A conversation with Helen Caldicott (interview)


For decades, anti-nuclear weapons campaigner Helen Caldicott (helencaldicott.com) has been educating people about the effects of nuclear weaponry and issuing rousing calls to action. A practicing pediatrician from Australia, Caldicott was the subject of an Oscar-winning short film, If You Love This Planet, and is the author of 12 books.

In this Skype interview from her home in Sydney, Australia, the 79-year-old Caldicott doesn’t pull punches. For nearly six decades, she has been taking on the powers that be, in joyously feisty terms: She has said that the US Defense Department should be re-named the Killing Department and characterized Barack Obama as an “intelligent, lovely man, who failed the world” when it came to eliminating nuclear weapons. She considers the movie Dr Strangelove more of a documentary than a satire, labeled arms manufacturers “wicked,” and called American politicians “corporate prostitutes.”

And of the current president, Caldicott said: “We’ve got a man in charge who I think has never read a book, and who knows nothing about global politics, or his own country’s politics. Who operates with his own kind of sordid intuition. And he’s putting people in every department committed to destroying that department. He’s absolutely destroying the infrastructure of America.”

Noting that it was International Women’s Month, Caldicott had one thing to say to young women: “We need to take over, because we’re on the short course to annihilation, and we need to say to men ‘Look, stand aside, you need your bottom smacked.’ ”

Yet for someone who has spent a lifetime fighting vigorously against the specter of nuclear annihilation, Caldicott reveals that she is remarkably pessimistic about humanity’s chances. Caldicott said that she wants her tombstone to read: “She tried.”

Editor’s note: This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Dan Drollette:

I’m glad we finally got in touch. As you know, I recently interviewed Ira Helfand, co-winner of the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize and one of the founders of the modern Physicians for Social Responsibility (https://thebulletin.org/he-helped-found-two-groups-won-nobel-peace-prize-ira-helfand-psr11297) – and he mentioned you as a major influence.

Helen Caldicott:

Dear old Ira. We’re partners in crime, me and Ira.

You know, Ira was an intern at Cambridge City Hospital in the ‘70s, at a time when there was a referendum in Cambridge against all things nuclear. I told Ira that nuclear power and nuclear waste are medical problems – so someone should start a medical organization to fight those things. Later, we realized that the Physicians for Social Responsibility name was still registered in the state of Massachusetts; so with their permission, we just used the name, and Ira and I re-started it.

Dan Drollette:

That jumps straight into something I was curious about. I noticed there seem to be a lot of people in the anti-nuclear weapons movement with medical backgrounds.

Helen Caldicott:

It’s a medical problem. And explaining the medical dangers of nuclear war was a very good way to teach people what the danger is, and to bring it home to their city. That approach was – and is – very powerful. During the 1980s, when I was one of the leaders of the nuclear weapons freeze movement and one of the founding presidents of PSR, we at PSR held symposia on the medical effects of nuclear war at various universities, all around the country. It started at Harvard, where we had George Kistiakowsky, a physicist who had been in the Manhattan Project as an explosives expert (https://www.manhattanprojectvoices.org/oral-histories/george-kistiakowskys-interview). It was quite wonderful.

Although afterwards, some journalists did say: “What are doctors talking about this for, this is a political issue.” And we said no, it’s a medical issue, because it will create the final medical epidemic of the human race.

Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and Taylor & Francis Online for more

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