It was 35 years ago that, as a man of 34, I ventured forth to commit my first felony.
I had put my affairs in order. I had made certain my sons were going to be fine. I switched the deed to my 40 acres and my solar cabin to my father. I had walked my 40, along the river, along the field, and into the woods. I hugged my old golden birch trees, Betula alleghaniensis, and my large Norway pines and white pines. I got down on my knees and lowered my face directly into the ground cover bryophytes that beckoned.
Ronald Reagan was playing nuclear chicken with Leonid Brezhnev, ramping up offensive, first-strike capacities in the US arsenal, which were highly destabilizing. The Pershing II missiles were new and deployed in Europe, with a radically reduced flight time to Moscow of just 5-7 minutes. Nuclear weapons on cruise missiles took longer but were virtually stealth, programmed to fly low, under radar, making the Soviet defenses highly nervous.
Just five years earlier, the King of Prussia Plowshares group had shown the way. They entered a General Electric plant and grabbed a Mark 12-A warhead and symbolically but really “hammered swords into plowshares” (Isaiah 2:4). It was electrifying to those of us who were working for peace and disarmament of the most unsoldierly weapons ever built, nuclear bombs.
As a Dad, it took me several years to craft my life to be able to do a Plowshares action, that is, an act of direct disarmament, literally using hand tools to dismantle or disable a weapon of war.
In the meanwhile, others worked to oppose these godawful weapons and I joined them. Committed peace activists in Michigan refused to allow the construction of a thermonuclear command center there without nonviolent resistance. I joined them. We pulled survey stakes along a 56-mile route through portions of four state forests in the Upper Peninsula, a route planned for the antenna that would transmit commands to all US nuclear submarines, possibly the order to launch hydrogen bombs.
We were resonating with “da Yoopers,” the folks from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, who, in 1978 referenda in all eight counties in the UP, voted 80 percent against having this facility built. That is a landslide. That is a mandate.
But when Reagan was elected he broke the democratic promise and ordered the command center built.
So we resisted.
Despite our weekly efforts (led by two nuns and a priest) pulling survey stakes, the Navy got the command base built. So, on Memorial Day, 1985, I took my hand tools and dismantled some of it, went to my buddies in Marquette, Michigan for beer and pizza, and the next morning I turned myself in.
I was convicted of a felony but the judge barely slapped my wrist. I frankly was afraid of the harsh sentence just handed down to my friends who did the same thing at a missile site in Missouri, and they were sentenced to 18 years in prison.
I was fortunate. My judge was not inclined to send me away for more than a couple weeks or so. I did nothing compared to the original Plowshares resisters. But in the great sweep of American history of such activities, I was at least paying up more than Henry David Thoreau, who wrote the iconic essay on his war tax resistance, Civil Disobedience. He spent all of one night in jail.
So, to me, Memorial Day will always be a peace holiday. It should commemorate the hundreds of millions who did not die from thermonuclear warfare this year. May we be so lucky until next Memorial Day.
Dr. Tom H. Hastings is PeaceVoice Director and on occasion an expert witness for the defense in court.