Disarmament advocate sounds nuclear alarm

Dr. Ira Helfand (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Tony Holt)
Dr. Ira Helfand (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Tony Holt)

As long as there are nuclear weapons, the potential of mass extinction looms.

That was the understanding among people around the world 40 years ago. Then came the easing of hostilities between the world's two biggest superpowers and the subsequent crumbling of the Eastern bloc.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, fear of a nuclear holocaust tapered almost to the point that it flat-lined, but nuclear weapon danger has been ramping up in recent years and not enough people are recognizing that upward trend, said Dr. Ira Helfand of the Physicians for Social Responsibility and co-chair of the agency's Nuclear Weapons Abolition Committee.

Helfand, one of the world's leaders in anti-nuclear weapon advocacy, spoke on the topic Monday at the Clinton School of Public Service in Little Rock and is scheduled to speak about it again at 11 a.m. today at Mills Hall on the Hendrix College campus in Conway.

"Nuclear weapons in the world today pose an existential threat to human survival," Helfand told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette during a sit-down interview Monday. "What perhaps has changed during the past few years is that the [likelihood] they'll be used has really grown dramatically."

A physician who still practices medicine at an urgent care center in Springfield, Mass., Helfand, 70, has traveled the globe for years seeking to restore the public's attention to the reality that thousands of active nuclear warheads still exist throughout the world.

His awareness to the hazard of nuclear proliferation was formed after he read a book about nuclear power and its dangers while in medical school during the 1970s, he said.

Helfand serves as co-president of the Physicians for Social Responsibility's global federation, commonly known as International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. The organization won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985. Helfand represents the organization at the annual World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates.

His visit this week to central Arkansas was the result of a request by Dr. Sherry Simon, president of Pax Christi Little Rock. Pax Christi is an international Catholic-based peace advocacy organization, and one of its signature missions is nuclear disarmament.

Simon saw Helfand's TED Talk appearance and wanted him to give a similar talk in person to a local audience. She sent him an email with no expectations he would answer. He emailed her back hours later. He agreed to come to central Arkansas and said he would do it for free.

"His heart is really in this," Simon said. "He is not only passionate about his work, he brings so much knowledge, too."

During every presentation, Helfand lists four major geopolitical situations that have led him and other anti-nuclear activists to think nuclear war is a greater likelihood today compared with 20 years ago.

Those situations are the rising tension between the United States and Russia, the U.S. and China, as well as the U.S. and North Korea. The fourth geopolitical situation, Helfand said, is one that fewer Americans pay attention to and one that could easily bring the world closer than ever to a nuclear war -- the ongoing tensions between India and Pakistan.

"They've had four wars since the 1940s. They came close to war twice last year," he said.

"What everyone who studies South Asia closely tells us is that if there is a fifth war, it will be a nuclear war because of the force disparity," he said. "Pakistan is so much weaker in conventional arms that they would be easily defeated by India.

"They have made it very clear if that is looming, they will use nuclear weapons against Indian military forces. India has made it very clear that if Pakistan uses any nuclear weapons at all, they, the Indians, will respond using nuclear weapons on strategic targets, meaning [big] cities."

The "scant attention" being brought to this threat is dangerous for one big reason, he said. A nuclear war between India and Pakistan -- which have the second- and fifth-largest populations in the world, respectively -- would cause a climate disruption that would have a profoundly negative impact on food production all over the world, Helfand said.

"It would precipitate a global famine that is unprecedented in human history, which will almost certainly be the end of modern industrial civilization," Helfand said.

Quelling tensions between two rival nations while increasing awareness of the devastating consequences of nuclear proliferation is possible because it has already been done. It happened during the mid-1980s by President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. It was so successful that both empires reduced their nuclear arsenals.

When he was elected in 1980, Reagan was "the most hawkish president with regards to nuclear weapons we ever had," Helfand said, describing the era as "an extraordinarily dangerous time" in world history.

More than 60,000 active nuclear weapons existed then. Today, the number is less than 3,800.

In early 1984, during his televised State of the Union speech, Reagan told Congress that nuclear war "can never be won and must never be fought."

The influence on Reagan came in different forms. Helfand said the public outcry against nuclear weapons was one of the reasons for Reagan's 180-degree turn. He went from ratcheting up the country's nuclear arsenal to scaling it back dramatically.

Hollywood played a role too, Helfand said, through the airing of The Day After, one of the highest-rated television movies in history. Demonstrations also were commonplace during the early 1980s, including one that included a concert at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., that featured Stevie Wonder and Bob Dylan, among others.

A mass movement rallied and world leaders listened, Helfand said.

He hopes for a repeat of that phenomenon.

"It is a source of incredible frustration that we can't get Hollywood to play the same role today that they did then," Helfand said. "They have a responsibility to speak to this issue ... especially if you're reaching young people."

Metro on 03/03/2020