The 13th Floor

Close to Midnight: The History of the Doomsday Clock

On January 26 of this year, members of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ Science and Security Board moved the Doomsday Clock ahead 30 seconds, bringing it to 2 minutes and thirty seconds to midnight, citing the rise of nationalism, the possibility of a renewed arms race between the United States and Russia based on comments made by Donald Trump, and the rising danger of global warming. It is safe to say that this is the scariest clock man has ever made.

You may have never heard of the Doomsday Clock. Or you may be like me and learned about it from the classic comic WATCHMEN, but don’t really know much about it. This lack of knowing, as any horror writer knows, just adds to the fear. We fear what is in the shadows, we fear what we don’t understand, and most of all we fear death. This clock represents all three of the great fears.

Eugene Rabinowitch worked in the Metallurgical Laboratory of the Manhattan Project’s division at the University of Chicago. Understanding the destruction that the atomic bomb could have, Rabinowitch wrote a report that recommended taking nuclear energy out of military hands and placing it in civilian hands so that it would not be used as a weapon. Rabinowitch also suggested that the United States should demonstrate the atomic bomb to world leaders in an uninhabited desert or barren island before using it in combat. The US military chose instead to use the atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima in hopes that it would end the second world war. When that didn’t work, they dropped another one on Nagasaki.

Seeing a need to explain to the masses just how dangerous nuclear power could be, Rabinowitch, along with physicist Hyman Goldsmith, published the first issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. The magazine, a nontechnical academic journal, was a big hit with other scientists, but the general public, being on the dumb side, didn’t get the message. Two years into the publication, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists came up with a clear and concise way to tell morons like you and me just how bad things were. The June 1947 issue had a cover showing the world the Doomsday Clock.

According to the magazine, the clock was seven minutes to midnight, which didn’t make anyone happy. The good news, as the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists explained, was that the clock could go backward if humanity worked together to reach a better tomorrow, starting with the United States quitting the nuclear bomb stuff and no one else getting their hands on one.

Russia wasn’t down with the whole idea of not having nukes, and at 7AM on August 29, 1949, the USSR set off Joe-1, their first atomic bomb. The arms race had begun, and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved the clock up four minutes, marking the end of humanity at three minutes to midnight. The clock moved up a minute after the US tested Ivy Mike, the first thermonuclear bomb, in 1952 followed by the USSR testing Joe-4 in 1953. Despite these cute names, the bombs were powerful enough to end civilizations in the blink of an eye.

For seven years the world sat just two minutes from midnight. The fear of nuclear destruction spread across the globe, with Hollywood getting in on the fun with such classics as THE BEGINNING OR THE END (not the movie about giant grasshoppers) GODZILLA, ON THE BEACH, and THE ATOMIC KID, but in 1960 the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists announced that the clock had been pushed back. Due to “better” relations between the US and USSR and the allowance of scientists from each country to talk, the clock was moved to seven minutes to midnight. And the world took in a deep breath of “not as close to total human destruction as we were yesterday” relief.

With the signing of a Partial Test Ban Treaty by the governments of the Soviet Union, United Kingdom, and the United States in 1963, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved the clock back again, now setting it to twelve minutes to midnight. It seemed like mankind was on the right track, so you know things would have to go bad soon.

In October of 1964, China detonated 596, their first nuclear bomb test. In 1965 India and Pakistan went to war and China, being buddies with Pakistan, threatened to drop a nuke on India. India, in turn, built their own nuke. 1967 brought about the Six-Day War, pitting Israel against Egypt, Syria, and Jordan. While all of this was going on, the US was getting deeper and deeper into the Vietnam War. These four actions forced the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists to move the Doomsday Clock up five minutes, back to seven to midnight.

In 1969, with every country save India, Israel, and Pakistan, signing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the clock was pushed back to ten minutes to midnight.  Three years later it would be moved to twelve minutes to midnight after the US and USSR signed the first Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT I) and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.

