NASHVILLE — The brute force of weapons with the potential to wipe out mankind has been balanced by a wide strata of interlocking elements, nuance, perception and predictability over the past half century. There was a reason Soviet Chairman Mikhail Gorbachev had a sculpture of a goose on his Kremlin desk, a reminder that such a flock once set off his nation’s early alarm system.
It is that system, manned by lieutenant colonel level officers who must make quick decisions on credible threats before passing them up the powerchain, it has flirted with catastrophe on a scale where Hiroshima and Nagasaki are mere drops in the bucket. Mutually Assured Destruction never became the epic chain reaction because with Soviet, then Russian Federation and American leadership, there was a level of predictability following the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.
So it was with significant and general alarm this past week when President-elect Donald Trump announced via Twitter that he thinks a nuclear arms race is a good idea.
“United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes,” Trump said in a tweet that came out of the ether. If that wasn’t enough of a surreal moment, the following day, pajama clad “Morning Joe” host Mika Brzezinski on a holiday-themed MSNBC show set had a brief conversation with Trump, who reportedly said, “Let it be an arms race. We will outmatch them at every pass.”
In the nuclear era, no leader ever sought to overtly pursue a nuclear escalation. With the Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations and the Stalin and Khrushchev regimes, it was a tit-for-tat escalation. After the Cuban crisis, a hotline was installed between the Kremlin and the White House, and there were two decades of test ban treaties and missile limits.
And then came President Ronald Reagan, a man Gov. Mike Pence says reminds him of Donald Trump. Author David Hoffman, in his Pulitzer Prize winning book “The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms race and its Dangerous Legacy” reveals a Reagan walking through 25-ton blast doors of Cheyenne Mountain of the North American Air Defense Command. The president asked what if a Soviet SS-18 hit nearby. “It would blow us away,” was the response. Gen. James Hill would note that “a look of disbelief came over Reagan’s face.”
This is a president that in 1983 was one of 100 million Americans who watched “The Day After” movie about nuclear war coming to Kansas. It was a path that led Reagan to become a “nuclear abolitionist.” Reagan and Gorbachev unsuccessfully sought a plan to eradicate nukes. It put the U.S. and Soviets on a path of significantly downsizing their arsenals. Adding more and more nukes, as British statesman Winston Churchill once observed, would only “make the rubble bounce.”
Prior to this month, Trump has displayed a troubling lack of knowledge about nuclear capabilities. Conservative radio show host Hugh Hewitt asked Trump about the triad, the three U.S. nuclear systems of submarines, silos and bombers. TIME magazine reports that Trump had no idea what Hewitt was talking about. Hewitt pressed, “Of the three legs of the triad, do you have a priority?”
Trump replied, “To me, I think nuclear — the power, the devastation is very important to me.”
When pressed during the campaign, Trump is all over the radar. “It’s a very scary nuclear world,” he told the New York Times. “Biggest problem, to me, in the world, is nuclear, and proliferation.” But then he adds, “I don’t want to rule out anything.”
In a March interview on MSNBC, Trump asked, “Somebody hits us within ISIS, you wouldn’t fight back with a nuke? I would never take any of my cards off the table.”
The December tweets only heighten the angst about Trump, who doesn’t read history, isn’t taking his intelligence briefings, and would choose to wade into the most sensitive policy arena with a Twitter blurt that had leaders, nuclear experts and academics across the planet wondering what he really meant, or whether he even knew what he was talking about.
Our incoming leader is a man of thin skin, who holds grudges, and after noon on Jan. 20, will have monolithic power to use nuclear weapons as he sees fit. It comes as Russian President Vladimir Putin ponders the tactical use of nukes on hypothetical battlefields, perhaps in the Baltic nations, and with the Chinese, confronted by Trump’s strident talk. From their standpoint, the perception of predictability is now a fleeting concept.
When the nuclear temperament issue surfaced last summer, the New York Times reported: “Is there any check on a president’s power to launch nuclear arms that could destroy entire cities or nations? The short answer is no, though history suggests that in practice, there may be ways to slow down or even derail the decision-making process. No one disputes, however, that the president has an awesome authority.”
“There’s no veto once the president has ordered a strike,” Franklin C. Miller, a nuclear specialist with White House and Defense Department posts for 31 years, told the Times. “The president and only the president has the authority to order the use of nuclear weapons.”
The columnist is publisher of Howey Politics Indiana at howeypolitics.com. Find him on Facebook and Twitter @hwypol.