Society: Doomsday Clock


Minutes to Midnight: The History of the “Doomsday Clock”

Midnight Never Came

It moves!

Birth of the “evil thing”

Fear keeps the peace

Failure of imagination

A “first step”

Parity cometh

Premature optimism

Nucleoholics, greed, and irrationality

“War-fighting,” anyone?

Ideologues take control


The great melt

The coup that failed

Off the scale





Minutes to Midnight: The History of the “Doomsday Clock”


The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has marked nuclear danger since 1947, when its famous clock first appeared on the cover. Since then, the clock has moved forward and back, reflecting international tensions and the developments of the nuclear age.


1947: Seven minutes to midnight: The clock first appears on the Bulletin cover as a symbol of nuclear danger.


1949: Three minutes to midnight: The Soviet Union explodes its first atomic bomb.


1953: Two minutes to midnight: The United States successfully tests a hydrogen bomb in late 1952--and the Soviet Union quickly follows suit.


1960: Seven minutes to midnight: The clock moves in response to the growing public understanding that nuclear weapons made war between major technical nations irrational. International scientific cooperation and efforts to aid poor nations are cited.


1963: Twelve minutes to midnight: The United States and Soviet Union sign the Partial Test Ban Treaty, “the first tangible confirmation...that a new cohesive force has entered the interplay of forces shaping the fate of mankind.”


1968: Seven minutes to midnight: France and China acquire nuclear weapons; wars rage in the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent, and Vietnam; world military spending increases while development funds shrink.


1969: Ten minutes to midnight: The U.S. Senate ratifies the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.


1972: Twelve minutes to midnight: The United States and the Soviet Union sign the first Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT I) and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty; progress toward SALT II is anticipated.


1974: Nine minutes to midnight: SALT talks reach an impasse; India develops a nuclear weapon. “We find policymakers on both sides increasingly ensnared, frustrated, and neutralized by domestic forces having a vested interest in the amassing of strategic forces.”


1980: Seven minutes to midnight: The deadlock in U.S.-Soviet arms talks continues; nationalistic wars and terrorist actions increase; the rift between rich and poor nations grows wider.


1981: Four minutes to midnight: Both superpowers develop more weapons for fighting a nuclear war. Terrorist actions, repression of human rights, conflicts in Afghanistan, Poland, South Africa add to world tension.


1984: Three minutes to midnight: The arms race accelerates. “The blunt simplicities of force threaten to displace any other form of discourse between the superpowers.”


1988: Six minutes to midnight: The United States and the Soviet Union sign a treaty to eliminate intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF); superpower relations improve; more nations actively oppose nuclear weapons.


1990: Ten minutes to midnight: (In October 1989, the clock is redesigned to expand the definition of world security.) Democratic movements in Eastern Europe shatter the myth of monolithic communism; the Cold War ends.


1991: Seventeen minutes to midnight: The United States and the Soviet Union sign the long-stalled Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) and announce further unilateral cuts in tactical and strategic nuclear weapons.


1995: Fourteen minutes to midnight: Both the United States and Russia still have not implemented START II, nor have they ratified the chemical and biological weapons conventions; worldwide arms trade continues to boom; more than a thousand tons of weapons-grade uranium and plutonium is stockpiled, much of it under inadequate security. “In the past four years, it has become clear that opportunities have been missed, open doors closed.”




Midnight Never Came


For nearly five decades, the Bulletin clock has told the world what time it is.


By Mike Moore


The best known symbol of the Nuclear Age--the Bulletin’s “Doomsday Clock”--had a hard-to-ignore debut. Early Bulletins were newsletters, lacking magazine-style covers. But when the June 1947 Bulletin arrived, it had a first-ever cover--a pay-attention-to-me jack-o’-lantern orange cover. Imprinted over the orange: a boldly simple seven-inch by seven-inch clock face. The hour hand was at 12; the minute hand at about seven minutes to. Humankind, the clock said, was in dire straits.


The clock dominated most Bulletin covers until 1964, although, thankfully, less garish hues were generally used for the background. The clock, said an editorial in the July 1947 issue, “represents the state of mind of those whose closeness to the development of atomic energy does not permit them to forget that their lives and those of their children, the security of their country and the survival of civilization, all hang in the balance as long as the specter of atomic war has not been exorcized.”


And so the Bulletin Clock (first called “The Clock of Doom” and then “The Doomsday Clock”) entered folklore as a symbol of nuclear peril and a constant warning that the leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union had better sit up and fly right.


Editorial cartoonists in the Western hemisphere and Europe pirated the clock shamelessly, using it as an off-the-rack metaphor for the general madness of the Nuclear Age. In most cartoon incarnations, the clock was either a windup alarm clock or a globe with hour and minute hands. Either way, it was rigged to an explosive--sometimes dynamite, but usually a hulking nuclear bomb.


The clock also became a deadline-friendly factoid for journalists. Whenever U.S.-Soviet relations hit a bad patch, dozens of reporters and editors would call from as far away as Germany and New Zealand. “Are you going to change the clock?” In the post-Cold War era, reporters call and ask the same question whenever someone, say France, does something dumb, like resuming nuclear tests.


