In January, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists announced their decision to move the “Doomsday Clock” thirty seconds forward to two minutes till midnight, stating that the world is the most dangerous it has been since the end of World War II. The Bulletin cited the failure of world leadership to address issues of nuclear proliferation and climate change, and the increase in careless and destabilizing rhetoric by leaders like President Donald Trump. Though millennials may be deaf to its symbolism, the ticking of the Doomsday Clock rings loudly in the ears of older American citizens, for whom it may evoke childhood memories of newsreels and films proclaiming the dangers of The Bomb. The classic example being the 1952 animated cartoon “Duck and Cover” commissioned by the U.S. Civil Defense administration.
Nuclear weapons briefly returned to the forefront of American minds in the first weeks of August, 2017, with fiery exchanges between the leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Kim Jong Un, and President Donald Trump. This precipitated North Korean threats to bracket the U.S. territory of Guam with four intermediate-range ballistic missiles. These exchanges came amid the revelation by the Washington Post that an internal US intelligence agency report claimed the North Koreans have the ability to miniaturize and mount a nuclear warhead on one of their recently tested ICBMs, a claim denied by some security experts and politicians. Threats continued throughout the rest of 2017, and plans were proposed for various military options. One such option, an ill-conceived plan for a “bloody-nose” attack, distressed believers in traditional deterrence theory. Last December saw the accidental release of a ballistic missile warning to citizens of Hawaii. The news cycles frenzied after the fact over the stories of panic and hurried goodbyes said to loved ones that lasted for a full 38 minutes before authorities issued a false-alarm alert. In early January, the Centers for Disease Control announced a planned public health program to bring attention to potential health concerns that would be brought on by nuclear war. This program was later scrapped by the CDC in favor of focusing media attention on the deadly flu epidemic sweeping the nation. The CDC is probably right. At this moment you’re more likely to die of the flu than radiation spread from a nuclear blast, but that’s little comfort when the president’s fingers are poised to tweet before his mind works out the consequences. All this begs the question – how much should Americans worry about potential nuclear war?
The answer to that question is unknowable and variable, but lies somewhere between “not at all” and “every minute of the day.” The threat of nuclear war is present and real. However, there are structures and institutions available, diplomatic and military, that could help to de-escalate the conflict and work towards a resolution of peace on the Korean peninsula. Whether or not the President has the acumen or temperament to understand these tactics of de-escalation is questionable. At the same time, accidents happen and human error is unstoppable. Take as an example the 1980 explosion of a Titan II ICBM in Damascus, Arkansas that resulted from a simple maintenance mishap. A mistimed exercise or misunderstood signal could have drastic consequences. While North Korean state media may poke fun at the “nuclear-phobia” expressed by Americans during the Hawaii incident and panic over a Detroit meteorite, the reality is most Americans don’t worry that much about questions of nuclear security. Between school, work, exercise, family, friends, and entertainment, people don’t have time in their lives to cater to existential worry. It's not that they deny the issue, they just simply don’t think about it. This is dangerous in itself.
Widespread public anxiety and the pressure that the nuclear threat brings on is essential to holding political and military leaders to a high bar of expectations. While we are captivated by apocalyptic landscapes of dystopian novels and films, those remain just stories. Most people would not take seriously the effects of nuclear war like those described in a short-story style account of the destruction of Charlottesville, Va, commissioned by the OTA in 1979. Sure, we may have gun violence and terrorism, but nuclear war has to be the stuff of fiction, right? Seventy years out from the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the terrific and visceral nature of nuclear weapons has faded from the memories of Americans. Let’s hope we don’t experience it again, because ducking and covering won’t save us.