The Return of Helen Caldicott

After setting aside her antinuclear struggle in the '80s, the doctor has restarted her crusade here in the East Bay. But it's a very different world than the one she left behind.

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.

Can Caldicott rally the troops again, reactivating a movement that faded during the ’90s and convincing younger activists that the battle against the bomb is worth fighting? And can she alarm Bay Area residents about the new generation of nukes developed in their backyard while they were looking the other way?


Helen Caldicott’s entry into political activism came in 1971. Despite the International Test Ban Treaty, which forbade atmospheric testing, the French government had been blowing up weapons over the Pacific atoll of Mururoa, and radioactive fallout blew towards Australia. Caldicott sent a letter to the Adelaide Advertiser warning about the medical dangers of radioactive isotopes turning up in breast milk, and from that letter sprang a series of invitations for television interviews and public-speaking opportunities. As a rookie orator, sometimes her numbers were off, and sometimes she was accused of being too emotional. But public sentiment warmed to her cause, and Caldicott was sent with a delegation to take the Australians’ complaints to Paris. The French government was resistant, but popular opinion ultimately became so critical that eventually the country moved its tests underground. Caldicott considers this her first big victory.

After that, Caldicott soon took on two more public health issues, one nuclear and one not. She founded Australia’s first cystic fibrosis clinic at the Adelaide Children’s Hospital; treating the common but often fatal disease had been a lifelong desire of hers. She also led a national battle to ban uranium mining, a potentially lucrative Australian export that could provide fuel for nuclear power plants, leaving behind radioactive waste. At first the miners’ unions were hostile, fearing for their jobs, but they ultimately enacted a five-year ban after she spelled out the effects of radiation on mine workers’ testicles.

When Caldicott’s husband attained a position at Harvard Medical School, her family finally moved to Massachusetts in 1977. She became a pediatrics instructor at Harvard, and joined the staff of Boston’s Children’s Hospital Medical Center. Balancing her work as a doctor with her burgeoning life as an activist was not always easy, and hospital administrators warned her that she was endangering her medical career. But by the end of the ’70s Caldicott had established herself as a camera-friendly antinuke expert, and her outspokenness was in international demand. Her stock-in-trade was her compassion, particularly for children, which was always couched in terms of her concern as a woman, mother of three, and physician. For Caldicott, her role as a doctor had a metaphorical significance. She saw the planet as a patient in critical condition, and herself as a “physician practicing global preventive medicine,” not as an “activist.”

Her first tour through California occurred in 1976, when she was asked to speak in support of the antinuclear referendum Proposition 15, even though she had never before set foot in the state. The following year, she was asked to write a book about nuclear power that she titled Nuclear Madness, launching her as a nonfiction author.

In 1978, Caldicott made a fortuitous connection when she met Ira Helfand, a young hospital intern. The two agreed that physicians had a responsibility to teach people about the dangers of nuclear energy. Helfand remembers Caldicott musing, “The problem is I’m a single individual doctor with a funny Australian accent, and people dismiss me as ‘that crazy Australian woman.'” Deciding it would be harder for people to write them off if they formed a group, they rounded up some other doctors and billed themselves as Physicians for Social Responsibility, a name previously belonging to a then-moribund group that had, in the early ’60s, published two groundbreaking medical journal articles describing what would happen if a bomb was dropped on Boston. Members of the original group were invited back into the fold, and their it-can-happen-here approach became the new organization’s modus operandi.

Physicians for Social Responsibility addressed nuclear warfare as a medical rather than a political or social problem. It argued that the medical establishment has a responsibility to warn the public that if bombs started falling, there was almost nothing doctors could do to treat the casualties and fatalities, which would be produced on a scale never before experienced.

The reborn Physicians for Social Responsibility rose to national prominence through an odd coincidence. The group spent its entire $1,500 treasury to run a statement calling for an end to nuclear weapons and power in the New England Journal of Medicine. Although submitted two months earlier, the ad happened to hit the streets three days after the nuclear reactor meltdown at Three Mile Island. Membership immediately jumped from two hundred to two thousand doctors. “And things were off and running,” Helfand remembers.