The clock has insinuated itself into the brick and limestone halls of academe. How many professors over the years have referred to the clock--approvingly or disparagingly--in history and international relations classes? No one knows, of course. But at least one academic, Joel Slemrod, a professor of business and economics at the University of Michigan, has used the clock in a research study. After postulating that ordinary people are likely to spend more when the international situation looks uncertain and gloomy and save more when it looks as if there will be a morrow, he found a positive correlation between clock moves and savings rates. (Not that the clock caused variations; it merely served as a dandy barometer of East-West tensions.)


Politicians have also used the clock, no matter where they stood on the peace-and-security continuum. For hawks, the clock was a handy reminder of how dangerous the world was, thus justifying yet another multi-billion-dollar arms buildup. For doves, the clock also said the world was dangerous, but that called for conciliatory gestures and arms control treaties. Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat and a member in good standing of the olive branch school of international relations, titled his 1990 book on the perils of Cold War thinking, Five Minutes to Midnight.


It moves!


The clock was the creation of a Chicago artist known as Martyl, the wife of physicist Alexander Langsdorf, a Bulletin founder. Years later, Martyl said she hit upon the idea “to symbolize urgency.” She got that message across by using just the final quadrant of a clock face, which clearly suggested that the end of time was nigh. As for putting the minute hand at seven--that was, she said, merely a matter of “good design.”


The minute hand stayed at seven minutes to the hour until the fall of 1949, when President Harry S. Truman announced that the United States had evidence that there had been an atomic explosion in the Soviet Union.


The Soviets promptly disputed Truman. In a statement issued by Tass (and reprinted in the October issue of the Bulletin) the Soviet government claimed that U.S. experts had confused a large conventional explosion with an atomic explosion. That was understandable, explained Tass; the Soviet Union was blasting a lot as it built hydroelectric stations, canals, and the like. And, too, did not Western reporters recall that the Soviet Union had announced in November 1947 that it already had the weapon “at its disposal”?


The editors of the Bulletin, always mindful that Soviet leaders often lied, didn’t buy the Tass explanation. Truman was right; the Soviet Union had set off an atomic detonation, and that was proof that the East-West nuclear arms race, long predicted by the Bulletin, was well under way.


“We do not advise Americans that doomsday is near and that they can expect atomic bombs to start falling on their heads a month or a year from now,” wrote Editor Eugene Rabinowitch in an October 1949 essay. “But we think they have reason to be deeply alarmed and to be prepared for grave decisions.”


In the October 1949 issue, the Bulletin moved the clock’s minute hand for the first time, to three minutes to midnight.


Birth of the “evil thing”


The Soviet atomic explosion caught the Truman administration flat-footed. Gen. Leslie R. Groves, the director of the wartime Manhattan Project, had repeatedly predicted that it would take the Soviet Union a generation or more to make a bomb. Truman was even more confident; he believed that the Soviet Union lacked the scientific and industrial competence to ever mount a successful atomic bomb program.


The Bulletin was founded in December 1945 on the contrary notion. Back then, most of the scientists connected with the Bulletin believed that Soviet scientists and Russian industry were fully capable of building an atomic bomb in just a few years. (In November 1945, Harold C. Urey, a Bulletin founder, told the Senate Special Committee on Atomic Energy that “we should not think of a longer time than about five years.”) The way to avoid a destructive nuclear arms race, the Bulletin said, was to put the control of nuclear energy, including weapons, into the hands of an international agency.


That didn’t happen, of course. And now the Soviet fission explosion had given new urgency to a secret, high-level U.S. debate that had been simmering since the early days of the Manhattan Project: should the United States build a “Super,” a “hydrogen bomb” far more powerful than the largest fission weapon?


A host of scientists advising the government opposed the Super. Morally, it would be so large as to be potentially genocidal. From a utilitarian point of view, it would serve no clear military purpose; fission bombs would be all anyone really needed. Physicists I.I. Rabi and Enrico Fermi, both key scientists during the Manhattan Project, described a hydrogen bomb as an “evil thing.” James Conant, an adviser to Roosevelt and Truman on nuclear matters, said the “world is loused up enough”--it didn’t need a hydrogen bomb.


In the end, anti-Super reservations were washed away in a tide of Realpolitik. Truman’s key political advisers, including Secretary of State Dean Acheson, were convinced that the Soviets could--and would--build an H-bomb. Given that, it would be intolerable for the United States not to. (Today we know that the Soviets did indeed push ahead from fission to fusion, with scarcely a pause.)


On October 31, 1952, the United States tested its first true thermonuclear device, a thuggish thing called “Mike” that had a yield nearly a thousand times greater than the Hiroshima bomb. The islet of Elugelab in the Pacific, upon which it was detonated, disappeared, leaving a crater 160 feet deep and more than a mile wide. Nine months later, in August 1953, the Russians exploded a less powerful but still awesome thermonuclear device.


The September 1953 Bulletin cover was remade at the last minute, as soon as word of the Soviet test got out, and the minute hand moved to two minutes to midnight. In the following issue--October 1953--Editor Rabinowitch said:


“The hands of the Clock of Doom have moved again. Only a few more swings of the pendulum, and, from Moscow to Chicago, atomic explosions will strike midnight for Western civilization.”


