27 November 2017

He helped found two groups that won the Nobel Peace Prize: Ira Helfand of PSR

Dan Drollette Jr

Dan Drollette Jr

Dan Drollette, Jr. is a science writer/editor and foreign correspondent who has filed stories from every continent except Antarctica. His stories have appeared in Scientific American,...

More

“Doctor Helfand is the quietest, scariest person on the planet.”

That is how Ira Helfand was once introduced to an audience at a Red Cross lecture. He was about to speak—in very simple, soft-spoken, understated, yet thorough and detailed phrases—about what exactly would happen if there were even a limited nuclear war. Helfand then went on to describe the impacts of the initial blasts, the fires, the radiation and its effects on the human body, the number of immediate dead, and the resulting nuclear winter that would cause crops to fail and make vast numbers of people die from starvation—all stemming from just a small, seemingly localized exchange of nuclear weapons.

“The facts speak for themselves, and if you present them in a kind of inflammatory way, it calls your credibility into question even when it shouldn’t,” he later explained.

His approach must be effective, because the anti-nuclear weapons organization that Helfand helped to found, called Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR), shared in a Nobel Peace Prize as the US affiliate of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. And little over a month ago, a daughter organization, called the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), just won the Nobel Peace Prize as well.

The Bulletin’s Dan Drollette Jr. sat down with Helfand at an independent coffee shop in a small New England college town on a brisk November day recently, where amid mismatched furniture, the clatter of dishware, old paintings, the smell of baked goods, and various bits of garage-sale statuary, the silver-haired, bespectacled, neatly bearded Helfand described what it was like to hear the news of the winning of the Nobel Peace Prize. Over coffee, he discussed the origins of the anti-nuclear weapons groups he helped to found, what got him into the field, his concerns about the current political administration, his hopes and fears for the future—and what he does to get through the days when it seems no progress is being made in the fight against nuclear weaponry.

Helfand brings his pager with him; though it is a quiet Sunday morning, our conversation is periodically interrupted by messages from work.

(Editor’s note: This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.)

 

BAS: Thanks for taking the time to meet me. I know you’ve got a very busy schedule, after that Nobel Peace Prize announcement.

One thing I was curious about: You’re one of the founders of the modern Physicians for Social Responsibility. Are you a practicing MD now?

HELFAND: Yes. I was an ER doc at Cooley Dickinson Hospital here in Northampton from 1985 to 2006, and then I bought an urgent care center down in Springfield, Massachusetts. It’s a family care medical center, which is where I work now. It’s a hybrid of urgent and primary care; I do about 50 percent of each.

BAS: Quite a few people in the anti-nuclear weapons movement seem to have some connection to medicine, a trend going way back. For example, local anti-nuclear weapons activist Frances Crowe—she’s 98 and still going strong; she got arrested again this summer at a public protest—said that her husband was one of the first radiologists in the state, and that it was from his learning about the effects of radiation on the human body in the 1940s that the two of them got interested in fighting against nuclear weapons. And in the ‘50s, Helen Caldicott was training to be a pediatrician when she saw the movie On the Beach. Afterward, Caldicott said: “It frightened the hell out of me; I’m still frightened.” Do you think having a medical background ...

HELFAND: Well, I was a medical student when I got involved. Certainly our perspective at Physicians for Social Responsibility is that the nuclear problem is primarily a public health issue; that’s been our mantra since we started. The idea is that this is not an abstract game of chess played among bureaucrats and nuclear weapons’ states. This is the greatest threat to public health that’s ever existed and we need to look at it that way. Because nuclear war must be prevented at all costs—and the only way to guarantee nuclear weapons are never used is to eliminate them.

BAS: Some of the reading material on nuclear weapons can sure come across as cold and clinical...

HELFAND: A whole vocabulary has deliberately evolved, to distance people from the reality of what a nuclear war would be. This language enables people to talk as though nuclear war was permissible, and acceptable to maintain nuclear weapons—and to contemplate using them. The reality’s been sanitized so that the implications of these inappropriate policies are unclear.

The United States has said for 70 years that nuclear weapons make us safe. But nuclear weapons are the principle threat to our safety and security, if you look at what these weapons will do when used. And for various reasons the military and political leaders of nuclear weapons’ states have not wanted to acknowledge these facts.

