Preventing a nuclear war between the United States and North Korea may be the most pressing challenge facing the world right now.
Our childish, ignorant, and incompetent president is shoving all of us — especially the people of Asia — ever nearer to catastrophe. While North Korea probably hasn’t yet developed the missiles to deliver a nuclear warhead to the U.S. mainland, it certainly has the capacity to reach closer targets, including South Korea and Japan.
But what can ordinary people do about it? Our fingers are far removed from the levers of power, while the tiny digits of the man occupying the “adult day care center” we call the White House hover dangerously close to what people my age used to call “the Button.” Nevertheless, I think there may still be time to put our collective foot on the brakes, beginning with the promise of a bill currently languishing in Congress.
Meanwhile, many of us who were born in the post-World War II years are re-experiencing nightmares we thought we’d left safely in the past.
Duck and Cover
I was born seven years after the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Like the rest of my generation of Americans, I grew up in the shadow — or perhaps more accurately, the glow — of “the Bomb” (which, in those days, we did indeed capitalize). I remember the elementary school ritual of joining a line of neat, obedient second-graders crouching on knees and elbows against a protective concrete hallway wall, hands covering the backs of our necks. I remember coming home from school, recounting that day’s activities to my mother and watching as she rushed to the bathroom to vomit — her all-too-literal gut reaction to a world in which her children were being prepared in school for global annihilation.
In class, we saw civil defense films produced by the government, like the one that encouraged us to “set aside a small supply of canned goods” in makeshift basement shelters. “They’re safe from radioactivity,” the narrator assured us, as a lovely, young, white mother confidently placed the last can firmly on the cupboard shelf. (The film was far less enlightening about what to do once that “small supply” ran out.) Other movies reminded us that we should always be aware of the location of the nearest fallout shelter or taught us how to duck and cover.
By 1961, my family had moved from rural New York State to Washington, D.C., where my mother got a job with the brand new Peace Corps. Everywhere in my new city I saw the distinctive black-and-yellow signs indicating fallout shelter locations. The student body at Alice Deal Junior High School was too big for hallway drills. Instead, at the appointed time, we would all be herded into the auditorium, where a solemn-faced principal would describe the secret underground shelter where we would all be safe, should the Soviets actually launch a nuclear attack on our country. I remember bursting out laughing, while my homeroom teacher fixed me with an angry stare. Who was the principal kidding? We lived in Washington, the number one political target of any potential Soviet nuclear strike. Even then, I was aware enough to know that, whether above ground or under it, we would either fry immediately or die of radioactive poisoning thereafter.
In my family, we joked about bomb shelters. We knew they wouldn’t save us. So I remember being shocked when, in the early 1960s, we visited the family of a friend of my mother’s named Yarmolinsky. We kids were all sent out to play behind their suburban Virginia home, where my brother and I stumbled upon a large dome in the middle of the woods. “What’s that?” we asked our new friends.
“Oh, that’s our fallout shelter,” one of them replied.
I was stunned. The Yarmolinskys lived just a few miles from Washington and yet they had their own fallout shelter! They were crazy. What I didn’t know then was that the father, Adam Yarmolinsky, at the time a special assistant to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and one of his “whiz kids,” was the architect of a “complicated domestic [program] to expand the construction of fallout shelters in American homes.”
Indeed, “shelter morality” became one of the favorite ethical issues of the day. The question was: What responsibility would people who had the sense to build such shelters before an attack have for people who failed to do the same? In 1962, Life magazine published a cover story urging the government to build mass shelters in order to avoid just such a future division between “haves” and “have-nots.” It quoted a Mrs. Florence Ergang who said, “I am dismayed at shelter morality. It is natural to protect one’s family, but my ethics dictate that my neighbors be protected too.”
Even today, students in college political science or business ethics classes sometimes wrestle with the “fallout shelter exercise” (although the quandary it lays out undoubtedly seems to them like a scene from ancient history). In that exercise, students are asked to decide which individuals — a Latina prostitute and her infant son, a white male biologist, and so on — should be allowed to remain in a fallout shelter with limited space and supplies. There’s even a fallout shelter game for your cell phone where the characters are a bit more multicultural than in the civil defense films of the 1950s — although all three women pictured on the home screen still wear little-girl skirts.
As an adolescent, I knew all the words to satirist Tom Lehrer’s “Who’s Next.” (“First we got the bomb, and that was good/’cause we love peace and motherhood…”) I read the nuclear thriller Failsafe, the grim, end-of-everything novel On the Beach, and that peculiar mixture of racism and nuclear terror, Robert Heinlein’s Farnham’s Freehold, in which a nuclear blast sends the author’s self-reliant, libertarian hero into a dystopic future “America.” There, Black people oppress the white population — to the point of regarding young white women as culinary delicacies. Yes, the science fiction writer who gave the world Stranger in a Strange Land and taught hippies how to “grok” (to understand something deeply and intuitively) also created that perfect fictional confection of the fears of comfortable white people of the 1960s.
