Jonathan Lorch

Living with the Threat of Nuclear Holocaust

VTR Date: November 23, 1983

Guest: Lorch, Jonathan


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Jonathan Lorch
Title: “Living with the Threat of Nuclear Holocaust”
VTR: 11/23/83

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. When I did a program recently with my very old friend Norman Cousins, and I say “very old” only because he and I have been doing programs together for at least all of the 27 years of THE OPEN MIND. I wondered whether the movement in the books he was writing away from world affairs to individual physical well-being could have anything to do with the sense that, while we can reasonably control ourselves, there can no longer be any reasonable control over our nuclear world. Well, he smiled in reply. Maybe that means yes; and maybe that means no. Whatever. Surely, the major problem in our time does relate to something unprintable: nuclear holocaust. And so I’ve invited to THE OPEN MIND today, as my guest, Dr. Jonathan Lorch of St. Luke’s Hospital Center and Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, to discuss his point of view concerning thinking the unthinkable, from the vantage point of his activist organization, Physicians for Social Responsibility.

Thanks for joining me today, Doctor. I wonder whether I shouldn’t start off by asking you a similar question: How do you, day in and day out, week in and week out, deal with the unthinkable?

LORCH: It’s one of the most difficult subjects I have to deal with professionally and personally. And it’s, in some ways, easy for me, because as a physician I’m sort of trained and have experience with dealing with very unpleasant information, very unpleasant relationships, cancer, heart disease. Things that many people take for granted are very intimate in my life. And nuclear war, in that sense, has become another health issue, another intimate relation between myself and the population of patients and people. So, it had now become another health issue to me.

HEFFNER: I remember that, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, I was involved with Channel 13 at the time, and I remember looking out my office window at the numbers of people looking at television sets following what was happening then. And I realize that, afterwards, there were physicians who reported illness of a kind in terms of the anxieties we felt at that time. Is that what you’re referring to?

LORCH: Well, I think in adults at this point there seems not to be as much anxiety about it as there is in kids. And at that time there had been some studies done which showed the same thing: that children had tremendous anxiety over what was going on at that time, because they really didn’t have the ability to defend themselves intellectually, psychically, against what potentially could have been the end of the world; The end of their world, the end of their lives, the end of their future.

HEFFNER: Dr. Lorch, give me a hint as to how we, older, can defend ourselves.

LORCH: Well, we have this intellectual capability to say, “It really won’t happen. Our leaders know better. There are people who are in command. Nobody would really start a nuclear war. These weapons are for our protection. They really will never be used”. We have a whole, I think, almost jargon, vernacular lingo that we used to protect ourselves. When you consider some of the words we use: “survivability”. Well, that always refers to missile silos, never to people. Consider the word “deterrence”. It’s sort of a very safe sounding word. But the basis of it is the willingness to end life on this planet. So we have lots of words, lots of methods, that we protect ourselves from what is the reality of nuclear weapons and nuclear war: the potential end of life on this planet.

HEFFNER: Denial. I gather you’re suggesting that denial, in a sense, is central to survival in this nuclear age.

LORCH: Well, it’s central, but it’s possibly central to our demise as a species on this planet. All of us use denial so we don’t have to face painful situations. But when we use this in the realm of nuclear weapons in war, it really separates us from reality of what our responses are, healthy responses, should really be. And we have, for the last 40 years, lived with nuclear weapons as if they make us healthy, they keep us big and strong. And we have forgotten what they are actually built for, what they will actually do to us if they are ever used. And so this denial up until about five or six years ago has really kept us from addressing very basic and profound questions about the kind of world we want to live in.

HEFFNER: Dr. Lorch, you say, “up until five or six years ago”. Why do you date it that way?

