T019. Nuclear Weapons

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Project Save the World Podcast / Talk Show Episode Number: 019
Panelist: Ira Helfand
Host: Metta Spencer

Date Aired: 23 July 2018
Date Transcribed:
13 January 2021
Transcription:
Otter.ai
Transcription Review and Edits: Adam Wynne

Metta Spencer

Hi, this is Metta Spencer in Toronto. And we’re going to have a conversation about nuclear weapons with Dr. Ira Helfand, who is a Massachusetts physician. He is the Co-President of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, which is a very important organization that had a lot of influence on Gorbachev during the 1980s. It won the Nobel Peace Prize. And he is now sort of a double Nobel Laureate because in the sense that he’s on the steering committee or executives or something of ICAN – the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, which in 2017, won the Nobel Peace Prize. So he knows a lot about nuclear weapons and has worked very much to get rid of them. ICAN, of course, is the organization that won the prize for their efforts in producing the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. So good evening, Dr. Helfand.

Ira Helfand

Thanks for having me on tonight.

Metta Spencer

We know that the situation now is really perilous. Nuclear weapons are closer to being used than they have been for a very long time, it seems. Would you please give us your thoughts about the current situation that we’re now facing?

Ira Helfand

I think the issue is that right at the moment, we are closer to nuclear war than at any point since the end of the Cold War. And in fact, some experts like former US Secretary of Defense William Perry, feel that the danger today is even greater than it was during the Cold War. There are at least seven factors that I can identify that are increasing the danger of nuclear war. Four of them relate to geopolitical situations. Relations between the United States and Russia are the worst they have been in decades. We were told, since the end of the Cold War, more than 25 years ago, that we did not need to worry about US and Russia using nuclear weapons against each other anymore. That clearly is not true. We are seeing a very steep deterioration of relations with the extensive Russian attack on the US election in 2016. Their ongoing attack on the US election this year. Flashpoints in Ukraine and in Syria. Real potential for conflict between these 2 nuclear superpowers. Relations between the United States and China are the worst they have been in at least 40 years. You know, during the end of the Cold War, China was effectively an honorary member of NATO. And the US and China got along very well. But that’s not the case today. And there’s a specific flashpoint in the South China Sea where US and Chinese naval forces play games of chicken with each other on a regular basis. Real potential for accidental unintended conflict to erupt there. The situation in Korea, the third geopolitical flashpoint is the one that has gotten the most attention recently, and I think justifiably so. We just barely dodged a bullet earlier this year in Korea. And as far as I can tell, that bullet is still ricocheting around the world. And it is not clear that we are going to get out of the situation without the use of nuclear weapons. President Trump has tried to sell the story that he cut a terrific deal with North Korea to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula. As it becomes more and more clear that the North Koreans agreed to nothing of the kind. It is not at all clear how the very temperamental and unpredictable President of the United States will react and I think the danger of nuclear war in Korea remains extremely high. And finally among geopolitical factors, there’s a situation in South Asia. And this one gets very little attention here in North America. But the situation between India and Pakistan, I think it’s frankly every bit as dangerous as the situation in Korea. There’s fighting almost every day on the border between India and Pakistan. There have been 4 full scale wars between these countries, they are both heavily armed with nuclear weapons, and if there is another war between them, it is almost certain that this war will involve the widespread use of nuclear weapons with catastrophic effects not just in South Asia, but around the world, including here in North America. In addition to these four geopolitical factors, there are three other factors that need to be taken into account. One is, is climate change. And we don’t think about this very often as a potential cause of nuclear war. But we’re told all the time by the nuclear powers that they want to get rid of nuclear weapons sometime in the future where the world is safer. And the fact of the matter is, the world is not getting safer. As climate change progresses, there is more and more pressure on countries around the world, but particularly in Africa, South Asia, the Middle East – they’re finding it increasingly difficult to support their populations. And these pressures are leading to greater conflict. And a greater likelihood of conflict involving nuclear weapons as time goes by. There’s also the danger of cyber terrorism. And again, this is something which is not getting adequate attention. We have thought in the past that the worst thing a terrorist could do with nuclear weapons would be to get hold of one, probably a small one, and blow it up in a city like New York or Tel Aviv or Bombay or Moscow. We now understand that there is an even greater danger – the possibility that terrorists could hack into the command and control systems of one or another of the nuclear powers, either launch that country’s nuclear weapons, or convince that country that it is under attack by an adversary, and thereby induce them to launch the weapons themselves. And this is an absolute nightmare, for which there is not any good solution at this point, except to get rid of the weapons. So they cannot be hacked into.

Metta Spencer

Yeah.

