Navy Veteran, Peace Activist, Born on 4th of July
A quick note of appreciation for the life of James Calvin Bohlen  (at left in photo above), a cofounder of the environmental and peace action group Greenpeace , who died Monday in British Columbia. He was 84. We did not know Mr. Bohlen—we confess we weren’t aware of him at all until we read the New York Times  obituary —but we wish to take a moment to honor his life and work, his commitment to Stopping the Bomb, to peace, and to courageous action to keep the planet a livable place for all. Now that we know about him, we wish we’d been there with him.
Bohlen was a member of a splinter group of Canadian Sierra Club members called the Don’t Make a Wave Committee  who opposed American testing of nuclear weapons at Amchitka Island in the Aleutian Islands (where he had served in the Navy in World War II as a radio operator). The U.S. had been testing in the Aleutians, at a point midway between Alaska and the USSR, since 1965. (For hair-raising accounts of the tests’ seismic and physical consequences, see here  and here .) Among the opponents’ concerns was that the nuclear shock waves, so soon after the horrific Great Alaska Earthquake  of 1964, would not only terrorize the already traumatized populace and release radioactive poisons but possibly also trigger new earthquakes (the test site was near a fault line) and tsunamis. In 1969, ten thousand protesters blocked a major U.S.–Canada border crossing, holding signs that read “Don’t Make a Wave. It’s Your Fault if Our Fault Goes.”
Bohlen had complained to his wife, Marie, that the committee was taking too long to make up its mind about how to stop the tests; she said offhandedly why not sail a boat to the test site? When a reporter from the Vancouver Sun happened to phone to check on the committee’s deliberations, Bohlen (perhaps to his own surprise) announced, “We hope to sail a boat to Amchitka to confront the bomb.” When the remark appeared in the paper the following day, the die was cast.
The Don’t Make a Wave Committee rented a halibut fishing boat, named it “Greenpeace,” and in September 1971 sailed toward the Aleutians, but was intercepted by the U.S. Coast Guard. The public outcry had an effect, however—boosted by a fund-raising concert in 1970  starring James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, and Phil Ochs—and the U.S. stopped testing in 1971.
Regarding the concerns about radioactivity, an alarming “30 Years After ” report in In These Times noted that “Highly radioactive elements and gasses, such as tritium, americium-241 and plutonium, poured out of the collapsed test shafts, leached into the groundwater and worked their way into ponds, creeks and the Bering Sea.”
James Calvin Bohlen was born in the Bronx, and after World War II he earned an engineering degree and worked as an aerospace engineer. He moved his family to Vancouver in 1967 so that his stepson would not be subject to a U.S. military draft during the Vietnam War.
He was a director of Greenpeace (now in 40 countries worldwide, with 3 million members) until his retirement in 1993. His memoir, Making Waves: The Origins and Future of Greenpeace , was published in 2000.
May his memory be honored by similar (and repeated, persistent) acts of courage and conscience.
See the new nonproliferation documentary Countdown to Zero  (as in “no nukes,” featuring nonproliferation agent Valerie Plame), presented by the producers of An Inconvenient Truth , and check out the movie’s spread-the-word action page .
Also check out The Ploughshares Fund , a grantmaking foundation “dedicated exclusively to security and peace funding” worldwide for more than 25 years whose board of directors includes Joseph Cirincione , president, former Nebraska senator Chuck Hagel , and Iranian-born author Reza Aslan .