This Date in UCSF History: United Against Nuclear War

Monday, October 22, 2018

Originally published in Synapse - The UCSF student newspaper October 24, 1985

The Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded its 1985 Peace Prize on Oct. 11 to the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War.

The award comes at a time of international focus on arms control talks in Geneva, U.S. debate over President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative, known as Star Wars, and a unilateral Soviet moratorium on nuclear testing since August.

The Nobel Committee cited the organization for performing “a considerable service to mankind by spreading authoritative information and by creating an awareness of the catastrophic consequences of atomic warfare.”

“Modern medicine will have nothing to offer the victims of a nuclear conflict,” said John Pastore, the organization's secretary, according to a report in The New York Times.

The International Physicians' activities have included research and publication and medical school curriculum development. In 1982, the group sponsored a panel discussion on the arms race on Soviet television, which included both Soviet and U.S. doctors.

Earlier this year, the International Physicians sponsored a discussion — via satellite — between Bay Area and Moscow citizens.

“Our diagnoses and prescriptions must be non-political, expressed without reference to government policies or to the political systems of any of the nuclear states,” according to a statement of the group earlier this year.

“The same information about nuclear war must be communicated in both East and West.”

The International Physicians' current aim is to stop nuclear weapons testing worldwide. The $225,000 in prize money will be committed to the test ban campaign, according to a spokesperson.

The group was founded in 1980 by Bernard Lown of the Harvard School of Public Health and Yevgeny Chazov ofthe Moscow Cardiological Center, among others.

It claims 135,000 members — including 60,000 in the Soviet Union and 28,000 in the United States — in 41 countries.

A respected cardiologist, Lown first pondered nuclear war seriously in 1961, after hearing a speech on the subject by 1959 Nobel Peace Prize winner Sir Philip John Noel Baker. Lown founded Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) with eight other doctors within a week of the speech.

In 1962, the New England Journal of Medicine published PSR's landmark study on the “human and ecological effects” of a nuclear attack, including an analysis of the physician's role in the post attack period, and “psychiatric and social aspects of the defense-shelter program.”

After a diffusion of PSR’s work in the activism of the 1960s and early 1970s, the organization was revived by Australian-born pediatrician Helen Caldicott in the late 1970s.

In 1979, Lown wrote a letter to Chazov, who was the personal physician to Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev at that time. The two had met while Lown was lecturing in the Soviet Union during the 1960s, and they had conducted joint cardiac research in Moscow in the 1970s.

Lown proposed an international physicians group against nuclear war — separate from PSR — which the two doctors founded in Geneva in 1980. As deputy minister of health — and a Communist Party member since 1982 — Chazov's involvement has been a source of controversy for the organization.

The New York Times reported that Chazov’s criticisms of nuclear policy target the United States exclusively. His remarks on Soviet moves are limited to those he can praise, such as the unilateral testing moratorium.

The Wall Street Journal has called into question Chazov’s Kremlin ties and has charged Soviet physicians in the organization with cooperation in the detention of dissidents.

Other critics consider both the International Physicians and PSR to be dupes of Soviet foreign policy.

Dougal MacKinnon, president of the UCSF Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility, a campus organization of students and staff, see the criticisms as relatively unimportant.

“The greater security lies in recognizing the reality of the risks of the arms race… and actively working to prevent those risks from materializing,” he said. “The Soviets, too, realize that nuclear warfare is mutual suicide.”

“The Nobel prize is a very clear and unavoidable statement that this is not a political issue, it is a humanitarian issue,” said Chris Kiefer, co-director of the UCSF elective course, the health professional and nuclear war.

He added, “This will draw many people into the disarmament movement.”