Ira Helfand

And finally, hopefully a more transient problem, but one, which is very real at the moment, and that is the Trump Presidency. And I say this to American audiences, I make a big point of emphasizing, this is not a partisan comment. Members of the President’s own party have clearly stated that this man lacks the judgment, the temperament, and the knowledge base to be in command of a large nuclear force, let alone a nuclear arsenal. And yet, the United States has turned control of 6800 nuclear warheads over to this very unstable person. And as long as he is president, there is the danger that his personal mental health issues will lead to the use of nuclear weapons. And this is a situation which we simply cannot ignore, but have to face this and confront this head on. So for all of these reasons, the danger of nuclear war is extremely high today. And we are not acting appropriately given that level of danger. In the 1980s. The last time things were this dangerous, millions of people in North America, in Europe, in the Soviet Union, understood the danger and took action, political action, tried to force the governments of these countries that had the nuclear weapons to stop the Cold War arms race. And they were successful. We went from a situation in which we were adding 3000 nuclear warheads a year to a situation in which we actually dismantled about 80% of the world’s nuclear arsenals. But when the Cold War ended, we stopped that process. And so 15,000 warheads remain more than enough to destroy the world many times over. But the political movement to get rid of those weapons went away. And it is only now being rebuilt. And we need to do this with great urgency, because we don’t have a lot of time to create the kind of political pressure on our governments that needs to be created. So a fairly difficult and grim situation at the moment.

Metta Spencer

Of course, I wasn’t keeping track of how many of these depressing situations you were mentioning when I think I can add another one. And that is the possibility of accidental nuclear war. Responding to an attack that is based on warning before you can verify that, in fact, is an attack. And with the arrangements that exists between the US and Russia, where there is launch on warning, the possibility of accidental or unintentional nuclear war is very scary. I wonder if you want to speak to that?

Ira Helfand

Well, that’s a very good point Metta and the danger of accidental nuclear war is very great. This has been with us for a long time, it informs each of the geopolitical conflicts that I refer to, I mean, we could get into a war between US and Russia, not because they decided to do it. But because there’s an accident. in June, Pakistan could get into war with each other, not because they actually made a decision to do it. But because something went wrong with the nuclear forces on one side or the other. And they stumbled into nuclear. And certainly with the kind of game of chicken, the United States is currently playing with North Korea, the possibility of miscalculation, of some accident leading to one side of the other believing that they are under attack from the other side, is very real. And it will be until we get rid of these weapons, or at the very least, get them off hair trigger alert.

Metta Spencer

I can imagine it being destroyed. It scares the daylights out of me.

Ira Helfand

A series of false alarms that have taken place over the years, many of which have actually led to the initiation of launch procedures by either Russia or the United States Incidents in which the weapons have actually been prepared for launch. And the launch process has been started. So this is not a theoretical, as you’re suggesting, this is not a theoretical problem. This is a very real problem. And we have had numerous near misses. We’re extraordinarily lucky, that nothing catastrophic has taken place so far. And you know, in many ways, the current policy of all of the nuclear weapon states is a hope that good luck will continue, that nothing bad will happen. And this is a very poor excuse for a national security policy.

Metta Spencer

It’s already happens, of course, just six or eight months ago, you know, there was this alert that happened in Hawaii. Where the message came in that you should run for your lives, because there was no place to run to. And the message was, this is not a test, this is a real thing. Be ready for a nuclear attack. Any minute now. My goodness.

Ira Helfand

Of course, this in the Hawaiian situation, the organization of the government that received the false warning was civil defense. It wasn’t the military. There have been other instances where the military believed that we were under attack. And in some ways, those are far more dangerous, you know, and multiple occasions, the US has scrambled bombers, taken the caps off the missile silos, and gotten the missiles ready for launch. And the same sort of thing has happened on the Russian side as well. It’s.. people live with the illusion that somehow or other this situation is stable. It had these weapons for 70 years, they’ve never been used. We’re told that they won’t be used, that their existence deters use by the other side. And this kind of magical thinking, that is developed, that these weapons possess some kind of quality, that assures they’ll never be used. And the fact is, there’s absolutely no basis in reality, for believing that to be true. Just the opposite. We know how close we have come at how many occasions and we need to break through the denial that we all feel as we go about our daily lives, which is very understandable. I mean, you look out on you know, on your city, Toronto, it’s a lovely place. On a beautiful day you look around the city, you can’t imagine all of this being destroyed in the blink of an eye.

Metta Spencer

nightmares. I imagine it very well.

Ira Helfand

Well, Metta you are one of the very, very tiny minority at this moment in time. In the 1980s, many people had nuclear nightmares. Today, people do not think about this problem. And that’s the biggest challenge that we face – how do we get the general public and the decision makers in government to focus on this problem again? Just start having nightmares. Those nightmares are actually quite valuable, as unpleasant as they are. Fear is the appropriate response to a real threat. And we are not adequately afraid today of nuclear war. As a society, we’ve convinced ourselves it won’t happen.

Metta Spencer

I think it’s partly that people are not informed enough. People, young people at least don’t know anything about nuclear weapons. I taught for five years of University of Toronto, a course, called Public Health in a Nuclear Age. It was about nuclear weapons and to some extent about nuclear power and the alternatives. But it was a very important of course for me to teach to a group of 4th year students, about 20 of them at a time. And they simply didn’t know anything about nuclear weapons. And I’m no longer allowed to teach it because they don’t allow people to teach for free anymore, even retired professors. But… so there’s simply not a single course available at the entire University of Toronto, where a person could take a course on nuclear weapons and learn something about it. I think that is really a tragic situation.

