I’ve been thinking about those tiny canoes, dancing in front of giant USS nitro.
It happened at Christmas, in 1971. The USA was bombing women, children, and hospitals in Vietnam. The Quakers wanted to do something about it. But what could one small group of Friends do in the face of an entire army, with bombs and napalm and the economic power of the state?
They’re so small. Just a handful of people. What could they do?
It makes me think of the way the kingdom works. It’s all upside-down. It’s not military might, or political power. Jesus’ arrival was marked by old barren women falling pregnant, a young single mom, and a birth in a simple dwelling. Jesus didn’t come storm the Roman’s might with an army, in fact, his family fled a genocide when he was still an infant. It’s all upside-down.
But if you’re already on the bottom, maybe this up-ending is a good thing. Mary sings about it when she find’s out she’s been chosen to be the mother of the Messiah. She says:
He shows mercy from generation to generation
to all who fear him.
51 His mighty arm has done tremendous things!
He has scattered the proud and haughty ones.
52 He has brought down princes from their thrones
and exalted the humble.
53 He has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away with empty hands.
That’s what Christmas is about. God coming to earth, showing us what he’s really like. And what he shows us is it’s not about the big, flashy, political power. God uses the weak, the small, the foolish to shame the strong. St. Paul says, “Stop deceiving yourselves. If you think you are wise by this world’s standards, you need to become a fool to be truly wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness to God.”
The wisdom of this world– tanks, guns, military might, winning elections, getting our guy into power. This is what we know. This is what we’re used to. In the US, that’s what we Christians have recently become famous for.
But quietly, the Kingdom of God arrives, not on the back of something powerful and flashy, but among the small and the weak.
Like those Quakers, that Christmas, in 1971. What could they do?
Get in canoes. Paddle. Put their bodies in the way of the bombs trying to leave the harbor.
And that’s what they did. Canoes, paddle-boats, kayaks. It’s laughable, thinking about those tiny plastic boats splashing back and forth in front of giant US military ships. They were pulled out. They jumped back in.
And they got on TV. They got the attention of the dockworkers who loaded up the crates and bombs. Through that relationship, all the east coast unions all agreed to stop loading the ships.
A bunch of guys in canoes stopping a war. A virgin peasant conceiving a child. A God who is willing to die in order to be reconciled to his people.
It’s crazy. It’s foolish. It’s all upside-down.
It’s the way of the kingdom.
Let’s not miss it this Christmas.
Here’s an excerpt from an interview with David Hartsough about the events in 1971. The whole interview with him can be found here.
Spirit: You were involved in many actions during the struggle to end the Vietnam War. One action that really stands out is the People’s Blockade of ships transporting weapons to Vietnam.
Hartsough: Around Christmas in 1971, a season when we’re thinking about the life of Jesus and his teaching to love one another and love our enemies, the United States started a major bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong. So now we were bombing major cities with children, women, old people, hospitals and schools.
Many of us in Philadelphia in the Movement for a New Society decided that we had to do something more than just get out with a sign and protest. We had to somehow put our bodies between the bombs and the men, women and children they were killing in Vietnam. We found that there were bombs and munitions being shipped from the Leonardo Naval Weapons Station in New Jersey. So we scouted it out and found that napalm, anti-personnel bombs and all kinds of munitions were being shipped from Leonardo. We were able to recruit 26 canoes with 52 people, two in each canoe, and we decided to go out and try to block a ship called the USS Nitro.
As we paddled out along the piers, the anti-personnel bombs and crates of napalm were just stacked high, ready to be loaded onto the ships. A military policeman yelled at us over his loudspeaker that we would be charged with criminal conspiracy if we didn’t leave this area, and could get 20 years in prison. We shouted back that 20 years would be terrible, but nowhere near as bad as the death and destruction that would be caused if these bombs reached their destination. And we kept paddling.
We were actually able to get out in front of the ship each day for seven days. On the sixth day, some of the sailors we met told us it was leaving at 6:00 the next morning. Not only the hold of the ship, but all the decks were stacked 20 feet high with these crates of bombs and munitions. We got out there the next morning, and were paddling hard to stay right in front of the boat. As they lifted anchor, seven of the sailors jumped off the ship into the ocean and then joined our blockade.
Spirit: Oh my God! Did they climb into your canoes?
Hartsough: They tried to, but the military police grabbed them and put them back on the ship. But we had called the media, so the New York Times and the national television stations were there in their helicopters. So it was on the evening news, not only our blockade but also the seven sailors jumping ship. The seven sailors were then jailed in the brig. The news went all across this country and around the world, and the sailors told us later that when their ship went through the Panama Canal, word about the sailors on the USS Nitro jumping ship had spread to navy and military people all over the world, and the guys on the other ships gave them fists of solidarity and peace signs.
Spirit: So the ripples from this action had spread very far and very quickly. Did it spark other acts of resistance?
Hartsough: My feeling was that our actions had given these Navy sailors the courage to do what they knew was right to do, and their courage, in turn, gave courage to a lot of other soldiers in the U.S. military, and that was a beginning of a strengthened resistance within the armed forces to carrying out the terrible death and destruction in Vietnam. Our blockade spread from Leonardo, New Jersey, all up and down the East Coast and the West Coast of the Untied States. The national board of the American Friends Service Committee actually decided to support and endorse the People’s Blockade and to support AFSC staff working on it.
Spirit: That was an incredible step into civil disobedience for AFSC to take. Were you part of the AFSC at this time?
Hartsough: Yes, I was on AFSC’s Nonviolent Training and Action Committee at the time. Robert Levering and several of us that were part of that committee heard that there were also ships going from Norfolk, Virginia. So we went to Norfolk, and there was an aircraft carrier called the USS America that was preparing to leave for Vietnam. Aircraft carriers are massive. I had my nine-foot sailboat, so we organized a blockade down there with canoes and our small sailboat.
They were very uptight as the USS America prepared to take off for Vietnam, and the military police came and capsized our canoes and sailboat. Then Navy frogmen came after us, grabbed us out of the water and took us on their ship. They put us in handcuffs face down on the ship with guys with guns pointed at us while the aircraft carrier sailed out to sea. It was a little bit scary. Another ship came with a water cannon when all these sailors were up on the deck of this aircraft carrier. Many of them were giving us signs of support and verbal encouragement. We thought the water cannon was going to be directed against us, but it was directed against the sailors.
Spirit: They blasted the sailors with the water cannon just because they were cheering you on?
Hartsough: Yes, because they were cheering us on! Next day, the Norfolk newspapers had a big photo of this massive aircraft carrier with our little boat in front of it. The ship was called the USS America, so the headlines said, “America Defeats Peace Flotilla.” America was standing tall again! They had defeated the enemy.
Spirit: You mentioned earlier that the AFSC national board supported peace blockades around the country?
Hartsough: AFSC members in both Northern California and down in Southern California were actively involved in helping organize blockades on the West Coast. In the Bay Area, it was called the Carrier Project, an official AFSC project. The AFSC board had decided it was willing to commit civil disobedience and support nonviolent resistance to the endless tragedy in Vietnam.
Up in Bangor, Washington, activists actually camped out along Puget Sound at a place where they could see the ships coming. They had a flotilla ready to go out and try to block naval ships, day or night. One of the guys, a very gutsy, courageous fellow, got right in front of a moving ship and it actually pushed him for a quarter of a mile in his boat. [Editor’s note: George Walker, a Navy vet, put his kayak right in the path of the USS Joseph Merrell. The USS Merrell finally sailed right over his small kayak and dunked Walker into Puget Sound.]