Canadian Activists Found Greenpeace

Greenpeace was founded by Canadian activists who were concerned about nuclear testing. It soon developed into an international watchdog organization dedicated to protecting the environment.

Summary of Event

Born out of antinuclear sentiments, Greenpeace became one of the world’s largest environmental action groups. The organization drew its ideologies from Native American and Quaker traditions, and it brought many ecological issues to public attention with often-controversial tactics. Since its founding, the organization has played an integral part in raising public awareness of environmental issues. Greenpeace;founding
Environmental organizations
Antinuclear activism
[kw]Canadian Activists Found Greenpeace (1971)
[kw]Activists Found Greenpeace, Canadian (1971)
[kw]Found Greenpeace, Canadian Activists (1971)
[kw]Greenpeace, Canadian Activists Found (1971)
Environmental organizations
Antinuclear activism
[g]North America;1971: Canadian Activists Found Greenpeace[00060]
[g]Canada;1971: Canadian Activists Found Greenpeace[00060]
[c]Environmental issues;1971: Canadian Activists Found Greenpeace[00060]
[c]Organizations and institutions;1971: Canadian Activists Found Greenpeace[00060]
Darnell, Bill
Hunter, Robert
McTaggart, David
Bohlen, Jim
Cote, Paul
Stowe, Irving

On October 1, 1969, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission Atomic Energy Commission, U.S. (AEC) planned to test a one-megaton nuclear weapon beneath a small island near Alaska called Amchitka. Fearful of the potential impacts of the bomb blast, which they thought could include earthquakes, tidal waves, and the spread of radiation, more than seven thousand Canadian and U.S. protesters shouted, “Don’t make a wave!” as they lay down at the Douglas border crossing, literally closing the border between British Columbia and Washington State for the first time since 1812. The protesters were unsuccessful in stopping the test, however. When the AEC announced plans for more tests in October, 1971, a group of protesters formed the nucleus from which Greenpeace would emerge.

Jim Bohlen and Irving Stowe, who were U.S. citizens, had moved their families to Vancouver, British Columbia, during the Vietnam War. While protesting the Amchitka test, they met Canadian Paul Cote. Soon after, the three adopted the Amchitka protest slogan and formed the Don’t Make a Wave Committee. Don’t Make a Wave Committee[Dont Make a Wave Committee] During early meetings of the group, Stowe introduced the members to the Quaker tradition of bearing witness, which focused on passive resistance. According to that tradition, simply being at the scene where wrong is being done represents opposition to the wrong. The committee decided to bear witness to the scheduled 1971 Amchitka nuclear testing by sailing a boat up to the test site and documenting effects of the testing. The group also sought to draw media attention to the event so that the world could bear witness.

Knowing that U.S. authorities had the right to seize an American boat, the committee searched for a Canadian-owned boat to use; they knew that if U.S. authorities seized a Canadian boat in international waters, they would be committing an act of piracy. Publicity brought new members to the group at this time, including Patrick Moore, Moore, Patrick an ecology Ph.D. candidate; Robert Hunter, a reporter for the Vancouver Sun; Ben Metcalfe, Metcalfe, Ben a reporter for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation; Bob Cummings, Cummings, Bob a reporter for an underground newspaper; and Bill Darnell, a social worker. Darnell was the one who came up with a new name for the group: At the end of one meeting, he responded to another member’s good-bye, “Peace,” with “Make it a green peace.” The idea and name caught on.

Bohlen and Cote began the difficult search for a boat while Stowe looked for money to support the group’s efforts. In November, 1970, Bohlen found John C. Cormack, Cormack, John C. who owned a dilapidated thirty-year-old, eighty-foot halibut boat named the Phyllis Cormack, for his wife. Cormack agreed to charter his boat to Greenpeace for six weeks for fifteen thousand dollars. Despite reports of severe weather, strong tides, and an entrapping kelp bed that surrounded Amchitka, the group firmed up its plans to go. Bohlen, Stowe, and Cote settled bureaucratic problems over insurance and selected a twelve-person crew—consisting of nine Canadians and three Americans—from the thirty-five applications they received. The Canadians on the crew were Cormack, Dave Birmingham, Birmingham, Dave Lyle Thurston, Thurston, Lyle and Greenpeace members Moore, Hunter, Metcalfe, Cummings, Darnell, and Bob Keziere. Keziere, Bob The Americans were Bohlen, Terry Simmons, Simmons, Terry and Richard Fineberg. Fineberg, Richard The boat, renamed Greenpeace, Greenpeace (ship) raised its green sail, adorned with the peace and ecology symbols, and left Vancouver on September 15, 1971, to fulfill its mission of bearing witness.

The crew experienced severe weather as well as internal disputes and personality conflicts during the trip. Ironically, one of the more peaceful times, when the crew listened to a small tape player, resulted in a disruption of the navigational instruments that sent the boat off course by ninety miles. On September 23, the crew learned that the test had been delayed from October 2 to early November; they voted to keep going but to stop at Akutan Island to wait. While there, the crew members saw large piles of whale bones left near an abandoned whaling station. The image had a dramatic effect on them, as did their reading of Native American myths and prophecies during the voyage. Robert Hunter had brought a pamphlet that told of the “Warriors of the Rainbow,” a multiracial band who worked to end the destruction and desecration of the earth. The story seemed to fit the efforts of the Greenpeace crew.

