• Analysis

After 4 decades of Plowshares actions, it’s nuclear warfare that should be on trial — not activists

Forty years ago, the Plowshares Eight sparked a movement of nuclear disarmers that continues to take responsibility for weapons of mass destruction.
Dan Berrigan (right) protesting nuclear weapons in the 1970s. (Pax Christi)

“Nuclear warfare is not on trial here, you are!” said Judge Samuel Salus, in exasperation.

Before him were eight activists, including two priests and a nun. As Judge Salus tried to preside over the government’s prosecution of them for their trespass onto — and destruction of — private property, the eight were trying to put nuclear warfare, nuclear weapons, nuclear policy and U.S. exceptionalism on trial.

That was 40 years ago this week — ancient history by some measures. And no one reading this will be surprised to find that the eight were found guilty and the human family is still threatened by almost 15,000 nuclear warheads. So, four decades later, why isn’t nuclear warfare on trial?

They are the crime responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians 75 years ago. They have littered the landscape with radioactive waste. They have cost the United States more than $5 trillion from the public coffers. They are the apocalyptic nightmare on hair-trigger alert that haunt our children’s dreams.

The Plowshares Eight, from left to right: Fr. Carl Kabat, Elmer Maas, Phil Berrigan, Molly Rush, Fr. Dan Berrigan, Sr. Anne Montgomery, John Schuchardt, Dean Hammer.

On September 9, 1980, my father, Philip Berrigan, along with his brother Daniel, John Schuchardt, Dean Hammer, Elmer Maas, Molly Rush, Sister Anne Montgomery, and Father Carl Kabat, gained entry into the General Electric plant in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. Once inside the complex, they poured blood over two nuclear weapons’ nose cones, and used household hammers to dent the metal. They came to be known as The Plowshares Eight. They were motivated by the prophets of the Hebrew scriptures who enjoined that “they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”

As we mark this 40th anniversary in a strange and fearful time of pandemic, white violence, political instability and economic insecurity, it is heartening and instructive to reflect back on the origins of the Plowshares movement. It was largely white, largely Catholic and relatively small. Their purpose was to take personal responsibility for nuclear weapons — these implements of mass destruction shrouded in almost mystical secrecy and reverence — and label them improper property, converting, transforming, exposing and ultimately abolishing them. Plowshares activists don’t just hold these views or espouse these beliefs. They conspire. They pray. They act through nonviolent means.

People are attracted to, and inspired by, the alchemic mixture of symbolic disarmament and real transformation that carries through the action, jail witness, courtroom saga and time in prison.

Over and over in the last 40 years, small groups of activists have gained entry to military installations, warships, submarines, missile silos, weapons manufacturer’s office parks and warehouses, air shows, communication hubs and other sites. They have carried bibles and banners, densely researched indictments, blood, hammers and other household tools. More than a hundred of these actions have happened since the Plowshares Eight, and the activists involved have cumulatively spent lifetimes in jails and prisons.

As a priest, my dad has resisted the Vietnam War, trespassed and destroyed property — at that earlier time, it was the draft records that were calling young men to the killing fields of Indochina. While inviting his older brother Daniel into this new nuclear age conspiracy, Dad called it “a second Catonsville,” referring to their May 1968 draft board raid. In a letter included in Daniel Cosacchi and Eric Martin’s “The Berrigan Letters,” Dad wrote to Dan that; “Quite nearby and we hope, accessible, lies a noxious toy assembly line to which stalwarts may gain entry for an admiring view and perhaps something more.”

It is a testament to their well-honed connection and commitment that Uncle Dan did not need a decoder ring to parse out the meaning here. That letter was written on March 4, 1980, and after just six months of planning, the eight acted. In their action statement they declared: “We come to GE to beat swords into plowshares and to expose the criminality of nuclear weapons and corporate piracy. We want to expose the lethal lie spun by GE through its motto ‘we bring good things to life.’ At GE, darkness shuts out light, death reigns over life. GE is helping the Pentagon prepare for atomic holocaust.”

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  • Nuclear weapons ruined my life, and I wouldn’t have it any other way
  • Arrested and jailed, tried and found guilty, my father and his friends faced 25 years in jail. My brother Jerry and I were 5 and 6 years old at the time, and our sister Kathleen was conceived in the midst of the trial. The dire consequences did not temper the activists’ spirits or dull their courage. In fact, they were so adamant that they carried their resistance into the courtroom, turning their backs on Judge Salus when he refused to admit some of their expert witnesses and walking out of the court house and heading back to General Electric for a demonstration. When they refused to return to court the next day, vigiling again at the gates of GE instead, they were arrested there and brought back to court in cuffs. In the end, four of the eight received sentences of 3-10 years, three were sentenced to 1.5 -5 years, and Molly Rush, a first-time offender, got 2-5 years.

    That first Plowshares action set off a chain reaction. Over the last 40 years, there have been more than 100 similar actions. People are attracted to, and inspired by, the alchemic mixture of symbolic disarmament and real transformation that carries through the action, jail witness, courtroom saga and time in prison. It is a long haul commitment that measures effectiveness in the ineffable stirrings of conscience, the trim-tab turnings toward nonviolence, new strands of conversation and musings — rather than in Senate bills passed, dollars raised or ground gained.

