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Forum — From the December 2017 issue

Destroyer of Worlds

Taking stock of our nuclear present

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Final Countdown

By Rachel Bronson

Thanks for scaring the shit out of my eleven-year-old daughter,” read one of the angry emails that I received in January. I have an eleven-year-old daughter myself. It was a terrible email to open.

A few days earlier, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, where I serve as the executive director, had fixed its Doomsday Clock at two and half minutes to midnight. It had not been set so late since 1953, after both the United States and the Soviet Union tested hydrogen bombs, bringing mankind to the brink of its own destruction. Only eight years after World War II, nuclear weapons had become hundreds of times more powerful than the atomic bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Surely the world in 2017 was better off than it had been back then. Perhaps my angry emailer had a point. Perhaps, even in these perilous times, the clock had been set too close to midnight.

The Doomsday Clock was created in 1947 by the landscape artist Martyl Langsdorf at the request of her husband, the physicist Alexander Langsdorf. Two years earlier, he had been part of a group of Manhattan Project scientists at the University of Chicago who put together the six-page, black-and-white Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists of Chicago in response to the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan. These scientists had played a role in unleashing nuclear power, and now they resolved to mobilize the public to insist on policies that would prevent such weapons from ever being used again. The bulletin became a must-read for anyone concerned with managing scientific advancement, but it still needed a riveting cover. Enter Martyl, who created the Doomsday Clock for the June 1947 edition. It was set at seven minutes to midnight.

Since the clock first appeared, the minute hand has moved forward and backward, as close as two minutes to midnight in 1953 and as far away as seventeen minutes in 1991 — when, at the end of the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which promised deep cuts in the arsenals of both countries. The Doomsday Clock has long since become a resource for the public to demand better policies and diplomacy from its leaders, to push ourselves farther from midnight.

Today, as a result of diplomatic efforts, the United States and Russia have cut their stockpiled nuclear warheads to fewer than a combined ten thousand. Confidence-building measures designed to reduce tensions have been in place for decades and have proven effective. Why then has the Doomsday Clock ticked forward to two and a half minutes to midnight?

Cover of the June 1947 issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists depicting the Doomsday Clock, by Martyl Langsdorf. Courtesy Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

Over the past two decades, as the American public happily convinced itself that atomic weapons were no longer a worry, new nuclear powers emerged, posing new threats. Beyond the known nuclear states — the United States, Russia, China, France, the United Kingdom — and the undeclared but long-recognized weapons program maintained by Israel, other countries have entered the fray. India and Pakistan began actively testing new nuclear weapons in a tit-for-tat race starting in 1998, and Pakistan now has the fastest-growing arsenal on the planet. Lest anyone think that a nuclear exchange between these two countries would confine its carnage to the subcontinent, research shows that it would likely send plumes of smoke from firestorms into the atmosphere, leading to a global nuclear winter that would destroy crops around the world and lead inevitably to famine. What happens there — what happens anywhere — affects us all.

Farther north, President Trump’s reckless language at the United Nations and in recent tweets is making the already dangerous standoff with North Korea even worse. The country has conducted no fewer than six nuclear tests, and Kim Jong-un claims to have developed a hydrogen bomb, making his arsenal considerably more powerful than what intelligence analysts believed was possible just a few years ago.

The United States and Russia, therefore, are no longer the only actors driving today’s nuclear reality, though they still have an important role to play given that they control around 90 percent of the world’s nuclear stockpiles. What looked earlier this year to be a warm relationship between the Trump and Putin Administrations seemed to promise the ratcheting-down of tensions, but we’ve seen the opposite taking place. This fall, the Russians staged military exercises that rehearsed the use of nuclear weapons. The United States plans to invest a trillion dollars over thirty years in a new arsenal, one that could require a new round of testing in violation of long-established norms and agreements. This past August, the US Air Force announced a $1.8 billion plan to develop a nuclear-tipped stealth cruise missile, and will donate nearly $700 million to begin replacing our arsenal of aging Minuteman missiles.

Just days after I received the original email, I received another, from a thirtysomething woman in Philadelphia. Rather than question the Doomsday Clock’s setting, she thanked us. The clock reflected her belief about today’s nuclear reality, and it gave her some comfort that experts agreed. She hoped that the 2017 clock would focus global attention on the world’s increasingly precarious state.

Though a symbol like the Doomsday Clock evaluates the prospect of nuclear annihilation, it can also be a source of hope. With American public support and engagement, we can pressure our decision makers to take action to move the clock’s hands away from midnight rather than let them tick toward it. With widespread and organized efforts, we can persuade our leaders to do the hard work needed to reverse course with Russia, protect the Iran deal, limit the power of the president to authorize a first-strike nuclear attack without a congressional declaration of war, and reallocate scarce capital away from a new nuclear arsenal. Perhaps we can finally stop scaring eleven-year-old girls who have plenty of other things to worry about. We have reversed the hands of the Doomsday Clock before. We can do it again.

“Subsidence Craters, Northern End of Yucca Flat, Nevada Test Site,
1996” © Emmet Gowin. Courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York City

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