The Doomsday Clock is as ominous as it sounds: a clock first debuted in 1947 by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists — a nonprofit organization that raises awareness for global security issues — the daunting digits first symbolized the chances of an impending nuclear apocalypse. Today, it estimates how close humanity finds itself to the brink of total destruction.
Fortunately, the quarter clock doesn’t move towards midnight, that dreaded hour of death, often, but it definitely has had its fair share of scares. In these tense, white-knuckle moments, the world was one push of a button or wrong word away from disappearing in a mushroom-shaped cloud..
1. In 1952, after the Soviets tested a hydrogen bomb in response to the United States’ destruction of a Pacific Ocean islet with a hydrogen bomb of its own, the clock ticked two minutes to midnight.
2. Four years prior, once President Truman informed the American people that the Soviets successfully detonated their own nuclear device in 1949, the nuclear arms race that ensued moved the clock 3 minutes to midnight.
3. 2015 saw a new and increasingly dangerous reason for the Doomsday Clock to change: climate change. With both nuclear weapons and climate change posing a threat, the clock terrifyingly jumped to 3 minutes until midnight.
4. Then, 2017 saw the clock move to its second scariest position ever: 2-and-a-half minutes. Donald Trump was sworn into office, and people felt the threat of global catastrophe was higher than ever.
5. If two and a half minutes to midnight wasn’t frightening enough, it was bumped up 30 more seconds, making it an even two minutes, in 2018 because of the increasing dangers of climate change and the threat of North Korea.
6. Russia’s Vladimir Putin shocked the world when he threatened to pull out of the Cold War-ending treaty in 2007, wanting to increase his country’s nuclear arms. Now at only five minutes to midnight, the world feared “a second nuclear age.”
7. Fortunately, relations between America and Russia started to quickly improve in 2010, and the progress pushed the clock back to six minutes before midnight.
8. Two years later, in 2012, the clock was yet again pushed forward, now reading 5 minutes to midnight again. The nuclear situation was complex, and it was hard to predict how any nation would handle it.
9. In 1960, tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union decreased, and people all over the world breathed a sigh of relief as the clock was actually turned back to seven minutes to midnight.
10. Even better than tensions lessening, the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty that ended nuclear testing was signed by both countries, which greatly decreased the chance of nuclear war. The clock was pushed back further, to 12 minutes before midnight.
11. The clock, however, jumped five minutes ahead in 1968 once the United States entered the Vietnam War. As this happened, France and China also developed nuclear weapons, and the Middle East faced complicated political issues.
12. A lot of countries came together in 1968 to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which ensured nuclear weaponry wouldn’t spread to parts of the world that posed serious threats. This reversed the clock to 10 minutes before midnight.
13. Even better than the 1968 treaty limiting the spread of nuclear weapons was the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty and the Anti-Ballistic Treaty signed in 1972, further protecting the world from imminent disaster. The clock was moved 12 minutes to midnight.
14. Regardless of all the treaties, countries still hadn’t put a complete stop to their nuclear weapons programs by 1974. So, the clock was moved back up to 9 minutes from midnight.
15. The United States and the Soviet Union didn’t want to play nice with each other, scrambling to outbuild the other’s nuclear arsenal. Well, the behavior moved the clock up to 7 minutes to midnight.
16. Danger crept close in 1980 after the United States pulled out of Moscow’s Olympic games. Ronald Reagan soon entered the oval office, promising to up the nuclear game, which jumped the clock to 4 minutes to midnight.
17. The clock, again, was pushed to 3 minutes from midnight in 1984, as communication between the United States and the Soviet Union were cut off, and the Cold War entered a dangerous new stage.
18. Peace was established in 1988 between America and the Soviet Union when President Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, requiring both nations to eliminate certain types of weaponry within a three-year span. The clock, thankfully, now read 6 minutes to midnight.
19. Peace talks between Reagan and Gorbachev continued into 1990, much to the relief of both leaders. A world without nuclear power was the goal, pushing the clock back to 10 minutes before midnight.
20. The furthest from disaster the clock ever reached was 17 minutes in 1991 when the Cold War came to a relieving end. The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty reduced nuclear weapons and stress levels to minimal amounts.
21. The end of the Cold War didn’t necessarily mean countries would jump to eliminate their weapons. With over 40,000 weapons scattered all over the world, some places were much slower to enact the rules of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. The clock, in response, fell to 14 minutes to midnight in 1995.
22. In 1998, India and Pakistan began their own nuclear testing, and they were successes. This naturally bumped the clock up to 9 minutes before midnight. Nuclear weaponry didn’t look like it was going away anytime soon.
23. In 2002, a growing poverty gap in many countries increased the chances of war, which also increased the efforts to establish nuclear programs. The clock crept closer, now at 7 minutes to midnight.
Of course, there are groups dedicated to making sure the Doomsday Clock ever reaches midnight. While one of them, the Central Intelligence Agency, or CIA, has fared well easing tensions, it’s also given the clock a nudge with some embarassing gaffs…
1. This Goose is Cooked: Over the course of what’s known as “Operation Mongoose,” the CIA made dozens of failed attempts to assassinate Cuban leader Fidel Castro. These botched hits ranged from exploding cigars, hiring the mafia, and poisoning milkshakes.
