Nuclear Disarmament

Bernard Lown: The Imperative of Preventing Nuclear War

Dr. Bernard Lown (1921 - 2021) was Professor of Cardiology Emeritus, at the Harvard School of Public Health, Senior Physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and Founder and Chairman, Emeritus, of the Lown Cardiovascular Research Foundation in Brookline, Massachusetts. A research pioneer on sudden cardiac death, he was author or co-author of four books and over 425 articles. A world-renowned peace activist, he co-founded the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) with Evgeni Chazov. They were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985 on behalf of IPPNW. Dr. Lown was interviewed in the spring of 2005 by Masao Yokota, on the eve of the 60th anniversary of the U.S. atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

This August marks the sixtieth anniversary of the detonation of U.S. atomic bombs over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima, August 6, and Nagasaki, August 9, in 1945. The immediate loss of life came close to 120,000, and thousands of others have suffered throughout their lives in the wake of this event. Still, many people have forgotten. How can we challenge ourselves to remember?

The challenge not to forget is mainly in this country, in the United States. I’m not saying that the same challenge does not exist in Japan, but it is more difficult for the culprit than the victim to commemorate the use of nuclear weapons. I’ve thought a lot about this recently, and I’ve come to the conclusion that nuclear weapons will not be gotten rid of until the United States confronts the magnitude of the horror, the tragedy, and the long-term suffering of the victims who did not die, the Hibakusha.

How do you explain the silence that surrounds these bombings?

In a way, it’s strange. Americans still go quite rightly livid with rage against Hitler’s industrialization of genocide in the form of concentration camps. But nuclear bombs are far worse. Gas kills a few people at a time, but nuclear bombs have made mass murder a reality. Nuclear bombs threaten humankind. Nobody has the right to interfere with that continuity — nobody — and the fact that the United States has not come to terms with this is astonishing. As long as we rationalize nuclear weapons as “necessary” in order to save American lives, then nuclear weapons will never be gotten rid of.

For a long time, Americans were taught that the atomic bomb was used in Japan to end the war and prevent further loss of life.

That historic argument is over, because there is an amplitude of fact that nuclear bombs were not necessary to end the war. Japan was defeated. Japan was without resources. Hundreds of its cities were already reduced to charcoal. People were demoralized. It was an island and isolated in every sense of the word, and it was just a matter of time. The United State could have said, “Okay, we’re blockading Japan for a month, you decide if you want to surrender or not.” I believe that if we had said that, they would have surrendered, maybe not in September, but certainly by October. If we had waited a month or two, we would have not crossed the terrible nuclear threshold. But we did cross the threshold and when we did, we made many terrible things possible.

How did this decision alter the world?

If it had never happened, it would be much less likely to happen again. But it has happened once. We have shown that it can happen. This to me is something that we have not realized. At some level, that decision unleashed an unprecedented evil.

You use the word “evil” courageously. Many people avoid the use of that word. Let me ask you, what is your definition of evil?

Evil is the infliction of torture, torment, and death on innocent people. That is evil. We can be very sophisticated and define it in various ways, but evil is ultimately the destruction of a noncombatant, an innocent human being. Evil is terrible. And so is the banality of evil that reconfigures words to make evil more acceptable: We call human beings “collateral damage,” for example. “Collateral damage,” as though a human life was a box that you crushed when you stepped on it by mistake.

There is a moral issue at stake when we talk like that, isn’t there?

Yes, because a human being is a miraculous creature who exists in a singularity. There is no other like you, like me, like my wife Louise. There is no other in the whole wide world like her; never has been and never will be. That’s the miracle of humanity. And for that miracle to be destroyed is evil.

How does evil compare to selfishness?

Evil and selfishness are not the same thing at all. We are all capable of selfishness; greed as well. Hatred, yes. Pettiness, yes. Jealousy, yes. But evil is something else. Evil is not a thought or an attitude; evil is not an intention. Evil is action, a deed which leaves a trail of suffering.

You have focused so much of your life and work on the abolition of nuclear weapons. Is this because, as a doctor, you understand the physical suffering connected to nuclear weapons?

I see nuclear weapons as the ultimate evil, not just evil, but the ultimate evil with the potential to make life unlivable on this planet. This goes beyond physical suffering. Nuclear weapons remain in the earth forever as a poison, because plutonium cannot be recycled. There is a permanence, a destructiveness to them that we cannot ignore.

There are many nuclear weapons in the world. What is the threat of such stockpiles of nuclear weapons?

