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Helen Caldicott: galvanizing support for a nuclear freeze

By Diane Casselberry ManuelStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 28, 1982

Cambridge, Mass.

''The next two years will be a race for our lives. If we don't turn things around by 1984 and fill the Congress up with people who are for bilateral nuclear disarmament, it will be too late.''

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This is the kind of pronouncement Helen Caldicott is known for, the kind she hopes will prompt a reaction from the most apathetic listener. Although it's delivered with a lyrical Australian accent, the sting lingers on. You can almost hear her supporters yelling, ''Right on, sport!'' while her critics grumble about the way she plays on her audience's emotions.

She has been called the most effective voice against nuclear arms in the United States, and her quotable phrases resonate with a cadence timed for snappy Page 1 headlines. In New England churches and Midwestern Grange halls, in high school auditoriums and before the US Congress in Washington, she confronts her listeners with graphic descriptions of the physical consequences of nuclear war, using blackboard diagrams to explain the capabilities of MX missiles and the effects of radioactive isotopes. She wants to educate, to raise moral questions, to crack through her listeners' defenses, and make them cry if necessary to get them feeling.

''You've got to talk about feelings,'' she contends. ''And because I travel continuously, I know how the country is feeling. In the groups I speak to, people are starting to ask the questions that show they're concerned with the moral and ethical values of nuclear war. They're starting to take individual responsibility and to say, 'I myself have to change, and I have to help other people change.' ''

In much the same way that she helped to galvanize Australian public opinion against French atomic tests in the South Pacific in the early 1970s (leading to the election of a new ruling party in Australia that succeeded in having the International Court of Justice in The Hague declare a ban on nuclear atmospheric testing in that area), Dr. Caldicott today is carrying the message of bilateral disarmament from one coast of her adopted homeland to the other. Physicians for Social Responsibility, the Boston-based antinuclear coalition she heads, has grown from 10 members in 1979 to more than 30,000 today.

Membership in groups of similarly concerned professionals is also increasing, including the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Lawyers' Alliance for Nuclear Arms Control, and Educators for Social Responsibility. Last month a grass-roots drive to halt the arms race won the support of voters in eight of nine states where the issue appeared on the ballot, with an estimated 10.8 million Americans voting in favor of a bilateral and verifiable nuclear freeze, compared with 7.2 million who voted against it.

Dr. Caldicott is less interested in playing the numbers game than she is in building a groundswell of public sentiment that will lead to solutions. She's encouraged by the ''revolution in thought'' she says is taking place today.

''The enemy image is becoming anachronistic,'' she explains. ''People are learning that man can't fight anymore, or that if he does, the only weapon he can use is his larynx, which leads to conflict resolution.''

While many of her responses have a well-rehearsed rhythm, to talk with Dr. Caldicott in her quiet Cambridge office, decorated with sunny posters and freshly cut flowers, is to be reminded of the fundamental concerns that motivate her. A pediatrician who specializes in genetic damage, she has temporarily given up her medical practice to work on behalf of the antinuclear movement. She wants to make the world safer for her own three children and for her patients.