In Feature Articles, Nuclear war

Interview with Dr. Ira Helfand, co-president of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, broadcast on ‘Flashpoints’ radio program, hosted by Dennis Bernstein, July 10, 2017. Interview transcript below is published on Consortium News, July 21, 2017.

Despite longstanding promises to work toward nuclear disarmament, the nuclear states continue their hostility toward abandoning these existentially dangerous weapons, Dr. Ira Helfand tells Dennis J Bernstein.

Introduction by Dennis Bernstein:
For months now, there has been a frustrating hunt for “collusion” between the Trump administration and Russia, but there is one clear example of collusion — along with the other half dozen or so nuclear weapons states — in opposing the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

Passed on July 7 by 122 nations at the United Nations, the ban states, in part, that each co-signer “undertakes never under any circumstances to develop, test, produce, manufacture, or otherwise acquire, possess or stockpile nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices.”

Following the signing of the treaty at the United Nations, I spoke to Dr. Ira Helfand, past president of Physicians for Social Responsibility and currently co-president of that group’s global federation, International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. The group received the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize for their work in the field of nuclear disarmament.

“Two things were most notable in the overwhelming vote for this treaty,” Dr. Helfand said. “One was the urgency felt by the representatives of 122 countries who voted for it. The other was the rather crude and revealing statement put out by the ‘P3’ — the U.S., Britain and France,” said Dr. Helfand, that “they intend to maintain their policy of mutually assured destruction forever, even though they are legally required to negotiate the elimination of their nuclear arsenals under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.”

Dennis Bernstein: First of all, say something about the treaty — how important it is, what exactly it’s meant to do.

Dr. Ira Helfand, co-president of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War

Ira Helfand: This treaty is an attempt by the non-nuclear weapon states around the world to tell the nuclear-armed states that they’ve got to stop behaving the way they have been. The nuclear-armed states are, for the most part, committed under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to undertaking good faith negotiations to eliminate their nuclear arsenals. And they’re not doing it, they haven’t been doing it and they don’t appear to have any intention to do it. And the non-nuclear weapon states have lost patience, essentially, and have said, “Look, your nuclear weapons are posing an existential threat to our citizens as well as your own, and you need to start living up to your obligations to protect the world from the terrible consequences of nuclear weapons.”

The treaty does not in and of itself create a situation where these weapons are going to be dismantled. It does provide a very strong weapon, I think, for people to use to put pressure on the nuclear-armed states to do what they’re supposed to do, and to actually abolish their weapons.

DB: And it’s really important that it be the possession, right?

IH: Absolutely, this is not a treaty about use. That is also included, but this goes far beyond that. This treaty says that the mere possession of nuclear weapons constitutes an existential threat to human survival and cannot be tolerated, that we need to get rid of these things, to dismantle them and make sure that they’re never built again.

DB: All right, give us your assessment: how dangerous is our world today? Are we at Cuban Missile Crisis Two? How would you assess that?

IH: I don’t think we’re quite to the Cuban Missile Crisis, but we’re pretty close. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has us at two and a half minutes to midnight, where midnight is the end of the world. Certainly we’re at the most dangerous moment since the early 1980s. There is increasing tension between the United States and Russia, with potential flashpoints in Syria and Ukraine. There’s increased tension between the United States and China, with a potential flashpoint in the South China Sea. There’s the situation which everyone is following, with North Korea vs. the rest of the world. There’s the ongoing fighting between India and Pakistan, which is almost daily, on their border in Kashmir. These countries now have between them some 260 nuclear warheads. So we’re in a very, very dangerous moment.

And in addition to these geopolitical potential flashpoints, there’s the ongoing danger of an accidental nuclear war, or a terrorist-triggered nuclear war. We know of six or seven instances since the 1960s, where either Moscow or Washington actually began the preparation of launching nuclear weapons, in the mistaken belief that the other side had already done so. And that potential for an accident — an unintended nuclear war — remains with us today, and will, until these weapons are eliminated. So it’s an extremely dangerous time, and we really need to be paying more attention to this danger than we are, frankly.

DB: Who are the nuclear powers?

IH: The United States and Russia have between them about 90-95% of the world’s nuclear weapons. And then after that, France, China, the U.K., India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel. And it’s not just the P3 — the U.S., France and the U.K. — that have refused to sign it — all of those countries have refused to sign it.

DB: […] These are very frightening times. It’s really troubling to see that not only do these nuclear powers reject the agreement, they do it with vigor, and some swagger, as if the other solution — mutually assured destruction — is a good one!

IH: Well I think that was what was particularly striking about the statement that the U.S., the U. K. and France — the so-called P3 — issued on Friday. In the past, the nuclear weapons states at least had the political sense to couch their opposition to this treaty in terms of, “Well, we share your vision of getting rid of nuclear weapons, but the time isn’t right, and so this treaty isn’t the best tactic.”

