Radical Catholic Jim Douglass Fights a Grass-Roots War Against a Train Full of Nuclear Weapons

The train first appeared to Jim Douglass out of the mists of a Washington State December as if in a dream. It was pulled by two standard Burlington Northern engines, but there all normality ended. The 12 cars that followed were pure white. Some were low-slung, others had turrets with slits for sharp-eyed guards; all were heavily armored. The train slowed as it approached Douglass and then rumbled on into the submarine base abutting his land. Its cargo, he knew, was an arsenal of nuclear weapons. “It was an awesome sight,” Douglass says of that first view a year and a half ago. “You feel the reality of an inconceivable kind of destruction. Anybody who sees this train experiences the evil of nuclear arms, because it looks like what it is carrying—a white night.”

Douglass, 46, is a Christian peace activist, and like a modern day Ahab in pursuit of a nuclear leviathan, he stalks the great white train. For the last 15 years that train has delivered defused nuclear warheads from the Pantex plant in Amarillo, Texas to military bases as far-flung as Bangor, Wash, and Charleston, S.C. Until two years ago, almost nobody paid attention to the train, and most of those who did considered it just another necessary part of our policy of deterrence. But that all changed when Douglass, a radical Catholic theologian, his wife, Shelley, 39, and several friends began a controversial campaign of vigils and protests in the hundreds of towns along the train’s routes. Despite its shoestring budget, the effort has been surprisingly successful. “We won’t stop,” says Douglass, smiling, “until the train is used to take potatoes and fruit cross-country, and Trident subs are used for fishing and underwater tours.”

Earlier this month, guarded with shotguns and automatic weapons, the train once again pulled out of Amarillo, bound this time for Charleston. Armed with telephones and a railroad map, Douglass and colleagues in the South coordinated the opposition, alerting supporters to the probable route across the country. By 3:45 a.m., only an hour and 45 minutes after the train started moving, six protesters had assembled in the tiny town of Canadian, Texas to stage a vigil. In Kansas, activists braved lightning and hailstorms to demonstrate peacefully.

The most dramatic moment occurred as the train rolled across the Mississippi into Memphis at 30 mph. Forty protesters watched from behind a fence; eight others went farther and stood on the tracks. As the train crossed the bridge, its whistle shrieked and its brakes screeched. Yards away, it seemed unable to stop. Seven of the demonstrators backed off, but Sister Christine Dobrowolski stood firm. Just 10 feet away, the train squealed to a halt. The group returned to the tracks to pray, and six were later arrested for criminal trespass. Vigils continued in a total of 31 towns and cities along the route, but all the rest were peaceful. “I’m glad for all the people who were out there,” says Shelley. “You can’t actually feel good, as if the train wasn’t running anymore. But there is the satisfaction of taking one step up the ladder.”

The Douglasses discovered the white train when they went looking for trouble. After several years protesting the Trident submarine base near Puget Sound, they moved into a house about 50 yards from the “Warning: Restricted Area” signs that mark the railroad entrance to the base. They knew that some materials for its weaponry came by rail. Says Shelley: “We just thought it would be interesting to see what goes in on the railroad tracks.” They saw, and after the first encounter they saw opportunity: a focus for a grassroots campaign against nuclear war.

Organizing nonviolent protest along the train route to Bangor was easier said than done. The couple had almost no money to spend on food, let alone a publicity campaign. Moreover, the government keeps the timetable and routes secret, even from governments of the states it passes through. Nonetheless, the couple decided to try. A train-buff friend was pressed into service to determine the most likely path from Amarillo to the Northwest. The Douglasses called peace and religious groups along the projected route with a three-fold request: to watch for the train and report back to the Douglasses, to hold a prayer vigil or nonviolent protest when it appeared and to inform local newspapers. Finally, all that remained was to wait for the next shipment out of Amarillo and see what happened.

On March 18, 1983 Douglass got a tip from a railroad employee that the train would leave that day. It did, and seven hours from Amarillo it encountered its first set of demonstrators, waiting in the middle of a snowstorm in La Junta, Colo. In Denver, 30 protesters chanted the ’60s mantra, “The people/united/ shall never be defeated.” A priest, swinging his censer, stood on the tracks and was later arrested, with another man, for trespassing. Next day in Fort Collins, Colo., there were 100 protesters and eight arrests. News helicopters helped Jim and Shelley track the train, and network reporters headed for Bangor to interview them in front of the Trident base. One newspaper referred to the train as the “Armageddon Express.” By the time it reached the end of that run in Bangor, people in 35 towns had turned out to pray and protest.

