Whose work was the inspiration for the first nuke-free country?

Helen Caldicott. Credit: Helen Caldicott

you were growing up in New Zealand and Australia post World War II, there’s a
chance you knew about the United States using the Marshall Islands as a nuclear
testing site from 1947 until 1962. In an agreement signed with the United
Nations, the U.S. government held the Marshall Islands as a “trust territory”
and detonated nuclear devices in this pristine area of the Pacific
Ocean—leading, in some instances, to huge levels of radiation fall-out, health
effects, and the permanent displacement of many island people. In all, the U.S.
government conducted 105 underwater and atmospheric tests. You would have also
known that the British conducted seven atmospheric tests between 1956 and 1963
on traditional Aboriginal land, in Maralinga, Australia.

It may be that you read Neville Shute’s 1957 novel On the
in which people in Melbourne, Australia wait for deadly radiation to
spread from a Northern Hemisphere nuclear war. This book made a memorable
impact on Helen when she read it as a teenager. When I was a teenager, some
years later, I read Bertrand Russell’s 1959 classic, Common Sense and
Nuclear Warfare.

Both Helen and I saw Peter Watkin’s The War Game, a BBC
documentary drama about nuclear war and the consequences in an English city. In
New Zealand the film was restricted for children unless accompanied by an
adult, so I had to get my father to take me. The War Game won the Oscar
for the best documentary in 1965.

France began its series of over 175 nuclear tests at Mururoa, in
the South Pacific, in 1966. At least 140 of these tests were above ground. In
1973, the New Zealand and Australian governments took France to the World Court
for continued atmospheric testing, and forced the last tests underground. The
testing finally came to an end in 1976.

In New Zealand the U.S. Navy made regular visits between 1976 and
1983 with nuclear-powered and, most likely, nuclear-armed, ships. These visits
produced spectacular protest fleets in the Auckland and Wellington harbours,
when hundreds of New Zealanders—in yachts of all sizes, in motor boats and
canoes, even on surf boards—surrounded the vessels and tried to bring them to a
complete stop. By 1978, a campaign began in New Zealand to declare borough and
city council areas nuclear-free and, by the early 1980s, this symbolic movement
had quickly gained momentum, covering more than two-thirds of the New Zealand

Helen Caldicott and I had not met up to this point, but these were
shared parts of our history and consciousness when Helen visited New Zealand in

Helen Caldicott graduated with a medical degree from University of
Adelaide Medical School in 1961. She moved to the United States, becoming an
Instructor in paediatrics at Harvard Medical School and was on the staff of the
Children’s Hospital Medical Centre in Boston, Massachusetts. In the late 1970s,
Helen became the President of Physicians for Social Responsibility. This group
was founded when Helen was finishing medical school, quickly making its mark by
documenting the presence of Strontium-90, a highly radioactive waste product of
atmospheric nuclear testing, in children’s teeth. The landmark finding
eventually led to the Limited Nuclear Test Ban treaty, which ended atmospheric
nuclear testing.

But it was the Three Mile Island accident that changed Helen’s
life. An equipment failure resulted in a loss of cooling water to the core of a
reactor at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station in Pennsylvania,
causing a partial meltdown. Operator failure meant that 700,000 gallons of
radioactive cooling water ended up in the basement of the reactor building. It
was the most serious nuclear accident to that date in the U.S. Helen published Nuclear
the same year. In it she wrote: “As a physician, I contend that
nuclear technology threatens life on our planet with extinction. If present
trends continue, the air we breathe, the food we eat, and the water we drink
will soon be contaminated with enough radioactive pollutants to pose a
potential health hazard far greater than any plague humanity has ever
experienced.” In 1980, Helen resigned from her paid work positions to work full
time on the prevention of nuclear war.

In 1982, Canadian director Terre Nash filmed a lecture given by
Helen Caldicott to a New York state student audience. Nash’s consequent
National Film Board of Canada documentary If You Love this Planet was
released during the term of U.S. President Ronald Reagan, at the height of Cold
War nuclear tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union. The U.S.
Department of Justice moved quickly to designate the film “foreign propaganda,”
bringing a great deal of attention to the film. It went on to win the 1982
Academy Award for Documentary Short Subject. That same year, Helen addressed
about 750,000 people in Central Park, New York in the biggest anti-nuke rally
in the United States to that date.

In 1983, I was serving as a member of the New Zealand parliament,
having been elected eight years earlier at the age of 23. Our parliament
established a Disarmament and Arms Control Select Committee to conduct hearings
on the possibility of making New Zealand a nuclear-free zone. During this
critically important time, Helen was invited to New Zealand on a lecture tour.
The documentary If You Love This Planet was shown at her speaking

I did not get to meet her, nor hear any of her lectures in person,
as I was working in parliament every night. But I did follow the media

Helen told the magazine the Listener
about having observed five-star generals in U.S. congressional and senate
committees complaining that the Russian missiles were bigger than the
American ones. “The Russian missiles are very big (and) inaccurate and clumsy.
America has very small, very accurate missiles, which are better at killing
people and destroying targets,” she explained. A frequent message in her talks
to New Zealand audiences was the redundant overkill capacity of both
superpowers. Caldicott noted to her audiences that “[T]he U.S. has 30,000 bombs
and Russia 20,000.”