LORCH: Well, five or six years ago, I think, a major transformation occurred for reasons many of which I can’t explain. People began to become more and more scared about the escalation of the nuclear arms race, the fact that we had a president, President Carter, who began to talk about limited nuclear war. There were new weapons open to be deployed and built: the MX, the B-1 bomber. President Reagan then took charge, and we had more and more talk about limited nuclear war. We had increase in spending for civil defense. We had the Pershing and the Cruise missiles. And I think these brought to the foreground what are people’s really latent fears about these weapons. And I think, for some reason, this, in conjunction with some of the work that our organization, Physicians for Social Responsibility, has done, made people confront again the kind of world we’re living in and what kind of world we want to make it, and whether we want it based upon nuclear weapons or not.

HEFFNER: Does anybody say to you, “you are making me crazy. Stop. Don’t. There’s nothing I can do about it. Don’t make me think about the potential for the future.”?

LORCH: Oh, absolutely. And I think part of the reason is not only that these weapons are so immense, and their destructive power is so great, that people can’t really comprehend them. But I think many people feel that they have been disempowered. That they no longer have an ability to really effect change in their country. I think it’s easy to see that we have surveys that have shown that 70 percent of the population in this country favors a freeze, a bilateral freeze. Yet we continue to have Senators and Congress people who support a freeze, voting money for new weapons systems. And it’s very disheartening. And people, I think, begin to really pull away and stop participating in the democratic process here because of that.

HEFFNER: Let me pursue that for a moment: “pull away and stop participating in the democratic process”. Do you think we’re going to be able to take the kind of actions that you think must be taken within the context of the democratic process?

LORCH: I think so. We have a fairly good history in this country, and in our relationship with the Soviet Union in the past, of setting up what might be an environment where disarmament can occur. And the freeze has always been a bilateral agreement. But I think there are things one can do which can make it become potentially possible to occur, and things that will make it impossible. We have now coming up, deployment of two new missiles, the Pershing and the Cruise, in December. This is going to, for the Soviet Union, be the Cuban Missile Crisis in reverse. This will then prompt a response on their part. Who knows what it will be? But they’ve responded to everything else. And we then begin to escalate into a whole new realm of weapons and weapons systems, and a whole new realm of an inability to sit down and say, “We have to live. We have to survive”.

HEFFNER: You know, it’s interesting. You say, “We have to live. We have to survive”. There are those who obviously don’t feel that way, who for some reason or other are able to talk about being dead rather than red, for whom that formulation is meaningful. Perhaps they don’t have children. Perhaps they are not thinking about their children and their children’s children. But I wondered then about the kind of response you can hope to get if, when we think about the unthinkable, we have to turn it off eventually.

LORCH: I don’t think we have to turn it off eventually. And, as a physician, again, this is something that I come in contact with professionally quite frequently…

HEFFNER: What do you mean?

LORCH: …which is, if you ever tell someone they have cancer, initially there’s denial. They say, “I don’t have it”. Then there’s anger. Then they don’t want to deal with it all. They don’t want to, sort of, find some way to bring this into their life and live out their remaining days in the best possible way. And with nuclear weapons and nuclear war, it’s a very similar sort of phenomena. People, when you tell them, say “This is not true. It’s not possible. Why would anybody create a world based upon this”? Then they go on to be angry after that. But the next step for people is to say, “I have to act; and I can act”. And not to, sort of, go back to living in the shell of denial. So I don’t think that denial or unwillingness to act is a necessity. I think it’s something that allows government, our government especially, to continue with its policies. But it doesn’t have to occur, by any means.

HEFFNER: Very interesting what you said about the differentiation between the adult population facing this threat, and children. What have you seen in children that differentiates them from children of other generations when – and we have to go back quite far now – before there was the threat of nuclear holocaust? Certainly my sons were born into that threat. And you do have to go quite far. How do you differentiate between the psyches of children today, and their behavior, their feelings, even their physical well-being?

LORCH: It’s hard to know, because up until 1960 there really wasn’t any good scientific data about how children responded to this kind of threat, which is the end of their future. That’s the kind of threat we’re speaking of. And I don’t know whether any surveys have been done prior to 1945 or prior to the fifties, to look at this. But, what we do know at this point is that a large percentage of children, above 60 percent, feel there will be a nuclear war in their lifetime. And that many people within this group are making life decisions that take this into consideration. They ask themselves: Should they have children? Should they enter a profession where it takes 10 or 12 years to achieve a goal, when they might not even live this long? And I don’t think this has ever occurred before, though I don’t have really good scientific data to support that.

