In this post, Dr Christoph Laucht explains his research into ‘Transnational Medical Activism against Nuclear Weapons in Britain, West Germany and the United States in the Cold War’….
The early 1980s witnessed an intensification of fears of nuclear war that led to widespread protests against nuclear weapons in Europe and North America. These protests occurred at a moment of rising tensions between the superpowers in the wake of the NATO ‘double track’ decision and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Amongst those concerned about the possible effects of a nuclear war between the two blocs were medical professionals in Britain, West Germany and the United States. Based on their medical ethos to help all mankind under the Hippocratic Oath, American and Soviet physicians founded International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) in 1980. IPPNW served as the main transnational hub of medical anti-nuclear-weapons activists worldwide and was recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985. Similar groups that affiliated themselves to the IPPNW network organized in other countries: in Britain, the Medical Campaign Against Nuclear Weapons (MCANW) formed in 1980 and became, alongside the existing Medical Association for the Prevention of War (MAPW), one of the country’s two IPPNW affiliates. In West Germany, several local and regional groups merged into a national IPPNW section by 1982. And, in the United States, the existent Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) became IPPNW’s national affiliate.
The formation of IPPNW and its national affiliates was part of a process that took place during the early 1980s and that saw the creation of a growing number of anti-nuclear-weapons groups of professionals delineated along occupational lines. Yet, historians have so far paid only little attention to this phenomenon. Instead, they have often focused on groups of the anti-nuclear-weapons mass movement such as the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), particular events with a high publicity effect such as mass demonstrations in London, Bonn and other capital cities, the ‘Women’s Peace Camp’ outside the Greenham Common air base where American nuclear missiles were stationed or particular nuclear texts such as the films Threads (1984) and The Day After (1983). My current project, by contrast, sets out to explore this neglected aspect of anti-nuclear-weapons activism in the Cold War.
Through the study of the IPPNW network and its national affiliates in Britain, West Germany and the United States, my research offers a novel approach to these anti-nuclear-weapons protests. For it views them as a form of transnational professional activism, that is, the ways in which medical professionals in these three countries, driven by a specific ethos and self-fashioned identity as medical experts, based on their occupational background, organized themselves into national groups and transnational networks to act against the threat that nuclear weapons posed to human society. My project thus goes beyond the existing historiography of the medical peace movement that is primarily rooted in international relations, peace studies and environmental history by bringing it into conversation with work on the public health movement, medical activism and inequity and professionalism more generally, as well as introducing a wealth of newly released primary sources from archives in Britain, Germany and the United States.
Conceptually, my research also taps into recent work on the ‘nuclear crisis of the 1980s’ (‘Nuklearkrise der 1980er Jahre’; Christoph Becker-Schaum et al.), which locates the anti-nuclear-weapons protests of the 1980s within their wider socio-cultural and politico-historical contexts in post-war history. With the generous aid of Wellcome Trust Small Research Grant, I was able to carry out a pilot study of the British side of my project. I am currently writing some of the results of this research up for publication and am in the process of expanding this work into a larger book-length project, provisionally titled Prevent and Survive: Transnational Medical Activism against Nuclear Weapons in Britain, West Germany and the United States in the Cold War.