Nuclear Threat: Resetting the Doomsday Clock

On the morning of 13 January 2018 a message was broadcast by the emergency alert system over television, radio and mobile phones to the people of Hawaii. The message stated that there was an incoming ballistic missile threat and advised residents to seek shelter, ending with: ‘this is not a drill.’ It seems the Hawaiian alert systems are stuck in a time-warp of the atomic age. Even back then the idea of ‘taking shelter’ was futile unless in a blast-proof underground concrete bunker and then the firestorm would probably incinerate, or asphyxiate, the occupants. Those who were unlucky enough to survive would either suffer a slow and agonising death by radiation poisoning or else face the prospect of an impoverished existence in a dystopian landscape. Hawaii’s emergency alert system is a throwback to the US public information film of the 1950s: Duck and Cover. The film depicted children sheltering under their school desks from a nuclear attack and at the time was accompanied by similarly ludicrous propaganda in other countries, including the UK.

The atom bombs dropped by the United States on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 – affectionately named: ‘Little Boy’ and ‘Fat Man’ by the perpetrators – instantly killed 100,000 Japanese people. An additional 100,000 died of injuries and radiation poisoning in the following months. But these bombs are akin to peashooters compared to the much more powerful hydrogen bomb, invented in the 1950s, which packs a punch hundreds of times greater than its smaller cousin.

Alex Wellerstein’s Nukemap model ( ) illustrates this bigger punch, by allowing the user to choose the location and size of the hydrogen bomb in a simulated detonation. I chose London as my target and selected the biggest bomb from the drop down menu; known as the ‘Tsar Bomba;’ produced in Soviet Union times, it weighs in at a whopping 100 Megatons (100,000 Kilotons) which makes it around 7000 times the size of the US atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Or, put another way, this single bomb exceeds the total explosive capacity of all munitions used during WWII by a factor of twenty. The result of the simulation indicated that 18 million people would be caught in the blast covering a radius stretching north to Cambridge and south to Brighton; of which around 6 million would be killed instantly and a further 6 million would suffer substantial injuries. The model helpfully clarifies that such casualties do not include the effects of radiation which are apparently too difficult to estimate. In such circumstances advising children to shelter under their school desks is not really going to cut the mustard as a strategy for survival.

Yet this kind of asinine propaganda is on the march again today. The madmen in charge of the asylum are busy overlaying a new, and even madder doctrine, on the traditional one of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). The original MAD approach is grounded in the less than reassuring logic that no country would launch a nuclear attack on another nuclear state because the retaliatory response would be assured and would lead to its own annihilation. This tenuous logic is still the basis of ‘nuclear strategy’ and is predicated on the rational behaviour of those world leaders with their finger on the nuclear button. When one considers the current cohort of world leaders such an assumption would seem to have a rather flimsy foundation. But now the nuclear powers want to have their cake and eat it too. Whilst their main posture towards each other is still MAD, they are now promulgating a secondary and seemingly contradictory approach. Led by the United States, the assertion is that a nuclear war is not only ‘survivable,’ but also ‘winnable’; amidst talk of tactical and battlefield nuclear weapons and smart nukes in space.

Sounding the alarm bells

A mechanism for alerting the public to the nuclear threat was conceived in 1945 by the Chicago group of scientists – Compton, Oppenheimer and others, who were part of the Manhattan Project – and who, ironically, created the atomic bomb in the first place.

Every year since 1945 the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has set the hands of the Doomsday Clock to represent the imminence of Nuclear Apocalypse according to conditions prevailing at the time. In recent years the clock has been calibrated to take into account the other existential threat to the world; that of climate breakdown/ecological collapse. Currently the hands of the Doomsday Clock are at two minutes to midnight, indicating that the world is on the brink of self-immolation; the closest it has been since 1952 when the first hydrogen bombs were tested.

At the peak of the MAD doctrine it was estimated that there were 40,000 nuclear weapons in the world; mainly held by the United States and Russia, but also by Israel, France, the United Kingdom, India, Pakistan, China, North Korea and the NATO ‘nuclear-sharing states’ of Germany, Belgium, Italy, Netherlands and Turkey; these latter countries holding them under the auspices of the US.

The ‘peace dividend’ at the end of the Cold War in 1991 – which led to the decommissioning of thousands of nuclear weapons – was short lived, although the actual numbers are still down from the peak. Today it is estimated that there are around 14,500. 13,000 of these are held by the US and Russia, with clusters dotted around the other nuclear powers, including the UK in the form of the Trident deterrent; soon to be upgraded at a cost estimated to be as high as £200 billion over the lifetime of the project.

