Viewpoints Ira Helfand: Let’s turn back the ‘Doomsday’ clock

  • Ira Helfand

  • Robert Rosner, chairman of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, right, and Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists member Lawrence Krauss, left, stand next to the Doomsday Clock at the National Press Club in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 25, 2018., announcing that the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has moved the minute hand of the Doomsday Clock to two minutes to midnight. AP

Published: 8/3/2020 5:55:45 PM

In this terribly difficult year, we are called to address an array of grave and pressing problems: the worst pandemic in a century, the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, and the widespread persistence of racial injustice in our country.

But even as we confront these problems it is critical that we also address the two great existential threats to the very survival of our civilization, the climate crisis and the danger of nuclear war.

The 75th anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki this week reminds us in particular of the terrible danger posed by nuclear weapons. And while we remember the victims of these first atomic bombs, it is even more important that we take action to make sure these weapons are never used again.

During the Cold War, we all understood the terrible and imminent threat of nuclear war. By the early 1980s the U.S. and the Soviet Union each had tens of thousands of nuclear warheads and they were adding thousands more each year. Sober experts like George Kistiakowski, who had been President Eisenhower’s science advisor, warned that we would not survive the decade.

But millions of people in the U.S., Europe, Japan and the Soviet Union took action to demand that the U.S. and Soviet Union end their insane nuclear arms race. And they succeeded. Ronald Reagan became president in 1981 arguing that the U.S. should prepare to fight and win a nuclear war in Europe. Just four years later, he and Mikhail Gorbachev declared that a nuclear war could never be won and must never be fought and began the process of dismantling their nuclear arsenals.

Unfortunately, when the Cold War ended, we all began to act as though the danger had ended too. But thousands of nuclear weapons remained, the danger did not disappear and in recent years it has grown dramatically as relations between the U.S. and Russia and between the U.S. and China have deteriorated. In addition, tensions between India and Pakistan, each armed with more than 100 nuclear weapons, have grown.

Experts are warning us again of the imminent danger we face. Former Defense Secretary William Perry has stated repeatedly that we are closer to nuclear war than we have ever been, even during the height of the Cold War. And the expert panel at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has set their iconic Doomsday Clock to 100 seconds to midnight, the closest it has ever been to nuclear war.

Further, we have come to learn over the last decade that the consequences of nuclear war will be even more catastrophic than we thought in the past. Studies have shown that even a “limited’ nuclear war between India and Pakistan, using less than 1% of the world’s nuclear weapons, could kill 75 million to 125 million people directly in South Asia, and cause enough climate disruption across the planet to affect global food production and cause a worldwide famine that would put 2 billion people at risk.

A large-scale war between the U.S. and Russia could kill several hundred million people directly in a single afternoon and plunge the world into a nuclear winter, a man-made ice age, that would stop food production across the planet and kill the vast majority of humanity, possibly causing the extinction of our species.

So, just as we stopped the Cold War arms race, we must stop this new slide toward nuclear war. And there are encouraging signs that people around the world are mobilizing to do just that.

In 2017, 122 nations voted to adopt the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Forty nations have now ratified the treaty; when that number reaches 50, the treaty will enter into force making the possession of nuclear weapons illegal. Here in the United States, the Back from the Brink ( campaign seeks to have the U.S. embrace this treaty and enter negotiations with the other eight nuclear armed states for a verifiable, enforceable timetable to dismantle their remaining nuclear weapons.

The campaign started here in western Massachusetts and now includes more than 350 cities, towns, state legislatures, faith communities, environmental and social justice organizations across the country.

At the federal level, U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern and Sen. Ed Markey have introduced important legislation in the U.S. Congress supporting these efforts.

But, in order to succeed, these campaigns need the support of each and every one of us.

The Cenotaph, the memorial to the victims in Hiroshima, has a simple inscription: “Let all the souls here rest in peace, for we shall not repeat the evil.” It is a brave promise, and one we must keep.

Ira Helfand, MD, is a member of the International Steering Group, ICAN, the recipient of the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize, Co-President, International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, the recipient of the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize Co-Founder and Past President, Physicians for Social Responsibility, the US affiliate of IPPNW.

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