Back to Common Ground Archive


Program 9603
January 16, 1996


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

This text has been professionally transcribed. However, for timely distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.

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

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 clean-cut 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

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

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 taboo 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

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

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.

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

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