Two years later, in 1974, India tests Smiling Buddha, their first successful nuke, which I don’t think Buddha would’ve wanted to be named after him. At the same time, the second Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT II) talks hit a dead-end, and the US and USSR started to improve their first strike capabilities with multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles – ballistic missiles that carried multiple warheads. This pushed the Doomsday Clock ahead three minutes, setting it at nine minutes to midnight.

In 1980 the Doomsday Clock is moved to seven minutes to midnight when the US Senate failed to ratify the SALT II and the Soviet Union invades Afghanistan. The clock hit four minutes to midnight in 1981 when Jimmy Carter pulled the US athletes out of the Moscow Olympics and newly elected president Ronald Reagan ends nuclear reduction talks with the Soviet Union, raising tensions between the two countries with the most nukes. The box office failure of POPEYE isn’t mentioned by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists as an additional sign that we were edging towards mass destruction, but I’m pretty sure that played a part.

In 1984 the Doomsday Clock is moved to three minutes to midnight after Reagan deployed medium-range ballistic missiles and cruise missiles to Western Europe, intensifying the arms race between the US and USSR. At the same time, the Soviet Union boycotts the Los Angeles Olympics.

Things improved in 1988 when the US and USSR signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, moving the Doomsday Clock to six to midnight. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany in 1990 added four minutes to the clock, setting it at ten to midnight. In 1991, with the demise of the Soviet Union, the Doomsday Clock was set to seventeen minutes to midnight, a massive accomplishment. It wouldn’t last long.

In 1995, with the US increasing military spending and news of missing nuclear missiles from the former Soviet Union, the Doomsday Clock ticked forward to fourteen to midnight. In 1998, as India and Pakistan get into a spat, they both test nuclear weapons, moving the clock up to nine minutes to midnight.

Following the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001, the US dropped out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and growing fears of a nuclear terrorist attack using the missing nuclear materials from the fallen Soviet Union, the Doomsday Clock hits seven to midnight.

In October 2006, North Korea tested their first nuke and while the world giggled at the weakness of the test – the nuke had an explosive force of less than one kiloton, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists didn’t find it funny. Along with the 26,000 nuclear weapons between the US and Russia, and the growing concern of climate change, the Doomsday Clock was moved to five to midnight.

Three years later, the Doomsday Clock was set back to six to midnight after the New START agreement is ratified by both the United States and Russia and both countries make progress in reducing their nuclear stockpiles. At the same time, the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference ends with the industrialized nations agreeing to work together to cut carbon emissions. Two years later, in 2012, the clock is back at five to midnight when carbon emissions are higher than before, and both the US and Russia have slowed their reduction of nukes.

In 2015, the Doomsday clock dropped to three minutes to midnight, the closest to midnight in twenty years, when it became clear that climate change was far more serious than originally thought. Adding to the problems was a growing amount of nuclear waste that needed to be stored, and the US and Russia working to update their nuclear capabilities.

Now, we’re back to the start of this article, with the Doomsday Clock sitting at two and half minutes to midnight and no signs of it edging back anytime soon. We live in fear of mass destruction at a level the world hasn’t seen since 1953 when the Cold War hit full stride. As our grandparents did then, we wake each day and head to our jobs or to the work of raising our children. We watch TV and eat meals that aren’t very healthy, but they’re quick and tasty. We argue over movies and sports. We joke about world leaders. We wince when world leaders embarrass us on a near daily basis. We live our lives, pushing the idea of the end of all things to the back of our minds because if we really sat down and thought about it – if we really considered the damage climate change has already caused, and how much worse it will get – if we really think about the bombing of a hospital in Syria or the terrorist attacks across Europe – if we really pay attention to the growing list of extinct animals and insects – we may not be able to get out of our beds ever again. We may just lay under the covers, waiting for the alarm to go off, telling us that midnight has come and we failed to stop it.

For more information on the Doomsday Clock and other terrifying things about nuclear weapons, visit the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

WATCHMEN art by Dave Gibbons
XKCD art by Randall Munroe