Massive retaliation and a “cohesive force” In the 1950s, the U.S. consumer society boomed as a prosperous suburban lifestyle spawned highways, barbecue grills, TV sitcoms, and children. But abroad, the news was mostly bad. The Soviets were building nuclear weapons at a rapid pace, and they had even produced a few intercontinental ballistic missiles. (Emphasis on “few.” Ardent Cold Warriors, including Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kennedy, charged that a complacent President Eisenhower had let the Russians pull ahead in ballistic weapons, thus producing a “missile gap.” But it was a phantom gap, the product of misinterpreted intelligence, over-reliance on worst-case scenarios, anti-Soviet hysteria, and cynical domestic political calculation.)


In Europe, homegrown attempts to introduce democratic reforms in Hungary, encouraged by “liberation” rhetoric from Washington, had been aborted by Russian tanks. And in divided Germany, U.S.-Soviet relations were in perpetual crisis over the future of West Berlin, a let-it-all-hang-out oasis of capitalism in the heart of drab East Germany.


On the other side of the world, the Korean Peninsula, where the United States (with help from U.N. and South Korean allies) had fought North Korean and Chinese soldiers, was still a potential flashpoint. The Korean war had not quite ended; it was merely on hold.


Farther south, Communist China and the old Chinese warlord, Chiang Kai-shek, were at one another’s throats. At the end of a bloody civil war, Chiang and his remaining troops had taken refuge on the island of Formosa, just off the Chinese mainland, and war in the Formosa Straits seemed perennially possible. As Chiang’s protector, the United States would surely be involved.


In the Korean War, Eisenhower hinted broadly that he might use nuclear weapons to bring the war to an end. As for the war of nerves in the Formosa Straits, the president got the message across that the United States would not shrink from using nuclear weapons to protect Chiang.


In Southeast Asia, the colonial French government had suffered a humiliating defeat in Indochina, and there was anti-colonial, nationalist, and separatist turmoil from the South China Sea to the Bay of Bengal. In fact, the colonial world was everywhere in revolt, and the Soviet Union and the United States were in sharp competition to win the affection--or at least to buy the allegiance--of the newly independent nations.


Some Third World leaders had already become adept at playing Americans and Russians off one another. But when Col. Gamal Abdel Nasser announced Egypt’s neutrality, Eisenhower grew tired of the game, and a U.S. offer to help finance a high dam on the upper Nile was withdrawn. In retaliation, Nasser nationalized the British- and French-owned Suez Canal; toll revenues from the canal would build the dam.


In late 1956, the Israelis invaded Egypt and were soon joined by the British and the French. Their unspoken agenda: to regain the canal and topple Nasser.


Eisenhower was in a bind. If the United States supported its friends--the British, French, and Israelis--Nasser might turn to the Soviet Union for help. After that, anything could happen. Eisenhower took the cautious route: His administration condemned the invasion at the United Nations. The invading troops withdrew, the Soviets stayed out of the fracas, Nasser paid $81 million for taking the canal, and the Russians eventually financed the Aswan High Dam.


Despite the tumult and bloodshed, Rabinowitch found reasons in January 1960 to be moderately encouraged by the way the decade had unfolded, at least on the nuclear front. He noted, for instance, that the “Suez expedition was called off after the fighting was well under way--in fact, when it was almost over--although vital interests of two great powers had to be sacrificed.”


The Suez outcome suggested that the “world map has been frozen by universal fear of a great war,” he explained. In the pre-nuclear era, turmoil in many parts of the world would have led to a major war. But now, “war threats and counterthreats have become bluffs and counterbluffs.”


Rabinowitch was right. Talk was often bellicose--”massive retaliation” and “we will bury you” are only two of the truly memorable phrases from the decade. But the Soviets and the Americans had clearly become cautious vis-a-vis one another’s vital interests. Direct confrontation between the superpowers was generally to be avoided; confrontation by proxy was just rearing its head.


Meanwhile, there were at least a few positive signs of multinational cooperation-- among them, the International Geophysical Year, the efforts of U.N. organizations such as UNESCO and UNICEF, and the Pugwash meetings involving Soviet and Western scientists. Rabinowitch believed that “a new cohesive force has entered the interplay of forces shaping the face of mankind, and it is making the future of man a little less foreboding.”


The minute hand was again put at seven minutes to midnight, its original setting.


Fear keeps the peace


People sometimes assume that the minute hand of the clock is moved frequently. In fact, the clock has been reset just 14 times in its 48 years. Clock moves reflect major trends, not transient events. For instance, the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962 failed to produce so much as a blip in the clock. The crisis--a frightening exception to the still developing “rule” that the United States and Soviet Union should not directly confront one another--came and went too fast for the Bulletin to act on it.


A year after the missile crisis, in October 1963, the Bulletin moved the minute hand back in recognition of the signing of the Partial Test Ban Treaty, an agreement banning atmospheric nuclear testing. Rabinowitch explained in his editorial that the treaty was not a “significant step toward disarmament”-- after all, underground tests would continue. Nor would the treaty prevent additional nations from acquiring nuclear weapons, Rabinowitch added. Indeed, he believed that China would shortly join the nuclear club. (China’s first test of a fission device came in October 1964.)


Nevertheless, the treaty, said Rabinowitch, was tangible evidence that the “cohesive force” was still alive and well. Both sides of the East-West confrontation continued to experience “naked fear for survival,” and that fear helped keep the peace. The treaty also suggested that “the forces of realism” were winning; on both sides of the East-West divide, “obstinate dogmatism” was in retreat.


