On the Cutting Edge: The Peace Activism of Earle Reynolds

In U.S. history, where articulating a desire for peace is too often accepted as sufficient opposition to war, one man’s life stands as a sharp contrast to the futility of speaking without acting. This man, intolerant of a world eager to accept violence as a solution, responded by taking action to do what he thought would prevent the destruction of innocent lives. In so acting, he was forced to choose between personal comfort and conviction. He forfeited a sought-after occupation, prestige among his colleagues, and an affluent lifestyle. With pointed action, he advanced his desire for peace past rhetoric. He publicized the negative effects of nuclear radiation exposure, sailed his yacht through an active nuclear testing zone, hand-delivered medical supplies to North Vietnam during the Vietnam War, and assisted in founding peace institutions worldwide.

Earle Reynolds was the son of circus performers—an entire family of trapeze artists, to be exact. He was born in 1910 in Iowa, where he spent quality time during his early years with those whom he referred to as the "fat lady" and the "man with no arms." The Great Depression saw Reynolds, well-acquainted with artistic entertainment, writing and acting with a theater company in Mississippi, relatively close to where his family had relocated. The stage was not Reynolds’ only interest, though; he completed both an undergraduate and a master’s degree in Anthropology at University of Chicago and, by 1944, finished a doctorate in the same field at University of Wisconsin.

Reynolds accepted a position as an associate professor of Anthropology at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, immediately after graduating. He taught while occupying the chair of the Department of Human Growth in the Fels Research Institute for the Study of Human Development, a post that led to his being selected by the National Academy of Science to go to Hiroshima as part of the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission (ABCC). The ABCC was created in 1946 by President Harry Truman to research the long-term medical effects of exposure to radiation. As a staff anthropologist funded by the Atomic Energy Commission (also created in 1946 to oversee the development and use of nuclear energy for military and civilian purposes), Reynolds evaluated the effects of radiation on the development of children exposed to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Reynolds later presented the results of these three years of investigation in a paper delivered in Mexico City at an annual meeting of the American Anthropology Association. This paper was largely a result of his developing desire for world peace. In it he politely declared several truths he had discovered as reason for serious concern over the effects of nuclear radiation, truths his audience might rather he left unmentioned. From his research, Reynolds concluded that exposure to nuclear radiation presented irreversible physical dangers, especially to children—and consequently to the future of humankind. To date, there had been no conclusive proof published that mutations were caused by exposure to nuclear radiation; Reynolds boldly made that supposition, stating that failure to take the measures to prevent this "might give us the dubious honor of locking the biggest barn on Earth after the theft of the world’s largest horse." He stated his opinion that politics and ethics had mixed into the discourse on the effects of nuclear radiation, and that he hoped that someday reports would once again be scientific, rather than biased in favor of dispelling public alarm over the negative effects of radiation. He pointed out that for the previous 13 years, the Atomic Energy Commission had devoted $125 billion to research the effects of nuclear radiation, though the reports of that research were virtually nonexistent, and what reports were available contained inconsistencies.

Reynolds proved himself ahead of his time in more than one section of the report. For example, he stated that, according to a United Nations report, radioactive waste from power plants posed no immediate threat to humanity; but he warned the methods of disposal might only prolong rather than prevent an eventual crisis due to exposure. Furthermore, the radiation from nuclear testing posed an immediate threat to humanity. And the greater threat of the tests, Reynolds declared, was their purpose to ensure such an excellent quality of nuclear weaponry so as to surely guarantee successful mass killing of human beings. Reynolds chillingly told his audience that they would all be responsible for the disastrous effects of nuclear radiation, warning that humankind could alter its species beyond recognition through exposure to nuclear radiation. Some would suggest that it was too late, he admitted—that the destruction of humanity was inevitable at the moment the first nuclear bomb detonated. But he believed it was not too late. He made three suggestions: that his audience educate themselves on the effects of nuclear radiation, that they accept the realistic possibilities of living in a nuclear age, and that they remove the temptation to enter into nuclear warfare by doing away with nuclear weapons.

With his years of research in Hiroshima coming to a close, Reynolds turned his attention to a yacht he had designed and the building of which he had overseen. The 50-foot Phoenix of Hiroshima was completed by the fall of 1956, and Reynolds set sail for Honolulu, Hawaii. He planned to fulfill his childhood dream to sail around the world, accompanied by his wife, Barbara; sons, Tim and Ted; daughter, Jessica; and friend and crewman Nick Mikami. Upon reaching Honolulu that October, Tim left the others to their adventure, having his own plans to go on to college. Nearly two years later, the Phoenix returned to the Honolulu harbor, having journeyed more than 50,000 miles.

