Midnight Never Came

***Part 2 of 3***




Fear keeps the peace
People sometimes assume that the minute hand of the clock is moved frequently. In fact, the clock has been reset just 14 times in its 48 years. Clock moves reflect major trends, not transient events. For instance, the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962 failed to produce so much as a blip in the clock. The crisis--a frightening exception to the still developing "rule" that the United States and Soviet Union should not directly confront one another--came and went too fast for the Bulletin to act on it.

A year after the missile crisis, in October 1963, the Bulletin moved the minute hand back in recognition of the signing of the Partial Test Ban Treaty, an agreement banning atmospheric nuclear testing. Rabinowitch explained in his editorial that the treaty was not a "significant step toward disarmament"-- after all, underground tests would continue. Nor would the treaty prevent additional nations from acquiring nuclear weapons, Rabinowitch added. Indeed, he believed that China would shortly join the nuclear club. (China's first test of a fission device came in October 1964.)

Nevertheless, the treaty, said Rabinowitch, was tangible evidence that the "cohesive force" was still alive and well. Both sides of the East-West confrontation continued to experience "naked fear for survival," and that fear helped keep the peace. The treaty also suggested that "the forces of realism" were winning; on both sides of the East-West divide, "obstinate dogmatism" was in retreat.

The minute hand was moved back to 12 minutes to midnight.

Failure of imagination
By 1968, it was clear to Rabinowitch that the "dogmatists" had not been routed, after all. Cooperation between and among nations, never a strong trend, had waned. Nationalism and "international anarchy" were in flower.

 "De Gaulle's France and Mao's China led the way," said Rabinowitch in the January 1968 issue. "Both devoted enormous efforts to the development of nuclear weapons as a visible sign of their sovereignty, and a guarantee of freedom of action.

"Stirrings of military nationalism appeared all over the globe. India and Pakistan went to war in 1965; Israel and the Arab countries did the same in 1967. And the United States was already embarked on a growing military intervention in Southeast Asia, without the U.N. label that had so irritated American nationalists in the Korean conflict."

Rabinowitch seldom expected much from Soviet leaders, whom he generally thought to be benighted and paranoid, but he expected a lot of American leaders. The United States, despite its many flaws, was still the last best hope of mankind. More than any other nation, it could demonstrate--by example--that military spending was wasteful, and that it was far better to help Third World nations develop their own peace-time economies then to supply them with arms.

But American leadership--particularly the administration of Lyndon B. Johnson--had not been up to the task. The great U.S. failure of the 1960s, said Rabinowitch, was not so much a "sin of commission"--the Vietnam War--as a "sin of omission," a failure to use American power and wealth in imaginative ways to lead a worldwide mobilization of technical, economic, and intellectual resources for the building of a viable world community. "The day of reckoning may be approaching, not in the form of American withdrawal and communist takeover in the Far East, but in a wave of world hunger, and the accompanying surge of world anarchy."

The minute hand was moved up to its original slot, seven minutes to midnight.

A "first step"
The previous year's clock editorial, called "The Dismal Record," reflected disappointment over missed opportunities. But in Geneva, a process had been going on since the mid-1960s that looked promising. On the theory that it only takes one spark to start a forest fire, nations--nuclear as well as non-nuclear--were attempting to limit the "horizontal" spread of nuclear weapons.

Many of the non-nuclear weapon states were also fearful of "vertical" proliferation in the United States and the Soviet Union, while they remained enamored of nuclear power, which was seen as the cure for virtually all ills. In 1968, a deal was finally struck: Under the terms of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the nuclear weapon states would help non-nuclear weapon states develop nuclear power. In turn, the "have-not" states would agree not to develop or obtain nuclear weapons.

Finally, the five nuclear weapon states promised to work toward a cessation of the nuclear arms race and eventual disarmament. More than 100 nations signed the NPT, although some of the holdouts were worrisome--especially Israel, India, Pakistan, South Africa, Argentina, and Brazil.

But even with holdouts, Rabinowitch was heartened by the deal, if not overwhelmed. In the April 1969 issue, he wrote: "This treaty reasserts the common interests of all signatories in avoiding new instabilities, bound to be introduced into the precarious balance of nuclear terror with the emergence of new nuclear nations. . . .

"The great powers have made a first step. They must proceed without delay to the next one--the dismantling, gradually, of their own oversize military establishments. Otherwise the hope raised by the treaty will prove futile."