The minute hand was moved back to 12 minutes to midnight.


Failure of imagination


By 1968, it was clear to Rabinowitch that the “dogmatists” had not been routed, after all. Cooperation between and among nations, never a strong trend, had waned. Nationalism and “international anarchy” were in flower.


“De Gaulle’s France and Mao’s China led the way,” said Rabinowitch in the January 1968 issue. “Both devoted enormous efforts to the development of nuclear weapons as a visible sign of their sovereignty, and a guarantee of freedom of action.


“Stirrings of military nationalism appeared all over the globe. India and Pakistan went to war in 1965; Israel and the Arab countries did the same in 1967. And the United States was already embarked on a growing military intervention in Southeast Asia, without the U.N. label that had so irritated American nationalists in the Korean conflict.”


Rabinowitch seldom expected much from Soviet leaders, whom he generally thought to be benighted and paranoid, but he expected a lot of American leaders. The United States, despite its many flaws, was still the last best hope of mankind. More than any other nation, it could demonstrate--by example--that military spending was wasteful, and that it was far better to help Third World nations develop their own peace-time economies then to supply them with arms.


But American leadership--particularly the administration of Lyndon B. Johnson--had not been up to the task. The great U.S. failure of the 1960s, said Rabinowitch, was not so much a “sin of commission”--the Vietnam War--as a “sin of omission,” a failure to use American power and wealth in imaginative ways to lead a worldwide mobilization of technical, economic, and intellectual resources for the building of a viable world community. “The day of reckoning may be approaching, not in the form of American withdrawal and communist takeover in the Far East, but in a wave of world hunger, and the accompanying surge of world anarchy.”


The minute hand was moved up to its original slot, seven minutes to midnight.


A “first step”


The previous year’s clock editorial, called “The Dismal Record,” reflected disappointment over missed opportunities. But in Geneva, a process had been going on since the mid-1960s that looked promising. On the theory that it only takes one spark to start a forest fire, nations--nuclear as well as non-nuclear--were attempting to limit the “horizontal” spread of nuclear weapons.


Many of the non-nuclear weapon states were also fearful of “vertical” proliferation in the United States and the Soviet Union, while they remained enamored of nuclear power, which was seen as the cure for virtually all ills. In 1968, a deal was finally struck: Under the terms of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the nuclear weapon states would help non-nuclear weapon states develop nuclear power. In turn, the “have-not” states would agree not to develop or obtain nuclear weapons.


Finally, the five nuclear weapon states promised to work toward a cessation of the nuclear arms race and eventual disarmament. More than 100 nations signed the NPT, although some of the holdouts were worrisome--especially Israel, India, Pakistan, South Africa, Argentina, and Brazil.


But even with holdouts, Rabinowitch was heartened by the deal, if not overwhelmed. In the April 1969 issue, he wrote: “This treaty reasserts the common interests of all signatories in avoiding new instabilities, bound to be introduced into the precarious balance of nuclear terror with the emergence of new nuclear nations. . . .


“The great powers have made a first step. They must proceed without delay to the next one--the dismantling, gradually, of their own oversize military establishments. Otherwise the hope raised by the treaty will prove futile.”


The minute hand was moved back to ten minutes to midnight.


Parity cometh


In 1964, Stanley Kubrick released Dr. Strangelove, a wickedly funny satire of deterrence theory, and Sidney Lumet gave audiences Fail Safe, an earnest and plodding essay on the same topic. Both films explored scenarios in which U.S. bombers erroneously attack the Soviet Union with nuclear weapons. In Fail Safe, Moscow and New York are destroyed; in Strangelove, the planet is fatally irradiated by a secret Soviet “Doomsday Machine.”


In a sense, Kubrick and Lumet were cockeyed optimists. Sure, things didn’t turn out so well for a few million people (Fail Safe) or a few billion (Strangelove), but in each case, a fictional president had hours to correct the original attack-the-Soviets mistake. But in the real world, the time scale was about to be reduced to minutes. There would no time for reflective assessment, no time for call-backs.


By the mid-1960s, the United States and the Soviet Union were working on antiballistic missile systems (ABMs), with the Russians showing far more enthusiasm for the concept than the Americans. To Soviet leaders, a defense system seemed reasonable, even morally compelling. But in the United States, a host of influential policy-makers, including Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara, argued that an effective ABM system would be dangerous.


Mutual terror, went the argument, was still the great peacekeeper. As long as both sides knew that each could destroy the other, no matter who struck first, an uneasy peace would prevail. But ABMs had the potential for disrupting that rickety balance of terror. They would encourage a rapid acceleration of the nuclear arms race, because increases in offensive weapons were the surest and cheapest way of offsetting advances in defensive systems.


And in moments of high East-West tension, the side that believed that it had the most effective ABM system might be tempted to launch a first strike, confident that it could ride out the weakened retaliatory attacks with minimal damage.


But in an obscene game of chicken, the side that feared a preemptive first strike might well launch its own preemptive attack. Meanwhile, the other side, assuming that the enemy would reason thusly, would have even more reason to strike first. . . .


Fear of Russian progress on ABMs inspired the United States to enhance its offensive forces by developing missiles that carried “multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles”--MIRVs. The last stage of an ICBM was merely a “bus” carrying several warheads, each of which could be released at a different time in a preplanned sequence. Thanks to in-flight course corrections by the bus, the warheads would have different ballistic trajectories and different targets.


