Interview by Terry Messman
Street Spirit: The White Train campaign mobilized people in hundreds of far-flung communities to stand in nonviolent resistance along the tracks where nuclear weapons were transported. How did the White Train campaign get started?
Jim Douglass: Well, the White Train campaign began as the Tracks campaign at a time when we didn’t yet know there was a White Train. Shelley and I had been looking at a house for years next to the Trident base as a location that was analogous to the Ground Zero Center for Nonviolent Action, which was itself a piece of land 3.8 acres in size alongside the Trident base that we had bought as a community.
At another location alongside the fence surrounding the base, there was a house over the tracks leading into the Trident base. We thought that if we lived in that house, we would have our eyes opened to what was going into the base. To use Archbishop Hunthausen’s analogy, it would be a little bit like having a house alongside the tracks leading into the Auschwitz concentration camp.
So I knocked on the door of that house periodically for several years, asking the people who owned the house if they wanted to rent or sell it. They always said no, but eventually the house was empty and we found they were selling the home. With the help of friends, we bought the house.
Spirit: Knock and it shall be opened.
Douglass: That’s the statement of Jesus that we were inspired by. So we then lived in the house that had originally belonged to the stationmaster of a railroad yard that serviced the Trident base. You literally had to cross the tracks to get into our house; there was no other access to it.
So we then began to call together people who lived alongside the tracks near the Hercules propellant plant in Utah which regularly makes shipments to the Trident base of the highly volatile fuel propellant for the Trident missiles.
We began monitoring those shipments. We would see them a couple times a week. So we began the tracks campaign around those shipments, with people between Salt Lake City, Utah, and the Trident submarine base near Seattle. We held a retreat for people along the railroad tracks in the summer of 1981. That was the beginning of the tracks campaign.
‘The Train Out of Hell’
Spirit: Soon people were conducting vigils all along the railroad tracks. How long did it take before you discovered that nuclear warheads were being shipped on the White Train?
Douglass: In December 1981, we saw the first White Train come in. We were warned by a reporter that he had seen such a train north of Seattle. He said he had a feeling that it had something to do with the Trident base, because it “looked like the train out of hell.”
It was a heavily armored, all-white train. Several cars on the train had turrets on them where Department of Energy guards could put guns through slits to defend the train.
The reporter thought, “This is carrying big-time weapons.” So he called us and asked if we’d ever seen it. And we said, no. So when I received the call from that reporter, I went outside our house and a White Train was coming down the tracks! I took pictures of the cars of the train.
Then we did our research and discovered that the assembly point of all nuclear weapons was at the Pantex plant in Amarillo, Texas. With the help of train buffs, we identified all the routes between Amarillo and the Bangor Naval Base, and then waited for the train to come out of the Bangor base, and then followed the train with the help of people at key junctions back to the Pantex plant and confirmed that it did come from that location in Amarillo, Texas. So that was the beginning of the White Train campaign.
Spirit: So the first step of the White Train campaign involved researching the train routes and exposing the shipments of nuclear warheads. What was the second step of the campaign?
Douglass: Next, we mapped out more of the routes. Again it required train buffs. Tom Rawson, who was a wonderful peace-and-justice singer in Seattle and who also had been a follower of trains all his adult life, suddenly became a great asset in our work on the White Train.
We mapped out all the possible routes to the Trident base, and then we contacted people in all of those cities and began filling in the gaps. In the course of the tracks campaign, which continued through the 1980s, we had connections with people in over 250 towns and cities along the routes of the train.
And thanks to a woman named Hedy Sawadsky, a wonderful Mennonite friend, we had a watcher in Amarillo, Texas. She moved to live in Amarillo to watch the Pantex plant and identify the departures of the White Train. That was her contemplative/active vocation for several years.
Spirit: So these train watchers enabled Ground Zero to get the word out about the departures of the White Train and mobilize your network for vigils?
Douglass: Sure. It was a network and once it went into action, we could follow the train all the way and people either vigiled by the tracks or sat in front of the train. They would give early notice to the police about what they planned to do. Nobody wanted to get run over by the train.
Spirit: The tracks campaign really flourished, with many acts of civil disobedience in dozens of cities.
Douglass: Many, many acts of nonviolent civil disobedience.
Spirit: It’s kind of amazing that, with your help, the White Train built up a community of peace-loving people stretching for hundreds of miles.
Douglass: Yes, that was the irony of the tracks campaign. The railroad tracks became a connection of community along the route of a Holocaust train. The tracks campaign went on into the late 1980s.
Spirit: It all began with only a handful of activists and train buffs. How did it feel when it blossomed so quickly into a campaign that involved hundreds of communities all up and down the tracks?
