Bernard Lown, MD
A quarter-century later I am still bristling with anger that the American mainstream media went stone deaf, blocking my informative discussion with Mikhail Gorbachev from reaching the public (Part 1). Though the press conference held in Moscow immediately after the meeting was crowded with journalists, including the entire American press corps, only the Boston Globe reported on the three-hour conversation.
This blackout was astonishing. Gorbachev was not just any world leader; he was the czar of an empire brimming with nuclear overkill, able to reduce the United States to a radioactive pyre. The CIA, at the time, was hungry for information, spending $2 billion annually to gather scraps of gossip and collect every twitter emanating from the Kremlin. Gorbachev’s views were unknown. Had the public been informed of his readiness for compromise revealed in our discussion, that knowledge might have hastened ridding the world of genocidal weapons. Why had the U.S. establishment wished to keep his views secret?
Of course, censorship and the doctoring of events is a daily occurrence in the mainstream media. I learned this intimately during 10 years as co-president of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. IPPNW struggled mightily with but limited success to reach the American public. Our meetings, briefings, and press conferences were consistently ignored by the U.S. media. We doctors are reputable members of society, well-regarded professionals, constantly sought out by the media for our medical views. But on the life-and-death issue of the nuclear arms race, our expert information and informed views were consigned to a black hole.
When the IPPNW confronted media moguls and journalists about censorship, their invariable answer was that Americans were already well informed about nuclear issues by virtue of our having a free press. We were advised to carry our message to the Soviet Union. “Talk to the Russians. They are the ones who are ignorant. They, not we, threaten to incinerate the planet.” I recall one conversation vividly. When complaining to an editor of the Boston Globe about the blackout of Gorbachev’s unilateral nuclear test ban, she suggested a remedy: “We promise front page coverage if you immolate yourself in the Boston Common the way Buddhist monks used to do in Saigon.”
It was a widely held conviction that the Russian people were ignorant about the nuclear threat. Yet on numerous visits to the USSR, I was impressed with a paradox: Russians, with their heavily censored media, were far better informed about the nuclear issue and foreign events than their American counterparts, who were exposed to a free-rein media. Soviets I met acknowledged the pervasiveness of government propaganda. People joked about their two leading newspapers, saying there was no truth in Pravda (meaning “truth”) and no news in Izvestia (meaning “news”). My interviews by Soviet journalists were prominently covered in their media. I appeared on popular TV programs and was allowed much time to comment about contentious nuclear issues. By contrast, in the United States, our work was scantily reported, and the IPPNW was unknown. Receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize but transiently altered the lack of coverage.
Why was the Gorbachev story censored? Was it self-censorship by the media, suggested or dictated by Washington? If self-censorship, whose interests were being defended? Why would the establishment be perturbed by a transparent, intelligent, and youthful Soviet leader such as Gorbachev, who was ready to compromise on key nuclear issues threatening an unprecedented catastrophe for the U.S.? And how could the censorship be so all inclusive, involving as it did newsprint, magazine, and broadcast media owned by competing companies? I shall return to these vexing questions in a future blog.
One aspect is clear: By censoring my conversation, the news media obscured information about Gorbachev’s unilateral cessation of underground nuclear testing. If widely known, it would have provided the Soviets with a moral advantage. This might have agitated public opinion, provoked questions about Western sincerity in its nuclear disarmament policies, roiled ever-restive NATO allies, and perhaps stimulated serious negotiations aiming to reduce the burgeoning nuclear stockpiles of massive overkill.
Gorbachev had anticipated that his gesture would be widely reported and well received. He believed that the power of informed public opinion would compel cooperation instead of the ever-threatening mounting confrontation. He was unprepared for the blockade of information. I recall his plaintive, peevish question, “Does anyone in the West know that Gorbachev stopped underground nuclear testing?” To ease tension, I mentioned that the week before while in Stockholm, Prime Minister Olof Palme confided how much he admired Gorbachev’s important initiative. Gorbachev grew even more annoyed. “Olof Palme is a courageous man, but he whispered in your ear how much he admires Gorbachev. Why does he not say so out loud?”(1)
The shutdown of information in the West was extraordinarily effective.