John F. Kennedy Presidential Library
2. Making a Maniac: After his arrest, Ted Kaczynski – better known as the Unabomber – claimed that CIA experimentation pushed him to commit his violent acts. As it turns out, the CIA did in fact sponsor a controversial Harvard study in which Kaczynski participated.
3. Cat-tastrophe: War is all about thinking one step ahead of your enemies, but the U.S. took a huge step backward with “Operation Acoustic Kitty.” The CIA attempted to use hearing-augmented cats to eavesdrop on the Soviets, but the cats proved easily distracted and the program was scrapped.
4. Sketchy Skies: When Air America was announced as the U.S.’s newest commercial airline, frequent flyers couldn’t wait to book a flight. In reality, Air America was just a front for the CIA’s covert operations in Indochina, for which it smuggled soldiers, weapons, and even drugs during the Vietnam War.
5. The Korean Gamble: In an attempt to sow seeds of rebellion among the people of North Korea, the CIA began a covert operation in the 1950s that saw dozens of agents airdrop into the country. Sadly, these operatives were never seen or heard from again.
6. Closed For Maintenance: At the height of the Cold War, CIA officials constructed a missile testing device near India’s Nanda Devi mountain in an attempt to monitor Chinese missiles. Then they lost it. The agency actually closed the mountain for nine years to search for the device, though to this day it hasn’t been found.
7. The Little Blue Pill: To gain vital information from an impotent Afghan chieftain, the CIA actually offered him thousands of Viagra pills in exchange for the intel. With his, erm, “performance issues” resolved, the chieftain spilt the beans without hesitation.
8. Mine’s Bigger: The Cold War might not have been fought on the battlefield, but shots were definitely fired in the bedroom. One U.S. plot proposed strategically placing oversized American condoms labeled “Medium” throughout Russia in an attempt to demoralize Soviet men.
9. Cut it Out, Flea!: The CIA is notorious for its use of unorthodox torture methods, but one technique stands out above the rest. A former interrogator revealed that The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ music is so bass-heavy that when listened to endlessly it can drive a person to madness.
10. A Most Generous Benefactor: The Cold War wasn’t just about building missiles: it was also about culture. That’s why in order to assert the dominance of the American way of life, the CIA invested in abstract, free-thinking artists like Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko.
The Double Negative
11. A Likely Story: In 2013, after years of speculation, the CIA confirmed the existence of an area north of Las Vegas known as Area 51. It claimed the area was just a testing site for top-secret aerial surveillance programs, but we all know what they’re really keeping there…
12. Pick a Drug, Any Drug: After creating the hallucinogenic drug LSD in the 1960s, the CIA needed a way to test subjects without their knowledge. Enter magician John Mulholland, who taught agents how to spike drinks using sleight of hand.
13. The Trouble With Doubles: After stealing a top-secret spy satellite manual and selling it to the Russians, technical engineer William Kampiles attempted to reconcile with CIA officials by offering to become a double agent. They weren’t interested, and Kampiles was sentenced to 40 years in prison.
14. And the Oscar Goes To: The CIA isn’t known for its movie making, but after George Orwell died in 1950 the agency purchased the rights to his novel Animal Farm. The 1954 film adaptation was noticeably more anti-communist than the book, with all communist characters portrayed as pigs.
15. Paper Trail Fail: CIA agents are masters at covering up their tracks, but in 2003, two covert operatives were busted out of pure carelessness. While posing as business executives, the agents swiped their frequent flyer cards at every hotel and restaurant they visited and eventually led Italian authorities right to them.
16. Secrets on Secrets: Everyone knows that the CIA keeps its secrets closely guarded, but if you ever find yourself at its Langley, Virginia, headquarters you can actually walk right up to one. Encrypted on the faces of the statue Kryptos are four riddles, and after almost 30 years the fourth remains unsolved.
17. Not a Good Look: The crimes committed by Nazi scientists during WWII were inhumane, but that didn’t stop the CIA from bringing those scientists to America. With their help, the CIA hoped to create its own special brand of brainwashing techniques under “Operation Paperclip.”
Those Conspiracy Guys
18. C-I With An A: Even CIA agents need their coffee, so it’s no surprise that the Langley HQ boasts its own Starbucks. The baristas at “Store Number 1” are trained to recognize every agent’s face, so there’s never a need to reveal one’s identity for the sake of a macchiato.
19. No-See-Um: Dubbed “the best museum you’ll never get to see,” the CIA’s official museum in Langley is packed with some of the agency’s most incredible – and controversial – inventions. Unfortunately, only CIA agents are allowed inside.
20. Fearless, Faceless: Like other military branch headquarters, the CIA HQ features a memorial wall to honor those agents that have died in the line of duty. However, of the 129 stars on the wall, only 91 are named; the other 38 chose to take their secret identities to the grave.
S. Evan Townsend