If you listen to the naysayers, we’re on the precipice, just a few moments away from nuclear Armageddon, ever since Trump became President of the United States of America. As people asked during the campaign, is Trump the right person to trust with “the nuclear football”, the button that enables the President to launch a retaliatory strike against a foreign nation in the event of clear and present danger?
We’ve been here before, of course. When forty-two-year-old Teddy Roosevelt took office upon the assassination of President McKinley, people were convinced that his no-nonsense shakeup of government as usual and breakup of the unions marked the end of America as a nation. Heck, back in 1795, our first president George Washington approved of the Jay Treaty, detailing the post-Revolution relationship between America and England, only to have Thomas Jefferson accuse Washington of treason for favoring the British over the French.
In modern times, however, we have abstract metaphors for treason, for war, and for danger. Agitprop rules the day, which is why we have a War on Drugs and a War on Terrorism. And now we have the resurrection of yet another Cold War-era metaphor: The Doomsday Clock.
The Doomsday Clock was created by a group of scientists who managed a publication about nuclear warfare research called the Bulletin of The Atomic Scientists. The clock itself first showed up back in 1947 and its starting position was “seven minutes to midnight,” with midnight symbolizing earth’s end.
The group describes the clock as: “symbolizing the urgency of the nuclear dangers that the magazine’s founders—and the broader scientific community—are trying to convey to the public and political leaders around the world.”
The closest the country ever came to nuclear Armageddon, according to the clock, was 1953, when the U.S. decided to research the hydrogen bomb and scientists moved the clock to two minutes to midnight. When President John F. Kennedy signed the Partial Test Ban Treaty in 1963, and again when President Nixon signed both the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the clock moved to twelve minutes to midnight.
Since then, however, the clock has been creeping closer to midnight—although this upward movement has gone largely unnoted by the news media. During Barack Obama’s presidency, the clock moved from six minutes to midnight to three minutes to midnight due to world events, a significant jump in time. With President Trump in office, the group of scientists have moved the clock from three minutes to midnight to two-and-a-half minutes to midnight.
Predictably, the media has gone bananas: “Thirty seconds closer to global annihilation!” NBC News trumpeted, while the Independent UK said, “We’re closer to doom than any time since the Cold War!” The New York Times described it more bluntly: “Thanks to Trump, the Doomsday Clock Advances Toward Midnight.”
But where were all these alarmed journalists when the clock’s keepers moved Doomsday’s countdown from six minutes to midnight to three minutes to midnight during Barack Obama’s presidency?
As the deafening silence about the clock during Obama’s presidency suggests, the Doomsday Clock has long been a partisan, not a scientific, device. As one critic of the clock noted, “It’s clear from its movements over the past seven decades that the Doomsday Clock is more about politics than any sort of scientific measure of the risk of global nuclear war. After all, it has routinely counted down after a Republican wins the White House, and ticked up when Democrats reclaim the presidency.”
Given that many scientists are now planning to march on Washington to protest President Trump, the Doomsday Clock is unlikely to be given a nonpartisan tune up any time soon. Although a few thoughtful scientists have argued that a partisan march by scientists is a bad idea because it will further politicize and trivialize scientific research, science, like everything else these days, seemed destined to be drawn into our overheated political culture, at least for the next four years.
As for the Doomsday Clock, it’s probably best to heed the advice of one of its critics, who notes that it is “a more reliable measure of liberal angst than the risk of a nuclear holocaust, and it should be treated as such.” Turns out that what we really need these days isn’t a countdown to nuclear Armageddon, but more levelheaded and nonpartisan scientists.