Book review

Tracking the protest movements that had roots in New England

Demonstrators outside the site of the nuclear power plant in Seabrook, N.H. Demonstrators outside the site of the nuclear power plant in Seabrook, N.H. (Globe File/1977)
By Michael Kenney
Globe Correspondent / December 30, 2009

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During the late afternoon and well into the night of May 1, 1977, exactly 1,414 antinuclear activists from the Clamshell Alliance were arrested at the site of the proposed nuclear power plant at Seabrook, N.H.

Many had camped out on the property of sympathetic local residents, and some were ferried to the site by local lobstermen who feared the effect of the discharge of water from the plant’s twin cooling towers.

As historian Robert Surbrug Jr. explains in “Beyond Vietnam,’’ what became a national movement against nuclear power had its roots in New England in the 1970s.

Its beginnings can be traced to 1974 when activist Sam Lovejoy toppled a weather tower at the site of a proposed nuclear plant in the Western Massachusetts town of Montague. The movement “reached critical mass’’ with the arrests at Seabrook.

Focusing on the activists and the political leaders, as well as the issues, Surbrug traces a “political continuity’’ from the movement against nuclear energy in the 1970s to the nuclear freeze movement and the Central American solidarity movement of the 1980s.

All, writes Surbrug, were solidly based in Massachusetts with its heritage of political radicalism. Also in the mix were the Western Massachusetts communes and the environmental, countercultural, and feminist movements.

Activists came and went. But Surbrug, who teaches at Bay Path College, notes the importance of Lovejoy, Harvey Wasserman, a Clamshell spokesman at Seabrook, and Frances Crowe of Northampton, an American Friends Service Committee member who played key roles in all three movements of the ’70s and ’80s.

As Seabrook was ready to go online in September 1986, Governor Michael Dukakis refused to submit an evacuation plan for the six Massachusetts border towns that would be most affected by a nuclear accident. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission responded by redrawing its evacuation zone maps.

Surbrug agrees with the view that the nuclear weapons freeze movement, which had supplanted the antinuclear movement, quickly lost a grassroots focus and the local campaign gave way to international concerns.

As Western Massachusetts activist Randy Kehler put it, the freeze movement suffered from having a support base that was “a mile wide and an inch deep.’’

It did, however, attract the support of Massachusetts political leaders, and they would soon take leading roles in the Central American solidarity movement, the last of the three movements that Surbrug tracks.

There was support from the entire delegation, including Senator Edward M. Kennedy and House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip’’ O’Neill, and its lone Republican, Representative Silvio Conte.

Many members of the delegation had visited the region, among them Edward Boland of Springfield, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, and Gerry Studds of Cohasset, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, both of whom played key roles in the congressional debates.

And Joseph Moakley of South Boston claimed a personal stake in the movement to support democratic initiatives in Central America.

In November 1989, six Jesuit priests, their cook, and her teenage daughter had been murdered in El Salvador. Moakley, who had known two of the priests, was named to head a House investigation that led ultimately to an end to the civil war in El Salvador.

Surbrug does not claim that Massachusetts activists or political leaders were always on the winning side - and most of the time, their efforts only stalled actions they opposed. But as Daniel Webster, and countless orators following him, put it: “Massachusetts, there she stands! Behold her.’’

Michael Kenney is a Cambridge-based freelance writer.

BEYOND VIETNAM The Politics of Protest in Massachusetts, 1974-1990 By Robert Surbrug Jr.

University of Massachusetts Press, 323 pp., $29.95 (paper)

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