Fighting for Our Lives



Helen Caldicott, M.D., Anti-Nuclear Crusader

by Janet Allen


We have it within our power to begin the world again.
-Thomas Paine



The setting was downtown Los Angeles-a magnificent view of the city all dressed up in its eveningwear, a multi-colored embroidery of lights twinkling their nighttime splendor. Under ordinary circumstances, the convened members of Physicians for Social Responsibility might have gazed out the panoramic windows with a sense of peace, accomplishment, and appreciation. But having gathered to hear the group's founder, Helen Caldicott, M.D., speak about her new book, The New Nuclear Danger: George Bush's Military Industrial Complex and the current world crisis, the mood on this night was eerily different from most.

According to Caldicott, an Australian pediatrician-turned-activist who single-handedly spearheaded the Nuclear Disarmament movement two decades ago, we are in a more dangerous position now than we've ever been. Back during the Reagan years, public awareness of the nuclear threat was at its height, but now, people have let down their guard, Caldicott said. "At least we all knew we were close to nuclear war then and worked like mad to eradicate the threat. Today, the risk is much worse because our population is totally ignorant about it. Everyone thinks we're safe; people don't know that the weapons are still in existence and are in a higher state of alert. And with President Bush ratcheting up the aggression throughout the world and building the outrageously expensive Star Wars system ($90 billion to date), we're more likely to have a nuclear war by anxiety, by design, by accident. The whole thing is illogical, irrational, and insane."

Caldicott is back on another mission to raise awareness of the still very possible specter of nuclear war, because, she said, it's what people don't know that puts the fate of this planet in the most extreme danger:
· That the U.S. national military policy "is still to win a nuclear war against Russia. It's written in the Defense Department documents. It's still in the public domain."
· That on Sept. 11, our "early warning system went into the highest state of alert, Defcon II, the stage just before George Bush could press the button."
· That during the year 2000, the Pentagon under Clinton administration lost this nuclear attack detection system for eight months when its computers went down, yet neglected to tell U.S. citizens. "Dr. Patch Adams and I kept ringing the press, warning them that Y2K could cause an accidental nuclear war, but they were bored with the end of the world."
· That despite the Cold War having ended in 1989, both the U.S. and Russia each still have 3,000 nuclear missiles (6,000 total) on hair-trigger alert, pointed at 240 major metropolitan areas in the northern hemisphere. "Scientific analysis shows that if you drop 1,000 bombs on 100 cities, you'll create such a pall of black, radioactive, oily smoke, it will cover the earth for a year, block out the sun, and produce nuclear winter and the end of life on earth. Cockroaches might survive, the algae, the moss, but certainly not us."
· That in 1995, we were only 10 seconds away from having those missiles launched in our direction until Russian President Boris Yeltsin realized it was just a computer false alarm. "We need to remember that nuclear war can happen within half an hour."
· That similar close calls occur every year, leaving us continually on the brink of nuclear war and annihilation. "Ten years ago, 105 documented cases of near-misses were documented in the American early warning system alone. In Russia, where the system is rusty and antiquated, numbers are probably higher."

Caldicott is furious that American tax dollars are being utilized by the new robber barons of the military-industrial complex-Lockheed-Martin, Boeing, TRW, Raytheon-to pay for a monstrosity that she says won't and can't work. "Bush wants to spend $3.5 trillion in the next 10 years on the military. If you'd spent a million dollars a minute since Jesus was born, you still wouldn't have spent a trillion dollars. Half your discretionary budget or more goes to the Pentagon, and you don't have a free health care system, which is your right and your due!"

Physicians for Social Responsibility Executive Director of the L.A. chapter Jonathan Parfrey is equally perturbed. (Physicians for Social Responsibility is a national organization representing 22,000 doctors, nurses, health care professionals, and concerned citizens devoted to nuclear disarmament, violence prevention, and environmental health.) "The Bush Administration has dramatically made America much less secure. First, they abrogated the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty-the first time ever the U.S. has been the first to cut out of an international treaty. Second, our government's plans to test its missiles will be in direct violation of the international testing moratorium. Consequently, once the U.S. deploys a missile defense, China (which currently possesses 18 missiles that can hit America) will likely respond by building hundreds of nuclear weapons, compelling India and Pakistan to follow suit. Russia, too, may very well feel pressured to deploy more complex and dangerous missles called 'MIRVs' (Multiple Independent Re-entry Vehicles)."

