Lewis Thomas

The Possibility of Nuclear Holocaust

VTR Date: February 25, 1983

Guest: Thomas, Lewis


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Lewis Thomas
Title: “The Possibility of Nuclear Holocaust”
VTR: 2/25/83

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. As President, now Chancellor of the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Institute in New York, medical doctor Lewis Thomas has long been in the vanguard of those who fight the disease that many of us consider the most fearsome medical threat to our times: cancer. He’s optimistic that modern medicine may even right now be on the cutting edge of dealing effectively with the causes and then the cure and even the prevention of this destructive scourge of mankind. But he’s not that sanguine when it comes to a far more overwhelming threat to the survival of mankind. Not cancer, but war. Nuclear war. The product perhaps of deranged, madly malfunctioning cells in our minds, in our souls. This is the third and last in my current OPEN MIND series with Dr. Thomas, though fervently I hope that it is, as in the past, he will grace this table many more times, sharing with us many more insights of the quality that makes his new Viking Press volume, “the Youngest Science: Notes of a Medicine-Watcher”. But I should note that Dr. Thomas has waited patiently through our discussions of his life as a medical doctor as illumined so brilliantly in his new book, and through my own incursions into the theme of genetic manipulation. For I think it not hyperbole to note that now his larger concerns as a doctor have to do with thinking the unthinkable, with what must become mankind’s awareness of the total-end-of-meaningful-human-existence nature of pursuing the madness of making war with nuclear weapons.

Dr. Thomas, thanks for joining me again at the end of this trilogy. You know, in this book that you had recommended to me – and it is most telling – “Last Aid: The Medical Dimensions of Nuclear War”, at one point, Dr. Mack writes, “The ultimate responsibility for the arms race resides in the hearts and minds of human beings who are unable to comprehend the real nature of the monster we have created”. Do you really think that there is a soul on this planet who doesn’t yet comprehend the potential for nuclear holocaust?

THOMAS: I think there probably are a good many such souls, but they’re rather hard to find. If you set about arguing this issue, it’s difficult to find anybody to argue against. The other side, if it is the other side, that is the people who appear to be proponents of nuclear weaponry, keep saying, rather blandly and mildly most of the time, that the only reason for having mounted this extraordinary armament is deterrence. And I suspect the same thing is said on the Soviet side. These are only designed to keep the other chaps from letting fly what they’ve got. And in spite of that expressed point of view, both sides keep building more and more of them, and doing more and more research designed to make them more invulnerable to attack. And I have a suspicion that there is a body of opinion on both sides in the military, and I suspect elsewhere as well, that has it that this is really rather a good kind of weaponry and that we might, if we keep at it, win a war using nuclear arms. And I’d like to find out more about that point of view, and I’d like to hear it said openly so that it could be countered with what I think are substantial counter-arguments.

If we don’t get at the problem quickly and achieve some kind of an agreement on both side, either for bilateral freeze of for what I would like to see, which is a systematic taking-apart of these weapons and ultimately their destruction. If we keep on the way we are, on the track we seem to be on now, I’m afraid something will go wrong. A computer will make a mistake or a man or a set of men will make a mistake and/or someone will get the idea that you can use things like this as tactical, tactful battlefield weapons, that you can do in, say, a tank division by letting a little, small one go off. And I find it quite persuasive when I’m told that once it starts there’ll be no stopping it. There is in my view, as a bystanding layman, something quite convincing about the argument that there is no such thing as a limited nuclear war. So that if it starts, at least if it starts between the two great powers, it will end with the destruction not just of cities and not just of the nation states involved, but with the destruction of society, and with it civilization. The stakes are very high, and I would like to hear more from the people who want this weaponry advanced further and sustained and built up. I’d like to know more about what they think the stakes are that would make it worthwhile wiping out mankind.

HEFFNER: On the other side, your own concerns, I gather from what you’ve written and written so eloquently on this subject, has to do with the total impossibility of survival in any form in the midst of a nuclear holocaust. That seems to be the theme that has been pressed by your colleagues, the medical doctors who are concerned to create an awareness on the part of the public of what it would mean, not to have another Hiroshima or Nagasaki, but to have warfare of the dimension that we can wage right now.