On September 30, Greenpeace came face-to-face with the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Confidence. Commander Floyd Hunter commended their efforts and sent best wishes, then charged the Greenpeace crew with violation of the Tariff Act of 1932 Tariff Act (1932) because they had crossed the border without reporting to customs within twenty-four hours of reaching Akutan. News reports covered the arrest as well as the Confidence “mutiny.” After taking care of the legal issues, the crew members found themselves heading back toward Amchitka in extremely hazardous waters. On October 12, still unsure of the test date, they voted to turn back.

On their way home, however, the boat was greeted by enthusiastic supporters who had staged protests, brought about news reports in Canada and the United States, and initiated legal maneuvers to stop the nuclear test. The group also learned that the Don’t Make a Wave Committee had chartered another boat to make the trip to the test, which had been rescheduled for November 4. The Greenpeace Too, Greenpeace Too (ship) a converted minesweeper owned by Hank Johansen, Johansen, Hank was twice as fast as the Greenpeace. More than four hundred people applied to crew the Greenpeace Too; preference was given to the original crew, but only four went on this second voyage. A television camera crew from the Columbia Broadcasting System Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) and four other reporters, including one from Time magazine, were also aboard. They publicized the ship’s progress with daily updates.

Severe weather kept the Greenpeace Too at a virtual standstill, and the boat was seven hundred miles away from the test site when, on November 6, the AEC finally detonated a bomb with 240 times the power of the one detonated over Hiroshima in 1945. The test caused seismic activity that registered 7.2 on the Richter scale, but no tidal wave formed. The two Greenpeace crews felt defeated for not having reached the test site, but they had succeeded in drawing international attention to the dangers of nuclear weapons Nuclear weapons;testing
Weapons;nuclear testing. The public pressure to stop testing grew, and the United States soon abandoned Amchitka as a test site; the island was turned into a bird and game sanctuary in February, 1972.

The original three-man Don’t Make a Wave Committee disbanded and re-formed as Greenpeace, with Ben Metcalfe serving as chairman. The group made plans for a second major antinuclear campaign to protest French atmospheric nuclear testing on Mururoa Atoll in the South Pacific. The Greenpeace III, Greenpeace III, (ship)[Greenpeace three] led by David McTaggart, set sail on April 27, 1972, and reached the test site on June 1. There, the boat spent two weeks in a cat-and-mouse chase with the French boat, which culminated in the Greenpeace III ramming the other boat. Greenpeace succeeded only in delaying the test, however. One year later, McTaggart and several others returned to the test site and were assaulted by French armed forces. The publication of photographs of the assault around the world contributed to France’s halting of aboveground nuclear testing in 1974.

The Greenpeace Foundation was formally established in 1975 with headquarters in Vancouver. Robert Hunter, who was elected president of the organization, directed new campaigns that helped Greenpeace to evolve from an antinuclear group into a full-fledged environmental movement.


The early campaigns of the Don’t Make a Wave Committee and Greenpeace involved direct, nonviolent action to stop nuclear testing. After 1975, Greenpeace expanded its focus to include other environmental threats. The organization adhered to policies that forbade affiliation with political parties and banned funding from corporations or governmental agencies. Funding for the group came from memberships, private donations, and door-to-door canvassing. Greenpeace retained its early belief in bearing witness, and the organization documented and publicized dangers to the planet as no other group had done before. Greenpeace also established four major goals: to protect biodiversity in all its forms; to prevent the abuse and pollution of the planet’s water, land, and air; to end all nuclear threats; and to promote peace. Encouraging supporters to bear witness not only to the nuclear question but also to the environment as a whole, Greenpeace grew into a sizable international organization with campaigns to protect the oceans and the atmosphere and to end nuclear and toxin use.

During Hunter’s presidency, Greenpeace turned its attention to protecting the chain of life, specifically its largest member, whales. Influenced by Paul Spong, Spong, Paul a psychologist with a special interest in marine science, Greenpeace began to draw attention to the whaling issue. Project Ahab and Save the Whales were two Greenpeace-sponsored campaigns that started in 1975 and sought to end commercial whaling. Whaling;opposition Greenpeace volunteers drew international attention to the issue by boarding small boats and placing themselves between harpoons and whales. Other members used confrontational tactics such as chaining themselves to whaling boats or pouring a bloodlike, sticky red substance on delegates to the International Whaling Commission International Whaling Commission (IWC). One Greenpeace member scaled the Sears Tower in Chicago, Illinois, to display a banner reading “Don’t Kill the Whales.” Greenpeace’s efforts led to increased international pressures to stop commercial whaling, and in 1982 the IWC passed a worldwide moratorium on whaling. When the Soviet Union, Japan, Norway, and Peru refused to comply, Greenpeace members continued to protest and even sailed into the Soviet Union’s territorial waters, where their arrest resulted in a tremendous public outcry against whaling.