They want to keep nuclear weapons because they believe these weapons give them increased power in the world, enabling them to project national power onto the international scene. For example, here in the US we have this myth that we only have our nuclear weapons to deter other countries from attacking us with nuclear weapons—but that is not true. The US developed nuclear weapons and built up an arsenal when nobody else had them, and threatened to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states repeatedly. We threatened to use them against China during the Korean War, when the Chinese did not have nuclear weapons. We threatened to use them again against China during the crisis over Quemoy and Matsu in the late 1950s. We threatened to use them against Iraq in both Gulf Wars. We threatened to use them against Libya.

And there’s this constant drumbeat from certain segments of the Pentagon—and the military industrial complex—to develop more usable nuclear weapons. That’s a big part of the current so-called “modernization.” Though I don’t like to use that term, because the plan is more enhancing our nuclear arsenal, by developing weapons that are more usable.

We have really made a Faustian bargain: In order to have the power that nuclear weapons give us, we’re willing to run the risk they’ll be used.

And to get people to buy that reasoning, the Pentagon must convince the public that the weapons won’t actually be used. And then convince the public that even if worse came to worse and nuclear weapons were used, it wouldn’t be all that terrible.

Our job at PSR is to say the opposite. It’s to convince people that nuclear war would be far more harmful than anybody can imagine, and that as long as nuclear weapons exist there’s a very real chance they will be used.

And that danger is growing dramatically now, for both obvious and not-so-obvious reasons.

BAS: What makes you say that?

HELFAND: Climate change helps to increase the danger of nuclear war. US leaders keep saying that in the abstract they favor the abolition of nuclear weapons—but it’s always at some point in the remote future, when the timing is right. And that leaves the implication that things will be getting safer in the world. But they’re not getting safer, and that’s because of climate change. As large parts of the world become essentially uninhabitable because of climate change, the people living there are going to need to go somewhere, and that’s not going to be a smooth process. There’s going to be conflict. There’s going to be forced migration on a scale that dwarfs the current refugee crisis.

And if nuclear weapons are still on the table then, there’s an increased chance that nuclear weapons will be used in those conflicts, particularly in South Asia and the Middle East, but also possibly between the United States and Russia—or China. Because these conflicts have the potential to spin into great power conflicts. The crisis in Syria, which clearly had major roots in climate change, led to a confrontation between the United States and Russia.

BAS: Along those lines, I read in the local newspaper that you folks sponsored a weekend symposium that had a Harvard University professor ...

HELFAND: Jennifer Leaning.

BAS: ...who said that steady drought was a large contributor to unrest in that country. I think she called it “Syria: A case study in climate-induced conflict.”

HELFAND: The conflict in Syria was preceded by the worst drought in years, a drought almost certainly made worse by climate change. There’s been a progressive tendency towards drier conditions in the Middle East as climate change has progressed, punctuated at times by outright droughts.

The last drought primarily affected the province in the northeastern portion of Syria, which was largely Sunni Muslim. A million-and-a-half people were displaced from their farms because of the drought and they moved into the largely Alawite [Shia Muslim] and Christian cities in the south and the west. Long-simmering ethnic and religious tensions in Syria then exploded. Climate change didn’t create those problems, but it exacerbated them. And that’s the role that climate change will continue to play.

To give another example: India and Pakistan have huge problems between them, and they’re only going to get worse as Bangladesh goes underwater while northwest India and Pakistan dry out. Glaciers in the Himalayas will melt, there will no longer be water flowing into the Indus river system—which both countries depend on—and there’ll be tens or hundreds of millions of people on both sides of the border facing dire circumstances. So what is currently an ideological and religious conflict will become a battle for survival. And when that happens, people are not going to have any inhibitions about using the most powerful weapons at their disposal. And it’s clear, as is true in most countries that have nuclear weapons, that the leadership in India and Pakistan do not understand what the use of their own weapons will involve.

BAS: I want to backtrack a moment. You said that concern about nuclear weapons was a natural step for those who work in the medical field. But what got you personally interested in this topic from the beginning? Was there an “aha” moment? What were the roots of this organization you helped found?

HELFAND: In my last year of med school I read We Almost Lost Detroit—a book about Detroit Edison’s Fermi 1 Reactor. It was one of the the first commercial fast-breeder reactors built in the United States, and suffered a partial meltdown on its first day of operation, in the mid-1960s. And it was hushed up at the time. For a whole month, people did not know what was going on inside the reactor; there could have been a full-blown meltdown. And it was just 30 miles downwind from both Detroit and Toledo. 

