Dr. James Muller has long championed US-Russian dialogue. So with war looming and nuclear tensions rising, the Boston cardiologist and Nobel laureate tried some people-to-people diplomacy last month.
At about 3 a.m. Boston time on a mid-February morning, Muller joined a video conference of the Russian Academy of Medicine, presenting a plan to join forces against three leading causes of death in both countries: heart disease, cancer, and COVID-19. He proposed that each nation invest $50 million — a small fraction of the cost of one long-range bomber, he pointedly noted — toward collaborative research.
His 12-minute talk ran uncensored on a Russian science channel, and his colleagues in Moscow seemed “more than open” to the proposal, Muller recalled. “Each one wanted to say what a good idea it was,” he said. He even shared a video of snow falling outside his Newton home, joking in Russian that it “looks a little like Moscow.”
It was the kind of personal outreach Muller and other physician activists used to good effect nearly 40 years ago to forge understanding with the Soviets. And as he logged off in the wee hours, he felt elated, filled with new hope even as the crisis in Eastern Europe deepened.
A week later, Russia invaded Ukraine. The dream of collaboration was stalled, “another casualty of the decision to start a war,” Muller said.
The invasion launched by President Vladimir Putin, along with his thinly veiled nuclear threats, has been a bitter setback to Muller’s decades-long efforts to build better relations between the longtime adversaries. And for Muller, 79, it’s been a chilling reminder of the enduring threat of nuclear weapons, an issue that consumed him as a young man.
Muller, who lived in Russia as an exchange student and speaks fluent Russian, cofounded the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War in 1980. He first spoke of the danger on Soviet television in 1982. Three years later, he was on a team of American and Russian doctors who were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for educating the public to the “catastrophic consequences” of atomic warfare.
For him, the conflict raging in Ukraine — with Putin putting his nuclear forces on high alert — highlights the increasingly urgent need for global cooperation, not only to assure human survival from nuclear weapons but to fight diseases, pandemics, and climate change.
Muller, who practiced for decades at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, is part of a brain trust of Massachusetts doctors who have grown alarmed by a fresh outburst of saber-rattling from heads of nuclear states in recent years after decades of comparative restraint.
Putin’s blunt warning last week that countries interfering in his campaign against Ukraine would face “consequences that you have never encountered” was only the latest example. In 2017, then-president Donald Trump threatened to unleash “fire and fury” against North Korea, while that country’s supreme leader, Kim Jong-un, spoke of sparking an “enveloping fire” around the US territory of Guam.
Muller fears the idea of limited nuclear war, long considered beyond the pale, is resurfacing. “The world can only roll the dice on the nuclear threat so many times without a catastrophe occurring,” he said.
The back-channel outreach to Russian scientists is a part of what the State Department calls “track two” diplomacy that can maintain interpersonal dialogue when governments are at odds, said Dr. John Pastore, 79, a cardiologist at St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center who informally advises Muller. Yet Pastore conceded that “an awful lot depends on the will of leaders” and “that’s a tough nut to crack.”
Pastore has been calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons for decades. His father, former senator John Pastore of Rhode Island, was a proponent of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty signed in 1963. Later that decade, the younger Pastore was one of the first US doctors to visit Hiroshima, Japan, where the United States dropped an atom bomb in 1945, killing more than 90,000 people. He chronicled the long-term effects of radiation on survivors.
The nuclear powder keg was a top issue for Americans after World War II, said Pastore, especially during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. But with the end of the Cold War and the emergence of the climate crisis and other threats, public attention has waned. “Now it doesn’t even make the top 10″ in surveys of voter concerns, Pastore said.
Russia’s attack on Ukraine and nuclear threats could change that, said Dr. Ira Helfand, 72, of Northampton, who cofounded Physicians for Social Responsibility in 1978. Like Pastore, he worries that many Americans today don’t understand the magnitude of the danger.
Helfand said it’s important to spell it out: although stockpiles have been reduced over several decades, nine nations possess roughly 13,500 nuclear weapons, most in the hands of Russia and the United States. Russia has the largest arsenal — nearly 4,500 warheads, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists estimated this year. Even a limited exchange could kill tens of millions of people, cause the global economy to collapse, and trigger catastrophic climate disruption, famine, and starvation.
“If we’re lucky enough to survive the current crisis . . . we have to make sure that we never put ourselves in this position again,” Helfand said. “Nuclear weapons do not make us safe. They’re the greatest threat to our security, and we have to get rid of them once and for all.”
Muller and his contemporaries have been mentoring a new generation of young doctors who are working to raise awareness of the nuclear menace. Dr. Joe Hodgkin, 32, attending hospitalist at Massachusetts General Hospital, calls Muller a “tremendous role model.” But he acknowledged that the ranks of early-career doctors active in the antinuclear movement have declined since the Cold War.
Among many his age, Hodgkin said, “there’s a sense that nuclear weapons are something that was in the past.” But he wants people to recognize that “this Cold War apparatus is still here” and conventional conflicts could escalate to nuclear attacks. He said the danger “is so big and terrifying and hard to imagine that people are understandably focused on issues that they see impacting their daily life.”
Muller, who’s now a grandfather, is convinced that many Russians perceive the same danger to future generations and want to stop it. So he’s returning to the same strategy he used in the 1970s and ′80s, trying to lay a “foundation” of cooperation on medical issues before tackling the tougher discussion of nuclear disarmament.
“If we’re only meeting on contentious issues, it’s so much harder to solve them,” he said.
Muller learned Russian at Notre Dame and has visited the country about a dozen times. He still remembers his awakening when a Johns Hopkins medical school professor laid out the prospect of nuclear annihilation. As an exchange student, he watched in horror as the Soviet military paraded nuclear missiles through Red Square in Moscow.
Even as a child in Indianapolis, he was haunted by photos he found in his father’s library. His father, a colonel in General George Patton’s Third Army, had been part of the liberation force at the Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany in 1945, and had photographed truckloads of dead, starving, and emaciated prisoners.
Muller has devoted much of his life to looking unflinchingly at the worst of humanity and trying, as he did with his outreach to Russian scientists last month, to “put a small stone on one side of the balance in favor of peace,” he said. With the Russian invasion of Ukraine, however, “the whole thing has tipped towards war,” he lamented.
That’s left Muller pondering the same question he wrestled with as a young man: “How many times can we walk up to the chance of a nuclear war and successfully escape?”
Clarification: An earlier version of Physicians for Social Responsibility was cofounded in 1961 by Dr. Bernard Lown, Dr. Victor Sidel, and Dr. Jack Geiger.