The Nuclear Age Peace Foundation presented Dr. Ira Helfand and International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War with the 2017 Distinguished Peace Leadership Award. Dr. Helfand’s acceptance speech is below. You can also download a MP3 audio file of the speech here.
Thank you very much. The work of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation has been so important in the movement to eliminate nuclear weapons for so many decades, it is a particular honor for us to receive this award from Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. And on behalf of all of the many thousands of doctors in IPPNW and in, especially, our American affiliate Physicians for Social Responsibility, thank you so much for giving us this award tonight.
The citations of the Nobel Committee both in 1985 and in 2017 essentially spoke to the same issue, which was not the organizational effectiveness of the groups that they were awarding the prize to but the message that they brought to the world. The simple message that nuclear weapons pose an existential threat to human survival and must be abolished. That message I think is more important today than it’s ever been. There was a time about a generation ago in the 1980s when almost everybody understood this. People all around the world knew what was going to happen if there was a nuclear war. That was in part due to the educational work that we did then, but it was also due to just the constant attention that the nuclear question received in the media, and the obsessive concern about nuclear weapons that dominated the lives of so many of us at that time. When the Cold War ended, we, all of us, including people who are active in this movement, started to act as though the problem had gone away. As we know, it didn’t. There are still 15,000 nuclear warheads in the world today, several thousand on a hair-trigger alert, ready to be fired in less than 10 minutes’ notice.
And in addition to that fundamental fact, we have to recognize that the danger of nuclear war has increased dramatically in the last few years. The situation in North Korea of course is in the news every day, and we cannot ignore this. There is the real possibility that there will be a war which will almost certainly turn nuclear between the United States and North Korea sometime in the very near future. It could happen this month, next month, the beginning of next year. But that’s only one of the flashpoints that exist in the world today. Relations between the United States and Russia are at the worst point in three decades. Relations between the United States and China are at the worst point in four decades. There is fighting every single day on the border between India and Pakistan, which are armed with significant and growing arsenals of nuclear weapons.
In addition to these geopolitical flashpoints, there are several other factors that increase the risk of nuclear war. There is the danger of cyber terrorism. We used to think that the worst thing a terrorist could do would be to get a single nuclear warhead and bring it into New York or London or Tel Aviv or Bombay and set it off. Now we understand that the far greater danger is of a cyber attack. The terrorist will hack into the command and control systems of the United States or Russia, or possibly one of the other nuclear states, and either directly set off the launch of nuclear armed missiles or, perhaps more likely, create a false warning under which the country that’s being hacked thinks it’s being attacked by nuclear weapons from the other side and responds with a nuclear attack of its own.
There is also the Trump phenomenon, and we simply cannot ignore this either. The US and other nuclear weapon states have predicated their policies over the last decades, their insistence on maintaining nuclear arsenals, on the assumption that the leadership of the nuclear-armed states would be composed of wise, temperate, well-informed people. It’s not my judgement, but the judgement of the experts in his own party, that Donald Trump possesses none of these qualities. And the fact that he is in charge of 6,800 nuclear warheads should be a cause of great concern to all of us. And it should also lead us to having a very different view of the whole nuclear enterprise.
Finally, among the factors that are increasing the danger of nuclear war is the issue of climate change. We are told by the United States repeatedly that it seeks the abolition of nuclear weapons sometime in the future when conditions are safer. Conditions are not getting safer. Climate change is making large parts of this planet essentially uninhabitable by their current populations. And as this process progresses, and it will even if we take drastic action now, there’s going to be an increase in conflict in these regions that are facing severe environmental stress. There is going to be mass migration on a scale which absolutely dwarfs what has taken place so far in the last decade, and the possibility of conflict escalating to nuclear conflict is going to grow and grow and grow, unless the weapons are removed.
The central concept behind PSR and IPPNW’s work has always been that, if people understood how bad nuclear war would be, how likely it was to happen, and the fact that this is not the future that needs to be, they would act to get rid of nuclear weapons. I want to spend a few minutes reviewing for you the part that has been our central piece of this message: What happens if there is a nuclear war? And I do apologize, this has been a lovely evening, everyone’s been enjoying a wonderful meal in great fellowship, but we do need to remind ourselves regularly of what it is that we are facing. So let me talk a little bit first about limited nuclear war.
