“It will take a long time before we understand what we did at GE King of Prussia.”
Phil Berrigan shared this reflection with me during a jail yard walk shortly after the Plowshares Eight action in September 1980. The name of the action is derived from the biblical vision: “You shall beat your swords into plowshares. And you shall study war no more.”
With household hammers, we disarmed two nose cones for the Mark 12A warheads built by the General Electric Nuclear Missile Re-entry Division in King of Prussia, PA1. The sound of hammers disarming mass-killing weapons echoes in my mind, heart, and soul, evoking memories of that day at GE and the succession of Plowshare actions in the United States, Europe, and Australia2. The reflective process forty years later offers a new understanding of this lived experience, personally and as an act of resistance to genocidal weapons. The process of sketching the Plowshares Eight narrative stirs deep appreciation for the privilege of participating in a community of conscience. We disarmed components of genocidal weapons in the tradition of Gandhian satyāgraha, non-cooperation with institutional violence. We intended to obstruct the preparations for nuclear war. Our legal defense was grounded in the Geneva Conventions and Nuremberg Principles of the United Nations. These international law codes instruct citizens to save innocent lives if they hear screams from a burning building, even if that requires “property destruction.” At our trial, Daniel Berrigan, Phil’s brother and one of the Eight, testified: “The components of nuclear weapons are anti-human and anti-property. If the nose cones were to be filled with Ping-Pong balls or buttermilk, we would have left them alone.”
At the time of the Plowshares Eight action, I was not aware of my status as a third-generation Holocaust survivor. Fifteen years later, while interviewing my parents to complete a genogram for doctoral training, I discovered new information about my ancestors. My father disclosed that paternal family members “died in the Hitler thing.” This acknowledgment disrupted the silence of my family trauma. The impact created a long-lasting cascade of connections and insights. The new understanding of my family story shed light on my activism as a transgenerational errand to prevent the unleashing of nuclear Auschwitz. Peace activism served as an act of solidarity with family members held captive and killed in the concentration camps, rendering a paradoxical sense of consolation and authenticity during two years in various prisons for protesting nuclear weapons. The immersion in scenes of horror and brutality of the Nazi Holocaust during my childhood religious formation engendered my activism, inscribing a vow not to walk quietly to a depraved execution. Resisting nuclear weapons honored the memory of family members who were victims of genocide.
Robert Jay Lifton, an expert witness for the Plowshares Eight trial, testified, “There will be no winners in a nuclear war. The survivors will envy the dead.” His research conceptualizes the genocidal mentality and the superpower syndrome undergirding nuclear madness. Lifton’s psycho-historical perspective illuminates how the testing and use of nuclear weapons by the United States in 1945 perpetrated psychological and spiritual trauma. A moral compass shattered. The atomic bombing of innocent Japanese civilians opened Pandora’s box and “justified” the power to commit socially sanctioned nuclear genocide. The superpower syndrome reduces millions of innocent victims to collateral damage. Dreadful images of radiation sickness and nuclear winter devastate our psyches, causing most people to relegate the unthinkable consequences to the margins of awareness. An overriding sense of entrapment and demoralization prevails. As nuclear saber-rattling grows louder in the world today, there is greater urgency for the global community of citizens to understand and disrupt the escalating risks of global self-destruction. The activism of Martin Luther King Jr. and the late congressman John Lewis encourages us to be creatively maladjusted in response to institutional oppression and to “make good trouble.” The echoes from our disarmament action carry various levels of meaning. This reflection focuses on two levels: 1) an emergency alert for greater understanding and responsiveness to the dangers of global self-destruction; and 2) an emancipatory call to imagine and act for a world free from nuclear weapons. Looking afterward forty years later generates immeasurable gratitude for the inspiration of this jailbreak from malignant normality.
1 The Plowshares Eight were found guilty of criminal mischief and other charges. Some of the Eight were released on bail three months after the action, while others refused bail and served two years during the decade-long appeal process. In April 1990, we were resentenced to time served. Dean Hammer (VT), Molly Rush (PA), and John Schuchardt (MA) continue to work for the abolition of nuclear weapons, and the other five have joined the great cloud of witnesses.
2 A history of Plowshares actions in the United States, Europe, and Australia: https://ickevald.net/plowshares/plowshares-chronology-1980-2018.
- Dean Hammer, PsyD, is a faculty member in the clinical psychology department at Antioch University New England and practices psychotherapy in Vermont. He is a research associate with the American Psychoanalytic Association. His current research develops the theory and practice of practitioner-scholar activism.
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