(Editor’s note: Debate about the siting of the plant went all the way to the US Supreme Court—which ultimately ruled in a 7-2 decision that the Atomic Energy Commission had the authority to decide where to construct the facility. But Justice William O. Douglas wrote a thundering dissent, calling the AEC’s permit system “a light-hearted approach to the most awesome, the most deadly, the most dangerous process that man has ever conceived.”)

And during that partial meltdown—for a whole month—nothing was done to prepare Detroit or Toledo for the possibility of a massive release of radiation.

After reading it, I became concerned about nuclear power as a public health threat. So after I started my residency in Boston a few months later, I began going to demonstrations against the building of the Seabrook Station Nuclear Power Plant, about 40 miles north of the city. This was about 1977. It was a seminal event, described as the Woodstock of the anti-nuclear energy movement. I went as part of the Clamshell Alliance against the plant, and basically worked in the first-aid tent.

While there, I heard Helen Caldicott speak, and realized I would probably be more useful to this movement by giving the kind of medically-oriented lectures about nuclear power that she gave, rather than putting band-aids on people.

And Helen said to me: “You know, the problem is that I just get dismissed as this one crazy Australian doctor. We need a whole organization of doctors so they cannot dismiss us. Will you help me start one?” And I said, “Sure.” And she said, “There’s another doc, Eric Chivian. He’s interested in this too. Since you’re both Americans, and you know how to do things here in the States, why don’t you guys go figure out how to set up such a doctors’ organization, and come back and talk to me?” So Eric and I got together, met with Helen, and started meeting at Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, where I interning. And this was all about nuclear power—not nuclear weapons.

At our fourth meeting, a local doctor told us there used to be an organization back in the 1960s called Physicians for Social Responsibility, which had been effectively defunct for several years. But he had been the last president and kept the organization alive legally, and said that if we wanted the non-profit paperwork and the name, we could have it. As an added bonus, there were some very prominent doctors who were part of the original group, that we could tap into for our efforts.

So we took on the name, started reaching out to some of the docs from its original incarnation, and decided it was time to make a public statement about nuclear power.

We pooled all our money and asked the publishers of the New England Journal of Medicine if we could take out a full-page ad on the back cover. The publisher said: “Fine, but it’s going to be about ten weeks before the ad appears.” We were disappointed, but said okay; I wrote up an ad and we rounded up about 15 prominent docs from the medical community to sign on to it. And the full-page ad appeared on the back cover of the New England Journal of Medicine on Thursday, March 29, 1979—the same day as the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island.

BAS: Talk about timing.

HELFAND: Right. PSR went from 300 members to 5,000 members in two weeks.

BAS: What happened next?

HELFAND: That summer, we met with Bernard Lown, who had founded the original PSR. Bernard was quite fabulous and said: “Nuclear power’s a problem, but nuclear weapons are much more important. Why don’t you go back and read our articles in that same journal back in 1962.” It turned out that the Journal had done a whole special issue on the medical consequences of nuclear war. And as we read these articles we were—as Lown predicted—horrified. So, we decided that as huge a problem as nuclear power was, we needed to shift our organization’s focus to nuclear war. We organized our first symposium on the subject at Harvard College—not the medical school—in February 1980. It was a two-day event on the medical consequences of nuclear war, and became the lead story in the local newspapers and the network TV stations in Boston for two days running. We made a decision then and there that we would take the show on the road.

So, PSR did a national series of symposiums in major cities around the country over the next three years, which was the primary vehicle we used to get the message out to the general population. And I think this educational effort played a huge role in building the Freeze Movement of the 1980s. The whole anti-nuclear movement—it is important to remember today—was highly successful, and stopped the Cold War arms race.

It became part of the zeitgeist and showed up in popular culture, in movies such as The Day After, which had a huge impact on Ronald Reagan, who was president at the time. And also in the movie WarGames, which had a very big impact on him.

BAS: I’d heard Eric Schlosser make the same observation about The Day After. At a public symposium last year, Schlosser said: “The Day After was the the most widely watched film in television history. Ronald Reagan saw it, and he said it was what transformed him from a Cold Warrior.” But WarGames? That ‘80s movie with Matthew Broderick? Really?

HELFAND: Reagan had a short attention span—like some presidents we know. And he was highly influenced by popular media, and as a politician he had a good feel for the public mood. I guess it all got to him.

