Defining the Problem

The Urgency Of The Problem

Helen Caldicott, M.D., 1984

A pediatrician by training, Helen Caldicott, M.D. is President Emeritus of Physicians for Social Responsibility, and founder of Women's Action for Nuclear Disarmament. Her book, Nuclear Madness is in its fourth printing. She believes that nuclear technology threatens life on our planet with extinction. As reflected in her book, Missile Envy, a fundamental concern for Dr. Caldicott is that in the nuclear age it is high time for those people who understand that nationalism means possible extinction for one's own country, to become leaders among the human family, and direct these parochial instincts toward a sense of altruism, pride, compassion, and love.

Whiteley: Dr. Caldicott, you refer to the nuclear weapons issue as the ultimate medical issue. What are you sharing with us?

Caldicott: Well, nuclear war will create the final medical epidemic of the human race, not just the human race, but all the plants and the animals. At risk right now is billions of years of evolution and creation, and we, you and I, hold it in the palm of our hands. And we will decide in our lifetime whether or not that continues to exist.

Whiteley: You've indicated that there are three tons of TNT for every man, woman and child in the world.

Caldicott: Yes, well in the '60s McNamara said if American had 200 bombs that would be enough to kill one-third of the Russian population and destroy two-thirds of their industry, and that was enough to kill a hundred million human beings. And that became the official policy of deterrence. If Russia did something America didn't like in the conventional area, not even in nuclear weapons, America was prepared, if necessary, to kill a hundred million people. So then, instead of having 200 hydrogen bombs, America has got 30,000 nuclear weapons and Russia has got 20,000. Now it is said that America has enough to overkill every Russian person forty times, and Russia has enough to overkill ever American person twenty times. Of course, as a physician, people only die once. And I had this image that the weapons all come and everyone dies, they get resurrected and stand up again and say 'where are the next bombs," and they all come in overkill.

Whiteley: What are the medical effects of nuclear weapons?

Caldicott: The Russians have 8,000 bombs they can drop on us in half an hour; we've got 10,000 we can drop on them in half an hour to several hours. There are only 200 major cities in this country and 200 major cities in Russia. So it happens that probably every town and city with a population greater than 10,000 people here and there is targeted with at least one bomb. Certainly, Moscow is probably targeted with at least 60 hydrogen bombs so you can extrapolate from there. Every power plant is targeted, including every nuclear reactor. If you drop a large bomb, a one megaton bomb on a thousand megawatt reactor and its cooling pool, you contaminate permanently an area the size of West Germany.

Now what I'll do is drop a bomb on a city so we can think about the medical consequence to one city, but as I talk, imagine a nuclear carpet bombing of this whole country. I'm going to drop a 20 megaton bomb on the city in which you live, and as I drop it think of where you live in the city. It's equivalent to 20 million tons of TNT or five times the collective energy of all the bombs dropped in the second world war. It will come in at 20 times the speed of sound tangentially at treetop level, and explode in the fraction of a millionth of a second with the heat of the sun. And dig a hole three-quarters of a mile wide and 800 feet deep - turning that volume of buildings, people, and earth below it to radioactive fallout shut up in the mushroom cloud. Six miles from the epicenter, every building will be flattened, concrete and steel will melt, and everyone will be killed, most people being vaporized, because 80% of our body is made of water, and as happened in Hiroshima, when we're exposed to the heat of the sun, we turn into gas and we disappear. Twenty miles from the epicenter, everyone killed or lethally injured. Winds of 500 miles an hour just pick people up and turn them into missiles traveling at 100 miles an hour. The overpressures popcorn the windows and then shards of glass flying at 100 miles an hour will decapitate people and enter human flesh. People close and who look at the flash, their eyes will melt and run down their cheeks; that happened in Hiroshima. Others will be charcoalized - turned into charcoal statues. All will be hideously burnt. Some will die immediately, some will die over days in the most intense agony, having never seen a physician for their pain. But the White House has for years been stockpiling huge quantities of morphine just in case there's going to be a nuclear war. We, the physicians, don't know where it's stockpiled.

Twenty-six miles from the epicenter the heat flash traveling at the speed of light is still so intense that dry objects like chlorides will spontaneously ignite and burst into flame so you will just become a walking, flaming torch. Forty miles out if you just reflexively glance at the flash you'll be instantly blinded from retinal burns, and the whole area then can be covered with a firestorm of 3000 square miles, increasing the lethal area by a factor of 5, so if you get into a fallout shelter, the fire will suck the oxygen out of the shelter and you'll be asphyxiated, and the blast of heat will turn the fallout shelters into crematoriums. This attack will be a carpet bombing, the Russians don't believe in limited nuclear war, they believe in using everything. The Federation of American Scientists say if the attack occurs in the summer, America could burn down coast to coast, north to south.