The group sent speakers out on what it called “bombing runs” to describe for national audiences in gory detail what would happen if a warhead was dropped on their particular city. Caldicott developed the gruesome, forceful rhetorical style that would make her famous. After a disastrous experience reading a prepared speech, she resolved to only speak extemporaneously, and she generally aimed straight for the gut. Even today, she regularly describes eyeballs melting, skeletons vaporizing, enormous fireballs sucking the air out of bomb shelters, and people turning into human missiles after being blasted through windows at a hundred miles an hour. “The arms race until the time of Helen’s involvement had largely been the subject of dry and dispassionate analyses by academics,” says Daniel Hirsch, president of the Committee to Bridge the Gap, who has worked with Caldicott over the years and remembers how her forthright, emotional style set her apart, and how people trusted her as they would their own family physician.

Part of her success stemmed from learning to balance her bourgeois appearance with a revolutionary message. Even today, although she is now a grandmother, Caldicott looks like the woman in the 1980s photographs hanging out with movie stars and heads of state, with her patrician features and dark, layered haircut. In an era before the term “soccer mom” was coined, Caldicott understood the value of reaching out to moderates, particularly women, by appealing to their desire to protect their homes and families. She talked openly about her fears for her children’s future, wore designer suits, and claimed, “If you wear pearls, you can say anything.”

In 1980, Caldicott left Harvard to campaign full-time. She cofounded the political group Women’s Action for Nuclear Disarmament, and found the experience of recruiting women to political activism much different than her earlier organizing. Women, it turned out, were more shy about making demands, but Caldicott’s speeches resonated better with this audience. Susan Shaer, the group’s current executive director, recalls it this way: “Afterwards the women will come up and say, ‘Helen, what can we do?’ and the men will say, ‘I think your number of warheads was off by one.'”

Inspired by Caldicott, East Bay groups began focusing on similar concerns. Livermore’s Tri-Valley CAREs started in 1983 as a group of residents from “the atomic hometown” who were concerned about how emissions from the lab affected the local air, soil, and groundwater. The group soon began pushing for the abolition of nuclear weapons and conversion of the lab to nonmilitary purposes. One of its first public activities was a screening of a documentary about Caldicott. Marylia Kelley, the group’s executive director, remembers being enormously inspired when she first met Caldicott, at a 1985 fund-raiser in Golden Gate Park. Their meeting led to an ongoing correspondence between Caldicott and the group that’s quite visible in the pages of her most recent book. “She helps people see that denial and inaction are unhealthy responses to the very real threat posed by nuclear weapons,” Kelley remembers. “She’s really helped build the movement, especially in the East Bay.”

“Helen Caldicott was enormously effective — enormously influential in mobilizing people in the early- to mid-’80s,” remembers Jaqueline Cabasso, executive director of the Oakland-based Western States Legal Foundation, which was formed to protect the rights of protesters who picketed at the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant but in 1983 broadened its mission to include Livermore and the environmental effects of nuclear weapons. “I know a lot of people who say she was their first inspiration.” As the antinuke movement grew, so did Caldicott’s influence. She met with Soviet officials, and visited the White House. She got used to being trailed by cameras during the making of two documentaries: Eight Minutes to Midnight (which was nominated for an Oscar) and If You Love This Planet (which won one). She also received death threats, and began checking the density of the podium wherever she spoke, to see if it would deflect a bullet. Caldicott knew she had really struck a nerve when Edward Teller, who had led work on the hydrogen bomb at Los Alamos and helped found the Livermore Lab, attacked Physicians for Social Responsibility in 1982. “Who are these physicians who call themselves Physicians for Social Responsibility?” he grumbled in an interview in the American Medical News. “The only way to prevent nuclear war is for America to regain its nuclear strength so that the Soviets will not be tempted to strike. The actions of the doves, of the people of peace, will cause war, not prevent war.”

But by then the tide had turned in the nuclear debate. Although the leadership of the antinuclear movement had traditionally been leftist, the disarmament cause began to pick up support from the American political center. By the mid-’80s, seventy percent or more of the American population supported ideas like halting the testing, construction, and deployment of nuclear weapons. Americans were joining antinuclear organizations in large numbers. The Committee for a SANE Nuclear Policy boasted 150,000 members and was about to merge with the freeze movement, and the Union of Concerned Scientists had nearly 100,000 members.

As the movement grew, however, Caldicott’s footing inside Physicians for Social Responsibility was crumbling. Her fiery nature had made her controversial even within her own movement. While she excelled at inspiring new people to join the campaign, some felt she was unsuited to the managerial challenges of building an organizational infrastructure and making nice with politicians — skills needed to transform the group from a start-up to an established institution. Consider, for instance, her belief that the American government’s current quest for bigger and better weapons is a pathology shared by those in power, an urge to kill rooted in an outmoded way of thinking that goes back to a time when people used stones and spears. “The human brain — particularly the male brain under the influence of testosterone — has not evolved beyond that instinct to kill, which is about territorial imperative,” she says, in rhetoric likely to alienate some of her listeners. “They’ve got no right to be making, designing, developing, testing, or building new nuclear weapons. The Cold War’s over. There’s no reason for it except to keep them employed, the little boys playing with their toys.”

