“Ballot Measures, Protests and Satire Groups”
Interview with Peter Bergel
Conducted by Lawrence Wittner (State University of New York at Albany) Salem, OR, August 3, 1999
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Peter Bergel is a long-time peace activist, who played a central role in the peace and anti-nuclear power movement in Oregon and beyond. He already opposed nuclear testing as a college student in the 1960s and a decade later began working with a satire group called Dr. Atomic’s Medicine Show, which illuminated the problem of nuclear power – an issue Bergel always deemed “winnable.” The group later spoofed many other issues as well.
Working in Oregon he became an expert on ballot measures, passing one in 1980 that banned new nuclear power developments statewide. At the same time Bergel co-founded a peace group called Citizen Action for Lasting Security (CALS), organized large-scale protests and acts of civil disobedience and played a role in the national nuclear freeze campaign from its inception. Disillusioned by the bureaucratization of the national movement, he returned to work primarily at the grassroots level, for example as an editor of the PeaceWorker, the organ of Oregon PeaceWorks (OPW).
Despite his belief that peace activism is most effective when pursued locally, Bergel emphasizes the importance of transnational connections, such as he observed between American and Russian peace groups in the late 1980s. Drawing strength from the international implications of the peace movement, he came to view “the linkages between the U.S. movement and the movements in other countries as constantly more important.” Today, Bergel continues his lifelong commitment to peace activism as the editor-in-chief of the PeaceWorker and OPW’s Executive Director.
“I returned to nuclear issues in 1974, when I started finding out what was wrong with nuclear power plants. I worked with a group that set up a political satire group — theater group — called Dr. Atomic’s Medicine Show, which is still in existence, actually, and which I am still a member of. . . . That started out being about nuclear power and then, later, broadened its mandate. . . . I became pretty concerned about nuclear power and, also, deemed it to be a winnable issue, which was one of the things I liked about it at that time. And got involved in a couple of ballot measure campaigns that were unsuccessful and made it to the top leadership of one of those — became the chairman of the executive committee of that one. The time, I guess, wasn’t quite right yet and the strategic decisions we made that time weren’t quite right, either. So I went to work in the legislature after that — that was where I met Chuck [Johnson]. Actually, we did some civil disobedience up at the Trojan nuclear plant and, then, went to the legislature and tried to get some legislative stuff happening. We came very close . . . didn’t quite make it. So then he and I wrote a ballot measure in 1979, which went to the ballot in 1980 and stopped nuclear power development in the state of Oregon, and I was overall director of that ballot measure campaign. He was our field director.
So, after that, we had a pretty good organization together. And we gathered to decide whether we ought to head off into the direction of working on alternative energy or whether we ought to head off in the direction of the Nuclear Freeze, which was just beginning to catch fire in 1981. Chuck took about a third of the people and went in the direction of alternative energy and nuclear free zones and that kind of thing. The other two-thirds or so went with me and formed an organization called Citizen Action for Lasting Security. And we were in on the founding of the national Nuclear Freeze campaign in that meeting . . . on the East coast. And I became quite active in the national Nuclear Freeze politics and also headed the Freeze campaign at the state level pretty much, with the exception of the Nuclear Freeze ballot measure, in 1982. I was in the leadership of that, as well, but under protest, because I didn’t think we ought to be actually doing that. But I thought, as long as we are doing it, since I know more about ballot measures than any of the people who were working on it at the time, I thought I’d better be involved lest they screw it up and lose it, which would have really been disastrous to everything that we were trying to do. We did win. It wasn’t too difficult to do that, fortunately,” although “the campaign was rather poorly organized.
And then we continued to work on the Freeze at the national level. But the Freeze leadership, at the national level, developed into a more and more and more conservative group, from the point of view of what they were willing to undertake. And they became much less activists and much more peace bureaucrats, the more focused on Washington they became. And many of us at the grassroots were very disillusioned by that.