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

Parity cometh
In 1964, Stanley Kubrick released Dr. Strangelove, a wickedly funny satire of deterrence theory, and Sidney Lumet gave audiences Fail Safe, an earnest and plodding essay on the same topic. Both films explored scenarios in which U.S. bombers erroneously attack the Soviet Union with nuclear weapons. In Fail Safe, Moscow and New York are destroyed; in Strangelove, the planet is fatally irradiated by a secret Soviet "Doomsday Machine."

In a sense, Kubrick and Lumet were cockeyed optimists. Sure, things didn't turn out so well for a few million people (Fail Safe) or a few billion (Strangelove), but in each case, a fictional president had hours to correct the original attack-the-Soviets mistake. But in the real world, the time scale was about to be reduced to minutes. There would no time for reflective assessment, no time for call-backs.

By the mid-1960s, the United States and the Soviet Union were working on antiballistic missile systems (ABMs), with the Russians showing far more enthusiasm for the concept than the Americans. To Soviet leaders, a defense system seemed reasonable, even morally compelling. But in the United States, a host of influential policy-makers, including Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara, argued that an effective ABM system would be dangerous.

Mutual terror, went the argument, was still the great peacekeeper. As long as both sides knew that each could destroy the other, no matter who struck first, an uneasy peace would prevail. But ABMs had the potential for disrupting that rickety balance of terror. They would encourage a rapid acceleration of the nuclear arms race, because increases in offensive weapons were the surest and cheapest way of offsetting advances in defensive systems.

And in moments of high East-West tension, the side that believed that it had the most effective ABM system might be tempted to launch a first strike, confident that it could ride out the weakened retaliatory attacks with minimal damage.

But in an obscene game of chicken, the side that feared a preemptive first strike might well launch its own preemptive attack. Meanwhile, the other side, assuming that the enemy would reason thusly, would have even more reason to strike first. . . .

Fear of Russian progress on ABMs inspired the United States to enhance its offensive forces by developing missiles that carried "multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles"--MIRVs. The last stage of an ICBM was merely a "bus" carrying several warheads, each of which could be released at a different time in a preplanned sequence. Thanks to in-flight course corrections by the bus, the warheads would have different ballistic trajectories and different targets.

In this new post-Strangelove world, an enemy who struck first would have a clear advantage, said nuclear strategists. Because one MIRVed ICBM could theoretically knock out several enemy missiles in their silos, the side that struck first could retain many of its missiles for a possible second strike.

The only way to level the "bolt-from-the-blue" playing field was for the target nation to launch its missiles before they could be destroyed in their silos. In a MIRVed use-'em-or-lose-'em world, the U.S. and Russian command authorities might have just minutes to make a launch-no launch decision, even if the information they had was muddled and ambiguous.

By the late 1960s, U.S. and Soviet leaders had come to suspect that the two nations were lurching toward an abyss. In an attempt to pull back from the edge, the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) began in Helsinki in November 1969.

The central idea of SALT was that the United States and the Soviet Union would give up their respective dreams of achieving clearcut nuclear superiority. Instead, they would begin a process designed to produce a rough sort of "parity." In turn, that might bring a measure of predictability and stability to East-West relations.

In 1972, two agreements were signed. One, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, effectively put an end to most ABM work, thus making an out-of-control nuclear arms race less likely. In effect, the treaty said that each nation must remain vulnerable to the other side's missiles; continued willingness to abide by a mutual suicide pact had become the Golden Rule of deterrence theory.

Meanwhile, the five-year SALT Interim Agreement froze the number of ballistic missile launchers--that is, the number of land-based missile silos and submarine-based missile launch tubes--at 1972 levels. It was an exceedingly modest start toward nuclear arms control; it did not actually limit the number of missiles each side could have or the number of warheads that a given missile might carry.

Bernard T. Feld, a member of the Bulletin's Board of Directors, was generally pleased with the ABM Treaty, but wary of the Interim Agreement. Feld, whose sarcasm was not always hidden, wrote the clock editorial for the June 1972 issue:

"Now we have been presented with the greatest step towards world peace since the Sermon on the Mount, and we are torn between the impulse to cry 'bravo' and the desire to shout 'fraud.'"

MIRVed missiles were meant to counter the ABM "threat," he said. But now the ABM threat had faded--yet MIRVs remained. That was "because we are too far along with deployment and the Russians too far behind--an asymmetry that we do not want to give up and they do not want to freeze. So we have accepted that we will both go to MIRV, after which it will be too late to avoid MIRV without unacceptably intrusive inspection."

