Canadians joke that if you walk into any Vancouver bar, you're sure to meet a Greenpeace founder. But while many early members shaped Greenpeace into the NGO it is today, the organization had seven primary founders. The original group began its protests in 1971 when the United States announced a plan to detonate a nuclear test bomb on Amchitka Island, off the coast of Alaska. Canadians opposed the idea not only because the five megaton bomb would contaminate the island and harm the otters, bald eagles and peregrine falcons that lived there, but also because the explosion had the potential to create a tidal wave. In reference to the impending threat of a tidal wave, the Vancouver group called itself the Don't Make a Wave Committee.
The group soon gained the support of the Sierra Club and made plans to charter a boat, power it into the test site's forbidden zone and force the United States to stall the detonation. As the Committee broke after a meeting, flashing peace signs in parting, one member suggested that they "make it a green peace" [Weyler]. The name stuck, and although the mission to Amchitka Island did not prevent the bomb's detonation, Greenpeace made headlines and raised the public's awareness of nuclear testing and its hazards.
Greenpeace gained international recognition a year later when the organization faced off against the French military at the Pacific's Moruroa Atoll nuclear test site. After the crew of Greenpeace's boat, Vega, refused to leave the test site's forbidden zone, a French minesweeper rammed the vessel and detained the crew.
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The Rainbow Warrior after an attack by
the French secret service in 1985
The incident began a string of violence by the French government toward Greenpeace, culminating in the 1985 bombing of the Greenpeace flagship, the Rainbow Warrior. While the ship was docked in Auckland, New Zealand, preparing for a trip to Moruroa, French secret service agents planted two bombs on board and exploded the ship. The bombing resulted in one fatality when a photographer, Fernando Pereira, drowned after the second blast. The French government initially denied responsibility for the bombing but eventually accepted blame. France's minister of defense resigned after New Zealand led an investigation into the events.
Despite the violence of its opponents, Greenpeace persevered. The organization launched a new Rainbow Warrior in 1989 and sent it back to Moruroa. The French finally ended their nuclear tests at Moruroa in 1996.
As the small Don't Make a Wave Committee grew into the large, successful Greenpeace, its national and regional chapters began to argue over projects and methods. The organization was fitfully expanding its mission to include environmental concerns beyond nuclear disarmament and peace. In the next section, we'll learn how Greenpeace grew into the international organization it is today.
Greenpeace makes its mark around the world with its fleet of RIBs and several large vessels. There are four ships that represent the organization.