- AFP/ Getty
- The Doomsday Clock debuted as a graphic on the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in 1947, and gained popularity worldwide as a symbol marking the threat of an impending nuclear apocalypse.
- It’s now a symbol measuring how close humanity is to total destruction (per various causes). The closer the clock is to midnight, the closer we are to destruction.
- The Cold War drastically affected the Doomsday Clock, as did President Trump’s election.
- Climate change and social media have also affected the time shown on the clock.
Since the ’40s, the Doomsday Clock has measured how far humanity is from the brink of total destruction. Every few years, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists releases a new time that represents the measurement. The closer to midnight the time is, the closer we are to the end.
Scientists having worked on the atomic bomb began publishing the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists in 1945 to warn humanity of the dangers of the very war tool they’d built. They debuted the Doomsday Clock image in a 1947 edition, setting the time (arbitrarily) to 7 minutes before midnight. This was soon after World War II, and the threat of worldwide nuclear destruction seemed imminent.
Since then, the time has changed 23 times according to various threats to humanity. It is now set at 2 minutes to midnight.
Here are the events that have affected the Doomsday Clock.
The clock moved to 3 minutes to midnight in 1949.
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In 1949, President Truman told the American people that the Soviet Union had successfully tested their first nuclear device. Even though Soviets denied the allegations, the Nuclear Arms Race began, moving the clock closer to midnight.
“We do not advise Americans that doomsday is near and that they can expect atomic bombs to start falling on their heads a month or year from now,” the Bulletin wrote. “But we think they have reason to be deeply alarmed and to be prepared for grave decisions.”
In 1953, the clock moved the closest it ever would to midnight at 11:58.
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In 1953, the United States tested the first hydrogen bomb, which is more powerful than the atom bomb. During the test, the US destroyed an islet in the Pacific Ocean. In response, the Soviets tested their own H-bomb. The clock has never been closer to midnight.
“The hands of the Clock of Doom have moved again,” the Bulletin wrote. “Only a few more swings of the pendulum, and, from Moscow to Chicago, atomic explosions will strike midnight for Western civilization.”
The clock got pushed back to 7 minutes to midnight in 1960 as tensions between the US and the Soviets lessened.
In 1960, the Bulletin called it the “Dawn of a New Decade,” as the race to nuclear war slowed down. The Bulletin mentioned a few specific incidents that pointed to the US and the Soviets no longer gearing toward mutual destruction. It highlighted their abilities to avoid confrontation and order a cease-fire at the Suez Canal in 1956 in its assessment.
“We want to express in this move our belief that a new cohesive force has entered the interplay of forces shaping the fate of mankind, and is making the future of man a little less foreboding,” the Bulletin wrote about pushing the time back.
In 1963, the clock moved to 12 minutes to midnight after the US and the Soviets signed a treaty.
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The US and the Soviet Union came together in 1963 to sign the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which put an end to nuclear weapons tests in the atmosphere, in space, and underwater.
“Conclusion of a limited test-ban treaty is an encouraging event,” the Bulletin wrote. “It strengthens the slim hope that mankind will escape destruction in a nuclear war, and justifies the moving of the Bulletin’s clock a few minutes back from the hour of doom.”
The clock was moved to 7 minutes to midnight again in 1968 as the Vietnam War increasingly became an issue.
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Just as things were looking up, the world started to descend into chaos again. The United States inserted itself into the Vietnam War, while Middle Eastern nations battled their own political issues. France and China also developed nuclear weapons so that they could be seen as global, powerful nations. All of this brought the clock closer to midnight.
“There is little reason to feel sanguine about the future of our society on the world scale,” the Bulletin read at the time. “There is a mass revulsion against war, yes; but no sign of conscious intellectual leadership in a rebellion against the deadly heritage of international anarchy.”
In 1969, the clock moved to 10 minutes to midnight as numerous nations signed a treaty to end nuclear testing.
In 1968, many countries signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which focused on limiting the spread of nuclear weapons. Israel, India, and Pakistan did not sign the treaty, but the new agreement led to great optimism around the world regardless.
“The great powers have made the first step. They must proceed without delay to the next one – the dismantling, gradually, of their own oversized military establishments,” the Bulletin wrote at the time.
The clock moved to 12 minutes to midnight in 1972 when the US and the Soviets signed two more treaties, further limiting nuclear development.
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By 1972, the two powers signed the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty – which put a limit on ballistic missiles each country could have – and signed the Anti-Ballistic Treaty. Both treaties eased tensions and brought the world farther away from doomsday.
In 1974, the clock moved to 9 minutes to midnight as countries continued to develop nuclear weapons.
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By 1974, it seemed the many treaties that were signed were for naught. In fact, there was evidence that the US and the Soviet Union were developing more weapons instead of diminishing them. At this point, South Asia and India both had nuclear weapons as well.
“The failure of governments to face this ugly fact constitutes another measure of the increasing danger in which we all live,” the Bulletin wrote at the time. “The world must continue to live, as it has lived for a generation, with the atomic genie it let out of the bottle in 1945.”
As the world’s two superpowers continued to develop nuclear weapons, the clock was pushed forward to 7 minutes to midnight in 1980.
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“[The Soviet Union and United States have] 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,'” the Bulletin wrote, as the US and Soviets continued their nuclear programs despite their numerous treaties.
As Ronald Reagan took office, the clock changed to 4 minutes to midnight in 1981.
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In 1980, President Jimmy Carter pulled the US out of the Olympic Games in Moscow after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, creating even more tension between the two nations. President Ronald Reagan then became the commander-in-chief and said he had no plans to reduce the country’s nuclear program. In fact, the new president attempted to create a stronger and bigger arm arsenal.
