FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Playing Nuclear “Chicken” With Our Lives

What kind of civilization have we developed when two mentally unstable national leaders, in an escalating confrontation with each other, threaten one another―and the world―with nuclear war?

That question arises as a potentially violent showdown emerges between Kim Jong Un of North Korea and Donald Trump of the United States. In recent years, the North Korean government has produced about 10 nuclear weapons and has been making them increasingly operational through improvements in its missile technology. The U.S. government first developed nuclear weapons in 1945, when it employed them to destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and currently possesses 6,800 of them, mostly deployed on missiles, submarines, and bombers.

According to the North Korean government, its nuclear weapons are necessary to defend itself against the United States. Similarity, the U.S. government argues that its nuclear weapons are necessary to defend itself against countries like North Korea.

Although, in recent decades, we have grown accustomed to this government rhetoric about the necessity to possess nuclear weapons as a deterrent, what is particularly chilling about the current confrontation is that Kim and Trump do not appear deterred at all. Quite the contrary, they brazenly threaten nuclear war in an extremely provocative fashion. Responding on August 8 to North Korean threats, Trump publicly warned that North Korea “will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.” Later that day, North Korea’s state media announced that its government was considering a strategy of striking the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam with mid- to long-range nuclear missiles―a strategy that a spokesman for the Korean People’s Army said would be “put into practice” once Kim authorized it.

This kind of reckless and potentially suicidal behavior is reminiscent of the game of “Chicken,” which achieved notoriety in the 1950s. In the film Rebel Without a Cause (1955), two rebellious, antisocial male teenagers (or juvenile delinquents, as they were known at the time) played the game before a crowd of onlookers by driving jalopies at top speed toward a cliff. Whoever jumped out of the cars first was revealed as “chicken” (a coward). A more popular variant of the game involved two teenagers driving their cars at high speed toward one another, with the first to swerve out of the way drawing the derisive label. According to some accounts, young James Dean, a star of Rebel Without a Cause, actually died much this way.

With news of the game spreading, Bertrand Russell, the great mathematician and philosopher, suggested in 1959 that the two sides in the Cold War were engaged in an even crazier version: nuclear “Chicken.” He wrote: “As played by irresponsible boys, this game is considered decadent and immoral, though only the lives of the players are risked.” But the game became “incredibly dangerous” and “absurd” when it was played by government officials “who risk not only their own lives but those of many hundreds of millions of human beings.” Russell warned that “the moment will come when neither side can face the derisive cry of `Chicken!’ from the other side.” When that moment arrived, “the statesmen of both sides will plunge the world into destruction.”

It was a fair enough warning, and only several years later, during the Cuban missile crisis, the game of nuclear “Chicken” played by Nikita Khrushchev and John F. Kennedy could have resulted in a disastrous nuclear war. However, at the last minute, both men backed off―or, perhaps we should say, swerved to avoid a head-on collision―and the crisis was resolved peacefully through a secret compromise agreement.

In the current situation, there’s plenty of room for compromise between the U.S. and North Korean governments. The Pyongyang regime has offered to negotiate and has shown particular interest in a peace treaty ending the Korean War of the 1950s and U.S. military exercises near its borders. Above all, it seems anxious to avoid regime change by the United States. The U.S. government, in turn, has long been anxious to halt the North Korean nuclear program and to defend South Korea against attack from the north. Reasonable governments should be able to settle this dispute short of nuclear war.

But are the two governments headed by reasonable men? Both Kim and Trump appear psychologically disturbed, erratic, and startlingly immature―much like the juvenile delinquents once associated with the game of “Chicken.” Let us hope, though, that with enough public resistance and some residual sanity, they will back away from the brink and begin to resolve their differences peacefully. That’s certainly possible.

Even if the current confrontation eases, though, we are left with a world in which some 15,000 nuclear weapons exist and with numerous people who, in the future, might not scruple about using them. And so the fundamental problem continues: As long as nuclear weapons exist, we teeter on the edge of catastrophe

Fortunately, this past July, in an historic development, the vast majority of the world’s nations voted at a UN conference to approve a treaty banning nuclear weapons. Nations will begin the process of signing onto the treaty this September. Although, sadly, all of the nuclear powers (including the United States and North Korea) oppose the treaty, it’s long past time for nuclear weapons to be prohibited and eliminated. Until they are, government officials will remain free to play nuclear “Chicken” with their lives . . . and with ours.

