from the deck of the Lizard of Woz.
Our basic strategy was to block the Trident submarine with this small navy. But all our boats were stopped by the Navy’s pre-emptive attack.
Spirit: The Navy and Coast Guard sent 99 ships to attack our little boats when we tried to block the USS Ohio. Seattle newspapers reported they had sent out a larger fleet than most of the navies in the world.
Douglass: Well, the 99 Coast Guard boats were all the Coast Guard boats on the West Coast of the United States. They didn’t have any Coast Guard boats anywhere else on that day. They had them all in the area of Seattle in order to stop our ragtag fleet.
That was our first major experiment with truth on the waters of Puget Sound. They did a pre-emptive attack before the Trident sub reached our blockade.
We knew it was coming because of a good bunch of Paul Reveres who were stationed along the Hood Canal at the end of the journey, and also through the Strait of Juan de Fuca going out to the Pacific Ocean. And we had observers through the Panama Canal. So we knew when the Trident submarine was coming to the day.
Spirit: I’ll never forget when we were awakened before dawn on August 12, 1982, and heard that the submarine was approaching us.
Douglass: It came in the dawn hours. And they did pre-emptive arrests of all of us on those two flagships before the sub was in our immediate vicinity. We were put into a little camp by the Trident base, and felony charges were filed against all of us, and within a few days the charges were dropped.
Spirit: There were two different felony charges filed, so we faced at least two five-year prison sentences, as I recall.
Douglass: Yes, and in fact, you and I got a couple of the heaviest penalties because we were charged with attacking a member of the U.S. Navy or something like that, because after we had already been arrested and handcuffed, we tried to jump off the boat to swim in front of the fleet. [laughing] You were charged with a higher one and so was I.
Spirit: All we were trying to do was jump over the side and swim to block the Trident. We didn’t try to attack a guard.
Douglass: No, but we were charged with that felony.
Spirit: Did you ever figure out why they dropped the felony charges against all the defendants?
Douglass: Well, because they didn’t want to engage us in court, where we would bring up everything to do with the Trident submarine, and Bob Aldridge would have come and testified. The whole issue would have been publicized in a big way in Seattle, just as the Hickam action had become front-page news for a full week in Honolulu.
Spirit: Also, among the defendants we had people like Ruth Nelson, a 78-year-old woman who had been named Mother of the Year.
Douglass: Oh, Ruth Nelson was a beautiful woman.
Spirit: They didn’t want to have people like that on the stand talking about how the Coast Guard had used machine guns and water cannons to arrest us.
Douglass: They certainly did not.
Spirit: The U.S. government also created a new “national security” felony that if you were within 1,000 yards of the submarine you could be sentenced to five years.
Douglass: It was created specifically for the purpose of stopping the Trident peace blockade.
Spirit: Ground Zero also organized several massive demonstrations where hundreds were arrested for climbing the fence into the Trident base.
Douglass: Yes, there were literally hundreds who did that on several occasions. There were huge demonstrations involving thousands who came to the rallies and then hundreds who climbed over the fence.
Spirit: In October of 1979, thousands came from all over the country to commit civil disobedience at the base.
Douglass: During an earlier demonstration, the base chose to arrest one person in particular — it happened to be me — and to avoid arresting the hundreds of people who were inside the white line. In other words, they did a selective arrest process. The people who had crossed the white line were arrested and taken into custody and then released without being charged.
Spirit: How did Ground Zero respond to the selective arrest?
Douglass: In a second huge demonstration several months later (on October 28, 1979), having recognized what was going on in the first set of arrests with the charges being dropped, they all came back after they were released and got arrested a second time. So the selective arrest process didn’t work. On that occasion we had a mass trial.
There were about 200 people arrested. At the mass trial, a lot of those people were given minor sentences or paid a fine. Many of them paid the fine because they lived so far away they couldn’t come to the trial. As you know, some people like you and I were sent to jail for six months. And that’s where Terry Messman and I spent quite a bit of time together. By the way, for all of you who are out there, he’s the same guy that’s interviewing me now. [laughing]
Spirit: You and I and Karl Zanzig, who was also arrested at the Trident base, all served six-month sentences in Boron federal prison. Karl and I took a class in nonviolence you gave at the prison.
Douglass: You have a better memory than I have! [laughing]
Spirit: I’ll never forget it. You were teaching the insights that later appeared in your book, Lightning East to West. You said that nonviolent movements needed to discover the moral equivalent of Einstein’s equation for converting matter into energy.
“The Auschwitz of Puget Sound”
Spirit: Just before I was released from prison in July 1981, I was buoyed when Seattle Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen likened the Trident submarine to the Auschwitz death camp.