“There are signs in many nations of a growing public concern over the drift toward disaster,” the Bulletin wrote. “The seemingly inevitable advance of the warning hand to midnight can and must be reversed in the months to come. “
The clock was pushed forward again to 3 minutes to midnight in 1984 as tensions between the US and the Soviets reached a fever pitch.
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“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 Bulletin wrote as the US stepped up its weaponry and the Cold War entered a new phase.
The tide turned in 1988 when the US and the Soviets signed a treaty and the clock was moved to 6 minutes to midnight.
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In 1988, President Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which required each nation to destroy certain weaponry within three years.
“The challenge of establishing a just and peaceful world remains. But now, for the first time in years, steps have been taken in the right direction,” the Bulletin wrote. “The full significance of those steps will be determined by what follows.”
The clock was pushed forward to 10 minutes to midnight in 1990 as peace talks continued.
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“We are poised to bend the arc of history toward a world free of nuclear weapons,” the Bulletin wrote. The scientists also pointed out that there were growing concerns about climate change.
The clock was pushed back to 17 minutes to midnight — the furthest it would ever go — as the Cold War came to an end in 1991.
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In 1991, the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty was signed, causing the US and Russia to seriously diminish their weaponry and allowing for the earliest time on the Doomsday Clock. To move the clock back so significantly was no easy decision, though.
“The present move was not easily agreed upon,” the Bulletin wrote. “Board members initially expressed divergent views as did some of the sponsors … But on balance a consensus was reached reflecting a conviction that the world was changing in fundamental and positive ways.”
The Doomsday Clock was pushed forward to 14 minutes to midnight, as countries were slow to destroy their nuclear weapons in 1995.
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Despite the end of the Cold War, there were more than 40,000 nuclear weapons remaining worldwide, according to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Many feared that Russia would still use their weaponry against the US.
“When the Cold War ended, nuclear weapons didn’t go to the shredder, like so many worn-out cars,” the Bulletin wrote. “They are still with us, and we must not forget that.”
In 1998, the clock was moved to 9 minutes to midnight as more nations tested nuclear weapons.
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By 1998, India and Pakistan both successfully tested nuclear devices, while the US and Russia reportedly still had 7,000 nuclear weapons altogether.
“The tests are a symptom of the failure of the international community to fully commit itself to control the spread of nuclear weapons – and to work toward substantial reductions in the numbers of these weapons,” the Bulletin wrote at the time.
The clock returned to 7 minutes to midnight in 2002.
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The world’s biggest nations continued to have nuclear weapons and were slow to decrease the number of warheads, pushing the Doomsday Clock even closer to midnight. The scientists also cited the fact that there was a growing poverty gap that may increase the risk of war and violence.
The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists advised the US and Russia to reduce their arsenal to no more than 1,000 warheads each.
In 2007, the clock was changed to 5 minutes to midnight as the world stood “at the brink of a second nuclear age.”
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In 2007, Russian President Vladimir Putin threatened to pull out of the Cold War treaty, prompting the country to explore the idea of expanding its nuclear arsenal. Scientists also pointed to the fact that climate change was becoming a growing problem as flooding, storms, and droughts were affecting people all over the world and might lead to violence.
“As we stand at the brink of a second nuclear age and at the onset of an era of unprecedented climate change, our way of thinking about the uses and control of technologies must change to prevent unspeakable destruction and future human suffering,” the Bulletin wrote. “The Clock is ticking.”
The clock changed to 6 minutes to midnight in 2010 when talks between Russia and the US improved.
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“We are poised to bend the arc of history toward a world free of nuclear weapons,” the Bulletin’s assessment read.
In 2012, the clock was pushed closer to midnight at 11:55.
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“The challenges to rid the world of nuclear weapons, harness nuclear power, and meet the nearly inexorable climate disruptions from global warming are complex and interconnected,” the Bulletin said in its assessment. “In the face of such complex problems, it is difficult to see where the capacity lies to address these challenges.”
The clock moved to 3 minutes to midnight because of climate change in 2015.
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“Unchecked climate change, global nuclear weapons modernizations, and outsized nuclear weapons arsenals pose extraordinary and undeniable threats to the continued existence of humanity, and world leaders have failed to act with the speed or on the scale required to protect citizens from potential catastrophe,” the Bulletin said. “These failures of political leadership endanger every person on Earth.”
In 2017, the clock was pushed closer to midnight to 2 and a half minutes — the second closest in history — after President Donald Trump was elected.
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In 2016, the US saw one of the most controversial presidential campaigns. While campaigning, Trump “made disturbing comments about the use and proliferation of nuclear weapons and expressed disbelief in the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change,” said the Bulletin. When he was elected, the Doomsday Clock was pushed closer to midnight.
“The probability of global catastrophe is very high, and the actions needed to reduce the risks of disaster must be taken very soon,” the Bulletin’s release went on to read.
The clock was pushed to 2 minutes in 2018 because of the looming threat of North Korea and the continuing threat of climate change.
- KCNA via Reuters
As the world struggles to address threats brought on by climate change, the US remains fiercely partisan on the subject, and North Korea threatens nuclear war, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved the Doomsday Clock even closer to midnight. It did, however, laud the positive side of social media.
“Leaders react when citizens insist they do so, and citizens around the world can use the power of the internet to improve the long-term prospects of their children and grandchildren,” the Bulletin said. “They can insist on facts, and discount nonsense. They can demand action to reduce the existential threat of nuclear war and unchecked climate change. They can seize the opportunity to make a safer and saner world.”
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