For over fifty years the “doomsday clock” has symbolized the threat that nuclear weapons pose to the world. The clock has appeared at various times on the cover of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a magazine about global security that was founded at the end of World War II by the scientists who developed the atomic bomb. Monitoring the clock is the responsibility of the Bulletin’s scientists and international affairs experts, who move its hands forward or backward depending on international events. When things go well, such as the signing of an arms control agreement, the hands move farther from midnight, which represents nuclear holocaust. When things go poorly, such as when a nation tests a nuclear weapon for the first time, the hands move closer to midnight.
On February 27, 2002, the clock’s guardians moved the minute hand of the clock forward, from nine to seven minutes to midnight, only the third time in the history of the clock that the hand has moved forward. In explaining their decision, the Bulletin’s board of directors said that the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks should have been a “global wake-up call” about serious threats to global security. Yet as Bulletin editor Linda Rothstein explains, “Even . . . after September 11, many of us—and much of the U.S. media—remain disturbingly disengaged from the rest of the world.” The magazine’s directors report that “moving the clock’s hands at this time reflects our growing concern that the international community has hit the ‘snooze’ button rather than respond to the alarm.” Moreover, although the September 11 attacks prompted the United States to wage a war against terrorism to reduce the chances that a terrorist group would attack America with weapons of mass destruction, many security experts argue that America is one of the main culprits making such an event likely to happen. Indeed, many analysts believe that America’s actions— before and after September 11—have made the world less safe for all nations, including the United States.
Experts cite several key reasons why they have fingered America as a nuclear threat. To begin with, they point out, 95 percent of the world’s thirty-one thousand nuclear weapons are located in the United States and Russia, with sixteen thousand of those operationally deployed. In addition, most of the U.S. weapons that have been removed from the active stockpile have not been dismantled but stored for possible future use. The United States will retain a stockpile of over ten thousand warheads well into the future.
Another fact that worries scientists and security experts is that U.S. weapons labs are now refining old weapons and designing new ones. For example, weapons scientists are designing “bunker busters,” nuclear weapons designed to penetrate deeply buried targets in order to destroy weapons labs and storage facilities dug deep into the mountains of hostile nations. Many arms experts contend that building more nuclear weapons—no matter what type—is simply fostering nuclear proliferation and further endangering global security.
The United States also continues to stockpile nearly 750 metric tons of weapon-grade uranium and 85 metric tons of weapon-grade plutonium. Since America has never satisfactorily kept track of these materials, many critics claim, it is impossible to verify if all of it is accounted for. Many commentators worry that some of this material may be migrating into the hands of terrorists, who could use it to build “dirty bombs,” conventional explosives packed with nuclear materials that could be used against the United States.
Developments on the international front have experts worried as well. One of the most serious concerns is America’s 2001 withdrawal from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty, which prohibited the United States and Russia from developing space- and ground-based defensive nuclear weapons. The Bush administration believes that a missile defense system, capable of destroying enemy missiles in the air, is crucial to protect the U.S. homeland from nuclear attack; since the treaty did not allow America to develop such a system, the administration felt it necessary to quit the treaty. However, critics point out that the launching of a missile defense system will only encourage other nations to develop weapons to defeat it, leading to arms proliferation.
Another international diplomacy failure on the part of the United States, according to those concerned about global security, is President George W. Bush’s provocative speech in which he named Iran, Iraq, and North Korea the “axis of evil” in part because of their attempts to develop nuclear weapons. Bush put these nations on notice that America would not sit idle while they pursued the development of weapons of mass destruction. Many commentators believe that this veiled threat will only force these nations and others to develop nuclear arms as protection against an aggressive America.
For these reasons the guardians of the doomsday clock insist that before they can move the hands of the clock farther from midnight, the United States must seriously reexamine its nuclear policies. The authors in At Issue: Do Nuclear Weapons Pose a Serious Threat? discuss the extent of the nuclear danger facing the world today and debate the best methods for enhancing nuclear security. The doomsday clock is a clear indicator that a reassessment of current nuclear dangers is vital. As Bulletin analysts put it, “The clock is ticking.”