In 1983, a report by outside consultants that Caldicott herself had initiated suggested that she step down, concluding “In any organization’s life a point is reached where a charismatic leader can become overpowering rather than empowering.” Caldicott took the advice the following year, albeit with a great deal of sadness. “We were supposed to be on the cutting edge of the peace movement, but we had ourselves been torn apart by strife and internecine intrigue,” she wrote in her autobiography. “What an irony.”

Over the next few years, she threw her energy into stumping for Women’s Action for Nuclear Disarmament and the presidential campaign of Walter Mondale. She also completed her second book, Missile Envy. But by 1986 she’d had enough. She returned to Australia feeling burnt out and bitter, flattened by Mondale’s resounding defeat and further devastated when she and her husband divorced in 1988. With the exception of a failed run for a seat on Australia’s Federal Parliament, Caldicott took a breather from high-level politics.

Yet the movement she had helped ignite was burning full force. Thousands of people were regularly turning out for rallies, and the moral balance had tipped. Although President Reagan, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl were all horrified by the antinuke movement, they began caving in to public pressure. “The movement wins,” says historian Lawrence Wittner, who has written about Caldicott and many others in his trilogy The Struggle Against the Bomb. “They win it gradually. The Reagan and Bush administrations never admit that they’re giving way to popular pressure, but they are.”

The world’s relief at the end of the Cold War had no more symbolic expression than when the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists rolled back the famous Doomsday Clock to seventeen minutes before midnight in response to the 1991 signing of the START arms reduction treaty. Activists felt they had forced government’s hand, and that disarmament could not be far away.

Public attention gradually drifted away from nuclear matters. At Livermore, there was talk of “conversion” — of putting the lab’s staff to work on peacetime projects. Membership in Physicians for Social Responsibility dropped from 50,000 people to about 14,000 during the mid-’90s. Women’s Action for Nuclear Disarmament changed its name to the more amorphous Women’s Action for a New Direction. Attendance at Tri-Valley CAREs’ biannual protests at Lawrence Livermore dropped from about five thousand in the early ’80s to several hundred in the mid-’90s, and arrests for civil disobedience plunged from more than a thousand to just a few dozen.

Of course there was plenty of follow-up work to be done, but the leaders of the antinuclear movement felt that their mission had been wildly successful. When the Berlin Wall fell shortly after Caldicott’s divorce, she had been too emotionally exhausted to share the world’s joy. But gradually she shifted her own focus and wrote If You Love This Planet, which addresses global warming, species extinction, and other green issues. “I thought, ‘Oh good, that’s over,'” Caldicott says. “‘We’ve done that job. Let’s rest.'”

The next generation would grow up in a world that she and her contemporaries had long dreamed of, where images of giant mushroom clouds and radiation victims were the stuff of social studies filmstrips, and the ever-present fear of total annihilation was a historical footnote.

Or so it seemed.


On a sunny Saturday afternoon last month, a crowd convened in a Livermore park, ready to march to the laboratory with picket signs and drums. It was an auspicious day for an antinuclear protest. It happened to be the twentieth birthday of Tri-Valley CAREs and the fiftieth birthday of the lab itself. Tri-Valley CAREs and its allies began applying direct political pressure to the lab long ago with twice-annual marches, one on Good Friday and one around the August anniversary of the use of atomic weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

At this year’s protest, Executive Director Marylia Kelley did her best to whip up the crowd of about four hundred, a far cry from the five thousand who once attended such events. “Why are we still doing peace work?” she asked the crowd. “Why are we still resisting the further development of nuclear weapons? Because they’re still developing nuclear weapons, and we must be here.”

Protesters made the hot, windy march by stroller, skateboard, and motorized wheelchair. For every person carrying a sign that proclaimed them a “raging granny,” others in their teens and twenties blew bubbles, painted each other’s faces or, in one case, led around a black Labrador wearing a cardboard sandwich board reading, “Another dog against nuclear weapons.”