The World Health Organization did a study last year and took only 7,000 nuclear weapons because they couldn't find anymore targets in the whole world for anymore weapons, and they targeted every major town and city in America, Canada, Russia, China, England, Europe, India, Vietnam, Korea, Australia, New Zealand, the Philipines, Guam, and other countries. And they found in this very conservative nuclear attack (and it won't be conservative - it will be everything) that in the first hour alone in the northern hemisphere, one billion people died from blast alone. And in the next two weeks, one billion more died of the effects I've just described. That is two billion people. That is half the world's population in a very conservative nuclear war.

Now Carl Sagan and his peers have done recent studies published in Science Magazine on December 23, 1983 to show that take these 7000 bombs, drop them on cities, the cities are full of toxic chemical facilities, oil refineries, etc., and as the cities burn with ferocity, clouds of smoke and dust will move up into the troposphere and literally blanket the earth with a cloud of smoke so thick it will obliterate the sun for a period of up to several months to one year, producing arctic-like conditions - darkness at noon, temperatures of -55o Farenheit, and all the plants will die from a lack of photosynthesis, and we and the animals will freeze to death in the dark, hungry and thirsty, and dying of acute radiation illness because the fallout is going to be much greater than originally supposed. And our hair will drop out, we'll vomit, have liquid diarrhea, and die of bleeding or infection. And because of the temperature differential at the equators, this cloud, it's predicted, will move down to engulf the southern hemisphere too, and do the same thing down there.

So we're talking really about elimination of the life process with only 7000 bombs. But the really horrifying things of the study was that maybe the threshhold of global extinction may not be 7000 bombs, but only 1000 bombs dropping on 100 cities. So if 1000 bombs is the threshhold for global extinction, and Russia and America own 50,000 bombs, where are we?

Whiteley: You've indicated that a consequence of two decades of delivery system improvement is that there's essentially no defense at this point in time.

Caldicott: Yes. Well there is no defense against nuclear weapons because many of them are on missiles, rockets that only take half an hour to cross the North Pole in either direction, and land and just devastate each country. And you can't protect yourself against intercontinental ballistic missiles coming down from space at twenty times the speed of sound. There is no defense against these missiles, so the Department of Defense is a misnomer. It's a euphemism. It should be called the Department of War as it once was, and let's be honest.

Whiteley: You've indicated in your writings that the solution, however, is to be found within our democratic process.

Caldicott: Right. Well, Jefferson said "An informed democracy will behave in a responsible fashion." This democracy is very ill-informed about nuclear weapons. Like I will ask each audience I address, thousands of people, to put up your hands if you know the difference between a strategic and tactical nuclear weapon. Hardly any hands go up. Now that's the bread and butter of nuclear weapons. I mean that's only the very basis. There's a huge amount of information about these weapons, and unless we understand what's happening, well the Congress just keeps appropriating more and more of our tax dollars to building these weapons to create the global gas oven. And we have to get involved by first of all knowing what a sea-launch cruise missile is, knowing what launch-on warning means, knowing what terminal guidance systems mean, and what the Pershing II missile means. I mean we've got to understand this because everyday in that Congress, these characters are appropriating more and more and more money to build these weapons. And the arms race is not about Russia. It's about money.

Whiteley: You've offered two criticisms in addition to that: First, that the 2.2 trillion dollars that will be spent in this endeavor in the next five years is at the expense of some essential social programs. You've indicated our country is eleventh in infant mortality. How does that occur?

Caldicott: Well this is the richest country in the world. I thought a society looks after its people, educates them, feeds them, looks after the old people, distributes money to encourage business to create things people can buy and sell. Whereas you can't buy and sell these bombs. You can't eat them or ride them to work. It's a dead-end industry, it doesn't add to the economy of the country, and at the moment over half the scientists and engineers are involved in making weapons to kill us all.

Whiteley: You've called for the election of a Congress that would take a number of specific steps to reduce the situation that we find ourselves in. What are those specific steps?

Caldicott: Okay, I've got a five-year plan. Because it's in retaliation to the Pentagon who have a five-year plan calling for American capability to fight and win a protracted nuclear war fought over a six month period.

Whiteley: Which you think is medically impossible - to have a protracted nuclear war for any period of time.

Caldicott: Of course. My five-year plan goes like this: a freeze in a year. Seventy to 80% of Americans want a freeze and they've wanted a freeze for about two years. The Russians proposed a bilateral nuclear weapons freeze in the United Nations six months ago. The whole world voted to adopt it, except the United States. Why? So I'm sure we could get a freeze or a cessation of production, testing, and deployment of any more weapons bilaterally within a year. Then two years after that we get a 50% cut of all nuclear weapons and delivery systems bilaterally. Just stop building the things and get rid of 50%. And stop arguing about which ones, or how - no tunnel vision thinking - just do it. And then two years after that a two-thirds cut for the remainder, at which time America would have 5000 weapons and Russia would have 3000, still enough probably to destroy life on the planet, but the atmosphere would be so conducive to elimination of nuclear weapons, I think that by the year 1990 we could eliminate nuclear weapons, and that it is medically indicated to do so.

