Very few anti-nuke activists can say they've had the leader of the free world in the palm of their hand -- literally. But Dr. Helen Caldicott, the Australian pediatrician who became the international face of the nuclear-disarmament movement, isn't like most activists. In the 1980s, Caldicott was giving a speech on nuclear proliferation at the Playboy mansion in California when she was approached by Patty Davis, daughter of then-President Ronald Reagan. Davis asked Caldicott if she would be willing to talk to the president and try to change his mind about nuclear war. Caldicott, a fiery and articulate speaker, agreed on the condition they meet alone.
Reagan spent more than an hour with Caldicott in one of the longest private meetings of his presidency. For about half of it, Caldicott recalls in her 1996 autobiography A Desperate Passion, she held the president's hand, like a doctor comforting a terminally ill patient. Ultimately, she was unsuccessful at changing Reagan's mind about nuclear war. But she saw glimmers of hope not long after, when Reagan met with then-Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and the two leaders nearly agreed to phase out all U.S. and Soviet nuclear weapons.
These days, Caldicott is much more pessimistic about the man who occupies the White House, and says we are living in the most dangerous nuclear age ever.
Still, she soldiers on in her herculean mission to save the planet. In 1985, Caldicott was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, but lost to the international group she had founded: Physicians for Social Responsibility. She also founded the Women's Action for Nuclear Disarmament and the Standing for Truth About Radiation Foundation, and is president of the Nuclear Policy Research Institute.
In addition to her medical degree, 19 honorary doctoral degrees and a litany of other awards and achievements, Caldicott has published five books and had two films written about her -- If You Love This Planet won the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 1982. She just completed her sixth book, Nuclear Power Is Not the Answer to Global Warming, due to be released next year on the 20th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster.
Caldicott speaks this week at the University of Vermont about the many dangers posed by nuclear pollution, from atmospheric weapons testing to the proposed power uprate at the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant. Seven Days spoke to Caldicott by phone from her office in Washington, D.C.
SEVEN DAYS: You've been fighting against nuclear proliferation for 35 years. What makes this the most dangerous age ever?
HELEN CALDICOTT: I've never seen such a dangerous administration in my life. They have violated and abolished all the arms-control treaties except the CTBT [Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty], which they're about to violate, I think. They put in a treaty called the Moscow Accord, which means absolutely nothing. Both countries can do whatever they want. They are actively promoting nuclear proliferation by wanting to build 450 new H-bombs per year. They've already started some production at the Savannah River site.
They are actively putting up a missile defense system, which promotes vertical proliferation, where Russia and China will supersaturate it by building more nuclear weapons . . . They're about to put weapons in space and nuclearize space with reactors and possibly nuclear weapons. They are autocratic and arrogant throughout the world, saying, "It's our way or the highway." They're planning, I think, to bomb Iran, although there's no evidence Iran has nuclear weapons or is planning to build them.
SD: So the Bush Administration's nuclear policy is driving the rest of the world's nuclear policies?
HC: Absolutely. You know the [phrase] "world's policeman"? Well, we in the rest of the world don't really like that. We don't like 4.5 percent of the world's population telling us what to do and, if we don't do it, there will be trade sanctions and the like.
SD: Has the "No-Nukes" movement been able to make inroads with religious conservatives?
HC: In the '80s I talked to all the churches. I talked to the Mormons, who decided not to deploy MX missiles in Utah. I talked to the Southern Baptists, who were very receptive because all I did was talk about what Jesus said . . . The churches were very much in the front of the movement in the '80s. Unfortunately, they've dropped back because everyone assumed that when the Cold War went away, the weapons would go away.
[A] recent survey by the University of Maryland finds that about 80 percent of people think America's only got a couple hundred hydrogen bombs, and that it would be good to go below a hundred. Well, the truth is, America's got over 10,000, 5000 of which are on hair-trigger alert . . . When I educate them, I find conservatives the easiest audience to talk to because they agree: I'm a conservative. I'm for conserving creation.
SD: The nuclear issue isn't even on the radar screen of most American politicians these days . . . Is this a uniquely American phenomenon, this almost pathological denial?
HC: No, no. It's uniform throughout the world. No one's bringing it up at all. I do know the Russians are very, very worried. I've got an ex-colonel who's a missileer in Russia . . . who keeps calling me and saying, "Helen, we're scared we're going to bomb you by accident and blow you all up." His concerns are that they've got 2500 [missiles] on hair-trigger alert, and each president gets three minutes to decide whether to go or not. And their early-warning system is failing, so much so that none of their early-warning satellites now work. All they've got are over-the-horizon radars, which are very inadequate to detect a first-strike nuclear attack from America . . .
SD: What about the military people in this country?
HC: It's funny, they have some sort of psychological attachment to these weapons . . . The Command, Control Communications and Intelligence -- these are the folks who run the early-warning system and will decide whether or not to have a nuclear war, not aggressively, but almost certainly by accident. They make mistakes all the time. Computers fail, they get aberrant signals all the time. They are not prepared to sit down with the Russians and say, "Look, this is crazy. Let's get these weapons off hair-trigger alert. Let's talk about things."
SD: Are nuclear weapons a bigger threat than nuclear energy?
HC: Well, it's a bang or a whimper . . . Epidemics of malignancy and genetic disease for the rest of time, or one big bang and it's all over -- nuclear winter.
SD: I'm sure you're aware that Vermont Yankee, one of the oldest nuclear plants in the country, is looking to boost its power output by 20 percent. Thus far, there's been very little political leadership in opposing this plan.
HC: Really? Who's your governor?
SD: Jim Douglas, a Republican.
HC: So, he doesn't really understand the issue. He needs to be educated by the people of Vermont. You'd think Senator Patrick Leahy would take a stand. Well, that's what I'll be talking about, how the people of Vermont need to get onto their legislators and educate them. That's the work of a democracy.
SD: Has the nuclear-disarmament movement adopted new tactics?
HC: What's really going to change this democracy is broad education. And that has to happen through the media, through Fox, through CNN, through the networks . . . The Heritage Foundation spends $28 million on the media. That's why they dominate. We don't have that kind of money.
SD: So, is there any cause for optimism these days?
HC: Nothing much has changed. But when I talk to audiences, they get really turned on and excited, and the goodness in everyone's heart and soul is there, apparent, to be tapped. And that's my optimism . . . If you got someone like FDR, he'd fix things. But I see very few men or women with that sort of courage and determination to do the right thing for the American people or the world. They're all playing politics. It's a game.
Saving the world isn't a game. This is global preventive medicine. The earth is in the intensive care unit . . . We have a great responsibility to our children, future generations and, indeed, God's creation. People know that in their souls.