- Anti-nuclear activist
John LaForge became involved in the nuclear protest movement during the late 1970s while finishing his undergraduate work in Minnesota. At the time of this interview, Mr. LaForge was co-director of Nukewatch, an organization dedicated to the abolition of nuclear weapons. He has worked as the editor of the organization’s quarterly newsletter, as well as assisting with the writing and editing of several books concerning anti-nuclear activism.
Mr. LaForge was interviewed for the park's oral history collection in January 1999 and again in 2016. Below are several excerpts from his 1999 interview:
Could you provide an introduction to the events that led up to the development of Nukewatch as an organization?
Oh, sure. The late Sam Day was managing editor of the Progressive Magazine in 1979 when the U.S. Government enjoined the magazine to prevent publication of an article about the hydrogen bomb. And a lawsuit ensued where the magazine was working to publish this article in spite of this injunction from the government which would have prevented a publication. The government was arguing that information in the article was secret. The author, Howard Moorland, argued that all of his information about how an H-bomb works and how it's built was attainable in the public realm with public documentation. So there were lawyers that gathered and there was fund appeal and there was the nonprofit group Progressive Foundation established then to pay the lawyers to fight off the government censorship. In the middle of the lawsuit two newspapers in Madison published the article on their own and so it kind of took the wind out of the government sails and they gave up their case against the magazine which then published the article. After that court victory, magazine triumph over the censorship as Sam would say, he sort of split off from the magazine and started Nukewatch as a function or project of the Progressive Foundation which is now separate from the magazine.
How did you personally became involved in the anti-nuclear movement and what lead you to Nukewatch particularly?
In the last year of my undergraduate work in Minnesota was 1979 when the Three-Mile Island accident contaminated Pennsylvania and at the same time President Jimmy Carter reinstated draft registration as some sort of a bully pulpit maneuver to show that he was being tough in the military sense as opposed to Ronald Reagan who was running against him and claiming that Carter was soft on the military. And then Reagan's election as it was kind of propelled me into anti-nuclear work. Before that I was focused mainly on environmental activism in college. So it was Carter's get tough attitude, his leak of Presidential Directive 59 which is pretty famous now too. It's the Carter doctrine of winnable or first strike nuclear weapons deployment which was, again, designed, the leak designed to counter Reagan's claim that Carter was weak on defense. And then with Reagan's election and appointment of Casper Weinberger as Secretary of Defense and Alexander Haig as Secretary of State these three military hawks, you know, talked a lot about using nuclear weapons against the cities of the Soviet Union, the former Soviet Union, and the. . . all of it seemed positively crazy and insane, suicidal to me. And that helped galvanize me into working against nuclear weapons in particular. And I had known about Nukewatch because of the Progressive Magazine case which was pretty notorious around country. It was one of the very rare instances where the government tried to prevent publication of an article. And the demonstrations that Nukewatch was organizing in the Madison area was similar to those that I'd been participating in in Strategic Air Command in Omaha the headquarters and control center for all the nuclear weapons in the country. So we got to know one another and in the early 80's worked on several demonstrations either help in organizing things together or publicizing the events afterwards.
Could you describe the origin of the missile silo mapping project and the resulting book, Nuclear Heartland?
Well, it was definitely the idea of our, the founder and mastermind, Samuel H. Day, Jr., our friend Sam, who just died two years ago, to, you know, bring to light the fact that nuclear weapons systems were right in people's backyards all over the great plains states. And at the time it was something that was practically unknown around the country and even people living in the missile fields themselves were found by us to not even know that missiles were right in their area unless they had been long-term residents who watched the mechanics of these giant holes being dug and the systems installed. If they came after that period of time it was quite easy to not even realize that they were there because what's above ground at these places is rather innocuous it looks, some of them look like transformer systems for utilities or just a bunch of pole barn buildings that could be used for anything and easily mistaken for farm sheds or equipment sheds. So the idea was to highlight not just the movement of nuclear weapons to these facilities, but the fact that these launch pads were dotted all over the great plains and that people could go right up to them and see for themselves what nuclear weapon systems were all about.
Could you describe a notable protest action at a missile silo site?
Yeah, there have been several very dramatic actions at missile silos, indeed the first one ever was probably the most dramatic and it sort of threw the doors open to everything that came afterward. The Silo Pruning Hooks in November, Armistice Day in November of 1984, involved four people who took a compressor driven jackhammer to a silo in Missouri and did damage to the gigantic concrete lid that covers up the top of the silo. They were Helen Woodson, Carl and Paul Kabat both brothers and both Catholic priests and Larry Cloud Morgan. The four of them were tried in Kansas City, Missouri on charges of destruction of federal property, sabotage and a lower charge of trespass, I believe. And because of the circumstances of their actions the judge they happened to draw the political atmosphere at the time they ended up getting the harshest sentences ever meted out to civil disobedience in the history of the United States. The were initially given an eighteen year sentence by a Judge D. Brook Bartlett. Those sentences were later reduced on appeal to twelve, ten, and eight years. And because of the notoriety of their action they brought a lot of attention to the missile silos and to the question of the legality of the weapons.