Whiteley: You are not calling for unilateral steps.

Caldicott: No, nobody is calling for unilateral steps.

Whiteley: The Harris Polls that you've cited in your writings show over two-thirds to 90% of the American public want to see some kinds of bilateral reductions of a major nature. Why hasn't that occurred? How do you explain the inaction in the Congress?

Caldicott: I think they're a bunch of wimps. They don't understand this in their gut. This country is run by old, rich white men on the whole. And you have to understand, have to ask how many of those people have ever witnessed the explosion of a hydrogen bomb? Watched it 200 miles away through their hands and seen the bones in their hands light up. Felt the heat opening on their face like an oven door 200 miles away. Seen a battleship rise up in the water like a splinter and disappear. How many of those men have witnessed the miracle of the birth of a single human baby? How many of those men have helped a child to die, and supported the parents before and ever after in their grief. And if they haven't, they don't understand this issue, they don't understand that they're playing dice with God's creation, and they are inappropriate people to be certainly running this country, the most powerful country in the world, and I'm sure there are similar people over there in the Kremlin. And so we've got to remove them.

Whiteley: And your founding of WAND is a step in that direction.

Caldicott: Yes. WAND is Women's Action for Nuclear Disarmament. I thought that if I appealed to the women, the women have the babies - It's the most wonderful thing I ever did was to give birth to my babies. The most creative, fantastic act, and that we understand the genesis of life. And we think globally, and we tend to concentrate on the solution, whereas men tend to concentrate on the problem. And I thought if we could get women to use their power to protect their babies, the instinct that we have to protect our babies, and get involved in the political process, both to work for the candidates and to run for Congress themselves, so that 52% of Congress will be women, that we could stop this mad race toward annihilation.

Whiteley: You're starting with a two-pronged effort with WAND then: one, to involve women more actively in the political process; second to elect candidates to Congress who are supportive of the point-of-view that you're taking.

Caldicott: That's right, and those candidates would be good if they're women, but if they're loving, caring nurturing men with a strong feminine principle, they should be in too. As Bill Sloane Coffin said "The woman most in need of liberation is the woman in every man."

Whiteley: This is the second major effort on behalf of freeing the world from the problems caused by nuclear weapons. The first was your work in the 1970s to stop French atmospheric testing in the South Pacific. How did you go about putting a stop - organizing, coalescing a stop to that activity?

Caldicott: Well, we came and lived here in the states from 1966 to 1969, and we were here when President Nixon was elected, and I saw democracy in action, and it really was a wonderful, exciting, educational experience. And I went back to Australia and I found out that France was testing bombs in the Pacific Ocean in the atmosphere, contravening international law. And we had a high fallout where I lived in Adelaide. And we drink the rainwater because water is scarce, and we collect it on our roofs and it runs into tanks. And the radioactive rain fell following a draught and the tanks were empty. And I wrote a letter to the paper and I said that this rain was dangerous, that Strontium 90 concentrates in milk, particularly breast milk, and that babies are ten to twenty times more radiosensitive than adults, more likely than adults to get cancer and leukemia from these internal radioactive emitters like radioactive iodine in the thyroid, Strontium 90 in the teeth, the bones, etc. And they didn't publish my letter, so I called up the editor and I said why didn't you publish my letter, and he said, Madam, we get hundreds of letters a day. And I said, yes, but mine is important, and I explained why. So he pulled it out of his wastepaper basket, unscrewed it and published it. So I got a call from the major T.V. station and I was on the news that night. And so every time the French blew up another bomb, there I was back on television educating the Australians about the medical effects of fallout.

And my colleagues shunned me, and I was threatened by the medical superintendent of my hospital, and he said if you keep talking you won't get your job next year. But what happened was in nine months, 75% of the Australians rose up and they said God, we've got to stop this. And there were huge spontaneous marches in city streets every weekend with men carrying their babies on their shoulders with little signs around their neck saying "I don't want to die of leukemia from the French tests." The people wouldn't buy French perfume, the mail workers wouldn't deliver the French mail, waterside workers refused to lower the French ships, and finally a man burned his beret on television. And the doctors came in on the backs of the people. At the end of nine months the government was forced to take France to the International Court of Justice, The Hague. And we had a victory, and she now tests underground. So I saw an informed democracy behave in a responsible fashion.

Whiteley: One key for you is an informed democracy, and that assigns a particularly important role to our formal institutions of education. What are they doing now, and what would you have them do differently?

