In June of 1972, David McTaggart raised a pair of binoculars from the deck of his 38-foot ketch, Vega. He and two crew had been 70 days at sea, and they were stationed in the forbidden zone outside Moruroa, the Pacific atoll where the French government tested nuclear weapons in the atmosphere.
His aim was to stop the test blast with his ship's presence. But he was unsure whether the French would detonate the bomb regardless of his defiance. That morning, June 17th, he saw the balloon go aloft which signalled detonation was imminent.
The French military had been ghosting the Vega throughout its stay in the forbidden zone, and communicated orders to leave. Helicopters had buzzed the masts. The crew of the Vega had expected to be boarded and physically removed from the area. Now it appeared that a decision had been made to simply detonate the bomb -- protestors be damned.
His fingers too swollen to write, McTaggart kept an audio diary of those days which has recently come to light. You can listen here to his entry for that evening.
McTaggart, Nigel Graham, and Grant Davison made wooden blocks to seal the vents of Vega against fallout. They made plans to throw their stove and generator fuel overboard so it wouldn't ignite.
They'd agreed that if they survived the blast and the shockwave that two would stay below and one would go up into the deadly fallout on deck wrapped in oilskins to motor them out of the forbidden zone.
They'd prepared the matchsticks they would draw to determine who that would be. And they'd radioed a telegram to their Vancouver base saying "BALLOON RAISED OVER MORUROA LAST NIGHT STOP GREENPEACE THREE SIXTEEN MILES NORTHEAST STOP SITUATION FRIGHTENING PLEASE PRAY AND ACT." The next day, the French sent a minesweeper to "escort" Vega out of the blast zone, and when McTaggart and the crew refused, a high-seas game of manoeuvres ensued which ended with the ramming of Vega and the detention of McTaggart and his crew. The weapon was detonated on June 26th.
But the voyage of the Vega drew worldwide attention to nuclear weapons testing and renewed pressure on the French to abandon the programme from many quarters.
McTaggart was relentless. On his return to Moruroa in 1973, he so infuriated the French military that he and his crew were beaten to the point that McTaggart lost vision in one of his eyes for several months.
With the entire Pacific united in outrage and opposition, the French government at last relented - partially - and moved its weapons testing programme underground.
You can't sink a rainbow
Fast forward to July, 1985. The Greenpeace flagship the Rainbow Warrior was in Auckland, New Zealand, having just completed a journey in the Pacific where it moved a whole population from their home, radioactive since the US tests at Bikini atoll in the 1950's. Greenpeace was again preparing a voyage into Moruroa to protest the continued French nuclear testing programme there as part of an expanded campaign against underground weapons testing by the US, UK, and the Soviet Union.
The Mitterrand government, exasperated, sent in scuba divers who planted two limpet mines on the hull of the Warrior. The subsequent blasts sank the Warrior, and took the life of a young photographer, Fernando Pereira.
The French effort to stop the Greenpeace protests backfired, as a worldwide outcry and investigation revealed the plot, and galvanised opposition to the testing programme in the Pacific.
We rebuilt the Rainbow Warrior and, in the early 1990's returned to Moruroa to continue our protests, getting arrested by the French military.
In 1995, just weeks before the 10th anniversary of the bombing, French President Chirac again announced the resumption of the nuclear testing programme, galvanising, once again, a truly global protest. With a huge flotilla, Greenpeace sailed the Rainbow Warrior into the area, and the boat was arrested, this time held for months.
It was worth the effort: the French nuclear weapons testing programme finally came to an end in January 1996.
The threat today: the weapon is the enemy
The efforts of McTaggart, the tragedy of the Rainbow Warrior, and our ongoing campaign against nuclear weapons testing achieved an uneasy truce. We drove the testing programme out of the atmosphere, then stopped testing altogether.
But look around the world today.