On Clocks, Nuclear Armageddon, and President Obama

Originally published here.

On September 26, 1945, a group of scientists from the Metallurgical Laboratory of the University of Chicago put months of informal discussions into formal text, and founded an organization that they called the Atomic Scientists of Chicago. The Metallurgical Laboratory was part of the Manhattan Project; in fact, anyone who had been an employee of the Manhattan Project was welcome to join the organization.

The organization’s newsletter was called The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists of Chicago. You can read the first edition here.

The initial purpose of the newsletter was twofold: it was a way for scientists to publicly discuss policy related to “the release of nuclear energy”, and it was a way to educate the public about it. By 1947, the newsletter had become a full-fledged journal, now known as The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, with the following statement printed on the inside of the back cover:

When the bomb fell on Hiroshima, it broke a six-year silence which security imposed on the atomic scientists. It also shattered the scientists’ “ivory tower” of detachment from the social and political implications of their discoveries. For the scientists — who had six years to consider the implications of atomic warfare before these implications exploded on a stunned world — recognized that they had a responsibility to see that this force would be used for the benefit and not the destruction of mankind.

At once they formed into groups to tell their fellow citizens of the effects of atomic energy and its implications for society. The BULLETIN OF THE ATOMIC SCIENTISTS started as a modest newsletter written and published by members of the Atomic Scientists of Chicago. In two years, it grew into a 32-page monthly magazine with an international circulation of about 20,000 copies.

A primary, driving force behind The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists was peaceful use, and proper control, of “the release of nuclear energy”. The increasing urgency of somehow controlling the atomic genie, and making people understand the catastrophe resulting if it got out of control, was summed up in a symbol, which was printed on the cover of the journal for the first time in June 1947:

Image credit: The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Click to enlarge.

The symbol is a clock, with the hour hand constantly pointed at midnight, and the minute hand variable. Midnight represented nuclear war, and the minute hand could be changed to reflect world events bringing us closer to (or farther from) devastating nuclear conflict. Appropriately, it is called the “Doomsday Clock”.

Since 1947, the minute hand has moved a lot. It has been as close to two minutes to midnight (in 1953, since both the US and the Soviet Union developed and tested their first hydrogen bombs in 1952) three minutes to midnight (in 1984, at a particularly bad point in US-Soviet relations), and as far away as seventeen minutes to midnight (in 1991, at the official end of the Cold War).The Bulletin has since started including a variety of threats in their assessment of where the minute hand should be, such as climate change as well as the non-peaceful use of biotechnology.

Last week, all of these things were taken into account when the Doomsday Clock was reset from five minutes to six minutes to midnight. Although the official Bulletin announcement is worth reading in its entirety, the first two paragraphs provide the general ideas on which they based their decision:

We are poised to bend the arc of history toward a world free of nuclear weapons. For the first time since atomic bombs were dropped in 1945, leaders of nuclear weapons states are cooperating to vastly reduce their arsenals and secure all nuclear bomb-making material. And for the first time ever, industrialized and developing countries alike are pledging to limit climate-changing gas emissions that could render our planet nearly uninhabitable.

These unprecedented steps are signs of a growing political will to tackle the two gravest threats to civilization–the terror of nuclear weapons and runaway climate change. This hopeful state of world affairs leads the boards of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists–which include 19 Nobel laureates–to move the minute hand of the Doomsday Clock back from five to six minutes to midnight. By shifting the hand back from midnight by only one additional minute, we emphasize how much needs to be accomplished, while at the same time recognizing signs of collaboration among the United States, Russia, the European Union, India, China, Brazil, and others on nuclear security and on climate stabilization.

Please read the whole thing for all the specifics. Something that might resonate with Daily Kos readers is a hearty shout-out to President Obama, because:

A key to the new era of cooperation is a change in the U.S. government’s orientation toward international affairs brought about in part by the election of Obama.

Regardless of the other things The Bulletin scientists took into account, given the fact that Obama is the first US president since the end of the Cold War who has actually been interested in nuclear arms control, why wasn’t the Clock moved by more than one minute?

This is something that I discussed in a phone call with Richard Rhodes, who is an “atomic historian” of the highest order, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Making of the Atomic Bomb, among other stellar books.