Douglass: It was an experience of hope: hope spelled “community.” [laughing] From the very beginning, we called that community “the Agape community.”
Spirit: Why the Agape community?
Douglass: Agape means “God’s love.” It is God. Love and truth are the primary names for God, not only in Gandhi’s vocabulary, but in the vocabulary of many great religious traditions. So it was a way of realizing that love and truth in action against a threat to all life on earth as posed by our weapons and policies.
That was a great development out of the Trident campaign. The Trident campaign and the tracks campaign are really the same campaign, but the tracks gave it a whole new dimension. We’re not the only bunch of people who were working in that way.
As you know well, Brian Willson and the Nuremberg Actions community were doing the same thing at the Concord Naval Weapons Station, and we were in close communications with them, and with Brian who came to visit us at Ground Zero after he had been run over by the train. [Editor: See “Blood on the Tracks: Brian Willson Dances in Resistance to Weapons of Mass Murder,” Street Spirit, September 2012.]
Spirit: What did you feel about Brian’s sacrifice in losing his legs while blocking a weapons train at the Concord base?
Douglass: He is the only person in the world, I think, who could have had that happen to him and who would smile when I said, “Brian you’re the perfect person to have been run over by that train.”
Because he has such courage. And he has such a complete absorption of his own experience from Vietnam and from going through the jungles and roads of Nicaragua where he could have had his legs blown off at any time by the Contra mines. Those weapons were then blocked by Brian on the tracks of the Concord Naval Weapons Station, where they were being shipped to Nicaragua when he was run over by that train. Brian’s pilgrimage is one of profound nonviolence. He continues on that journey today.
Spirit: Brian not only smiles, he danced on the railroad tracks at Concord on the anniversary of the loss of his legs. He dances on those prosthetic legs.
Douglass: He does indeed.
Stopping the Train in its Tracks
Spirit: When did you and Shelley move to Birmingham, Alabama?
Douglass: We moved to Birmingham in September 1989. The White Trains started going to the East Coast as well as to the West Coast, first to the Charleston Naval Weapons Station and then to the Kings Bay Georgia Trident submarine base.
As the trains began going east, we felt we could help along that route. We stopped in Birmingham, Alabama, and met people who welcomed us there, so we came. But by the time we got here, a year later, the reason we moved here had ceased to exist before we arrived, unknown to us.
The tracks campaign had reached the point where the Department of Energy stopped sending the White Trains. But they didn’t inform us, of course, so we were in Birmingham a fair length of time before it became obvious that they weren’t sending the trains anymore.
Eventually, through the Freedom of Information Act, we had that confirmed.
Spirit: What did you discover through the Freedom of Information Act?
Douglass: A secret Department of Energy memorandum, dated August 6, 1985, declassified in 1990. It said the DOE could not send any more White Trains.
Why? The reason given was: “IN VIEW OF THE GROWING ANTI-NUCLEAR MOVEMENT IN THE UNITED STATES, WITH ITS APPARENT FOCUS ON THE WHITE DEATH TRAIN.”
The DOE memo was typed in caps, and “WHITE DEATH TRAIN” (with no quote marks around their phrase) was their own matter-of-fact description —written on the 40th anniversary of the Hiroshima bomb.
Spirit: So the DOE’s own documents show that the White Train shipments were stopped because of the tracks campaign?
Spirit: That shows the powerful effect all those communities of resistance were having on the federal government.
Douglass: It shows the effect we were having, but that didn’t mean that we had stopped the Trident submarine. It just means that the campaign was a means by which people in hundreds of communities recognized the ways in which the arms race is present in our lives.
Spirit: Recognized it, and then took a personal stand against the arms race.
Douglass: Yes, and took a stand against it. We didn’t succeed in “stopping” the train because that train, in terms of the nuclear arms race, kept on going.
However, we took a step as part of a larger movement. We learned that through the initiative of a young man whose parents, Glen and Karol Milner, have worked with Ground Zero for decades. Glen was arrested for blocking the White Train.
Years later, his son, Aaron, did a class paper in high school on the tracks campaign. He queried the DOE about the impact of the tracks campaign. In December 1994, Aaron received a remarkable response from Gail L. Bradshaw, the acting director of the Negotiations and Analysis Division of the Department of Energy.
“Popular movements, and even civil disobedience,” Director Bradshaw wrote, “can be an alerting mechanism, causing citizens to think more seriously about an issue… A result of the nuclear disarmament movement was, often, intensified awareness and a more informed public dialogue generating a more responsive policy approach.”
In other words, a U.S. government official is acknowledging here that such demonstrations may have prevented a nuclear war at a critical time.
