Air Date: January 16, 1996 Program 9603

THE DOOMSDAY CLOCK

Guests:
Various participants in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists public hearing on the doomsday clock

SPEAKER: I think it is crucially important when we use the word atomic bomb, to say nothing of atomic bombs, plural, to realize what an atomic bomb is and could do. It is something, and we know how upset we all were when there was an explosive bomb which killed 168 people in Oklahoma City. So I think that in terms of our gut feeling as we talk about these things, we must not forget what one nuclear bomb, however it came about, could do. It is horrendous.

SPEAKER: The discoveries that are made by the scientific community are in the hands of all of us, and we have to realize that it's in human nature to either use it for good or use it for evil.

KEITH PORTER: Moving the hands of the doomsday clock on this edition of Common Ground.

SPEAKER: I think the exercise of moving the clock hands is a very important one, and I was trying to think about why it's important. It's important as a symbol to the public and also to the media that simplifies the many contrasting and complex evaluations that they hear from scientists and experts all the time.

PORTER: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. It's produced by the Stanley Foundation. I'm Keith Porter.

Since 1947, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has used a stark and unsettling icon to represent mankind's relative closeness to nuclear war. Their doomsday clock became a key symbol of the Cold War. The hands on the clock have moved 15 times over the last half century. The clock was at nearly two minutes to midnight after the United States tested the first hydrogen bomb in 1953. By 1972, following a string of arms control and nonproliferation agreements, the hands had drifted back to only 12 minutes to midnight. In 1984, the arms race had reached new highs, and the clock pushed to within merely three minutes of midnight. And then the Cold War ended. The Soviets and Americans signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), and the hands fell to 17 minutes to midnight, it's most optimistic reading ever. But the world has changed since 1991, and the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists came to realize it was again time to reset the doomsday clock.

JOHN SIMPSON: It has been the purpose of the Bulletin over the last 50 years to make every effort to arouse the public to the dangers of continuing this mode when, in fact, we're living in a new world since the first bomb dropped. And still, 50 years later we're finding our politicians thinking in traditional terms that are ultimately destructive and not leading to a sustainable world.

PORTER: John Simpson worked on the Manhattan Project and was founding chairman of the Atomic Scientists of Chicago.

SIMPSON: In the early years, the setting of the clock was a relatively simple matter. It was a very clear and cleancut issue, whereas today we're deciding a movement of the clock which involves great complexity, even though there's the principal focus still on the nuclear issues.

PORTER: In the past, the Bulletin experts have met privately to decide how the hands on the doomsday clock will move. But in late 1995, before making their latest decision, they asked for public advice from leading arms experts. Leonard Reiser, another veteran of the Manhattan Project, is chairman of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists Board of Directors.

LEONARD REISER: Our aim is to gather informed opinions on the nature and the seriousness of the continuing threat of nuclear weapons in the arsenals of five nuclear powers, at least three countries with undeclared nuclear weapons, and many other nations which are judged to be within a few years of making a nuclear weapon and having access to nuclear materials. The possibility of a nuclear weapon being used inadvertently or purposefully against a civilian population still exists. There appears to us to be a diminishing concern on the part of the public, and even opposition in some quarters in our country and elsewhere, to the ongoing reduction of the world's nuclear arsenal. Thus, these continue to be dangerous times. How should the Bulletin clock be set to reflect current developments? Are we still confident we should be off the scale at 17 minutes as we were four years ago? In short, we are asking, what time is it?

GLORIA DUFFY: I believe that the overall trend is against the possession and manufacture of nuclear weapons, and I could cite a number of examples. No matter how imperfect I think the NPT extension, the fact that the treaty was extended is an important statement about what the norm is worldwide.

PORTER: Among the first to testify was Gloria Duffy who, until recently, was in charge of the Pentagon's nuclear disarmament assistance to the countries of the former Soviet Union. She, and many other participants, refer to the NPT, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

DUFFY: I think the number of countries that have renounced their nuclear weapons programs—South Africa, North Korea under duress, Iraq under duress—is important. The fact that START I was implemented by the United States and Russia long before the agreement was actually in effect, both countries informally moved to do the dismantlement required by the treaty before the sequence of events occurred that allowed the Parliaments of the two countries who actually ratified the treaty and put it into effect. But most importantly, I think the fact that three countries that had nuclear weapons on their territory in large numbers decided to become nonnuclear, not take possession of those weapons and not become nuclear powers when it was within their grasp. Not as easily for all of the countries as for some of them; but, in fact, it was in their grasp. I'm talking about the three former Soviet republics of Bellorussia, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine, which had nuclear weapons on their territory but chose to renounce them. That is a very powerful symbol. Three new nuclear powers in the world would have greatly increased the danger of the use of nuclear weapons.

