In 1984, Liz McAlister, a Catholic pacifist, was put on trial for the destruction of government property after she and other activists protested nuclear weaponry and vandalized Air Force property in Rome, New York. Her trial diary provides an account of the court proceedings, and this diary, among a vast collection of related documents pertaining to the trial is part of the Jerome C. Berrigan Collection, are available in Special Collections and Archives at the John T. Richardson Library.
You and I live in a world in which the threat of nuclear war is not as prominent as it once was. In fact, fearing global nuclear war nowadays would likely seem like the obsessive thoughts of a paranoid baby-boomer, but what if we lived in a world where the danger was so ominous that you felt compelled to interfere with American national defense? This is the world Liz McAlister responded to through her involvement in the Plowshares movement in opposition of nuclear weapons. Liz McAlister and her fellow Plowshares activists were so distressed about what they considered to be the “clear and present danger” of a cruise missile system at Griffiss Air Force Base that they covertly entered the base and intentionally damaged several B-52s, the planes that carry nuclear missiles. Imagine what it must have felt like to be with Liz McAlister, carefully sneaking onto a base filled with United States armed forces. You paint and damage the planes in the dark of Hanger 101, each bang a potential alarm that brings you closer and closer to being categorized as a domestic terrorist.
Liz McAlister and her fellow activists were discovered and arrested for their damage to government property and for disrupting national defense. Throughout the trial that followed the arrests, Liz McAlister recorded the court proceedings and annotated her defense. Her trial diary shares many insights into the defense strategy of the seven activists as well as McAlister’s personal thoughts, which can be seen in her powerful words:
“The intent of the government (speaking of intent) is very clear. They seek to establish what we’ve loudly claimed, i.e. that we hammered on, painted, and poured our blood on weapons… & to seek a conviction on sabotage & destruction of government property together & slide in conspiracy. Now they seek to shut down our defense – to shut down a discussion/presentation of justification – to shut down any discussion of the weapons themselves…”
But if nuclear weapons aren’t a threat any longer, what relevance do Liz McAlister’s protests against nuclear weapons and trial have to today? The answer is simple: the Plowshares movement was part of the public reaction that pressured the government to realize the safety concerns of many Americans. Liz McAlister offered a firm response in opposition to the advancement of nuclear war technology, and the contributions she and her fellow activists made has shaped our current understanding of nuclear war and America’s use of such technology.
For additional information on Liz McAlister’s trial diary and related documents in our Berrigan Collections, contact SPCA at: email@example.com.