In this new post-Strangelove world, an enemy who struck first would have a clear advantage, said nuclear strategists. Because one MIRVed ICBM could theoretically knock out several enemy missiles in their silos, the side that struck first could retain many of its missiles for a possible second strike.


The only way to level the “bolt-from-the-blue” playing field was for the target nation to launch its missiles before they could be destroyed in their silos. In a MIRVed use-’em-or-lose-’em world, the U.S. and Russian command authorities might have just minutes to make a launch-no launch decision, even if the information they had was muddled and ambiguous.


By the late 1960s, U.S. and Soviet leaders had come to suspect that the two nations were lurching toward an abyss. In an attempt to pull back from the edge, the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) began in Helsinki in November 1969.


The central idea of SALT was that the United States and the Soviet Union would give up their respective dreams of achieving clearcut nuclear superiority. Instead, they would begin a process designed to produce a rough sort of “parity.” In turn, that might bring a measure of predictability and stability to East-West relations.


In 1972, two agreements were signed. One, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, effectively put an end to most ABM work, thus making an out-of-control nuclear arms race less likely. In effect, the treaty said that each nation must remain vulnerable to the other side’s missiles; continued willingness to abide by a mutual suicide pact had become the Golden Rule of deterrence theory.


Meanwhile, the five-year SALT Interim Agreement froze the number of ballistic missile launchers--that is, the number of land-based missile silos and submarine-based missile launch tubes--at 1972 levels. It was an exceedingly modest start toward nuclear arms control; it did not actually limit the number of missiles each side could have or the number of warheads that a given missile might carry.


Bernard T. Feld, a member of the Bulletin’s Board of Directors, was generally pleased with the ABM Treaty, but wary of the Interim Agreement. Feld, whose sarcasm was not always hidden, wrote the clock editorial for the June 1972 issue:


“Now we have been presented with the greatest step towards world peace since the Sermon on the Mount, and we are torn between the impulse to cry ‘bravo’ and the desire to shout ‘fraud.’”


MIRVed missiles were meant to counter the ABM “threat,” he said. But now the ABM threat had faded--yet MIRVs remained. That was “because we are too far along with deployment and the Russians too far behind--an asymmetry that we do not want to give up and they do not want to freeze. So we have accepted that we will both go to MIRV, after which it will be too late to avoid MIRV without unacceptably intrusive inspection.”


The ABM Treaty was fine, but the Interim Agreement was thin gruel. Nonetheless, the United States and the Soviet Union had accepted the principle of parity, and that was a foundation to build upon. The minute hand was moved back to 12 minutes to midnight.


Premature optimism


The cover of the September 1974 Bulletin was an editorial cartoon come to life. It featured a photo of an alarm clock with its minute hand approaching midnight. The clock, a battery, and a globe were wired together into a primitive time bomb.


It was not a wholly unreasonable image, given the facts: instead of reducing their numbers, the United States and the Soviet Union were MIRVing and modernizing their nuclear arsenals at an alarming rate; India had exploded a nuclear device; and SALT II was at an impasse.


Founding Editor Rabinowitch had died in 1973. Feld was now editor-in-chief, but his deputy, Editor Samuel H. Day, wrote the September 1974 clock editorial:


“Despite the promise of the 1972 accords, it is now apparent that the two nuclear superpowers are nowhere near significant agreement on strategic arms limitations. The failure was manifest at the recently concluded summit conference in Moscow. This in itself is cause for concern in view of the arms buildup which has continued during the course of the negotiations, and particularly since 1972.


“In anticipation of [arms] limitations agreements that have never come to pass or were of little consequence, more and more weapons have been built and tested, and more and more weapons systems have been developed and deployed. Far from restraining the forces which it was intended to curb, SALT has sustained and nourished them, providing acceptable channels for conducting business as usual.”


The Bulletin’s optimism in resetting the clock to 12 minutes to midnight in 1972 had been “premature,” said Day. The “danger of nuclear doomsday is measurably greater today than it was in 1972.”


The minute hand was moved up to nine minutes to midnight.


Nucleoholics, greed, and irrationality


As the Bulletin entered its thirty-fifth year, Editor-in-Chief Feld offered a general assessment of the world situation in the January 1980 issue. It was not a happy prospect. SALT II negotiations had concluded in 1979, and it took a heroic act of optimism to conclude that much had been accomplished. Weapon ceilings were set so high, and MIRVed weapons had become so commonplace, that a nuclear Armageddon seemed as likely now as when the talks began. Feld wrote:


“More than ten years after the start of the SALT negotiations, we are still struggling with the acceptance of an agreement which, far from embodying significant nuclear disarmament, retains--if it does not encourage-- the accumulation of astronomical numbers of deliverable nuclear weapons by both the so-called ‘superpowers’; which is not yet able to address the dangers of an irrational and growing nuclear confrontation in Europe; and which has not even begun to take the minimum steps of restraint needed to shore up a rapidly deteriorating nonproliferation regime.”


