A Conversation with Helen Caldicott via The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists


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.


Then while I was working as an intern in 1971, someone leaked a report about radioactive materials in the Adelaide water supply, which was relatively radioactive because of the French nuclear tests in the Pacific.

So I wrote a letter to the editor of the local paper in Adelaide saying that this material concentrates in the food chain – including the milk – and some children could get leukemia or cancer from the French tests. That night, they had me on the television, and every time the French blew up a bomb, I was on television. So I kind of led that movement, teaching the people in Adelaide, and Australia, about the harmful effects of the French tests.

What I didn’t realize is that for historical and cultural reasons, the Australians don’t like the French much – they think they’re arrogant – and so they stopped buying French perfume, French wine, French cheese, everything. And in nine months, 75 percent of Australians rose up and said “We won’t have those bloody French blowing up their bombs in our area of the world.” Then our prime minister, along with the prime minister of New Zealand, took France to the World Court, and the French military was ultimately forced to test its nuclear weapons underground.

The whole experience brought home to me something that Thomas Jefferson had said: “An informed democracy will behave in a responsible fashion.” Seventy-five percent of Australians rose up, and there were spontaneous marches in the city streets every weekend. It was quite extraordinary; whole pages of letters to the editor. It was really something.


And it was exacerbated when I went to medical school in 1956 and learned about radiation and genetics. At the time, Russia and America were testing bombs in the atmosphere like there’s no tomorrow. And as a young, innocent medical student, I couldn’t understand why these men were blanketing the northern hemisphere with radioactive fallout. It made me curious about nuclear weapons and why the hell they ever built them, and what it was all about.


Look, the reason I was so successful in the early ‘80s was that I happened to run into someone in the audience at our PSR symposium in Los Angeles, who came up to me after my talk was over and said: “I’m an agent in Hollywood, and I’d like to work with you, for free.” And she knew everyone – her film stars were Sally Field, Lily Tomlin, Tom Cruise, and all of them – and she was able through her connections to put me on all sorts of talk shows. The Merv Griffin Show was the first one I ever did – which was with Eva Gabor, who was pretty amazing; she was wearing diamond earrings the size of pears.

And that whole experience showed that while viewers didn’t want a boring old Australian doctor in tweed talking about nuclear war, if I went on the air with Sally Field and Lily Tomlin for an hour, people liked that sort of thing. A sizable audience tuned in. The agent sort of harnessed me to the film stars’ fame, and in that way we were able in five years to educate 80 percent of the American people about the horrors of nuclear war – and when I first started out in 1978 most Americans said to me: “It’s better to be dead than red.”

But when the audience learned about the medical effects of nuclear weapons, they all turned around in their thinking. That led to my meeting with Reagan in the White House, and lots of other things. It helped to bring the Cold War to an end. But unfortunately not the weapons.


Helen Caldicott:

If you want me to be really frank, I sometimes feel that my life has been a failure. That we almost did get to a point to eliminate nuclear weapons, but it hasn’t happened. So, I want on my tombstone the words: “She tried.”

And while getting the number of nuclear weapons down from 70,000 to 15,000 is good, we have to go farther. And we can’t settle for half-measures, like getting the number down to 1,000 nuclear weapons – even 1,000 bombs dropping on 100 cities would cause nuclear winter and the end of our life on Earth. So, we need to get our data straight. One thousand bombs on 100 cities equals annihilation. Counting the numbers is just silly. It’s like saying: “How many metastases of a melanoma do you need before you die” sort of thing.



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