March 12, 2014

I first joined PSR after attending a National PSR “bombing run” in Seattle in 1981. It was my first serious introduction to the nuclear arms issue. For those not familiar with PSR’s bombing run events, it involved a road show held in multiple cities around the country showing what the impact would be if a one megaton bomb exploded in the center of each host city. With about 1000 people in attendance there were plenaries, break-out sessions and discussions throughout the one-day conference. I became active in the local PSR chapter in Seattle and then President of Washington State PSR during the early 1980s.

We had many events of spectacular nature during this period, the height of the nuclear war scare years. Along with several other peace organization co-sponsors, we hosted a major rally on the risks of nuclear war in Seattle’s King Dome stadium with over 20,000 people present. We also organized a 24-hour overnighter on the Alaska state ferry, Columbia, in harbor for the winter. We hired William Ury of Harvard Law School and co-author of the bestseller, “Getting to Yes” (on negotiation), to serve as our facilitator. About 120 people participated from all major areas of human activity: political authorities, business, media, the military, agriculture, peaceniks, education, transportation, and more. We spent the night on the ferry where we were literally “all in the same boat,” both as regards our lodging and the risks of nuclear war. The event sought to confront all of us with these risks and to find ways to seek our common goal of a more secure world through winding down the nuclear arms race. As Seattle residents, we were all too aware of the nearby Bangor nuclear sub base, a prime target should nuclear war occur. I gave frequent speeches during these years on a wide variety of security issues.

On Sept. 30, 1986, during the annual APHA meeting in Las Vegas, almost 500 protesters, many of them APHA members, bussed to the Nevada test site to protest nuclear testing. Led by Carl Sagan and most of PSR’s leadership, 139 protesters crossed illegally onto the site. While there, a previously scheduled bomb was detonated and, though we didn’t feel or hear anything, a portable radio monitored the countdown, thus adding to our tension and anticipation. On crossing the line we were arrested, handcuffed with electrical ties, and loaded into buses for the ride to an unfinished community center in the nearest town. While waiting to be processed we plotted and schemed for what we hoped would be a well-publicized joint trial. More down to earth, and after spending long hours in buses and demonstrations without toilet facilities, we had to make qualitative judgments as to whose bladder was most in need of relief and therefore would have the next chance at the ‘loo.’

Despite our hopes for a show trial with expert legal help, that was not to be. Several days before our scheduled January trial the county dropped charges, preferring to avoid having eminent health care providers in the dock before a national audience. But, we wanted our day in court! After fast planning, on Feb. 5 Carl Sagan, Daniel Ellsberg and other luminaries led 433 of us onto the test site where we were again arrested, handcuffed and charged with trespassing. Our February demonstration, cheered on by an additional 1500 protesters, including members of Congress, ended up being the largest ever held in Nevada. This time the county authorities said they would try us one by one rather than all at same time, and the court would also disallow use of the main arguments used for civil disobedience protests. With 85 of the arrested from N. California, we formed a regional support group, trying to decide between three dismal alternatives: paying the $150 fine, spending a month in the jail, or flying to Nevada individually, hiring our own legal counsel, and going through the trial. Just short of reaching a decision, the county ‘blinked’ first and dropped all charges for a 2nd time. Tying up their court with trespass cases would preclude attending to more mundane crimes.

In 1984 my wife and I sailed to New Zealand, lived there for almost two years, and I participated in the local IPPNW chapter. The New Zealand government sought guidance from organizations and citizens regarding an appropriate defense posture for the country. They circulated widely a booklet with 70 questions regarding defense choices. We at the New Zealand chapter of IPPNW answered all of the questions, a laudable exercise of citizen consultation about major governmental functions. The government also commissioned the New Zealand Planning Council to study and report on what the country should do in the event of a nuclear war in the Northern Hemisphere. My Kiwi colleagues and I ‘blew up’ the northern half of the world in simulation and after a lot of serious study, the Planning Council published a book on their findings and recommendations. My part of the task involved spending a week at FEMA in Washington, DC, going through about 2500 unclassified documents on responses to major disasters.

During the latter 1990s, I was privileged to serve on PSR’s elected House of Delegates. This body, a supplement to the regular Board of Directors, allowed greater representation from the chapters above and beyond the few chapter members on the Board. It was an opportunity to get our regional views presented, debate issues the Board was considering, and participate in meetings and presentations going on during Board and delegates’ meetings. We had lively discussions on some topics, such as how to divide funding between chapters and National, and whether it was better to spend efforts working to influence Congress and the President, or encouraging grassroots activities.

Though retired from a salaried position since 1996, I continue to teach at UCSF and serve as education consultant to the Consortium of Universities for Global Health. Most recently, I’ve been working with Dr. Erica Frank of the University of British Columbia and a former PSR president to develop an educational module entitled “War and Health.” This is available online.

My highlight in PSR is the people I meet and work with. We have similar values and a commitment to work toward building a peaceful, more sustainable world. We strive to alert the public to the dangers of weapons of mass destruction, climate change, and other major risks to our planet. I also appreciate the larger feeling that I’m on the right side of history. With many others, I share the feeling that if we don’t eliminate nuclear weapons, sooner or later they will be used. To be committed to the three major issues that so affect humankind – nuclear security, climate change, and continued population growth – gives me much satisfaction. If you’d like to contact me for any reason, by all means send me an email to thall143@comcast.net.