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TORONTO — “We live. on a terminally-ill planet and are lucky to wake up each morning.” So Dr. Helen Caldicott, a world-renowned peace activist, warned her large receptive audience at the 1984 Jacob Bronowski Memorial Lecture at the University of Toronto on Nov. 14. In a deeply moving talk, backed by hard data, Dr. Caldicott enumerated in clinical detail the perils of the escalating arms race and the folly of present nuclear strategy.
Caldicott’s address was also an impassioned call for commitment and action. Those who are alive today have one purpose in life, she said. to save the creation of which we are a part from total annihilation by nuclear weapons.
While condemning both Soviet and American policy for the present impasse, she claimed Washington had increased Cold War tensions and isolated Moscow by refusing all Soviet peace initiatives. While Nixon, whom she labelled in retrospect “a great statesman”, signed 9 arms treaties with Russia. President Reagan has signed none, has never met his Soviet counterpart and has appointed a chief arms negotiator Richard Perle who has declared publicly. he does not believe in arms control.
Caldicott stated that the US possesses 30,000 nuclear warheads and the Soviet Union, 20,000, yet even the small nuclear powers of China, France and Britain could independently destroy much of Russia.
One US Trident submarine alone has 240 warheads, each with a TNT equivalent 8 times that of the Hiroshima bomb, she pointed out. Yet the US wants 30 of the subs, a clear violation of the unratified SALT II accord. The US is also building 8,000 cruise missiles which Caldicott called highly destabilizing because they are easy to hide, hard to verify and capable of flying under Soviet radar, thereby precipitating a massive response even if only one is fired.
The Pershing II is designed to “decapitate” the Soviet leadership in 6 minutes as part of a plan to win a nuclear war, a strategy she claimed the Pentagon endorses and which she described with the objectivity of a medical practitioner.
The Pershing attack would be followed by a blanket bombing of Russia with up to 8,000 nuclear missiles, intended to obliterate the Soviets’ nuclear arsenal and all their major cities. The US would then have some left over for World War IV, NATO, Dr. Caldicott added, refuses to renounce the first use of nuclear weapons, unlike Moscow, which says, however, that it will respond with a fullscale nuclear attack even if only one NATO missile hits the Soviet Union.
“Limited nuclear war,” she claimed “is a fallacy” while “war itself is obsolete” since nothing can be gained by it. NATO strategy is designed to use some of its 6,000 tactical (battlefield) nuclear weapons to blunt a conventional Soviet attack. Yet this only guarantees a devastating nuclear response. Between them, “both sides expect to fire 19,500 nuclear warheads at each other once the connict escalates as it must; thus the world would have 30 minutes more to live,” she concluded grimly. It is hard to imagine that this outcome can be averted when 80% of US ships carry nuclear weapons, and Army and Air Force units are similarly equipped on both sides. There is no real conventional defense, Caldicott said.
The result of any nuclear war would be devastating, Dr. Caldicott asserted. One 20 megaton bomb exploding above Toronto would kill all people and destroy all buildings within a 6 mile radius, while within 20 miles the heat and wind blast would cause countless more deaths and fatal, grievous injury. The effects would be felt up to 100 miles away. With the detonation of hundreds of these weapons a fallout of contaminated dust would create a shroud blotting out the sun, causing a temperature drop to -55F and damage to the ozone layer which would result in widespread deadly skin cancer. “This is nuclear winter,” she said, and it could destroy virtually all life on earth due to radiation poisoning, extreme cold and an end to vital photosynthesis.
“The prognosis is grim,” Dr. Caldicott told a hushed and shaken audience. The high probability of computer failure — there were 255 failures last year in the US and one in 1979 that brought the world to within 13 minutes of nuclear war — combined with often unstable military personnel is scary enough. Worse, she asserted, is the fact that the world is run by two old men who do not seem in complete possession of their faculties.
In “a planet out of control” she expressed deep concern over the influence of fatalistic, fundamentalist religion on Reagan and on a large portion of the American public. On a number of occasions Reagan and others in his cabinet have claimed they believe Armageddon will occur soon and that all true believers will automatically go to heaven while Russia is destroyed. This could lead the Administration to walk willingly into war, she fears.
Caldicott described a personal interview with Reagan in which she was shocked by his simplistic notions and lack of knowledge of arms issues. yet the American people in a fit “of manic denial of reality” have re-elected him, demonstrating in the process the influence of “Big Brother TV” and the power of “a Pepsi-Cola campaign.”
Despite this grim scenario, Caldicott ended her talk on a note of qualified optimism and inspiration. “Stringent action is required,” Dr. Caldicott declared, “a total commitment” to protect the world for a generation of children who feel they will never have the chance to grow up.
Caldicott called for grief and depression to be turned into constructive anger and straightforward actions, such as the lobbying of MPs, orderly demonstrations outside nuclear arms component plants, an education campaign and pressure on Canada to leave NATO — a mutual suicide pact. “Even if we fail,” she told her silent audience, some of whom wept, “we can tell our children and God, as the missiles fly, that at least we tried.”
Caldicott concluded her talk by reading Shakespeare’s sonnet “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day,” illustrating as she did so the love for the physical world and for human creativity on which her own commitment is based.