In the statement that was released on Friday, the United States, Britain and France said, “We will never sign this treaty. We will never eliminate our nuclear weapons.” And it was a very bald statement, which has always been the truth, but was really quite a departure from their normal diplomatic attempts to cover up what they’re doing. And it was quite striking in that way.

DB: You know, people go on about Donald Trump — and there’s a lot to go on about — but these western progressive nations are still talking insanely in 2017. They’re as crazy as any of the politicians who are on the scene now, and this decision demonstrates it.

IH: I think that’s true. You know, we’ve argued for a long time that nuclear weapons are so destructive, and the chance of their use is so great, that no one should ever have possession of them. I think the “Trump Factor” is a real phenomenon. This is the first time that a large arsenal of a major nuclear power has been in the control of someone who is judged by the security experts in his own party to lack the judgment, the temperament and the knowledge base to command a nuclear arsenal. And there are implications in that — not the least, if it happens once, it can happen again.

DB: But you know what, I have to just say something about all the politicians… I’m no defender of Trump, but before that with Hillary Clinton and her policy — in terms of foreign policy — Syria was a no-fly zone. That’s a road to World War 3 — that’s insane!

All these politicians are willing to talk in the context of everything being on the table — you know that phrase, everything’s always on the table with these folks. […] I’ve never trusted the CIA. And all those folks advising Trump, they’ve got some serious problems. A bunch of them have been liars. They’ve been bugging all of us. I mean there’s a lot to question across the board, and that to me is what makes nuclear weapons extremely troubling in the hands of all these folks.

IH: Oh, there’s some truth to that. Nobody should have their finger on the button. The solution is not to get Donald Trump’s finger off the button, it’s to get rid of the button altogether. Having said that, there is something different about having Donald Trump in charge of the nuclear arsenal, and we cannot turn our backs on that fact.

DB: […] What do you suggest? What do you think people can do about this? What are the realities in terms of what you would recommend if people are interested in standing up and making a difference?

IH: Well, a couple of intermediate steps. First of all, there’s legislation before Congress introduced by Senator Markey and Congressman Lieu, that requires that Congress give prior authorization before nuclear weapons can be used. This is exactly as it should be. The Constitution says only Congress can declare war. Certainly only Congress should be able to declare a nuclear war. And this is a useful, small step in the right direction. That legislation should be passed.

Secondly, we should be demanding that the United States take its nuclear weapons off its hair-trigger alert. There’s no excuse for maintaining these arsenals in a configuration where they can be launched in 15 minutes. It merely creates an increased danger that there will be an accidental or unauthorized use. It’s not necessary to blow up the world in 15 minutes’ time. If we decide that that’s what we’re going to do, we can do it in 24 hours. So the weapons should be taken off this hair-trigger alert.

But more fundamentally, we need to be demanding that the United States completely change its nuclear policy: stop insisting that we’re going to maintain a nuclear arsenal as a way of protecting our security, and acknowledge that, in fact, nuclear weapons are the greatest threat to our security, and that what we need to do is aggressively pursue, in agreement with the other nuclear weapon states, to eliminate all of these weapons.

Now, we may not be successful in this effort, we may not be able to get other countries to join with us, but we need to try. And the United States has not been trying. In fact it’s been doing just the opposite: it’s been planning to spend a trillion dollars to make heinous nuclear arsenals over decades to come. And that has to change.

It is urgently in the interest of U.S. national security, as well as the security of everybody on the planet, that we actively pursue the vision of a world free of nuclear weapons — not just at the rhetorical level like President Obama did, but really in our actual policy. And that we seek to begin negotiations with the other nuclear weapons states, for a treaty amongst them that provides a specific timetable, and enforcement and verification measures, so that we can, with confidence, eliminate all the nuclear weapons that are being held. And this can be done, the only thing that is lacking is the political will to do it.

DB: Before we say goodbye, can you give us maybe a doctor’s perspective on this? You know, you take an oath to save lives — how do you come at this from that perspective?

IH: Well, I think Physicians for Social Responsibility views nuclear weapons as primarily a public health problem. They are the greatest threat to public health that’s ever existed, and we see this as an extension of our responsibility as physicians to protect our patients. We talk to our patients about why they shouldn’t drink excessively, why they shouldn’t smoke at all, why they should watch their weight and so on. We also need to talk to them about other threats to their health, and this is the greatest threat of all.

And that’s really been the motivation, I think, for the physicians’ movement — to bring this message of grave danger to our patients, in the hopes that we’ll be able to mobilize them to take the necessary political action to force our government to get rid of these weapons once and for all.

Dennis J Bernstein is a host of ;Flashpoints; on the Pacifica radio network and the author of Special Ed: Voices from a Hidden Classroom. You can access the audio archive of this interview at the weblink above.


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