Nuclear 'doomsday clock' better off if it just stopped ticking entirely

Nuclear 'doomsday clock' better off if it just stopped ticking entirely
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In 1947, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists (BAS) was first published along with a Doomsday Clock. The nuclear scientists created the clock to warn the United States of the nuclear dangers it faced.

The clock was set at 7 minutes to midnight. If some nuclear “bad” thing happened or if the United States didn’t lead the world to eliminate nuclear weapons, the clock would tick toward midnight, at which time the world would face Armageddon.

Since 1947, the Bulletin Doomsday Clock has been reset 23 times. Most recently, late last month it was moved 30 seconds closer to Doomsday. It now registers a mere two minutes to midnight.

Is the clock a meaningful measure of the nuclear dangers we face and a useful barometer of things “nuclear”?

The BAS offers explanations for changes made to the clock’s setting. By my count, American actions are almost entirely to blame rather than those of the Soviet Union, China, North Korea or Pakistan and India. And the changes away from Doomsday are done for what appear to be frivolous reasons, even as key events such as major arms control agreements are ignored and don’t move the clock at all.

A political note of interest: Democratic presidents cumulatively moved the clock 16 seconds closer to doom, while Republican administrations actually moved the clock 11 seconds away from doom, with the clock moving over 71 years from seven to two minutes to Armageddon.

For example, in 1960, the clock was moved 5 minutes away (to seven minutes to midnight) from Doomsday because the “Pugwash conferences” were established, meetings where self-selected scientists from various nuclear countries sit down and congratulate each other on how farsighted and concerned they are.

But in 1963, understandably, the limited Nuclear Test Ban treaty was the basis of moving the clock another 5 minutes away (to 12 minutes to midnight) from Doomsday. But the 1962 Cuban missile crisis and the Soviets building the Berlin Wall were ignored and did not affect the time on the clock. The BAS assured us that the test ban had “slow(ed) the arms race” and that was the basis for its decision.

In fact, for the next quarter century, the United States and Soviet Union would build their arsenals of strategic nuclear weapons from the low thousands to upwards of 10,000-13,000 in the field. It is true that theater and battlefield nuclear weapon deployments peaked in the late 1960’s and were dramatically reduced thereafter. These weapons were reduced unilaterally and not by treaty both during and after the end of the Cold War, but did not factor into the doomsday clock moves until after the end of the Cold War.

In 1969 the clock was again moved away from Doomsday when the U.S. Senate ratified the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The BAS folks were confident that finally nuclear arsenals would be abolished and the “oversized military establishment” of the great powers, including the United States, would be downsized.

In 1972, the clock was moved again away from Doomsday with the signing of the ABM Treaty and the first SALT agreement. Not defending ourselves from nuclear armed ballistic missiles was somehow seen as good.

In 1974 and 1980 the BAS folks moved the clock closer to Doomsday, perturbed that nuclear deterrence was still an integral part of strategy, likening the arms race to two drunks thinking they could stop drinking by agreeing over and over again to “buy just one more.”

In 1981, again the clock moved another 3 minutes toward Doomsday, claiming that President Reagan was totally opposed to arms control. The BAS opposed Reagan’s rhetoric about ending the Cold War: “We win, they lose.” Yet in the fall of 1981 the Reagan administration adopted a defense directive that called for major reductions of 50 percent in strategic nuclear weapons, and a call for zero intermediate nuclear forces (INF) missiles in Europe. Reagan’s proposals for reductions were the first ever in the nuclear age, and led to both the INF and START 1 treaties, which collectively eliminated over ten thousands of nuclear weapons.

By 1988, the BAS was a little less gloomy, moving the doomsday clock 3 minutes away from the end of the world largely because of the historic 1967 INF treaty between the United States and the Soviet Union. Here the BAS folks wrote the treaty was inspired by “public opposition to U.S. nuclear weapons in Western Europe.” Yet in 1984 the Bulletin characterized Reagan’s efforts as just “propaganda.”

With the liberation of Eastern Europe in 1989-90, the Bulletin largely credited the change to Gorbachev, explaining he “refused to intervene” and that the “myth of monolithic communism has been shattered.”

By 1991, with the signing of the START I treaty and the reduction of deployed strategic nuclear weapons by 6000 (close to a 50 percent cut), the BAS wrote that thousands of nuclear weapons were removed from “hair trigger alert” and the clock was moved away from Doomsday.

But 11 years later, the BAS ignored the signing of the Moscow Treaty which would successfully reduce the Russian and American strategic nuclear arsenals from even START 1 levels. Instead, the Doomsday clock was moved toward Armageddon in 2002 by 2 minutes because, as the BAS then wrote, the “U.S. rejects arms control treaties” and had unwisely gotten out of the ABM treaty.

Finally, in 2018, despite the 2010 New Start treaty that had resulted in cuts to strategic nuclear weapons from 2200 to 1550, the clock ticks 30 seconds closer to Doomsday.

The BAS understandably worried about the proliferation of nuclear warheads in North Korea and Iran, but what most worried the BAS was what they deemed an unnecessary American modernization of its nuclear arsenal and its perception of the “abuse of social media.” 

With this sort of record, perhaps clocks are better off simply telling the time.

Peter Huessy is the director of Strategic Deterrent Studies at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies of the Air Force Association. He is also the president of Geostrategic Analysis, a defense consulting firm.