This Date in UCSF History: Fear Nuclear War

Originally published in Synapse - The UCSF student newspaper on April 23, 1981.

Nuclear war is a medical issue, not a political issue. If such a war occurs, it will create the final medical epidemic for which there is no cure.

So says Dr. Helen Caldicott, a pediatrician and anti-nuclear activist, who spoke to an audience of 180 in UCSF’s Cole Hall last Friday.

“We’re living on a terminally ill planet. If you had a terminally ill patient, you’d put them in intensive care, provide tender-loving care and 24-hour therapy.”

Dr. Caldicott — President of Physicians for Social Responsibility, a medical organization of some 4000 American physicians dedicated to the prevention of nuclear war — suggests the fight against nuclear power and weapons requires immediate attention from the medical community because the battle represents, “the ultimate in preventive medicine.”

In an interview Friday, Caldicott said White House and Pentagon plans to increase defense spending can only help start war, not stop it. Pentagon spokesman, Lt. Col. Mark Foutch, however, had a different interpretation of plans to strengthen U.S. military arsenals.

“We’re trying to avoid a war by maintaining forces in a way that makes it too costly for other nations to pose an attack. The best way to get into a war, on the other hand, is to be unprepared to defend ourselves.”

In keeping with this view, The Reagan administration this week announced a plan to prepare U.S. troops for a conventional, rather than a nuclear war. The U.S. however, will continue to modernize its medium range nuclear weapons.

Although Washington’s new war strategy is a shift from the idea that the next war between the superpowers will be a short-term nuclear conflict, Dr. Caldicott, Friday, discussed other developments which point to a U.S. commitment to a strong nuclear defense system. She said the construction and use of nuclear reactors is directly tied to the production of fuel for military weapons.

Even the space shuttle program, she said, is part of a military plan to develop missile launchers that can fire with pinpoint accuracy. Save lives Dr. Caldicott, former Harvard University professor and pediatrician at a Boston-based hospital, half jokes when she says she gave up medicine to save lives.

Instead, she travels the world in hopes of educating members of the medical profession by recounting the horrors of a nuclear holocaust.

“A one megaton bomb dropped on just one small American city would be like exploding 20 million tons of TNT. The 30-mile radius from the epicenter would be obliterated.You’d see 100,000 cases of severe burns, trauma, radiation sickness. People would be decapitated, mutilated. Bodies hurled hundreds of feet. People sucked out of buildings. Those in shelters would be asphyxiated. If you survive underground, the atmosphere will be so radioactive, you won’t be able to surface for two weeks. And when you do, you’ll see hundreds of thousands of dead bodies, civilization will be gone. No more Bach, no Brahms, all medical knowledge eliminated. We’re talking about extinction.”

Numbing Dr. Caldicott said one reason the arms race has escalated is that Americans practice what psychiatrists call psychic numbing. The fear of nuclear attack is so profound, she said, we project our fear onto inanimate objects, in this case, the Russians. And what about the Russians, she was asked during her lecture.

“They still remember the 20 million who were killed in World War II,” she said. “Russian economy is still suffering. They cannot afford, nor do they want a nuclear war.”

Dr. Caldicott has visited Russia to speak with physicians there about the perils of nuclear war. She pointed out that the Russians signed both SALT I and SALT 11, whereas the U.S. did not.

As a pediatrician, however, Dr. Caldicott apparently prefers to diffuse the political issues, by focusing on a more basic issue.

“If a patient asks about the Russians, you should look at them and say, I’m worried about your children.”

Dr. Caldicott, 42 and a mother of three, founded the Women’s Party for Survival. She believes women have special qualifications for saving humanity, namely the mothering instinct.

“We must mobilize the mothering instinct. Women would die to save their children. We must include every woman in this country, every single woman. You don’t have to be liberated to realize that your children may not survive to the year 2000.”

While Dr. Caldicott believes that Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) group will remain the educational arm of her movement, she hopes the Women’s Party for Survival, will gain political clout and lobby Congress in the future to eliminate nuclear power and arms.

In the meantime, PSR may have had some influence. Members of PSR have approached the Board of Trustees of the American Medical Association, who will discuss the nuclear issue in June. Dr. Caldicott said the AMA has written to President Reagan to set-up a meeting between the White House and doctors to talk about medical problems and nuclear war.