Many years ago, before there was a Greenpeace, the Unites States Atomic Energy commission was busy drilling a big hole on the Aleutian island of Amchitka in preparation for a series of nuclear tests. The problem with this idea was that the Aleutians were known as one of the most tectonically unstable areas on the planet. Seismologists feared that any underground explosion, nuclear or otherwise, could create tidal waves and earthquakes all around the Pacific Rim.
A lot of people didn’t think the AEC plan was a very good idea. Columns were written, protests were held — in vain, as it turned out. In early October, 1970, the U.S. tested a 1.2 megaton bomb on Amchitka, and when that test was deemed a success, plans were made to test a five megaton device in the fall of 1971. In Vancouver, Canada, a group of activists formed the Don’t Make A Wave Committee (DMAW). They group was led by Quakers Irving Stowe, and Jim and Marie Bohlen. The ardent conservationists came up with the idea of sailing a boat to Amchitka, but the group had no boat, and no money. A plan was hatched to hold a benefit concert to raise the $18,000 that the group needed to charter a boat. They began inviting some of the most famous musicians of the day to perform at their show. Soon, Phil Ochs was on board, and Joni Mitchell called to ask if she could bring James Taylor along. Taylor’s second album, Sweet Baby James, was rocketing up the charts, and would soon go platinum. At $3 a ticket, the show sold out.
The concert took place on October 16, 1970, at the Pacific Coliseum, Vancouver’s largest concert venue. Richard Nixon was President, the war in Vietnam was raging, Woodstock and Altamont had taken place the previous year, and the United States was about the put the entire world in jeopardy with nuclear testing. Phil Ochs opened his set by saying “it’s not everyday that you get to play in a police state,” before singing “Rhythms of Revolution.” His fiery set also included his indelible anti-war anthem “I Ain’t Marching Anymore,” as well as the well known folk classic “Changes.”
The Canadian band Chilliwack played next, but for some reason their set is not included here, and no explanation is given. James Taylor followed. It had to have been an amazing time for him. After releasing a lovely but little-heard album on Apple Records, he had been signed by Warner Brothers, and his new album was making him one of the biggest stars in the constellation. Here is he, accompanied only by his own inimitable guitar playing, singing songs that would become classics, including “Fire and Rain,” “Carolina In My Mind,” and of course “Sweet Baby James,” along with a nice selection of songs from his two albums.
Joni Mitchell was by that time already an established star, and a hero in her native land. Switching between guitar, piano, and dulcimer, Mitchell also plays solo, until she is joined by Taylor toward the end of her set. Songs include “Big Yellow Taxi,” “Woodstock,” “A Case of You,” and a stunning ten-minute-plus medley of her own “Carey” and Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man.” When she forgets a verse, she invites Taylor back to the stage to sing with her. The pair close the show with Mitchell’s immortal “The Circle Game.” Sadly this track fades out before it’s over. Again, no explanation is provided.
The concert just managed to raise the needed $18,000. The fishing boat Phyllis Cormack and her captain John Cormack were chartered, and the boat, now renamed Greenpeace, sailed for Amchitka on September 15, 1971. The 12-member crew were thought to be on a suicide mission. Sailing in the Bering Sea in the fall was known to be dangerous. If the nuclear test generated radiation above ground, the crew could be contaminated, and of course there was the risk of a tsunami in the area. Support for their mission was strong all over the world causing Nixon to keep delaying the test, and on September 30, the crew was arrested by the U.S. Coast Guard. By this time donations were pouring into the DMAW, and they were able to charter a second ship, the Edgewater Fortune, which sailed from Vancouver on October 28. On November 6, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 4-3 vote, ruled that the test could go forward. The bomb was detonated before the Edgewater Fortune could reach the island. In February 1972, the Atomic Energy Commission canceled the rest of the tests “for political and other reasons.” Greenpeace, an organization that would change the world for the better, had been born.