Spirit: I’ve always felt that way, Jim. Seriously. I’ve always believed that the massive anti-nuclear movements in the U.S. and throughout Europe helped to avoid the ultimate catastrophe at the moment in the 1980s when the arms race had escalated to an extremely dangerous level.
Douglass: You know, it was all part of a much larger movement. And that larger movement, of which the tracks campaign was one key element, succeeded in keeping us alive during that period. So I think it was a good thing.
The Nonviolent Cross
Spirit: Your first book, The Nonviolent Cross, is one of the most profound studies of nonviolence, peace theology and the nuclear arms race. What was your inspiration in writing The Nonviolent Cross?
Douglass: Dorothy Day. I was introduced to Dorothy Day in spirit when I was a first-year student at Santa Clara University. A great English professor at Santa Clara, Herbert Burke, introduced our class to the story of a group of people in New York City who refused to take shelter during a Civil Defense drill.
During the drills, millions of people were going into fallout shelters with the assumption that a hydrogen bomb had fallen on New York City in the spring of 1957. Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker and members of the Living Theater went to a park instead and were sent to jail for their noncooperation.
When our class at Santa Clara University was introduced to that, we all objected to the Catholic Worker and those who non-cooperated. But I was taken by what they had done and I started reading the Catholic Worker newspaper and I wound up writing for it.
Spirit: If your immediate reaction was disagreement with their protest, why were you still interested in the Catholic Worker?
Douglass: Well, they were not only refusing to cooperate with nuclear war, they were also living out the Sermon on the Mount. It was all of a piece. What electrified me from their act of resistance to air raid drills in the park was that they were resisting preparations for a war that could destroy humanity. They were resisting it on the basis of the teachings of Jesus.
So I felt that here was an answer to a terrible question: Would the human race continue to live? Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker were saying, “Yes, through the grace of God, and through a commitment to act on the teachings of Jesus.”
Spirit: In what other ways did you feel that the Catholic Workers were living out the values of the Sermon on the Mount?
Douglass: They fed those who needed it. They housed those who needed it. They lived according to Jesus’s teachings of providence. They did the whole works. They carried out the whole vision.
Spirit: Now, more than 50 years later, you’ve co-founded a Catholic Worker house with your wife Shelley Douglass. Dorothy Day has had a long, long influence on your life.
Douglass: That is true. [laughing] Back then, I felt called to write The Nonviolent Cross because that was the way to respond to the awful question of nuclear war. I believed deeply that Jesus and the Catholic Worker, in our own context, and those other people who believed in nonviolence, were living out the answer.
Gandhi, Jesus and Nonviolence
Spirit: How is the nonviolent cross a response to “the awful question” of nuclear war?
Douglass: The nonviolent cross is, of course, a paradox, because a crucifixion is not nonviolent. But I had been introduced to Gandhi at Santa Clara University, and Gandhi was the way into Jesus in my book, The Nonviolent Cross.
Spirit: The teachings of Gandhi have always been at the center of your books and your peace activism.
Douglass: I was convinced that Gandhi was the greatest disciple of Jesus. And that was a wonderful truth because then I wasn’t restricted by dogma. Instead, I opened up to the truth of Jesus through a Hindu who was carrying it all out without being a Christian.
Spirit: Gandhi’s vision of nonviolence comes right out of the Bhagavad Gita and The Upanishads, but it is also very close in spirit to the Sermon on the Mount.
Douglass: That is certainly right.
Spirit: In The Nonviolent Cross, you looked at the profound messages of spirituality and justice in such figures as Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Boris Pasternak. What book would you say has inspired you the most?
Douglass: The Last of the Just by André Schwarz-Bart.
Spirit: Why was The Last of the Just so meaningful to you?
Douglass: Because of the evil he was dealing with: the Holocaust. And the depth of the response to it from the heart of a Jewish man — Ernie Levy in the book — who walked the path of the just person and took on the suffering of the world. For me, he became a figure like Jesus.
The Last of the Just told the story of Ernie Levy and Christianity’s violence against the Jewish people as the backdrop to the Holocaust. To understand that history behind the Shoah or the Holocaust, and to understand a nonviolent response to it in the life of Ernie Levy, was just transforming for me. That book is the basis for one of the chapters in The Nonviolent Cross and a good part of my inspiration.
Spirit: Who else do you draw on as inspirations on this path of nonviolence?
Douglass: I always think of Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker and Gandhi. And Martin Luther King, and Dan and Phil Berrigan, and Shelley Douglass. Another key person in my life was Thomas Merton. They have walked the talk, and embodied the vision of Jesus in word and deed.