The Douglasses, who had spent nearly four days on the telephone quarterbacking the effort with “about two hours’ sleep” were elated. “The meaning of the tracks had changed,” says Jim. “Before, they had signified a holocaust. But now they represented community. We felt wonderful.”

Not everyone shared the feeling. Critics of the Douglasses, both clerical and secular, find their arguments against the train unconvincing and their methods disturbing. “We live in a sinful, divisive, conflict-ridden world,” says Rev. John Langan, S.J., a research fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center in Washington, D.C. “The Soviet Union is worthy of moral condemnation. We have to preserve the credibility of our opposition to it, and that means we need a reliable and sophisticated military capacity.” Retired Admiral James Russell, a strong Tacoma, Wash, advocate of nuclear deterrence, says, “There is a great campaign to instill fear of atomic weapons in this country, a move toward peace by appeasement. Mr. Douglass is very sincere, but he’s obstructing the defense of the United States.”

Jim listens to such criticisms impassively. “I don’t believe from the example of Jesus’ life and death that a single nuclear weapon is justified, no matter who else has them,” he says. Nor is he overly perturbed by a proposed Department of Energy regulation that could make the revelation of the train’s itinerary illegal.

Douglass found his way to radical activism by a roundabout path. Son of a mining engineer, he enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1955, planning to become an atomic physicist. “I wanted to help build nuclear weapons,” he says. “It fit into my attitude of what it meant to be a good American.” A few months later he dropped out of college and enlisted as a private in-the Army. “Fortunately, there wasn’t a war going on, and I didn’t have the opportunity to kill anybody,” he says. “I certainly would have tried.” After the Army, he enrolled in the University of Santa Clara, a Jesuit college, “to understand my upbringing as a Catholic.” There he was influenced by the writing of Catholic radical Dorothy Day and decided that “if one were going to be a follower of Jesus, one would have to become involved in the discovery of a way of life that could overcome nuclear war.” After getting his master’s degree in theology at Notre Dame, he wrote three books on nonviolence and civil disobedience, and then put theory into practice in 1968, when he was arrested for the first time for blocking a National Guard truck convoy in Hawaii during the Vietnam war.

Civil disobedience is a large part of the life that Jim shares with Shelley, his wife for 13 years. They met in 1970 in South Bend, Ind., introduced by a milkman who knew they both boycotted California grapes. Daughter of a CIA employee, she had converted to Catholicism at 18 but left the church a decade later, disagreeing with its position on women. She is now a candidate for the ministry in the United Church of Canada. Jim and Shelley each have three children from former marriages (both were divorced), but only their son, Thomas, 13, lives with them. “We take turns going to jail,” says Jim, who has been arrested 15 times. “Because we have a son who’s with us all the time, we alternate actions which we expect will result in a jail sentence.” To make ends meet, both Jim and Shelley earn fees averaging $25 at speaking engagements, supplemented by donations. “If what you are doing is the right thing to do, money will come from somewhere,” says Shelley.

Largely because of their phone bill, which sometimes reaches $800 a month, the Douglasses often have a negative cash flow. But they are undeterred, and their campaign has grown steadily. In February of this year they got a boost when 12 Catholic bishops from communities along the route signed a statement urging parishioners to support the campaign and pledging to take part themselves.

In that spirit, the Douglasses’ supporters and the bishops are planning a “Peace Pentacost” celebration on June 10, when they will ask train route protesters in some 220 towns to go to the tracks when no train is there. It is intended in part as a show of strength, but also to reinforce the tenet that the crusade is intended to express ideas, not to coerce. “A deep part of the evil of nuclear war is abstractness, that it seems to go back and forth between Washington and Moscow, and everyone in between is helpless,” says Douglass. “But the white train travels through the heart of the United States, through people’s backyards and under their noses. It gives people a chance to accept responsibility for nuclear weapons, to say, ‘They’re ours—but we don’t want them.’ ”

Related Articles