Putting your life on the line: Harold Steele

IssueAugust - September 2023
The Golden Rule upstages an aircraft carrier in New York City on 24 May 2023. She was the first boat ever to take environmental direct action – in 1958. PHOTO: VETERANS FOR PEACE
Feature by PN

As we go to press, Veterans for Peace (US) are taking the Golden Rule across Lake Ontario towards Toronto, as part of a 15-month ‘Great Loop’ around the eastern USA (inland as well as along the coast), educating communities on what they can do to stop the threat of nuclear war.

Back in May 1958, sponsored by Non-Violent Action Against Nuclear Weapons (NVAANW), the very same 30-foot sailboat attempted to enter the US nuclear test site in the Marshall Islands. This led to the imprisonment in Honolulu of its crew: three Quakers (captain Albert Smith Bigelow, William Huntington and George Willoughby) and one Methodist (Orion Sherwood).

NVAANW founder Lawrence Scott said (PN 1140) that the Golden Rule project in 1958 and earlier actions at the Nevada nuclear weapons test site had been inspired by reports in Peace News of direct action in the UK, including protest at Aldermaston... and the actions of Harold Steele.

Who was Harold Steele?

For a few months in 1957, Steele was one of the most famous peace activists in the world, after he announced his intention to take part in a flotilla of Japanese boats aiming to enter the waters around the British H-bomb test site near Kiritimati (then known as ‘Christmas Island’).

The H- or hydrogen bomb is a two-stage design which can be 1,000 times more powerful than the simpler kind of atomic bomb which destroyed Hiroshima.

The US had carried out its first full-scale H-bomb test in November 1952, the Soviets in August 1953.

When plans for British H-bomb tests in the Pacific were announced in February 1957, much of the British public was horrified.

In harm’s way

One response to the planned tests was a call for direct action: ‘In Reynolds News on Sunday [17 February 1957], Tom Driberg’s column referred to “a startling and exciting suggestion” made by Harvey R Coll, of 16 Addison Crescent, London, who wrote: 

“... One method of protest would be for several boatloads of people to refuse to recognise the validity of the closing of waters in the area to shipping and to dare the British authorities to carry out the test with them in the neighbourhood. How about a call for volunteers from all nations?”’ (PN 1078)

Four people put their names forward to PN early on: ‘Miss GM Faulding of West London’, ‘Reginald Reynolds, the British Quaker writer’, and ‘[a] married couple living at St Ann’s Hill, Great Malvern (Worcs)’: Sheila and Harold Steele.

The Steeles told PN: ‘It would seem that there remains no other way but to startle and shock the imagination and conscience of [hu]mankind. Cannot a company be recruited (of men and women, old and young, rich and poor) willing, ready and determined, at whatever cost, to put their living bodies in to the heart of the bomb testing ranges, there to stay in defiance of the bomb testers until the tests are called off?’ (PN 1079)

According to Australian journalist Nic Mclellan, the starting point for these calls for direct action was a Japanese peace activist’s letter, which she circulated to peace activists in France, the UK and the US. This appeal for direct action, from Takeko Kowai of the ‘Peace Protection Association of Toyohashi Citizens’ in Japan, does not seem to have been noticed by PN at the time. She only shows up as ‘Mrs Takkako Koiwai’, who invites the Steeles to go out to Japan as her guests. (PN 1085)

There was then a flurry of activity, including lobbying the Japanese and other governments. This was watched closely by British intelligence agencies, as Nic Mclellan shows in his 2017 book, Grappling with the Bomb: Britain’s Pacific H-bomb tests.

In April, PN reported the setting up of an ‘Emergency Committee for Direct Action against Nuclear War’ in the UK ‘to support those who are attempting to get out to the Pacific area closed for the H-bomb test’. (PN 1085)

This Emergency Committee developed later into the Direct Action Committee Against Nuclear War (DAC), which went on to organise the first Aldermaston march, initially under the leadership of Sheila and Harold Steele (PN 1123), among other important projects.

“We must be prepared to sacrifice as much for this new way as the men who go to war”

The Emergency Committee, like the later DAC, was based in the Peace News office, 5 Caledonian Road, London. Key organisers included the then PN editor Hugh Brock, former PN editor J Allen Skinner, and Arlo Tatum, general secretary of War Resisters’ International (WRI).

The main problem facing the committee was raising over £400 (around £10,000 today) for each flight. This is probably why the initiative boiled down to sending just one person to the Pacific. Harold Steele, then 63, had been an ‘absolutist’ conscientious objector during the Second World War. He was an ex-poultry farmer and a Unitarian (PN 1091, p8) – not a Quaker, as is widely believed.

There was also an (unsuccessful) attempt to raise funds in India to enable two British pacifists there, Ian Dixon and David Graham, to also join the Japanese peace boats. Dixon (until recently the chair of Peace News Trustees) and Graham were in India working with the Gandhian land gift movement. (PN 1086)

Harold Steele’s Japanese visa was delayed and delayed. When approval did arrive finally, it had a troubling condition attached: ‘you will not participate in any actions which may expose human life to danger’. Steele accepted the condition while expressing the ‘earnest plea’ that the Japanese authorities would release him from this agreement. (PN 1090)

The visa was granted on 3 May and Steele left a few days later for India on the first stage of his journey.

Like a soldier

At a press conference organised by PN, Harold Steele said: ‘I am upheld by believing that it is long overdue that peace-lovers and pacifists should themselves say goodbye to wife and children, and be prepared for mutilation and death in the cause of achieving the kind of world pacifists desire. I am surprised that I have not seen this call earlier. I have been in all the peace movements, but not with that sense of adventure that the good soldier has in his kind of warfare.

‘I am hoping the peacelovers of the world will have that sense of adventure and self-sacrifice, and that idealism in their hearts, which their brothers show when they go to war – for what they think are good causes.’

Sheila Steele told the press conference: ‘Humanly speaking, I am naturally upset at the parting. But we must be prepared to sacrifice as much for this new way as the men who go to war.’

Before leaving, Harold Steele told PN: ‘I want to make a most emphatic protest... a dramatised appeal for people to look at. I am tired of protest meetings and petitions. The Governments take very little notice of them.’ (PN 1090)

In New Delhi, Steele met Dixon and Graham – and the prime minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, before flying on to Tokyo, Japan. Steele arrived the day after the first British H-bomb test on 15 May.

Steele then tried hard to organise a peace fleet in Japan, but was frustrated by the Japanese peace movement’s cautiousness. He returned to England on 2 August.

Despite his failure to get to the test site, Harold Steele’s efforts gained worldwide coverage, electrified the campaigns against the H-bomb and against nuclear testing, and inspired thousands of activists.

Steele’s willingness to put his life on the line inspired the formation of the Direct Action Committee, which could be said to have changed the world – with the Aldermaston March and Gerald Holtom’s peace symbol (see p21) just two of its many achievements.

Topics: Radical lives