My understanding is that the screenplay for WarGames was written by someone who was a close family friend of the Reagans, who sent them an advance preview. Reagan watched it and was very upset; he came into the national security meeting the next Monday and said: “I saw this movie over the weekend. Is it really possible that someone could hack into the command and control stuff?” Everyone said, “No, no that’s just a movie.” And he said, “Well, look into it.” And at the next week’s national security briefing, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff came in and said: “We have a problem.”

I know it’s hard to believe, but that was the genesis of US concern about cyber warfare and cyber terrorism. If you want to dig into it, Fred Kaplan wrote about this for the New York Times in detail. (“WarGames and Cybersecurity’s Debt to a Hollywood Hack.)

Helfand’s cell phone starts vibrating.

HELFAND: Can you excuse me a second? I just gotta deal with this patient, if I could.

BAS: Sure.

HELFAND: Sorry.

BAS: No problem. Definitely a priority.

Pause.

BAS: All okay?

HELFAND: Fine. Just routine.

BAS: I wanted to clear up some things. What’s the connection between PSR, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), and the Nobel Peace Prize?

HELFAND: PSR became the US branch of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), which is the founding partner organization of ICAN, which began operations in 2007.

So, as co-president of IPPNW, I sit on what is effectively the governing body of ICAN.

BAS: Is it correct to say that in an extended sense, you guys won the Nobel Peace Prize?

HELFAND: ICAN won the Nobel Peace Prize, but IPPNW was the founding organization.

BAS: And ICAN is located in Geneva?

HELFAND: Right. There’s hundreds of international organizations headquartered there, and we figured there would be UN negotiations we’d want to participate in, when it came to nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament. And there certainly were.

BAS: It must have been exciting news to hear about the Nobel Peace Prize

HELFAND: It was exciting, as was the last time we won.

BAS: So this is the second time?

HELFAND: Second time. PSR itself shared in the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985 with IPPNW; the citation says the prize was awarded “for spreading authoritative information and by creating an awareness of the catastrophic consequences of atomic warfare.”

As somebody pointed out, there’s a small handful of people in this area. But it was exciting because it gives us a much bigger platform to get our message out, and at this moment the danger of nuclear war is greater than it’s been in a generation.

BAS: Where were you when you heard the news of the prize this October?

HELFAND: Sitting at my computer. It was five in the morning and we knew we had been nominated. We didn’t expect to win—but if we did, we didn’t want to sleep through it. So I was at my computer to get the news, planning to go back to sleep for another two hours. Which I didn’t get to do.

Which I can forgive.

BAS: One surprising thing was that some of the media didn’t seem to understand what it meant. For example, the headline in The Economist was “This year’s Nobel Peace Prize rewards a nice but pointless idea.” And the Washington Post said something like “The Nobel Peace Prize probably won’t please the US.” How do you respond?

HELFAND: There’s been a strong prejudice in the media that nuclear weapons are here to stay, and that talk about eliminating nuclear weapons is unrealistic. This has something of the quality of dogma among some elements of the press: “We’ll just keep on going as we have, and nukes will never be used.” I remember an experience with a major national newspaper when we released a report in 2012 on the climate effects of the use of nuclear weapons, called “Nuclear Famine: Two Billion People At Risk.” They rejected it and instead ran a piece about the swimming skills of polar bears. I wrote to the editor and protested; in response, he wrote: “If at some point in the future the danger of nuclear war is greater, we would consider running a piece like the one you wrote.”

Though I think that’s starting to change, and the media is starting to realize that it’s highly unrealistic to believe that we can continue to maintain thousands of nuclear weapons in the world and not have something terrible happen.

I think this change in attitude is happening for three reasons: One, frankly, is all the work that all the anti-nuclear weapons groups have done in helping people understand that even a very limited nuclear war would be a global catastrophe. Scientific studies establishing the perils of a limited nuclear war started appearing in 2006, and they have gotten increasing attention. Second is the crisis in Korea. Third is the Trump presidency—I think he really doesn’t get the concept that a nuclear war on the other side of the planet endangers all of us. He seems to think that it will just affect the Koreans. And that’s worrying people.

BAS: He’s oblivious?

HELFAND: I think that’s totally clear.

But it should be said that this is not unique to Donald Trump’s administration. The Obama administration was oblivious to the danger posed to the United States by the India-Pakistan nuclear rivalry.

Studies showed that a nuclear war in South Asia could cause world-wide climate disruption and trigger a famine that could kill up to two billion people. Those studies were sent repeatedly to the administration and were ignored. It is horrifying to me that the people who are in charge of US nuclear policy are this uninformed about what will happen if these weapons are used. I don’t mean to insult them; these are intelligent people and I know there’s a lot on their minds.