HEFFNER: You pose the questions. Are the answers as clear cut as posing them would indicate, that the choices not to enter professions for which there’s long training, that we won’t have children because of what that may mean for them in terms of nuclear holocaust? You make it sound as if the answers are, “We won’t go into that kind of profession. We won’t have children”. And yet, the birth rate does seem to be not continuing to fall at this particular moment. People do seem to be making the choices of parenting again, as they weren’t for awhile, or delaying for awhile. So, what is the impact, then?

LORCH: Well, there’s no clear cut way of defining it, because you have to really follow a certain group of children, children now, for 10 or 12 or 15 years, and see how it affected their life’s decisions. The people now who are increasing their parenting are people of my generation, people of the post-World War II generation. And I’m not sure they’re comparable at all to people who are teenagers today. And maybe when these people get older, assuming we survive that long, that they will become immune to the kind of world we live in, and go about their business in a way that sort of denies the existence of these weapons. But it seems that there, more and more, are people who actually are stating clearly that they are changing the way their life is going. How widespread this is, I don’t know. How concrete these decisions are, I don’t know that either.

HEFFNER: Is there any effort to ascertain what the answers to those questions might be?

LORCH: There are people who are studying it, but how widespread these efforts are, I don’t know.

HEFFNER: Well, anecdotally, certainly there are still people around, even from my generation, who may remember what childhood was like before the bomb. And before we began to think – I mean, there was a period of time when, I believe, the assumption was that, since we were the only ones who had the bomb, it would not be dropped again. And that was that. I don’t think quite the same kind of level of anxiety prevailed. But there must be anecdotal material that would indicate what the impact upon young children is. What they were like before; and what they are like now.

LORCH: I really, I don’t have that kind of information to be able to discuss that. I only know what’s really been done recently in talking to kids about his, and the impact it’s had now. But I don’t know what it was in the past. I mean, it’s known that around the Cuban Missile Crisis that there was a tremendous amount of fear in children. In fact, there was a study that interviewed 3,000 children back in that era, and found that the concern and the fear about not having a future was enormous. It passed and people went about their regular, daily lives. But what kind of imprint that leaves, I honestly don’t know.

HEFFNER: Physicians, I think – I think I’m not mistaken here in saying – the medical profession does try to get schools to be more realistic in dealing with the prevalence of disease, in dealing with that awful fact that we all get older, and we all get old and then die. What ways are physicians, particularly your Physicians for Social Responsibility, attempting to prepare young people for life in the age in which we live?

LORCH: Well, I think there are two levels to that. One is what people do professionally when they come into contact with children. I’m not a pediatrician, but we have many members of our organization who are. And more and more people say that they see in their practice parents are bringing children who have these extraordinary nightmares about nuclear war. And this has to be approached as really a very profound psychologic problem. On a, I guess, more societal level, we have tried to develop curricula that will be introduced in the school system so people can really discuss this issue, that teachers will bring it up. And, from our perspective, the nuclear threat is almost like sex education was 10 or 15 years ago. It’s something that never entered the classroom, people never discussed. It was something that people just wanted to ignore. But from our perspective, the nuclear threat is really the most profound issue to be taught in the school. It encompasses everything: philosophy, ethics, mathematics, physics, ecology. There’s nothing that doesn’t enter into the discussion about nuclear weapons and nuclear war. So we have a syllabus. There was one that we here in New York developed in conjunction with the Board of Education. And the National Educational Association has developed an extensive curricula that can be used. But it’s really up to parents to bring to the attention of teachers of their kids that it’s appropriate to discuss these kinds of issues in school. We can bring it up to teachers. We try and discuss it with them. We try to arrange talks in schools, even special discussions in auditoriums. But if parents don’t take it upon themselves, it really won’t gain very widespread acceptance.