The United States and the Soviet Union, said Feld, were equally to blame. The former had a “self-defeating propensity for the premature introduction of destabilizing new technologies.” The latter was stubbornly wedded to the sanctity of large numbers of huge missiles to counterbalance a lack of technical sophistication. Both had “been behaving like what may best be described as ‘nucleoholics’-- drunks who continue to insist that the drink being consumed is positively ‘the last one,’ but who can always find a good excuse for ‘just one more round.’”


But the accelerating arms race was just one source of instability, albeit the darkest. Feld said that increased competition among nations for ever more scarce resources, often a cause of conflict and war, would get worse in the coming decades, not better. The developed world used a disproportionate share of the world’s resources and would continue to do so. Conservation did not come naturally to the affluent. Meanwhile, the developed world made only token efforts to help improve living conditions in the poorest nations of the Third World.


Also serious was a “spreading trend toward irrationality in the national and international conduct of many states, of peoples aspiring to nationhood, and dissident minorities (down to minorities comprising only a few individuals) within nations. Each one of us can easily find many examples of this trend toward a return to the the social and political behavior of the Middle Ages: the provisional branch of the Irish Republican Army or the Italian Red Brigade; the religious fanaticism now in control in Iran and other parts of the Islamic world; the systematic dismemberment of Lebanon, the outstanding modern example of a secular democratic state; the genocidal orgy in Cambodia, demonstrating the contemporary possibility that innocent people may, without choice, end up both red and dead while the rest of the world impotently stands by.”


Despite his gloomy analysis, Feld reminded readers that the Bulletin was “essentially optimistic,” and he exhorted the Bulletin community not to give up on SALT or the SALT process. But for now, the minute hand of the clock was moved up to seven minutes to midnight, where it had started in 1947.


“War-fighting,” anyone?


Just 12 months later, the outlook for the world seemed even dimmer. The Soviet Union had dispatched tanks, troops, and dive bombers to Afghanistan in December 1979 to prop up a puppet government, further poisoning a none-too-cordial relationship between Moscow and Washington. President Jimmy Carter, who had sent SALT II to the Senate for ratification, condemned the Soviets for “invading” their neighbor, cancelled U.S. participation in the upcoming Olympic Games in Moscow, and asked the Senate to postpone action on SALT II.


More chillingly, the Carter administration, in an attempt to bring order to decades of jury-rigged nuclear-response plans and to enhance the “credibility” of deterrence, had devised a wider range of nuclear options, including the implementation of command-and-control measures that would--in theory--insure that the United States could fight a “protracted nuclear conflict.”


Then in November 1980, former governor and movie star Ronald Reagan, a defense hawk who had campaigned on the premise that the United States had become dangerously weak vis-á-vis the Soviet Union, was elected president. SALT II was “fatally flawed,” said Reagan, and the Soviets routinely flouted SALT provisions. In contrast, the United States, which played by the rules, had laced itself into a straitjacket. The way to end the Cold War, Reagan said, was to win it. Feld wrote in the January 1981 issue:


“Nuclear weapons--more and more unambiguously aimed at war-fighting rather than war-deterrence--are now being rapidly deployed by the East and West in Europe. The Russian SS-20 and the U.S. MX blatantly announce a new race in improved missile accuracy and mobility, heralding the acceptance of counterforce first-strike by both sides.


“These ominous signs of deterioration are cast into starker relief by the flat unwillingness of either the United States or the Soviet Union to reject publicly, and in all circumstances, the threat of striking the other first. Both sides willfully delude themselves that a nuclear war can remain limited or even be won. In 1980, both sides officially declared nuclear war ‘thinkable.’”


The minute hand was moved up to four minutes to midnight.


Ideologues take control


The early Reagan years alarmed the Bulletin’s editors, along with millions of other people in the United States and Western Europe. Reagan, who may have believed more ardently than any previous president in the ultimate abolition of nuclear weapons, nevertheless expanded and accelerated a weapons buildup that Jimmy Carter had begun. Reagan also seemed to enjoy tossing incendiary rhetoric into the dry-as-straw East-West barn. In his first presidential news conference, he asserted that Soviet leaders “reserve unto themselves the right to commit any crime, to lie, to cheat.”


While the comment would not have raised an eyebrow if a historian had uttered it, it seemed recklessly provocative coming from the commander-in-chief of the most powerful nation on earth. Two years later, Reagan trumped his any-crime-any-time comment by calling the Soviet Union the “Evil Empire” in a speech redolent of Old Testament rhetoric about the final showdown between the forces of Good and Evil.


To manage domestic affairs, Reagan surrounded himself with moderates and pragmatists. But in foreign affairs, many of his key advisers were anti-Soviet ideologues--hardliners who believed that the United States should throw out the idea of nuclear parity. Eugene Rostow, for instance, became director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. Previously, he had been co-chair (with Paul Nitze) of the Committee on the Present Danger, a Carter-era organization dedicated to persuading the nation that the Soviet Union was dangerously ahead of the United States in nuclear weaponry.


In 1983, Reagan announced the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), resurrecting the long-dead fantasy of unfurling an anti-ballistic missile umbrella over the United States. The president’s March 23 speech came as a surprise to almost everyone, including some of Reagan’s closest advisers. The space-based SDI plan was quickly dubbed “Star Wars,” after the movie trilogy of that name.


