Does President Donald Trump (aka Fire and Fury) know what a nuclear war would be like? I ask the question because President Roland Reagan confessed he did not until he decided to look at some movies (once an actor, he was a cinema man), like “On the Beach” that depicted a nuclear war. The exercise changed his thinking and he became an anti-nuclear weapons militant. Together with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev they cut their nuclear stockpiles sharply. They also came near an agreement to destroy all their nuclear weapons.
The blasts at the end of the Second World War in Hiroshima and Nagasaki can now be repeated hundreds of thousand times. The remains would not just be the broken arches of the Caesars, the abandoned viaducts and moss-covered temples of the Incas, the desolation of one of the pulsating hearts of Europe, Dresden, but millions of square miles of uninhabitable desolation and a suffering which would incorporate more agony than the sum of past history. It would be a time when the living would envy the dead and it would be a world which might well have destroyed the legacy of law, order and love that successive generations have handed over the centuries to one another.
The mayor of Nagasaki recalled his memory of the American nuclear attack: “Nagasaki became a city of death where not even the insects could be heard. After a while, countless men, women and children began to gather for a drink of water at the river. Their hair and clothing scorched and their burnt skin hanging in sheets like rags. Begging for help they died one after the other in the water or in heaps on the banks”.
The chief of the Manhattan project that developed the first American nuclear test, Robert Oppenheimer, wrote, “At that moment there flashed through my mind a passage from the Bhagavad-Gita, the holy book of Hindus, “I am become Death, the Shatterer of Worlds.” Arundhati Roy, the Booker prize-winning Indian novelist, wrote after the first Indian nuclear test in 1968, “If there is a nuclear war our foes will not be Pakistan, China nor America nor even each other. Our foes will be the earth itself. Our cities and forests, our fields and villages will burn for days. Rivers will turn to poison. The air will become fire. The wind will spread the flames. When everything there is to burn has burnt and the fires die, smoke will rise and shut out the sun. The earth will be enveloped in darkness, there will be no day- only interminable night.”
General George Lee Butler summed up his view of deterrence as head of the US Strategic Command (the man who is responsible for putting into effect a president’s order to begin a nuclear attack): “Here was an intellectual riddle of the most intricate kind- a puzzle to which there seemed to be no solutions. The wonderful title of Herman Khan’s book, “Thinking the Unthinkable”, captured the dilemma perfectly: that it is unthinkable to imagine the wholesale slaughter of societies, yet at the same time it appears necessary to do so, in the hope that you hit upon some formulation that will preclude the act; but in the process you may wind up amassing forces that engender the very outcome you hope to avoid. Perfect invulnerability would spell perfect vulnerability for your opponent, which of course he cannot accept. Consequently any balance struck is extremely unstable”.
What Butler has demonstrated is that although deterrence in the Cold War days was the aim, the competitive nuclear arms race effectively turned the doctrine of deterrence on its head. It became a circle that could never be squared. By conveying to the enemy the ability to retaliate massively when attacked your forces are in a state of alert that from the enemy’s point of view looks like you are preparing for a pre-emptive first strike. So he had better get his strike in first.
North Korea at the moment does not have enough nuclear warheads- around 60 at present- to make a first strike successful. But over the years it can build enough to make one and to obliterate a good part of the US. The Chinese have a nuclear deterrent but with only around 260 missiles. That, China feels, is enough to do the job.
Threatening North Korea is counterproductive. It will just drive it to step on the gas.
Negotiating a freeze is the only way out. North Korea must freeze its nuclear program. But that means the US has to do its part: no more military exercises, no more overflights and a withdrawal of its anti-missile batteries. In fact they don’t work very well and are just a provocation both to North Korea and China. Without China’s help there will be no settlement.
The writer has worked as a foreign affairs columnist and commentator for the International Herald Tribune/New York Times for 17 years.