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Millennial Stress

First it was Watergate, then Travelgate and Monicagate. Now we have Chinagate. Watergate brought down a president, and Monicagate came within a thread of doing the same. Should our worst fears be realized, however, Chinagate could make the earlier misfortunes look like fortune cookies. If our leaders unwittingly let critical nuclear secrets slip out the back door while they were courting our Chinese neighbor, Chinagate could alter the global power structure.

For more than 40 years, the United States and the Soviet Union glowered at one another across their nuclear parapets, pushing the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists doomsday clock to within 2 minutes of midnight. If you’re not familiar with the Bulletin, a clock on its cover shows the symbolic time before the nuclear holocaust begins. When the Soviet Union broke up a decade ago, the Bulletin’s clock’s hands fell back to 17 minutes till midnight. As this issue of FORUM goes to press, the clock’s hands are holding steady at 9 minutes before the hour, where they have stood since the India-Pakistan nuclear tests a year ago. I hope I’m wrong, but I fear the hands will move up as the details of Chinagate unfold.

The potential threat of Chinagate accentuates the vulnerability of the United States at a time when it should be nearly invincible. Today, the United States is the world’s only superpower. If the Pentagon is right, we won’t see another superpower for at least a decade.

According to Secretary of Defense William Cohen, however, our military superiority makes us especially vulnerable to nuclear, biological, and chemical attack. Terrorists, like gunslingers in the Old West, want to ambush us from the rimrock.

Our vulnerability is also becoming more exposed as the new millennium approaches. While the United States is further along than any other industrial nation in preparing for Y2K—the glitch that threatens to shut down computers when their internal clocks reach 00—we are nonetheless the most vulnerable nation in the world, simply because we are the most computerized. With governments and industries linked together in a vast cyber-network, our energy, transportation, telecommunications, and financial systems critically depend on the smooth operation of computers around the world. Ironically, if Y2K does have a catastrophic effect on the United States during the next several months, the calamity is more likely to arise from overseas malfunctions than from computer chips failing at home.

These are some of the topics FORUM grapples with in this issue. We also look at nuclear wastes, nuclear weapons, and the future of nuclear technology, as well as public lands management in the United States.

I’ll admit these are not particularly cheery topics, but before you settle into a warm tub with your wrists slit, you may want to consider some wisdom from Winston Churchill. When confronted with worrisome issues, Churchill often recalled the story of the old man who said on his deathbed that he had a lot of trouble in his life, most of which never happened.

Dennis McCarthy
Editor in Chief

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