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Watchmen – political science in popular culture November 21, 2008

Posted by Sverre in : Political Science in Popculture , trackback

watchmenStruggling with those political science textbooks, falling asleep every few minutes? We’ve all been there. Why not try learning from somewhere else? Like from a comic?

Watchmen is one of the best graphic novels ever made, and according to Martin Seymour-Smiths’s The 100 most Influential Books ever Written[1] also among the most important books overall. It has received a lot of credit for along with Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns being one of the works to reinvent the new adult style of comics. But in addition to being a story that changed the history of comics, it’s so much more than a super hero story that The Dark Knight Returns can never hope to come close to. It is also a story about the cold war and the madness of the nuclear arms race. My claim is that you could learn quite a bit of political science by reading it.

As a central thread throughout the book we’ve got the doomsday clock. This is a well-known symbol invented by the Bulletin of Nuclear Scientists in 1947. This clock counts the minutes until midnight as a symbol of how close the war is to nuclear holocaust. Throughout the cold war, the clock ticked towards midnight and away from it, being pulled back as far as 17 minutes from Midnight in 1991. Currently, however, the Bulletin has the clock as close as 5 minutes to midnight, placing us in the most dangerous age since 1984, about the time the Watchmen was written. The Bulletin’s current assesment is the following:

2007: The world stands at the brink of a second nuclear age. The United States and Russia remain ready to stage a nuclear attack within minutes, North Korea conducts a nuclear test, and many in the international community worry that Iran plans to acquire the Bomb. Climate change also presents a dire challenge to humanity. Damage to ecosystems is already taking place; flooding, destructive storms, increased drought, and polar ice melt are causing loss of life and property. [2]

Throughout the book, the Watchmen uses the same device, dramatically accompanied by a gradually lowering sheet of blood. They start the clock at 11 minutes to midnight.

In Watchmen, the nuclear arms race kicks it up a notch with the introduction of the character Dr. Manhattan. In a very similar manner to how Dr. Bruce Banner becomes The Hulk, the nuclear scientist Jonathan Osterman is the victim of a nuclear accident, becoming Dr. Manhattan – a creature with the ability to reshape atoms, thereby also to work as a weapon far superior to the atomic bomb. After we get his story in chapter IV of the Watchmen, we get an exercept from a fictious scientific text by a Professor Milton Glass that reads like a Political Science text.

Professor Glass lays out to us the politics of the new American superweapon, Dr. Manhattan. He explains how he doesn’t think this American superweapon is “…a man to end wars. I believe that we have made a man to end worlds.” Watchmen, with the voice of Dr. Glass even manages to convey the subtle difference between Eisenhower and Dulles’ doctrine of “massive retaliation” (aka. “assured destruction”), and the later Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) most notably laid out as official US policy by Robert McNamara [3]. This was one of the core tenets of the real world Cold War realist thinking. It relies on the idea that as long as both Soviet and the USA were able to destroy each other simultaneously, neither would dare start a nuclear war and peace would be assured [4]. As the doomsday clock ticks towards midnight, Prof. Glass believes that the threat of ultimate domination that Dr. Manhattan poses might actually lead the Soviet regime to such desperation that they are willing to commit to such an attack even at the cost of lives they know will ensue.

If threatened with eventual domination, would the Soviets pursue this unequestionably suicidal course?  Yes. (Professor Milton Glass “Dr. Manhattan:  Super-Powers and the Superpowers” in Watchmen ch. IV)

watchmencharactersWatchmen was first published in 1986-7, when the doomsday clock was ticking ominously close to midnight. In my opinion, it is an insightful work of fiction, extremely relevant to its time. The insight into the inherent self-destructiveness of hardcore realist thought, and the misguided American conceptions of Russian psychology still carry weight. And as the doomsday clock once again is less than 10 minutes from disaster and a more confident Russia once again flexes its claws, the importance of this lesson is growing in importance yet again.

