Midnight Never Came

***Part 3 of 3***

"War-fighting," anyone?
Just 12 months later, the outlook for the world seemed even dimmer. The Soviet Union had dispatched tanks, troops, and dive bombers to Afghanistan in December 1979 to prop up a puppet government, further poisoning a none-too-cordial relationship between Moscow and Washington. President Jimmy Carter, who had sent SALT II to the Senate for ratification, condemned the Soviets for "invading" their neighbor, cancelled U.S. participation in the upcoming Olympic Games in Moscow, and asked the Senate to postpone action on SALT II.

More chillingly, the Carter administration, in an attempt to bring order to decades of jury-rigged nuclear-response plans and to enhance the "credibility" of deterrence, had devised a wider range of nuclear options, including the implementation of command-and-control measures that would--in theory--insure that the United States could fight a "protracted nuclear conflict."

Then in November 1980, former governor and movie star Ronald Reagan, a defense hawk who had campaigned on the premise that the United States had become dangerously weak vis-á-vis the Soviet Union, was elected president. SALT II was "fatally flawed," said Reagan, and the Soviets routinely flouted SALT provisions. In contrast, the United States, which played by the rules, had laced itself into a straitjacket. The way to end the Cold War, Reagan said, was to win it. Feld wrote in the January 1981 issue:

"Nuclear weapons--more and more unambiguously aimed at war-fighting rather than war-deterrence--are now being rapidly deployed by the East and West in Europe. The Russian SS-20 and the U.S. MX blatantly announce a new race in improved missile accuracy and mobility, heralding the acceptance of counterforce first-strike by both sides.

"These ominous signs of deterioration are cast into starker relief by the flat unwillingness of either the United States or the Soviet Union to reject publicly, and in all circumstances, the threat of striking the other first. Both sides willfully delude themselves that a nuclear war can remain limited or even be won. In 1980, both sides officially declared nuclear war 'thinkable.'"

The minute hand was moved up to four minutes to midnight.

Ideologues take control
The early Reagan years alarmed the Bulletin's editors, along with millions of other people in the United States and Western Europe. Reagan, who may have believed more ardently than any previous president in the ultimate abolition of nuclear weapons, nevertheless expanded and accelerated a weapons buildup that Jimmy Carter had begun. Reagan also seemed to enjoy tossing incendiary rhetoric into the dry-as-straw East-West barn. In his first presidential news conference, he asserted that Soviet leaders "reserve unto themselves the right to commit any crime, to lie, to cheat."

While the comment would not have raised an eyebrow if a historian had uttered it, it seemed recklessly provocative coming from the commander-in-chief of the most powerful nation on earth. Two years later, Reagan trumped his any-crime-any-time comment by calling the Soviet Union the "Evil Empire" in a speech redolent of Old Testament rhetoric about the final showdown between the forces of Good and Evil.

To manage domestic affairs, Reagan surrounded himself with moderates and pragmatists. But in foreign affairs, many of his key advisers were anti-Soviet ideologues--hardliners who believed that the United States should throw out the idea of nuclear parity. Eugene Rostow, for instance, became director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. Previously, he had been co-chair (with Paul Nitze) of the Committee on the Present Danger, a Carter-era organization dedicated to persuading the nation that the Soviet Union was dangerously ahead of the United States in nuclear weaponry.

In 1983, Reagan announced the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), resurrecting the long-dead fantasy of unfurling an anti-ballistic missile umbrella over the United States. The president's March 23 speech came as a surprise to almost everyone, including some of Reagan's closest advisers. The space-based SDI plan was quickly dubbed "Star Wars," after the movie trilogy of that name.

Reagan's Star Wars plan, if developed and deployed, would surely violate the ABM Treaty, critics said. It would lead to a resumption of an all-out nuclear arms race. And--as a final irony--it almost surely would not work in the event of an all-out attack. The Bulletin's first unsigned clock editorial appeared in the January 1984 issue:

"As the arms race--a sort of dialogue between weapons--has intensified, other forms of discourse between the superpowers have all but ceased. There has been a virtual suspension of meaningful contacts and serious discussions. Every channel of communications has been constricted or shut down; every form of contact has been attenuated or cut off. And arms control negotiations have been reduced to a species of propaganda."

The minute hand was moved up to three minutes to midnight.

