He was the candidate who, while talking to a foreign policy expert, reportedly wondered“why we can’t use nuclear weapons.” He was the man who would never rule anything out or take any “cards,” including nuclear ones, off the proverbial table. He was the fellow who, as president-elect, was eager to expand the American nuclear arsenal and told Morning Joe host Mika Brzezinski, “Let it be an arms race. We will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all.” I’m referring, of course, to the president who, early on, spoke with his top national security officials of returning the country to a Cold War footing when it came to such weaponry and called for the equivalent of a tenfold expansion of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. I’m thinking of the president who once threatened North Korea with “fire and fury like the world has never seen” and proudly claimed that he had a “bigger nuclear button” than that country’s leader, Kim Jong-un.
Given his fascination with nuclear weaponry, it’s hardly surprising that the very same president would decide to pull the U.S. out of the Cold War-era 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) or that his vice president would refuse to rule out — another potentially treaty-busting act — the deployment of nuclear weapons in space. It’s a gesture that, as TomDispatch regular and former Boston Globe columnist James Carroll explains today, could not be more devastating when it comes to creating a new nuclear arms race on this increasingly godforsaken planet of ours. Reading Carroll’s piece, I thought of a mobilizing nuclear moment in my own life. It was the time in 1982 when I read Jonathan Schell’s bestselling book The Fate of the Earth, which helped create a global anti-nuclear movement, millions of active citizens desiring a nuke-free world, that prepared the way for the INF Treaty. In that remarkable volume, Schell offered a stunning vision of what a ten-thousand-megaton nuclear strike on the U.S. might mean. (“In the ten seconds or so after each bomb hit, as blast waves swept outward from thousands of ground zeros, the physical plant of the United States would be swept away like leaves in a gust of wind.”) In the end, after radiation had also taken its toll, he wrote, the United States — in a phrase that’s haunted me ever since — “would be a republic of insects and grass.”
That, in other words, is what it might mean, in the twenty-first century, as in the previous one, for a president to put all those nuclear “cards” back on the table and “outmatch… and outlast them all.”