Alan Zendell, April 25, 2022
The second world war ended with the nuclear destruction of two Japanese industrial cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Nazis had been forced to abandon their atomic weapons development program during the war, and Russia’s program was still a few years from producing an atomic bomb. But even amid the euphoria produced by ending the most destructive war in human history, the people who best understood the implications of America’s use of its only two nuclear weapons knew the world had entered a potentially new phase of self-destruction.
In 1947, the world’s leading atomic scientists, led by Albert Einstein, established the Doomsday Clock, a symbolic indicator of how close they believed the world was to total annihilation, which was represented by Midnight. The Clock was initially set to seven minutes to Midnight, but in 1949, when Russia exploded its first A-bomb, it was reset to three minutes to Midnight. The Timeline produced by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists shows how the clock’s minute hand moved in response to world events – wars, nuclear proliferation, climate change, pandemics, and political climates.
The Clock was moved to two minutes before Midnight in 1953 when the Soviet Union successfully tested a hydrogen bomb, and it stayed there throughout the 1950s as the Cold War ramped up. The election of John Kennedy and the anticipated thaw in the relationship between NATO and the Soviets created a wave of optimism sufficient to set it back to seven minutes to Midnight. The resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the signing of a limited nuclear test ban treaty moved us to twelve minutes from complete destruction in 1963, but the Vietnam conflict edged it back to seven minutes. The 1972 SALT agreement limiting the number of nuclear weapons allowed by both sides, which the Bulletin described as “the greatest step toward world peace since the Sermon on the Mount” reset the clock to twelve minutes before Midnight.
The Clock hovered in that range until it was moved a full seven minutes further from the brink in 1991 when Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev mutually reduced their nuclear readiness, effectively ending the Cold War. Sadly, seventeen minutes to Midnight was the most optimistic view of the future ever expressed by the Doomsday Clock. The rise of ISIS, radical Islam in Iran, two attacks on the world trade center in New York, our failed military ventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, the ineffectiveness of the Paris Climate Accords, Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and the ascendency of autocratic governments throughout the world caused the Clock to be reset at two minutes to midnight by the time Donald Trump began dismantling the western alliance, disrupting world trade, and declaring war on science in the midst of a pandemic.
In 2020, the use of cyber-wars and the inability or unwillingness of national governments to show restraint in their use, combined with rises in nationalism and the gradual disintegration of international relations, caused the atomic scientists’ review board to set the Doomsday Clock to its most pessimistic reading ever – 100 minutes to Midnight. In 2021, the disruptions caused by COVID kept it there, and as 2022 began, the conclusion of the Board was that while the change in leadership in America by the Biden administration was a positive influence in reducing world tensions, the use of disinformation throughout the internet and attacks on democratic institutions around the world created a standoff in the Clock setting.
On March 7, 2022, the Bulletin released a special statement in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It had long warned that the greatest threat to the world was the likelihood that any military confrontation between Russia and NATO would escalate to the use of nuclear and biological weapons. It did not move the Clock closer to Midnight, but kept it at 100 minutes from catastrophe. We have all tried to ignore the frightening possibilities, but with tensions building around the world and the attacks on democracy in our own country worsening, it was becoming difficult to remain optimistic.
As the possibility that Marinne Le Pen might defeat Emmanuel Macron in yesterday’s runoff election, and thus plunge a dagger into the unity NATO has shown in the face of Russian aggression reared its head, it looked as though things might quickly become immeasurably worse. But no, voters in France re-elected Macron by a seventeen-point margin. The world badly needed that injection of hope for the future, despite the fact that more voters abstained in the French election than actually cast votes for Le Pen – an ominous warning that people everywhere are fed up with governmental dysfunction.
It’s not much, but any ray of hope must be seized these days. Macron’s re-election may signal that the populist anger that made Trumpism such a dangerous, destructive force in America may be waning.