ADELE SIMMONS: In the modern era, international security has been defined almost entirely in terms of the survival of the needs of state, particularly the need to prevent external aggression. It has created patterns of confrontation and competition that are hard to break.

PORTER: This is Adele Simmons, president of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and a member of the Commission on Global Governance.

SIMMONS: The culture of the violence seems to still pervade our society. The massive genocide that we have witnessed in Bosnia and Rwanda cannot be allowed to happen again. We may have 8 billion people on the planet by 2025, and more than 95 percent of that increase will come in the poorest communities. Without some minimal equity and assurances that people will at least have a chance to better themselves, we are in for more violence of levels we cannot begin to imagine. I learned the other day that the top 368 people listed in the most recent worldwide Forbes magazine have a net worth equivalent to the bottom 2.5 billion people in this world. In other words, 40 percent of the world's population has a net worth equivalent of 368 individuals. Growing in equality is a problem that we're going to have to deal with.

MIGUEL MARIN BOSCH: Will the NPT's indefinite and unconditional extension solve the problems of verifying compliance which the Iraqi case reveals?

PORTER: Miguel Marin Bosch was chairman of the test ban committee at the Geneva Conference on Disarmament.

BOSCH: Will it resolve the present nebulous status of the so-called threshold nations? And what a euphemism that is! Threshold nations. And then they have another term which I love, it's called rogue states. Rogue states are the ones whom you don't like and who might one day have nuclear weapons. Threshold nations are those nations that already have nuclear weapons, but you don't want to say that they have nuclear weapons.

Will the nuclear weapon states now go well beyond the UN Security Council's feeble resolution and give adequate security assurances to the nonnuclear weapons states regarding the use of nuclear weapons? Will there be a halt to the production of fusion material for weapons purposes, and what about existing military and civilian stockpiles? Will it bring about a CTBT and insure the conclusion of measures aimed at the elimination of nuclear weapons? In a word, will it further the indefinite extension of the NPT, the vertical and horizontal nonproliferation of nuclear weapons? And more importantly, will it change the nuclear weapon states' attitude and relationship to those weapons of massive destruction? Initially they attempted to rationalize their possession of nuclear weapons because of the Cold War.

Now the Cold War is over, and they speak of unforeseen threats. They say they need nuclear weapons just in case, but why are their so-called national interests and security needs more important than those of others? Why do they insist, as adults to children, that the rest of the world do as I say, not as I do?

DAVID ALBRIGHT: The recent assassination of Itzhak Rabin reminds us of the fragility of the peace process. That finally it does depend on people.

PORTER: David Albright is president of the Institute for Science and International Security.

ALBRIGHT: Luckily, Israel has decided to recommit itself to peace and to striving for peace, and so the legacy of that assassination so far is positive. Without progress on peace efforts in the Middle East, the nuclearization is not possible there. Certainly it is not possible for Israel, and it will not be possible in the long run for Iraq and Iran.

PORTER: David Albright later responded to a question from the audience about the role of money in nuclear disarmament.

ALBRIGHT: This question of money is one of the disappointing developments since the end of the Cold War and the Persian Gulf War. Countries are still not willing, including the United States, to put up the money necessary to really solve some of the, at least the verification, problems associated with nonproliferation. It's probably wishful thinking that we could buy out every nuclear weapons program in the world, that that's probably too much to ask. Because just the price tags of what we've tried have been very expensive, but priorities could be set and a lot of things could be bought out. But again, I think it's one of the reasons why there's increasing worry about the future.

ARJAN MAKAJANI: The problem during the initial decade of the Cold War, when the United States and the Soviet Union became superpowers, was they had a contrary set of assumptions about what it meant to be top dog. Each one of them had this top dog syndrome or TDS. They both wanted to be at sometime the single remaining superpower.

PORTER: This is Arjan Makajani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research.

MAKAJANI: They built up these nuclear arsenals and vast quantities of nuclear materials which were weapons-usable on the military assumption that both superpowers would be stable forever, for far longer time than civilization had lasted. And so their political and military goals were directly contrary to the physical arsenals that they were creating. I would suggest to you that we are in a situation today where, financed by pork-barrel politics in the major nuclear powers, the shape of the Trojan Horse in which a future nuclear war may come would be shaped like a pork barrel.

THEODORE TAYLOR: US and Russian nuclear weaponeers continue working on new types of nuclear explosive technologies. These include possibilities for pure fusion weapons, for weapons that can beam microwaves at immense power levels to disable targets in space or on the ground.

PORTER: Theodore Taylor is a former nuclear weapons designer.