But once it came time for the civil disobedience, it was clear that the action was being led by people old enough to join the AARP. Twenty protesters at a time linked arms and crossed the stanchions keeping them from the lab, kneeling before impassive rows of sheriff’s department officers in flak vests and helmets. Many protesters had silver hair and thick, dark glasses. One woman couldn’t bend her knees enough to kneel and had to be arrested standing up. Another was led off in her wheelchair. On the other side of the barrier, the younger people clapped and chanted, “The whole world is watching.” But with a few exceptions, they didn’t cross the barrier.

And actually, not much of the world was watching at all. Television coverage consisted of a lone Fox news team, and local news photographers left before the symbolic arrests were captured on film. Protesters documenting their own antics with digital cameras outstripped credentialed reporters twenty to one.

The fact is, nuclear disarmament seldom makes the news nowadays. That’s where Caldicott and her ability to attract media attention come in. After all, her take on Livermore isn’t exactly original or new; it borrows heavily from research compiled throughout the last decade by Tri-Valley CAREs and other longtime Livermore critics. But unlike these local groups, Caldicott can get people to pay attention to her. She knows how to get herself in front of a television camera, and she knows what to say when she does.

Before Caldicott could dream of reactivating the movement, she first had to get back into antinuke activism herself. Her reawakening came five years ago, when she was shocked to discover that most of the missiles she had campaigned against are still around. Not only that, but she was horrified when she found out that the US government is considering putting nuclear and antiballistic missile weapons in outer space. “When I found out these two things, then I thought ‘I’ve got to write another book, damn it,'” she remembers.

And so she did. The New Nuclear Danger was controversial even before it was published, a testament to the mushrooming stridency of Caldicott’s rhetoric since the days when she could command an audience with the Gipper. Caldicott had originally titled it George Bush’s Military-Industrial Psychosis and Its Tragic Consequences, and it featured a cover illustration that depicted a pleased-looking George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Colin Powell in front of a mushroom cloud. The manuscript was rejected by publisher Simon & Schuster, but the book was finally picked up by The New Press. It now sports a plain black cover.

The contents are still radioactive, however. Caldicott’s book accuses the three national labs operated by UC Berkeley — Lawrence Livermore, Sandia, and Los Alamos — of illegally participating in a “second Manhattan Project” under the guise of a program known as Stockpile Stewardship & Management.

Under the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which President Clinton signed in 1996, all nuclear explosions and development of new weapons are forbidden. Although the treaty remains unratified by the Senate, and President Bush is not expected to push for its passage during his term in office, countries must abide by treaties they have signed as long as ratification is still possible. Critics such as Caldicott say the Stockpile Stewardship & Management program gave the labs a way around the treaty’s constraints by allowing them to research the different stages of a nuclear explosion at each institution, and then model the end result using a supercomputer.

“The official rationale is to maintain the safety and reliability of the enduring arsenal,” Cabasso of the Western States Legal Foundation says, “but really it’s to train a new generation of nuclear weapons designers, to expand the understanding of how they work, and to facilitate the development of modified or otherwise new-and-improved, more usable nuclear weapons.”

According to Caldicott, the program was a bone the US government threw to the labs and their employees in 1995 in exchange for their support in extending the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, which was originally signed in 1968. The labs provide many of the nation’s best scientists with jobs — about ten thousand people work at Livermore on any given day — and adhering to the treaty would have meant less work for all of them, she says, as well as less work for government contractors like Raytheon and Boeing.

Caldicott writes that Stockpile Stewardship & Management is nothing more than a sneaky ploy for the United States to develop its arsenal while appearing to abide by international protocols: “In a seemingly irreconcilable irony, the nuclear labs and their overseer, the Department of Energy, would allow America to be party to a ban on nuclear testing only if the labs were granted funding to expand their nuclear operations. … Thus, violation of both international treaties designed to control nuclear weapons was built into acceptance.”

Under Stockpile Stewardship & Management, Caldicott argues, lab scientists don’t simply maintain aging weapons — they actively work to improve them, adding new capabilities that did not exist when the weapons were originally built. A favorite example of Livermore’s critics is the B61-11 bomb, which was designed to replace the B53. The new version is smaller, lighter, and can fit on a B2 Stealth Bomber, but more significantly, it is now an earth-penetrating “bunker-buster.” How convenient, critics say, that despite Livermore’s claim that it’s merely maintaining the status quo, it now has a weapon well-suited to attacking Saddam Hussein’s underground chemical weapons facilities. Caldicott estimates that stockpile management will cost $5 billion annually over the next ten to fifteen years — twice the total cost of the legendary A-bomb development push.

