The Invention of Doomsday

The first successful launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile occurred on August 21, 1957, the Soviet Union hitting a target some 4,000 miles away with a nuclear-capable R-7 Semyorka. Over the sixty years since, six other countries — the U.S., China, India, France, Israel, and now North Korea — have demonstrated similar ICBM capability, with many of those nations and also the United Kingdom capable of submarine-launched versions. When a panel of atomic scientists first established the Doomsday Clock in 1947, it was set to 7 minutes before midnight; during the Cold War the clock went down to 2 minutes, then rose to 17 minutes with the collapse of the Soviet Union; we are currently at 2.5 minutes, and the latest forecast by the Doomsday scientists warns of increasing “nuclear volatility.”

No country ranks higher on the volatility index than North Korea, where ICBMs are not only a cornerstone of military strategy but a symbol of national identity. When the current “fire and fury,” “locked and loaded” politics are added to this mix, we edge ever closer to the runaway scenario described in Destined for War, Graham Allison’s discussion of how North Korea or a handful of other flashpoints may spark an engulfing China-U.S. conflict:

Wars occur even when leaders are determined to avoid them. Events or actions of others narrow their options, forcing them to make choices that risk war rather than acquiesce to unacceptable alternatives. Pericles did not want war with Sparta. The Kaiser did not seek war with Britain. Mao initially opposed Kim Il-sung’s attack on South Korea in 1950 for fear of blowback. But events often require leaders to choose between bad and worse risks. And once the military machines are in motion, misunderstandings, miscalculations, and entanglements can escalate to conflict far beyond anyone’s original intent.

Just the prospect of war causes heavy collateral damage, says the eminent social historian Elaine Tyler May. May’s earlier Homeward Bound, a classic in the field of family studies, explored how the midcentury Cold War nuclear threat affected the nuclear family, creating a “domestic ideology” that promoted “secure jobs, secure homes, and secure marriages in a secure world.” In her upcoming Fortress America, May explores how that same nuclear war anxiety helped to foster a still-escalating security obsession — gated communities, armed citizens, even a militarized aesthetic — that has not only failed to achieve a safer society but threatens what it was meant to protect:

Our security obsession is unnecessary and counterproductive . . . We do not need to be so frightened of each other. But we have become a paranoid, armed, militarized, racially divided, and vastly unequal vigilante nation. The pursuit of security has damaged our public as well as our private lives and hindered our ability to trust each other and our government. In other words, we face a serious risk that our democracy could be totally destroyed.

A different sort of legacy is explored in Plutopia, Kate Brown’s prizewinning study of the restricted-access “atomic cities” built in both the USSR and the U.S. in order to produce the plutonium needed for nuclear weapons. The fascinating story of these cities is little known and often repressed, says Brown, and it needs telling now that many world leaders are discussing a “nuclear renaissance”:

The homeless state of American and Japanese nuclear waste attests to the complicated problem of safely containing volatile and dynamic radioactive isotopes that self-heat to hundreds of degrees, corrode metals, and seep readily through soils to be taken up by plant life — and will do so for tens of thousands of years . . . Meanwhile, whistle-blowers who tried to alert the public to accidents and public health problems at the mothballed plants have been watched, harassed, followed and frightened in both the United States and Russia after the end of the Cold War. Many of these scenes were repeated in Ukraine [after Chernobyl] in 1986 and again in Japan [after Fukushima] in 2011.

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