Prescription for Survival

By Bernard Lown. Berrett-Koehler, San Francisco 2008.

By Mark Leith (reviewer) | 2009-01-01 12:00:00

Having been a member of Canadian Physicians for Global Survival, the Canadian affiliate of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), since my residency in psychiatry, I found myself deeply drawn into Bernard Lown's memoir of his work with Physicians for Social Responsibility and later his leadership of IPPNW. It is an astounding story of how one man, a world-renowned cardiologist, who initially had no interest in nuclear arms, threw himself with great determination into the Cold War.

Lown recounts being approached by Roy Menninger, a psychiatrist, to go with him to a lecture by the British peace activist Philip Noel-Baker. "The subject of nuclear war held little interest for me." However, after the lecture, "I was shaken by an ironic paradox. I was spending every waking moment to contain the problem of sudden cardiac death. It dawned on me that the greatest threat to human survival was not cardiac but nuclear. This troubling thought rarely left me after that."

A small group of physicians began to meet at Lown's home. From these meetings arose the idea to write a medical article on the health consequences of a nuclear explosion on a specific civilian population - their home city of Boston. The analysis revealed that there was no meaningful medical response to an explosion of such a magnitude.

Lown presented the article to Dr. Joseph Garland, editor of the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine. Initially Garland rejected the possibility of publication, claiming that such an article had no place in a medical journal.

And, then, in a surprising about face, he called Lown two days later and offered to publish a full symposium on the topic in the May 31, 1962 issue.

The article received worldwide attention, including 600 reprint requests from personnel in various branches of the US military. Lown and his group suddenly found themselves as the world's experts on the topic.

The main effect of the article was to end the charade of nuclear war civil defense as exemplified by the bomb shelter, a contraption that offered certain death rather than protection.

Lown believed that in order to move forward on nuclear disarmament, a bilateral organization was required to straddle the divides of the Cold War. He drew on the international collegiality of physicians and doggedly pursued a Russian cardiologist, Dr. Eugene Chazov. IPPNW was born in 1981 -- at the height of the Cold War -- with its co-presidents Drs. Lown and Chazov.

IPPNW organized world conferences on both sides of the Iron Curtain, quickly becoming an international movement.

The Soviet media gave IPPNW wide coverage, whereas the American media generally treated it with indifference or, when the Nobel Peace prize was awarded, outright contempt.

The climax of the book occurs in the meeting of Lown and Chazov with the newly-inaugurated Gorbachev.

Gorbachev made clear that his highest priority is to rid the world of nuclear weapons, for two reaspons -- first, because they put the survival of the world at risk and, second, because they were destroying both the Soviet and US economies. He recounted to Lown and Chazov his meeting with President Reagan in which he proposed to ban nuclear weapons. But Reagan had latched onto the Star Wars fantasy and adamantly refused Gorbachev's offer.

Nuclear weapons were brought into the world by the US by deception. The original European scientists urged Roosevelt to start the Manhattan project because they feared the Nazis would build a nuclear bomb.

The Nazis, however, were defeated without ever building one. Some of the original scientists wanted to call a halt to the project, but they lost control to the US military wing.

To the military, the Cold War with the Soviet Union had already begun. The Japanese were pleading to surrender in mid-1945, but the Truman administration delayed responding, as they wished demonstrate the US's nuclear bombs to Stalin by dropping them on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Stalin knew full well about the bomb because the Soviets were receiving information from two spies at Los Alamos.

The Soviets in turn had begun their own nuclear weapons program. One year after the war ended, the Soviets offered to ban nuclear weapons. The Truman administration refused, as did Reagan again in 1995.

The physicians' anti-nuclear movement initially succeeded in dispelling the denial around the destructive capacity of nuclear weapons. Ultimately, however, American myths have stymied it -- myths about why the bombs were dropped on Japan, myths about the Cold War that have been used to justify the military-industrial complex, myths that have led to intransigence against nuclear weapons abolition.

Mark Leith is a Toronto psychiatrist.

Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2009

Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2009, page 30. Some rights reserved.

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