A Partnership for Peace
Spirit: In what way is Shelley Douglass such a key inspiration in your life?
Douglass: Because she knows my faults better than anyone else on earth and we’re still together. And she is the person who I identify most closely with Dorothy Day. We have a house of hospitality and it’s Shelley who bears the brunt of that. I’m mainly writing and researching. And there’s no better writer I know than Shelley. Like Dorothy Day, she’s a great writer. So she’s writing and living like Dorothy Day.
Spirit: You and Shelley have been a partnership for peace and justice for several decades. Can you describe that a little? What has been the nature of your working together all these years?
Douglass: We’ve been married since 1970, so that’s over 44 years now. During that time, we’ve been separated for about two years, from either she or I being in jail for acts of nonviolent civil disobedience. I think that is a key to understanding the mutual vision we have, which is for a world in which people love one another and treat each other as we try to act toward each other. We have believed that since we were married.
We married each other by exchanging rings. No clergy were present. We committed ourselves from that time on to living out the Gospels. That’s what marriage is all about for a couple of people who did then, and still do, believe in the teachings of Jesus, and also of his greatest follower, Gandhi, and of the greatest American disciple of Jesus, Dorothy Day. So put that together and that’s what Shelley and I are trying to live out in the Catholic Worker movement today. We have had a Catholic Worker house since 1992.
Spirit: What was it about the vision of the Catholic Worker that led you to form Mary’s House in Birmingham, Alabama?
Douglass: Well, Shelley in particular, who had lived in Catholic Worker houses earlier in her life, had felt called for a long time to be at the heart of a Catholic Worker community. So I was joining in that vision when we moved to Birmingham and discovered that there were no White Trains going through here.
We asked ourselves why we were in Birmingham, Alabama, and we felt it was an ideal place for a Catholic Worker because one day, at a Catholic church we were attending, the priest told us he had a problem and maybe we could help him with it. So we followed him out of the church and found that the problem happened to be a couple with four children who were driving from Florida to Washington state — the longest journey one can take across the United States. When they arrived in Birmingham, they were running out of gas and food. They had been going from church to church (seeking help) and at the church just before they came to this Catholic church, they had been turned away by an armed guard.
These people, who happened to be Native Americans, were looking for help, so we took them home with us to our little house by the tracks. They stayed with us for a couple nights as we went around town looking for resources for them — which we found were very limited. No shelters were available for married people with children. At other shelters, the wife and husband and children would have to be split up. So that was our call to start just such a Catholic Worker house for homeless families. We have that to this day.
Spirit: What has it been like to live in a small Catholic Worker community?
Douglass: We actually have two houses because we moved into the house along the train tracks for a campaign that never really happened. So that residence has become more of a hermitage, a place of writing and of prayer. Then we have our house of hospitality for homeless families, which is in another part of Birmingham.
Both are in predominantly poor areas and Shelley and I go back and forth between the two. She is mainly involved in the hospitality, and I am mainly involved in research and writing. But we both do both the hospitality and writing.
Dorothy Day and the Works of Mercy
Spirit: Dorothy Day described the works of mercy as resisting war, comforting the afflicted, and giving hospitality to the hungry and homeless. From your personal experience, how would you describe the mission of the Catholic Worker?
Douglass: The Catholic Worker vision is not to be another agency for the poor, but to live with people who are overcome by that form of oppression. Dorothy Day was inspired by a man named Peter Maurin, a French peasant who was a student of the social teachings of the Catholic Church and of the Gospels.
The two of them began a movement in the early 1930s which said as its bottom line: Respond to all those in need. Respond to all the evils of war and injustice in our society by taking them on. And establish houses of hospitality so that in everybody’s home, there can be a place for those who need help, because these are our brothers and sisters, just as much as the immediate members of our family.
Spirit: Many consider Dorothy Day one of the most significant figures in the history of nonviolence. What have you learned personally from her life’s work?
Douglass: Dorothy Day led that vision by being repeatedly arrested for issues ranging from the United Farmworkers to peace and nuclear war. Even before she became a Catholic Worker, she was involved in the suffragist movement for women’s right to vote. She was arrested repeatedly for resisting nuclear weapons.
She spent a significant amount of time in jail. It’s really a way of trying to live the vision of the Sermon on the Mount and taking it on personally. “Personalism” is the key to the Catholic Worker movement. Personalism means that a teaching of the Gospel only becomes real through our relationships to one another. So a Catholic Worker house is not only a way of caring for people. It’s a way of being with people and working together in community.
Spirit: Dorothy Day and Gandhi taught that poverty is the worst form of violence. Gandhi said that those working for justice must keep in mind the face of the poorest person they have met and ask how their actions would affect that person.