Caldicott: I really think that the formal institutions of education in this country have totally failed. Every audience I address, I say now hands up those of you who think you live in a true democracy, and out of 2000 people, maybe one or two hands may go up. And so I say who runs your country, and there's a stunned silence, and someone says 'corporations do.' And the institutions for learning have totally failed the people in this country. Why is it that people don't understand that it's a privilege and a responsibility to live in a democracy, and that everybody has an obligation to vote. And everybody has an obligation to run your congressman. And if you leave a vacuum at the top when you send them to Washington, the people who run the congressmen are Sylvania, Rockwell International, AT&T, IT&T, General Electric - all the big corporations who are making weapons to blow us off the face of the earth, and that's grossly irresponsible. I come from a country where voting is compulsory; if you don't vote you get fined $5.00. Unless the American people really do stand tall and take back their country as the founding fathers envisioned it, 'of the people, by the people, and for the people,' we're going to destroy the earth.

Whiteley: What would you have taught in the elementary and junior high and high schools?

Caldicott: I would teach them instead about the reality of the nuclear world. I would teach them what Einstein meant when he said 'The splitting of the atom changed everything, save man's mode of thinking, thus we drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.' I'd teach them about the weapons, I'd teach them about the medical effects, I'd teach them about what they can do about it, and what using a democracy means. And I wouldn't give them boring civics lessons; I'd make them come alive so they understood how exciting it is to live in a democracy. I'd teach them conflict resolution, both in the playground with themselves, their parents, and how we can resolve conflict with another great nation like we did with China, and like we must do with Russia.

Whiteley: What would be your curriculum for colleges and universities?

Caldicott: Well, that would be similar, except I would enlarge on it and make it much more sophisticated. For instance my new book Missile Envy goes into all of these subjects in depth, but of course I've only skimmed the surface. This is the single most important issue there is, and yet it should be headlines in our newspapers every day, because we live on borrowed time every day. We're lucky to wake up each morning. Each day is a gift from God. And we have to thank our lucky stars we're not radioactive yet and spoiling around up there in the stratosphere.

Whiteley: What do you see the role of religion as an institution in our society to be on this issue?

Caldicott: Crucial. The Roman Catholic Church wrote a wonderful Pastoral Letter on nuclear war, but I'm afraid they're not moving fast enough for the benefit of the human race.

Whiteley: You've indicated that all the superpowers are engaging in pre-nuclear thinking. What is it about human nature that in the face of the kinds of systematic medical evidence about the consequences of nuclear weapons that keeps us as a society from acting in sensible ways?

Caldicott: Well, you know if you read the writings of history, man hasn't really changed emotionally for 3000 years, or maybe since he stood on his hind limbs three million years ago. Our emotions are run by our mid-brain or hypothalymus, and we just use our neurocortex to rationalize what our emotions tell us to do. And so we move very slowly, whereas just in a second of time in this 20th Century, we've harnessed this huge neurocortex to create the most incredible technology that can wipe us off the earth. That's only just happened.

We were here for three million years and lived symbiotically with nature, and now we've learned how to destroy it. The question is, we're at a crossroads of time now; can we evolve spiritually and emotionally fast enough to catch up to what the technology has produced in the world so that we can stop ourselves being destroyed? That's the question of our time, and you and I will know that in our lifetime, probably within the next ten years. If we die of natural causes, we'll know that we succeeded in that spiritual and emotional growth. If we die in a thermonuclear holocaust in the next four to ten years, we'll know we failed. And the person who had the answers to all of this was a man called Jesus, who was, I think, the greatest psychiatrist who ever lived. He said "I have no enemy, for he is myself." He said "See not the mote in the other person's eye; look instead for the mote in your own eye." He said "It's easy to love your friend; what is difficult to do is love your enemy." Those are the great teachings of our time, and unless we take them seriously and do that, we will not survive.

Whiteley: What is your vision for the 21st Century in a world without nuclear weapons?

Caldicott: My vision is that the overpopulation problem will be solved. If we don't solve it now - there are four and a half billion people on the planet - by the year 2000 there'll be six billion. Most of the forests will be destroyed so the oxygen-producing mechanism will have gone. Most of the food, the air and the water will be polluted, and the earth will be terminally ill apart from nuclear weapons.

We have the technology and the resources to turn that around now, and it goes hand in hand with getting rid of nuclear weapons and stopping pouring all our money into killing, and pouring it instead into living and making the earth a habitable place for all human beings on the planet. And stop exploring space and all this fascination, like little boys with technology. Let's just get down to the basic things that most of the people in the world need: food, immunization, antibiotics, vitamins, birth control. Let's regrow the forests. There's so much to be done. Why don't we do good things, why do we pursue evil instead of good?

Whiteley: Dr. Caldicott, thank you for sharing with us your insights into the dangers of nuclear weapons, and your plan for a way to a safer world.