Ira Helfand

In general, people cannot teach courses on nuclear weapons anywhere. There are rare seminar classes here and there about nuclear war. And the students who attend those classes are often highly motivated, very interested in the subject. But until they take those classes, they’re terribly uninformed, as are all of their contemporaries. We simply have not educated the current generation, about this existential threat to their survival. And it is a huge, huge part of the problem. It took a mobilized and informed citizenry, to change Soviet and US nuclear policy in the 1980s. And we will not get the kind of change we need, until we again create that kind of mobilized and informed citizenry. That’s the challenge before us, how do we get people to understand how great the danger of nuclear war is, and how catastrophic nuclear war will be if it takes place?

Metta Spencer

Of course, it’s mostly, I guess, lack of information. It’s also sort of a social psychological situation, it’s kind of hard to understand this thing about denial. It, of course, is what we see with climate change deniers, and a number of other ways in which people simply don’t want to acknowledge a terrible threat until it really happens. And I suppose that’s the answer, that when we really do have a catastrophe, people will begin to notice what it’s about and believe that it’s real.

Ira Helfand

to try to get them to wake up before the shock takes place. You know, my patients who smoke cigarettes, I tried to explain to them, what’s going to happen if they don’t stop smoking, almost all of them stop when they have their first heart attack or when they get diagnosed with lung cancer. But by then much of the damage has been done. Our challenge as physicians is to get our patients to stop smoking before they get sick. As physicians to the planet, our job is to get people to take action about nuclear weapons before they’re used. And again, back in the 80s, we were successful, we didn’t actually have a nuclear war then. In fact, we are heading towards nuclear war. But because of the extraordinary efforts that people made, to educate the public about the dangers of nuclear war, we were able to change policy before something catastrophic happened. And I truly believe that the work that millions of people around the world did in the 1980s, literally saved the world. We were on a course to nuclear war and we didn’t have one. And that is an incredibly important fact, which is often under appreciated, you know that the events that don’t happen, don’t make as big an impression as the events that do. We didn’t have a nuclear war in the 1980s. That is a huge fact in human history. And one which we need to appreciate and celebrate. Because the fact that we were able to do this once before in the 1980s means that we can do it again now. Doesn’t guarantee that we will, but it means clearly that we can. This is something that can be done. But all of us need to appreciate the gravity of the situation, the absolute necessity of focusing single mindedly on the elimination of nuclear weapons before something catastrophic happens. And it’s hard because there are lots of other problems competing for our attention. All kinds of problems that are important that are real. And people should continue to work with us. I maintain my medical practice, I take care of patients who are addicted to heroin. It’s a big part of the practice that I have. They’re very compelling. They need medical attention. And it’s important to me and to them that I give them that attention. But I also have to make sure that I’m spending enough time dealing with the problem of nuclear war. And that’s the balance. I think that we all have to strike as we deal with other issues in our lives, which are important, which needs to be dealt with. We need to make sure that we’re also spending enough time focusing on the nuclear problem, because otherwise terrible things are going to happen. And all the other good things that we’re doing, are going to come to naught.

Metta Spencer

I want to go back for a second to something you said about deterrence, that we’re always being reassured that the only real use for these nuclear weapons is to prevent them from being really used in a nuclear exchange. That each side can deter the others from the other sides from using them. And although that’s what we hear most of the time, I don’t think it’s consistent. Because there’s there are other messages, especially military people, when they’re planning the development of tactical nuclear weapons, you know, smaller battlefield type, nuclear weapons, the border between those and conventional weapons is getting hazier and hazier. So that they sometimes really, consciously and overtly are talking about using nuclear weapons. And that is, to me a very scary thing, that the deterrence is bad enough. But when, when you open up the possibility of the actual use of nuclear weapons in a war that’s being planned for, that somehow scares me even worse.

Ira Helfand

Well deterrence has never been the real reason for having these weapons. It’s not been the whole reason for having, it’s been the stated reason. And it’s been the reason that the public has accepted. But clearly, there’s always been a major element in the development of these weapons, an intention to be able to use them. If you read Daniel Ellsberg new book, he makes it quite clear that nuclear weapons planning in the United States, for example, was always predicated on creating a nuclear force that could fight and win a war. And we certainly are seeing a more open acknowledgement of that today with the development of more tactical nuclear weapons, and more open discussion about making weapons that are “more usable.” But that has always been part of the plan. In fact, nuclear weapons have been used repeatedly. We haven’t dropped one on a city since Nagasaki. But the United States has threatened to use nuclear weapons repeatedly, in an attempt to get its way in the world. We threatened to use them against China during the Korean War. We threatened to use them against China again in the late 1950s during the crisis on the islands between Taiwan and the Mainland. We threatened to use them during the Iranian Civil War. We actually plan to use the during the Vietnam War. A plan which was abandoned in the face of huge public opposition to the war itself. So it’s never been true, that the nuclear weapon states had these weapons just to deter other countries from attacking them. But that’s been the message that they have sold to their citizens, because most people would not countenance the development of these weapons with a plan to use them. They have been willing to accept these weapons as a way of deterring somebody else from attacking their country. And so it’s very important to point out just what you were saying that these weapons are indeed designed with the intent that they be used sometime.

