As Carl Sagan spoke to his luncheon companions of the specter of nuclear annihilation, his words were partially obliterated by loud snores emanating from a figure slumped in a chair behind him. Sagan turned, smiled and declared, "The perfect metaphor. . . . "
In his view, too many people have been snoozing while the arms race escalated and nuclear arsenals filled with weapons with the potential to engulf the Earth in what he has termed "nuclear winter," a climatic catastrophe in which dust, smoke and radioactive debris would generate "an epoch of cold and dark" that would destroy man's natural support systems.
Honored by Activists
Astronomer Sagan had come to Los Angeles to be honored by Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR), an activist organization formed 24 years ago to alert people to the horrors of nuclear war and to attack the idea that a nuclear war can be won, limited--or survived.
PSR has not been snoozing; it boasts a membership of 32,000 doctors, dentists and health professionals in this country; with national offices in Washington, D.C., and in Cambridge, Mass., and 155 chapters in 48 states, it claims as members one-tenth of the nation's MDs (about 7,500 of them in California). Its affiliate group, International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, founded in 1980, has 105,000 physician members in 36 nations, including the Soviet Union.
"It's just extraordinary, what's happened," observed Sagan, nibbling a quiche and pondering "the political implications" of Physicians for Social Responsibility serving quiche. "When I was growing up, physicians were the most conservative group in the country, next only to the Catholic Church."
Perhaps, Sagan concluded, that's their secret: "People figure if these guys are worried, there must be something to be worried about."
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PSR's annual meeting during the weekend at the Biltmore was an international conference with representatives from six nations, including the Soviet Union, among the 600 delegates. The Soviet Union's Dr. Evgueni Chazov, director general of that country's Cardiology Research Center, deputy minister of public health and--it is believed--a consulting physician to reportedly ailing Soviet President Konstantin U. Chernenko--came to talk about a nuclear freeze. But, to his obvious frustration, the media wanted to talk about Chernenko.
At a press conference with PSR's national president, Sidney Alexander, a Burlington, Mass., cardiologist, Chazov's prepared statement about enthusiasm within the Soviet Union for ending the arms race was delivered through an interpreter; immediately, he was bombarded by questions about Chernenko.
Cited the Oath
Chazov smiled engagingly and cited the Hippocratic oath and his responsibility "to keep secret whatever information is concerning our patients . . . Mr. Chernenko or an ordinary worker."
As chairman of the Soviet Committee of Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War and co-president with Dr. Bernard Lown of Boston of the international group, Chazov led the Soviet delegation of four MDs and an interpreter, which from here is continuing on a speaking tour to six cities with American counterparts, calling for a comprehensive test ban.
Chazov said the Soviet arm of PSR has 60,000 active members and has undertaken a widespread campaign to educate people to the effects of nuclear war. The group is "nonpolitical," he stressed, and the Soviet leadership had "no difficulty" with the idea of the physicians coming to America to talk nuclear freeze.
Alexander, one of 100 American doctors who visited Moscow last year on a similar mission, said it was obvious that the Soviets "didn't just walk through" the border, that they had the blessings of their government, which he viewed as a small step toward understanding. "Either we coexist," said Alexander, "or we may cease to exist" and that means "an immediate mutual moratorium on all nuclear explosions."
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The keynote speaker at the conference was Adm. Noel Gayler, USN, ret., a four-star admiral who formerly was commander, U.S. Forces, Pacific, and director of the National Security Agency. He is now chairman of the general nuclear settlement project for the American Committee on East-West Accord, a nonprofit institute based in Washington.
Gayler came to talk about his "deep cuts" proposal, which calls for the United States and the Soviet Union to turn in nuclear warheads containing fissionable material and convert that material to nuclear fuel for burning in power plants. Each nation would hand over progressively larger numbers of explosive nuclear fission devices to a single conversion facility built for the purpose at a neutral site. He calls it "swords into plowshares."
"Deep Cuts" also calls for a halt to production of weapons-grade material, and safeguards against diversion to weapons use of commercial power plant fuel.
Danger Is 'Very Real'