A woman on the edge of a nuclear precipice

August 2, 2002

Veteran nuclear campaigner Helen Caldicott says a belligerent, ill-informed US president controlled by staff wanting ever-more exotic weapons has raised the risk of nuclear war to a post-cold war high. Linda Vergnani reports

Bellbirds chirp in the surrounding eucalyptus forests as paediatrician Helen Caldicott sits in her rural Australian home discussing the future of her three grandchildren and other youngsters. But the conversation is hardly cosy. It is a chilling description of how radiation and the climate changes resulting from a nuclear war could obliterate the human race and "all of creation".

Caldicott is a veteran anti-nuclear campaigner who was once nominated for the Nobel peace prize by Linus Pauling. She says: "People thought that the nuclear threat had gone away at the end of the cold war, but it hasn't. We are on the edge of a nuclear precipice every day." She sees the major danger coming from the massive militarisation of the US and the expansion of nuclear weapons not only into previously non-nuclear countries but also into space. She believes the situation has become even more critical since the September 11 terrorist attacks, the war in Afghanistan and president George W. Bush's endorsement of a pre-emptive nuclear strike.

The outspoken doctor is best known for leading Australian protests against France's nuclear bomb testing at Mururoa in the Pacific in the 1970s and for founding the US anti-nuclear group Physicians for Social Responsibility - which has 23,000 members - and similar professional bodies in other countries. Their international umbrella group, International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, won the Nobel peace prize in 1985.

Caldicott left her paediatrics post at Harvard Medical School, where she specialised in cystic fibrosis, in 1980 to work full time publicising the medical effects of nuclear arms, which she describes graphically in the books Nuclear Madness and Missile Envy . She has been the subject of several documentaries and the recipient of 19 honorary degrees. The extent of her prestige and clout was underlined when she was named one of the most influential women of the 20th century by the Smithsonian Institution.

Now she has written her fifth book, The New Nuclear Danger: George W. Bush's Military-Industrial Complex . At the age of 63, when most people are thinking of retiring, she is intent on educating younger generations about the threat of a nuclear holocaust. She spends half the year in her homeland Australia and the rest campaigning in her adopted country, the US, where she feels she has more political clout. To counter the propaganda of the big US military manufacturers, she recently established the Nuclear Policy Research Institute - a "virtual anti-nuclear institute" based in California. It aims to mount a public education campaign through the media about the "often underestimated dangers of nuclear weapons and power programmes". Caldicott says the think-tank, of which she is president, will harness the intellectual power of top scientists and doctors who are prepared to speak out against advocates of nuclear war and militarisation. Every time vice-president Dick Cheney or another military hawk appears on TV, she hopes to have an institute speaker give an alternative viewpoint.

Caldicott is speaking on the eve of an extended trip to the US, where she intends to raise $1 million (£640,000) a year over the next five years to get the institute operational. "The funding will be used for staff salaries, programming, research and the hosting of important symposia on various aspects of the nuclear issue."

Recently she stood for the senate in New South Wales in Australia, but she did not get in. She is ashamed of the Australian government's support of the Bush administration and of Australia's participation in the war in Afghanistan.

In a sense she would prefer to remain in Terrigal, two hours north of Sydney, where she has a home alongside that of her daughter and grandchildren. On her tranquil 2.5 acre property, which she has planted with 80 trees, she raises chickens and grows vegetables. "I just love it here. I've never found more joy and peace than I've found in my garden with the pelicans circling overhead."

But, she says, she would lapse into depression if she abandoned her campaign. She believes that if the American public realised the new danger, there would be a massive swing against the Star Wars strategy and nuclear proliferation. Her aim is the abolition of nuclear weapons and the closure of all 103 American nuclear plants.

In her book, she claims that US nuclear policy has never been more aggressive. The US has 2,500 of about 7,200 nuclear weapons "ready to be launched at the press of a button". Russia still has about 200 strategic weapons on similar alert. "In total, there is now enough explosive power in the combined nuclear arsenals of the world to kill every person on earth 32 times over." She writes that the deteriorating condition of Russian satellites and early-warning radar increases the possibility of a false alarm.

Caldicott says the Pentagon now targets not just Russia but China and non-nuclear nations such as Iran, Iraq and North Korea.

She says: "I've never seen such a dangerous country [as the US] in my lifetime, except Germany. America is not putting people into concentration camps, but there is this sense of incredible aggression and superiority where they say they can invade any country they like with impunity - that's what Hitler did. They think they are the rulers of the world."

Behind the weapons proliferation, she says, is the most powerful military corporation on earth, Lockheed Martin, which seeks to expand its share of the market internationally. Caldicott describes the company, which receives billions of dollars worth of government arms contracts, as "the single largest advocate of aggressive nuclear development in the country". Lockheed Martin and other military manufacturers have had a huge influence on White House policy, she says.

In her book, she states: "A belligerent and ill-informed president sits in the White HouseI controlled by his corporate staff intent on extracting as much American tax money as they possibly can to build ever-more exotic and dangerous weapons."

Caldicott has written extensively on the psychosexual relationship men have with bombs and weapons. "They talk about missile erectors, about soft lay downs and deep penetrations. Scientists sleep with the mechanisms of the nuclear bomb the night before it is tested. They talk about giving birth to the bomb, about needing to push, about having labour pains. It's a quite extraordinary psychological insight into these fellows who are trying to be women, but instead of giving birth to life they are giving birth to death. That's true pathology.

"I'm not saying: 'Get all men out of politics', but it's not right that they dominate. Many are not functioning properly. They are into power and control. I'm not attacking men personally, but if we women don't take our rightful place in the world, then I think we are doomed."

In her book, she writes that at the height of the cold war America spent an average of $3.8 billion a year on nuclear weapons. Now it is spending $5 billion annually over a ten to 15-year period "on a project that will violate both the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty". The project is the so-called Stockpile Stewardship and Management Programme, which is supposed to ensure the proper functioning of the US's existing nuclear stockpile. Caldicott alleges that SSMP scientists are designing and testing new nuclear weapons such as the "user-friendly" mini-nuke and the B61-11 bunker-buster bomb. Universities have been drawn into weapons development with the Academic Strategic Alliances Programme. She writes that part of the programme is designed to recruit "intelligent young people into the 'art' of bomb making".

She feels it is immoral that universities are "educating young people and simultaneously working to blow them up". And she explains why she intends to continue her campaign. "I have to do this because of my children and grandchildren. I'm a paediatrician and I took the Hippocratic Oath, so potentially all the world's children are my patients."

The New Nuclear Danger is published by The New Press, £10.76.

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