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Nuclear Midnight in Korea

Photo by Surian Soosay | CC by 2.0

The hands of the Doomsday Clock are moving closer to midnight.  On Sunday, October 22, the website Defense One ran this headline:  “Exclusive:  US Preparing to Put Nuclear Bombers Back on 24-Hour Alert.”

“The U.S. Air Force is preparing to put nuclear-armed bombers back on 24-hour ready alert, a status not seen since the Cold War ended in 1991.”  Read that carefully.  The bombers have not yet been placed on alert, but the Air Force is getting ready to do so should those orders come down.  So there may be nothing to worry about.  Maybe.

Are the Air Force preparations a bluff?  Donald Trump would not be the first president to engage in a nuclear bluff.  In October 1969, President Richard Nixon approved Operation Giant Lance.  US B-52 bombers loaded with nuclear bombs circled in the Arctic above the Soviet Union.  Nixon thought this would persuade the Kremlin to pressure Hanoi to end the war in Vietnam.  It was the birth of Nixon’s “Madman Theory,” the idea that the Soviets could be forced to come to terms by convincing them that Nixon was crazy enough to do anything.

President Harry Truman played high-stakes nuclear poker on two occasions.  The first was during the Soviet blockade of Berlin in 1948-49.  President Truman sent two squadrons of B-29 bombers to Western Europe.  This was a double bluff.  The planes were similar to the B-29s which had dropped the atomic bombs on Japan, but had no atomic bombs on board.[1]

Truman played a similar hand at the start of the Korean War.  In early July, 1951, shortly after the war’s beginning,[2] Truman sent two groups of B-29 bombers to the UK and Guam, placing them within striking distance of the USSR, North Korea, and China.  This time the bombers carried atomic bombs which were complete save for their fissile plutonium cores.  The message was plain to America’s Communist adversaries—plain, but not enough to get the Communists to throw in the towel.

President Donald Trump could be bluffing too.  The alternative is that Trump, ever the bold innovator, has taken Nixon’s Madman Theory one step further by being actually insane.  Trump may indeed be the “moron” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reportedly called him.  According to NBC News, Tillerson made the remark after a July 20 meeting with Trump and Trump’s military advisers.  The President surprised (surely too mild a word) those gathered by declaring that he wanted a huge increase in the size of the US nuclear arsenal.  How huge?  Brace yourself.  Trump suggested returning the US nuclear stockpile to the peak it reached at the end of the 1960s, ten times our nuclear arsenal’s present size.  Such a move would reverse decades of progress in reducing world nuclear stockpiles and spur a renewed nuclear arms race.

Tillerson and the military seem to have talked Trump out of this idea.  In any event, there are no indications that Trump’s wish is being followed up on.  But what puzzles me is:  why were Tillerson & Co. surprised?  Trump’s enthusiasm for nuclear weapons has been obvious since Trump was on the campaign trail.  On December 22, 2016, President-Elect Trump tweeted: “The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capacity until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.”

Before that, Trump had repeatedly asked:  why do we have nuclear weapons if we can’t use them?  The story was broken on the August 3, 2016 edition of Joe Scarborough’s MSNBC program Morning Joe.

Trump’s comments are insane, but not too different from longstanding US nuclear doctrine.  Since at least the 1980s, peace groups have attempted to get the US to adopt a policy of No First Use (NFU) of nuclear arms.  The US has refused to do so.  So, it is obvious that somewhere in Foggy Bottom, someone thinks that there may come a time when the US might—just might—want to use nuclear weapons.  And use them before anyone else does.

Trump’s hunger for more nuclear weapons is not a sharp break from US policy either.  President Barack Obama, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, announced a 30-year $1 billion program to “modernize” (a polite way of saying “build more”) US nuclear weapons.  That program remains underway.

We must hope that a nuclear alert is not called.  But even if it is not, keep in mind that Defense One is only talking about US strategic bombers.  Our land-based ICBMs and our submarines equipped with SLBMs are on permanent full 24-hour alert.

We end with this golden nugget of unconscious irony.  Defense One quotes Air Force Chief of Staff General David Goldfein as saying that “’The world is a dangerous place and we’ve got folks that are talking openly about use of nuclear weapons.”

I don’t know anyone like that.  Do you?

Notes.

[1]  Roger Dingman, Atomic Diplomacy during the Korean War, INTERNATIONAL SECURITY, Vol. 13 No. 3 (Winter 1988/89) page 54.

[2]  Conventional historical accounts date the beginning of the Korean War to June 25, 1950.  On that date, armed forces of the Korean Democratic People’s Republic supposedly struck first by crossing the 38th parallel of latitude into South Korea.  Professor Bruce Cumings of the University of Chicago contends that, in the absence of neutral eyewitnesses, we do not know whether North or South was the aggressor.  Bruce Cumings, The Korean War: A History (2010), page 5.

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Charles Pierson is a lawyer and a member of the Pittsburgh Anti-Drone Warfare Coalition. E-mail him at Chapierson@yahoo.com.

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