In 1985, when the Soviets declared their moratorium on nuclear testing, the peace movement basically did nothing. The national peace movement didn’t react to that. And a group of us who had been talking — `How can we do a better Freeze strategy?’ — for some time, just flipped out, said: `Wait a minute! We’ve been trying to get this to happen now for four or five years, and here the leader of one of the two power blocs decides to actually do it and we don’t have a reaction, because we’re too busy collecting petition signatures or some stupid thing. We can’t allow this.’ So three people — Jim Driscoll . . . and Jesse Cox . . . and Nancy Hale met at the Nevada Desert Witness, Hiroshima Day demonstration in 1985, and they all knew each other from the Freeze campaign. And they got together and said: `We really have to do something about this. And maybe this gives us an idea of what we ought to do. Maybe we ought to call people down to the Nevada test site and do civil disobedience down here and really raise hell until the Reykjavik summit.’ And then Nancy came back from that meeting with those two guys and said to me and my partner, Ted Coran, who was at that time the other co-director of Citizen Action for Lasting Security. Well, we’d been talking with Nancy and her partner, Tom Lynch, for a long time about what should we do, and we’d thought about taking people to the test site, but we hadn’t figured a way to do it. And so she came back and said: `Well, I’ve seen how this can be done now. And it can be done in a way that isn’t so horribly risk-involved that people just won’t do it.’ So we went down and had a talk with her and we basically laid out an action plan that night for how we might do this. . . . For the 50 days leading up to the Reykjavik summit, we would have people coming down from a different state every day and getting arrested at the test site and making as big a media splash as possible, and demanding that Reagan halt nuclear testing as well at Reykjavik, do an initial moratorium on nuclear weapons testing. So that was the plan when we came away from talking to Nancy that night. And she said that Jim was already looking for money for the project and Jesse was already working on folks through the East Coast national Freeze network that she was hooked into also at that time.
So that weekend Ted and Chuck and I went off to the coast and went camping for a couple of days, and we sat up on a bluff overlooking the ocean, and basically laid out the whole plan as to how this was going to be operationally done. . . . And then we thought . . . especially Ted and I looked at each other and said: `You know, we’ve done this before.’ We used to call it a `Ted and Peter Show,’ when we would get all hyped up on an idea that we thought was really a good one, and we’d just go out all cylinders firing with this great idea, and just go charging off into the distance, tooting the horn and making great speed and so forth like that, and turn and look around and there was nobody there. So we thought: `Well, maybe we better make sure that we’re not doing a “Ted and Peter Show” here.’ So what we did was we came back and we called up all the peace groups that we knew and said: `When’s the next time that you’re meeting? Are you meeting any time in the next week and a half?’ And [to] all the ones that were, we said: `Would you give us 15 minutes to make a really exciting presentation to your group?’ And they all said `Yes’ — all the groups in the vicinity here. . . . So we put together a pretty punchy 15-minute presentation and went running around to all these groups and saying: `Here’s the plan. What do you think?’ Not only was the response really enthusiastic — like `How many people want to go?’ `Me, me, me!’ — but we were passing the hat at the end of the presentations, saying: `Well, if you can’t come, maybe you could throw a little money in.’ And these are just regular little peace meetings, with maybe 15 or 20 people attending, at the most. And they’re kicking in 100 and 150 bucks into the hat. . . . And this is happening over and over and over again. So we’re thinking: `. . . We’re on to something here!
Then we think: `Well, we’ll go ahead with the plan . . . that we did out at the beach.’ And that plan was to cut it down to 30 days as being a little more manageable, and doubling up some of the states. So we pretty arbitrarily just sat down and started saying: `OK, here’s the day and here’s the state.’ And then we were going through our lists of contacts and, basically, calling people cold. Many of them didn’t know us at all, some of them knew us but only through contact through the Freeze campaign. So we’re picking up the phone and we’re saying: `Hello, this is Peter Bergel, of Citizen Action for Lasting Security out in Salem, Oregon, and we’re going to bring all these people down to the test site, and what we’d like you to do is bring a bunch of people from your state down to the test site to get arrested on the 25th of October. What do you say?’ Well, you can imagine picking up the phone and having this said into your ear. Like: `You’ve got to be kidding! I’ve got nothing else to do?’
The surprising thing was that it worked. We didn’t turn out huge numbers of people, but we turned out enough people to have civil disobedience practically every day for 30 days leading up to the summit, and we brought in people from all across the country — practically every state was represented. We thought that was pretty remarkable. So we went down there, we had all these people arrested . . . — I’d say there were at least 150 people arrested over those 30 days — which, considering . . . it was the first time, we thought was pretty good. . . .