THOMAS: Yeah. I’m quick to say, as are my medical colleagues, that we are not even at the rank of amateurs in military doctrine. We know nothing about armed clashes and how they should be managed, tactics or strategy. We know only one thing for sure, and that is that if these weapons are employed, the kinds of casualties that will result are the very kinds of injury to the human body for which we have no technology. First of all, radiation, lethal radiation. We have been able to transplant bone marrow from one human being to another under extraordinary circumstances. And this can be accomplished in limited numbers, say three or four patients in a very large hospital like Memorial. And to contemplate trying to do something about the hundreds of thousands who are, indeed, in the worst scenarios hundreds of millions of people, lethally irradiated by these explosions are, at least of the kind of response that you get from doctors, count us out. You can’t do anything about that.

HEFFNER: You won’t be around, either.

THOMAS: Well, that’s only, some of us keep saying that. I think that’s the least of matters. If all the doctors were around, we still couldn’t do anything.

HEFFNER: Okay, but isn’t the least of matters in the sense that in terms of where the bombs are most likely to be dropped? You talk about being able to treat three or four people at our hospital. That hospital won’t stand, and the concentration of medical personnel will be wiped out too.

THOMAS: That’s true. If these things are, as I think is inevitable, used against cities, I see no purpose in having them except to destroy cities, they will destroy the medical facilities, and they will destroy the medical personnel. But even if they didn’t, Richard, given the likely numbers of people exposed to lethal irradiation alone, there is no technology that we could mount that would do anything at all about that problem. This would simply be a lot of people dying, with nothing to be done about it.

The other, or the second major hazard to humans is, of course, burns. This was the biggest problem in the Hiroshima bombing, and Nagasaki, where, mind you, the bombs were, as the jargon has it these days, primitive, minor puffs compared to the ten-megaton missiles we’ve got now. We are not able to do anything about extensive body burns. We don’t have a technology that will preserve life, except in very rare circumstances. And in those rare circumstances it requires mobilizing almost the entire technology of a large, sophisticated hospital. But if there are, as there would be, hundreds of thousands or in the millions of badly burned people, medicine has nothing at all to offer there. And the same thing is true for blast, for the multiple injuries that would be involved with the periphery of the city subjected to this, to a single bomb.

It isn’t that the doctors are saying, “Count us out, because we don’t want to take part in this affair”. They’re saying, “Count us out, because this is no longer a medical problem”. I have some feeling of urgency about the matter because on several occasions I’ve been involved in discussions of this, and in one discussion of an elderly, extremely intelligent industrialist, said, “Ah, but doctor, medicine is moving so fast and you chaps are making so much progress that in a little while you will be able to accomplish these things”. And I was forced to say that in my own opinion there will never come a time when medicine or surgery or any other technology can mend matters if we get into a nuclear exchange. Medicine is never going to be able to put together a vaporized human body.

HEFFNER: You know, some time back, on another program I do called “From the Editor’s Desk”, my guest was Bishop Gumbleton, one of the Catholic bishops who had participated in developing the position papers about nuclear weaponry. And at that time there were many people who said to me, ‘What are you doing with bishops? What are you doing with clergy? What do they know about matters relating to war and peace?” And I suspect the same thing will be said after this program. “What are you talking to doctors for? What do doctors know about politics, let alone matters of war and peace?” You disclaim being a strategist. You disclaim for yourself and other doctors knowledge of military matters. But when and where and how do we get a hold of this business of…A young woman, Janice Alcessor, who is researching for this program, came away from reading some of your things feeling so down, although you are the most up person I know in terms of your attitudes toward medicine generally. Where do you hold this? It’s really thinking the unthinkable, which we don’t want to do, and don’t therefore.