The lab, however, insists that Stockpile Stewardship & Management is crucial for nuclear safety, and does not violate any treaties. Livermore spokesman David Schwoegler says its goal is very simple: to keep tabs on the nation’s weapons as they age in storage, and make repairs as needed. “Right now, I can look you squarely in the eye and say we are not in the process of developing any new nuclear weapons,” he says.

But what makes a weapon “new”? Schwoegler notes that older, discontinued parts periodically must be replaced with new ones. Yet many original components are no longer made; some are even illegal to manufacture. Asking a modern technician to fix a decades-old weapon with only original parts would be like asking her to fix your computer with leftovers from the punch-card era. “Can you go out and find a 1960s solid-state circuit?” asks Schwoegler. “No. And if you can’t, what do you do? You find a fix. How do you know it will work? You’d better have a computer that can model it, because you can’t run down to Nevada and test it.”

Both sides of the fight also seem to be using different definitions of “weapon.” According to Schwoegler, the lab considers the weapon to essentially be the “physics package,” or the nuclear component. Making alterations to its container or the delivery system is therefore allowed — a concept lab critics vociferously reject. Can you make so many small changes to an older weapon that it eventually becomes an entirely new weapon? And isn’t it a bit suspect that so many changes seem to be so well-suited to the needs of the post-Cold War military? Faced with such questions, Schwoegler concedes that some elements of Stockpile Stewardship & Management do further the nation’s current military goals. “We have a nuclear arsenal that was developed as a deterrent to a monolithic nuclear superpower that no longer exists,” he says. “It’s only reasonable to see how best to adapt that nuclear arsenal so that it’s a deterrent to today’s threats.”

Kelley of Tri-Valley CAREs points out that because the Test Ban Treaty was never ratified, the United States can change its policy at any minute. She worries that the government will use the leeway it has given itself under Stockpile Stewardship & Management to modernize its nuclear weapons and then return to full-scale testing in Nevada. “From the disarmament perspective, we’re living in the worst of all possible worlds,” she says. And although the United States spent most of the last decade at peace, Kelley points out that spending on nuclear weapons has actually increased. At the height of the Cold War, the United States spent just more than $4 billion in today’s dollars on the development of nuclear weapons. The budget in Congress right now would allocate $6.1 billion for nuclear-related activities.

Nonetheless, today’s threats are also different from those of the Cold War. It can be argued that the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty was based on the unreasonable expectation that the United States could keep ’60s- and ’70s-issue weapons in good condition forever, and that the realities of warfare would remain unchanged. “What you have to believe is that the US would forever have the exact same requirements as it has today for nuclear weapons, that there would never be a military circumstance that would require a new nuclear weapon,” says Baker Spring, a national security policy research fellow at the Heritage Foundation. “That’s just nonsensical.”

Spring argues that nuclear weapons still have a role to play after the Cold War, even if they’re never launched. “We use nuclear weapons every day in the context of maintaining deterrence, that psychological policy of trying to discourage whatever enemy is out there from attacking the US,” Spring says. “The US nuclear arsenal is a barrier to nuclear proliferation, not an incentive to it.”

However, recent newspaper headlines suggest that the use of nuclear weapons by the United States or other powers is no longer inconceivable. The United States is openly considering invading Iraq, and our country’s new Nuclear Posture Review contemplates using “mini-nukes” to destroy bunkers such as those used by al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, it also suggests developing and targeting weapons at seven nations, including Russia and China. And of course India and Pakistan have recently considered the circumstances under which they would engage in nuclear warfare, and some worry that a terrorist group could find a way to use a US nuclear power plant or poorly defended Russian missile to their advantage.

Against this backdrop, Caldicott worries that the Doomsday Clock is closer to reaching midnight than ever. “It’s worse now than it was in the ’80s when we were all so scared and we all watched The Day After,” she says. “Why is it worse? Well, A) it’s worse because the weapons are still in place, B) they’re building more, C) they violated all the arms control treaties ever written, and then D) none of us know. So it’s ignorance superimposed upon a profundity of worsening situations.”

But can Caldicott convert these urgent concerns into a movement as robust as the one she helped shape two decades ago? Reactivating a critical mass of protesters from across the political spectrum will be a monumental challenge, especially after a decade in which an inattentive media and public let the government call its own shots. Historian Wittner points out that the movement has faced this dilemma several times before: “The unfortunate tradition that the antinuclear campaign has struggled against since 1945, is they have uprisings against waging nuclear war, frightened government officials scurry back and say ‘We weren’t really planning nuclear war,’ and when the movement relaxes once more and people go home and say ‘Thank God that’s over,’ then national leaders resume the arms race.”

