This Thursday, renowned anti-nuclear activist Dr. Helen Caldicott will speak at the Lobero Theatre for the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation’s 14th Annual Kelly Lecture.
For 42 years, the Australian physician and former pediatrician has waged a ceaseless battle against the threat of nuclear war. She is the founder Women’s Action for Nuclear Disarmament (WAND) and Physicians for Social Responsibility, and recently hosted a symposium in New York, “The Dynamics of Possible Nuclear Extinction.”
The Santa Barbara Independent spoke with Caldicott about her life as an activist and the future of the planet.
When and how did you become involved in anti-nuclear activism? Well, I first became involved emotionally when I was about 17 and read a book called On the Beach about a nuclear war that occurred by accident. Everyone in the world died except people in Melbourne where I lived and eventually they all died. And then I saw the film by Stanley Kramer and that seared my soul.
I entered medical school and learned about genetics and radiation and mutations, and at the time, America and Russia were testing nuclear weapons in the atmosphere like there was no tomorrow. I couldn’t understand what these wicked men were doing.
How has the political climate changed since you first began advocating against nuclear weapons? How have attitudes changed? What remains the same? That’s a big question. Well, I led the movement in 1971 in Australia against French nuclear atmospheric testing in the Pacific Ocean. That led to Australia and New Zealand taking the French to the International Court of Justice to enforce the tests on the ground. So that was the first victory.
Then I led the movement against uranium mining in 1975 in Australia by speaking to hundreds of thousands of union members about the dangers of mining uranium. And the whole union in Australia banned uranium mining — transporting and exporting — for five years. That was the second victory.
And the third was that I founded Physicians for Social Responsibility and helped to lead the movement for the nuclear weapons freeze and an end to the arms race. Over five years, we got about 80 percent of Americans agreeing that nuclear war was bad for our health, whereas beforehand, they said “it was better to be dead than red.” And that helped lead to the end of the Cold War.
Now, unfortunately, the nuclear ball was dropped by President Clinton. Instead of going to see Yeltsin and saying, “Yeltsin, sign here, we’re going to abolish nuclear weapons,” which 80 percent of Americans wanted and the rest of the world really wanted – Clinton really dropped the ball. So if there’s a nuclear war tonight or in the near future, I would have to say that would be Clinton’s legacy.
And I think we’re closer to nuclear war now then we’ve been since the Cold War because of Ukraine.
President Obama — yes — I’m very disappointed. He gave a wonderful speech in Prague about abolition of nuclear weapons. And incidentally, I will say that Reagan and Gorbachov almost agreed over a weekend in Reykjavík in Iceland to abolish nuclear weapons. So there is a precedent for the abolition of nuclear weapons. And it’s only Russia and America that really matter because they own 93 percent of the 16,400 H bombs in the world. They’re the nuclear terrorists – they’re the real terrorists holding the world at nuclear ransom. And no one talks about them.
What do you intend to speak about on March 5? What do you hope is the main takeaway for the audience? I’ll be talking about the dynamics of possible nuclear extinction. I hope to change their lives forever so they’re on a totally different path and dedicate their lives and souls to saving the planet.
If people care and they really do love their children and they really do love the roses and the wisteria and their grandchildren, they will listen to every single word. And they will be changed and go through the stages of grief and shock and disbelief and depression and then anger. And then, during the angry phase, they will be guided to do what they have to do using their own single talent to try to save the planet.
Santa Barbara is home to Vandenberg Air Force Base. What might you say to locals who protest nuclear weapons in our region — any advice or things you have learned as an activist? Nothing happens. I’ve been there, too. Police are there to protect the missiles. They’re not there to protect the people. We need to be more provocative and not so damned polite if we’re going to be effective. We need to make people think.
We’re not here to seek approval from people — we’re here to change their minds so they’ll actually save their lives. Because at the moment, everyone’s practicing passive suicide walking like lemmings towards the cliff of nuclear annihilation. That’s truly sick. We need to get help for our suicidal patients.
One justification I’ve heard for retaining nuclear weapons is defensive, that should the United States disarm, others would attack us. Is there validity in this argument? That’s just absolute rubbish. Listen, it has to be bi-lateral nuclear disarmament. America’s led the arms race in every step except one. Russia has blindly and stupidly followed. If America starts to disarm, Russia will, too. America has a huge moral obligation to the world. And if the world is blown up, it will have been led by the United States of America. That’s all I can say. I know that very distinctly.
You’re the founder of WAND (Women’s Action for Nuclear Disarmament). What role do women specifically play in nuclear disarmament? Well, I think women hold the golden key to the future. We’re the ones who have the babies. We’re inherently nurturing. Men are more stuck in their left brains with tunnel vision thinking. Women’s left and right brains are much more integrated. Our perceptions and understanding of things and intuition is more keen.
But we’re whipped — we’ve got to take over now and say, “Look, you’ve had your chance. You’re about to blow up the planet. We’re taking over now.”