Metta Spencer

I talked to a man named Pervez Hoodbhoy are very wise and knowledgeable Pakistani scientists to nuclear weapons. He’s a Pugwashite. And he was telling me about his conversations with some of the generals in Pakistan – leading people who have control of these nuclear weapons. And they said they don’t really know anything, you try to explain to them the realities about the dangers, thereof, and they kind of poo pooed the whole thing, as if there’s nothing really to worry about. It’s tragic if the generals themselves don’t know the consequences of what they’re able and likely to do. And of course, one of the worst, scariest scenarios would involve an exchange of nuclear weapons between India and Pakistan. That could start because they’re simply not aware of the risk. And they could start when none of us here have anything to say about it, they can start it on their own. And the consequences would be tragic for us to what with a burning smoke, and all the consequences for famine and cold in in the rest of the world. It wouldn’t be confined to India and Pakistan. Can you speak to that situation? It seems to me one of the things that we need to… that somebody needs to worry about.

Ira Helfand

The people who are making decisions about nuclear weapons in most nuclear weapons states, do not fully appreciate what the medical consequences of nuclear war would be. This has been our experience over and over and over again, when we speak to these people. They are disturbingly ignorant about important aspects of the consequences of nuclear war. The situation between India and Pakistan is that studies have been done that show that if each side used only 50, relatively small Hiroshima sized nuclear weapons on urban targets in the other country, the smoke generated by the fires these bumps caused would be enough to disrupt climate across the entire plane. The sun will be blocked out, there’d be a significant decline in temperature across the planet, a significant shortening of the growing season in most countries, a decline in precipitation, because when the air is cooler, less water evaporates from the oceans to fall back as rainfall. And it would be much more ultraviolet light penetrating to the surface of the earth. And ultraviolet light is also very dangerous to young plants. And as a result of all of these factors, there’d be a catastrophic decline in food production worldwide, not just in South Asia – in Africa, and Latin America, in Canada, in particular, countries in northern latitudes, would face particularly severe declines in their food production. And as a result of this worldwide climate disruption, and worldwide decline in food production, there would be a global famine, which we have estimated, could put as many as 2 billion people – billion with a B – people at risk of starvation. Now, this is a very limited war, involving less than a half of 1% of the world’s nuclear weapons, confined to one small geographic area, and a war over which, as you pointed out, the other major nuclear powers would have no control whatsoever. And we live with this danger. And our leaders say it’s okay. We still need to keep nuclear weapons in the world.

Metta Spencer

For our safety… for the sake of security we have these things. (chuckles)

Ira Helfand

Exactly. It should be our we have to understand that the greatest threat to national security of every country is the possession of nuclear weapons by any country. And we need to move as quickly as we can to get rid of all these weapons. And, you know, a US administration, a Canadian government, this should be their highest priority, because this is in fact, the greatest threat to their people. And that is the understanding which does not exist, which we have to help create. Leaders in the country… when we talk to the use of the United States, responsible for nuclear weapons policy under the Obama administration, which was much more open to the idea that nuclear weapons were problematic – they did not know about these climate affects years after the data was published in scientific journals and after we had tried repeatedly to bring it to their attention. We finally had one-on-one meetings with people at the National Security Council, high level people in the State Department, they did not know about this data, and take this into consideration. And then of course, I did nothing. This information goes under the category of Extremely Inconvenient Truth. If you accept that a handful of nuclear weapons, relatively speaking, can cause the end of modern civilization. And to be clear, a war between India and Pakistan would not cause the extinction of the human race. But it would end civilization as we know it. A famine, which put 2 billion people at risk across the planet over 10 years would be a shock, unprecedented in human history. And there is no civilization ever, which has withstood a shock of this magnitude. So we are talking about the collapse of the world, that we know. If you accept that, then it is impermissible to continue with the defense policy based on the possession of nuclear weapons. And the people who are wedded to this policy simply do not know how to respond when faced with this information. And they can figure out how to respond. We convinced Gorbachev and Reagan that they needed to change their nuclear policy dramatically. We almost got them to agree to eliminate these weapons completely. So it’s not a hopeless cause. But a lot of work has to be done to make these people understand what is going to happen if they don’t get rid of these weapons. And the only way they’re going to really listen to that, I think, is when it’s not just a few experts telling giving them this data, but when their constituents are saying “We demand that you change policy.”

Metta Spencer

So should we also talk about terrorism and suicide bombers while we’re at it? Because that is apparently a very real threat. I think it’s Bruce Blair, who has said recently that he can’t exclude the possibility that a terrorist or somebody with the bad intentions could actually hack into nuclear silos and the command and control system of our ICBMs and launch them. And of course, we know that, fair enough, you don’t have to have any suicide bombers in the world to make that a very frightening prospect. And there have been so many cases, lately of pilots – I know of two cases where pilots have deliberately crashed their planes taking down their a large plane full of passengers in the hopes of eternal life or something. Not sure what the rewards are for destroying the lives of other people. But there are certainly people in ISIS and Al Qaeda groups and so on, who have been pursuing nuclear weapons on their own, or would be very willing to use them in some sort of suicidal attack to kill as many Westerners or enemies as they possibly can. Of course, we’re not all just people looking for religious notice. Where’s that from … Was it Switzerland to Germany or someplace, they took down a plane? So we have to think about that, I guess, and try to figure out, what are you going to do to protect us from that?