Douglass: The most important resister in the Trident campaign — to single out one person other than Robert Aldridge — was Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen.
Spirit: Why was Hunthausen such a significant voice in the movement for nuclear disarmament?
Douglass: He gave a speech in which he stated to a very large number of religious leaders gathered in Tacoma, Washington, that Trident was the “Auschwitz of Puget Sound.” And he took a stand of refusing to pay his income taxes in order to resist Trident.
Spirit: After he made that statement, we invited him to speak at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley where he urged hundreds of religious leaders to resist nuclear murder and suicide.
Douglass: Yes. And as a result, roughly six months later, he actually stated publicly, “I have now decided to stop paying half of my taxes” — the half of his taxes that would have gone to military appropriations and nuclear weapons.
Spirit: It was such an important turning point when an archbishop actually called for massive civil disobedience.
Douglass: Yes, and he not only called for it — he did it! His tax resistance was nonviolent civil disobedience in the most radical sense possible.
Spirit: When Archbishop Hunthausen declared that Trident was the Auschwitz of Puget Sound, what effect did it have on your work at Ground Zero? And what effect did it have on the general public?
Douglass: It electrified the general public. And it profoundly encouraged us. We all knew Archbishop Hunthausen. We’d known him for years and he’d already done all kinds of things to support our work. He supported a 30-day fast that we engaged in. He sent information on the Trident campaign to his entire body of priests and religious leaders in the diocese.
He brought over to Ground Zero all of his administrative leaders in the archdiocese for a retreat on the issue of Trident. He’d done everything he could — up to refusing to pay his own taxes — before he took that step. So we were one in community with Archbishop Hunthausen before he took that further step.
Spirit: What was the response of the Church hierarchy to Hunthausen’s call for massive resistance to the arms race?
Douglass: Well, I would say it was a mixed response. A number of Catholic bishops within the United States made statements of their own against nuclear weapons in the months following Archbishop Hunthausen’s statement. I think they were to some degree, if not largely, inspired by his courage. I found that remarkable because there had been so much silence before then.
Spirit: Silence from church leaders about the threat of nuclear weapons?
Douglass: So much silence from religious leaders across the board, and certainly from Catholic bishops. So I found that very encouraging. I would read one statement after another about nuclear weapons, and that led up eventually to “The Challenge of Peace,” the Catholic bishops’ pastoral letter on nuclear weapons.
Spirit: The bishop’s letter gave so much hope to the peace movement in 1983. And you believe that Hunthausen’s statement played a role in inspiring the bishops’ pastoral letter on nuclear weapons?
Douglass: It played a HUGE role in the process that resulted in the bishops’ statement. Hunthausen played a HUGE role. He would never say that, obviously.
The Prophets: Archbishops Hunthausen and Matthiesen
Spirit: In what way did Hunthausen’s statement play such a huge role in the bishops speaking out?
Douglass: There was nothing vaguely like Archbishop Hunthausen’s statement before him. And following his statement there were many!
The only bishop in the U.S. who closely paralleled Archbishop Hunthausen, and actually became a very good friend of his, was Bishop (Leroy) Matthiesen in Amarillo, Texas. And of course, they were bishops at the opposite ends of the tracks of the White Train.
Spirit: The Pantex plant in Amarillo assembled the hydrogen bombs in Bishop Matthiesen’s diocese, then shipped them to Hunthausen’s diocese near Seattle?
Douglass: Amarillo is where the Pantex plant exists, and that is the final assembly point for all nuclear weapons in the United States.
It was an extraordinary connection to have Bishop Matthiesen at one end of the tracks encouraging workers at the Pantex plant to resign their jobs and take more peaceful occupations, and Archbishop Hunthausen at the other end of the tracks at the Trident base taking the step of tax resistance and denouncing Trident as the Auschwitz of Puget Sound.
The two of them came to our house at the end of the tracks and held a retreat for a group of us one weekend as part of the Tracks campaign. That was very inspiring.
Spirit: It must have been amazing to have both Hunthausen and Matthiesen with you at Ground Zero. They were heroes of the peace movement — two of the most courageous voices we ever had.
Douglass: And they sent out a letter over their signatures to all of the Catholic bishops in the dioceses along the train tracks. And it resulted in 11 or 12 bishops along the tracks joining in their statement encouraging people to take a stand against the nuclear arms race and the train shipments. When the bishops made that statement together, it was reported on the front page of the New York Times.
Spirit: Archbishop Hunthausen not only influenced Catholic leaders. When we invited him as a keynote speaker at Pacific School of Religion, he inspired hundreds of Protestant church leaders with his call to resistance.
