So That Our Children Might Live

Interview with Dr. Ira Helfand, co-president of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW.)

12 Feature

Dr. Ira Helfand is co-president of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), a nonpartisan federation of national medical groups in 64 countries dedicated to mobilizing the influence of the medical profession against the threat of nuclear weapons. For its work, IPPNW received the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize.

Dr. Helfand has also served as past president of Physicians for Social Responsibility, the U.S. affiliate of IPPNW. In both roles, he has spoken tirelessly about the medical consequences of nuclear war. Living Buddhism spoke with him about his thoughts on nuclear abolition and the necessity of opening a path forward.

Living Buddhism: Dr. Helfand, thank you for taking the time to speak with Living Buddhism. In this issue, we commemorate the 60th anniversary of second Soka Gakkai President Josei Toda’s declaration to abolish nuclear weapons, which SGI President Ikeda has called the starting point of the SGI’s peace movement.

As someone who has worked for decades to bring awareness to the medical consequences of nuclear war, how did you get involved in this issue?

Ira Helfand speaking at the SGI-hosted event “Toward a Fundamental Change in Nuclear Weapons Policy” at the U.S. Capitol Visitors Center in Washington, D.C., April 27. Photo: Cornell University Photography.

Dr. Ira Helfand: In 1979, soon after we founded the Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) to alert the public to the danger of nuclear power, we met with some of the doctors who had been involved nearly two decades earlier during the first incarnation of PSR. They directed us to the extraordinary series of articles published in 1962 in The New England Journal of Medicine about the medical consequences of nuclear war. We were stunned by the data and decided to reorient the focus of PSR to address primarily the danger posed by these weapons.

What in the data compelled PSR to change course?

Dr. Helfand: At the time, everybody sort of understood that nuclear weapons were a terrible danger. The articles spelled out in detail exactly what happens when nuclear weapons are deployed. It was far worse than any of us can imagine when we mouth the words, “Nuclear weapons will destroy the world.” It’s not an abstraction when you see mile by mile what happens as the destruction spreads out from ground zero, when you look at the fallout patterns that will envelop large areas of the globe. These articles were printed in the 1960s before we understood about the effects of a nuclear winter, which are even more catastrophic. It was the concreteness. It made it real.

The IPPNW has in its four-point consensus that “physicians would work to prevent nuclear war as a consequence of their professional commitments to protect life and preserve health.” How did you learn the importance of treasuring the dignity of life?

Dr. Helfand: I grew up in a Jewish family in the years shortly after the Holocaust. I was taught from an early age that the tragedy of the Holocaust was possible not only because of the evil actions of the few, but also because of the inaction of the many. In my mind it became simply a given that each of us has the responsibility to act in the face of great injustice, and especially when human life is at stake.

Can you share a specific story or a defining moment from your upbringing that underscores this important point?

Dr. Helfand: It wasn’t so much a specific story. It was almost like the air we breathed in. My father was in the U.S. Army in World War II, and helped liberate one of the camps. He had these horrible images implanted in his memory forever. There were also people in our community who were Holocaust survivors that belonged to the same synagogue. Whenever the subject of the Holocaust came up, the point that was always made was that it wasn’t just about the horrible things that the Nazis did, but it was also about what good people didn’t do. This became my default moral position—that people have a responsibility to look around them and to respond when bad things are happening.

In November 2013, PSR released a report titled “Nuclear Famine: Two Billion People at Risk,” which examined the climatic and agricultural consequences of a limited, regional nuclear war. What does civil society need to know about the consequences of global climate disruption?

Dr. Helfand: Most people don’t think about nuclear war at all these days, and when they do they tend to think it is a danger that has passed with the end of the Cold War. People need to know that the danger is still with us, and that it is growing. And they need to understand that even a very limited nuclear war will be a disaster for the entire planet. The fires caused by the use of just 100 small nuclear weapons, .03 percent of the current global arsenal, would cause worldwide climate disruption, a catastrophic decline in global food production and a famine that will affect all humanity, putting up to 2 billion people at risk. A calamity of this magnitude will mean the end of modern civilization. No civilization in history has ever survived a shock of this magnitude, and there is no reason to think that our complex, interrelated society will fare any better.

We understand that you led the United Nations Open-ended Working Group discussion on the medical consequences of nuclear war. Can you share some of your findings?

