Speaking of the situation on the Korean peninsula, he predicted that there would be “the greatest slaughter.” He later requested 34 nuclear weapons for possible use in connection with the Korean situation. He would later claim that he had considered dropping “30 to 50 tactical atomic bombs” and had suggested laying a “belt of radioactive cobalt” with “an active life of between 60 and 120 years” across the northernmost part of Korea. And no, this was not President “Fire and Fury,” nor was it part of the present crisis with “Rocket Man.”
The year was 1950, the Korean War was underway, and the person in question was General Douglas MacArthur who, in terms of pure megalomania and self-regard, was surely the Donald Trump of his moment. As it happened, the general was gunning not just for Koreans but for a Democrat by the name of Harry Truman, a president who would, in the end, act as a commander in chief should. In a move deeply unpopular in its moment, he would dismiss his war commander (whom he dubbed “Mr. Prima Donna”) only to watch MacArthur come home to a 19-mile New York City ticker-tape parade (and 3,000 tons of dropped paper) seen by more than seven million cheering spectators.
Under existing nuclear doctrine, as imagined by the Obama administration back in 2010, this country was to use nuclear weapons only “in extreme circumstances” to defend the vital interests of the country or of its allies. Prohibited was the possibility of using them as a political instrument to bludgeon weaker countries into line. However, for Donald Trump, a man who has already threatened to unleash on North Korea “fire and fury like the world has never seen,” such an approach is proving far too restrictive. He and his advisers, it seems, want nukes that can be employed at any potential level of great-power conflict or brandished as the apocalyptic equivalent of a giant club to intimidate lesser rivals.
Making the U.S. arsenal more usable requires two kinds of changes in nuclear policy: altering existing doctrine to eliminate conceptional restraints on how such weapons may be deployed in wartime and authorizing the development and production of new generations of nuclear munitions capable, among other things, of tactical battlefield strikes. All of this is expected to be incorporated into the administration’s first nuclear posture review (NPR), to be released by the end of this year or early in 2018.
A nuclear strategy aimed exclusively at deterring a first strike against this country or its allies hardly requires a mammoth stockpile of weaponry. As a result, such an approach opened the way for potential further reductions in the arsenal’s size and led in 2010 to the signing of the New Start treaty with the Russians, mandating a sharp reduction in nuclear warheads and delivery systems for both countries. Each side was to be limited to 1,550 warheads and some combination of 700 delivery systems, including intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and heavy bombers.
Such an approach, however, never sat well with some in the military establishment and conservative think tanks. Critics of that sort have often pointed to supposed shifts in Russian military doctrine that suggest a greater inclination to employ nuclear weapons in a major war with NATO, if it began to go badly for their side. Such “strategic deterrence” (a phrase which has a different meaning for the Russians than for Western strategists) could result in the use of low-yield “tactical” nuclear munitions against enemy strongpoints, if Russia’s forces in Europe appeared on the verge of defeat. To what degree this doctrine actually governs Russian military thinking no one actually knows. It is nevertheless cited regularly by those in the West who believe that Obama’s nuclear strategy is now dangerously outmodedand invites Moscow to increase its reliance on nuclear weaponry.
The world imagined by President Obama in which nukes would be a true weapon of last resort was certainly a more reassuring one. His vision represented a radical break from Cold War thinking in which the possibility of a thermonuclear holocaust between the planet’s two superpowers seemed like an ever-present possibility and millions of people responded by engaging in antinuclear protest movements.
Without the daily threat of Armageddon, concern over nukes largely evaporated and those protests came to an end. Unfortunately, the weaponry and the companies that built them didn’t. Now, as the seemingly threat-free zone of a post-nuclear era is drawing to a close, the possible use of nuclear weapons — barely conceivable even in the Cold War era — is about to be normalized. Or at least that will be the case if, once again, the citizens of this planet don’t take to the streets to protest a future in which cities could lie in smoldering ruins while millions of people die from hunger and radiation sickness.