The ABM Treaty was fine, but the Interim Agreement was thin gruel. Nonetheless, the United States and the Soviet Union had accepted the principle of parity, and that was a foundation to build upon. The minute hand was moved back to 12 minutes to midnight.

Premature optimism
The cover of the September 1974 Bulletin was an editorial cartoon come to life. It featured a photo of an alarm clock with its minute hand approaching midnight. The clock, a battery, and a globe were wired together into a primitive time bomb.

It was not a wholly unreasonable image, given the facts: instead of reducing their numbers, the United States and the Soviet Union were MIRVing and modernizing their nuclear arsenals at an alarming rate; India had exploded a nuclear device; and SALT II was at an impasse.

Founding Editor Rabinowitch had died in 1973. Feld was now editor-in-chief, but his deputy, Editor Samuel H. Day, wrote the September 1974 clock editorial:

"Despite the promise of the 1972 accords, it is now apparent that the two nuclear superpowers are nowhere near significant agreement on strategic arms limitations. The failure was manifest at the recently concluded summit conference in Moscow. This in itself is cause for concern in view of the arms buildup which has continued during the course of the negotiations, and particularly since 1972.

"In anticipation of [arms] limitations agreements that have never come to pass or were of little consequence, more and more weapons have been built and tested, and more and more weapons systems have been developed and deployed. Far from restraining the forces which it was intended to curb, SALT has sustained and nourished them, providing acceptable channels for conducting business as usual."

The Bulletin's optimism in resetting the clock to 12 minutes to midnight in 1972 had been "premature," said Day. The "danger of nuclear doomsday is measurably greater today than it was in 1972."

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

Nucleoholics, greed, and irrationality
As the Bulletin entered its thirty-fifth year, Editor-in-Chief Feld offered a general assessment of the world situation in the January 1980 issue. It was not a happy prospect. SALT II negotiations had concluded in 1979, and it took a heroic act of optimism to conclude that much had been accomplished. Weapon ceilings were set so high, and MIRVed weapons had become so commonplace, that a nuclear Armageddon seemed as likely now as when the talks began. Feld wrote:

"More than ten years after the start of the SALT negotiations, we are still struggling with the acceptance of an agreement which, far from embodying significant nuclear disarmament, retains--if it does not encourage-- the accumulation of astronomical numbers of deliverable nuclear weapons by both the so-called 'superpowers'; which is not yet able to address the dangers of an irrational and growing nuclear confrontation in Europe; and which has not even begun to take the minimum steps of restraint needed to shore up a rapidly deteriorating nonproliferation regime."

The United States and the Soviet Union, said Feld, were equally to blame. The former had a "self-defeating propensity for the premature introduction of destabilizing new technologies." The latter was stubbornly wedded to the sanctity of large numbers of huge missiles to counterbalance a lack of technical sophistication. Both had "been behaving like what may best be described as 'nucleoholics'-- drunks who continue to insist that the drink being consumed is positively 'the last one,' but who can always find a good excuse for 'just one more round.'"

But the accelerating arms race was just one source of instability, albeit the darkest. Feld said that increased competition among nations for ever more scarce resources, often a cause of conflict and war, would get worse in the coming decades, not better. The developed world used a disproportionate share of the world's resources and would continue to do so. Conservation did not come naturally to the affluent. Meanwhile, the developed world made only token efforts to help improve living conditions in the poorest nations of the Third World.

Also serious was a "spreading trend toward irrationality in the national and international conduct of many states, of peoples aspiring to nationhood, and dissident minorities (down to minorities comprising only a few individuals) within nations. Each one of us can easily find many examples of this trend toward a return to the the social and political behavior of the Middle Ages: the provisional branch of the Irish Republican Army or the Italian Red Brigade; the religious fanaticism now in control in Iran and other parts of the Islamic world; the systematic dismemberment of Lebanon, the outstanding modern example of a secular democratic state; the genocidal orgy in Cambodia, demonstrating the contemporary possibility that innocent people may, without choice, end up both red and dead while the rest of the world impotently stands by."

Despite his gloomy analysis, Feld reminded readers that the Bulletin was "essentially optimistic," and he exhorted the Bulletin community not to give up on SALT or the SALT process. But for now, the minute hand of the clock was moved up to seven minutes to midnight, where it had started in 1947.

--Continue to Part 3 of "Midnight Never Came"--