How Greenpeace Got Its Name

Editor's Note: The following is excerpted from "Greenpeace: How a Group of Ecologists, Journalists and Visionaries Changed the World, by Rex Weyler (Rodale, $26).



Greenpeace was founded as much by happenstance as by design. In October 1969, the United States detonated a one-megaton nuclear bomb on remote Amchitka Island, 2,400 miles northwest of Vancouver, B.C., in the Aleutian Islands. The blast created a Richter 6.9 shockwave around the world. Newspaper columnist Bob Hunter, recalling the 1964 tsunami that had caused $1.4 million in damage to a town on the west coast of Vancouver Island, wrote, "There is a distinct danger that the tests might set in motion earthquakes and tidal waves which could sweep from one end of the Pacific to the other." For a disarmament rally in front of the American consulate, Hunter came up with the slogan "Don't Make a Wave." When the U.S. announced another test, five times more powerful, for the fall of 1971, local antiwar and environmental activists rose to stop it. American Quaker Irving Stowe phoned Hunter, Ben Metcalfe from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, expatriate Americans Jim and Marie Bohlen, local members of the Sierra Club, and others. They formed the group that came to be known as the "Don't Make a Wave Committee."

On Sunday morning, Feb. 8, 1970, Jim and Marie Bohlen drank coffee in their Vancouver kitchen. From the typically overcast winter sky, a diffused light filtered through the chestnut trees and into the large window. Marie, a nature illustrator, watched busy juncos and chickadees in the damp morning foliage. Jim said he was frustrated with the Sierra Club for its failure to take up the nuclear weapons issue, and with the Don't Make a Wave Committee for its inability to arrive at a strategy.

Marie sipped her coffee and watched the birds. Jim seethed as he read the newspaper. He got a second cup of coffee. Finally, somewhat casually, Marie said, "Why not sail a boat up there and confront the bomb?"

Most of the disarmament crowd knew of the Golden Rule, which had attempted to sail into the Enewetak test zone in 1958; the Phoenix, which had actually made it; and the Everyman, whose crew was arrested en route. Bob Hunter and lawyer Hamish Bruce had launched a tiny fishing boat to stage ecology actions, but it had sunk at dockside. Rod Marining and others had discussed the idea of procuring a ship, but Marie's suggestion was pure inspiration, detached from the practicalities. It just seemed to her like the right thing to do.

Jim and Marie were contemplating this when the phone rang. A local reporter, making a routine call and looking for a story, asked what the Sierra Club was planning. The synchronicity caught Bohlen off guard. Out of frustration, he took the plunge.

"We hope to sail a boat to Amchitka to confront the bomb," he explained. To Bohlen, this may have been a hypothetical idea, but to the reporter, it was a scoop. Before Bohlen knew it, he was describing how they would sail inside the 12-mile limit. "If the Americans want to go ahead with the test, they'll have to tow us out," he said. "Something must be done to stop their insane ecological vandalism."

Next day's headline proclaimed: SIERRA CLUB PLANS N-BLAST BLOCKADE.

What happened next would be later disputed in people's memories and clouded by myth, but over the next week the Don't Make a Wave Committee devised a plan to sail a boat to Amchitka Island and gave the boat a name, although no such boat had been committed to the cause. That week the committee held an emergency meeting at a local church. Light entered the unadorned room from two tall, thin windows in the west wall. Wooden and grey metal chairs had been pulled out, facing a table where Irving Stowe presided. The throng pulsated with anticipation. Although Marie's idea and Jim's pronouncement to the media had bypassed the consensus process, no one opposed the plan for a boat. On the contrary, it had given the group some direction.

Terry Simmons had set up the B.C. Sierra Club chapter with the blessings of the Seattle group but had not received official sanction from headquarters in San Francisco. He made it clear that the group might have nothing to do with the plan. Although Don't Make a Wave had originally been a committee of the Sierra Club, it now assumed ad hoc status. Members unanimously ratified the action, although they had neither a boat, nor the money to charter one, nor any legal standing other than the democratic right of citizens to assemble and challenge their governments.

As the meeting wound down, they discussed what kind of boat they needed and who would find it. Some people drifted into the church grounds and others milled around inside and talked in small groups. When Stowe left the meeting, he flashed the "V" sign, as was his custom, and said, "Peace." Bill Darnell, a quiet ecology activist who rarely spoke at the meetings, said modestly, in the same offhanded manner that Marie Bohlen had suggested the boat, "Make it a green peace."

The assembly went silent for a moment. Darnell was not aware that anyone took notice, yet everyone heard the magic in the two words. Others in the group had discussed the confluence of disarmament and ecology, and Hunter and Metcalfe had written about the idea, yet no one had quite articulated the fusion so succinctly. The indelible conjugate lodged in people's minds. A green peace.

A few days later, Stowe confided to Darnell that he could not stop thinking about the words. Hunter believed the expression fused the two most urgent movements in human affairs. Metcalfe said, "Yeah, well, it fits better in a headline than the Don't Make A Wave Committee." Over the next few days, people talked about the hypothetical boat as if it already existed, and some called it "the Green Peace."

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