I had sat in a New Zealand parliamentary committee hearing some
months earlier, when a government colleague, brandishing a centrefold of a
Russian submarine, excitedly called for us to “Look at how big it is.” I had
thought that no one would believe me if I had repeated such an inane
banality—when an adult male was more impressed by the size of the submarine
than its capacity to destroy life on this planet.

Helen’s public addresses were grounded in the potential impact of
nuclear weapons. “Imagine a 20-megaton bomb targeted on Auckland,” she told
audiences in New Zealand. “The explosion, five times the collective energy of
all the bombs dropped in the Second World War, digs a hole three-quarters of a
mile wide by 800 feet deep and turns people, buildings and dirt into
radioactive dust. Everyone up to six miles will be vaporised, and up to 20
miles they will be dead or lethally injured. People will be instantly blinded
looking at the blast within 40 miles. Many will be asphyxiated in the fire

Helen did not hold back, explaining that nuclear war means
“blindness, burning, starvation, disease, lacerations, haemorrhaging, millions
of corpses and an epidemic of disease.” Helen’s dramatic and blunt style
reduced many in her audiences to tears. She always ended her talks with a call
to action—especially to parents—as she strongly believes that nuclear
disarmament is “the ultimate medical and parenting issue of our time.”

To those who would claim New Zealand was not a target she had a
short reply: “Trident submarines in ports are targeted. They are a first strike
target. It is much easier to destroy subs when they are in dock than it is when
they are submerged in the ocean.”

In 2015, I asked Helen how she managed to deliver such bad news
and yet keep her audiences with her. “Being a doctor helps because you have to
learn to negotiate with a patient and with language they can understand,” she
explained. “You have to convert the medical diagnosis and treatment to lay
language. I also have to keep them awake sometimes by letting them laugh
because it relieves their tension and because the stuff I say is pretty awful.”
Helen told me that she practices “global preventative medicine.”

Helen’s tour through New Zealand in 1983 had a huge, and lasting,
impact. At one stop, Helen addressed over 2,000 people at a public event in
Auckland. The librarian with whom I corresponded looking for old newspaper
reports of Helen’s visit, wrote to me: “Her chillingly detailed description of
the effects of a nuclear device detonated over the hall in which we were
sitting remains rooted in my psyche to this day! …The other message I most
recall is the dichotomy she evoked between the destructive drive of ‘old men’
rulers, the instigators of war, versus the procreative energy of mothers most
impelled to oppose them—which, however reductive, retains the compelling logic
of a truism!”

Helen’s approach was transformative in New Zealand. Helen’s
speaking events packed auditoriums, and overflows of audiences had to be
accommodated using loud speaker systems. People responded strongly to this
woman, whose life work involved caring for children, speaking about medical
effects of fallout, and speaking without the use of the clichéd military and
defence ideological rhetoric that treated people as if they were simpletons who
couldn’t understand. Her speeches inspired people to act. After Helen spoke,
the volume of mail delivered to my parliamentary office increased—particularly
from women.

On May 24, 1983, 20,000 women wearing white flowers and armbands
and holding banners with peace signs marched quietly up a main street in
Auckland to hold a huge rally and call for New Zealand to be nuke-free. It was
one of the largest women’s demonstrations in New Zealand’s history. In her
book, Peace, Power and Politics – How New Zealand Became Nuclear Free,
Maire Leadbetter writes: “I am one of many activists who think of Helen
Caldicott’s visit as the point when the peace movement began to grow
exponentially… Helen had a magical ability to motivate previously passive
citizens to become activists.”

Shortly after Helen’s visit to New Zealand, in 1984, I advised
that I intended to vote for the opposition-sponsored nuclear-free New Zealand
legislation. This prompted conservative Prime Minister Rob Muldoon to call a
snap election. Muldoon told media that my “feminist anti-nuclear stance”
threatened his ability to govern.

The new Labour Government of 1984 passed the New Zealand
Nuclear Free Zone, Disarmament and Arms Control Act in 1987, the world’s
first national nuclear-free legislation. Dr. Helen Caldicott’s influence had
culminated in the passage of the cornerstone of New Zealand’s foreign policy. 

essay is one of 28 stories by notable women about remarkable women peacemakers brought
together in a collection to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the
Nobel Women’s Initiative. When We Are Bold: Women Who Turn Our
Upsidedown World Right! Editor, Rachel Vincent, September 27, Mapalé. 


Read more articles in the 50.50 series celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Nobel Women's Initiative

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