All Helen Caldicott wants to do is save the world.
Her personal mission began with a paperback novel. Caldicott recalls the horror she felt as a teenager when she read Nevil Shute's On the Beach, a novel set in her home country of Australia after nuclear war has erupted in the northern hemisphere. The final chapter describes the last days of Melbourne's residents as they suffer from radiation illness and give their children cyanide capsules to spare them the same fate. "That image never left me," she says with the brisk delivery of someone who has often told this story. "I lost my innocence when I read that book."
Caldicott's reaction to On the Beach set the tone for her later speeches: urgent, visceral, and outraged. Coming from a nation without a nuclear arsenal, Caldicott was appalled that the United States, representing only five percent of the world's population, had the power to destroy humanity at the touch of a button. From the beginning, she says, she was motivated by an intense physical fear. "I was obsessed," she says. "I could feel the heat of the nuclear weapons."
From that point on, her life would be devoted to banning the bomb. In the late '70s and early '80s, the Australian-born pediatrician gained international fame and notoriety as a charismatic public speaker who traveled the globe preaching the gospel of nuclear disarmament. Her passionate, graphic speeches instilled the horror of nuclear holocaust in hundreds of thousands of listeners, as her campaign took her to venues as disparate as the Playboy Mansion and the Reagan White House. She wrote several highly influential books and helped found two prominent antinuclear groups, starting chapters and recruiting new members wherever she went. She was the Johnny Appleseed of antinuclear activism.
Caldicott's globetrotting helped ignite a powerful mass crusade against nuclear weaponry and the escalating arms race between the United States and the former Soviet Union. But when the Soviet Union disintegrated and the Berlin Wall was sledgehammered down by jubilant Germans, Caldicott was among the legions of antinuke activists who believed disarmament could not be far away. Convinced that the world's people would no longer live with the threat of instant and total annihilation, Caldicott returned home to Australia and unpacked her suitcase. Thousands of activists inspired by her did likewise.
Now, a decade later, this mass retirement seems overly optimistic. And Caldicott is back, bearing tidings worse than ever. Her latest book, The New Nuclear Danger, warns that while public attention was focused on glasnost or peace dividends, the risk of nuclear engagement was actually increasing. In particular, Caldicott claims the United States has quietly continued to develop the nation's nuclear arsenal in violation of international arms control treaties. She points an accusing finger squarely at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the high-powered research facility managed by the University of California. Caldicott and others charge that Livermore scientists are not only researching a new generation of nuclear weaponry, but are modifying existing weapons to develop capabilities more suited to the political aims of the Bush administration.
Bay Area watchdog groups such as the Western States Legal Foundation and Tri-Valley Communities Against a Radioactive Environment (Tri-Valley CAREs) have been sounding this alarm for years. Both keep a wary eye on Livermore, which they say continues to fund weapons development. But the public isn't really paying attention. There was barely a peep of reaction from Americans this spring when the Bush administration was revealed to be considering instances in which it might use nuclear weapons as something other than a last resort. Nor were there mass protests this June when the United States abrogated the Nixon-era Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. The September 11 attacks have given the Bush administration leeway to pursue increases in military might that few have challenged.
By returning to the public speaking circuit, Caldicott is giving national voice to these concerns. Backed up only by her book and a planned think tank she hopes to finance on a scant $1 million a year, Caldicott proposes to do what she does best -- rouse the rabble. She wants to establish her new Nuclear Policy Research Institute as a "full-frontal" challenge to the Heritage Foundation, the conservative think tank that she says is driving US foreign policy.
Caldicott prematurely touted efforts to locate her think tank at Oakland's Mills College; the plans fell through, although she says she is looking for another Bay Area site. But finding a home for her institute will be a cinch compared to her ultimate goal: stirring up a mass movement robust enough to end the nuclear arms race for good.
To even dream of scratching the nation's consciousness, Caldicott must prove that she is more than a one-trick pony, and is capable of adjusting her message for the times. She's reentering a profoundly changed world, even in the lefty Bay Area. More countries than ever have the bomb; we have "rogue states" and "asymmetrical threats" instead of superpowers; people have turned commercial airliners into weapons and office buildings into military targets. Some of the people Caldicott once inspired have become complacent, and a new generation has grown up since the end of the Cold War having never cowered beneath their elementary-school desks during a bomb drill or bit their nails through a showing of The Day After.
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