Ira Helfand

You know, that that’s absolutely true that the danger of nuclear terrorism is very real. I think the greatest danger that terrorists pose is that they might trigger a larger nuclear war. In the past, which tended to focus on what happens if a single nuclear weapon goes off in New York, in London, and this would be terrible. I mean, the consequences would be would be enormous. Hundreds of thousands of people would die. Large parts of whatever city was attacked, would be uninhabitable for significant periods of time. But the greater danger is that the response to this would lead to military escalation. That the country being attacked by terrorists, wouldn’t understand that it was a terrorist attack. And will think if they were being attacked by a state actor that had nuclear weapons and would retaliate in some way. And of course, if the terrorist attack took the form of a cyber attack, hacking into nuclear command and control centers, that danger is even greater. But even if even if it were just a simple terrorist attack, one bomb one city, and the fighting didn’t extend beyond there. The effects on that city are only part of the problem. William Perry’s center in California, has a terrific video, which is available online, about a terrorist attack on Washington. And the thing that I found most compelling about this was they do discuss the direct effects of the bomb going off in Washington, how many people were killed, how many people are injured and so on. But then they explore in greater detail what this does to society. What happens around the United States and indeed around the world in response to this, because obviously, an event of this sort would generate panic on a global scale. And would lead to to a complete collapse of the kind of civil liberty based system that we have today. You know, we would have martial law quickly in many places. World commerce would shut down quickly. If there was a sense that this had been smuggled into a port. Note shipping would stop. We remember how the September 11 attack in the United States stopped international air travel or significantly affected international air travel for months afterwards. Imagine the kind of dislocation in the world economic system the result from even a single small nuclear weapon going off in the city any place.

Metta Spencer

Yep. Very small nuclear weapons and even the little primitive ones the size of Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs can do stupendous damage, and yet people are not satisfied with those old fashioned toys. We have the development of the whole program for modernizing nuclear weapons. Both many countries, especially the US and Russia, are back into what looks like a modernization arms race. The US plans to spend a trillion dollars, more than a trillion dollars, over the next 30 years upgrading its installations which are obviously going to be not only expensive, but stupendously dangerous.

Ira Helfand

The push to make more usable nuclear weapons as you suggested earlier, dangerously erodes the firewall that has been built since Nagasaki. You know, we have tried, rather desperately to make sure these weapons are never used again. And once that threshold is crossed, even if it’s crossed with a very small nuclear weapon, we do not know what happens. We don’t do not know what lies on the other side of that firewall. But I think we have to assume that once a single nuclear weapon has been used, the chance that other nuclear weapons will be used also grows dramatically. Current Russian nuclear policy envisages the early use of nuclear weapons if there’s a conventional war with NATO forces. The idea is called escalatory de-escalation or de-escalatory escalation. It is a bizarre term. The idea is that if fighting starts between Russia and NATO, the Russians would use a nuclear weapon very early on to try to scare NATO off, convince them that they needed to stop fighting. This is the same strategy the United States had during the Cold War, if the Soviets and Warsaw Pact forces entered into Germany, into West Germany, we were going to use tactical nuclear weapons early on to try to scare them into stopping the invasion. The problem is that when you do war games, looking at these kinds of scenarios, the war doesn’t stop. It keeps escalating. And if one side uses a small nuclear weapon, the other side feels compelled to respond in kind. The next round is a large nuclear weapon, and very quickly, within a matter of hours to a day, this escalates to large scale nuclear war. And that is the experience of the war games that were carried out in the 1980s. And it was a very sobering experience for the people who had come up with these plans to use tactical nuclear weapons on the battlefield. Any hope before the fact that this will lead to the probit end of hostilities, when they ran the war games with real people sitting in rooms making these decisions, that’s not what happened. Same situation in South Asia. The Pakistanis are very explicit in the military doctrine, that if there’s a war with India, if India’s greatly superior conventional forces cross into Pakistan, Pakistan will use nuclear weapons early on on the battlefield to try to stop the Indian attack. And in response to that, publicly stated doctrine by the Pakistani military, the Indians have formed their own military doctrine, which says that if the Pakistanis use nuclear weapons any place including on the battlefield, they the Indians will respond with massive nuclear attacks against Pakistani command and control centers, cities, and industrial targets. And so once you get any one of these weapons in use, the chances of something truly catastrophic, far beyond the initial nuclear attack, the chances grow very great. It’s true. I mean, during the height of the Cold War, we had weapons that were even larger than the ones we have today. But the weapons which are, the warheads commonly in the US and Russian forces, are ranged in size from about 10 to 50 times larger than the Hiroshima bomb. And, you know, Hiroshima, Nagasaki are very important warnings to us, of the terrible destructive effects that nuclear weapons can have. But one of the things that we really need to understand about Hiroshima and Nagasaki is that they do not begin to prepare us for what a modern nuclear war would look like. In each of those cases, it was one relatively small weapon on one city. Nuclear War today will involve many, many, many weapons on many cities, and most of these weapons will be 10 to 50 times bigger than the Hiroshima bomb. And the level of destruction will be something far greater than all of the destruction of all the bombing in World War Two. That will happen in a matter of days. And again, this is the kind of reality that’s very hard for us to hold on to. It’s so unpleasant to think about what these weapons will do that we just put it out of mind or try to. And most people do that successfully. And that’s understandable. It’s an important part of human psychology to try to put these very painful fears out of our mind, so that we’re not paralyzed by them, so they’re overwhelmed by them. At the same time, we have to let that information in enough to motivate our behavior.