THOMAS: I don’t know. I think that one of the things that is still lacking is a proper debate about the matter. I think that somewhere in the demonology there is a cast of mind that believes that the stakes are so high that we should risk it, that we may, if we keep at the research, develop a technology for defense. We may abrogate, for instance, the ABM treaty and START, and the other side may do the same thing, start developing anti-weapons in space or in the atmosphere itself, good enough to give confidence to one side or the other that now it’s safe to let fly or to threaten to let fly against the other side. That means taking a chance on a very high technology and on the certainty of that technology. And most engineers believe that bridges ought to be built 40 times too strong in order to avoid having the bridges collapse. But I don’t think any engineer could be convinced, easily anyway, that you could have a technology which would exclude 100 percent of all missiles coming in from the other side. There would be some defect. And if 1,000 missiles came through and the thing or system were 99 percent accurate, then only ten would land on the nation and those ten, if targeted on Boston and San Francisco and Chicago and name whatever cities you like, would ten be destroyed. The group that I think I’m talking about believes that that’s acceptable, and this word “acceptable damages” has com into the jargon in discussions of this kind. And I don’t think there is such a thing as “acceptable damage” on that scale.

Sometimes the argument runs as though we were only talking about weapons against weapons. The MX basing problem, fir example, is posed as thought the only thing at stake is the survival of the silos. And what we have to do and what they have to do on the other side is to build weapons that are so powerfully insulated against blasts that, or protected by other means so that an attack from the other side will not succeed in destroying all of them. And left out of the consideration in the MX debate, of example, when the missiles were going to be distributed all over Utah and Nevada or wherever they’re going to put them is the fact that if in the worst case scenario the Soviets fired off enough missiles to destroy on the ground all of the MX missiles, that would have resulted, as the Office of Technology Assessment in Congress concluded after a rather good study, in the outright death from radiation of something between five and 25 million American citizens. So it’s rather more than a neat, surgical taking-out of one side’s weapons that is involved in defense of the missiles. And people don’t talk about that.

One other thing that worries me very much is that the numbers are so huge. It’s become commonplace for people to talk about five million immediate deaths or 50 million immediate deaths in one region. The paper said that in the worst case we will lose 150 million people outright, and the Soviets would only lose 113 million, and that persuades some people that they have an advantage over us. Now, I’m afraid that in these discussions of, with those big numbers, someone, some neighbor would come along and say, “Look, we’d only lose a million people if we do it this way”. And everybody will relax and say, “How wonderful”.

HEFFNER: Well, isn’t that what’s happened already? If not a million, then ten million or 500,000 or whatever. But the numbers are so huge that there must be an incredible amount of denial. I mean, I realized in thinking about this program, I go about my business every day. And this becomes a half-hour interlude and time for reading what you’ve written or other doctors have written and thinking about the newspaper stories, but basically an interlude. I stop and think about it. I don’t know how we go on pretending that these can just be interludes.

THOMAS: I worry most about what this is doing to the minds of our youngest people. I wonder sometimes what I would be thinking, if I were 16 years old and kept hearing on television or reading in papers and magazines about the possible improvements of life. Lots of generations have grown up with myths about apocalypse. And in previous centuries, lot s of generations had to grow up knowing about what plagues could do and the chanciness of human life that always existed. Butt his time I think it’s different. I think a lot of young people really wonder, a lot of young people are beginning to think that they’re not going to live out their lives, that the world may not be here 15 or 20 years from now. And I don’t know what that does to an adolescent, or for that matter, to a child’s mind. But I think it’s an injury.

HEFFNER: You’ve raised the question elsewhere: What kind of mentality, what kind of mind can encompass the possibility, as you use the word, as you say the word is used, “acceptable”, so many deaths, so many human casualties acceptable? What kind of mind does deal with those figures in an acceptable mode, do you think?

THOMAS: I don’t know. I sometimes think it’s the military mind. But I know some military people with good minds, and the ones I know do not think this way. Actually, I’m not, that’s why I want to see a debate in public. I’m not sure there is anybody on the other side.

HEFFNER: You want to spot them when they talk.