We have looked in great detail at the possibility of a war between India and Pakistan. Each of these countries has about 130 nuclear warheads at this point and they’re adding to their arsenals every month. The studies that we have done have been based on a model in which these countries use only 50 warheads each and use relatively small bombs, Hiroshima-sized weapons. They have weapons that are bigger. But it was intentionally a conservative model, so that we couldn’t be accused of overestimating the situation. The effect of a war between India and Pakistan, each using 50 Hiroshima-sized weapons in South Asia is unbelievably devastating. Twenty million people die in the first week as a result of the explosions, the fires, the direct radiation coming out of these bombs. To put that in perspective, during all World War II, 50 million people died across the whole planet over the course of eight years. In this situation, we would have a like number, 20 million people, dying in the course of a single week in one very constrained geographic area. But this local devastation is only part of the story, because these 100 bombs exploding over cities would cause 100 fire storms, and they’d put about 6.5 million tons of soot into the upper atmosphere. And that would block out the sun across the entire planet, dropping temperatures, shortening the growing season, drying the planet and causing a dramatic decrease in food production.
We’ve looked at what the impact would be on food production here in the United States and in China, the world’s two largest food producers, and the results are frankly terrifying. The food production of major grain crops like corn and wheat and rice go down anywhere from 15% to 39% for a full decade after this conflict. And the world today simply cannot absorb a decline in food production of that magnitude. There are already 719 million people in the world who are malnourished, who are just getting by. They cannot afford any further decrease in their food consumption. There are 300 million people in the world today who are well-nourished, but live in countries where much of the food is imported, and this includes a number of very wealthy countries like Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, many of the countries in North Africa and the Middle East. Under the circumstances that would pertain after a limited nuclear war and a worldwide decline in food production, those food imports would not be available.
There are a billion people in China today who are well-nourished, who live in a country where most of the food is grown in country, but who are poor, who have not shared in the great economic progress that China has made. There are a billion people who live on less than $5 a day. And given the dramatic increase in food prices that would follow a limited nuclear war between India and Pakistan, they would not be able to buy food. And so we have concluded that worldwide, over two billion people would be at risk of starvation as a result of a limited nuclear war in one corner of the globe involving less than 0.03% of the world’s nuclear weapons. The death of two billion people would not be the extinction of our species, but it would be the end of modern civilization as we know it. No civilization in human history has ever withstood a shock of this magnitude, and there is no reason to think that the very intricate, interdependent economic system that we all depend on would fare any better.
That’s a limited nuclear war. Let me talk to you for a few minutes about a large-scale nuclear war. And I want to start by describing what an attack on a single city would look like. Most of us are familiar with images of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And the warning that we received in Japan in 1945 is one which we must take to heart. But we also have to understand that Hiroshima and Nagasaki do not begin to prepare us for what will happen if nuclear weapons are used again, because it will not be one or two small bombs on one or two cities. It’ll be large numbers of much larger bombs on many, many cities. We don’t know the exact targeting strategy of the United States or Russia, but I have been told recently by someone who is familiar with US military planning that the US still targets Moscow with 100 nuclear weapons. And that doesn’t count the French and the British weapons which are also targeted on Moscow, and for that matter the Chinese weapons that are targeted on Moscow.
So, I’m going to use a model that is much smaller than 100 nuclear warheads. I’m going to use one single very large bomb. The destruction I’m going to describe is much less than will befall Moscow or New York or Washington, but I think it gives us an adequate understanding of the enormity of the danger that we face. I’m talking about a 20 megaton bomb. Within one-thousandth of a second of the detonation of this weapon, a fireball would form, reaching out for two miles in every direction, four miles across. Within this area the temperatures would rise to 20 million degrees Fahrenheit, which is hotter than the surface of the sun. And everything would be vaporized, the buildings, the people, the trees, the upper level of the earth itself would disappear.
