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A nuclear-weapons-free world: Champions, detractors, and the urgency of getting to zero—Part 3

March 23, 2009

A new medical appeal for a nuclear-weapons-free world

“What do doctors have to do with nuclear war?” That’s invariably the first question I get when I say I work for IPPNW.

For the 300 or so prominent physicians who have just signed a letter calling on US President Obama and Russian President Medvedev to partner up and rid the world of nuclear weapons, the answer to that question is self evident: the consequences of a nuclear war—the overwhelming numbers of casualties, the horrific nature of the injuries among survivors, the destruction of hospitals and other health facilities, the cancers and genetic damage carried over into future generations—would leave them helpless to respond.

Physicians understand that they must work to prevent what they can’t treat. So for almost 50 years they have been pleading with world leaders—those who have their fingers directly on the nuclear button and those without their own bomb who, regardless, can’t protect their citizens from a catastrophe unleashed by others—that the only way to prevent nuclear war is to eliminate these instruments of mass extermination altogether. From the physician’s perspective, the prognosis is simple: either we will abolish nuclear weapons or they will abolish us.

The letter released on March 23, 2009—about a week before the first meeting between presidents Obama and Medvedev, in London for the G-20 summit—was not signed by the pediatrician at the neighborhood clinic (although IPPNW now invites her to endorse it, along with every other pediatrician and cardiologist and obstetrician and radiologist and oncologist and general practitioner and medical student and public health expert and on and on). Among the signatories are health ministers, deans of medical schools, presidents of national medical associations, emeritus professors, and heads of hospitals from 39 countries. A few survived the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. All of them want to make sure that there is never another Hiroshima or Nagasaki.

This appeal is the latest expression of revulsion against nuclear weapons in a decades-long medical movement that was called into existence by those first bombings. Albert Schweitzer published his “Declaration of Conscience” in 1957 and told the world that “the end of further experiments with atom bombs would be like the early sunrays of hope which suffering humanity is longing for.” Benjamin Spock educated doctors and parents about the health effects of nuclear testing, and helped organize mass protests throughout the 1960s. The US Institute of Medicine, the British Medical Association, the Russian Academy, the WHO, and other major research institutions published the data that would form the scientific basis of IPPNW’s campaigns in the 1980s and 90s.

Some of that research told us that the explosion of one or two thousand nuclear weapons in a war between the US and the Soviet Union would have led to a nuclear winter and the collapse of the fundamental ecosystems on which human life and society depend. The US and Russia still have more than enough nuclear weapons kept at the ready today to precipitate that catastrophe and destroy everyone on Earth.

Now we’ve learned that even 100 Hiroshima-size warheads, exploded over megacities, could cause a sudden global cooling, the disruption of agriculture worldwide, and the deaths of a billion people who already live on the margins of starvation. That’s after killing tens of millions of people outright.

What more do we need to know? If 100 bombs can kill a billion people, can any reason for continuing to rely on them outweigh the shame and hypocrisy of owning them at all?

That’s what these leaders in global medicine are asking presidents Obama and Medvedev to consider when they meet in London and in the months ahead, as they discuss their options in leading us to a nuclear-weapons-free world. Two of the physicians who have signed the medical appeal—Bernard Lown and Evgueni Chazov—helped persuade Mikhail Gorbachev to become an abolitionist when they met with him in 1985. Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan came heartbreakingly close to an agreement to get rid of all their nuclear weapons when they met in Reykjavik in 1986. The times (and, more to the point, their advisers) were against them.

In 2009, the leaders of the two largest nuclear powers don’t have to be persuaded that the future depends on the elimination of nuclear weapons. They have said so themselves. What they seem to need is a practical roadmap—which already exists in the form of the Model Nuclear Weapons Convention—and the confidence that if they act decisively, a grateful world will embrace their action. The physicians’ letter, delivered today, can be seen as a confidence-building measure—part of the growing public chorus of voices calling for sanity and courage at an opportune time.

The text of the letter and a list of signatories is at

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