We went right from the 30 days of doing that right over to the national Freeze Campaign conference . . . and we said: `Wow! This is it! This is where we have to go!’ And . . . all the bureaucrats are saying: `No. This is going to alienate our base of support. The people won’t like this.’ And so: `Well, you know, I don’t think that’s your decision to make. I think that’s the conference’s decision to make.’ So they said: `Well, OK. You can make a presentation to the conference.’ Well, over the course of the conference, they kept changing when we were going to get to do it, and they kept shortening the time we were going to be allowed, and they kept engineering things so that, by the time they actually allowed the vote to take place, they had splintered things and messed things up and interfered with our presentation so much that we hadn’t yet made a really good presentation. And, as a result, we lost by about 10 votes out of 400 or so. And we were furious, because we didn’t think it was because people had had a really clear picture of what they were voting on; it was because things had been. . . . We would expect to be treated like that by the Congress, but we wouldn’t expect to be treated like that by the peace movement. . . . We said: `This has got to be part of the mix, bringing people down to the test site. This is the first new thing that the Freeze campaign’s done in three years. Let’s go for it! This is a great success.’ We came in saying: `Not only did we get some media, and we got a lot of arrests, but the main thing that we did was to get a whole lot of people really fired up, and they went back to their home communities really determined to do something.’ Which had not been happening for a while. The Freeze campaign did a real good job of that for the first couple of years, and then it started to ssssss [sound of air going out of a balloon] because of no new ideas. So we said: `Well, we’ve got new ideas now, and we’re seeing that same energy going back up again. So we have to do this.’ `Well no, we don’t have to do it.’ So about 20 or 30 people gathered in a room, at the conference, and said: `Let’s spin off. Let’s get out of here. If we can’t do it within the Freeze campaign, we need to do it, so let’s just go ahead and do it.’ Most of us had gotten arrested and needed to go back in January, anyway, and go to court. So we said: `Well, we’ll meet in Vegas when we go back there anyway.’
And so again we had about . . . 25 people or so at a meeting in Vegas. Jim had gone out and gotten a few thousand dollars to fund this thing, so we’d have a place to be and we could have some facilitation, and if people needed their plane fares paid, we’d be able to cover that. He did a great job. . . . So we had a big meeting for a few days in January of 1986, founded the American Peace Test, and at the core of that were Ted, and me, and Jesse, and Jim, and Nancy Hale, and one other woman who had been on the Freeze executive committee whose name was Nancy Heskitt. So that was the American Peace Test leadership at that point. . . . Over the next three years, we brought tens of thousands of people down there. We had 5,000 people out there twice. . . . And it had quite an impact on the peace movement for a while. Then there was an internal coup in the American Peace Test. It was a really disgusting thing, and all the staff were fired, and a new board seized control, ran the organization $80,000 in debt, and then they split. And the organization never recovered from that. It was very, very distressing to me.
I came back to Oregon after that very upset that that had happened. . . and kind of looked around to see what was happening. Meanwhile, some people had picked up the pieces of Citizen Action for Lasting Security, which was beginning to run out of gas when Ted and I got sort of focused on the American Peace Test. A guy named Don Skinner picked up the pieces of that and founded what is now Oregon PeaceWorks. I was slightly involved with that, but not much. Ted was a little bit more involved, but not much. Kind of a new crew came in and put that together. . . . I . . . began to notice that this group was doing quite a bit of good stuff that nobody knew about because they didn’t have any kind of a mouthpiece. So I made a proposal to the board: `How would you like me to put together a newspaper for you?’ It was a bit of a hard sell, actually, but it did happen. And that became the Oregon Peaceworker, which I’ve been doing since then. And we’ve taken a very strong leadership role in terms of getting important information about peace, justice, and environmental affairs out to the community in Oregon. I think that everybody would now agree that the Peaceworker’s probably the most vital part of the PeaceWorks program.”
The Freeze campaign’s activities in Oregon: “The first really successful one was a big petition campaign. And then they had that huge demonstration in New York. People organized pretty actively to get people to go to that. Then there was the Citizen Train, which involved . . . getting people to go on a train across country and lobby and talk to people along the way and eventually wind up in Washington and go visit Congressional representatives and that sort of thing. We also brought lobbying delegations from Oregon on designated lobby days for the Freeze for several years in a row. We put a memorial through the 1981 legislature putting the Oregon legislature on record as being in favor of the Nuclear Freeze and instructing the Oregon Congressional delegation to do all they could to promote a Nuclear Freeze. Of course, Hatfield and Kennedy became very active — and Hatfield was our senior Senator at the time. And Jim Weaver, who was a Congressman from the fourth district and Les O’Coin, who was a Congressman from the first district — without, actually, asking us whether we thought it was a good idea — filed a ballot measure for the Freeze campaign here which . . . kind of forced me to become active in that, although I had already discouraged about 3 or 4 other people from doing that, saying that: `I know how much work it is to pass a ballot measure . . . and we have more effective things to do, I think, than to engage in that kind of thing here.’ But they didn’t ask me, so they did it. And I thought I’d better get involved.”