Dr. Helfand: In addition to the data about limited nuclear war and nuclear famine, PSR and our global federation, IPPNW, have tried to warn of the dangers of a large-scale nuclear war. A study that we prepared in 2002 showed that if only 300 Russian warheads got through to targets in the United States, 75 to 100 million people would die in the first half hour from the explosions, the fires and the radiation. In addition, the entire economic infrastructure that the rest of the population depends on would be destroyed. The electric grid, the internet, the food distribution system, the public health system—it would all be gone. In the months following the initial attack, the vast majority of the population who were not killed in the initial attack would also die—from starvation, radiation sickness, exposure and epidemic disease. And the U.S. retaliatory attack would produce the same devastation in Russia.

These direct effects are only a part of the story though. If the full arsenals of both countries were involved, the resulting fires would cause truly catastrophic climate disruption far worse than the changes caused by a limited war. Temperatures would plunge an average of 14 degrees Fahrenheit across the planet. In the interior regions of North America, Europe and Asia, they would fall 40 to 50 degrees, producing an instant ice age that would last for more than a decade. Food production would collapse, ecosystems would be destroyed, the vast majority of the human race would starve, and we might become extinct as a species.

You have also spoken about the very real danger of an accidental nuclear war.

Dr. Helfand: On at least six occasions during the nuclear weapons era, Washington or Moscow began the process of launching their nuclear arsenals in the mistaken belief that the other side had already done so. On each of these occasions, we were saved not by wise policy but by good luck. A reliance on continued good luck is not an acceptable security policy for any country.

The Soka Gakkai has worked for six decades to rouse public opinion and help create a global grassroots network of people dedicated to abolishing nuclear weapons. What can civil society do to
engage in this issue?

Dr. Helfand: Each one of us needs to raise our voice, to alert our fellow citizens to the existential danger we face and to demand that our leaders adopt a fundamentally new nuclear policy. In the nuclear armed states, and those that belong to formal nuclear alliances, we need to tell our leaders that their determination to maintain nuclear weapons is a threat to all humanity and that must change. No one of us is expected to solve this problem alone, but each of us does need to do that part of the job that is ours to do, and we each need to figure out what is our special contribution to this effort.

Daisaku Ikeda has said of establishing peace: “In the end, peace will not be realized by politicians signing treaties. True and lasting peace will only be realized by forging life-to-life bonds of trust and friendship among the world’s people. Human solidarity is built by opening our hearts to each other. This is the power of dialogue.” To you, how important a role does dialogue play in abolishing nuclear weapons?

Dr. Helfand: Governments have been able to maintain their nuclear arsenals because too many of us view “others” as enemies to be feared. There are real issues that divide nations today, but there is no issue in the world that is worth risking the horror of nuclear war. We have to resolve our differences peacefully and the only way to do that is by reaching out to our “enemies” and realizing that whatever differences we have, they pale in comparison to our shared interest in creating a safe and sustainable world for our children.

What in your opinion are the most promising pathways for achieving the verifiable elimination of nuclear weapons from the planet?

Dr. Helfand: The recently completed “Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons” (adopted by the United Nations on July 7) is the most hopeful development in decades. We need to build on this clear statement that the possession of nuclear weapons by any state poses an unacceptable threat to all humanity. We need to help the nuclear armed states realize that nuclear weapons do not promote their security, but rather pose the greatest risk to that security.

Deterrence, the idea that one country’s nuclear weapons reliably deter another country from using nuclear weapons, is simply a hope masquerading as a reality. We need a fundamental change in nuclear policy that rejects this kind of magical thinking and commits the nuclear armed states to a serious effort to eliminate these arsenals as their highest security priority.

In a message commemorating the 50th anniversary of Josei Toda’s call to abolish nuclear weapons, Daisaku Ikeda said: “Today, many people have given up on the possibility of nuclear abolition. But peace is always a competition between resignation and hope.” Do you believe that nuclear abolition is possible? What is the most important role for civil society in advancing toward this goal?

Dr. Helfand: Despite the great danger we face, I am optimistic that we can eliminate nuclear weapons. They are not a force of nature. We have built them, and we can take them apart. What is missing is the political will to do this, and it is up to civil society to create that political will.

What advice can you give to young people about advancing the cause of nuclear abolition?

Dr. Helfand: The struggle to abolish nuclear weapons is the great challenge of your era. The stakes could not be higher. If you, and I, and people like us, do not eliminate these weapons, they will be used and everything that we hold precious will be destroyed. But this is not the future that must be. Each of you wants to do something good and important with your life. You have been given the opportunity to save the world. And that is a very good and very important thing to do. Take up this struggle, not just as a burden, but as a priceless opportunity to serve all humankind.

Any parting thoughts?

Dr. Helfand: In the Hebrew bible, it is written that God said: “I have put before you life and death. Therefore, choose life that you and your children might live.” This is indeed the choice before all humanity today. Let us pray that we choose wisely and act with courage and determination so that, indeed, our children might live.

(pp. 16-19)

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