Douglass: Archbishop Hunthausen really was a catalyst in a movement of religious leaders, not only Catholics but others as well. Remember that the statement in which he began to become so prominent was made to the Lutheran leaders of the Pacific Northwest. He wasn’t speaking to Catholics; he was speaking to the Lutheran leaders who had invited him to speak because he had already become a leader on this issue. That’s when he made the statement that gained national attention.
He had an effect on everybody. In the Pacific Northwest, especially, he was meeting every week with all the other key religious leaders. They ate breakfast together. I joined them a number of times so I met these people and Archbishop Hunthausen was the most prophetic voice and the inspiration in their midst. These were all the most prominent religious leaders at that time in Seattle and everyone at these breakfasts was very supportive of Archbishop Hunthausen. The Jewish leaders were very supportive of Archbishop Hunthausen. So it was right across the board that religious leaders said, “This man is speaking out in a way that is both prophetic and pastoral.”
Spirit: I understand his prophetic role, but what were they referring to in saying he was also “pastoral” in regards to the nuclear issue?
Douglass: They meant the way that he responded to people who were critical of him. He came over to the areas right around the Trident base and went to the different parishes and listened to all the people who were wondering why he was making such statements. He, of course, explained that this is the way he understood the Gospel, but he said that very gently and compassionately and listened to everything that they had to say.
The Conscience of the Chaplain at Auschwitz
Spirit: Did Archbishop Hunthausen’s call to resist the arms race have much effect on workers on the Trident base?
Douglass: I will give an example of the impact he had. I was passing out leaflets in front of the Trident base, as we did every week to the cars and the drivers coming into the base, and a man with a clerical collar on stopped as I was handing him a leaflet. He said, “I want to have dinner with you.”
Well, that was an unusual response. He had dinner with Shelley and me a few days later. He was the Catholic chaplain of the Trident nuclear submarine base, Father David Becker. So he came to dinner at our Tracks house located alongside the Trident base where the railroad tracks go in.
When Father Dave Becker came in, the first sentence he said after he sat down on the sofa was, “I want to understand from you what it means to be the chaplain of the Auschwitz of Puget Sound.”
Spirit: What a question! How could you even answer a question life that?
Douglass: We just had dinner together and talked. And that process was the dialogue that Gandhi talked about as the experiment in truth with the person on the other side of the fence — which was the point of our whole campaign.
And through that dialogue, Father Dave engaged in a dialogue with his church. And where were the people of his church? On the Trident base! On one Sunday, alternately, he would preach about Trident as he was learning to understand it, and the nature of Trident, which was to threaten and eventually, if carried out in its purpose, to destroy the world.
On the following Sunday, he would dialogue and very peacefully engage in conversation with his church community. He was doing the same thing in his church that we were doing in relation to the whole Trident process. He was confronting and resisting the evil, and dialoguing with all of us who are involved in that evil.
Spirit: What was the outcome of his speaking out so strongly against nuclear arms while he was a chaplain on the naval base?
Douglass: He resigned his commission and his chaplaincy on the base, and then became a priest in the diocese outside the base. That was, of course, from the inspiration of Archbishop Hunthausen.
Spirit: So he resigned when he realized that a chaplain at Auschwitz was not what was needed. What was needed was a conscientious objector.
Douglass: Now let me tell you the reason why he asked me that question as he was driving into the base. He had just received a full copy of Archbishop Hunthausen’s address to the Lutheran leaders in Tacoma, Washington.
Archbishop Hunthausen sent the statement to every priest in the diocese and, of course, one of them was the chaplain of the Trident base, Father Dave Becker. Well, Dave Becker got his copy inside the Trident base. It went right through the mail into the Trident base. He read it in his office and he was electrified, as were all of these other people outside the base.
Then he asked himself, “My God, what does it mean for me to be the chaplain of the Auschwitz of Puget Sound?” So he resigned his commission and he became a pastor in a church outside the base. He is an example of dozens of people who did that and who then subsequently became extended members of the Ground Zero community.
Conscientious Objectors to Nuclear War
Spirit: So there were several other conscientious objectors who resigned?
Douglass: There were several other Catholics who were deeply influenced by Archbishop Hunthausen and who resigned from the Bangor Naval Base. Archbishop Hunthausen was the voice that they were listening to especially. Many of these people, including Father Dave Becker, did interviews with us.
We would interview these folks who resigned their jobs and then we would put those interviews in our Ground Zero newspaper and leaflet that newspaper to the 2,000 Trident employees who took our leaflets every week. It was a circular process.
