Published January 30, 2007
A few days ago, the editors of the Bulletin of American Scientists struck again. With pomp and circumstance, they moved the hands of their “Doomsday Clock” forward to 5 minutes before a nuclear midnight — their metaphor for the end of world.
In London, Bulletin editor Mark Strauss said his colleagues see a growing threat of a “second Nuclear Age” spurred by “nuclear ambitions in Iran and North Korea, unsecured nuclear materials in Russia and elsewhere, the continuing ‘launch-ready’ status of 2,000 of the 25,000 nuclear weapons held by U.S. and Russia, escalating terrorism, and new pressure from climate change for expanded civilian nuclear power that could increase proliferation risks.”
The Bulletin staff along with 18 Nobel laureates concocted the doomsday clock in 1947 and set the hands at 7 minutes to midnight. Since then they adjusted the hands many times to reflect their level of apoplectic angst. After the U.S. and Soviet hydrogen bomb tests in 1953, they moved them to 2 minutes before midnight. With the 1991 U.S.-Russian arms control agreement, the hands were moved to 17 minutes to doomsday.
Americans are rightly concerned about North Korea’s nukes, Iran’s nuclear ambitions and terrorism, but the doomsday crowd has a poor track record. Perhaps the most absurd prophet of doom during the Cold War was Jonathan Schell. In his The Fate of the Earth (1982), he said atomic bombs threatened “planetary doom,” and called for a new man, a new politics, and abolition of the state itself. “The task is nothing less than to reinvent politics: to reinvent the world.” He advocated a 50 percent cut in the superpowers’ nuclear arsenals, ignoring Moscow’s massive conventional superiority in Europe.
J. Robert Oppenheimer, who played a leading role in developing the U.S. nuclear bomb, quoted the Hindu Living Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” His sense of guilt led him to oppose the American H-bomb.
Dismissing these prophets of doom, physicist Herman Kahn, urged Americans to “think about the unthinkable” and assess present dangers in the light of new facts and past experience. With a keen sense of history, Harry Truman authorized the H-bomb.
Like Truman, Ronald Reagan confronted the growing Soviet nuclear arsenal. In 1982 at the United Nations, Mr. Reagan said: “The decade of detente witnessed the most massive Soviet buildup of military power in history. … They increased their defense spending by 40 percent while American defense declined.” He persuaded Americans to build up our nuclear and conventional forces.
Reagan matched his words with deeds. In 1987, standing before the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, he challenged the Soviet leader: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” Two years later the Berlin Wall fell and with it the Soviet Union. America won the Cold War without firing a shot.
Like Reagan and Truman, we can draw on man’s long and precarious existence to gain further perspective on the present crises. From the dawn of history, humanity has survived catastrophes — wars, earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions and plagues. But we are not living in a Dr. Strangelovian world of imminent destruction. Even the most horrific past catastrophes did not threaten the survival of the human race. But, then, man was not around 65 million years ago when a massive meteorite plunged into the Yucatan Peninsula and killed off most living things, including the dinosaurs.
We entered the nuclear age in 1945 when two atomic bombs were dropped on Japan. No such weapons have been fired in anger since. The “nuclear balance of terror” and astute U.S. diplomacy ended the Cold War. And the long, bitter conflict between India and Pakistan over Kashmir has been eased, not exacerbated, by the recent nuclear arms balance between them. But such weapons in the hands of terrorists or rogue regimes still pose a grave danger.
Even if nuclear weapons were used again in anger, this would not end civilization, much less wipe out the human race. Homo sapiens have survived many catastrophes far more destructive than the Hiroshima bomb. The eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D. that destroyed Pompeii and Herculum was more powerful than a thousand Hiroshimas.
The Mount St. Helens eruption in Washington state in 1980 was equal to 27,000 Hiroshima bombs, one exploding every second for 71/2 hours. The 9.0 magnitude Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004 released energy equal to 23,000 H-bombs. And in 1918-19, the so-called “Spanish flu” virus killed tens of millions of people worldwide.
Americans should always be alert to grave dangers and respond to them with calm determination. Above all, we should remember that the prophets of doom are always wrong.
Ernest W. Lefever is a Senior Scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and editor of The Apocalyptic Premise: Nuclear Arms Debated (1982).