Magazine article The American Prospect

The "Doomsday Clock". (from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists)

Magazine article The American Prospect

The "Doomsday Clock". (from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists)

Article excerpt

THE DOOMSDAY CLOCK, LIKE THE MUSHROOM CLOUD, is such a well-known icon of the nuclear age that it was not entirely surprising to see a version of it on the July 1 issue of the American Prospect, in conjunction with an article on the danger posed by the newly nuclear-armed Pakistan and India, facing off across the Line of Control in Kashmir.

But no one asked permission to use the clock, a trademarked logo that has appeared in one form or another on the cover of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists since 1947. (The Bulletin, a magazine of global security news and analysis, was founded at the end of World War II by Manhattan Project scientists.)

What bothered the folks at the Bulletin most was not the seeming appropriation of the clock--although that was upsetting, too--but that the hands of the clock shown on the American Prospect's cover were set at four minutes to midnight instead of seven.

For more than 50 years the setting of the hands of the clock has been the exclusive responsibility of the Bulletin's sponsors and directors--an eminent group of scientists and experts in international affairs, with the proper sprinkling of Nobel laureates. They take the job seriously. And when they decide that the danger of a nuclear conflict has increased or decreased enough to warrant a resetting of the hands, their decision is announced with great fanfare. They are accustomed to media around the world paying attention. But here was the American Prospect, seeming to overrule their judgment.

I'd like to suggest that in some ways, though, that's not such a bad thing. It's difficult to draw the public into a discussion of issues of global security, even though they are just as important as ever. At the end of the Cold War, Americans breathed one enormous, collective sigh of relief. There seemed little or no danger of any conflict that we, the winners, couldn't handle. No need to keep an eye out for war-mongering. Even now, after September 11, many of us--and much of the U.S. media--remain disturbingly disengaged from the rest of the world.

At the Bulletin we struggle to try to find new ways to get more people interested--not only in the degree of danger of nuclear war as measured by the clock, but in the many other problems of the nuclear age as well. This year, for instance, we held a "Plutonium Memorial Design Contest," receiving a wide range of practical, artistic, and/or humorous designs for safely housing an enormous pile of "excess" weapons plutonium over the millennia. Nearly all of the entries in the contest came from people who had never before had a reason to think about this intractable problem.

In the end, the appearance of the Doomsday Clock on the cover of the American Prospect is a signal that the icon, as powerful as ever, is continuing to do its job. And if the hands were set at four minutes, well, that simply provides us an opportunity to correct the record and, on the next few pages, offer a new audience a taste of what the Bulletin is all about.

Linda Rothstein, Editor 
Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 

The hands move

* 1947

Seven minutes to midnight

The clock first appears on the Bulletin cover as a symbol of nuclear danger.

* 1949

Three minutes to midnight

The Soviet Union explodes its first atomic bomb.

* 1953

Two minutes to midnight

The United States and the Soviet Union test thermonuclear devices within nine months of one another.

* 1960

Seven minutes to midnight

The clock moves in response to the growing public understanding that nuclear weapons made war between the major powers irrational. …

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