The bureaucratization of the national Freeze leadership: “They kept acting as though the main thrust of what was going on was happening in Washington. My experience is that Washington is kind of the last place where anything happens, and that you have to make it happen in all parts of the country first, and then it happens in Washington. . . . They began by having offices in St. Louis, and Randy Kehler — who was an old friend of mine from my earlier peace days . . . — was heading the Freeze campaign at that time, and at that point, the idea of the Freeze campaign seemed to be to assist local Freeze campaigns in coming up with ideas, funding, supplying good information, that sort of thing. So we were very supportive of that kind of an approach — keeping the leadership of the Freeze campaign at the grassroots level. Then a decision was made, in a very high-handed manner, to move the campaign to Washington, DC. This decision was made about 10 days after the question had come up in a hotly debated national Freeze conference, where the vote was something like 426 to 25 in favor of keeping the focus on the grassroots, not moving the campaign to Washington, DC. The leadership then met, not two weeks after that vote had been taken, and moved the campaign to Washington, which just outraged the grassroots, of course. And it took a while for the Freeze campaign to rebuild its funding base because so many people lost confidence at that point.
One of the things that we did a lot of here was put together what we called Freeze Backgrounders. Ted and I did a lot of work on those, and then we got a huge amount of support from the local group that we headed, the CALS group here. CALS (Citizen Action for Lasting Security) had a number of chapters, and that was sort of all built around the county groups that had been active in the ballot measure campaign in 1980. . . . And they were very supportive of that — helping us with research and helping us with typing. . . . So we put together these packets, which we would then make available at a nominal charge to other Freeze groups. The idea was to upgrade the level of education that people had about all the Freeze topics, such as: What’s testing for? What’s it all about? How many nuclear weapons are there? What would happen in case of a nuclear war? What kinds of delivery vehicles do we have that would deliver these things? How much money does this cost? What is the economic effect of devoting this much money to the nuclear arms race? And on and on and on. Then, as new things came up, we would jump into them. Like Star Wars — we did a whole mini-packet on Star Wars. We’d bundle these things together and sell them. So that kind of thing was very popular.
We also had a speakers’ bureau here, as did many groups around the country. Education was a very big part of what we were trying to do.
The success of it, I think, was shown by the fact that Reagan came to office talking about nuclear war being winnable and, by 1983, he was not able to say that kind of thing any more. He was not able to make those kinds of statements anywhere in the country. Another level of the success of the approach that we had was that, from the second year . . . , from 1982, through probably the rest of the decade, you could poll people on whether they wanted a verifiable halt on the testing, deployment, and production of nuclear weapons, and you would get somewhere between the high 60s and the low 80s . . . depending on how you worded it. Any time. That was always available. Yet we couldn’t get that to happen in the Congress. That always used to amaze me. I used to write letters to the editor all the time about this. Because people would say: `Well, at least in this country, we have some control over our government. If you looked at Russia, you couldn’t control the government.’ And I would say: `Well, what about this, then? Here’s a clear case, on a very, very important issue where we have . . . super majorities in the country in favor of this. . . .’ So any way the people were allowed to speak on this issue, they spoke with a pretty unified voice — a lot more unified than they ever expressed in electing a President, by a damned sight, or most Congresspeople. `So here we have this situation, and yet we can’t make it happen. So how are we better off than the Russians! We don’t control our government either.'”
Why the Freeze couldn’t secure Congressional approval: “Too much lobby power on the other side. . . . The whole peace movement had about 25 lobbyists at that time. They used to get together in a room and have lunch together once a week, or something like that. . . . At that time, the Pentagon had thousands of lobbyists. And that’s not even counting all of the companies that were doing it. . . . We know that money plays a fairly substantial role in how these decisions come down, and they had it and we didn’t, in spades! I don’t think there’s a lot of mystery about that.