What with the post-September 11 patriotic fervor, the President's high approval rating (common during wartime), and Congress standing up and applauding Bush several dozen times during the recent State of the Union address, Helen Caldicott is deeply concerned with the overall display of subservient complicity. "This administration has a Congress that just lies down in front of them. If I didn't have a tight skirt on, I'd lie down on the floor and show you."

Corporate Puppets, Corporate Bias
The esteemed pediatrician proceeded to give the audience a brief lesson in modern-day politics. For disbelievers, she was careful to say that all statements were referenced and documented in her book. "What is this administration? They didn't win the election; they were put in by the Supreme Court. This is a corporate administration with a corporate Congress, not democratically elected at all. They are just representatives of the military-industrial complex that put them into power, and they aren't representing the people of America one bit. They're corporate prostitutes, and you can see that with the Enron scandal-the immense funding given to Bush, both for his gubernatorial and his presidential campaigns, as well as the ties that the whole administration has with Lockheed-Martin.

"Do you all know who the Heritage Foundation is?" Caldicott continued. "They're called a conservative, right-wing think tank, but they're actually an advertising agency for corporations like Lockheed-Martin, Reader's Digest, Hertz Rent-a-Car, Holiday Inn, Coors Beer, and the big military-industrial complex. If you look on Jim Lehrer or Ted Koppel or Charlie Rose or Nightline most nights, or read the New York Times, very often you'll see a fellow from the Heritage Foundation-very intelligent, very well spoken. They don't believe in big government or any government. Their philosophy is total deregulation so corporations can do what they will, like Enron. The group spends $29 million a year, 40% of that on media propaganda, so that's what we're up against."

Furthermore, Caldicott has evidence that most of the people in the administration were either appointed by Heritage or shuttled in through the government-industry revolving door. "Many are Lockheed-Martin people, including Stephen Hadley and Vice-President Dick Cheney's wife Lynn, who held a paid position on its board for about 20 years. Our military leaders in the Army, Navy, and Air Force are all corporate men: White, the head of the Army, comes from Enron."

Caldicott continued undaunted while the fascinated, somewhat disheartened audience sat frozen in their chairs, attempting to keep on track with this runaway choo-choo of political who-what-wheres. "So in fact, this is not a Democracy, and this administration and Congress are being run by the corporations who just want to take all your money and then go bankrupt, running away with $101 million dollars in their pockets. You lose your retirement benefits; tens of thousands of people get fired. The social ramifications of the Capitalist system at this time in history are inhumane and, therefore, things must change.

"We need a revolution. I'm sure you can all work that out, because it's your country."

Ending the Nuclear Age
As a physician and mother, Caldicott always stands up first and foremost for the younger generation. In fact, she was initially spurred into action back in 1971 when the rainwater falling on Adelaide, Australia contained radioactive fallout from French atmospheric tests-carcinogenic radiation that would concentrate in breast milk and enter the bodies of babies. "We cannot ignore the nuclear threat which faces us every minute of every day, because even more faces our children. These kids are growing up to inherit a lethal world, so complex, set up by us and our generation. The irresponsibility of adults takes my breath away! Why haven't we got any guts?"

After retiring into her private life in Australia in 1987, she came back to anti-nuclear work out of necessity-not a good sign.

"When I realized that Clinton hadn't abolished nuclear weapons when the Cold War ended, I felt really deeply betrayed, because I'd spent about 20 years trying to stop the nuclear arms race. When the Berlin Wall came down, I thought that would naturally happen. I gave up my life, my career, my vocation to try to save the world from nuclear war.

"I'm 63, and when I look back now and realize the weapons are still in place, I don't just feel cheated, I feel deeply saddened." She sighed mournfully, and I was touched to glimpse the sensitive side of this strong, dedicated woman who has been my hero for almost two decades.

"I know that I influenced millions of people in the '80s, and they're still out there. I see now my job is to re-stimulate those people, re-educate them and tell them that we haven't finished our work. I foresee that in five years we can end the Nuclear Age."

An interactive dialogue began. Said one audience member: "I think it is a real misconception that America has to be the Peace Keepers. We need to become more aware of being Peace Builders. You have to start it at the ground level, the grassroots level, and change people's sensibilities and psychology."

"There isn't time to do grassroots stuff anymore," Caldicott replied. "It's beyond time to talk to the government."

An older gentleman offered his solution: "Teach peace in every school in the U.S." "Well," responded Helen, "it's a great idea, but you know what? There isn't time. The children don't have time to grow up and take political action."