Apart from the developing sophistication of nuclear weapons and their increased killing capacity, the posture towards them is also changing in the direction of becoming more trigger-happy. The US has always maintained its right to launch a first strike, in addition to its ‘launch on warning’ policy. With the continuing deterioration in relations between the nuclear powers the others are upping the ante as well. China has recently responded to heightened tensions with the US by putting its nuclear arsenal on high alert by combining its missiles and warheads, which were previously kept separate. Russia who, in common with the US, already has several thousands of its nuclear weapons on a hair trigger has resurrected a new version of its ‘Dead Hand’ system which was believed to have been disabled at the end of the Cold War. Dead Hand involves an automatic and massive launch of Russia’s nuclear weapons in the event of censors picking up seismic vibrations indicative of an incoming nuclear attack. Some pundits have heralded this system as making the world safer by increasing the ‘deterrent effect’. Presumably they are unaware of the event in 1983 when the electronic monitors being watched by Stanislav Petrov, a Soviet officer, detected incoming nuclear missiles launched from the United States. This was at a time of high tension between the two nuclear powers following the shooting down of a South Korean airliner which had strayed into Soviet air space. Petrov decided to contravene orders by not reporting the incident to his superiors which, had he done so, would probably have prompted a retaliatory strike by the Soviet Union, leading to all out nuclear war. It turned out it was a false alarm caused by an unusual alignment of sunlight filtering through high altitude clouds over North Dakota.

A first strike posture is contrary to various aspects of international law, including: the Nuremberg Principles, the Geneva Conventions, The Hague Conventions, the UN Charter, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But such legal niceties provide no brake on the bellicose rhetoric of the leaders of the nuclear powers. In 2016 Prime Minister Theresa May assured parliament that she was ready to press the nuclear button, taunting the leader of the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn for dithering over the issue. Trump regularly spews inane utterances on Twitter, such as those aimed at the ‘Little Rocket Man’ of North Korea saying that: ‘my nuclear button is much bigger than Kim’s and my button works!’. He also threatened Iran, a country of 83 million people, with ‘obliteration’ if it ever crossed America. Trump articulated his overall stance on nuclear weapons during his presidential campaign as: ‘You want to be unpredictable.’ Now in office he is presiding over an unprecedented programme of renewal and expansion of nuclear weaponry under his Nuclear Posture Review; including the creation of the sixth arm of the US military, in the form of Space Command, to take warfare into the new frontier of space. The other nuclear states are embarked on tit-for-tat expansion and modernisation of their nuclear arsenals.

But all these cunning developments in nuclear warfare will amount to nothing if the Nuclear Winter thesis, postulated by a group of climate scientists, proves to be valid. They assert that a relatively small number of nuclear explosions will create a massive firestorm which would suck up a dust cloud into the stratosphere, blotting out the sun’s rays for years to come and thus ending all life on Earth.

The end of the era of nuclear warfare restraint

In August 2019 the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces treaty (INF) expired which, since 1987, has banned the stationing of short and intermediate nuclear missiles – such as Cruise and Pershing – in Europe. In October 2018 the US signalled its intention to withdraw from the treaty and Russia quickly followed suit; each side accusing the other of breaches. This amounts to the final unravelling of over a dozen treaties that have limited the expansion of nuclear arsenals over the past half century.

The United States has led the way in the shredding of the treaty infrastructure, beginning with its withdrawal from the Anti-ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002 and, more recently, its abandonment of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action; the multilateral agreement that imposed constraints on Iran’s nuclear program. The only treaty of any significance remaining is the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which currently places limits on certain categories of nuclear weapons held by Russia and the United States. This expires in 2021 and has little prospect of being renewed. President Putin has repeatedly expressed a wish to renew START, but President Trump has described it as a: ‘one sided deal’ and a: ‘bad deal’ and the two leaders have no plans to engage in negotiations.

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), established in 1968, is still extant but of questionable value given that the new nuclear states, such as Israel, India and Pakistan, refuse to participate in the treaty and North Korea simply withdrew from it in order to embark on its nuclear weapons programme.

It will be the first time since the 1980s that the world will be in an unregulated nuclear weapons environment. Add to all of these regressive trends the array of other factors creating instability in the geo-political situation and it is surprising that the Doomsday Clock is set as far away as two minutes to midnight.

What prospects for peace?

There are many conciliatory parties urging the nuclear powers to resume negotiations in order to set limits on their nuclear arsenals but, in the current febrile atmosphere, the prospect of them being listened to is slim. In any case the treaty approach of containment did little to reduce the risk of the world’s annihilation by nuclear warfare given the huge scale and destructive power that remained, even after such limitations were imposed. The treaties were at best a sticking plaster and at worst created a soporific effect and a normalisation of the nuclear threat.

Nuclear War represents the pinnacle of violent warfare but it is one of degree, rather than difference in kind. From its inception in 1904 the Socialist Party has opposed all wars as a matter of principle. Confronted with the call to war – and flying in the face of almost every other party calling itself ‘socialist’ – the Socialist Party has never capitulated to the jingoistic rhetoric of nationalism. We have always stated our unambiguous opposition to war. We regard war as the manifestation of conflict between competing factions of the capitalist class, fighting over the spoils of territory, resources, markets and trade routes; the cost of such conflict being suffered by the working class in the form of death, misery and privation. It follows that war is an inherent characteristic of the capitalist system and will only be eradicated when the death cult of capitalism is ended.

Socialism would comprise a world-wide community where there would be no nation-states. There would be no ownership of either property, territory, or natural resources. There would be no markets and no need to compete for resources to sustain life because these would be freely provided according to need. In such a society war would be redundant.

The only war that socialists are interested in fighting is the class war; with the aim of bringing it to a swift end by non-violent means through the ballot box, thus relegating the concept of war to the history books.