There’s a story here, though, about the testing stuff. . . . In 1988, we put together our largest demonstration at the test site. That was the big 5,000 person one, in March. And, by that time, . . . Ted Coran . . . had decided that he had had enough of the American Peace Test and was going to devote his attention instead to getting a change in Congressional representation in this district. We had been represented for four terms at that point by Denny Smith, who was really a disaster. . . . We had been trying to get rid of him. The Freeze campaign would sort of swing into electoral mode every two years, CALS was always involved in that. We tried lots of things, lots of creative strategies, including running a Republican against him in the primary, to bump him off. And we hadn’t been able to do it. And Ted felt really strongly that . . . the best thing a person from this district could do for the Freeze would be to get rid of Denny Smith and replace him with somebody who would vote right. So there arose in 1988 a guy named Mike Kopetski, who had actually approached us in the early eighties with a run for Congress, and we had sort of put him off. . . . He got into the legislature and had two or three sessions there . . . and now wanted to run for Congress. So Ted, who was kind of my protégé and . . . then had gone quite a bit beyond that on his own said to Mike: `You know, I’d like to come to work for you.’ And Mike said: `I’d love to have you, as a field director.’ And Ted said: `Well, that’s great. Let’s do it. But the quid pro quo is that you need to come down to the demonstration in March of 1988, because once we get you elected, I’m going to want you to do something about this, and that’s the reason I’m coming to work for you. And I want you to know what this is about.’ So Kopetski came down to the test site in 1988, and had the experience . . . that practically everybody does when they go there, which is . . . a visceral reaction to being in the presence of a place where these bombs are being set off, just a few miles away. . . . It’s so beautiful, and yet it’s so horrible. That juxtaposition really gets to people. So he went down and went through this, and he failed to be elected that time by 707 votes in this district, which is not much. . . . And he ran again — and the next time Ted was his overall campaign manager — and he won.
. . . The director of PeaceWorks . . . was at that time a woman named Susan Gordon. PeaceWorks had been very active in his campaign, and it continued to turn people out, get them going door to door, and so forth, putting up lawn signs and the whole thing. Helping raise money. So she went to Kopetski as soon as he was elected and said: `OK, Mike. Now we want to meet with you every month about peace-related things.’ And he sort of balked at that, and said: `Well, what about every 3 months or 6 months.’ `No, no. It’s going to be every month.’ She got intense with him about it . . . and he agreed to it. So we had a group of people meeting with him about every month. . . . Susan came back from the first of those meetings, called up the main SANE/Freeze lobbyist . . . and said: `We’ve got a guy who will do what we ask him to do in the area of nuclear weapons, especially testing. What would you like us to do?’ And the guy didn’t believe her, and kind of blew her off. But she kept at it, and he finally said: `Well, get him to put a moratorium bill in.’ She said: `OK.’
So we went to Kopetski and said: `We want you to put a moratorium bill in.’ And he said: `OK, I’ll do it.’ So he did that. . . . He was a freshman [in 1991], no clout. . . . But then, because he had this experience of having actually become viscerally involved in this issue, he really put some attention on this bill he was sponsoring. He didn’t just drop it and walk away from it. . . . He goes to Gephardt and says: `Would you sign on to this? And, if you do, we won’t call it the Kopetski bill, we’ll call it the Gephardt bill.’ . . . Gephardt’s signing on essentially meant that the Ds were going to get on board, and if the Ds got on board there were enough votes right there. . . . Mike went around and really did a job on selling that thing. And passed it in the House. . . . At that point, Mike went to Hatfield and said: `Mark, you’ve been on this all your political career. Will you do it once again?’ And Hatfield said: `Of course. I will shepherd this thing in the Senate.’ Well . . . Hatfield’s name on a peace bill in the Senate — so what else is new? But what Hatfield did was, taking a page out of Kopetski’s book, he recruited Jim Exon, a very unlikely recruitment. Well, that was what it took to get it to pass in the Senate.
So this whole thing, to some extent, stemmed from Kopetski going down to the test site, which wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t had these big demonstrations and so forth and so on. So did we have an effect? I think so. . . .
That group that Susan Gordon put together included Andy Harris, who was always the big PSR guy around here and who later went on to be national president of PSR. And when Andy throws his weight behind something, it helps a lot. So Musil’s right that PSR was deeply involved, and the staff person up in Portland — Del Greenfield — I’m sure was also a significant player on this, too. But the reason that all this worked so well was because Kopetski had been there — a fact that Susan knew, because she’d been there several times, too, and was there when he was. . . . Sitting on that bluff in 1985, and figuring out the first American Peace Test action, we hoped that we would have some kind of an effect. We had no idea what the twists and turns were going to be.