Reagan’s Star Wars plan, if developed and deployed, would surely violate the ABM Treaty, critics said. It would lead to a resumption of an all-out nuclear arms race. And--as a final irony--it almost surely would not work in the event of an all-out attack. The Bulletin’s first unsigned clock editorial appeared in the January 1984 issue:


“As the arms race--a sort of dialogue between weapons--has intensified, other forms of discourse between the superpowers have all but ceased. There has been a virtual suspension of meaningful contacts and serious discussions. Every channel of communications has been constricted or shut down; every form of contact has been attenuated or cut off. And arms control negotiations have been reduced to a species of propaganda.”


The minute hand was moved up to three minutes to midnight.




Western Europe had been seen as a potential nuclear battleground virtually since the beginning of Nuclear Time. In the 1950s, U.S. bombers with nuclear weapons had been stationed in England and tactical nuclear weapons had been deployed with NATO troops, all to discourage the Soviet Union from gobbling up Bonn and Paris and London and Rome without a burp. In the 1950s, the West European nations were generally comfortable basking in the shade of the U.S. nuclear umbrella. The threat of nuclear retaliation, went the conventional wisdom, kept the Russian bear in hibernation and away from the Fulda Gap.


When the Soviets caught up, in a rough sort of way in the 1960s, nuclear intimidation was no longer a game of solitaire. If the NATO nations, led by the United States, used nuclear weapons to fend off a Soviet invasion, the Soviets could now strike the United States. Given that, would the United States actually come to the aid of Europe if it meant possible national suicide?


This “coupling” debate, always surreal, had waxed and waned through the 1960s and 1970s. Britain developed nuclear weapons in part to maintain its “special relationship” with the United States. In contrast, Charles DeGaulle had so little confidence in U.S. nuclear commitments that he insisted that France have its own independent nuclear retaliatory force.


In the late 1970s, in an attempt to enhance deterrence and tighten the coupling between between Europe and the United States, the West European members of NATO obtained a U.S. promise to deploy 464 ground-launched nuclear-tipped cruise missiles on NATO soil, as well as 108 nuclear-armed Pershing II intermediate-range ballistic missiles.


In theory, the missiles would counterbalance a nasty-looking Soviet force of 243 triple-warhead SS-20 missiles aimed at NATO targets. They would also be bargaining chips. Deployment--even the threat of deployment--would give the West additional leverage in pushing for a treaty that would sharply constrain such weapons worldwide.


In the early 1980s, as deployment of the new missiles loomed and NATO and Soviet rhetoric became more alarming, popular opposition in Western Europe became a force to be reckoned with. In the fall of 1981, more than 250,000 people turned out for a protest in Bonn; the following month, some 400,000 protested in Amsterdam.


Deploying Pershing missiles that could hit Soviet targets in five to 10 minutes was utterly mad, said the protesters in Europe and in the United States. It would make the Soviets even more edgy, ultimately leading to an unintentional but devastating nuclear war. ABC-TV’s two-part movie, The Day After, linked Pershing deployment to a civilization-ending war. It played to huge audiences on two continents.


The fact that the United States and the Soviet Union eventually signed an Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in December 1987--which eliminated all such weapons (including Pershing IIs and SS-20s) rather than merely cutting their numbers--struck many people, including the editors of the Bulletin, as near-miraculous. But it wasn’t quite that. Public opinion in Western Europe and the United States had made it plain to the Reagan administration that people were fed up with having to live at Ground Zero. Public pressure to do something about the nuclear arms race had become a potent political movement.


As surprising as Reagan’s agreement to the INF Treaty may have been, it was even more startling to learn that the Soviet Union, long victimized by constipated and unimaginative leadership, finally had a top man--Mikhail Gorbachev--with the wit and the imagination and the courage to finally end the Cold War. The editorial in the January-February 1988 Bulletin said:


“For the first time the United States and the Soviet Union have agreed to dismantle and ban a whole category of nuclear weapons. They have crafted provisions that enable each to be confident that the other will comply with the treaty’s terms. The agreement they have fashioned can serve as a model for future accords. That agreement would not have been possible without the leadership displayed by General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev and President Ronald Reagan. We applaud them.”


The minute hand was moved back to six minutes to midnight.


The great melt


The Berlin Wall came down at the end of 1989, symbolizing the end of the Cold War. Gorbachev had long realized that the Soviet Empire, which had rested on a foundation of fear and intimidation for more than four decades, could not be sustained. His goals were to shore up Soviet society, to repair the collapsing Soviet economic machine, to introduce democratic reforms, to end Soviet isolation from the Western world, and to bring new life--”new thinking”--to the desperately outdated Communist Party.


Meanwhile, new thinking was far advanced in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, East Germany, Romania. Men and women who had danced tepidly to Moscow’s balalaika since the end of World War II would do it no longer. Revolution was in the air from the North Sea to the Black Sea. And Gorbachev was not about to send tanks into Eastern Europe, as his predecessors had, to keep the East Bloc nations in line. The editorial in the April 1990 Bulletin remarked:


“Now, 44 years after Winston Churchill’s ‘Iron Curtain’ speech, the myth of monolithic communism had been shattered for all to see, the ideological conflict known as the Cold War is over, and the risk of global nuclear war being ignited in Europe is significantly diminished. . . .”


The minute hand was moved back to 10 minutes to midnight.