While in London in the late autumn of 1985, five months after Gorbachev stopped nuclear testing, I met some leading Tories enmeshed with the British government. They were unaware of the unilateral moratorium. The consistent response was, “It can’t be true. No one reported it.”
During that same London visit I was interviewed by a military correspondent for the BBC. He inquired whether IPPNW policies had changed now that we had won the Nobel Peace Prize. I responded that we would focus on encouraging the USSR to extend its unilateral moratorium on nuclear testing beyond the December 31,1985 deadline set by Gorbachev. He insisted that the USSR had never stopped testing. At first my wife Louise and I thought he was kidding. Soon it was clear that he was dead serious. At our insistence he called someone at the BBC, who confirmed the fact that the Soviets had indeed stopped. He seemed puzzled at first and then inquired as to when the Russians had announced their moratorium. When informed that it was July 29, he emitted a sigh of relief, explaining that he had been on a two-day hiking holiday in Scotland and was out of contact with the BBC that very day.
The Western media gave but a blink of notice to this momentous event. Gorbachev’s nuclear-testing moratorium launched a cascade of international political changes that altered the course of history. Indisputably, it moved the world away from the brink of extinction. Of this and much else Americans were uninformed.
Soon after returning home from Moscow, I had lunch with Thomas Dudley Cabot, a leading industrialist, philanthropist, and environmentalist. He was a member of an old Boston Brahmin family with roots in Massachusetts dating to the 17th century. (It was said that the Lowells spoke only to the Cabots and the Cabots spoke only to God.)
Mr. Cabot was curious to learn about Gorbachev. Having been director of International Security Affairs in the State Department in the 1950s, he had never lost interest in foreign affairs. During our conversation I complimented Gorbachev for having stopped nuclear testing. Cabot was taken aback and categorically denied that the Russians had indeed taken such an initiative. When I asked why he was so certain, he replied that he had not heard or seen this reported in the U.S. media. Furthermore, he said, his close friend Paul Nitze, who had shaped Cold War policies under presidents from Eisenhower through Reagan, would have informed him had this happened. The shutdown of news even misinformed members of the corporate elite.
Gorbachev was hardly naive. He was quite aware of the censoring of news in capitalist countries. During our meeting in December 1985 he pressed me to explain why Western democracies were so effective in controlling the flow of information. He was puzzled that Americans believed their media to be free and comprehensive, yet vital news affecting their very survival was being blocked.
My response was that the corporate media rarely resort to censoring. They exercise a far more powerful tool. They lie by telling the truth once. The downpour of information washes away any single item like some detritus after a torrential rain. News fails to register when reported merely once. Only frequent repetition anchors an event in public awareness.
The power of the US establishment in controlling the global dialogue goes beyond merely determining how the media reports, or headlines, or highlights, or repeatedly covers an event. It also controls how leaders in other countries engage in public discourse. I witnessed this in the summer of 1986 at a meeting of the leaders of six nonaligned countries, held in Ixtapa, Mexico. The gathering was propelled by the lack of progress in nuclear disarmament. Participants included the presidents of Mexico, Tanzania, and Argentina (Miguel de la Madrid, Julius Nyerere, and Raúl Alfonsín, respectively), as well as the prime ministers of India, Greece, and Sweden (Rajiv Gandhi, Andreas Papandreou, and Ingvar Carlson). Also participating were 30 intellectuals from around the world invited to serve as observers and consultants.
The deliberations were accompanied by much pomp but had little circumstance. In the absence of any American media the Ixtapa meeting went largely unnoticed. Intended to inform public opinion on one of the critical issues of our time, the conference turned out to be a nonevent.
More troubling than the slight by American media was the final document crafted by the nonaligned leaders meeting in Ixtapa. Though calling for a cessation of nuclear testing, nowhere did they praise Gorbachev, let alone mention the fact that he had unilaterally stopped nuclear testing for an entire year.
I drafted a short petition pointing out this fact and urging Gorbachev to continue the nuclear testing moratorium. The petition was circulated among the invited observers, all of whom signed it. The aim was to inform the six heads of state so that they might incorporate some such formulation in their final memorandum.