Another thing that I know that we really had an impact with . . . — and this I consider the most important legacy of the American Peace Test — was that there was something about going down there and having that experience that we created for people that made them want to go back and do something in their home communities. And so basically the mission was to get people to come down there, do civil disobedience, and get themselves set on fire, and then go back and do something in their community, whatever that something ought to be. And we didn’t need to tell them what that was. Sometimes they came up with very good ideas, sometimes I thought they were less good. But they were doing what they thought was the best thing to do in their situations, and I know of a lot of communities where people came down and then came back and let us know that they were doing stuff. So, in terms of something that was keeping the pot boiling through the middle and the late `80s, that was important. . . . Typically somewhere between a quarter and a third would actually get arrested. But, if there’s 5,000 people there, we had 1,200 people arrested in one day. That was one of the largest arrest demonstrations ever to take place in the country. That was the day Kopetski was there, as a matter of fact. I think only Seabrook was bigger than that.
I will tell you another story. . . . The Russians got together behind a poet named Suleimenov . . . and put together a movement that shut down the test site in Kazakhstan. And they called it the Nevada-Semipalatinsk movement. And the reason that they called it that was because they were inspired by what we did. And they were considerably more effective in reaching their objectives in the short term than we were. That, I felt, was quite remarkable. And then, of course, they reinspired us when they did that, and so that was very good. They told us that they had been inspired by what we did, and that’s why they called it the Nevada movement. Sulyamenov was at the test site. He came over one time. And there were other ones [connections]. . . . There’s a little logo that shows a guy in an Indian headdress sitting down with a guy dressed as a Kazakh, and they’re sitting around smoking a peace pipe. And that was the logo of the Nevada-Semipalatinsk movement — that was kind of a coalition that linked both countries. . . . My guess is that it would have been [begun] in 1989. . . . I wasn’t there when he was there, but I heard about it.”
Importance of being part of a transnational movement: “Toward the end of my time with American Peace Test, I viewed it as increasingly important. I viewed the linkages between the U.S. movement and the movements in other countries as constantly more important. Two hobbyhorses became really important to me in the last year of my activity there. One of them was that one.
And the other one was that we should focus more on the weapons labs, because I thought that . . . the thing that’s really driving testing is the weapons labs. I think it was in 1991, when I went back to the test site for the first time [since the internal coup in APT], one of the things that drew me back to the area . . . was that . . . I think it might have been PSR that was holding a seminar in a big hotel in Las Vegas about testing. And they had a lot of very interesting people there, so I wanted to attend and I wanted to cover it for the Peaceworker. One of the people who was there was Ted Taylor. . . . He used to be a weapons designer, and later decided that he had made a mistake and got out of it and began speaking against it. . . . So he was down there talking, and he was using the analogy of the U.S. being addicted to nuclear weapons. That has been an analogy that’s always appealed to me a lot. We used it as far back as in the `70s, in the Dr. Atomic Show. . . . In fact, several times at several different places we portrayed Uncle Sam as a drug dealer, dealing drugs, which are like brown bombers and that kind of thing. So I figured that I knew what he was talking about and I was intrigued with this. So I went up to him afterwards and shook his hand, introduced myself, and said I had been intrigued by that because I used that often myself, and I was sort of rattling on to him about this. And he interrupted me and said: `I don’t think you understood what I was talking about. What I was talking about was an addiction to setting off big bombs. This is something like kids that like to play with fireworks, grown way big.’ He says: `Virtually all of us who were out there doing that kind of thing are into that. I was into it myself. So this whole business is being driven by people who are addicted to setting off large explosions. . . . We have to put up with the damned nuclear arms race because these guys want to set off big bombs.’ It’s like playing, but it’s more like shooting up. . . . He said: `I remember a time, back in the fifties, when we were doing above-ground testing. We were all out there in a trench, waiting for the bomb and then we were going to look out over the top and see afterwards.’ He said: `I brought down a parabolic mirror that I stuck on the end of a stick, and I set it up there so that I could focus the blast down into the trench and light a cigarette off of it.’ . . . He had that same [drug/alcohol abuser] sense about him: `I’m telling you about my debauchery here. Isn’t it incredible, and isn’t it awful?’ . . . It was just like: `You’ve got to be kidding. This is why we’re doing this?’ So that made me think: We’ve got to cut this business of the weapons labs off. Because, when you get right down to it, the weapons contractors are not pushing so hard for testing. They don’t really care if we test. . . . The ones who are really driving testing are the weapons labs. When I first started noticing that the weapons labs were behind this in a very big way, I thought they were protecting their jobs. But they’re not! They can get jobs other places. They don’t care about that. They’re protecting their big bangs!”
