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For Whom the Clock Ticks

Scientists reset the "doomsday clock."

9:00 AM, Jan 14, 2010 • By MICHAEL ANTON
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Today at 10:00 a.m., the so-called "doomsday clock"—a masterful PR effort run by the anti-nuclear Bulletin of Atomic Scientists—will be reset for only the 19th time in its 62-year history.

For Whom the Clock Ticks

The clock is probably, after the national debt counter in Times Square, the most famous virtual government watchdog ever created.  Except, unlike the former effort, it is necessarily—and maddeningly—imprecise.  The only thing reliable about the clock is its partisanship.

The clock began life as cover art for an issue of the Bulletin in 1947, the dawn of the nuclear age.  The hands were set to seven minutes to midnight as a sign that end was nigh.  It caused such a stir that the Bulletin was persuaded to make the clock its chief marketing tool and mascot.  When the editors—made up almost wholly of left-leaning physicists and engineers who work in the nuclear field—feel that the world is hurtling faster toward nuclear disaster, they call a press conference, unveil a new graphic with the minute hand closer to midnight, and explain why.  When they think things have moved in the right direction, the minute hand goes backward.

If this sounds entirely subjective, that’s because it is.  One of the things that made the Cold War so tense, as the Bulletin would have to be the first to acknowledge, was the possibility that at any time, superpower conflict could have escalated—or stumbled—into a nuclear exchange with very little warning.  Indeed, nuclear disaster could well have struck on the day after a press conference in which the clock’s minute hand was jubilantly moved backward.


That it never happened at all is another testament to the clock’s inaptness to the real world of nuclear development, deployments, deterrence, and gamesmanship.  The most amount of time the clock has ever allowed us was 17 minutes (after the signing of the START I treaty in 1991).  So shouldn’t we have all been incinerated 17 minutes—or days, or weeks, or months, or years—ago?

Similarly, the gravest nuclear threat facing America today is the detonation of a terrorist-delivered nuclear device in the heart of one of our great cities.  The clock has virtually nothing to say about that eventuality, which of course could happen at any moment—in five minutes or five years.

In truth, what the clock really gauges is Bulletin editors’ approval or disapproval of the incumbent administration’s commitment to the arms control agenda of the antiwar and anti-nuclear left.  Causes for losing a minute almost always boil down to some significant victory for that agenda, and for gaining one, some defeat.  Hence, when the United Stated withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002 (in order to move ahead developing systems that might save American lives), the scientists subtracted two minutes.  But when we initially signed the treaty in 1972, they added two.

The most recent change came in 2007, ostensibly as a response to North Korea’s first nuclear test.  But it was couched in anti-Bush rhetoric that seemed incongruous given the Bush administration’s second term turn toward accommodation, deal-making, and near-appeasement with North Korea.

So what’s going to happen today?  We won’t know until ten o’clock.  But the smart money is on the minute hand moving backward.  The Obama administration has shown itself to be more committed to arms control than any since President Carter’s, and no administration has ever talked more about disarmament.  Indeed, this President has called for a “nuclear free world”—and unlike President Reagan, who also wished for such a thing but was more hard-headed about the prospects for achieving it, Obama seems determined to start down the path no matter what other nuclear players do, and at significant cost to America’s nuclear position.

This is no doubt music to the ears of the atomic scientists, who feel themselves to be especially qualified to judge these matters.  But knowing in detail how the bomb works does not necessarily grant one any special insight into the complex geopolitics of nuclear posture, deployments, bargaining, and hosts of other issues.  To believe otherwise is a conceit that stretches back to Oppenheimer himself, but one that ignores the enormous gulf between technical proficiency—even scientific brilliance—and political wisdom.  It’s the job of statesmen, not scientists, to think through the latter, and they may not always come to the same conclusion.

Political science being necessarily imprecise, politicians do and will disagree among themselves about what to do in the face of this terrible threat.  What the scientists seem not to understand, and never to have understood (with honorable exceptions such as Thomas Reed), is that those disagreements arise from good faith and can’t always be attributed to crude hawkishness, “inordinate fear,” or intellectual laziness.  Instead, they assume—and bleat—that everyone to the right of their arms control certitude is somehow “for” the bomb, or worse.

But no one is.  If there is one thing we all can agree on, it is that nuclear weapons are worst thing that man has ever done to himself—the ultimate vindication of the ancient warning against “torturing nature” and the emancipation of science from strict moral and political control.

But the furious whirlwind we sowed on July 16, 1945 in Alamogordo, New Mexico can never again be stilled.  All we have left to decide is how we ride it out.  We must use all our judgment and do our very best—and pray that an angel still rides with us in the whirlwind and directs this storm.

Michael Anton is a writer in New York who served in national security positions in the Bush administration.

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