Douglass: Poverty is at the heart of violence because the weapons that we have in our midst that now threaten to destroy the earth are means of protecting privilege. That’s why they exist. And the people who are at the bottom of that pyramid of violence are all over the world, of course, and we have to seek them out.
This society and its institutions deliberately create barriers among us — like freeways that arch over the poorest areas of the country. Or people fly over those areas in planes or ignore in one way or another that form of violence. What Gandhi did, and what Dorothy Day did, was to instead live in community with people on the lowest level of society, without pretending that they could ever experience that poverty themselves.
Because whether you’re Gandhi or Dorothy Day, you have immense resources that you have developed by simply responding to people in that way. Because they will join you and that gives you enormous power in solidarity and community.
Before he became the one we now identify as Gandhi, Gandhi was simply one lone individual trying to be a British lawyer. But once he identified himself with the poorest people in India, he became, in a sense, hundreds of millions of people. That’s why he was giving us that teaching of his: Only if you can help the poorest person you have ever encountered by what you’re doing… That was his daily way of life.
Raids on the Unspeakable
Spirit: You often cite the Trappist priest and monk Thomas Merton for his insights on contemplative prayer, war and peace, nuclear weapons, racism and nonviolence. During our blockade of the Trident submarine, you even named your boat, the “Thomas Merton.”
Douglass: I was corresponding with Thomas Merton from 1961 until his death in 1968. I also knew Merton personally because in 1965 I taught at Bellarmine College in Louisville, Kentucky, and I was visiting Merton. [Editor: Thomas Merton was a Trappist contemplative who lived in the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky.]
Merton had a deep influence on my understanding of nonviolence, to the point that I was hugely influenced by him in writing my book called Resistance and Contemplation. Merton put together the contemplative life with nonviolent resistance as nobody else did. Not even Dan Berrigan did it as deeply as Merton did.
Merton’s books were very important. Merton’s Raids on the Unspeakable were a series of essays he wrote in the 1960s and it forms the basis for my understanding of the assassinations of the 1960s.
In a poetic way that was deeply contemplative, Merton was exploring the unspeakable evil that included nuclear war, the Holocaust, the Vietnam War, racism and the assassinations of the 1960s. And he used the term “The Unspeakable.” It’s where we don’t want to go, and it’s what we can’t even say because if we do say it, we realize the responsibility to go into a realm of resisting evil that has enormous consequences, both hopeful and traumatic.
Spirit: Why did you write in Resistance and Contemplation that the interaction between political resistance and contemplation is so vital in nonviolent movements?
Douglass: Well, at the time, and today as well, there was a tension between those who were resisting the war and the racism and the sexism by fairly direct and extremely active means, and those who were turning on and dropping out, especially through drugs, or through countercultural activities that didn’t engage directly the oppression. Nonviolence is an integration of those two dimensions in a deeper way. Gandhi and Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton are all examples of a fusion of direct action — especially resistance to evil on a huge social scale — and prayer, with an emphasis on the contemplative side.
Spirit: For many, the cross is a vague spiritual symbol, but the Roman Empire used the cross to execute revolutionaries. How do you understand the meaning of the cross for nonviolent movements?
Douglass: The person I was most influenced by was Gandhi. Gandhi’s great statement regarding the cross is in his Christmas sermon to British people on a boat returning to India after a conference in London. He was asked to talk about Jesus on Christmas Day.
He gave an extraordinary reflection, the heart of which is his statement, “Living Christ means a living cross. Without it, life is a living death. Jesus lived and died in vain if he did not teach us to regulate the whole of life by the eternal Law of Love.” I’ve been thinking about that ever since I first heard it.
Spirit: What does it mean to you?
Douglass: It means that to understand the cross as an acceptance of suffering through resistance to evil is to engage in a transformation of that evil. When I hear those words, it is just embodied by Gandhi’s life. It would mean nothing apart from Gandhi. I know his story and I loved his story. I tried to understand the cross in relation to the message of Gandhi’s life.
He accepts suffering in order to resist it at a level that is impossible to understand intellectually or theoretically. It has to be embodied. And embodying it means walking the same path that Dorothy Day has walked, where you live with people in poverty, and you go to jail in order to resist wars and violence of every kind, and you are prepared to give your life in order to stand with people who are being destroyed by our own government.
That was Gandhi’s whole life and it’s Dorothy Day’s life and it’s what Shelley and I aspire to as part of the Catholic Worker movement. It’s the story of the early Church and it’s the story of liberation movements all around the world today. Of course, they’re not necessarily Christian, and Gandhi was not a Christian, but he embodied the meaning of Jesus’s cross.
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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)