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'
"We're in a jam," Gayler said, and there is a "very real" danger of nuclear war. It is time to take all nuclear material, he said, and "burn it up. . . . I don't think nuclear weapons have anything to do with defense or security, except to imperil it."
Sidney Drell, a Stanford University professor, deputy director of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center and co-director of the Stanford Center for International Security and Arms Control, said President Reagan's $26-billion Strategic Defensive Initiative, the "Star Wars" proposal--a plan to develop a new generation of weapons that could be deployed to shoot down Soviet missiles before they reached U.S. targets--is at best an idea that is "attractive, but not practical" and "totally unrealistic."
At the moment he spoke, Drell said, there were 8,000 to 10,000 Soviet warheads targeted on this country and "if one of those gets through on Los Angeles, that's the end of Los Angeles."
Gayler was more severely critical of "Star Wars," suggesting it is less than a benign proposal and one that is "sending the wrong signal to the Soviets."
'Chances ... Are Zero'
He added, "I think the chances of defense of populations against nuclear weapons are essentially zero . . . . Gadgetry is not going to get us out of it."
Mayor Tom Bradley stopped by to welcome the conference and brought delegates to their feet with his declaration that he supported a nuclear freeze as a first step, after which "we'll go after our ultimate goal, elimination of nuclear weapons" worldwide. Bradley, who visited Hiroshima in 1983, added, "It is insanity for us to tolerate nuclear warfare, to tolerate constant buildup of nuclear weapons."
As for those who suggest that in the event of nuclear war the people in the cities could be transported to non-target areas, Bradley suggested, "I don't know how they'd get there. I've been on our freeways. To suggest that people could evacuate this city is sheer nonsense."
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"Dear friends," said Evgueni Chazov, reading in English his address to the body. He spoke of the 20 million Russian casualties of World War II--"We in the Soviet Union know well what war is about." He spoke of huge support for the physicians' anti-nuclear movement in his country--"As physicians we believe that nuclear war would be the final epidemic . . . . There can be no more serious sickness than the arms race."
He spoke for 20 minutes, in English. And he said, "Together we can do quite a lot for the happiness of all mankind. Let us fight together." The audience rose and applauded.
Following him to the podium was Dr. Manuel Velasco-Suarez of Mexico City, a former governor of the state of Chiapas and president of the Mexican chapter, International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. He spoke as an advocate for peoples of the Third World; these peoples have no nuclear weapons, he said, "but we are going to be victims, too, and (the superpowers) decide our destiny."
Preventing 'the Last Disease'
He spoke of pollution, of diversion of economic resources in Latin America from medical research to militarization. And he appealed for "international cooperation" in preventing "the last disease of humankind."
"You are not only our friends, but also our hope," said Dr. Ulrich Gottstein of Frankfurt; in West Germany, he said, 8,000 MDs have signed an oath stating that medical treatment for victims of nuclear war is an "illusion," and that they would refuse to participate in medical preparations for nuclear war.
This, he said, is in the face of "slander" directed at these physicians, who are being accused of being communistic or anti-American.
He told of a march last year by 300 doctors in white coats and black ties to a cemetery where 50,000 Soviet victims of Nazi atrocities are buried, physicians carrying placards saying, "Never Again Auschwitz."
And he deplored the civilian defense buildup in West Germany, of medical journals that emphasize treatment of children as of "prime importance" in the event of nuclear disaster.
Radiation Disease Peril
Gottstein asked, "Have they chosen to forget that there is no help against radiation disease?" Doctors, he said, must refuse to participate in these medical preparations and "thus force politicians worldwide to rethink."
In World War II, he said, some German doctors, a minority, participated in research, torture and killings in prison camps. But, he vowed, "We physicians of the present day shall not again break the Hippocratic oath."
Dr. Andrew Haines of London said, "Between us, we have scared many millions of people . . . we should congratulate ourselves." But, he asked, what now? In the United Kingdom, Haines said, there is a new international medical journal being launched, "Medicine and War." And the Oxford Research Group has identified 800 decision-makers in the five superpowers to engage in dialogue to "show them we are sane people who have sane concerns about the world."
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Ed Begley Jr. emceed a gala Saturday night banquet honoring Carl Sagan. Goldie Hawn was there, to tell everyone she was happy "to be with a group that can face the truth about nuclear war." The sprinkling of Hollywood celebrities included Dana Andrews, Burgess Meredith, Ed Asner, Barbara Bain, Robert Culp, Ted Danson, Paula Kelly, Margot Kidder and Leonard Nimoy.
Producer Norman Lear introduced Sagan as the man who "helped to alert the American public to secrets that the nuclear priesthood has known for years" and thanked him for "reminding us that this earth does not belong to the United States, or to this generation."
On Sunday morning, there was one final order of business. The body passed a resolution in support of the New Zealand government for refusing docking rights to the American destroyer Buchanan: "Physicians for Social Responsibility is committed to eliminating the threat of nuclear war and in this spirit we commend and support the people and government of New Zealand for rejecting in their territory the presence of nuclear weapons from any country."