Sam Day, Peace Activist, Journalist, Lovable Leftist, Dead at 74

by Matthew Rothschild
THE PROGRESSIVE
January 29, 2001

The world is a lesser place this weekend.

Sam Day has died.

He was 74.

A massive stroke on January 26 did to him what no prison could, what no bully could, what no police officer or repressive government could.

It stopped him, finally, from pursuing peace and justice.

Whether it was behind a desk or in front of a demonstration, with a pen or with a microphone, or with a courageous act of civil disobedience, Sam put himself on the line for peace.

He was a traitor to his class. Born into privilege, the son of a U.S. diplomat, Sam went to Phillips Exeter academy, but he quickly dropped every trace of the preppie.

"When Sam Day got knocked off his establishment horse, he never got back on," recalls Perry Swisher, who worked with Sam at the Intermountain Observer in Idaho in the 1960s.

Sam began his journalism career as a copy boy with the Washington Evening Star, and then he joined the AP in Idaho, moving from there to the Lewiston Morning Tribune, and on to the Intermountain Observer, a crusading paper that championed civil rights, the environment, and an end to the Vietnam War.

When that closed down, Sam and his wife, Kathleen, moved to Chicago to edit the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in the 1970s.

And in 1978, he came to The Progressive, where he shepherded the magazine's H-bomb story: "The H-Bomb Secret: How We Got It--Why We're Telling It," by Howard Morland.

Sam was integral to the story, working with Morland on draft after draft and composing the crucial introduction and conclusion.

As the article stated, "The secret of how a hydrogen bomb is made protects a more fundamental 'secret': the mechanism by which the resources of the most powerful nation on Earth have been marshaled for global catastrophe. Knowing how may be the key to asking why."

The U.S. government issued an unprecedented prior restraint order against The Progressive, forcing the magazine to keep the story under wraps for six months. But eventually the government folded up its tent of censorship, and the magazine published the article in November 1979.

Less than a year later, Sam left The Progressive.

"The ending of the H-bomb case left me with a sense of unfulfillment with regard to the issues we had raised," Sam wrote in his autobiography, Crossing the Line. "We had won a First Amendment victory by blocking the government's heavy-handed attempt at censorship. But we still had a long way to go in achieving our original objective in publishing the H-bomb story, which was to encourage public defiance of nuclear secrecy, thereby strengthening opposition to the nuclear weapons enterprise. As one who had come through the fire of that historic confrontation, I felt drawn both as a writer and political activist to further battle against the demon of nuclear secrecy."

Sam spent the last two decades fighting that demon mostly as a political activist. He threw himself into Nukewatch, a nonprofit group that not only covers nuclear issues but engages in civil disobedience to prevent war.

"Whatever the origins of, or reasons for, our policy of threatening to destroy the world in order to save it, I resolved on a personal level, to the extent possible, to withdraw my consent to the policy," Sam wrote. "Not in my name, I would say, nor in the name of others who cared to join me in that stand."

Sam was arrested many times for his nonviolent civil disobedience, and it was at the end of one extended period of incarceration that he had a stroke that cost him his eyesight.

In the last decade, Sam concentrated his efforts on the U.S. Campaign to Free Mordechai Vanunu, the Israeli nuclear technician-turned-whistleblower, whom the Mossad captured and the Israeli government has imprisoned now for fourteen years.

The headquarters of U.S. Campaign to Free Mordechai Vanunu was Sam Day's house.

But because of his indefatigable energy and stellar organizing abilities, the campaign got off the ground. Daniel Ellsberg, Nobel Prize-winner Joseph Rotblat, peace activists in Israel, and even thirty-six members of Congress joined the effort, which Sam was still pressing at the time of his death.

He also was devoting himself to the cause of the blind, noting in one his last articles that the blind are being discriminated against in the high tech world.

"Let us insist on our rightful place on the superhighway," he wrote in a special to the Wisconsin Spotlight.

He wrote his last piece for the Progressive Media Project, an affiliate of The Progressive magazine, just one week before he died, on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of America's nuclear detonations at the Nevada Test Site.

"Today, the mushroom clouds are gone but a dangerous legacy remains," he wrote. "The flame that first seared the Nevada desert 50 years ago has left a wound that may never heal."

Sam "wrote like an angel," Morris Rubin, a former editor of The Progressive, once said.

And so he did, with accuracy, clarity, quickness, and touch.

But he harnessed all those gifts in service of something larger than himself.

"I remain an Old Codger for Peace, ready to continue my resistance to recruit others to the cause," he wrote in his autobiography. "There is more work for me to do, whatever the risk and whatever the pain. I want to continue to speak truth to power--as an editor, activist, and inmate--and to help others undertake that high calling."

Sam was a father to a generation of peace activists and political journalists all across the country and even abroad. He inspired us, by his example, to confront power, not to compromise. To be stubborn when it would be easier to cave in. To tell the truth when all around us there are lies.

More than anything, he was a lovable leftie.

For all his commitment and his principle, he didn't take himself too seriously. He enjoyed the human comedy, and he took a great interest in other people.

He was an unfrocked confessor figure, an unpaid consultant, and an unlicensed psychiatrist to many, many of us.

He would hear out our problems, offer his advice, and puncture the tension with a quip or a compliment.

Cuddly, affectionate, sweet, considerate, and childlike, he would delight in little jokes or a religious jest ("Unitarians aren't good singers because they're always reading ahead to see if they agree with the lyrics") or a successful bluff at the poker table.

A loyal and affectionate husband to the wonderful Kathleen all these many years, sturdy father to Josh, Phillip, and Sam, and in recent years a doting grandfather, Sam was a great guy and a great man.

He was one of my heroes, and I don't have many.

He leaves a gaping hole in my life: I will miss his leadership and his friendship, his levity and his love.

And he leaves a gaping hole in the peace community that will be impossible to fill.

--Matthew Rothschild