They stopped working at the Trident base and stated publicly that they were taking that step. I’m not even counting the people who never let us know about it. I think there were far more than those who did let us know about it. We know of about a dozen who left.
Spirit: It must have been a great sacrifice for them to resign. Are there any compelling stories that show why they would take such a difficult step?
Douglass: Every one of them is a compelling story. Let me give one example. Mona Lee was a worker on the Trident base, as was her husband, and she lived alongside the Trident base. She had received many of our leaflets as she was going into the Trident base.
One day in the Trident base, she was given a tour with other base employees of the Strategic Weapons Facility Pacific, the highest security area where the nuclear weapons are located. Mona touched a nuclear weapon that day and she suddenly realized, as she put it: “This is real.”
From that point on, her life moved in a different direction. She was, and is, a Quaker. Her Quaker beliefs had never connected with nuclear weapons until she touched one. She became a person at Ground Zero in dialogue with us. She did an interview with us. She resigned her job.
She became, years later, a leader in the WTO demonstration in Seattle, Washington. [Editor: On November 30, 1999, tens of thousands of people staged massive street protests of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Seattle.]
Spirit: What a journey she took.
Douglass: She became a leader! Many other people congregated around her and her new husband. Her old marriage ended. She also became a leader in creating the transit system between downtown Seattle and Sea-Tac Airport — a beautiful light rail system. Then she and her husband started a coffeehouse right alongside it.
Spirit: Many nonviolent campaigns do not develop an ongoing dialogue with the people on the other side of the issue. Can you describe how you created a dialogue with workers on the Trident base?
Douglass: We leafleted every week. The fence between our side of the issue and their side of the issue — the fence between the Trident base and Ground Zero — was being overcome by our dialogue with those workers, and by the leafleting we did every week, to a point where 2,000 people a week were taking our leaflets. As a result, there were a series of resignations on their part. That’s how a real nonviolent campaign advances.
In the course of that process, the base authorities, and the naval authorities above them, tried to stop our leafleting by arresting us when we were inside the white line for trespassing on the base. So we leafleted outside the white line and we were then arrested by the county sheriffs for endangering traffic. And we couldn’t leaflet in mid-air, so we were alternately arrested by the base authorities for trespass on the naval base and by Kitsap County sheriffs for blocking traffic.
Spirit: How did the workers going into the base respond to your leafleting?
Douglass: The number-one thing was that when we were arrested, civilian workers at the Trident base who were getting our leaflets when they were driving into the base, testified at our trials in our support. And they were risking their jobs and their security and everything else.
Allies in Unlikely Places
Spirit: It seems amazing that workers at the Trident base would break the silence by testifying during your trial.
Douglass: As a result of that process, the Kitsap County sheriffs who were part of the testimony at our trial — they had to come in and testify against us — the same sheriffs who were arresting us, and in some cases literally cursing us as they arrested us, became our good friends.
We had to sit around together in all of this process of going through the trial, and we talked together and dialogued together. And then they would testify that we were standing in such and such a place, and we were found guilty in all of those instances, and the judge would send us to jail.
Spirit: Well, since their testimony sent you to jail, in what way are you saying they became friends?
Douglass: Because eventually the sheriff refused to cooperate with the Navy!
Spirit: That almost never happens in a peace action. In what way did the sheriffs refuse to cooperate with the Navy?
Douglass: The key moment came when we were charged in a further act of civil disobedience with blocking a train. We sat in front of a train carrying nuclear weapons going into the Trident base. We were charged with conspiracy to block a train, as well as being charged with blocking a train. So in the course of the trial, which was in a Kitsap County courtroom before a Kitsap County judge, the sheriffs had to testify to prove the charge of conspiracy.
They described all the meetings they had with us, because we told them everything we were going to do about blocking the train. We didn’t want the train to run over us, and they and we — together — planned how we would block the train in such a way that the train would stop, and they would arrest us. In other words, we tried not to create a situation where either they or we would get run over by a train, which had almost happened at the demonstration before that one.
So in the course of the trial, it became obvious to the judge and the jury that at the heart of the conspiracy were the Kitsap County sheriffs!
Spirit: Because they were involved in planning the action with you? So what did the judge do when he realized that?
Douglass: The judge dismissed the conspiracy charge! Because everything that we did, the sheriffs were doing —except sitting in front of the train at the end. But so far as conspiring, planning the action, they did it as much as we did.
That’s the whole nature of the Trident campaign: to work together with the other side. We were working together with the sheriffs. Now some people in the movement hated that because they said, “You can’t do anything with the other side.”