In the late 1970’s, Greenpeace also initiated campaigns to protect baby seals. Protesting Norwegian and Canadian seal hunters, Greenpeace led efforts to lower seal hunt limits. Members sprayed-painted seals to make their coats valueless, placed themselves between clubs and seals, and publicized the cruel nature of the seal hunts. Their efforts resulted in a significant reduction of the hunting limits. Other Greenpeace campaigns to protect ocean life included efforts to end ocean dumping of plastics, toxins, and radioactive materials. Marine life, protection Pressures from several environmental groups, including Greenpeace, led the United States to outlaw dumping of plastic in U.S. waters in 1987.

In its first ten years, Greenpeace brought attention to nuclear weapons testing, whaling and seal hunting, and chemical and radioactive disposals into the ocean. With success, however, also came internal struggles. In 1979, Patrick Moore, who had taken over as president in 1977, found himself facing competition for the position and a general state of chaos in the organization. Several groups had appeared that claimed to be Greenpeace affiliates. Formal Greenpeace offices had opened in Paris and London in 1977, largely through the efforts of David McTaggart, but the San Francisco office that had opened in 1976 was causing problems for Moore, and the Vancouver headquarters was in financial trouble. In 1978 Moore decided to sue the San Francisco office for trademark infringement. McTaggart called for unity among the groups and prompted the founding of an umbrella organization, Greenpeace International, in 1979. McTaggart served as that organization’s first chief executive officer and chair. One year later, Greenpeace International had offices in nine countries.

With its internal disputes settled, Greenpeace International renewed campaigns against the nuclear industry, fighting not only nuclear testing but also the production of uranium and plutonium. Witness-bearing efforts included the 1979 parachuting of five members onto the site of the world’s largest nuclear power plant in Canada and five separate hikes into the Nevada nuclear testing site from 1983 through 1992. In 1984, Greenpeace members scaled Big Ben in London and the Statue of Liberty in New York to display banners calling for an end to nuclear testing.

In 1985, the group’s protesting of nuclear testing led to a serious international incident. When the French announced plans for more South Pacific testing in the summer of 1985, Greenpeace members planned to protest. Greenpeace’s flagship, the Rainbow Warrior, Rainbow Warrior (ship) never made the voyage, however, as French agents sank it on July 10 while it was docked in the Auckland, New Zealand, harbor. The explosion killed photographer Fernando Pereira Pereira, Fernando and set off an international investigation. The French initially took no responsibility, but subsequent reports drew a connection between the French and the sunken boat. Despite losing its flagship, Greenpeace continued to protest nuclear tests. In 1992, the organization was able to celebrate a U.S. ban on nuclear tests.

Among the other environmental issues taken on by Greenpeace since its founding are the production and use of toxins, the exportation of toxic wastes, the use of chlorofluorocarbons Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and other ozone-depleting chemicals, and the genetic engineering of food products. As a result of Greenpeace’s endeavors, the world was forced to bear witness to many kinds of environmental threats. In 1986, the organization was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for its efforts. As the organization entered its fourth decade, Greenpeace had offices in forty-one countries and a worldwide membership of about 2.8 million. The organization continued to refuse to accept government funds, relying instead on support from private individuals, even when this might require a tightening of budgets. Greenpeace;founding
Environmental organizations
Antinuclear activism

Further Reading

  • Bohlen, Jim. Making Waves: The Origins and Future of Greenpeace. Tonawanda, N.Y.: Black Rose Books, 2001. Memoir by one of Greenpeace’s founding members describes the organization’s earliest days and its evolution into a worldwide force for environmental activism. Includes index.
  • Brown, Michael, and John May. The Greenpeace Story. London: Dorling Kindersley, 1989. Extensive history of the Greenpeace Foundation written to celebrate the group’s twentieth anniversary. Covers the movement’s increased international role.
  • Deal, Carl. The Greenpeace Guide to Anti-environmental Organizations. Berkeley, Calif.: Odonian Press, 1993. An example of the numerous publications sponsored by Greenpeace that call attention to environmental issues. Designed to provide information to individuals who wish to donate to earth-friendly organizations.
  • Hunter, Robert. To Save a Whale: The Voyages of Greenpeace. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1978. Presents personal recollections of Greenpeace’s efforts to protect whales. Covers the ideological shift in Greenpeace from an antinuclear group to an environmental activist group.
  • _______. Warriors of the Rainbow: A Chronicle of the Greenpeace Movement. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1979. Presents personal recollections of the first seven years of the organization. Covers the formal creation of the Greenpeace Foundation in 1975.
  • Shaiko, Ronald G. “Greenpeace U.S.A.: Something Old, New, Borrowed.” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 528 (July, 1993): 88-100. Discusses the growth of the U.S. chapter of Greenpeace over its first two decades. Covers the organization more as a social movement than solely as an environmental one. Draws attention to the group’s more radical techniques.
  • Weyler, Rex. Greenpeace: How a Group of Ecologists, Journalists, and Visionaries Changed the World. Emmaus, Pa.: Rodale Press, 2004. Comprehensive biographical account of the founders and evolution of the organization, its political divisions, and its campaigns. Includes photographs and index.

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