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What If You Wrote a Book and Only One Person Read It?

Every 10 years or so my wife and I clean out our old files, always finding junk to discard and occasionally something genuinely interesting. Just now we uncovered a reminder of how we helped save the world. If the following account is braggadocio, then so be it. Be warned: It’s a bit of a shaggy dog story, but at least its true.

In 1984, while “scholars in residence” at the Bellagio Study and Conference Center, maintained by the Rockefeller Foundation on Lake Como, we put the final touches on a book titled The Caveman and the Bomb. (This was the real Bellagio, not the fake in Las Vegas.) Published by McGraw-Hill in 1985 to positive reviews, our book argued for the absurdity of nuclear weapons and of the arms race then raging between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., pointing out that there was a dangerous disparity between biological evolution, which created all of us, and cultural evolution, which helped bring forth our technology, most dangerously nuclear weapons. We argued that human beings needed to overcome their “Neanderthal mentality” if the planet were to survive, and we gave some suggestions as to how.

That year, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, of which the U.S. affiliate was Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR), founded by Helen Caldicott, with my wife, Judith Lipton, as national secretary. Two years later, in 1987, Mikhail Gorbachev hosted the Moscow International Forum for a Nuclear Weapon-Free World, which Judith attended as representative of PSR and U.S. psychiatry.  (I stayed home with our children.)

Various dignitaries were present, including Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Graham Greene, and Yoko Ono, even some folks who knew something about nuclear weapons. Judith brought along a copy of our book, intending to give it to Gorby, but although she got close on a receiving line, she never reached him.

Feeling somewhat dejected, Judith was accosted by a tall, beautiful Russian woman who identified herself as a Bolshoi ballerina and asked if she might help. “No problem,” she replied when Judith explained her mission. “I’m having dinner with Mr. and Mrs. Gorbachev tomorrow, and would be happy to give him your book.”

Fast forward two years, to 1989, when we received a phone call from Dr. Michael  McCally, a friend from PSR, who was then president of the Ploughshares Fund, an antinuclear group in San Francisco. Mike wanted us to know that he had received a report from one Robert Del Tredici, a photojournalist recently returned from a trip to Moscow, supported by a small grant from Ploughshares. (I told you this was a shaggy dog story!)

It was a copy of Del Tredici’s report, titled “Journey to Moscow, Jan 6 to 17, 1989,” and received on Feb 21, 1989 by the Ploughshares Fund that Judith and I have just unearthed.  In it, Del Tredici indicates that he met with Soviet publishers and officials to discuss a Russian edition of his book on U.S. nuclear weapons facilities, titled  At Work in the Fields of the Bomb. He had gone to Moscow with funding from Ploughshares, where he met with Academician Georgy Arbatov, director of the Institute of the USA and Canada, Academy of Sciences of the U.S.S.R., who told Del Tredici:

“Maybe right now is not the moment to undertake such a drastic project [photographing Soviet H-bomb facilities, notably the Ministry of Middle Machine Tools, as a follow-on to his U.S. work] but you could begin more modestly, focusing on the history of the Soviet Bomb, interviewing atomic pioneers, and looking into the psychology of people involved in nuclear weapons. A new breed of human has evolved as a result of the Bomb. I will tell you a secret: there is an American book called The Cave Man and the Bomb which discusses this new breed … This book was translated into Russian especially for Gorbachev. He read it and was impressed by it; it has influenced his thinking on disarmament.”

Our book! The Cave Man and the Bomb! It hadn’t exactly been a publishing sensation, having sold somewhere in the upper three digits. But the right person had read it. (Can you imagine Reagan getting translated and then reading a book about nuclear weapons and evolution written by a pair of Russian scientists?)

Once I asked an actor how she psyches herself up for a good performance when there is hardly anyone in the audience. She replied that “You never know. Maybe Brooks Atkinson is there, watching.” By the same token, you never know who is going to read what you write. And of all our books, past and future, we suspect that The Cave Man and the Bomb (which sold the least) will turn out to have been the most important.

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