With Courage, Determination and Perseverance

Published: November 17, 2017

By Jim Lichtman
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Each year I attend the Annual Evening for Peace sponsored by the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. This year’s recipient, Dr. Ira Helfand and the International Physicians for The Prevention of Nuclear War was unfamiliar to me.

Dr. Helfand is co-president of IPPNW and past president of Physicians for Social Responsibility. IPPNW was founded in 1980 by U.S. and Soviet physicians who shared a commitment to the prevention of nuclear war, citing that doctors have an obligation to prevent what they cannot treat. For their efforts, the organization was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985.

In the ten years I’ve been attending the Peace dinner, I have never heard a speaker with such clarity, conviction and science in calling for an end to nuclear weapons. What follows is only a part of Dr. Helfand’s extraordinary speech. I encourage you to watch the video of the entire talk.

“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 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 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 percent for a full decade after this conflict. The world today simply cannot absorb a decline in food production of that magnitude. …

“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. …

“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 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…

“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. …

“What can I do? …

“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 [1] renouncing the option of using nuclear weapons first; [2] ending the President’s sole unchecked authority to launch nuclear attack; [3] taking US nuclear weapons off hair-trigger alert; [4] cancelling the plan to replace its entire arsenal with enhanced weapons; [5] 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. …

“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.”


  1. OMG Jim, when you first talked about this it sounded scary but this is horrendous. “This is not some nightmare scenario. This is the danger that we live with every day as long as these weapons exist.” Never thought that our ability to produce food would be limited that much for 10 years! “Nuclear war can never be won and must never be fought.” Wow!!!

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