The coup that failed


The old era ended abruptly. Few had anticipated it; even fewer seemed to have a clear notion of what would--or should--come next. From a Washington perspective, change was good as long as it didn’t get out of hand. The Reagan and Bush administrations had come to see Gorbachev as an ally, as a friend, as a bulwark against chaos in a troubled Soviet Union.


Back home in Russia, Gorbachev didn’t have a prayer. He was said to be chiefly responsible for every problem and disgrace tormenting the Soviet Union--ranging from the nation’s decline as a world power to its free-falling economy to an increase in public drunkenness to the imminent dissolution of the Union itself.


By the the beginning of 1991, the general secretary was foundering, although official Washington seemed not to know it. The end came in late August, when reactionaries mounted a near-bloodless coup. The coup failed to install a government of revanchist communists, but Gorbachev was finished, although he remained in office through the remainder of the year.


Discredited and virtually deposed, yes. But Gorbachev had not been a failure. Beginning in 1985, when he took over as general secretary, Gorbachev had forced democratic reforms onto the moribund Soviet system. Although the reforms helped foment the turmoil that led to his downfall, they had become so ingrained by August 1991 that a successful right-wing coup was not possible. As unpopular as Gorbachev had become, the rightist alternatives looked worse to most Russians.


Shortly before the coup attempt, Gorbachev had signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, the Reagan-era successor to SALT and the first nuclear arms agreement that mandated steep rollbacks in so-called “strategic” weapons. And in September and October, as the Soviet Union sputtered to an end, Presidents Bush and Gorbachev announced a series of unilateral but parallel initiatives taking most intercontinental missiles and bombers off hair-trigger alert, and withdrawing thousands of tactical nuclear weapons from forward bases. The Bulletin editorial in the December 1991 issue said:


“The 40-year-long East-West nuclear arms race has ended. The world has clearly entered a new post-Cold War era. The illusion that tens of thousands of nuclear weapons are a guarantor of national security has been stripped away. In the context of a disintegrating Soviet Union, large nuclear arsenals are even more clearly seen as a liability, a yardstick of insecurity. . . .


“We believe that Presidents Bush and Gorbachev have guided their respective nations to a historic intersection of mutual interests. Continuing boldness and imagination are called for. Men and women throughout the world must vigorously challenge the bankrupt paradigms of militarism if we are to achieve a new world order. The setting of the Bulletin Clock reflects our optimism that we are entering a new era.”


The minute hand of the clock was pushed back to 17 minutes to midnight.


Off the scale


The new man in Moscow was Boris Yeltsin, a self-styled radical democrat. As president of the Russian Federation, he presided over the formal demise of the Soviet Union. Russia, he said, would adhere to the letter and the spirit of arms control agreements negotiated by the old Soviet Union.


To symbolize the dramatic nature of the changes marked by the the 1991 clock move, the Bulletin’s Board of Directors had moved the minute hand “off the scale,” to 17 minutes to midnight. By Bulletin standards, that represented an unprecedented burst of enthusiasm and optimism.


In May 1946, Albert Einstein, one of the Bulletin’s more notable godfathers, looked toward the future and said: “The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking, and thus we drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.”


The goal of the Bulletin--founded 50 years ago in December--has been to render that wonderfully apt Einstein quote obsolete. The Bulletin has been--and still is--committed to changing the way people think about war-and-peace issues. Its “Clock of Doom,” as Eugene Rabinowitch used to call it, has been a major part of that effort.


The clock quickly became the symbol of the Bulletin. But it also came to symbolize something far larger than a magazine published in Chicago, just blocks from where the first controlled, self-sustaining nuclear reaction took place. The clock became an icon of the Nuclear Age, a centerpiece of pop culture, an image so clearly on target that if the Bulletin had not invented it, a Nehru or a Cousins or a Kennedy would have come up with it eventually.


The Bulletin Clock is not just the property of a magazine. It belongs to everyone who cares about the future of humankind.


--Mike Moore is editor of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.-- Copyright 1995 by the Educational Foundation for Nuclear Science




Countdown to the Apocalypse: Scientists to Change Doomsday Clock (Foxnews, 070117)


The end of the world may be drawing a bit closer.


Scientists on Wednesday will change the time on Chicago’s Doomsday Clock based on countries increasingly seeking nuclear technology, such as Iran and North Korea, the United States’ and Russia’s ability to readily launch 2,000 of their 25,000 nuclear weapons, as well as other threats posed by global warming, bioterrorism and an overall increase in terrorism throughout the world, the Chicago Tribune reported.


The Chicago-based Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists created the clock in 1947 to assess the threat of a nuclear holocaust during the Cold War. The time on the clock, housed at the University of Chicago, will be changed after a dual ceremony in London and Washington.


The Bulletin suggested in a press release that it would move the minute hand closer to midnight, which symbolizes the apocalypse. An announcement was planned for 9:30 ET, according to the Bulletin’s web site.


“It’s time to pay attention in a very serious way to what we see as potentially civilization-ending technology and trends,” said Kennette Benedict, the Bulletin’s executive director.


Astrophysicist Stephen Hawking, who has warned that the survival of the human race depends on its ability to find new homes elsewhere in the universe because of the increasing risk that a disaster will destroy the Earth, was set to speak at one of the events.


Hawking recently announced that he planned to take a trip to space in 2009 on board one of Richard Branson’s planned space tourism flights.