The Doomsday Clock was created as a figurative reminder to the public of the catastrophic capabilities posed by nuclear armament—a risk that, despite obvious self-evidence, has required a surprising degree of reiteration. But the concern over nuclear weapons is all of a sudden once again on high alert, in no small part thanks to a pattern of alarming and sometimes confounding statements from President Donald Trump. When the Bulletin makes it’s next clock-update announcement, this Thursday morning, they’ll deliver it to an American public that already seems more anxious about the topic than at any point since the Soviet era.
The clock’s origins, rooted in Chicago, stretch back to 1947, when some of the researchers who helped develop the atomic bomb introduced the symbol. Two years prior, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had prompted a serious bout of I-am-become-Death self-reflection among the scientists and engineers who contributed to the Manhattan Project—experts, like eventual Bulletin founder Eugene Rabinowitch. He was part of the landmark project’s University of Chicago leg that set off the very first controlled nuclear reaction, underneath the university’s Stagg Field bleachers in Hyde Park.
Those people “knew about the horrible effects of these new weapons and devoted themselves to warning the public about the consequences of using them,” as the Bulletin’s site reads. By the summer of July, 1947, the Bulletin was giving the Doomsday Clock, as it came to be known, its brilliant science-meets-iconography push. The editorial of the July, 1947 issue begins:
“The new cover of the BULLETIN bears the design of a clock, its hands approaching twelve. This symbol of urgency well represents the state of mind of those whose closeness to the development of atomic energy does not permit them to forget that their lives and those of their children, the security of their country and the survival of civilization, all hang in the balance as long as the specter of atomic war has not been exorcised.”
The clock made its debut on the first magazine issue of journal, in June, 1947. Artist Martyl Langsdorf, a landscape painter whose husband was a Chicago-based Manhattan Project researcher, created the design, including the hand’s initial, seven-minutes-to-midnight placement. The specific time was chosen “simply because it looked good,” Langsdorf said, according to the Atlantic. “[I]t seemed the right time on the page … it suited my eye,” she also remarked, according to the Bulletin.
The clock’s debut may have lacked formality, but the Bulletin is rigorous with its annual decision of whether or not to adjust the clock—and if so, by how much. The currently 14-member Science and Security Board of the Bulletin gathers for a two-day meeting to scrupulously pore over everything that has happened that might threaten existential global stability—including, ever since 2007, climate change and disruptive technological swings.
The panel and the discussion is “a nexus of science and policy,” said Jennifer Sims, a board member who also serves on the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. “There are eminent scientists and also political scientists on the board. It reflects the fact that we look very hard at current science, the actual evidence. But we also have political scientists talking about best measures and how our political institutions fared.”
As we know, they’re currently hardly starved for conversation topics.
Three days before Christmas, Donald Trump dropped a metaphorical bomb of his own. “The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes,” he tweeted.
The eyebrow-raiser didn’t come out of nowhere, following as it did directly on the heels of Vladimir Putin’s pledge to build a new Russian weapons systems. But it was a characteristically jumbled, counterintuitive thought—not what one hopes to see in terms of nuclear-weapons policy. (Trump reportedly double-downed on the build-up claim according to Morning Joe host Mika Brzezinski of MSNBC. She claimed that he told her: “Let it be an arms race. We will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all.”) It was of a pattern, too, part of a string of confounding—sometimes terrifyingly so—statements about nuclear capabilities. The Bulletin must’ve thought: Since the Cold War, has the need for a reminder of the potential for atomic catastrophe ever seemed simultaneously so essential and so redundant?
In fact, gestures toward nuclear expansion, like Trump’s, were previously called into question by his own Secretary of Defense nominee, James Mattis.
“Is it time to reduce the triad to a diad, removing the land-based missiles?” Mattis asked in 2015, referencing the common belief that air and sea deployment options are more than sufficient without ICBMs. The retired general’s skepticism of the Cold War-style configuration of course calls to mind the fact that Trump, as recently as December, 2015, seemed to have no idea what the nuclear triad even is.
When Lester Holt pressed the issue in a September presidential debate, Trump offered more inscrutable logorrhea. That time, he seemed to caution against building up the nation’s nuclear stockpile, but also fallaciously claimed that the arsenal has been allowed to rot under Obama’s administration. Obama began an expensive modernization effort to overhaul the nuclear program,that could cost as much as a trillion dollars—and that figure would balloon even further if Trump did choose to bulk up.
The list of alarming incidents runs on, too: There’s Trump’s claim that proliferation among Japan, South Korea and Saudi Arabia wouldn’t be such a bad thing. And there’s the Joe Scarborough claim that Trump repeatedly asked at a foreign policy briefing, “If we have them, why can’t we use them?”
There are also troubling reports that the head and deputy positions of the agency in charge of developing and maintaining the American atomic stockpile will be vacant for an unknown amount of time, due to Trump’s refusal to allow key personnel to retain roles after inauguration, but before staffing transitions take place. One of the most devastating examples was the most recent: that Rick Perry—nominee to head the Energy Department, (the same guy who once advocated we eliminate the Energy Department)—believed his job was to advocate for oil and gas, when in fact it included management of the nation’s nuclear armory.
Part of the Clock-setters’ task is to cut through the noise, but such uncertainty is hardly desirable in what is already, in many ways, a fraught geopolitical landscape.
“We’re very leery about acting on things people say. People say all sorts of things,” said Robert Rosner, a University of Chicago Physics professor and co-chair of the Science and Security Board for roughly two years. “The main thing I’m worried about (in terms of Trump) is [he’s] very unclear.” (The Issues pages of the updated White House website don’t offer much elucidation.) Other dangerous global factors are less opaque, however.
“Our relationship with Russia is an issue, aggression in the South China sea, sabre-rattling and warfare in the Middle East, climate—after the Paris Agreement, not much happened,” Rosner said. The threat of nuclear exchange as a result miscalculation on the Indian subcontinent is a particular strong concern of Rosner’s, he said. Add the fact that the very concept of deterrence is being met with increasing skepticism among experts and observers and the backdrop only gets darker.
While not referencing any one particular issue (the Science and Security Board has embargo limitation ahead of the announcement), Jennifer Sims said 2016 was an “unusual clock year, because so much [transformation] is happening.”
“[The Board] did talk about the role of precedent,” Sims said. “When unprecedented things happen do you take an unprecedented approach to the process? I think, when the clock announcement is made, you’ll see what decision we made about that in 2016.”