Prime Minster Papandreou, whom I had known, chided me for undermining the antinuclear cause I was committed to. His argument was straightforward: The United States was driving the Cold War. Praise of the USSR, even if deserved, would be discredited by Washington as procommunist. The aim of the Ixtapa meeting was to push the intractable Reagan administration to make some positive moves. He maintained that the Russians under Gorbachev needed no such prodding.
Papandreou’s assessment was confirmed by my experience during the 10-year leadership of IPPNW. Irrespective of whether Democrats or Republicans occupied the White House, rigorous bipartisan policies promoted the nuclear arms race and the Cold War against the Soviet Union. In the prevailing climate of fear and helplessness, it was difficult to mobilize the public against the nuclear arms race. Even if bombs were not detonated, the United States’ ever-burgeoning militarism permanently crippled its economy and undermined its democratic institutions.
No one who dared speak the truth about nuclear realities was exempt from ostracism. A striking example is what befell Albert Schweitzer. Few 20th-century personalities were more revered than Schweitzer. With Gandhi, Einstein, Mandela, and Tutu, he belongs in the pantheon of extraordinary individuals who were cloaked with dignity because of their uncompromising humanism.
Schweitzer made a deep impact as philosopher, musician, organist, and physician. He roused public imagination after founding a hospital in Lambaréné, Gabon, and making his permanent residence in the jungles of equatorial Africa. His influential philosophical writings about revering life gained him a Nobel Peace Prize. Americans voted Schweitzer as fourth among the most admired man in the world.(2) Political leaders courted him. President Dwight Eisenhower greeted Schweitzer on his 80th birthday: “Your spirit and work have been an inspiration to us all.” This message was also issued as a U.S. press release. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, a leading cold warrior, joined in the adulation.
The high regard was short lived. Lawrence Wittner, a historian of the Cold War, described in 1995 the saga of the U.S. blacklisting of Schweitzer.(2) On the basis of released classified documents, Wittner wrote that Schweitzer “became persona non grata to U.S. officials, including Eisenhower and Dulles. Secretly convinced that he was an adherent of ‘the Communist line,’ they severed personal contacts with him, ordered his activities investigated by the FBI and the CIA, orchestrated rebuttals to his public statements, and discouraged his travel to the United States.”(2)
What occasioned this drastic change of opinion? In April 1958 Schweitzer broadcast a “Declaration of Conscience,” which was read on Oslo radio and then broadcast to millions of listeners around the world. In this address Schweitzer deplored the nuclear arms race and called for a nuclear test ban. Not a single American radio station broadcast his speech! U.S. publications that earlier vied to print the utterances of this saintly man now ignored his call. The U.S. boycott was total.(3) The effectiveness of censorship without a seeming censor should have been envied by Soviet apparatchiki. No wonder Gorbachev was puzzled at such effective control of the flow of information.
Why recall all this? I am compelled by current pain rather than by pressure of ancient memories. No recent labor was as intense or arduous than my writing of “Prescription for Survival: A Doctor’s Journey to End nuclear Madness.”(3) The book recalled a remarkable untold story of how doctors changed the traverse of history. At the height of the Cold War, when the world was teetering on the edge of extinction, a partnership between an American and a Russian physician launched a world movement. This movement helped end the Cold War and within a mere five years gained a Nobel Peace Prize. The memoir exposed some of the hidden machinery of the Cold War and described the dominant role of the United States in driving the nuclear arms race. In a way, the events recounted are of an unbelievable Alice in Wonderland adventure where I found myself interacting with the governing elite and members of Soviet Politburo, our deadly adversaries.
“Prescription for Survival” has not been reviewed in the American mainstream media. It is as though the book vanished from public view before ever appearing in any public space. And herein an oddity: The only comprehensive review of the book to appear anywhere was in Dawn, a leading Pakistani English newspaper published in Lahore! (
1. Lown, B. “Prescription for Survival: A Doctor’s Journey to End Nuclear Madness.” Berrett-Koehler Publishers, San Francisco, 2008, 375.
2. Wittner L. “Blacklisting Schweitzer.” The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, 55-61, May/June 1995.
3. Schweitzer’s case was reported in the New York Daily Worker, mouthpiece of the American Communist Party.