Honestly, how many times in your life have you ever run across a headline like this: “Top general says he would resist ‘illegal’ nuke order from Trump”? That was Air Force General John Hyten, head of the U.S. Strategic Command, the present commander of American nuclear forces, speaking at a conference in Canada last November. I mean, this has assumedly been an issue with every recent president for whom the nuclear “football,” aka “button” — actually a relatively mundane briefcase — was always on hand. Any of them had the singular ability to order the American nuclear arsenal into play (a deeply inappropriate word for what would follow but in the spirit of “football”).
We’ve just taken a step or two back from a potential fire-and-fury moment on the Korean peninsula, with most eyes focused on North Korea. There, a strange autocrat with a bizarre hairdo has been bragging about the nuclear “button” on his desk, while overseeing his country’s testing of long-range missiles and what may have been its first hydrogen bomb. It’s the sort of thing that could leave anyone edgy. And if that makes you nervous, consider this: on the other side of the planet, a strange figure with autocratic tendencies and a bizarre hairdo, a “very stable genius,” has been bragging about his own “button” and, unlike the North Koreans, we know that the nukes in his arsenal are quite capable of hitting their targets.
Worse yet, as the Guardian reported recently, that arsenal, already the biggest on the planet, is about to be made significantly more “usable” in the age of Trump. His administration’s upcoming Nuclear Posture Review, the first in eight years, will reportedly lift constraints on the kinds of situations (including non-nuclear ones) in which American nuclear weapons might be used, while focusing on producing a new, low-yield, more “usable” warhead and other so-called tactical nukes. This is frightening stuff for an arsenal already undergoing a 30-year, possibly $1.7 trillion upgrade. Mind you, the saddest story of all is that while The Donald has openly exhibited a strange fascination with nukes and their power to destroy, he’s otherwise been in remarkably good company. After all, our last president — you know, the one who gave that 2009 speech about a “world without nuclear weapons” and got the Nobel Prize for his abolitionist stand — somehow managed to oversee the launching of that 30-year nuclear “modernization” program before leaving office.
So, yes, worry about North Korea and its unnerving leader. But worry more about whether General Hyten would really find an order to use nukes “illegal” and resist it. And while you’re at it, join TomDispatch regular Rajan Menon in considering the most anxiety-producing place on the planet right now, that focus of tweet storms (and possibly storms of a far more consequential kind), the Korean peninsula.