HEFFNER: Now, are you talking on the level of prevention? Or are you talking on the level of here is a phenomenon, and you and I do not know whether we’re going to survive the nuclear age, and we need to prepare our children to live as healthy lives as possible with that cloud hanging over their heads. Is your organization that activist that it is essentially taking a, let’s say, political posture, if we might? Trying to make children and their parents alert to what you consider to be the appropriate political position that one might take in relation to nuclear freeze or what ever? Or are we talking about preparing them for living in a world in which cancer is as widespread as it is, in which heart disease is as widespread as it is; for living in a world in which the threat of nuclear holocaust is as real as it is?

LORCH: I think we’ve taken, really, a third route. And our perspective is that this is probably the most profound family issue that any generation has faced. And we are not political in a sense that we don’t support any person who’s running for any office. We don’t take partisan sides. We clearly have a position on nuclear weapons as the most important health threat that humanity has ever faced. And we want people to act. We want them to act to get rid of these weapons. But the first thing that has to be done is they have to think about it. And it’s something to be thought about in the context of a family. And we want people to take some stand. We would rather they take a stand to support those kinds of positions that will get rid of these weapons, but we want then to think about it in the first place. And the problem has been nobody wants to think about it at all. Because they think it’s just beyond their capacity to judge these kinds of issues. And it’s not. It’s something that people can really take upon themselves. But, if we don’t bring it out in the open, if we don’t discuss it, we will never move from the position we are in now, which is a continued escalation of the nuclear arms race, and the production of more and more of these weapons.

HEFFNER: Dr. Lorch, to what extent do you find that, even in your own catchment area, let’s say, that parents are becoming more willing to enter into these discussions, to make the family the setting for an awareness of this threat?

LORCH: I think it’s more and more common. And I think it’s quite unusual that children don’t think about it and don’t bring it up. And sometimes it just pops out. I had an experience of talking to a group of educators about three weeks ago. And there was a parent there who said that he had come for the first time because of his ten-year-old son. They had been driving along the week before and the son had said, “Daddy, can we stop and buy some cockroaches”? And the father said, “Buy what”? And he said, “I’d like to buy some cockroaches”. And he said, “Why”? And he said, “Well, I read that cockroaches are going to survive the nuclear war. And so I want to buy cockroaches so when there’s a nuclear war I’m going to cover myself and make a vest so I’ll live through nuclear war”. Now, this was a ten-year-old child. The parent had never talked to the child about nuclear war. The child had read something about it in the paper, about cockroaches, and had made this leap. So, this is quite a common occurrence that kids dream. Kids talk about this. Children burden up to their parents. And I think part of the problem is many parents don’t know how to talk about it, because they’re not doing it themselves, they haven’t talked about it. They think it’s too complicated. And I think it’s time, whether through the school system, through local groups, or just in a family setting, that people begin to think about his, think about what their relationship is to these weapons, and what they want to do as a family unit.

HEFFNER: Of course, we, the adults, who are so frightened ourselves, as you said, and who initially denied, denied, denied…we’re fine ones to be able to sit down with our children. And I appreciate the analogy you drew before, the reference to sex education. A lot easier, but terribly difficult. And that’s why I ask whether you do find more and more parents. And your answer is, in reference to this particular parent of that child who referred to the cockroaches…Is there any widespread campaign now in schools to encourage children to encourage their parents to make this a family affair?

LORCH: Not very much. And one of the problems is that this issue is looked upon as very political. And therefore, bringing it up in the school system makes teachers, educators, principals, feel that they’re getting involved in a political debate. Our perspective is this is a health debate. And if you’re willing to talk about polio, if you’re willing to talk about tuberculosis, if you’re willing to talk about venereal disease, then you should be willing to talk about nuclear war, because it is of a much greater magnitude. But people are very scared in schools to bring this up in any kind of really systematic way.

HEFFNER: Dr. Lorch, thank you very much for joining me today and talking about this important subject.

LORCH: Thank you.

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