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Anti-Nuclear Campaigner Passes Torch to Husband

May 15, 1986|BEVERLY BEYETTE | Times Staff Writer

Dr. Helen Caldicott, 47, the mother of the nuclear freeze movement, is dropping out. After 16 years--a personal campaign that began in 1971 with a successful protest against France's atomic tests in the South Pacific--she is, she says, "a little bit bonkers."

She is on a sort of farewell tour, with her husband and heir-apparent, Dr. William H. J. Caldicott, sharing the podiums. And only days after the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, addressing the California Assn. of Marriage and Family Therapists in Orange County, Helen Caldicott made it clear she does not intend to step down quietly.

The crowded hall in the Irvine Marriott Hotel was hushed as Caldicott painted her graphic picture of nuclear annihilation:

"I want you to imagine that the button was pressed in Moscow 20 minutes ago, by accident. I want you to shut your eyes now and imagine the bomb's going to land in 10 minutes. Try and imagine what you would do. Where would you go? Think of your children, your families, where you live, what you hold most precious in your life. . . .

"OK now--open them again and I'm going to drop a big bomb right here . It's going to be a 20-megaton bomb, five times the collective energy of all the bombs dropped in the Second World War. And it will come in at 20 times the speed of sound, in five minutes now, and explode with the heat of the sun right here and dig a hole three-quarters of a mile wide and 800 feet deep, pulverizing us, the buildings and millions of tons of earth below to radioactive fallout, shot up in the mushroom cloud. . . ."

Helen Caldicott was not finished. She wanted these people to know about what she, as a physician, calls "the final medical epidemic." She wants them to know about human beings "charcoalized," people sucked out of buildings by blast-induced winds, people decapitated by shards of glass traveling at 100 m.p.h., fallout shelters "turned into crematoria."

She wants them to know because she hopes desperately to leave behind a legacy of activism, to break through the psychic numbness that she says afflicts people when they are forced to contemplate what she considers the inevitable--"a catastrophic nuclear war." She wants millions of Americans to camp out in Washington, demanding a halt to "the biggest nuclear buildup the world has ever seen."

'Sick of Meetings'

Thousands of people have signed petitions demanding a nuclear freeze, have donated their time and money. "They did it for four or five years and they got nowhere," Caldicott said. "I am sick of meetings and organizations. We haven't been provocative at all. We've been pathetic."

Her voice rose--"Don't give a damn about what people think of you!" If your child had leukemia, she asked, is there anything that you would not do to try to save that child's life? And that, she contends, is the bottom line:

"I've got three kids and I would die for my kids. I would go through any sort of mental or physical pain for my kids. There have been moments when I have been at the point where I would fast unto death if I thought it would save the world. What's death? I'm going to die anyway. We're talking about evolution, the creation, the whole thing . . ."

But for now, Caldicott says, "I've got to go away. I've earned it. Sixteen years of this flat-out dreaming about it (nuclear catastrophe) is enough. I mean, I don't know why I'm not in a mental institution." Now, she says, "I have to take a break and go into the wilderness and go spin cloth for two years.

"I've got May, with various commitments and honorary degrees, and then I'm going to virtually stop." She has agreed to speak in India in November and then, Caldicott said, she will "go home (to Australia--the Caldicotts, Australian citizens, divide their time between Boston and Australia) and decide what I'm going to do with the rest of my life."

She is "passing the baton" to Dr. William Caldicott, also a pediatrician, her husband of 23 years and the man who followed her lead when two years ago, at the age of 45, he resigned his teaching post at Harvard to be a full-time advocate for the anti-nuclear cause.

And if he does not yet speak with the eloquence and fire of Helen Caldicott, his commitment seems no less complete. He has given a great deal of thought to the role men have played in the nuclear arms buildup--relating it to men's need for power, their worship of what he sees as the wrong heroes.

'Human Race May Be Doomed'

This is Dr. William Caldicott speaking: "If we men don't start to change the way we behave, and if we don't start to understand the way we behave and why we behave the way we do, I think the human race may be doomed."

Women, he contends, "better understand life and death, and what threatens their children, and the planet. But I've come to understand that it's men who have to understand. Because it's men who are wiring up this planet for certain explosion if something isn't done."

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