Metta Spencer

It is for me so hard to understand the mentality of militarists. Do you have any contact with these people in the Pentagon? Are there any allies there to our cause? Do any of them lose sleep at night about what they’re doing when they’re planning these, the use of these weapons? I just have such difficulty imagining how they can do what they’re doing. And I took so much heart and encouragement from the change that occurred when ICAN simply change the terms of the conversation away from the notion that we need weapons to protect ourselves, and that they are a source of security, to talking about the humanitarian impact of using such weapons, and began to talk about what actually happens to human beings, and that the amount of damage that a nuclear weapon can do is so stupendously disproportionate to anything else, that never ever, under any circumstances will it ever be permissible to use on.

Ira Helfand

It’s exactly right. That was ICAN’s strategy in the form that we’re going to change the terms of the debate. And it’s one of the things that ICAN’s most successful in doing, we stopped talking about nuclear policy as a game of chess, and started talking about it as a medical problem. And focusing on what the actual consequences, the medical consequences and the humanitarian impact would be, if nuclear weapons were used. And what we’ve found is that if the debate is carried out on those terms, we win, because it is indefensible to put human beings and human civilization at risk in the way nuclear weapons do. You can get away with maintaining nuclear arsenals, if you ignore the medical consequences. And just talk about this as though it’s an abstract. You know, the phrase I use abstract game of chess. And that’s what what historically, I think the nuclear weapon states have done for the last 70 years. They’ve talked about this in a very depersonalized way, trying very hard to avoid language, which adequately and accurately reflects what these weapons will do. We talk about it in all kinds of euphemistic terms, you know, taking out targets. What does that mean? That means killing millions of people. When I talk about the killing of millions of people, we talk about taking out targets. And it’s been an enormously important lesson, how powerfully effective ICAN has been by shifting the terms of debate. And I think IPPNW, I think played a very central role in that we were the medical voice within ICAN, we with people like Alan Robock and Brian Toon in the climate community, develop the message that ICAN brought to governments around the world. And this had a big impact. The nations which have signed the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons are overwhelmingly from Latin America and Africa. Two continents, which are both nuclear weapons free zones. They have already outlawed the presence of nuclear weapons in their continents. And for many years, they felt therefore, that they were safe. And what we were able to do, I think, during the campaign leading up to the adoption of the treaty, was to help those governments understand that even though they had made their own countries, parts of nuclear weapons free zones, there was still at risk. War on the other side of the planet, over in Europe or in South Asia or in Korea. would have terrible consequences in Latin America and in Africa. And we talked about what those consequences would be. And that I think, is what motivated so many of the people, so many of the governments in these areas to play really powerful and heroic leadership roles.

Metta Spencer

It seemed to me it went rather fast. I think I was in Ottawa when there was a … we had some sort of party or something that announced the formation of ICAN. I think Alyn Ware came and spoke there. And what was that 10, 12 years ago? When did ICAN start?

Ira Helfand

ICAN was founded in 2007. It started in Australia by IPPNW in Australia. And we opened up the Geneva office, I believe it was 2011, which is our world headquarters today. That was just 7 years ago. And it did go very quickly. After a lot groundwork, the Norwegian government convened a conference in Oslo in 2013 on the humanitarian impact of nuclear war. And this was the first ever government level conference dedicated to looking at the medical consequences of nuclear weapons. Extraordinary fact, at that point, almost 70 years after Hiroshima, and there had never been a government level international conference to look at what would actually happen if these weapons were used. The conference was explicitly boycotted by all five of the permanent members of the Security Council. They issued a statement saying they weren’t going to attend, said it was a diversion from the important work they were doing to eliminate nuclear weapons, which provoked real anger at the conference, because they aren’t doing and weren’t doing then anything. And the conference was a tremendous success. At the end of it, the Mexican government agreed to host a follow up meeting which took place the next year in Nayarit, Mexico. It was a larger conference, the first one had about 125 countries in attendance, the second one had over 130. And at the conclusion of that meeting, the Austrian government agreed to host a follow up meeting later that year, in Vienna, which had over 150 countries in attendance. Three quarters of the countries of the world. And the States and the UK, to members of the Security Council came to that meeting, as did India and Pakistan, which had come to the earlier meetings. So those nuclear weapon states were represented at the conference. And each of these looked in more detail at what the medical consequences of nuclear war would be, and created, I think, a growing and greater sense of alarm amongst the countries in attendance, a greater and growing sense of the urgency of doing something about this problem. And the follow up to that was the establishment of an Open Ended Working Group at the United Nations, which met in 2016 in Geneva, and recommended to the General Assembly, that negotiations be undertaken for a new treaty to ban these weapons. And the UN voted in the fall of 2016 to begin these negotiations. They took place over the course of 2 sessions in 2017. And on July 7 of 2017, a treaty was signed by 122 nations, which created the prohibition of nuclear weapons It was a very rapid process. And a very important process, the first time ever, that the simple possession of nuclear weapons has been defined as a violation of international law. That treaty has been signed by close to 60 countries. Many of the countries which voted to adopt it have not formally signed yet that process usually takes a period of months, two years, it’s been ratified at this point by I believe, 12 countries, when 50 countries have ratified the treaty, it will go into effect. And we’re at a pretty good pace at this point, given how long it usually takes to get these treaties ratified, and are quite optimistic that the treaty will come into force sometime next year. And at that point, you know, the possession of nuclear weapons will be defined by international law as illegal. And that is a very important step towards the elimination of these weapons, we still have a lot of work to do, in the nuclear weapons states themselves, in the nuclear umbrella states, like Canada, the other NATO countries, Japan, Australia, South Korea, the countries which rely on the US nuclear arsenal, there’s a lot of work to do in those countries to get them to join this process. And one of the things which Canada could and should do is to provide leadership to this. Canada has understood in the past the dangers of nuclear war, I believe, the Canadian government required that the United States remove all nuclear weapons from Canada in the past, indicating Canadian opposition to these weapons. Canada should sign this treaty it can do that. It is not inconsistent with continued membership in NATO. And it would send an extraordinarily powerful message to the United States, to the rest of NATO, and to the whole world, about the importance of getting rid of these weapons. And it’s the kind of leadership that one would hope we might see at some point in the near future from Canada.

Metta Spencer

So what you’re saying is certainly music to my ears and to that and almost all Canadian peace activists. And I would say probably to almost all Canadians. It’s not even just Canadians, I mean, their polls that have been done around the world, the majority of people in every country, with almost no exception, want nuclear disarmament. Depending on how you phrase the question, then it’s always a very strong desire. And the last poll I saw for Canada was several years ago and 88% of the Canadian population said that they wanted nuclear disarmament. You would think with a democratic society and you’d think that a prime minister, given an opportunity to satisfy the desires of 88% of his population would consider that a glorious opportunity to leave a legacy that would be very wonderful. But it hasn’t happened yet. And we have our work cut out for us still, of course, I think IPPNW did the trick, and, of course, was also involved during the 80s. And I guess we can do it again. Can you give us your thoughts about what was there that went on in the relationship with Gorbachev or in the thinking of Gorbachev that enables him to make the remarkable change that he made at that time, that might give us some ideas of where to go?

Ira Helfand

Gorbachev is an extraordinary person. But what he says in his memoirs, is that it was the conversations he had with doctors from my IPPNW that led him to change his thinking about nuclear weapons and conversations that we had with him. And similar conversations that we had with Reagan, actually, at the time, were frightening us, because we discovered in these conversations that they didn’t really understand how destructive nuclear weapons were. But fortunately, these two people were willing to listen and change their thinking. And it was an extremely fortuitous pairing for all the problems of the Reagan Presidency, which many of us in America are still grappling with. On this particular issue, Ronald Reagan got it. And Mikhail Gorbachev got it. And Gorbachev was willing to take the lead on this. It was his leadership that led to the end of the Cold War arms race. He challenged the United States repeatedly to join unilateral measures, unilateral steps that the Soviet Union took in stopping nuclear testing, and finally got the US to join into that process. And, you know, at the Reykjavik Summit, he and Reagan came close to negotiating a treaty for the complete abolition of the nuclear arsenals. I think leaders need to be open minded, they need to be honest, and they need to be good in some fundamental way, or at least they need to care about what’s going to happen to their people and their own families and children. And if they have those qualities, they can be made to understand that the only way they can protect their children, the only way they can protect their countries, is to bring about the elimination of nuclear weapons. They don’t understand that now. But if they can be brought to understand this, if they can be reached, I think they can change. I had an extraordinary experience in the Israeli Knesset some years ago, speaking to a very conservative, right wing member of the Likud Bloc, who was a big champion of the Israeli nuclear force. And this was an unusual event because the Israeli government has never acknowledged its nuclear arsenal. The symposium that I spoke at was the first time there had ever been an open discussion in the Knesset Israeli Parliament, about Israel’s nuclear forces. And this particular Israeli politician basically came to the event to tell me what a fool I was, how naive I was to think that we can get rid of nuclear weapons. I didn’t understand that there were good guys and bad guys in the world, that it was important that the good guys had nuclear weapons to counter the bad guys. And I didn’t really talk to him about that very much. But I did talk about what what was going to happen if nuclear weapons were used, what was going to happen to Israel, if Israel used its own nuclear weapons, and, to his credit, he didn’t know what the consequences would be. And he was willing to admit that indirectly. At the end of my end of this 20-25 minute conversation that we had, he acknowledged in public in front of many people. I cannot agree with you completely that we need to get rid of all of our nuclear weapons, but maybe we do need to get rid of most of them. And I found that to be an incredibly encouraging conversation, because if you could reach this individual who was quite invested in the Israeli nuclear force, it was a very short conversation that we had, I think we can reach leaders of all the countries in the world. But the only way we’re going to do that is by mobilizing their own populations to deliver this message to them. So the really striking success of IPPNW in the 80s, related to just that ability to communicate the danger of nuclear wa to large numbers of people, to help mobilize a very large movement, many other actors were involved in building that movement. But the medical message that we brought to it was, I think, critical to its success. The medical message we brought to the direct lobbying of world leaders was critical to the success of that aspect of the work.

Metta Spencer

I think it’s useful maybe to mention another tactic that has come… becoming quite popular. Certainly, there’s a lot of conversation about it. One technique that we may have for fighting against nuclear weapons is financial. And there’s a new movement called Don’t Bank on the Bomb. People simply go to their banks, it’s possible to find out which banks, which Canadian banks, actually fund companies that manufacture components of nuclear weapons. And you go to your bank manager and you talk to you ask to speak to the authorities, and they’ll channel you here and there, give you a run around, but eventually you get a chance to talk to somebody and say, I’m going to take my money out if you keep funding the production of nuclear weapons. And it’s a long process. I don’t know how many people have had success with it yet. But we’re just getting started. And I think, in Europe, there, there is probably more progress than now. Can you say something about that?

Ira Helfand

Don’t Bank on the Bomb campaign, which is a part of the ICAN movement is a very, can be a very effective tool in many places, both in terms of getting the funding to be actually curtailed. But perhaps even more importantly, it’s a way of raising people’s understanding and awareness. In order to get a bank to stop investing in most cases, you’re going to have to get a lot of depositors to say they’re going to take the money out. And that means educating a lot of people about the danger of nuclear war, and building that general understanding that general movement that we need to have, if we’re going to bring about this kind of change. So it can be a quite effective tool. I think in a country like Canada, frankly, I think the energy, it’s going to be most productive – advice from an outsider I’m sorry, I don’t know the situation in Canada that well – but just looking from the outside, I think the thing that would probably be most important would be to bring pressure on the government directly. And you were talking before about the fact that Prime Minister Trudeau really has not done what we would hope he would do in terms of providing leadership to the global anti-nuclear movement, he still could make a decision to do that. I think it’d be very appropriate to try to build a national campaign to help him understand that there is political space for him to do it. And there is in fact, a political demand for him to do that. In the States, we’ve launched a national campaign called Back From The Brink, or called prevent nuclear war, which is an attempt to bring about a fundamental change in US nuclear policy, such that the US would be able ultimately to sign the Treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons. And it’s the timeframe for this campaign looks beyond the current presidential term. We’re looking to try to create conditions so that a new administration in 2021, would be able to adopt a fundamentally different nuclear policy in the United States. One which is not based on the continued maintenance of the nuclear arsenal. But is based instead on the understanding that nuclear weapons any place in the world are the greatest threat to US national security. And therefore, the highest priority of the US government needs to be seeking an agreement worldwide to eliminate these weapons completely.

Metta Spencer

Well it’s up to us, of course, to do the work of creating this momentum and this awareness that we’re looking for. We all have to figure out ways of contributing. I’ve had a couple of periods when I’ve had rules for myself. I have one rule that if I ride in a taxi, by myself with a taxi driver, I have to talk about nuclear weapons. They always are interested and sometimes they take a card and they say there, they ask for a card. Can you let me know how to meet you in your next meeting of this committee about nuclear weapons? That doesn’t happen all the time. But it is they always agree with me. So far, anyway. And last year, I had a rule for myself that every day I had to call one member of parliament, and express my opinion about the Ban Treaty. And I did it, I got about a third of the way through the MP list, before I got distracted, and I have to plan to get back to that again. But that’s kind of thing that I think, individual human beings just if we’re going to do this, we just have to make a point of bringing the subject up and talking to almost anybody who they will bump into, about the importance of this particular issue. So tell us what you are encouraging people to do along those lines.

Ira Helfand

Hopeful that Canada… you know the Ottawa Process got rid of land lines to a large degree in the world, certainly changed the dynamic around landmine use and Canada played a critical leadership role in that effort. And I think it could do the same thing for nuclear weapons and I certainly hope that it will. It is predicated on getting individuals to go to the organizations that already belong to the churches, they belong to the labor unions, they belong to the professional societies, and getting them to sign on to this statement of what US nuclear policy should be. And perhaps in Canada, there could be a similar campaign focused on getting the Canadian government to sign the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, with people going to their churches going to their unions, going to their professional associations, going to their Rotary Clubs, and getting them all to issue statements calling on the government calling on Prime Minister Trudeau to sign the treaty, and to have Canada join in this global effort to prevent nuclear war.

Metta Spencer

Wow, it’s been a pleasure talking with you tonight. And I want to thank you so much for being with us. And, and for being the leader of global effort to abolish these weapons. So thank you very much Dr. Helfand.

Intro/Outro

This conversation is one of the weekly series Talk About Saving the World produced by Peace Magazine and Project Save the World. Please visit our website at tosavetheworld.ca where you can sign the Platform for Survival. A list of 25 public policy proposals that, if enacted, would greatly reduce the risk of 6 global threats to humankind. Come back next week for another discussion of a serious global issue.