The yacht docked in the Honolulu harbor beside another, the Golden Rule. Unbeknownst to the Reynolds family, the five Quaker activists that made up the crew of the Golden Rule had recently been arrested and were soon to serve six-month jail terms. Through quickly formed friendships, the crew imparted their story to the Reynolds.

In protest of the dangers of nuclear fallout, the crew of the Golden Rule had set sail on a well-publicized voyage straight into a restricted nuclear testing zone in the Pacific Ocean. The voyage was sponsored by the Committee on Nonviolent Action. The crew was arrested just a few miles outside of Honolulu.

Compelled by these criminals’ passion and commitment, Reynolds began a personal research project on the dangers of nuclear fallout, a comparative study that was an extension of his previous firsthand research in Japan. Assisted by his family, Reynolds compiled government reports, Congressional hearings, and any other reliable sources he could find on the subject of nuclear testing, extensively furthering his previous work on the subject of nuclear radiation. When he compared the Report of the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiations to reports from the Atomic Energy Commission, he concluded, based on inconsistencies in the official evidence he had investigated, that the fallout from nuclear testing was undoubtedly and seriously dangerous. Reynolds also rejected the Cold War argument that bomb tests were necessary to frighten the Soviet Union out of attacking the United States.

After learning about the plight of the Golden Rule, Reynolds contemplated peaceful protest by cruising through a nuclear testing zone aboard his yacht. Still, he could not ignore the risks. Though he thought the law prohibiting entrance into the testing zone was illegal, doing so was a felony under U.S. law, carrying a penalty of two years in jail and a $5,000 fine. Additionally, there were Barbara, Ted, Jessica, and Nick to consider. But the four agreed to join Reynolds on the yacht’s voyage back to Hiroshima, regardless of whether its course would be steered through the testing zone. For Reynolds, the reason was simple. Through his own scientific knowledge, he concluded, "anything that would stop nuclear testing is bound ultimately to be of benefit to mankind."

Backed by no organization, without any sort of funding or support, the Reynolds family accepted the severe test of their conviction by pointing the Phoenix toward the Bikini Islands. After 19 days, on June 30, 1958, the Coast Guard interrupted their voyage. Undeterred by their policing escort, the Reynolds glided straight into the testing zone the next day.

Sixty-five miles into the zone by that night, the Reynolds had put themselves in serious danger of radiation disease should a nuclear bomb be detonated. The effects could include skin diseases, blood diseases, and stomach ulcers, not to mention more serious long-term physical complications. Aware of their precarious position, the Reynolds nonetheless spent that night in the heart of the nuclear testing zone and well within reach of possible nuclear fallout.

In the early morning the Coast Guard boarded the Phoenix, arresting Dr. Reynolds and ordering the crew to sail out of the zone to nearby Kwajalein, just outside the Pacific Proving Ground, as the test area was dubbed. Minutes after leaving the testing zone, the sky behind the Reynolds turned orange with the detonation of a nuclear bomb. The testing sequence the Reynolds’ had chosen to drop in on was the largest to date—Operation Hardtack I, a series of 35 detonations of nuclear devices in and around the Bikini and Enewetak Atolls and Johnson Island.

The Phoenix reached Kwajalein on July 4 and Reynolds was formally charged with the felony of violating the restriction placed on the testing area. He was returned to Honolulu to await trial, separated from his wife, sons, and daughter.

Within two years, Reynolds had gone from holding a significant position with a prestigious U.S. government agency to being a convicted felon without a job and isolated from his family. He had known the risk, made his point anyway, and paid the heavy consequences for his peaceful activism.

Reynolds described his Honolulu trial with eloquent humor in his autobiography. It was a monkey trial, during which he was represented by a bumbling counsel. Reynolds was sentenced to two years in prison. He appealed the decision, which was overturned in San Francisco late in 1960. The San Francisco court ruled that the AEC prohibition Reynolds had violated was not lawful, as Reynolds had believed, and therefore concluded that he was guilty only of "trespassing," if anything.

Reynolds’ peaceful protest and its fallout significantly expanded his philosophical and faith-based values. Prior to making the acquaintance of the five Quakers aboard the Golden Rule, Reynolds had not affiliated himself with any particular religion. Yet in speaking with them and with further investigation into the foundation of their convictions, Reynolds determined that the faith of Friends harmonized with his personal standards and values. During his trial he dedicated himself to Quakerism, remaining staunchly loyal to it for the remainder of his life. In April 1960, Reynolds applied and was accepted into membership in Honolulu (Hawaii) Meeting. (He eventually joined Santa Cruz Meeting in California.) He experienced serious doubts that he would be accepted. "I’ll probably make the world’s worst Quaker," he stated good-humoredly. Simultaneously, Reynolds’ infamous 1958 protest launched his new career as an antinuclear activist, promoting peace by making known the dangers of radiation.