THOMAS: Maybe we’re just adrift and collectively we haven’t really faced up to what’s at stake. I have an awful thought from time to time, and that is that as a species we are already in some trouble. We’ve begun to overpopulate our space along the globe. We’ve begun to use up more resources than prudence would lead us to do. It begins to look as though humanity may be on the verge of catastrophe in evolutionary terms. We could be in for a crash. When that situation arises in nature, and it arises over and over again in evolutionary history, the paleontological record shows us, there is such a thing as extinction. But when it begins to happen, I think species begin to behave irrationally and…

HEFFNER: Hasten their death?

THOMAS: I’d worry about the lemming phenomenon for us. And it would be another reason to bring us up very short and very quickly and stop what we’re doing now.

HEFFNER: Is that the reason, then, for your call to debate…


HEFFNER: …to identify…

THOMAS: I’d like to see more candor than I hear. I hear it from the other side really, at least in the things I do hear, and most of that’s on television or what is written in the press, in the magazines, I hear nothing but protestations from everybody that of course, this kind of war is unthinkable, and of course we would never use them first. And they’re just there for deterrence. And I’m beginning to suspect that’s really not the case. There are some people somewhere on both sides who kind of hanker to get us into nuclear war. And I’d like to have them surface so that we could have a little open conversation with them.

HEFFNER: We used to think that when we talked about thinking the unthinkable, that the unthinkable was using nuclear weapons and nuclear war. It almost seems as if there’s a shift and the unthinkable now is saying we simply will not because we cannot extinguish ourselves an the whole human race. There is that subtle discussion-ending, dialogue-ending climate today. Maybe that’s why you don’t find this exchange that you’re looking for.

THOMAS: Yeah. I think it’s going to be harder for society at large to turn this off, harder, more difficult than it is to go on with what I regard as the skids for mankind, as we all know. It’s going to be harder work to stop it that it is to continue.

HEFFNER: It surprises me to hear you of all people talking about these skids. Although, if you want to take an anthropological, paleontological view, so what? But it surprises me to hear you, I don’t mean I’m shocked, Dr. Thomas, but I am surprised because you’re always such an optimistic person.

THOMAS: I’m not discouraged about it. I think it can be done. I think we’ve got to keep our wits about us. And remember another thing about it is that we are, as a species, very young. We’ve only been here a few hundred thousands of years as human beings. That is, as speaking, language-using animals. And we could be regarded as very immature. We are juvenile and we could get ourselves in trouble because of the fact that we are so juvenile. We’re not yet ready for extinction. And we’re too smart for that.

HEFFNER: But you do have that sense that perhaps something has gone awry, and that in evolutionary terms…

THOMAS: Something is going awry. And it’s going to take a collective effort on the part of a great many people to stop what is maybe about to happen.

HEFFNER: Is my sense that your profession is banding together increasingly correct?

THOMAS: Yeah. The Physicians for Social Responsibility and another international organization of physicians raise this issue whenever they get the chance.

HEFFNER: Are they dismissed the way the bishops are dismissed?

THOMAS: No, I think the medical point of view in this has caught some public attention. I think the enormity of the medical casualties and the fact, as we are quite certain, that they cannot be dealt with, does have some impact among the public.

HEFFNER: The possibility of burning here rather than the threat of burning in hell seems to be stronger then, seems to be more motivating.

THOMAS: Yeah, it’s a possibility. It’s always been true in warfare that the people engaged in combat, the troops, are backed up by whatever the best of possible medical care is at the time. Medical communities are called immunes in warfare because they were not expected to engage in combat. They were expected to be on the battlefield ready to salvage the injured and do whatever they could in the way of giving them care and comfort. In this kind of war, the immunes won’t exist. And if they did exist, there wouldn’t be anything they could do.

HEFFNER: It’s interesting to have you here again today, Dr. Thomas, to talk about the immunes or the non-immunes, and it’s interesting to know that the medical profession is organizing, if that’s the correct word, as it is. Thank you once again for joining me on THE OPEN MIND.

THOMAS: Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope that you too will join us here again on THE OPEN MIND. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck”.