On 26 January 2017, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists (BAS) held their annual unveiling of the Doomsday Clock, moving its minute hand from three minutes to midnight to 2 minutes and 30 seconds. Since 1947, BAS, a group of the world’s most acclaimed scientists and security experts, currently including 15 Nobel laureates and the likes of Stephen Hawking and Susan Solomon, discuss the year’s developments in politics, weapons, emerging technologies and climate science.
The result is an annual display of the Doomsday Clock that works like a timepiece that metaphorically shows how close humanity is to global devastation, with midnight representing the apocalypse. On the 70th anniversary of its appearance, the organisation detailed the reasons for the alarming gesture in adjusting the clock, citing four different possible risk areas ranging from proliferation of nuclear armament, to climate change and emerging technologies. In other words, all possible existential threats to end life as we know it.
This is the closest to midnight the Doomsday Clock has ever been in the lifetime of almost everyone in this room. It’s been 64 years since it was closer.
These were the words of Lawrence Krauss, a theoretical physicist and chairman of the Bulletin’s Board of sponsors. Indeed, in 1953 the Soviet Union, hot on America’s heels, successfully detonated a thermonuclear hydrogen bomb, further galvanising the arms race and ushering in an era of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) as a doctrine of national security policy for both superpowers.
During the Cold War and in the midst of constant fear of nuclear annihilation, the Clock acted as a masterpiece of iconography, and with its simulation of a countdown to nuclear explosion, conjured up an image of constant peril and imminent doom. As people could not fathom the self-destruction of the human race in a nuclear strike, the clock – as other symbolic icons like the mushroom cloud – framed the imagination, offering a medium through which to convey the urgency of nuclear danger and thus becoming a lasting cultural reference in popular conscience.
It was witnessing the horror of nuclear warfare that initially led the scientists of the University of Chicago that had been involved in the Manhattan project, to create the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists in 1945, and employ the Doomsday clock two years later. The scientists were attempting to spark a global debate and abate what historians call society’s modernity angst, namely the obsession with the horror of the bomb. The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki opened the Pandora’s box of modern science, questioning the positivist belief in progress and shattering the paradigms of knowledge that came with science and modernity.
What rattled ordinary people was not just the loss of trust in the edifice of progress, but also the idea promulgated during the Cold War that proliferation of nuclear armaments was there to support and safeguard the politics of their stability. As Benjamin Ziemann has pointed out in a previous History Matters post:
The nuclear threat forced politicians and people to accept the notion that preparation for nuclear annihilation would contribute towards peace, and that the existence of these weapons, and the anticipation of large-scale destruction that came with them, were an inescapable corollary of security, freedom, and future prosperity on both sides of the Cold war divide.
The credibility of the devastation was imperative in convincing the society of the dangers of the time, and the incessant gesturing towards the ubiquitous shadow of an endless crisis that the Cold War fostered, ensured and legitimised the value of nuclear deterrence.
As the Cold War ushered a new era of ideology, politics and society, the post-wall period, as Timothy Garton Ash dubbed it, has seen a new state of affairs, of a post-factual democracy. Political narrative has become deeply polarised, with false claims wrapped up in emotionally appealing language, creating two echo chambers in a world of alternative facts. Fighting or attempting to fight the smear campaign against experts, the Bulletin declared that its main goal this year is ‘to provide the facts as the basis of policy, not to make policies, but sensible policies cannot be made unless we all accept the facts are facts’.
It thus comes as no surprise that one of the biggest threats cited by the Bulletin was the election of President Trump and his ill-considered comments on expanding the US nuclear arsenal and rejecting the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change. With both the USA and Russia holding 90 percent of the current nuclear armaments, and the bilateral relationship in a constant decline, the importance of leaders has been even more elevated.
Citing Trump and Putin conjures up images of the power that leaders such as Gorbachev and Reagan held on world affairs, reminding us how human agency in response to systemic pressures can act as a catalyst for historical change. Structural and social changes may limit the scope within which leaders operate but how they respond to these limitations is still a matter of choice.
Reagan once suggested to Gorbachev at the Geneva summit of 1985: ‘to hell with the past, we do it our way’. Two years later, both leaders ended up signing the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) that eliminated a whole class of nuclear weapons, and signalled the beginning of the peaceful end of cold war. No one can predict how the current leadership will act, but the power is there and so is the fear.
Eirini Karamouzi is Lecturer in Contemporary History at the University of Sheffield. Her main research interests lie in the history of European integration and the Cold War, and she is co-director of the Cultures of the Cold War Network. Her book, Greece, the EEC and the Cold War, 1974-1979: The Second Enlargement (2014), is available through Palgrave Macmillan. You can find her on twitter @EiriniKaramouzi.
Image: President Reagan and General Secretary Gorbachev signing the INF Treaty [via Wikicommons].