Western Europe had been seen as a potential nuclear battleground virtually since the beginning of Nuclear Time. In the 1950s, U.S. bombers with nuclear weapons had been stationed in England and tactical nuclear weapons had been deployed with NATO troops, all to discourage the Soviet Union from gobbling up Bonn and Paris and London and Rome without a burp. In the 1950s, the West European nations were generally comfortable basking in the shade of the U.S. nuclear umbrella. The threat of nuclear retaliation, went the conventional wisdom, kept the Russian bear in hibernation and away from the Fulda Gap.

When the Soviets caught up, in a rough sort of way in the 1960s, nuclear intimidation was no longer a game of solitaire. If the NATO nations, led by the United States, used nuclear weapons to fend off a Soviet invasion, the Soviets could now strike the United States. Given that, would the United States actually come to the aid of Europe if it meant possible national suicide?

This "coupling" debate, always surreal, had waxed and waned through the 1960s and 1970s. Britain developed nuclear weapons in part to maintain its "special relationship" with the United States. In contrast, Charles DeGaulle had so little confidence in U.S. nuclear commitments that he insisted that France have its own independent nuclear retaliatory force.

In the late 1970s, in an attempt to enhance deterrence and tighten the coupling between between Europe and the United States, the West European members of NATO obtained a U.S. promise to deploy 464 ground-launched nuclear-tipped cruise missiles on NATO soil, as well as 108 nuclear-armed Pershing II intermediate-range ballistic missiles.

In theory, the missiles would counterbalance a nasty-looking Soviet force of 243 triple-warhead SS-20 missiles aimed at NATO targets. They would also be bargaining chips. Deployment--even the threat of deployment--would give the West additional leverage in pushing for a treaty that would sharply constrain such weapons worldwide.

In the early 1980s, as deployment of the new missiles loomed and NATO and Soviet rhetoric became more alarming, popular opposition in Western Europe became a force to be reckoned with. In the fall of 1981, more than 250,000 people turned out for a protest in Bonn; the following month, some 400,000 protested in Amsterdam.

Deploying Pershing missiles that could hit Soviet targets in five to 10 minutes was utterly mad, said the protesters in Europe and in the United States. It would make the Soviets even more edgy, ultimately leading to an unintentional but devastating nuclear war. ABC-TV's two-part movie, The Day After, linked Pershing deployment to a civilization-ending war. It played to huge audiences on two continents.

The fact that the United States and the Soviet Union eventually signed an Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in December 1987--which eliminated all such weapons (including Pershing IIs and SS-20s) rather than merely cutting their numbers--struck many people, including the editors of the Bulletin, as near-miraculous. But it wasn't quite that. Public opinion in Western Europe and the United States had made it plain to the Reagan administration that people were fed up with having to live at Ground Zero. Public pressure to do something about the nuclear arms race had become a potent political movement.

As surprising as Reagan's agreement to the INF Treaty may have been, it was even more startling to learn that the Soviet Union, long victimized by constipated and unimaginative leadership, finally had a top man--Mikhail Gorbachev--with the wit and the imagination and the courage to finally end the Cold War. The editorial in the January-February 1988 Bulletin said:

"For the first time the United States and the Soviet Union have agreed to dismantle and ban a whole category of nuclear weapons. They have crafted provisions that enable each to be confident that the other will comply with the treaty's terms. The agreement they have fashioned can serve as a model for future accords. That agreement would not have been possible without the leadership displayed by General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev and President Ronald Reagan. We applaud them."

The minute hand was moved back to six minutes to midnight.

The great melt
The Berlin Wall came down at the end of 1989, symbolizing the end of the Cold War. Gorbachev had long realized that the Soviet Empire, which had rested on a foundation of fear and intimidation for more than four decades, could not be sustained. His goals were to shore up Soviet society, to repair the collapsing Soviet economic machine, to introduce democratic reforms, to end Soviet isolation from the Western world, and to bring new life--"new thinking"--to the desperately outdated Communist Party.

Meanwhile, new thinking was far advanced in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, East Germany, Romania. Men and women who had danced tepidly to Moscow's balalaika since the end of World War II would do it no longer. Revolution was in the air from the North Sea to the Black Sea. And Gorbachev was not about to send tanks into Eastern Europe, as his predecessors had, to keep the East Bloc nations in line. The editorial in the April 1990 Bulletin remarked:

"Now, 44 years after Winston Churchill's 'Iron Curtain' speech, the myth of monolithic communism had been shattered for all to see, the ideological conflict known as the Cold War is over, and the risk of global nuclear war being ignited in Europe is significantly diminished. . . ."