To a distance of four miles in every direction, the explosion would generate winds greater than 600 miles per hour. Mechanical forces of that magnitude destroy anything that people can build. To a distance of six miles in every direction, the heat would be so intense that automobiles would melt. And to a distance of 16 miles in every direction, the heat would still be so intense that everything flammable would burn: paper, cloth, wood, gasoline, heating oil. It would all ignite into a giant firestorm 32 miles across, covering over 800 square miles. Within this entire area, the temperature would rise to a 1400 degrees Fahrenheit. All of the oxygen would be consumed and every living thing would die. The bacteria and the viruses would die. The area would be sterilized of all life.
In the case of New York, we’re talking about 12 to 15 million people dead in half an hour. And if this attack were part of a large-scale war between the United States and Russia, this level of destruction would visit every major city in both countries. In addition, the entire economic infrastructure of the country would be destroyed, and all the things that the rest of the population depend on to keep themselves alive would be gone. There’d be no electric grid, no internet, no public health system, no food distribution system, no fuel distribution system. And over the months following this attack, the vast majority of the people who did not die in the initial wave would also die; between the United States and Russia, something like 500 million people.
But again, this is only part of the story. A limited war in South Asia puts six-and-a-half million tons of soot into the upper atmosphere. A large war between the United States and Russia puts about a 150 million tons of soot into the upper atmosphere. And that drops temperature across the planet, an average of 14 degrees Fahrenheit. In the interior regions of North America and Eurasia, the temperatures drop 45 to 50 degrees. We essentially create an instant ice age, conditions that have not existed on the planet in 18,000 years, since the coldest point of the last ice age. In the Northern Hemisphere there would be three years without a single day free of frost. That means that at some point every day, the temperature would go below freezing. And under those conditions, all the ecosystems which have evolved over the last 10,000 years since the last ice age ended, they would all collapse. Food production would stop. The vast majority of the human race would starve to death, and we might become extinct as a species.
This is not some nightmare scenario. This is the danger that we live with every day as long as these weapons exist, that we have been living with for 70 years, and that we will continue to live with until we get rid of these weapons. But this is the future that will be if we don’t take action, and I believe we are essentially living on borrowed time. It is extraordinary good luck that has saved us from this fate until this point.
Still, this is not the future that must be. Nuclear weapons are not a force of nature, they are not an act of God. We have made them with our own hands and we know how to take them apart. We’ve already dismantled more than 50,000 of them. The only thing that’s missing is the political will and commitment to do this. And that’s where all of us come in. We have allowed our governments to maintain this insanely dangerous situation year after year, exposing us to this unspeakable risk, and we have to make them stop. The good news is we can do this, we’ve done it once before.
In the early 1980s, the United States and the Soviet Union were racing towards nuclear war. There were 70,000 nuclear weapons in the world and we were building 3,000 more every year. We were talking here in the United States about fighting and winning a nuclear war in Europe. And in response to that situation, an incredible movement grew up in this country. Millions of people marched across the country, gathered in Central Park in New York, petitioned their legislators, forced Congress to speak out on this. And in an extraordinary moment, we won. The Cold War arms race was stopped. And it happened so suddenly that I think most of us didn’t even realize when it took place.
In 1983, two of the many episodes where we almost blew the planet up occurred. And in January of 1984, Ronald Reagan, who until then had been the most hawkish president regarding nuclear weapons in our history, said in the State of the Union Address, “Nuclear war can never be won and must never be fought.” We thought this was just rhetoric, that the guy was just making a speech for the 1984 election season that was starting. But we were wrong. We’d actually won, we had changed his mind. And it turns out we changed Gorbachev’s mind too. Over the two or three years that followed, the Cold War arms race came to an end, the Cold War itself came to an end, and frankly, all of us who were a part of this, and I suspect that’s almost everybody in this room who’s old enough, we saved the world.
So, we can do this. We’ve done it once before; we just need to do it again. And the conditions that we face now, as dangerous as they are, provide us with the opportunity to do it because the great enemy of progress on this issue has been inattention, has been the fact that the media doesn’t care about nuclear war, that the vast majority of the population doesn’t pay any attention to that. But that situation is changing, because between the crisis in North Korea and the extraordinary anxiety that Donald Trump is provoking with his behavior, people are focusing on this issue again. There are other some positive developments, which also help us. The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons is a huge step forward, a real milestone in our effort to get rid of these weapons. And that’s going to help us. The recent Nobel Prize will also give a greater platform to all of us across the world, all 500 NGOs who are part of this network, who were trying to alert people to the danger we face.