More articles by:

Dr. Lawrence Wittner is Professor of History emeritus at SUNY/Albany and the author of Confronting the Bomb (Stanford University Press.)

December 13, 2018
John Davis
What World Do We Seek?
Subhankar Banerjee
Biological Annihilation: a Planet in Loss Mode
Lawrence Davidson
What the Attack on Marc Lamont Hill Tells Us
James McEnteer
Breathless
Ramzy Baroud
The Real Face of Justin Trudeau: Are Palestinians Canada’s new Jews?
Dean Baker
Pelosi Would Sabotage the Progressive Agenda With a Pay-Go Rule
Elliot Sperber
Understanding the Yellow Vests Movement Through Basic Color Theory 
Rivera Sun
The End of the NRA? Business Magazines Tell Activists: The Strategy is Working
Kevin Zeese - Margaret Flowers
Historic Opportunity to Transform Trade
December 12, 2018
Arshad Khan
War, Anniversaries and Lessons Never Learned
Paul Street
Blacking Out the Yellow Vests on Cable News: Corporate Media Doing its Job
Kenneth Surin
The Brexit Shambles Rambles On
David Schultz
Stacking the Deck Against Democracy in Wisconsin
Steve Early
The Housing Affordability Crisis and What Millennials Can do About It
George Ochenski
Collaboration Failure: Trump Trashes Sage Grouse Protections
Rob Seimetz
Bringing a Life Into a Dying World: A Letter From a Father to His Unborn Son
Michael Howard
PETA and the ‘S’-Word
John Kendall Hawkins
Good Panopt, Bad Panopt: Does It Make A Difference?
Kim C. Domenico
Redeeming Utopia: a Meditation On An Essay by Ursula LeGuin
Binoy Kampmark
Exhuming Franco: Spain’s Immemorial Divisions
ADRIAN KUZMINSKI
Democratizing Money
Laura Finley
Congress Must Reauthorize VAWA
December 11, 2018
Eric Draitser
AFRICOM: A Neocolonial Occupation Force?
Sheldon Richman
War Over Ukraine?
Louis Proyect
Why World War II, Not the New Deal, Ended the Great Depression
Howard Lisnoff
Police Violence and Mass Policing in the U.S.
Mark Ashwill
A “Patriotic” Education Study Abroad Program in Viet Nam: God Bless America, Right or Wrong!
Laura Flanders
HUD Official to Move into Public Housing?
Nino Pagliccia
Resistance is Not Terrorism
Matthew Johnson
See No Evil, See No Good: The Truth Is Not Black and White
Maria Paez Victor
How Reuters Slandered Venezuela’s Social Benefits Card
December 10, 2018
Jacques R. Pauwels
Foreign Interventions in Revolutionary Russia
Richard Klin
The Disasters of War
Katie Fite
Rebranding Bundy
Gary Olson
A Few Thoughts on Politics and Personal Identity
Patrick Cockburn
Brexit Britain’s Crisis of Self-Confidence Will Only End in Tears and Rising Nationalism
Andrew Moss
Undocumented Citizen
Dean Baker
Trump and China: Going With Patent Holders Against Workers
Lawrence Wittner
Reviving the Nuclear Disarmament Movement: a Practical Proposal
Dan Siegel
Thoughts on the 2018 Elections and Beyond
Thomas Knapp
Election 2020: I Can Smell the Dumpster Fires Already
Weekend Edition
December 07, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Steve Hendricks
What If We Just Buy Off Big Fossil Fuel? A Novel Plan to Mitigate the Climate Calamity
Jeffrey St. Clair
Cancer as Weapon: Poppy Bush’s Radioactive War on Iraq
Paul Street
The McCain and Bush Death Tours: Establishment Rituals in How to be a Proper Ruler
Jason Hirthler
Laws of the Jungle: The Free Market and the Continuity of Change
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail