Ira Chernus  


When I heard that Helen Caldicott was going to lecture on the CU campus, I flashed back nearly 20 years to the day she told me I was responsible for saving the world from nuclear catastrophe. Of course she told hundreds of other people in the room the same thing that day. She told hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of people the same thing nearly every day in the early 1980's.

It was a different time back then. President Ronald Reagan and his advisors talked openly about fighting and winning a nuclear war. Amost a million people gathered in New York's Central Park to demand a freeze on the production and deployment of nukes. Some 20,000 protesters formed a human chain 16 miles long to surround the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant. When Reagan proposed his "Star Wars" missile defense plan, the White House put out the story that the Old Gipper himself had dreamed it up. But journalist Frances Fitzgerald has recently revealed that the idea came from his political advisers, who wanted to throw a body block across the anti-nuclear movement.

It worked, more or less. After sending the nation deep into debt in order to fund his massive nuclear build up, Reagan managed to convince most Americans that he really wanted to get rid of nukes. His arms control deals with the last Soviet Premier, Mikhail Gorbachev, seemed to prove the point.

Even before the Cold War ended, Americans were beginning to forget about the nuclear threat. They were turning their attention to other threats, most notably the environment. Many anti-nuclear activists were turning their attention to the environment too. Once the Soviet Union collapsed, Presidents Bush and Clinton told us that we could sleep safely, because the nuclear threat was gone. For a while it seemed that the anti-nuclear movement had gone to sleep, too.

The only things that scarcely changed at all were the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal and the continuing efforts of a handful of die-hard anti-nuclear activists. Among those who wouldn't quit, the most famous was Helen Caldicott. She never stopped believing that she was responsible for saving the world from nuclear catastrophe.

I stopped believing it after a while, more or less. I figured that this was just too much moral weight for me to carry through life. I can understand why some people have criticized Caldicott for laying such a heavy guilt trip on so many people.

But at least she has proved that she does not just talk the talk. For the last two decades she has never stopped walking the walk. While most Americans took their president's advice and just forgot about nuclear-weapons, she paid careful attention to the dramatic changes in our nuclear policies and strategies. She will be explaining those in detail in her lecture here.

The fundamental change is simple enough. The geniuses in the Pentagon and the White House have finally figured out that it makes no sense to have thousands of nukes capable of destroying a huge nation in a single day. Perhaps they even realize that it is what Helen Caldicott and I have called it: nuclear madness. (She and I share the honor of having authored books by that name.) But that doesn't mean they've given up their addiction to nukes. Far from it. They just want new kinds of nukes for a new kind of war.

They no longer expect to fight an enemy armed with thousands of nuclear weapons. They expect to fight a far weaker enemy, like China, that has only a handful of nukes. So they're designing a new generation of nuclear weapons, ones that will be, as George W. Bush recently said, "smaller, more accurate, more lethal." In other words, they will be more useful for intimidating and slapping down much weaker nations.

Will they be any cheaper? We still spend over $30 billion year to maintain and improve our nuclear arsenal. The size of the bombs may go down, as the smaller and fancier ones come on line, but don't expect that budget to go down. Do expect the budget for space-based weapons to go up. The Bush administration is focusing like a laser beam on missile defense. No need, any more, to use "Star Wars" to blunt the anti-nuclear movement, which has slowed to a crawl. Now, while so few of us are watching, missile defense is becoming the launching platform for the militarization of space.

But Helen Caldicott is still watching. She is still warning us that an unthinkable disaster looms in our future if we do not act now to stop it. Yes, it is a heavy burden to believe that you are responsible for saving the world. Perhaps it is too much to ask of most of us. But we should count ourselves lucky that there are still a few people out there on the fringe, willing to bear that burden and challenge the rest of us to do the same. All they really ask of us is to consider the alternative.