And so, each of us needs to look at the situation and figure out what we can do. No one of us is expected to solve this problem all by ourselves. But each one of us needs to figure out what it is that we can do, who of our friends and neighbors we can mobilize, how we can work, what contribution we can make to get rid of these weapons. One of the things that happens whenever I give a talk is that people put up their hands at the end and say, “What can I do?” which is the obvious question. I want to offer something of an answer to that.
We had a symposium in Western Massachusetts a few weeks ago about the link between climate change and nuclear war, and at the end of the symposium, at one of the workshops, there were a number of people present who had been a part of the original freeze movement in 1980s, which, as you may remember, started in the small hill towns of Western Massachusetts, with people going to their town meetings and then to city councils with a simple resolution calling for the US and Soviet Union to freeze the arms race. And what these people said is, “The time is ripe for a similar initiative, not to freeze the arms race, but to eliminate nuclear weapons.” And they came up with a simple statement, modeled on the freeze, with a plan to use it like the freeze was used, to make this sort of a tool usable by everybody, owned by no organization, so that hopefully all the peace groups in the country will take this up. A simple vehicle that we can all use is to go to our towns, our cities, our labor unions, our professional associations, our churches, our civic groups, and get them all to express the need to change US nuclear policy.
I want to read it to you, it’s quite short. It’s called “Back From The Brink: A Call To Prevent Nuclear War.” “We call on the United States to lead a global effort to prevent nuclear war by  renouncing the option of using nuclear weapons first;  ending the President’s sole unchecked authority to launch nuclear attack;  taking US nuclear weapons off hair-trigger alert;  cancelling the plan to replace its entire arsenal with enhanced weapons;  and perhaps most importantly, actively pursuing a verifiable agreement among nuclear arms states to eliminate their nuclear arsenals.”
It’s simple, it’s direct, and it gives every constituency in this country the opportunity to raise their voice to call for an end to the nuclear weapons era. There are copies of this on the literature table out in the hallway. I hope you’ll all take a copy, sign it, and most importantly, think who it is that you can mobilize with this. How do you reach the California State Legislature? How do we ultimately reach the US Congress? How do we create a totally different view of what nuclear policy should be? I think we have a three-and-a-half year window to solve this problem. I don’t expect we’re going to see any real progress under the current administration even if Trump is removed from office; Pence, I don’t think would be any better. But in January of 2021, a new administration will take office in Washington, and our job is to create a fundamental change in US nuclear policy by that date, so that the new administration, the new President who takes office, is committed to the elimination of nuclear weapons, and to ensure that she appoints to all of the key places in the Defense Department, in the State Department, in the National Security Council, people who are likewise committed to working for the abolition of nuclear weapons. It’s an ambitious goal that we set ourselves, but we turned the world around once before in this timeframe, and I don’t think we have any choice. As I said before, I believe that we are living on borrowed time and we have a very limited window of opportunity to get rid of these weapons, and we need to seize that opportunity.
When I describe the effects of nuclear war as I did for you all tonight, I do feel a certain sense of guilt, even if I’m not ruining a lovely dinner. I’m placing on your shoulders, and on my own shoulders listening to this again, a terrible responsibility. Once we know about this, we have to act. You can’t see somebody fall down and just step over them. If you know the whole world is at risk in this terrible way, you have to do something about it. And there’s no question, this responsibility is a burden, but I think it is something much more than that. I think this is a very great gift that we have all been given. Every one of us wants to do something good with our life. We have been given the opportunity to save the world and there’s absolutely nothing better that someone can do with their life than that. So it’s in that spirit that I urge you all to take up with renewed energy, because I know you’ve all been working on this issue for years, but with renewed spirit, with renewed commitment, this task. It says in the Hebrew Bible that God said “Behold, I have put before you life and death, therefore, choose life, that you and your children might live.” That is literally the choice before the world today. And so let’s all pledge tonight that we will choose life, that we will act with courage and determination and perseverance, so that indeed our children might live. Thank you.