    Arthur Laffin, who compiled “Swords Into Plowshares: Nonviolent Direct Action for Disarmament, Peace, Social Justice,” writes of the process of community building and prayer that is a key component of the Plowshares witness, sharing that “People who have been involved in Plowshares actions have undertaken a process of intense spiritual preparation, nonviolence training and community formation, and have given careful consideration to the risks involved. Plowshares activists, accepting full responsibility for their actions, remain at the site of their action so that they can publicly explain their witness.”

    Indeed, many see the prayer and preparation as the piece of the work that “makes the magic happen.” My Uncle Dan recalled the furor around the action as they were first arrested. How did they gain entry? How did they know about the weapons? Was there a leak? Was there inside information? In “Swords Into Plowshares” Dan wrote “Of course we had inside information; of course there was a leak — our informant is otherwise known in the New Testament as Advocate, Friend, Spirit. We had been at prayer for days.”

    From King of Prussia to Kings Bay, Georgia

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  • My mother, Elizabeth McAlister, is a veteran of two Plowshares actions herself. Jonah House — the community she, my father and their friends founded in the early 1970s — was the incubator of countless others. Mom’s most recent Plowshares action took place in April 2018, at the Kings Bay Naval Base in Georgia. She and six others gained entry to the 16,000-acre base on the 60th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. They trekked through the night to reach sites on the base where nuclear weapons are celebrated and memorialized. Four of the group dismantled the memorials and marked office buildings with blood and messages. Mom and two others were apprehended as they tried to reach bunkers where Trident submarines are stored. Their banners read: “Nuclear Weapons: Illegal – Immoral” and “‘The Ultimate Logic of Racism is Genocide’ Dr. Martin Luther King” and “The Ultimate Logic of Trident is Omnicide.”

    Six Trident submarines operate out of Kings Bay, and they are the likely launchers of a first-strike nuclear attack. They are armed with D5 missiles capable of traveling over 1,370 miles in less than 13 minutes, allowing for a U.S. nuclear strike anywhere on planet Earth within 15 minutes. The Navy plans to replace its aging fleet of Tridents with the Columbia-class submarine. These new submarines are estimated to cost $122.3 billion. In the indictment they carried on to the base, the Kings Bay Plowshares activists highlighted that “each day this program steals from all in our nation and world by its theft of much-needed resources.”

    In October 2019, they were tried and found guilty in relatively short order. The judge was willing to engage with the activists about their conscience and formation, but would not allow expert testimony about nuclear weapons, foreign policy or international law. In the end, it took her longer to instruct the jury than it took for the jury members to find the defendants guilty.

    We can also draw a line of inspiration and mutual respect between the actions of religiously-motivated nuclear disarmers and the (perhaps more secular) racial justice activists who are toppling, dismantling and replacing racist statues and monuments.

    In January 2020, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved the hands of the Doomsday Clock 20 seconds closer to midnight. We stand at 100 seconds to midnight, closer than ever before, because they say “Civilization-ending nuclear war — whether started by design, blunder, or simple miscommunication — is a genuine possibility. Climate change that could devastate the planet is undeniably happening. And for a variety of reasons that include a corrupted and manipulated media environment, democratic governments and other institutions that should be working to address these threats have failed to rise to the challenge.”

    Most of the Kings Bay Plowshares still await sentencing. Mom was sentenced to time served by video conference in June — a surreal and dislocating experience that is now more and more common in our criminal justice system. Her co-defendants opted to postpone sentencing in hopes that it could be in person, but it is unclear if that will happen.

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    Reaping the peace dividends

    Last week, my mom and I sat at the edge of a playground watching my 6 and 8 year olds climb and jump. I asked her what she remembered of September 1980. “I remember the feeling of utter relief when I heard that your dad and the rest of the eight were still alive. I felt such gratitude that they were able to do the action without being hurt or damaged. Your dad, when I finally talked to him from jail, was tired but satisfied. He was prayerfully grateful.”

    My mom, who has spent years in prison after following her conscience, mused, “No one in their right mind wants to take these weapons on. No one wants to take on the consequences. Jail is dehumanizing and removes you from the people you love. Going up against that which defines the United States of America as ‘number one’ is terrifying. But, I think, that we can address these weapons of mass destruction and help people understand how wrong they are, how destructive they are. We can show people that these weapons take away from every good effort people engage in. They undercut everything we try to do. Nuclear weapons forfeit our future. But our ‘no’ is heard and inspires others.”

    Just as there is a direct line between King of Prussia and Kings Bay, we can also draw a line of inspiration and mutual respect between the actions of religiously-motivated nuclear disarmers and the (perhaps more secular) racial justice activists who are toppling, dismantling and replacing racist statues and monuments.

    We hope that by the time we mark 50 years since the Plowshares Eight, we are erecting windmills for energy, planting sunflowers to detox the soil, practicing mutual aid, building community and finally prosecuting nuclear warfare and reaping the peace dividends that flower from global nuclear abolition.



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