The best way to answer the question is with another question: What stops a nuclear war? This competition doesn’t end until all the fuel has been burned out, when all of the weapons have been tossed, hurled at each other. If, at that point, you decide to negotiate, with whom do you negotiate? It’s not like conventional war where you can sit down and draw up a peace treaty. But nuclear war is different. The moment you strike you destroy government, you destroy leadership, you leave no civil infrastructure. What do you do? You have to destroy the enemy so that the enemy will not hurt you with finality. It’s Kafkaesque, something out of an insane asylum. Somebody said if you think about nuclear war and you do not go crazy it’s because you are crazy already.

But finality is not always the outcome. Millions live but with deep injuries.

It’s true that we should not kid ourselves by thinking of nuclear war as “sudden death.” Millions of people might die, but many would be left to fester, such as the Hibakusha that I saw in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They have endured pain and suffering beyond compare — day in, day out, night and day, around the clock. Their injuries leave little memories in their genetic apparatus to pass on to other generations, in the form of cancers, anomalies, and birth defects. Can you imagine evil as malignant as that? That is the evil of nuclear war.

How do you explain the human capacity to inflict such pain?

We live in an age characterized by an atrophy of imagination. The great Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber, says that evil exists because “we cannot imagine the real.” Think of the American pilot in Vietnam flying with napalm. And consider that we developed a napalm that is made worse by water. The natural tendency when you experience a burn is to jump in water. But with napalm, the moment you jump in water the fire gets worse. If the American pilot could see the burning, screaming child and realize that there is no way to stop the burning, do you suppose he would press that button? Not likely. Because he would be imagining the real. We have lost that capacity to imagine the real. Instead, we become the catalysts and promoters, by our indifference, of evil. That is another attribute of modernity: indifference, which is worse than hate.

We no longer approach humanity with an attitude of 'reverence for life,' as Albert Schweitzer used to proclaim.

Bernard Lown

Why is it worse?

Indifference makes hate possible. It is the beginning of dehumanization. And indifference reflects another aspect of our modernity: the concept of markets. Markets control everything. Markets dominate human interaction. We have markets in the church, markets in medicine, markets of the spirit. This way of thinking reduces subjects to objects. Everything becomes a commodity, even people. Nothing has existential value. Nothing has eternity. Nothing has miraculousness. Nothing surprises or astonishes. We no longer approach humanity with an attitude of “reverence for life,” as Albert Schweitzer used to proclaim.

Josei Toda (1900-1958), who was the second president of Soka Gakkai, urged youth in Japan to work for the abolition of nuclear weapons as early as 1957. He is famous for saying, “Those who create nuclear weapons are evil.”

That took courage. Until 1960 nuclear weapons were formidable, beyond the human being, or beyond me. Nuclear war was all tied up with government, politics.

How did you become involved in the movement to end nuclear war?

In 1960 I was working very actively on sudden cardiac death. It was a field that I put on the map in medicine and it was the biggest cardiovascular problem in America because at that time an American was dying every 90 seconds around the clock from sudden cardiac arrest: 450,000 Americans every year. I was making great strides, developing the defibrillator, the cardioverter, coronary care, drugs; I was figuring out arrhythmia, the psychological factors, the stress, triggers, and whatnot. Then I attended a lecture by Phillip Noel-Baker of Great Britain who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1959. In that lecture, he predicted that human society will not survive beyond the year 2000, a mere 40 years away, unless nuclear weapons were abolished.

I had been working so hard on sudden death, but Noel-Baker taught me that the real death threat in the world was not cardiac, but nuclear. I knew I had to do something. How could I be a doctor and close my eyes to this overwhelming reality? And so I began a journey, a difficult journey, with several colleagues who felt the same way I did.

I have heard that in those years, the Kennedy Administration was encouraging underground shelters.

Yes, the whole population of the United States would go underground like worms. That was the plan. Then we came along, a few doctors who wrote a series of articles that appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine in May of 1962. These articles made headlines across the country. They made clear that the most unsafe place to be in a nuclear war was in an underground shelter because the firestorms would exhaust oxygen. The experience of Dresden, Hamburg, Tokyo and a few other places in World War II was that sheltered people died because they suffocated. So, that put an end to the talk of underground shelters and for the first time people began to ask: Is there anything worth destroying the world for?

Before nuclear weapons, human beings were able to think in terms of “forever.”