TAYLOR: Some of this work is now being done cooperatively by weaponeers from the Soviet Union and from Russia and the former Soviet Union and the United States at Los Alamos. Furthermore, billions of dollars are being allocated by the US Department of Energy to what is euphemistically called "stockpile stewardship." These are being used to keep US nuclear weaponeers actively working on their wares whether or not a zero-yield, comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty goes into force soon. It troubles me more deeply than I can express that my country continues to be prepared under some conditions to launch nuclear weapons that would kill millions of innocent people. To me this is mass murder and cannot be justified under any conditions. We human beings must find alternatives to retaliation in kind to acts of massive and indiscriminate violence. I believe the time is long overdue for a frequently articulated global popular tabu on all nuclear weapons and the international banning of such weapons and facilities, processes, and materials that are needed to make them.

BRUCE CUMMINGS: I think the chances for peace are better in the 1990s than at any time since World War I, and we ought to relax and enjoy it. That's my principal message.

PORTER: This is Bruce Cummings, the John Evans Professor of International History and Politics at Northwestern University.

CUMMINGS: We should learn to think positively about the world we're living in after 50 years of very good reasons for thinking negatively, a very real important and understandable concern with big power conflict, war, and ultimate nuclear annihilation. Does that also mean that the doomsday clock should be set back to 11 or even be mothballed like the nuclear warheads it was designed to monitor? My answer to that will be, no. Although a paradoxical "no" in that nuclear war is as likely, or perhaps more likely, in our time than at any point during the Cold War, but that nuclear war would take the form of a local war, a terrorist use of weapons, or perhaps a regional war. The latter, if it were India and Pakistan, could obviously achieve the levels of a nuclear holocaust. The other scenarios strike me as terribly unfortunate but something different than doomsday.

WILLIAM EPSTEIN: There is, and that's my thesis, a greater danger today of nuclear terrorism than there was before the NPT review and extension conference.

PORTER: William Epstein is a representative of the pugwash conferences on science and world affairs, winners of the 1995 Nobel Peace Prize.

EPSTEIN: The danger is that there is a developing controversy and confrontation if you like, between the nuclear powers and the nonnuclear powers. The nuclear powers are all cock-a-hoop that they won this great victory to get the treaty extended indefinitely, although there were some limitations politically binding restrictions on them. They promised a number of things, and there's going to be a little bit more accountability. But they seem to regard this as giving them a license to keep their nuclear weapons forever, and that just cannot happen.

JOHN MEARSHEIMER: It seems to be that the basic operating assumption of the Bulletin over the past 50 years is that nuclear weapons are an unmitigated evil, and if possible they should be eliminated. And they're an unmitigated evil for really two reasons. First, they don't help produce peace or cause stability, and indeed what they do is cause instability. They're a source of trouble in the international system and, therefore, something that we should try to get rid of.

The second basic argument is that they have deleterious political effects at home. Basically, they cause a garrison state or national security state to arise. Now, my basic view is that both of these lines of argument are wrong.

PORTER: This is John Mearsheimer, professor of political science at the University of Chicago.

MEARSHEIMER: Nuclear weapons are basically a source of peace, not war. If anything, they mitigated the tendencies towards garrison state during the Cold War. In fact, nuclear weapons are the ideal middle-class weapon and a strong force for democracy. The fact of the matter is that the costs associated with nuclear war are almost unimaginable, certainly with general thermonuclear war. Nuclear weapons are weapons of mass destruction. I don't have any illusions about that fact. I'm not one of these people who thinks that nuclear wars are large artillery weapons and you can fight controlled, limited wars much the way the Rand Corporation argued during the Cold War. These are utterly horrible weapons. But the fact that they're utterly horrible weapons and that the costs associated with them are so great is what makes the likelihood of war between two powers armed with nuclear weapons highly unlikely.

Just on the subject of general disarmament, there are many people who feel, and people associated with the Bulletin, that general disarmament (doing away with nuclear weapons) would be a good thing. I would argue that first of all that's not going to happen. Most Americans like nuclear weapons; they never say that publicly, never think much about it, but the fact of the matter is that intuitively most people like nuclear weapons. And we're not going to do away with our nuclear arsenal—nor are the British, nor are the French, nor are the Russians.

But be that as it may, even if we could do away with nuclear weapons, I think it would be a categorically bad idea; because you would then have a situation where once a conflict started and the relevant sides began to scramble to acquire nuclear weapons, you would have a situation where neither side had a robust sure destruction capability. To put it in slightly different terms, you would not be in a mad world and as both sides scrambled to acquire nuclear weapons there would be tremendous incentives for each side to preempt before the other side could preempt itself.

So I think that if anything, what you want to do over the course of the next couple decades is take the nuclear powers that have nuclear weapons and make sure they have assured destruction capabilities and not reduce the size of their retaliatory forces too much so that you move beyond that point. Now, I think the idea of general disarmament is a bad idea.

PORTER: Each witness at the end of his or her testimony gave a recommendation on how the hands of the doomsday clock should be moved.

DUFFY: These trends suggest to me that the clock needs to be moved forward into the countdown and that many of us need to join the Bulletin in monitoring and working toward improving the situation.