But they need to know what’s going to happen if somebody actually presses the button—and to a very significant degree, they do not. What’s worse is they think they do. They don’t know what they don’t know. This is a problem that goes back for decades.

When we met with Gorbachev, he was horrified by what we told him. Reagan thought he could call back nuclear weapons after they were launched. Famously. This is a long-standing pattern. I’ve met with high-ranking officials in Israel who did not know what would happen to Israel if Israel used its nuclear weapons against its neighbors.

BAS: But does this information really take hold? Or is it something that causes a little spark of interest, and then a business-as-usual attitude takes over?

HELFAND: I go back to medical models all the time. World leaders are like cigarette smokers. They think they know that cigarettes are bad for their health, but they keep smoking anyway because they don’t think it’s really going to happen to them—it’ll happen to someone else. What is needed is the same kind of conversation you have with a smoker: You sit down and explain just how bad it’s going to be, and how likely it’s going to happen. When you do, very significant numbers of smokers stop smoking. Not all, but very large numbers.

We need to sit down with our leaders and make sure they do understand what is going to happen. Really understand. They can all say “We know it’s going to be terrible,” but they need to understand literally and specifically what’s going to happen. Because it is far worse than anything that they think of.

BAS: It seems that often there are government officials who, once they get out of office, become extremely concerned about nuclear weaponry. But they didn’t do anything about it while they were in office and had the power to make changes.

HELFAND: It’s an incredible phenomenon. There’s a huge list of these people who were architects of nuclear policy but now say that we need to get rid of these nuclear weapons. And when asked about the dichotomy between their positions then and now, some say: “The world’s changed, and that’s why I changed my views.”

Others are more honest and say: “When I was part of this enterprise I thought we could control it. Now that I’m not part of this enterprise, I’m horrified to think that any human being has that power.” And I think there’s a certain arrogance that comes upon people when they are in positions of high authority. It’s not a character flaw in the individual, it’s what power does to people.

BAS: I suppose they tell themselves “I’m reforming things from the inside.”

HELFAND: And I think people get caught up in the moment. They are so preoccupied with dealing with the immediate crisis that they can’t step back and say: “Oh my god, this whole system is crazy.” It’s like when you’re in the emergency room in the middle of a trauma code; you’re not thinking about how to redesign the whole system so trauma codes don’t take place in the future. Instead, you’re caught up in managing the current crisis. I think a lot of that goes on.

That was one of Gorbachev’s real astonishing contributions—in the middle of the incredible crisis of the early ‘80s, he was able to stand back and say: “This whole situation has to be fundamentally changed.”

BAS: In other words, it’s only after the crisis in the emergency room that you have a chance to catch your breath, and then mentally process what just happened.

HELFAND: Right. But it is frustrating when you attend these conferences and meet some of the people who had once been key players.

For example, several people have asked me: “Do you think that now that he’s not president anymore, Obama will speak out more against nuclear weapons?” And I say: “I’m not going to know what to think if he does. He just had his best shot at getting rid of them. He should have taken it then.”

BAS: But Obama made the right noises, such as his Prague speech, where he pledged America’s commitment to work towards a world free of nuclear weapons.

HELFAND: The Prague speech did raise people’s hopes back then; it had a huge impact when Obama said that he “sought the security of a world free of nuclear weapons.” But the second clause in that sentence was that “it may not happen in my lifetime.”

Although his speech did play a big role in launching this whole anti-nuclear movement.

I’ve never had a chance to speak to President Obama, I don’t know what his thoughts were about nuclear weapons. I do know that his administration did not actively seek the security of a world free of nuclear weapons. Just the opposite. The Obama Administration worked hard to scuttle the Treaty on the Prohibition on Nuclear Weapons. And it started this trillion-dollar effort to enhance our existing stockpile of nuclear weapons.

BAS: So Trump is not a complete aberration, he’s continuing some existing trends—or at least making them more pronounced?

HELFAND: Well, his policies are not aberrations. His policies flow from the policies that preceded him; they’re just taken to a much greater level.

But what is truly aberrant about Trump is the personal instability. And that’s very important. Because an essential component of deterrence theory is the idea that nuclear arsenals would be commanded by people who possess the judgment, the temperament, and the knowledge base to make sound decisions in a crisis. In the judgment of his own party’s security experts, Donald Trump possesses none of those three qualities. The United States has said for two or three decades that it would be intolerable if even a single nuclear weapon fell into the wrong hands—by which we meant a rogue state or a terrorist group.