It’s hard to explain, especially to those who were born after the Soviet Union imploded in 1991, taking with it the immediate fear of nuclear holocaust, what it was like to grow up in the knowledge that such a war was coming within your lifetime. It’s hard to describe what it was like to lie awake at night waiting for the sound of the sirens that would let us all know it was happening. During those long nights, I hid a transistor radio under my pillow, turning it on repeatedly to reassure myself that the pop-rock station I disdained during the daytime was still transmitting top 40 hits, not duck-and-cover instructions.
My morbid preoccupations weren’t unusual in that era. The constant threat of nuclear war formed the background radiation for the childhood of a whole generation. All my friends, many of whose parents worked for the federal government, shared my fears. When we said good night on the phone, my high school boyfriend and I sometimes wondered aloud if we’d see each other the next day. Our adolescent reckoning with our own mortality became a confrontation with the mortality of our species, and it made some of us more than a little crazy. We lived with a curious wartime consciousness, in which we planned for our futures while knowing that there might be none to plan for.
A Dose of Reality
So much for the never-realized fears of the baby boomers. How likely is Donald Trump not just to revive them, but to start a nuclear war with North Korea in 2017? Several indicators suggest that the danger isn’t as great as some of us may fear.
* Trump has yet to follow through on his August 9th threat to rain “fire and fury like the world has never seen” on North Korea, should it again threaten to attack the United States. Nor has he implemented his breathtaking guarantee at the United Nations that, should North Korea “force” us “to defend ourselves or our allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy” it. In both cases, as political scientist Steven Brams has pointed out, Trump’s rhetoric left the location of his nuclear tripwire so vague that even he may not know where it is or when it might be crossed. As recently as October 13th, according to the New York Times, North Korean officials “renewed their threat to launch ballistic missiles near Guam, an American territory in the western Pacific.” There has been no response from Trump, so we can only assume that, whatever he means by a North Korean threat, that isn’t it. Fortunately for the world, it seems that he’s treating such promises the way he treats all his utterances — as infinitely subject to reinterpretation or even retraction.
* The president’s threats to use nuclear weapons may well be another instance of his well-documented “negotiating” tactics, in which he launches a bargaining process with a preposterous starting position in order to make the merely outrageous appear like a reasonable compromise.
* Even in the case of another U.S. adversary that may have sought nuclear weapons in the past — Iran — Trump has not been as decisively destructive as he could have been. Although he has railed endlessly against the six-nation nuclear agreement with Iran, negotiated in large part by President Obama, he didn’t tear it up recently (as he has often promised to do). Rather, he punted the problem to Congress, simply refusing to certify that Iran is abiding by the agreement, in spite of International Atomic Energy Agency assurances that it is. For a man who has an obvious urge to wield autocratic power, Trump is surprisingly willing to dilute it to get credit with his base while avoiding genuine action.
Those are modestly hopeful signs — although it’s hardly a hopeful sign of anything that the world is reduced to reading an American president’s words as if they were so many throws of the I Ching. Unfortunately, we must also consider ways in which Trump’s presence in the White House makes nuclear war more likely.
* He has repeatedly expressed a personal fascination with nuclear weapons, although he seems to have little idea of what their actual use might mean. In March 2016, for instance, he told The O’Reilly Factor on Fox News that he might even consider using nuclear weapons in Europe, which he called “a big place,” as if some parts of it might be legitimate nuclear targets. And he added, “I’m not going to take cards off the table.” At an MSNBC town hall that same month, he proposed using nuclear weapons against the “caliphate” of the Islamic State. Nuclear weapons directed against guerrilla fighters? That makes so much sense!
When Chris Matthews suggested that Japanese citizens might be nervous on hearing a presidential candidate bring up the use of nuclear weapons, Trump responded by asking, “Then why are we making them? Why do we make them?” It might be a reasonable question, if someone other than Donald Trump had been asking it.
When word first surfaced that his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had called him a “moron,” some of us wondered which of Trump’s many displays of ignorance had occasioned the label. Now we know. It seems to have been the president’s suggestion, at a July 2017 national security briefing, that the United States should increase its current nuclear arsenal of around 4,000 warheads by a factor of 10.
* The advisers Trump seems to respect the most at the moment are generals or former generals, including his chief of staff John Kelly, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster. Commentators (including some on the liberal end of the spectrum) like to think of this coterie of military men as the “grown-ups” in the Trumpian room. I’m not convinced, but even if they are more temperamentally suited to governing than this president, they have a tendency, not surprisingly, to reach first for military solutions to diplomatic problems.
