Meet a Progressive: Creating A Nuclear Weapon Free World with Ira Helfand
"The idea that terrible things can happen if decent people remain silent was embedded early in my thinking."
Ira Helfand, MD is a member of the International Steering Group of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapon (ICAN), the recipient of the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize, and immediate past President of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, the founding partner of ICAN and itself the recipient of the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize. He is also co-Founder and Past President of Physicians for Social Responsibility, IPPNW’s U.S. affiliate. He is active in the Back from the Brink campaign. Dr. Helfand was educated at Harvard College and the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.
What inspired you to start working for progressive social change?
I’m sort of old, so my first political activism was related to the 1960’s Civil Rights and anti-war movements, particularly the effort to end the War in Vietnam. But the impetus for my involvement was actually rooted in the Holocaust. I was born into a Jewish family just four years after the end of WWII. The idea that terrible things can happen if decent people remain silent was embedded early in my thinking, along with the idea that America was a force for good in the world. This created a difficult tension as I got older and the reality of segregation and widespread racism in America had to be taken into account. And the tension became even sharper with the War in Vietnam.
There was simply no choice but to become involved in efforts to address these injustices.
What do you identify as the top issues progressives must confront nationally and globally?
There are so many, including systemic racism, income inequality, women’s rights. But I think that two problems stand out. The climate crisis and the increasing danger of nuclear war pose existential threats to human civilization and if we fail to address them adequately then nothing else we do to make the world more peaceful and just will matter.
The danger posed by climate change is widely, but still inadequately, understood. We know that bad things will happen if climate change is not checked, but we have real difficulty appreciating the full extent of the catastrophe that will befall us if we don’t act much more aggressively than we have
With regards to the danger of nuclear war the situation is even worse, and no one is paying attention to it. Experts like former Defense Secretary William Perry tell us that we are closer to nuclear war than at any time in history, including the most dangerous moments of the Cold War. Further, recent studies have shown that it would not take a large-scale war between the U.S. and Russia to cause a global catastrophe. Even a much more limited war, as might take place between India and Pakistan, would kill tens of millions of people outright and cause enough abrupt climate change to trigger a worldwide famine putting literally billions of people at risk and destroying modern civilization.
This is not the future that needs to be. We know what we need to do to stop climate change and we know how to dismantle the nuclear arsenals of the world. We need to build a political movement that forces the governments of the world to address these existential threats and we cannot afford to neglect these dangers as we focus on other issues that may seem more immediate. We are rapidly approaching the tipping point where catastrophic climate change can no longer be avoided, and nuclear war could start as people are reading these words.
What types of organizing and projects are you working on right now?
I am focused primarily on efforts to prevent nuclear war. Here in the U.S. we have started the Back from the Brink (BftB) campaign to bring about fundamental change in American nuclear policy. BftB calls on the U.S. to reject the mistaken idea that nuclear weapons somehow make us safe and to acknowledge that they are, in fact, the greatest threat to our security and must be eliminated. It calls on the U.S. to embrace the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons that entered into force in January and to begin negotiations with the other eight nuclear armed states for a verifiable, enforceable timetable to eliminate the 13,000 nuclear weapons that remain in their arsenals. The campaign also calls on the U.S. to adopt a number of policies now that can lessen the danger of nuclear war as these negotiations proceed.
How can folks get engaged and involved?
Back from the Brink is a grassroots campaign that aims to get cities, towns, professional associations, civic groups, faith communities, unions, peace groups, and environmental and social justice organizations to endorse its “Call to Prevent Nuclear War.” Anyone wanting to get involved can visit our website www.PreventNuclearWar.org to learn how to get a resolution of support adopted in their community. Our hope is that we can, through this local activity, create a de facto national consensus for this new nuclear policy and convince our leaders to take the decisive action needed to eliminate nuclear weapons before they eliminate us.
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Thanks for reading! I look forward to your feedback and suggestions. And most importantly, keep organizing!