First, a history lesson because context is everything…
In October of 1962, nearly 54 years ago, President John F. Kennedy squared off against Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in what would become known as the Cuban Missile Crisis. This political and military standoff over the installation of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba, just 90 miles from the United States, prompted almost everyone around the nation to conclude that the world was on the brink of nuclear war and the end of civilization as we know it was imminent.
In his now famous televised address to the nation on October 22, 1962, President Kennedy revealed the presence of the missiles in Cuba to the American people and announced his decision to enforce a naval blockade to prevent any further buildup of such weapons there. He also made it clear that the United States was prepared to take whatever action was necessary to compel the Soviet Union to remove this doomsday threat to our country. In his address, President Kennedy said:
“…Aggressive conduct, if allowed to go unchecked and unchallenged, ultimately leads to war. This nation is opposed to war. We are also true to our word. Our unswerving objective, therefore, must be to prevent the use of these missiles against this or any other country, and to secure their withdrawal or elimination from the Western Hemisphere….It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.”
In the waning days of the standoff, US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara said of October 27, 1962, “I thought it was the last Saturday I would ever see”.
Whether it was because of strong American diplomatic efforts and military resolve, Divine Providence or just sheer unadulterated luck, cooler heads ultimately prevailed. Khrushchev agreed to remove the missiles if the United States would pledge that there would never be an attempt to invade Cuba, along with a further agreement from Kennedy to remove US nuclear missiles in Turkey that were aimed at the USSR. As a result of clear thinking and sound judgment, you and I get to sit here and read this today. It is no exaggeration to state that had there been even the slightest alteration in the events of those Thirteen Days, if anyone on either side made just one wrong move, our planet would have quickly been reduced to a lifeless, radioactive rock. Those days in 1962 were as real as it gets.
This is the crux of the discussion now taking place about Donald Trump and nuclear weapons. When we walk into the voting booth in November, we must consider his temperament and judgment, or the lack thereof, and the near limitless ability that we have granted our Commander-in-Chief with regard to the decision to use the most powerful weapons ever constructed. Each American President has been obliged in some way to deal with provocations from hostile nations. Countless decisions are made in the White House with regard to foreign policy and military action, but since the end of the Second World War, all those decisions are tempered by the knowledge that we now live in a world where we can wipe each other out completely in a matter of minutes. The decision to use the Atomic Bomb against Japan was said to have tormented President Harry S. Truman until the day he died. And the weapons that exist today in our nuclear arsenal far outweigh the destructive power that was first unleashed at Hiroshima. The “Little Boy” Bomb dropped there on August 6, 1945 had a blast equivalent to 18 kilotons of TNT and we’ve all seen footage of the destruction that device was capable of. Now consider that the most common type of warhead in the US nuclear arsenal has a yield of 1.2 megatons of TNT.
Now imagine Donald Trump, who is so unbelievably thin-skinned he is that is easily goaded into apoplexy when simply asked about why he hasn’t released his tax returns, having control of about 4,500 such warheads.
There are numerous threats that face our nation today. Between large-scale aggression from nations such as Russia, China and North Korea to a seemingly endless parade of unconventional threats from terrorist factions, the next Commander-in-Chief will have many tools to work with. Diplomatic and economic pressure, intelligence gathering and cyber warfare, covert special operations and yes, large-scale conventional troop deployments are all options the President has. But as one who remembers a time when the Berlin Wall was still very much standing, the threat of global annihilation is still very palpable to me. It should make everyone shake with terror a when we consider a man who can barely keep his hands off of Twitter when he’s angry having direct access to the Football, which is the briefcase that gives the President the ability order a nuclear strike from anywhere.
We cannot allow any candidate from any party to the nation’s highest office to cavalierly treat the nuclear option as simply one of many that can be employed to deal with whatever threat might come our way. Economic sanctions and special operations should not be considered as reasonable a choice as a nuclear strike. You can’t nuke terrorism out of existence as much as you might want to. Smaller nations attempting to get nuclear capability of their own or just saber-rattling cannot be casually blasted off the map just because they piss us off.
And you most certainly cannot use the threat of nuclear destruction as leverage for negotiation, to make you “unpredictable” or to extract the behavior you want or political concessions from a nation because they fear you might make them glow in the dark for the next 25,000 years. There is a term for that. It’s called nuclear terrorism. Is that what you want in the White House?
In her speech at the Democratic National Convention, Hillary Clinton said:
“Donald Trump can’t even handle the rough-and-tumble of a presidential campaign. He loses his cool at the slightest provocation. When he’s gotten a tough question from a reporter, when he’s challenged in a debate, when he sees a protestor at a rally…imagine, if you dare, imagine — imagine him in the Oval Office facing a real crisis. A man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons. I can’t put it any better than Jackie Kennedy did after the Cuban Missile Crisis. She said that what worried President Kennedy during that very dangerous time was that a war might be started – not by big men with self-control and restraint, but by little men – the ones moved by fear and pride.”
There is perhaps no better definition of the Little Man moved by Fear and Pride than Donald Trump.
A President must accept the responsibility of having such awesome power at their command with grim seriousness and profound reverence. Does Donald Trump have grim seriousness or profound reverence about anything save his own fragile ego? Can any of us imagine this ego, this hypermasculine Id amplified by the ability to completely level a whole a continent on a whim? Contrary to popular belief, there really are no checks against a President if he chooses to order a nuclear attack. There’s nobody to act as a counterbalance. If he wants a missile to be fired, it will be fired. A person must be absolutely f***ing crazy if they believe someone like Donald Trump would act with anything resembling restraint if given power that our forbears once believed was reserved for God.
It’s not an easy thing to be able to literally blow up the world and nobody should make light of it. President Truman understood all of this. He made the choice to use the Ultimate Weapon to end the most terrible conflict the world had ever witnessed and even then he only used it against two cities. But the consequences were so profound that we debate his use of it to this very day and continually struggle to limit the presence of this destructive force on our world. President Kennedy was without a doubt confronted with far worse. He stared down the greatest fear our species has ever faced. In 1962, humanity faced extinction by our own hand. He knew that the penalty of miscalculation or arrogance would be planetary suicide. Kennedy understood that nuclear aggression could not be left unchallenged. But he also understood what a nuclear exchange would mean for the people of the United States and…well, everyone else on the planet. He made difficult decisions and each carefully calculated move was fraught with risk. The consequence of failure with any decision regarding the use of nuclear weapons could mean total, complete and absolute destruction of our world.
We have done this dance as nation already. Let’s not do it again.