Her sense of urgency was unmistakable and contagious. "The earth is acutely ill, and we are in the Intensive Care Unit! Being a physician, you've got to be pragmatic. If you've got little time and your patient's got acute Meningococal septicemia, unless he gets his penicillin right now, he'll be dead tomorrow. Similarly, in helping our planet to survive, if we don't understand the origin of the disease, we can't cure it.

"The cause of the nuclear arms race and Star Wars, all the murder and violence, is man's psyche. We've got to start analyzing what's going on, figuring out what drives this brain of ours, and call our leaders on it like the Nazis were called on their crimes, because if we don't, we won't be here much longer."

The Terrorist Threat
Radioactive contamination is no doubt a significant health risk in the nuclear age. Whether used violently to wipe out human populations at the flip of a switch, or more "benignly" to sterilize our food and medical supplies, nuclear isotopes are a constant source of danger, at risk of exploding, leaking, being mishandled by untrained workers, improperly stored or disposed of, even stolen. Explained Caldicott, "Terrorists don't need nuclear weapons; they've got 'em. A hundred and one reactors, free, scattered around America. Inside each one is as much long-lived radiation as that released by the explosion of a thousand Hiroshima-sized bombs, and in the cooling pools is 20-30 times that amount. We're a sitting target for a terrorist. I think it's going to happen."

She spoke it so calmly a chill went up my spine. Apparently, even Europe may be starting to realize the risk of terrorist groups targeting these sites. Several weeks ago, Germany decided to phase out all of its 19 nuclear power plants within the next few years.

"Ending the nuclear age is the ultimate longevity issue," she continued. "If terrorists hit a nuclear power plant, and you happen to be living in the vicinity, like an area the size of Pennsylvania, you could die immediately from acute radiation illness, or you could get leukemia five years later, or cancer 15 years later. Also, there could be a meltdown from an accident. So, all the nuclear reactors have to be closed down. That's the first thing.

"The second thing is that we have to completely abolish nuclear weapons. America has no enemies now, even though the administration says we do. China's not a threat; Russia's a friend. Yet still, there could be a nuclear war tonight. We're lucky to wake up in the morning. We're in terrible danger every minute of every day and every night."

Whether fiddling with the nuclei of atoms to create huge external explosions (bombs), or rearranging DNA and creating unpredictable health and environmental consequences (Genetically Modified Organisms), it appears that the innovations of both our scientists and government are affecting us on both the microcosmic and macrocosmic levels. Caldicott is understandably alarmed by this: "Nuclear waste-either from nuclear reactors or the production of nuclear weapons-creates random, compulsory, genetic engineering for the rest of time. It is the destruction of the process of evolution genetically. The depleted uranium they've used in Iraq, and probably Afghanistan and Kosovo, has got a half-life of 4.5 billion years. In my book Nuclear Madness, I explain the bio-magnification of this radioactivity in the food chain: once in the environment, nuclear isotopes are concentrated at each step by orders of magnitude, so when we eat the food, our genes are attacked. It was expressed best by Einstein, who said, 'The splitting of the atom changed everything, save man's mode of thinking, thus we drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.'"

Changing the Political Climate
Caldicott is convinced that the American people are hungry for real visionary leadership, and are ready for someone with integrity- perhaps a woman-to lead the electorate into a positive future, teaching and guiding and inspiring them with a prophetic voice. She encourages the implementation of quick, effective strategies to shift the balance of power into the hands of truly "wise, visionary, courageous leaders who will do the right thing for the people of this country-not the corporations, but the people, and by extension the entire world."

Caldicott is thrilled by France's recent 'parity law' requiring that 50% of all candidates running for office must be women. She believes the Equal Rights Amendment was nothing compared to this. "It's time that women rise up and take their rightful place in government. We are 53% of the world's population, we hold up 53% of the sky, yet we have no power at all. The three hormones-testosterone versus estrogen and progesterone-have very different and obvious effects upon the psyche. I could go on at length about the physiology of those hormones, how they affect the brain and behavior. It's imperative that there be gender balance now."

Counteracting the Corporations
Caldicott emphasized the importance of taking full advantage of the public broadcasting system to get the anti-nuclear point of view heard. "I'm setting up an institute equal and opposite to the Heritage Foundation so that Rumsfeld, Cheney, and their other spokespersons never again go on television unchallenged and lie to the American people. I may need about $1 million a year, but I guarantee, we'll do them in. We'll just put the best, most brilliant people on news and talk shows all over the country to disclose the whole truth, to educate the citizens, and we'll end the Nuclear Age."

