"Why not sail a boat up there and confront the bomb?"
It was a fancy, at first. Marie Bohlen casually expressed the idea over coffee one morning. But the people around her – a loose alliance of Quakers, pacifists, ecologists, journalists and hippies – weren’t known for shrugging off the really big ideas.
A few weeks later, the Don’t Make the Wave Committee – as the group was still called then – had a plan. “If the Americans want to go ahead with the test,” Marie’s husband Jim said, “they’ll have to tow us out.”
Leaving one of those heady first meetings, Irving Stowe flashed the peace sign – as was his custom – and said "Peace". On that occasion, the usually rather quiet Canadian ecologist Bill Darnell made the off-hand reply: "Make it a green peace."
When the words didn’t fit onto buttons for the group’s first fundraiser, they were simply merged: Green Peace became Greenpeace.
We had our name, but it was soon clear that selling 25-cent buttons wouldn’t bring in the cash needed to buy a boat. Someone had the idea to put up a rock concert.
A few phone calls later, Joni Mitchell said she would be playing. Chilliwack and Phil Ochs confirmed, before Joni called again to say she would bring a special guest: James Taylor. None of them wanted any money for the night.
"The concert was a sell-out, the biggest counter-culture event of the year," Rex Weyler recalls in his Greenpeace biography. The sixteen thousand that filled Vancouver’s Pacific Coliseum left the concert entranced.
Afterwards, attendance at the meeting swelled, the money started to pour in. By the end of October, the group had raised more than $23,000. Greenpeace was ready to go.
Yet, the voyage was a disaster. The boat left the harbour at dusk on 15 September 1971, but internal tensions soon flared up.
"We never quite managed to go in the direction we wanted to go, or be in the place we wanted to be. And we fought bitterly among ourselves about it. Everything we did or said got sucked into an overwhelming power struggle."
"Here we were, supposedly saving the world through our moral example, emulating the Quakers, no less, when in reality we spent most of our time at each other's throats, egos clashing, the group fatally divided from start to finish."
Even worse, "The Greenpeace" was intercepted by the US navy, before it even got close to the Amchitka testing site.
Failure looks different, however. The Amchitka voyage sparked a flurry of public interest. The media went wild about the small group of activist who had sailed off in the face of great adversity – the first “media mindbomb”, as Bob Hunter conceived of those early Greenpeace actions, had been launched.
The beginning of a much bigger story
"As it turned out, all my angst was unnecessary," he later wrote. “Time has proven my post-trip despair to be utterly mistaken. The trip was a success beyond anybody's wildest dreams.”
The nuclear bomb the group had come to stop went off, but the tests planned for after that were cancelled. Five months after the group’s mission, the US stopped the entire Amchitka nuclear test programme. The island was later declared a bird sanctuary.
"Whatever history decides about the big picture, the legacy of the voyage itself is not just a bunch of guys in a fishing boat, but the Greenpeace the entire world has come to love and hate."
Today, Greenpeace is the world’s most visible environmental organisation, with offices in more than 40 countries and over 2.9 million members worldwide. Amchitka, it has turned out, was only the beginning of what would come to be a much bigger story.