And we said, “Well, of course, we have to. We don’t want them to get run over by a train anymore than we want to. And you all saw that in the last demonstration we had, it got out of hand and people were almost literally killed.”
Spirit: Did the judge throw out all the charges or just the conspiracy charges?
Douglass: He dismissed the charges of conspiracy. Then the jury heard all the evidence for why we were blocking the train, and they found us not guilty. We had confessed to everything about blocking the train, and the jury found us not guilty! How did they manage to do that?
Spirit: Obviously, that’s my next question too. How did the jury manage to find you not guilty?
Douglass: Number one, these were all Kitsap County people on the jury. We didn’t try to knock off people in Kitsap County who, of course, are all involved either directly or indirectly in the Navy base. We didn’t try to block any of those people from the jury. And they found us not guilty! How did that happen?
Well, one of the jurors testified at our forum after the trial. She said, “We just had to find a way to find you not guilty because it was obvious that you weren’t doing anything wrong.” Then she said, “I suggested a way.”
Spirit: I wish more jurors would find a way. So how did she explain the jury’s plan to find you not guilty?
Douglass: This was a woman who had her home right by the Hood Canal. She said, “One day, the oysters in the water at the edge of my property were being taken from my property by some people who came along the water and took the oysters on the beach area that I owned.”
She called the police and told them that people were trespassing but the police ignored this. She said, “I told the jury: ‘I called the police about trespass on my property and they did nothing. Now they’re trying to put these people in jail for trespassing on federal property — which is all our property. That’s not fair.’ ”
The jury agreed with her. And they found us not guilty.
Spirit: Do you trace that back to the depth of dialogue that Ground Zero established with naval base workers?
Douglass: We were living in that community. We were living in Kitsap County, Washington. Why? Because in our former residence, we were coming from the outside and then saying to the people on the inside (of the base), “This is wrong.”
Thomas Merton said we cannot engage in nonviolent transformation from the outside. It is impossible. You have to be on the inside. He meant that in two senses: within ourselves personally, and communally.
In the communal sense, we had to live in Kitsap County to truly engage in dialogue with any of those people. So we’re not only passing out leaflets. We’re living in the community of people we’re trying to engage in dialogue. They’re living all around us. We were part of the community.
Spirit: What was that like for you on a personal level?
Douglass: Our son was the person we worried about most in this process because when we moved down in 1978, Tom was seven years old. So what about Tom? We’re moving down there to be practitioners of nonviolence in ways that we can maybe deal with better; but he’s going to be in the midst of a school in which all the other students are the sons and daughters of Trident sub workers in the Navy or Trident sub people in the civilian population.
So when Tom was going to his soccer games, we would cheer on the sidelines with — who? All the Navy people! [laughing] And when we went to a library meeting, all the parents in the library meeting were naval base people.
Thanks to Tom, we were parts of the community in ways that we wouldn’t have been if we didn’t have a child in school. And through the providence of God, the teachers that he had in that school system, all the way up until high school, were, one after another, remarkably supportive of him and his parents.
At the very end of that process, on the graduation day of his high school, we came into the auditorium with all the Buddhist monks in their yellow robes, immediately identifying themselves as the people who were sounding their drums for peace outside the base as we were blocking trains. And, of course, Shelley and I were identified as being very visible people at Ground Zero Center for Nonviolent Change.
At that graduation ceremony, the graduating class stood up and sang their chosen graduation song, which was “Imagine” by John Lennon.
Spirit: Wow! They chose a peace anthem for their graduation?
Douglass: It was the greatest peace anthem I could have IMAGINED them to sing at that moment. The students chose that song. Some of them, including our son, had chosen to identify themselves as conscientious objectors.
In this issue, you can also read a Life at Ground Zero of the Nuclear Arms Race by Terry Messman, a profile of Douglass’ work.
This is part 2 of the interview in this issue. If you missed part 1, please visit Interview with James Douglass .
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Next month, in the final part of the Street Spirit interview with Jim Douglass, Ground Zero mobilizes activists and train buffs in hundreds of communities to block the White Train carrying nuclear bombs. Jim and Shelley Douglass open a Catholic Worker house of hospitality for homeless families in Birmingham, Alabama. Then we follow Jim Douglass on Middle East peace actions in Palestine, Israel and Iraq.
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Life at Ground Zero of the Nuclear Arms Race
Blockading the ‘White Train of Death’
Street Spirit Interview with Jim Douglass (Part 1)
Street Spirit Interview with Jim Douglass (Part 2)
The Acts of Resistance and the Works of Mercy (Part 3)
Gandhi’s Vision of Nonviolence: Holding Firm to Truth (Part 4)