With fresh dedication and a clear sense of purpose, Reynolds set off again for Japan in 1960, this time to teach English as a means of supporting his family. For the following three years, Reynolds continued his antinuclear protest by writing reports on the effects of radiation and embarking on numerous peace missions.

Reynolds did not abandon direct protest. He twice attempted to sail through Soviet nuclear testing zones. In the fall of 1961 he aimed the Phoenix at Siberia, where the Soviet navy promptly turned him back. He brought a cargo of hundreds of letters asking for peace; authorities refused to deliver them to the Soviet government. The following year, Reynolds’ presence was requested aboard Everyman III, setting off in peaceful protest from London, destined for Leningrad. Armed soldiers stopped Everyman at sea, boarded, and politely tied the crew with ropes as a gesture of Soviet authority. After untying himself and returning to his own ketch, Reynolds spent the entire next year on a worldwide peace tour, speaking at and visiting various peace centers for study. In 1962 he assisted in founding the Hiroshima Institute of Peace Science; in 1964 he assisted in setting up a peace studies program at Friends World College in New York.

Shortly thereafter, the United States became involved in a civil conflict between North and South Vietnam. Reynolds responded to the Vietnam War by arranging for medical supplies to be sent to both Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam, and to North Vietnam in March 1967.

Reynolds embarked on this controversial voyage to the soil of the United States’ declared enemy with his crew on the Phoenix. The intention was to deliver one ton of medical supplies to the North Vietnamese cities of Hanoi and Haiphong in the effort of using peaceful and lucid action to oppose the war in Vietnam.

Reynolds’ antiwar action was supported by A Quaker Action Group (AQAG), which had been founded less than a year earlier by pacifist and radical activist Lawrence Scott. The group’s first attempt to oppose the war had been to mail relief packages into North Vietnam; they were halted by the United States Postal Service, which refused to deliver the packages. The group then collected funds to donate to both the North and South Vietnamese Red Cross organizations, which the United States Treasury promptly seized. Then AQAG decided to sail with Reynolds to see that medical supplies reached the North Vietnamese citizens who had been injured in the bombing by U.S. troops. AQAG selected Reynolds because of his profound commitment to peaceful activism. The voyage was successful in delivering medical supplies to North Vietnam. These otherwise inaccessible medical supplies continued to be delivered to North Vietnam in the same fashion by American Friends Service Committee for years afterward.

Reynolds’ sea voyages as a peace activist ceased shortly thereafter. He had taken a position as caretaker for a Quaker center nestled in the Quaker community of Ben Lomond, in the mountains of Santa Cruz County, California, in hopes of making the center a major conference center. AFSC had reluctantly accepted the gift of this property in the 1950s; previously the organization had not owned property. Reynolds was the first to implement regular youth-oriented programs at the center, which now functions as an important part of the Western Friends community.

In 1972 he set out on his last peace tour, sailing from Portland, Oregon, to Monterey, California, to advocate peace in ten cities in between. Afterward, Reynolds continued his mission for peace. He founded the Peace Resource Center (PRC) at University of California, Santa Cruz, in 1975. The PRC provided access to peace-related research and enabled students to obtain degrees and careers in peace studies. Reynolds retired in 1985, but his strong conviction refused to allow him to be inactive; he continued guest lecturing at peace symposiums and participated in antinuclear demonstrations, particularly protesting nuclear research in Nevada. He died in southern California in 1998.

Reynolds defined his life as being "on the cutting edge," explaining, "the weight of the axe is behind it, but it’s the cutting edge that’s doing the job." This proverbial axe is a two-part equation for activism: the cutting edge has little effect without the force of the axe, but the force of the axe can make little more than a blunt impact without the cutting edge.

Certainly one could charge that Earle Reynolds did not actually halt nuclear testing by navigating his yacht through the Bikini Islands test zone, and that the Vietnam War did not end when he turned up in North Vietnam with medical supplies. However, he demonstrated his willingness to risk the effects of radiation in hopes of keeping later generations from living with nuclear fallout. Because of Reynolds, North Vietnamese citizens suffering the wrath of a war with which they were all but unassociated had their wounds tended and the chance to physically heal from the devastation. He single-handedly proved that not all people in the United States were turning their heads away from the orange skies over the homes of Pacific islanders. With each dressing of a North Vietnamese citizen’s wound, he achieved a 100-percent successful peace mission for each of those individuals. His activism, on a person-to-person level, was undeniably successful.

The force behind the axe is surely the profound rhetoric issued by self-declared concerned citizens. But it is necessary to have the cutting edge to lead that rhetoric. Would it not be a shame, then, to allow the axe to dull so that it is only rhetoric, unable to do the job?

Kristin Grabarek

Kristin Grabarek completed a master's degree in History at Auburn University, where she researched effective social activism. She now lives in Denver, Colo., where she works in a branch library developing youth programming.