The Doomsday clock is seen after members of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved it 30 seconds closer to the end of the world January 25, 2018, in Washington, DC. Mounting concerns about the possibility of a nuclear war along with Donald Trump’s “unpredictability” have pushed the symbolic “Doomsday Clock” to two minutes before midnight, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists said Thursday. (Photo: Brendan Smialowski / AFP / Getty Images)
Warning that the danger of nuclear war has become more “dire” than at any time since the Cold War, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists just moved the hands of its iconic Doomsday Clock to two minutes before midnight. This is the closest the hands have been to an apocalyptic assault on human survival and civilization in the clock’s 71-year history.
Since 1947, the clock has sought to awaken humanity to the imminent danger of catastrophic nuclear war. The additional existential dangers of climate change, new developments in the life sciences and technology were more recently added to their calculus.
Explaining their decision, the Bulletin’s scientists, who had moved the clock hands to two-and-a-half minutes to midnight shortly after President Trump assumed office, concentrated on the rising danger of nuclear war. With frequent references to the Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review, they decried: the United States’ increased reliance on nuclear weapons; its staggering investments in new nuclear weapons which are driving the “modernization” of the world’s eight other nuclear arsenals; the return to Cold War rhetoric and total absence of US-Russian arms control negotiations; the lack of coherent US foreign and military policies which undermines global security and increase the risk of nuclear war; North Korea’s nuclear weapons program; South Asian rivalries; and Trump’s threat to the nuclear deal with Iran.
Secondarily, the scientists also heightened the alarm over the existential dangers of climate change and the political and media-driven loss of trust in institutions, which in turn further undermines the ability to address the dangers of nuclear war and climate change.
The scientists’ action comes as CIA Director Mike Pompeo has hinted that the US is preparing a military attack against North Korea, possibly with nuclear weapons. And the scientists’ warning comes on the heels of two critically important Trump administration reports this winter: the National Security Strategy and the Nuclear Posture Review, whose contents have been leaked in recent weeks. Even as there are vast chasms between what the Trump administration says and does, each report and the decision about diplomacy or war with North Korea will impact who on our planet lives or dies and how.
In his recent book The Doomsday Machine, Daniel Ellsberg reports that the basic elements of US preparations for nuclear war have been little changed over the past three generations: “Thousands of nuclear weapons remain on hair-trigger alert, aimed mainly at Russian military targets, including command and control, many in or near cities. … [P]reemptive ‘launch on warning’ … has always been at the heart of our strategy.”
Ellsberg’s warning needs to be taken seriously. He served as a senior US nuclear weapons adviser to Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon, and drafted the United States’ nuclear war fighting plan.
Every US president since Truman has prepared for and/or threatened to initiate nuclear war.
As has been the case since President Truman inflicted Hell on Earth with the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, nuclear weapons and the threat of first-strike nuclear attacks remain the ultimate enforcer for US global dominance. On 30 or more occasions during international crises and wars, every US president since Truman has prepared for and/or threatened to initiate nuclear war. Even President Obama had “all options on the table” to reinforce his negotiations with Iran. President Trump has done more than boast that his nuclear button is bigger than Kim Jong-un’s. He has activated nuclear capable B-2 and B-52 bombers to Guam, within striking distance of North Korea, and the US Air Force has conducted repeated simulated nuclear attacks against North Korea.
And, as Ellsberg warns, “The strategic nuclear system is more prone to false alarms, accidents, and unauthorized launches than the public (and even most high officials) has ever been aware.”
Adding to these dangers are the Trump administration’s new National Strategy Statement and its Nuclear Posture Review. The former is a return to the Cold War-era preparations for wars against Russia and China, replacing the post 9-11 mis-named “war on terror” as the military’s priority. And as the moving hands of the Doomsday Clock tells us, the Nuclear Posture Review — compounded by the president’s instability and his brutal need to dominate — greatly increase the existential threat to species survival.
Trump’s Pentagon and the military-industrial complex are building on the Obama administration’s commitment to a $1.2 trillion upgrade of the US nuclear arsenal and its delivery systems. With the new nuclear weapons systems that Secretary of War James Mattis and the military-industrial complex envision, the price tag will soon be climbing toward $2 trillion, a number and scope of activity that are almost impossible to comprehend.
Still on track are Obama-era commitments to transform the B61-12 warhead into a more usable genocidal weapon, and to arm the Navy’s sea-launched ballistic missiles with still more devastating first-strike W76-1 warheads. Similarly, the mandate to replace the nuclear triad of missiles, bombers and the armada of nuclear war fighting submarines continues apace.
If this wasn’t already dangerous enough, we have Trump’s Nuclear Posture Review.
Perhaps most dangerous is the blurring of the distinction between conventional and nuclear war. The Nuclear Posture Review commits the United States to construct and deploy “more usable” tactical nuclear weapons, some of which will have the explosive power of the Hiroshima bomb. These weapons and the scenarios which have placed them on the military-industrial complex’s drawing boards are a return to the dangerous Cold War illusions that a nuclear war can be fought and won, that nations whose forces and people are devastated by nuclear weapons will not respond in kind or move up the ladder of escalation.
Also hair-raising is the reversal of President Obama’s reduction of the role that nuclear weapons play in US war planning policies. Trump’s Nuclear Posture Review increases it, releasing previous constraints on what will trigger nuclear war. When the Nuclear Posture Review goes into effect, the US will be threatening genocidal first-strike nuclear attacks in response to cyber-attacks that substantially degrade our national infrastructure, as well as in response to any chemical or biological weapons attacks. To understand what this means, recall the United States’ devastation of Iraq’s electrical system during the Gulf War and the 1991 and 2003 chemical weapons-related nuclear threats by the Bush administrations on the eves of their Iraq Wars.
Among the new weapons systems will be a new sea-launched cruise missile and the arming of Trident submarines’ ballistic missiles with Hiroshima-like A-bombs. And as China increases its capacity to deny access to US warships and aircraft from the Western Pacific, the Nuclear Posture Review provides for a new standoff, air-launched, nuclear armed cruise missile that can be fired against Chinese military and civilian targets from thousands of miles away.
All of this leaves us with the urgent imperative of preventing nuclear war and joining the majority of the world’s nations in their campaigning for a nuclear weapons-free world. Our future won’t take care of itself. As with the civil rights movement, the nuclear weapons freeze campaign and women’s movements, preventing nuclear war and abolishing nuclear weapons requires dedicated and passionate action. High on our to-do list are:
- Demanding diplomacy not war, pressing for the extension of the Olympic Truce with North Korea and supporting the Markey-Rohana legislation to prevent an unconstitutional war against Korea.
- Building on Daniel Ellsberg’s call for congressional hearings about the urgent need for negotiations with Russia to dismantle their omnicidal hair-trigger launch-on warning Doomsday machines.
- Demanding that progressive Democrats go beyond economic populism and challenging the $1.2-$2 trillion nuclear weapons upgrade.
- Engaging with environmental, racial justice and youth activists to find ways to work in common cause.
Nuclear weapons are already poisoning this and future generations. As Martin Luther King Jr. reminded us, we can’t enjoy justice if humanity ceases to exist. This will be a longer struggle for survival than any of us want. Of necessity, it requires the creative energies and commitments of rising generations.
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Joseph Gerson is Director of the American Friends Service Committee’s Peace and Economic Security Program and President of the Campaign for Peace, Disarmament and Common Security