Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) is a national organization that formed in 1961. They were organized to provide professional and public education about the medical dangers of nuclear weapons and war. They were concerned about the rising tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union. The La Crosse chapter of the organization first met on April 28, 1982, and the meeting was attended by only 13 people! Their membership grew however, and they were active for about ten years, until the end of the Cold War. They formally disbanded on April 20, 1995.
As mentioned above, the main goal of PSR was to educate the public on what effect nuclear fallout would have on the world. They wanted to stop the U.S. nuclear arms build-up and persuade Russia to do the same. They also wanted to halt testing and funding of nuclear weapons. They wanted to prevent war with the Soviet Union, and as a result save the world from nuclear destruction. Being doctors, they focused on health issues related to nuclear war. They argued that even one nuclear explosion (in either the U.S. or Russia) would overwhelm the medical resources available. Also, those that didn’t die in the initial explosion would be practically helpless in dealing with health issues brought on by the fallout.
The La Crosse group reached out to Wisconsinites by giving lectures at different events on college campuses, in hospitals, and on TV and radio. They also provided documentary screenings of movies that went into detail about the arms race and its potential damage. The most popular of these, which the group not only showed at events of their own but circulated throughout the state, was called The Last Epidemic: Medical Consequences of Nuclear Weapons and Nuclear War. It is a short, 11-minute film which can still be found online. The group also held forums for many public speakers. As the organization grew, so did their message. As a result, not only are the views of the PSR thoroughly represented in this collection, but so are those of everyday citizens. What may be surprising is that, though there were many people who were in agreement with the PSR, there are also examples of those who thought the group were simply Soviet puppets. Ronald Reagan, the president of the United States from 1981-1989, was one of their skeptics!
This is a rather large collection, totaling four boxes, however the focus of this finding aid is on box 1, specifically folders 1-6, 18, and 19. This box contains great information about the group (both the national and local organization), La Crosse’s views on the arms race, and also events going on in the world at this time.
Remember, this finding aid only focuses on only some of the contents of box 1. Folders 7-17 are not included because they mostly include paperwork on the business end of the organization (insurance, finances, etc.), and letters between members of the local and national group. Most of the letters are repeated in an easier-to-read format in the newsletters and newspaper articles that are covered below. Folder 17 details a meeting between PSR member James C. Baumgaertner and Steve Gunderson, a Republican congressman from Wisconsin who served from 1981-1997. The two discussed much of what was going on in the national government during the Reagan Administration about nuclear arms and national defense budgets. While it is an interesting read, it is not covered here.
Take Note: Russia, USSR, and the Soviet Union are all the same country. The collection uses all three labels.
This folder is the best starting point to learn all about the PSR, as it contains much of the general background about the national organization and La Crosse chapter. There are three types of materials in the folder: 1) a pamphlet entitled “Preventing Nuclear War”; 2) handouts; 3) Newspaper clippings from La Crosse, national, and international papers. Read the pamphlet first, since it’s a quick read and offers a lot of important information. Next, read some of the handouts that cover the effects of nuclear war. These make clear the dangers that the PSR were trying to prevent. Last, read some of the newspaper articles. They span from 1980-1987. Three important articles are: “An Appeal to Physicians of the World,” a call to action for all fellow physicians, “Diagnosing Nuclear War,” a more general overview of the rising tensions between the United States and Soviet Union, and “Armageddon,” which lays out the horrible effects of nuclear war on those who were (un)lucky enough to survive.
This is the largest folder in the collection, with about ten years’ worth of newsletters! They detail different topics of discussion from PSR meetings, mainly information about events the group was holding, including film screenings, public talks, and public receptions. If the group was hosting an outside speaker, background information about the speaker is given. The key to finding a specific newsletter is to look at the date, located at the top of the front page. At first, the amount of information may be intimidating, but there is no need to read every single newsletter. There are two main sections that would be the best to focus on in order to get information about the organization and their time period. The first is “Membership Activity” found on the first page of each newsletter. The second is “From the News,” usually found on the second or third page. Pick any year, and read “Membership Activity” and “From the News” for that year (the newsletters were usually published every 2-3 months). These sections will give a sense of both the group’s outreach, and what was happening in the U.S. and Soviet Union.
This folder is a collection of newspaper articles from 1982-83. All of them come from local La Crosse newspapers, yet the focus is not entirely on the PSR. There are articles detailing student rallies, peaceful protests, and editorials about nuclear war from doctors and professors not in the PSR. There is also focus on what is going on in the Soviet Union at the time! Pick two or three articles and read them.
This folder also contains local newspaper clippings, however they are from 1984-85 and mostly letters to the editor. The letters give us an insight as to how local citizens felt about the arms race. Not everyone was in favor of the efforts of the PSR, and this folder provides both sides of this argument. An interesting example of this is a stapled collection of opinions from the La Crosse Tribune in October/November 1985. Unfortunately, the original opinion that started the debate is not included, but there is a back and forth of ideas. Read these to see positive and negative opinions of the group.
This is the last folder that contains primarily newspaper clippings. They range from 1986-1991. There is a greater focus in this folder on what survivors of past nuclear attacks, (including Nagasaki, Hiroshima, and Chernobyl) thought about the current conflict. Many articles giving their firsthand accounts of attacks and the aftermath that people had to live through.
This folder has press releases and original letters from members of the PSR to news outlets detailing meeting times and upcoming events. Basically, it is much of the same that can be found in folders 3-5, however in their raw forms, and may be interesting to look at them for this reason. The press releases span from 1982-88.
This folder contains letters and newsletters from the PSR to outside groups, mainly hospitals. They show one way the PSR was trying to educate the public. Pick a couple of these to see how the average La Crosse resident might learn about the hazards of nuclear war. The dates of these letters run from 1982-85.
This folder contains correspondence between the PSR and the State Medical Society of Wisconsin. Here, we can see the names of Wisconsin doctors involved with Physicians for Social Responsibility. We can also see how medical professionals all across the state approached educating the public about the dangers of nuclear radiation. Issues include: the effects of the fallout, the problem with shelters and effective medical personnel (as many doctors would also be wounded or killed), and just pain in general. Pick two or three letters, and if you are lucky you will experience an eye-opening read. The letters make clear exactly why the group felt so strongly about getting ordinary citizens to understand what could potentially happen in the event of a nuclear attack.
Reviewed by: Tyler Wisniewski