Caldicott has experienced censorship in attempting to get equal time on television and in print. GE, whose slogan is, ironically, "We bring good things to life," is one of the two American manufacturers (along with CBS-owner Westinghouse) of nuclear weapons, nuclear space probes, and nuclear reactors/power plants for domestic and overseas markets. "As they own NBC, they predictably would be antithetical to speaking about the medical problems of what they're actually doing. After writing a book called If You Love This Planet, in which I used GE as an example of a very bad corporation, I was scheduled to go on the Today Show and was very excited. Then they read the book and I was cancelled.

"There is a conspiracy of silence in this country," she said. "The European Parliament has been up in arms, frantic because so many foreign soldiers who fought in Kosovo and the Gulf are getting leukemia. Articles are flooding the European press, yet there's nothing in this country at all."

Awakening the Numbed
According to Caldicott, the manic denial of reality, or "psychic numbing," is an epidemic state of mind amongst Americans when it comes to acknowledging the immediate and ongoing possibility of nuclear war. "'Displacement Activity' is described when you put rats in a cage and threaten them with a lethal situation. They then tend to run away and do something totally irrelevant to that which threatens them. Similarly, people are running
around engaged in all sorts of insignificant, smaller activities that they can get their brains around." Such distractions and obsessions are not difficult to see imbedded in daily American culture: addictions to technological toys such as television, computers, video games, gourmet food, designer fashions, and spectator sports.

"There can be no more important issue than saving the planet from nuclear destruction. If we set the priority of all moving together towards the abolition of nuclear weapons and power plants, that in itself will create a massive change of perspective within the country and empower the other groups to get going on their issues." In other words, first things first.

"Our children know they have no future. It's grim. Furthermore, they see no sign that the adults are willing to protect them or fix it for them. To be good parents and grandparents, it is implicit that we take responsibility to save their future. Certainly in Australia, where we only have 19.5 million people, the male teenage suicide rate is higher than ever before, and many are profoundly depressed. That's the time you're supposed to look forward with great passion and enthusiasm for life, to fall in love, to discover your dreams. The teenagers here are just as well educated-they watch television and listen to the radio, they hear who's lying, they know the truth. Talk to primary school children, they all know. If I were a teenager now, I would be deeply depressed."

Compassionate Alternatives
"The day of Sept. 11, I had to address 3,000 people at a university in Wisconsin, located in a very Christian, Bible-thumping belt. The students came in totally shocked and upset, and I thought, "What am I going to do?" I remembered how a U.S. Admiral once told me, 'Our mission is to destroy property and kill people.' So I said to them, 'You know, being a Christian doesn't mean going to church on Sundays or going up to heaven to meet Jesus when you die. It means living what he preached. What does it say in the Old Testament, the Ten Commandments, given to Moses by God? 'Thou shalt not kill.'

"Then I read to them from Luke: 'Love thine enemies. Do good to those who hate you.' And if this country had done that-Ghandi would have done it, Gorbachev would have done it, Mandela and King would have done it-the whole of the human race would have been elevated to a higher spiritual and moral level, and we would have had a chance to save the Earth."

"A massive new nuclear arms race would be the end, and my grandchildren would not live out their natural lifespan. Is this the legacy we, the most 'intelligent, adaptable' species, are choosing to leave our children? Or can the human race snap out of its lethal hypnotic state in time and boldly access our power to begin the world again?"

· Take Action! Senator Dianne Feinstein needs letters of support in her efforts to defund Bush's misguided missile defense plan. For more information, contact Physicians for Social Responsibility in Los Angeles at 213.386.4901, or visit their Web site at www.psrla.org. The Southern California independent chapter, which has 3,000 local members, assists groups and individuals by hosting regular meetings, providing literature, coordinating grassroots action, and helping identify legislation that can make a difference.

-For more information on Dr. Helen Caldicott's books and organization (The Institute for Common Sense in the Nuclear Age), visit her Web site at www.nuclearcommonsense.org.

-Janet Allen has been a health, food safety and environmental journalist, public speaker and activist for 18 years. She is a coordinator with the Organic Consumers Association and has founded her own non-profit organization, Wild Blue Planet.

­Photos: Francine Kokenas


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