Mattis, for example, has warned of “a massive military response” to any North Korean threat to the U.S. or its allies. “We are not looking to the total annihilation of a country, namely North Korea,” he told the reporters in September, “but as I said, we have many options to do so.” Similarly, when ABC’s George Stephanopoulos asked McMaster, “[J]ust to be clear, threats alone will not provoke a U.S. military response, will they?” the general replied, “Well, it depends on the nature of the threat, right?” McMaster then essentially argued that, because Kim Jong-un has had family members killed and is cruel to the North Korean people, he must be too unstable to understand how mutually assured destruction (a Cold War nuclear strategy with the apt acronym MAD) is supposed to work. Oddly enough, another communist dictator, Joseph Stalin, who presided over party purges and the deaths of millions of Soviet citizens, seemed to comprehend the concept well enough, but those inscrutable Asians are apparently altogether different.
Even retired General Kelly has recently said that North Korea simply cannot be allowed to have “the ability to reach the homeland” with nuclear-armed missiles, “cryptically telling reporters,” according to CNN, that “if the threat grows ‘beyond where it is today, well, let’s hope that diplomacy works.'”
* Trump’s civilian advisors aren’t much better. In September, U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley told CNN’s State of the Union that the administration “wanted to be responsible and go through all diplomatic means to get [the North Koreans’] attention first.” But, she warned, “if that doesn’t work, General Mattis will take care of it.” Lest listeners should be confused about how he’d “take care” of that country, she explained as bluntly as the president had: “If North Korea keeps on with this reckless behavior, if the United States has to defend itself or defend its allies in any way, North Korea will be destroyed.”
Certainly, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has repeatedly brought up the need to keep communication channels open to North Korea, even in the face of Trump’s tweeted advice “that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man.” Nevertheless, he seems to expect diplomacy to “fail.” On October 15th, Tillerson explained to CNN that “those diplomatic efforts will continue until the first bomb drops.” Until? Why does he assume bombs will fall? And exactly who does he expect to drop the first one? Is he talking about a possible U.S. first strike?
It’s as if the entire administration has accepted the inevitability of an otherwise optional war. If you want an analogy, consider the way George W. Bush’s administration maintained the pretext of being open to negotiations with Iraqi autocrat Saddam Hussein until it launched its preordained invasion and the first bombs and cruise missiles began to hit Baghdad on March 20, 2003.
* Trump wants to rule by command. The niceties of the Constitution, the law, and the doctrine of the separation of powers have made this harder than he thought. So far, his attempts to run the country by executive order have largely failed, with his “third one’s the charm” Muslim ban once again stalled in the courts. Even his latest move to dismantle Obamacare by ending federal premium subsidies won’t take immediate effect. Indeed, it already faces legal challenges from at least 18 states.
He’s frustrated. Why can’t he just wave a hand, like Jean-Luc Picard, commander of the Starship Enterprise, and order his underlings to “make it so”?
As it happens, there is one realm in which the Constitution, the legal system, and Congress make no difference, one realm where he can do exactly that. He, and he alone, has the power to order a nuclear strike. The more that what remains of law and custom can still prevent him from ruling by fiat elsewhere, the more likely he may be, as Senator Bob Corker has warned us, to put the world “on the path to World War III” and to the first use of such weapons since August 9, 1945.
Pull His Fingers Off the Button
Congress would still have time to stop this madness, if it had the courage to do so. There are a number of actions it could take, including passing a law that would require a unanimous decision by a specified group of people. (For example, officials like the secretaries of state and defense together with the congressional leadership for a nuclear first strike.
Better yet, Congress could reassert its long-abdicated constitutional right to declare war. It could, for example, approve a simple piece of legislation introduced in January by Representative Ted Lieu of California. According to the Congressional Research Service, his bill, House Resolution 669, the Restricting First Use of Nuclear Weapons Act of 2017, “prohibits the president from using the Armed Forces to conduct a first-use nuclear strike unless such strike is conducted pursuant to a congressional declaration of war expressly authorizing such strike.”
Congress should act while there is still time. Removing Trump’s ability to unilaterally launch a nuclear attack might ease some fears in Pyongyang. And the rest of us might once again be able to sleep at night.
Rebecca Gordon, a TomDispatch regular, teaches in the philosophy department at the University of San Francisco. She is the author of American Nuremberg: The U.S. Officials Who Should Stand Trial for Post-9/11 War Crimes. Her previous books include Mainstreaming Torture: Ethical Approaches in the Post-9/11 United States and Letters from Nicaragua.