On the power of nonviolent resistance: “At the end of the first year of the American Peace Test, I was the major organizer of a demonstration which was the first time that we had tried a blockade at the test site. I didn’t get arrested that day, because I was sort of the overall coordinator, but I was eventually cited for `conspiracy to commit a misdemeanor,’ which is more serious than a misdemeanor. So I was looking at . . . either six months or a year in jail, and there was some fine also that was possible. They dragged it on and dragged it on and dragged it on. It was a whole year before this was finally coming to trial. Our lawyers . . . didn’t really understand us, so they kept trying to plea-bargain this thing with the DA. The DA was pretty happy to do it. He said: `Sure, tell `em that if they stay away from the test site for the next six months and something-or-other else . . . we’ll drop the charges.’ And they come back and they say: `Great news!’ And we say: `No. You don’t get it. This is what we do. Number one, I’m not going to do that. Number two, I’m not even going to admit wrongdoing. I’m not going to plea-bargain because . . . I think that they’re the ones who are in the wrong or I wouldn’t be doing it!'” More plea-bargaining followed on the part of the attorneys and the DA, always rejected by the defendants. “I just had to tell them: `I’m not going to admit that I did anything wrong, because I don’t believe that I did.’ So Jim Driscoll puts together this tour, for me and Jesse to go around and tell people, and we’re going to get celebrities, and we’re going to talk about the testing thing, and basically the bait is: `Come to a nice place that’s owned by a rich person and we’re inviting rich people to come down and actually be in the presence of these martyrs who are going to go to jail. . . and also be in the presence of these other celebrities who have agreed to come.’ So we’re doing these big fundraising things in various cities. . . . Well, we’re in Los Angeles, and we’re just about ready to go on . . . and Martin Sheen, who’s been very involved with this stuff and whom we knew from a number of protests there, comes running in and says: `Oh, I’ve got to tell you something.’ And, at that point, they had just decided to drop the charges. We’re still doing this tour, but they’ve just decided to drop the charges. And we don’t know why. All we’ve heard is that they’ve dropped the charges. So he comes running in and he says: `I’ve got to tell you.’ I said: `What’s that?’ And he says: `Well, I just saw Merlino.’ Now Jim Merlino was the Nye County sheriff down there. And he had been a guy that we had been cultivating ever since we started going down there — talking to him about nonviolence, making a friend of him, lots of people had pictures of him hugging either Jesse or Nancy Hale across the fence. . . . Really, a sweet guy in a lot of ways. Serious about doing his job. Clearer that he disagreed with us. But a real human being. So Martin Sheen comes in and says: `I just saw Merlino. I had to go down there for a case of my own. And he said: “Well, tell Jesse and Peter what happened about this dropping of the charges.” And I said: `What did he tell you?’ And he says: `Well, they came and did a deposition. . . . And . . . they said: “Do you know Peter Bergel and Jesse Cox.” And he says: “Oh, yeah, I know `em.” And he says: “I would never have been able to keep these demonstrations so peaceful if it hadn’t been for them. Those people, they do the greatest work, they go out there and they tell us all about what they’re gonna do before they go and do it, so we know how many people are gonna be there. And we know what their plans are. And we don’t have to play guessing games. . . . And they do terrific work.” And he says: “I don’t know how I’d be able to do my job if it weren’t for Peter and Jesse.” So this is going to be the chief witness for the prosecution in a conspiracy case! I guess when the DA learned that, he decided it wasn’t going to fly too well. . . . That was probably the main reason why the charges got dropped. . . . That was an example of . . . where doing the Gandhian, nonviolence thing really paid off in the end. He didn’t want to put it to us. He really didn’t. He thought that whole business of a conspiracy to commit a misdemeanor was really Mickey Mouse, and he was annoyed about it. So he torpedoed it when he had the chance. But if it hadn’t been for the human relationship, he wouldn’t have done that.”