SIMPSON: Sooner rather than later, there will be a need for governments to act decisively in the nuclear field. In the meantime, the doomsday clock should remain where it is.

SIMMONS: I think it ought to be moved three minutes further away from midnight to 20 minutes to midnight.

MAHAJANI: As I see this week, the United States is about to abandon its leadership on plutonium production issues. Maybe it ought to be nine minutes to 12.

MEARSHEIMER: On the question of general thermonuclear war, general war, nuclear war between the United States and Russia, the clock could be comfortably set at 10 o'clock. I think the two scenarios that we do have to worry about are No. 1, a great power using a nuclear weapon against a nonnuclear great power or a nonnuclear minor power. For example, China using a nuclear weapon against Taiwan, Russian using a nuclear weapon against Ukraine. I think those sorts of situations are ones to worry about, and there I'd set the clock at about 11 o'clock. And then the final scenario that I think we have to worry about is nuclear war involving minor powers. Probably the best case to point to at this point in time is India and Pakistan. And there I'd set the clock at 11:45.

MAN: If it means the time remaining before nuclear terrorists kill more than 100,000 people, I would set the clock at two minutes to midnight. If it means a nuclear World War III, I would set the clock back to 11:30 and not argue whether it should be 11:30 or 10:30.

CUMMINGS: If in 1985, ten years ago, we were to have waked up one morning and learned that missiles were arcing over the horizon, our last thought would have been, it finally happened. In 1995, we would think, how the hell did that happen? That is no small measure of the great blessing of the era we're living in, and it means we can move the hands of the clock back to the future—that is back to our mid-1990s global future. We have a long way to go to high noon or to midnight. But because of the likelihood of nondoomsday-level nuclear conflicts, we still need a clock. Until nuclear weapons are outlawed everywhere, which they should be in the same way that other weapons of mass destruction like biological and chemical weapons are outlawed, and nuclear weapons are worse than these, that we still need the doomsday clock to remind us that these are weapons of exterminism, not weapons of war. So I would put the clock at half past the hour to split the difference between the two scenarios I've presented to you.

EPSTEIN: The thing I fear most is complacency, even more than irresponsibility. I think that there are fewer risks if we give warnings and alerts of the danger by setting the clock back than if we were to be complacent and leave the clock where it is. The word now that we need, the watchword, is vigilance. But 150 years ago John Stewart Mills said that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance, I would like to think now that the price of survival in the nuclear age is eternal vigilance. And since we're not at all sure about that, I would urge that the nuclear clock be moved five minutes closer to midnight, that's 12 minutes to midnight.

REISER: The clock, a symbol of the nuclear peril facing humankind, was set four years ago at 17 minutes to midnight. Unfortunately, the world did not take full advantage of the opportunities presented at that time.

PORTER: The next day, Bulletin board chairman, Leonard Reiser, announced that the board had come to a decision on how to move the hands of the doomsday clock.

REISER: On balance, the world is still a very dangerous place and many trends are in the wrong direction. We are not crying fire in the world's theater. But we do want to sound an alarm, particularly in regard to nuclear weapons. We do want to call for increased vigilance. Today, we move the hands of the clock onto the scale to 14 minutes to midnight.

JOHN PIKE: I think that the testimony yesterday, at least for me, had a tremendous impact on my decision in terms of making the decision far more difficult for me. I came to this hoping that the decision would be easy. In fact, it turned out to be a difficult one.

PORTER: Bulletin board member John Pike expands on the decision to move the doomsday hands closer to midnight.

PIKE: I think it's very important to remember that there continue to be tens of thousands of people who come into work every day and study and train and practice and conduct exercises that are aimed at incinerating hundreds of millions of people one afternoon. And I think that there is—part of our concern was that governments and the public have become complacent and unaware of the fact that much of this doomsday mechanism that we erected during the Cold War is still in existence. I think that one can argue about what the relative danger is between tens of thousands of people equipped with tens of thousands of nuclear weapons who worry about fighting nuclear wars full time, even though the risk that any of that is going to happen is very low versus a few people, terrorists, thinking about getting these nuclear weapons with the probability being perhaps somewhat higher. I think that at the end of the day reasonable people can disagree about the relative significance of those two, but that it would be unreasonable to ignore either one of them.

PORTER: That is John Pike, director of Space Policy for the Federation of American Scientists and a member of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists Board of Directors. For Common Ground, I'm Keith Porter.

To share your comments about the program, please write to us at the Stanley Foundation, 216 Sycamore Street, Muscatine, Iowa 52761.

Our theme music was created by B. J. Liederman. Common Ground was produced and funded by the Stanley Foundation.


COMMON GROUND

Copyright © 1996, The Stanley Foundation webmaster@stanleyfdn.org