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A Toast to Presidents Medvedev and Obama

October 21, 2009

by James E. Muller, MD

I offer this toast to Presidents Medvedev and Obama for their courageous efforts to mobilize the strengths of the Russian and American people against the world’s leading problems.  I speak from the vantage point of an American physician who has had the privilege of living and working in both countries.

The list of problems addressed at their first summit in July is familiar, and when viewed by an individual, or even by a single nation, overwhelming – the global economic crisis, disease and the problems of healthcare structure, environmental degradation, the end of the fossil fuel era, terrorism, and most importantly the threat of nuclear annihilation.  But viewed through the lens of cooperative Russian-American efforts the challenges appear less daunting.

Although Russia and the US have come close to fighting a nuclear war, the full history of the relationship includes many successful cooperative efforts.  During the American Civil War, Lincoln sought and received support from Russia including a visit by the Russian fleet.  In World War II, the US joined Russia to defeat Hitler.  Today Russians and Americans work together in the International Space Station and in many other programs.

As a physician I celebrate the determination of the two leaders to work together against the diseases that afflict both nations and the people of the entire world.  Beyond traditional health concerns physicians, and all, applaud their bold intent to address a danger to health so extreme and so immediate that it too often escapes our consciousness – the threat of the use of a nuclear weapon.

Today Russia and the US maintain over 20,000 nuclear weapons, many of which are poised to be launched in minutes.  Each could destroy a city and fill the surrounding hospitals with more burned children than could receive even basic pain relief.  And even if the Russian and American weapons are not used, endorsement by the great powers of this method of seeking security increases the likelihood that a rogue state or a terrorist group will create and use such a weapon.

At the dawn of the nuclear age Einstein stated that “The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.”  In the ensuing 60 years we have unfortunately remained on course.

The intellectual guidance to escape from our disastrous nuclear entrapment can be found in the teachings of Lev Tolstoy, the great Russian novelist, and admirer of Lincoln.  Tolstoy articulated the concepts of tolerance and non violence that nourished the satyagraha of Gandhi and the soul force of Martin Luther King and offer a guide for our present situation.  Although he died before the creation and use of nuclear weapons, Tolstoy understood that technology multiplies the horrors of violent conflict, and specifically described the process needed to adopt a new mode of thinking as advocated by Einstein.

When an individual passes from one period of life to another a time comes when he cannot go on in senseless activity and excitement as before, …he has out-grown what before used to direct him, …he must formulate for himself an understanding of life corresponding to his age, and …be guided by it. …a similar time must come in the growth and development of humanity…   Lev Tolstoy

Since the origin of our species we have engaged in almost constant warfare amplified by weapons of steadily increasing destructive power. While this has led to immense suffering and loss of life, it has on balance been accepted by most as a flawed but tolerable approach to security.  However, with the creation of nuclear weapons, we now find that the destructive force is so extreme that our prior mode of thinking can no longer direct us.

At this critical juncture in the development of humanity, Presidents Medvedev and Obama, leaders of the two nations that account for over 95% of the world’s nuclear weapons, offer a bold and promising new mode of thinking   —  the intent to eliminate of  all nuclear weapons from the planet.    As first steps along this path they advocate a continued reduction in nuclear arms and cessation of nuclear testing.  Determined pursuit of the goal of zero nuclear weapons would enhance efforts to prevent proliferation to unstable nations and terrorists. It would  limit the ready availability of immense nuclear destructive force that permits a small terrorist group to rival the power of massive nations such as Russia and the US.

While Presidents Medvedev and Obama have strong support in their pursuit of the goal of nuclear abolition, the path ahead is difficult and poorly charted.  I propose that all raise a toast to honor the wisdom and courage that has led them to pursue this goal, and to signal our intent to support them in their efforts to deliver to the children of Russia, the US and the entire world, a manner of thinking that has moved beyond the threats of the nuclear era.

Dr. James Muller is an American cardiologist who lived in Russia in 1967 during the height of the Cold War.  Together with 3 American and 3 Russian physicians, he served as a Co-founder of International Physicians for Prevention of Nuclear War, the organization awarded the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize.

4 Comments
  1. October 29, 2009 9:44 am

    Dr. Muller’s toast to the two leaders is worth supporting. Also, the quotations from Einstein and Tolstoy remind us of the futility of the arms race. It is obvious that our world needs a new thinking that will encourage peace and not destruction.
    Jim, thank you for this unequivocal reminder!

  2. Ian Maddocks permalink
    October 21, 2009 7:00 pm

    25 years on from when we first met in Helsinki, I am so pleased to read wise words still emenating from you, Jim. And expressed with the clarity and eloquence that we hope to emulate in our advocacy.

    Best wishes from Australia,

    Ian Maddocks

  3. John permalink
    October 21, 2009 2:24 pm

    Great post! Why do all the nuts out there condemn the leaders of the two most powerful military forces for even discussing a future free of nuclear weapons? I don’t get it.

  4. Bjorn Hilt permalink
    October 21, 2009 2:21 pm

    A toast to Jim Muller and all good abolitionist. How terrific to be able to read again the wise words of one of the IPPNW founders who I never had a chance to meet, but who we know played such a significant role in the first years of our movement as is also described at length by B Lown in his book Prescription for survival. We now need all the strong voices that we have to support presidents Obama and Medvedev to walk the walk and let our dreams of a world without nuclear weapons come true. Thank you Jim for letting your voice against nuclear weapons be heard again.

    With deep admiration and best regards from Bjorn Hilt, present board chair of IPPNW.

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