Helen Caldicott: the effects of a nuclear strike (1986)

Helen Caldicott (1938- ) is an Australian doctor, author and anti-nuclear campaigner. Born in Melbourne, Caldicott completed a medical degree in Adelaide, followed by a three-year internship at Harvard Medical School. She practised for several years in Australia before returning to the United States to teach paediatrics at Harvard. During the 1970s, Caldicott became a prominent campaigner against nuclear weapons, nuclear testing and atomic power. In 1980 she founded the Women’s Action for Nuclear Disarmament (WAND), an American-based group that lobbied against nuclear energy. Caldicott spoke frequently about the dangers of the nuclear arms race and the deadly consequences of nuclear war, drawing on her medical knowledge and her husband’s experience as a radiologist. The following excerpt is from a speech Caldicott gave in California in May 1986:

“Nuclear war will create the final medical epidemic of the human race. Not just the human race but all the plants and the animals. At risk right now is billions of years of evolution and creation, and we, you and I, hold it in the palm of our hands. And we will decide in our lifetime whether or not that continues to exist…

I want you to imagine that the button was pressed in Moscow 20 minutes ago, by accident. I want you to shut your eyes now and imagine the bomb’s going to land in 10 minutes. Try and imagine what you would do. Where would you go? Think of your children, your families, where you live, what you hold most precious in your life…

I’m going to drop a big bomb right here. It’s going to be a 20-megaton bomb, five times the collective energy of all the bombs dropped in the Second World War. And it will come in at 20 times the speed of sound, in five minutes now, and explode with the heat of the sun right here, and dig a hole three-quarters of a mile wide and 800 feet deep…

Six miles from the epicentre, every building will be flattened, concrete and steel will melt, and everyone will be killed, most people being vaporised because 80 percent of our body is made of water and, as happened in Hiroshima, when we’re exposed to the heat of the sun we simply turn into gas and disappear.

Twenty miles from the epicentre, everyone is killed or lethally injured. Winds of 500 miles an hour just pick people up and turn them into missiles travelling at 100 miles an hour. The overpressures popcorn the windows and then shards of glass, flying at 100 miles an hour, will decapitate people and enter human flesh. People… who look at the flash, their eyes will melt… Others will be charcoalised, turned into charcoal statues. All will be hideously burnt. Some will die immediately, some will die over days in the most intense agony, having never seen a physician for their pain.

We were here for three million years and lived symbiotically with nature, and now we’ve learned how to destroy it. The question is, can we evolve spiritually and emotionally fast enough to catch up with what technology has produced in the world so that we can stop ourselves from being destroyed? That’s the question of our time.”

anti-nuclear protest
An anti-nuclear protest near a NATO missile installation in West Germany, 1961