That’s right. As a result of propaganda and poor thinking, some people believed that Communism would last forever. But tell me, what is forever? Is democracy forever? Is capitalism forever? Was slavery forever? Institutions are not forever. Great civilizations do not last forever. And if it’s not forever, why should we destroy ourselves for something that is not forever? The only thing that is forever is the human spirit.

How did you and Evgeni Chazov create International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War?

When we started IPPNW in 1980, we were just a few people. We met here, in the living room of my home. We plotted and built a global movement; by 1985 we had 200,000 members in 60 countries. We initially planned the participation of physicians from three countries: United States, USSR, and Japan. We wanted Japan to be the witness, to bear witness to what could happen. And we wanted the U.S. and the Soviets because they had 95-98 percent of all the nuclear weapons at that time. But when we started the meetings, people said, “You can’t exclude me because I’m a German, a Frenchman, a Norwegian. We too will be victims.” And later on the Africans and Latin Americans became involved. We learned very quickly that this is a global problem, not a U.S.- Russian-Japanese problem.

But you had to face criticism, right, because you were friendly with the Soviets.

Oh yes, the Wall Street Journal ran an angry editorial saying we were Communist dupes. They suggested that we were working for the KGB and too stupid to know it. We were accused of disarming democratic countries to permit totalitarians to gain dominance. But that was the Cold War era. That is how people thought in those days.

How did you find the strength to keep going?

BL: Many things. I’m Jewish and I was born in Lithuania. Some members of my family were destroyed in the Holocaust. I came to this country as a boy. If I’d remained in Europe two more years I would not have survived. So the reality of war was part of my youth.

Another reality was the fact that I have always been interested in humanitarian issues. When I was in college, I studied Greek and Latin and philosophy, and read a lot of books. Another factor was being a doctor and having a sense of mission of healing. To me, healing means preventing disease, preventing suffering. And the quintessential evil, nuclear weapons, could only lead to unprecedented suffering. I’m also very obstinate, some people would say pigheaded, but I would say I am determined.

Finally, I think Louise has been a key factor in all of my work. Because she is a very strong moral person. She would not have permitted me to abandon the struggle.

What was it like to win the Nobel Peace Prize?

When the announcement came in 1985, the vituperation, the anger, the ugliness, the lies, in some of the U.S. media… I dreaded opening the newspaper. I dreaded being interviewed by the media. They were accusing Chazov of being a murderer, among other things. And then, just as Louise, my mother, and I were leaving for the ceremonies in Norway, an announcement came on the radio that the Nobel Committee was about to withdraw the prize. One of my patients, who had a jet in Italy, came and picked us up. I couldn’t sleep on the plane because I was overwhelmed with anxiety. How would I tell my old mother that they had decided, for the first time in history, to take the prize away?

So, we arrive in Norway and the police meet us and put us in a room without explaining anything. They don’t speak English, I don’t speak Norwegian. At this point I’m thinking, “It’s true. They’re going to send us back.”

No one was there to greet us because we had flown in a private jet, which was faster than a commercial flight, and we arrived an hour early but I didn’t understand what was happening at the time. Then the Nobel Committee came an hour late with flowers and greeting and hugging. But that hour I would not wish to live through again. So it was very difficult, very difficult. To make matters worse, the United States wouldn’t send anyone to the Nobel ceremonies. Afterwards, I received a letter from Professor Linus Pauling, who won two Nobels. He said, “Lown, don’t be upset. They didn’t come for my Nobel either.”

Are you discouraged that, so far, nuclear weapons have not been abolished?

If you look at it subjectively, from the perspective of one’s short life, one can be filled with despair. If you look at it historically then there is reason for hope. The examples of progress are numerous. Consider the treatment of women: The idea of women as equals of men was inconceivable as recently as 100 years ago. Slavery is now inconceivable. Similar strides have been made in the treatment of homosexuals and the treatment of the mentally ill. Look what has happened to get rid of child labor. Outrage is everywhere.

In a recent Gallup poll 65 percent of the American public said we ought to get rid of nuclear weapons. The work of IPPNW has been part of a process, a very slow process. Unfortunately, we live too short a time to see the slow traverse of change. If we could have a historic, long-range perspective we would feel more hopeful. In my lifetime, I have watched people die of diseases that are now curable. In the United States, people’s life expectancy has been increased by about 28 years since 1900. Globally, life expectancy globally has gone up 20 years. Miraculous things are happening and more miracles are within our reach.

Do you feel that we spend too much money on war?