Yet Wittner also notes that it is the government that usually reenergizes the movement. Although the antinuclear movement grew steadily throughout the late ’70s, he says, it took Washington to catalyze this momentum. “What really brought it into mass-movement form was the advent of the hawkish Reagan administration, with its loose talk of fighting and winning nuclear war,” he says. “People just went bananas at that point.” The deployment of Pershing and Cruise missiles in Western Europe incited massive demonstrations throughout the continent, and in 1982 a protest in New York City drew a million people, making it the biggest demonstration in American history.

Caldicott believes rekindling this mass movement is not only necessary but possible. She envisions her role as a leader in a “treetops” campaign that will use the mass media as a public education tool. The grassroots work, she says, must be resumed by the religious and professional groups that took the lead during the ’70s and ’80s, striking a balance between attracting new adherents, calling former members back into the fray, and reaching out to those in the antiglobalization movement, whose vitality and organizational ability she admires. She hopes they’ll find common cause with the fight against nuclear weapons. “They need to know that the military nuclear situation is the iron fist in the velvet glove; it allows the American transnationals to do their will with impunity around the planet,” she says.

While her pledge to battle her conservative foes on TV should make for some spicy viewing, Spring of the Heritage Foundation hopes Caldicott will tone down the apocalyptic rhetoric this time. “There are parameters in which these debates should occur, and the resort to scare tactics, to say every child on earth is going to be incinerated if we don’t do what she wants is irresponsible,” he says. “It’s a position designed to end any debate.”

Even disarmament supporters caution that a healthy movement will need more than charismatic leaders. “The fiery message that we face possible destruction is good at stirring people up, but I think there’s a different message needed to bring people along for the long haul,” says Robert Musil, current executive director of Physicians for Social Responsibility. “You really have to have an ongoing program, something that will have intermediate steps and show people that something can be done effectively.” After all, someone has to do the unglamorous work of putting out reports, lobbying politicians, and bringing the brownies to the bake sale.

But Caldicott has never been a fan of taking it slow. As if to prove the point, she envisions an incredibly tight time frame for her latest campaign: five years in which to abolish nuclear weapons and padlock America’s 103 reactors. Nor does she consider failure an option; after all, she says, look at what was accomplished in one decade the last time the movement peaked. Much of the needed groundwork is already in place, she says, if people just can be coaxed back into action.

Asked why she thinks an international campaign must be accomplished in one fell swoop, Caldicott looks surprised. “We’ve got the patient in the intensive-care unit,” she says leaning forward with a light in her eyes, her voice crackling with impatience. “There isn’t time to examine navels and things.”

Caldicott’s media campaign is already rolling along, with appearances this summer on Larry King Live and C-Span. But her new think tank has gotten off to a more shaky start. During her appearance on C-Span’s Book TV, Caldicott announced that she would be locating this new institute at Oakland’s Mills College.

However, shortly after Caldicott’s TV appearance, the plan fell through. Mills College Executive Vice President Ramon Torrecilha blames it on a lack of available space, but says the college supports her initiative. For her part, Caldicott will only obliquely say, “We will be saying things that the establishment won’t like, because it will be the truth, and I think to be affiliated with an academic organization which always straddles a fine line and is always raising money could be difficult.” Meanwhile, the search continues for another location in the Bay Area or elsewhere in California.

Caldicott’s role in the movement has always been to ring the alarm bell, and her charisma remains undimmed. Will Americans once again be receptive to her message, Cabasso wonders? “So many things are different,” she worries. “There is a whole new generation for her to speak to.”

For a generation of activists and students who spent the ’90s organizing around here-at-home issues like pollution, homelessness, and AIDS, showing them how the billions of federal dollars allocated for military purposes drains funding from other social programs may help them make the connection between international and backyard problems. If Americans no longer live in daily fear of nuclear attack, organizers like Shaer of Women’s Action for a New Direction believe it’s still possible to gain their sympathy by talking about broader public health and environmental issues, as Caldicott once did.

If she can get out there and just start talking, such supporters say, that old magic could work again. “It’s hard to describe exactly what the chemistry is,” Helfand observes. “If you could put Helen’s ability to move a crowd into a bottle, it would be a wonderful thing. It’s just a rare connection she is able to make with an audience that makes them feel that even as she has clearly made the prevention of nuclear war the center of her life, they too must make it at least an important part of theirs.”

History books will record what happens next, but for now one thing is very clear: The doctor is in.

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