The minute hand was moved back to 10 minutes to midnight.

The coup that failed
The old era ended abruptly. Few had anticipated it; even fewer seemed to have a clear notion of what would--or should--come next. From a Washington perspective, change was good as long as it didn't get out of hand. The Reagan and Bush administrations had come to see Gorbachev as an ally, as a friend, as a bulwark against chaos in a troubled Soviet Union.

Back home in Russia, Gorbachev didn't have a prayer. He was said to be chiefly responsible for every problem and disgrace tormenting the Soviet Union--ranging from the nation's decline as a world power to its free-falling economy to an increase in public drunkenness to the imminent dissolution of the Union itself.

By the the beginning of 1991, the general secretary was foundering, although official Washington seemed not to know it. The end came in late August, when reactionaries mounted a near-bloodless coup. The coup failed to install a government of revanchist communists, but Gorbachev was finished, although he remained in office through the remainder of the year.

Discredited and virtually deposed, yes. But Gorbachev had not been a failure. Beginning in 1985, when he took over as general secretary, Gorbachev had forced democratic reforms onto the moribund Soviet system. Although the reforms helped foment the turmoil that led to his downfall, they had become so ingrained by August 1991 that a successful right-wing coup was not possible. As unpopular as Gorbachev had become, the rightist alternatives looked worse to most Russians.

Shortly before the coup attempt, Gorbachev had signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, the Reagan-era successor to SALT and the first nuclear arms agreement that mandated steep rollbacks in so-called "strategic" weapons. And in September and October, as the Soviet Union sputtered to an end, Presidents Bush and Gorbachev announced a series of unilateral but parallel initiatives taking most intercontinental missiles and bombers off hair-trigger alert, and withdrawing thousands of tactical nuclear weapons from forward bases. The Bulletin editorial in the December 1991 issue said:

"The 40-year-long East-West nuclear arms race has ended. The world has clearly entered a new post-Cold War era. The illusion that tens of thousands of nuclear weapons are a guarantor of national security has been stripped away. In the context of a disintegrating Soviet Union, large nuclear arsenals are even more clearly seen as a liability, a yardstick of insecurity. . . .

"We believe that Presidents Bush and Gorbachev have guided their respective nations to a historic intersection of mutual interests. Continuing boldness and imagination are called for. Men and women throughout the world must vigorously challenge the bankrupt paradigms of militarism if we are to achieve a new world order. The setting of the Bulletin Clock reflects our optimism that we are entering a new era."

The minute hand of the clock was pushed back to 17 minutes to midnight.

Off the scale
The new man in Moscow was Boris Yeltsin, a self-styled radical democrat. As president of the Russian Federation, he presided over the formal demise of the Soviet Union. Russia, he said, would adhere to the letter and the spirit of arms control agreements negotiated by the old Soviet Union.

To symbolize the dramatic nature of the changes marked by the the 1991 clock move, the Bulletin's Board of Directors had moved the minute hand "off the scale," to 17 minutes to midnight. By Bulletin standards, that represented an unprecedented burst of enthusiasm and optimism.

By 1995, that enthusiasm had cooled somewhat. Further arms reductions had stalled, while global military spending continued at Cold War levels. There was also a growing fear of nuclear "leakage" from poorly guarded facilities in the former Soviet Union.

The minute hand of the clock was moved back "on the scale," to 14 minutes to midnight.

* * *

In May 1946, Albert Einstein, one of the Bulletin's more notable godfathers, looked toward the future and said: "The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking, and thus we drift toward unparalleled catastrophe."

The goal of the Bulletin--founded 50 years ago in December--has been to render that wonderfully apt Einstein quote obsolete. The Bulletin has been--and still is--committed to changing the way people think about war-and-peace issues. Its "Clock of Doom," as Eugene Rabinowitch used to call it, has been a major part of that effort.

The clock quickly became the symbol of the Bulletin. But it also came to symbolize something far larger than a magazine published in Chicago, just blocks from where the first controlled, self-sustaining nuclear reaction took place. The clock became an icon of the Nuclear Age, a centerpiece of pop culture, an image so clearly on target that if the Bulletin had not invented it, a Nehru or a Cousins or a Kennedy would have come up with it eventually.

The Bulletin Clock is not just the property of a magazine. It belongs to everyone who cares about the future of humankind.

--Mike Moore is the former editor of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.--

© 1995 by the Educational Foundation for Nuclear Science