Infant mortality could be abolished with the money we’re spending on war. Those funds could solve the problem of world hunger and do much to reduce the tragedy of AIDS. Or we could provide clean drinking water for the whole world. Dirty water accounts for 80 percent of all global illness. A small shift in priorities could give us a world that is peaceful and livable.

What do you think it will take to bring about these changes in our world?

We will forever live with the danger of nuclear weapons because the nuclear genie has been let out of the bottle. Knowledge cannot be erased once it arrives. That’s the nature of ideas, that’s the nature of scientific advancement, and that’s the nature of widening the horizon of human understanding. The point is that you have to learn to live with the world that has been created, but to do this we must structure a society that is less asymmetric and more equal. We must find a way to make sure that the fruits produced by the world are enjoyed equally. That doesn’t mean everybody will be equal, but that people will not feel constantly cheated out of their patrimony, or their God-given rights like shelter, food, health, and education and therefore not be denied their human potential. The International Declaration of Human Rights says the right to housing, health, education should be guaranteed to everyone. The moment these things are provided, we will have a different world order and nuclear weapons will become less of a threat.

Some have described IPPNW as a people’s movement. Do you agree with this?

History has been taught in a way that neutralizes people’s movements. History is all about kings, prime ministers, presidents, brilliant leaders, and mostly generals, or admirals. If you listen to history, most of us are merely pawns, six billion little pawns, checkers on a huge board. That’s wrong. History ultimately is the advancing consciousness of people who compel certain realities. The great statesmen are those who comprehend what the people wish for and what is possible. When they come on the stage and do that, the people say, “Oh! What a great leader!” But that great leader would not be a great leader without the people’s power, which has always been a decisive factor in history. So, sure, IPPNW is a people’s movement. And I’m proud of that.

SATELLIFE, of which you are the founder and chairman of the board, is one of your great accomplishments. What was the impetus for this organization?

SATELLIFE addresses a very important issue: the North-South divide between rich countries and poor countries. For too long, poor countries have been providing resources and rich countries have been profiting, growing fat, luxuriating in abundance. In America, a major advertising campaign is for Viagra. We are spending billions for drugs that make you more attractive, make you sexy. But in the developing world, drugs are needed to prevent death, to alleviate suffering.

To me, this North-South divide is the critical pathology of our age. In the global South, we have over 3.5 million people dying every year from HIV/AIDS, a disease that could be stopped in a year. Already 40 million people have died. You will not have peace, you will not have abandonment of terrorism without healthy communities, and you will not have that without access to healthcare and health information.

We have to address this divide or else we won’t have a livable world. The North-South divide is one of the reasons there are nuclear weapons. And in the future, they will be used because of the North-South divide. That’s my overwhelming dread.

So SATELLIFE creates a global community?

Yes, and one way to do that is through appropriate information technologies focused on health.

In your view, health goes hand in hand with development?

Health is an essential ingredient for development. You cannot have development without empowerment and you cannot have empowered individuals who are sick. So, first of all, you need to have health.

The second principle is that information is an important tool for empowerment, because information tells you how to live safer, healthier lives. For example, if mothers are literate we see a much lower infant mortality. They may be extraordinarily poor mothers, but the moment they are literate, they have healthier families.

Information makes a difference.

Critical connectivity. It leads to interchange of information, to learning. The moment we connect, we both know more.

We began with this idea and created networks in Sub-Saharan Africa centered on health information. We were among the first to bring email to Africa. We were among the first call to attention to the Ebola epidemic, to help expedite the mobilization of resources to contain the epidemic.

So doctors and nurses all over the world have benefited from SATELLIFE.

Doctors, nurses, patients, communities, and medical students too. In many medical schools, students have no books. They go through four or five-year medical school programs without ever owning a textbook. To address this problem, we’ve taken small palm pilots, hand-held computers, and loaded them with summaries of text books so that a student may have a mini-library. In other words, medical students in the global South now have medical libraries in their pockets. Thanks to SATELLIFE, they have at their fingertips what they need to know about tuberculosis, malaria, schistosomiasis, panosomiasis, AIDS, and so on.

What is the future of SATELLIFE?

We’ve begun to learn more about communities by asking how we might use the hand-held computers to inform health policy makers. By using hand-held technology as a tool to survey communities, we’re able to keep track of how many children have been immunized, how many have had measles, how many are malnourished. We’ve also used solar power to connect hand-held information with the telephone. Little by little, through the miracle of information, SATELLIFE is widening the scope of connectivity. Each step is a grain of sand, but we are shaping many grains of sand into a beach that will — one day — contain oceans of possibility