Especially interesting in a modern light is the ending of the Watchmen. Not to ruin the excitement of the book for anyone whose interest I’ve peaked, I won’t go into detail on what happens, but we could draw a clear analogy to the World Trade Center incident on September 9, 2001. If the theory behind the ending of Watchmen was correct, we could expect the new threat of global terrorism make the great powers unite in peace and prosperity against this common enemy. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen with the growing conflict level under the Bush regime, a major terrorist action against New York just didn’t have this effect.

In conclusion I can say that Watchmen, in addition to being an exciting and different take on the concept of super heroes is also a thought provoking piece of fiction that could teach you a bit of political science along the way. I would advice everyone to pick up the novel, or at least watch the upcoming movie that’s due to get its cinema release in 2009.

Sed quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

[But who watches the watchmen?] (Decimus Iunius Iuvenalis “Juvenal” (approx. 100 CE) Satire VI)


  1. Seymour-Smith, Martin (1998) 100 Most Influential Books Ever Written. Secaucus, N.J.: Citadel Press
  2. http://www.thebulletin.org/content/doomsday-clock/timeline
  3. McNamara, Robert (1967) “‘Mutual Deterrence’ Speech by Sec. of Defense Robert McNamara” San Francisco, September 18, 1967, http://www.atomicarchive.com/Docs/Deterrence/Deterrence.shtml
  4. Kissinger, Henry (1994) Diplomacy. New York: Simon & Schuster, p.750-1


1. Torbjørn - February 22, 2009

“If the theory behind the ending of Watchmen was correct, we could expect the new threat of global terrorism make the great powers unite in peace and prosperity against this common enemy.”

I’d say that the logic involved in Watchmen rules out any comparison with 9/11. Although the logic rests on a sound psychological principle, you’d be hard pressed to show that terrorism fits under the criteria. I believe its not that difficult to prove the opposite in fact, since USA reacted very different than the rest of the western world in response to 9/11.

Hi btw! 🙂

2. sverrebm - February 22, 2009

And what is it about the psychological theory behind the ending of Watchmen that separates it so entirely from 9/11? It appears to me to be exactly the same, even if the idea behind them were presumably quite the opposite.

3. Torbjørn - February 22, 2009

*spoiler alert* Do not read on, if you want to read/see Watchmen! 🙂

The whole premise of Watchmen and ID4 is that of an external enemy to humankind, a threat that doesn’t distinguish between borders, politics, religion and perhaps is not even susceptible to our type of logic. Terrorism can not be said to fall into this category for several reasons.

I guess your point is that the great powers (btw, who is that?) will unite in seeing terrorism as a common enemy. But isn’t it wrong to say that terrorism is something definite? The act of terrorism is a method, but it says nothing of the who and why. It’s kinda like saying guns are the enemy, not the people using them.

However, one can argue that this way of looking at terrorism is actually the one prevalent. Why? Because the main effort into stopping terrorism is increased use of surveillance. Rather than stopping people from doing terror acts altogether, we intend to stop them before they actually manage to do them. We are more focused to stopping their action, than changing their intention.

On the other hand, I’m not going to go Gandhi here, and say, hey, let them do their terror. But I think its important to remember the difference. I do not like the tendency, especially in the States, that basic rights are thrown out the window in search for terrorist. You don’t have to be a genius to understand that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

4. sverrebm - February 22, 2009

So your point is that in Watchmen (and ID4), we’re talking about an enemy external to mankind which only has a similar method to that of the Al-Quaida, and that it is the nature of the enemy not its method that is the vital point?

If that’s what you meant, I’d say it makes sense and I have to concede that point.

As Al-Quaida as an enemy external to the US but not external to the world, it makes sense that it made the US (and possibly Britain) unite, but not entire world, right?

5. bodycount - June 29, 2011

Good observation, I guess that’s exactly why they trade the ending of NY being destroyed with a sort-of mutual assured destruction. The bodycount of the story therefore has risen significantly.