Here’s what Mr. Rhodes had to say:

The real offender in terms of nuclear arsenals, without any question, is the United States of America. That’s something we could do something about. I know the President is trying to move in that direction.

At the same time, it’s very clear that almost the entire nuclear-industrial establishment in the United States is going to resist that movement ferociously. They’re already starting to. The more intensely the President pushes, the harder they’re going to push back. It’s their life, it’s their money, it’s their view of the world, their sense of security, and for those reasons, I think we Americans really are the ones who are keeping nuclear arsenals in place. The rest of the world would follow our lead, without any question, including Russia, which cannot afford the arsenal it has.

So, the gorilla in the living room, if you will, is us, and that’s not nearly strongly enough emphasized in this announcement.

No one wants to spend this money anymore, but we seem to feel that we need to continue, and the reasons are more and more questionable. The latest reason is: we have to maintain a nuclear arsenal so that countries that are under our deterrent umbrella won’t start building their own nuclear weapons, which is really a fallacious argument. Does that mean Japan is going to go nuclear if we stop having nuclear weapons? Of course it doesn’t, and no one really seriously believes that.

But it’s a sign of the desperation of the pro-nuclear lobby, with the complete disappearance of any possible nuclear enemy. Are we really worried about North Korea, with its ten World War II type nuclear weapons and no delivery systems except trucks? We’re not worried about Russia. Russia’s our partner now. There are people, of course, in Washington, who believe that Russia is still the enemy.

All credit to The Bulletin for its unrelenting campaign against nuclear arsenals over the years, in times when it was really politically hard to do. It’s not so politically difficult now, but still all credit. But I think its announcement might have been braver had it focused a little more on the real player is in all of this: the United States.

And the irony of it is, if the world eliminated all nuclear weapons, the United States would be even more dominant militarily. That’s actually a problem for other nations that want to see nukes eliminated.

I also asked him if he, as a historian, thought the Doomsday Clock was still as powerful — and relevant — a symbol as it was at the height of the Cold War, and if it can still influence how we perceive our rather dangerous world. He said:

Again, because people seem to be so much less worried about the risk of nuclear attack — I won’t say nuclear war, because I don’t think there is any risk of nuclear war — but of some kind of nuclear event, people are so much less aware of it.

Nuclear war was number two on the list of things Americans were most frightened of, back in 1970 or 1980. Today, it’s more like number twenty-five. People worry more being mugged in the street — a lot more.

In that sense, the whole topic has moved away from urgency, which has its good side and its bad side. It’s good that people can sleep a little better. On the other hand, the whole terrible arsenal is still out there, still armed, still ready for us, under less reliable control, than we had before. We’re misplacing weapons, such as the nuclear cruise missiles that went flying across the country before anyone was aware they were missing, and Russian command and control has deteriorated because they haven’t spent the money to maintain it.

So it’s always good when an institution with a history like The Bulletin‘s can make the point, once again, that nuclear weapons are something we should be thinking about, and working on — not simply our leadership, but all of us.

The “all of us” part of what Rhodes said is actually emphasized on The Bulletin‘s TurnBackTheClock.org page, which includes “action alerts“. It will be interesting to see what they do with it in the future, because there is a lot of potential for community participation and action on a number of fronts.

What is most important is to always remember that the United States can, indeed, make or break a number of urgent issues on the nuclear weapons front in the upcoming year. As the Arms Control Association’s director, Daryl Kimball said in his recent editorial, “Obama’s Big Nuclear Test“:

Now, the hard part begins. Within the next few months, the administration must finish and win Senate approval of the new START, secure international support for measures to strengthen the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty at the May review conference, and begin to persuade undecided Senate Republicans that the time has finally come to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

To succeed, the president and his cabinet must devote far more energy to these goals and ensure that his administration’s top-to-bottom Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), due by March 1, fully supports his Prague agenda. To do so, Obama needs to implement transformational rather than incremental changes in U.S. nuclear weapons policy in at least four key areas.

A friend on Twitter said about the Doomsday Clock, “these are truly uncertain times”. As the Doomsday Clock continues to tick, it’s time for President Obama to make his bold nuclear policy wishes and dreams a solid, certain reality.

2010 may, indeed, be a historic year.

It is 6 minutes to midnight. Image credit: The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

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