But now we have turned 6,800 nuclear warheads over to Donald Trump—someone who clearly, by any definition, does not have the right hands.

And just to carry this a little bit further. The fact that he is president I think undercuts the entire intellectual basis for deterrence as US policy. It’s not enough to get Trump’s finger off the button—although that’s very important to do as soon as we can. We clearly need to get rid of the button itself. Because if we can elect Donald Trump once, we can elect someone similar in the future. Someone equally unqualified to command anything. Or maybe even worse.

BAS: What do you think of those legislative efforts to prevent the president from initiating a first-use nuclear strike, before an enemy has launched a nuclear attack against the United States or an ally?

HELFAND: I think the Markey-Lieu legislation is extremely important. As are the hearings that Sen. Corker convened, which were not specifically about the Markey bill, but aimed to explore the whole question of presidential authority to launch nuclear weapons.

Helfand’s cell phone starts vibrating.

HELFAND: Excuse me, I just have to respond to this instant message. Busy day for a Sunday.

BAS: Okay.

Pause.

HELFAND: Okay, where were we?

BAS: Well, I wanted to read you an excerpt from a recent article in Foreign Policy, which said: “He is extraordinarily restless, dashes back and forth, ...intervenes in the leadership of the generals, gives countless and often contradictory orders, and scarcely listens to advisers. He always wants to win and when the decision is against him, takes it ill.”

HELFAND: Who was this?

BAS: Kaiser Wilhelm, just before the start of World War I.

HELFAND: I think that’s exactly right, given what I’ve read about the Kaiser—primarily from Barbara Tuchman’s “The Guns of August” book. I think it’s an extremely apt analogy to Trump. In the days before the Internet, the Kaiser was famous for making very explosive, inflammatory statements that would then send the German Foreign Ministry into a tizzy trying to undo the damage he’d done.

BAS: Do you ever think, “My God, we’re not making any progress?” And if so, how do you deal with it? Do you ever want to pack it in?

HELFAND: Well, I tell myself that if you’re not successful in this enterprise, horrible, horrible things are going to happen... Everything we hold dear would be destroyed. Everything we have inherited from our ancestors would be destroyed, everything that we should leave to our children would be destroyed. This is really going to happen if we do not take action.

So, we really do not have a choice whether to continue the work or not. The scariest time until now was in the ‘80s. We all thought that nuclear war was going to happen, and we were in a desperate struggle to keep that from occurring. That is kind of the way I feel now.

It is not the most widely shared view, but I think it will be shortly. There are two aspects of the current danger: One is the immediate threat caused by the instability of President Trump and the very real danger that he will blunder us into a nuclear war. That is something we have limited control over. His own secretary of state and secretary of defense don’t seem to be able to control him; I think we have to hope that he leaves office as soon as possible.

Beyond that, the second, more substantial danger is the risk posed by the continued existence of these weapons and the progressively increasing likelihood that they will be used as climate change progresses and conditions on this planet get more difficult.

But I do not despair, because there is nothing inevitable about nuclear war. Nuclear weapons are not a force of nature, they are not an act of god, we have built these with our own hands and we know how to take them apart. Whether we will have the wisdom to do that is not clear, but that is our job, to make sure people understand the absolute necessity of eliminating these weapons.

And we don’t have a choice but to move forward with that task.

But that is what makes life worthwhile. In my personal life, there are things I did not get to do because of this work. You know, things that I would have enjoyed doing if I’d had the time. But I have a sense that at least what I have been doing has been worthwhile.

And when you have a major success like the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, you have the feeling that you have actually gotten something done.

BAS: Anything else you’d like to add?

HELFAND: I always end speeches like my talk at the Nobel Peace Laureates Summit  by telling people that when you leave this room, the first thing that will happen is you’ll start forgetting everything I’ve said here. It’s not just the usual process of thoughts being displaced by other things enter into your mind, but a deliberate act. That is how human minds deal with things that are painful; we repress them and actively push them out of our mind. Then I implore people not to let that happen. You have to figure out how to hold on to this information and keep it in the front of your mind, in a place where it will affect you every day. So that every morning you wake up, you say: “I have to spend some time working on the prevention of nuclear war.”

One of the things I tell my kids is that I know that this is a terrible burden that I’ve just put on your shoulders. But it is also a gift—because each of you wants to do something good with your life, and you have the opportunity to save the world. There is nothing better someone can do.