Although many people have criticized the bizarre nature of Donald Trumpâ€™s diplomacy with North Korea, his recent love fest with Kim Jong Un does have the potential to reduce the dangers posed by nuclear weapons on the Korean peninsula.
Even so, buried far below the mass media coverage of the summit spectacle, the reality is that Trumpâ€•assisted by his military and civilian advisorsâ€•is busy getting the United States ready for nuclear war.
This deeper and more ominous situation is reflected in the extensive nuclear â€œmodernizationâ€ program currently underway in the United States. Begun during the Obama administration, the nuclear weapons buildup was initially offered as an inducement to Senate RepublicansÂ to vote for the presidentâ€™s New START Treaty. It provided for aÂ $1 trillionÂ refurbishment of the entire U.S. nuclear weapons complexâ€•as well as for new weapons for nuclear warfare on land, in the sea, and in the airâ€•over the following three decades.
Trump the Braggart, Even about World’s End
Characteristically, this program, thoughÂ unnecessaryÂ and outlandishly expensive, was not nearly grand enough for Trump, who, during his election campaign, repeatedly assailed what he claimed was the pitiful state of Americaâ€™s nuclear preparedness. In fact, in his first campaign announcement, he went so far as to proclaim: â€œOur nuclear arsenal doesnâ€™t work.â€Â Â In December 2016, shortly after his election victory, he tweeted: â€œThe United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability.â€ The next day, speaking with his usual brashness, he told Mika Brzezinski, the host of an MSNBC program: â€œLet it be an arms race.â€ He added: â€œWe will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all.â€
Trump unveiled his official â€œAmerica Firstâ€Â National Security StrategyÂ in December 2017. Criticizing the downgraded role of nuclear weapons in U.S. national security policy since the end of the Cold War, it broadened the role of nuclear weapons in future policy. Announcing the measure, Trump took the opportunity to denigrate his predecessors. â€œThey lost sight of Americaâ€™s destiny,â€ he remarked. â€œAnd they lost their belief in American greatness.â€
No Arms Control for this Administration
Further details about that â€œgreatnessâ€ appeared in February 2018, when the Trump administration released its officialÂ Nuclear Posture ReviewÂ (NPR). Rather than continue the efforts of past administrations to reduce the size and scope of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, the NPR sidelined any consideration of arms control and disarmament agreements. Instead, it called for upgrading all three legs of the U.S. nuclear triad and outlined plans to build two new types of nuclear weapons: a submarine-based nuclear cruise missile and a submarine-launched ballistic missile. The latter, although reportedly â€œlow-yield,â€ could do as much damage as the atomic bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. According toÂ Lawrence Korb, a nuclear weapons specialist who had served as Assistant Secretary of Defense during the Reagan administration, the Trump administration plan could catapult the cost of the U.S. nuclear â€œmodernizationâ€ program to $2 trillion.
Like Korb,Â many nuclear weapons specialistsÂ were appalled not only by the astronomical cost of this nuclear buildup, but by its potential to facilitate nuclear war. â€œLow-yieldâ€ nuclear weapons, after all, are being built because they will provide the U.S. government with a more â€œusableâ€ response than would either conventional or strategic nuclear weapons to problems with â€œenemyâ€ nations. Nuclear enthusiasts like to think that, faced with the possibility of a low-yield attack, â€œthe enemyâ€ will back down; or that, if the U.S. government actually initiates an attack with such weapons, â€œthe enemyâ€ will not escalate to a full-scale nuclear counterattack. But is that a certainty? As Korb notes, â€œmany U.S. military officialsâ€ believe that low-yield nuclear weapons will end up â€œproviding Trump with a kind of gateway drug for nuclear war.â€
And More Ways to Bring Nuclear War, in the Hands of a Mentally Unstable, Impulsive, Vindictive Man
In other ways, too, the Trump nuclear buildup laid out in the NPR presents new opportunities for slipping into a nuclear catastrophe. For example, as the U.S. government already possesses a submarine-launched conventional cruise missile, adding a nuclear cruise missile will lead the Russian government to assume that any cruise missile on board a U.S. submarine could be a nuclear one. Another opportunity for disaster will widen with the promised integration of nuclear and conventional weapons in U.S. military planning. Moreover, building more nuclear weapons will encourage other nations to develop their own, with many of them targeting the United States. Perhaps most dangerous, the Trump NPR lowers the official threshold for use of U.S. nuclear weapons, contending that the U.S. government would employ them in response to non-nuclear attacks upon civilians and infrastructure, including cyber attacks.
Trump himself, of course, has not only displayed an alarmingly high level of mental instability, impulsiveness, and vindictiveness, but aÂ rather cavalier attitudeÂ toward using nuclear weapons. During his 2016 presidential campaign, according to MSNBC host Joe Scarborough, Trump consulted with a top foreign policy specialist â€œand three times asked about the use of nuclear weapons. . . . He asked at one point, if we had them, why canâ€™t we use them?â€ Twice, during early 2016, Trump said that, when it came to the use of nuclear weapons, he wanted to be â€œunpredictable.â€ In 2017, caught up in an interchange of personal insults with Kim Jong Un, he threatened to â€œtotally destroyâ€ North Koreaâ€•presumably through a nuclear attack.
Trump apparently considers his nuclear weapons policy a component of â€œMaking America Great Again.â€ But we might more justifiably view it as a giant step toward catastrophe.Î¦
Dr.Â Lawrence WittnerÂ is Professor of History emeritus at SUNY/Albany and the author ofÂ Confronting the BombÂ (Stanford University Press). This article appeared on June 18 at the History News Network.