Preventing a nuclear war between the United States and North Korea may be the most pressing challenge facing the world right now.
Our childish, ignorant, and incompetent president is shoving all of us — especially the people of Asia — ever nearer to catastrophe. While North Korea probably hasn’t yet developed the missiles to deliver a nuclear warhead to the U.S. mainland, it certainly has the capacity to reach closer targets, including South Korea and Japan.
But what can ordinary people do about it? Our fingers are far removed from the levers of power, while the tiny digits of the man occupying the “adult day care center” we call the White House hover dangerously close to what people my age used to call “the Button.” Nevertheless, I think there may still be time to put our collective foot on the brakes, beginning with the promise of a bill currently languishing in Congress.
Meanwhile, many of us who were born in the post-World War II years are re-experiencing nightmares we thought we’d left safely in the past.
Duck and cover
I was born seven years after the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Like the rest of my generation of Americans, I grew up in the shadow — or perhaps more accurately, the glow — of “the Bomb” (which, in those days, we did indeed capitalize). I remember the elementary school ritual of joining a line of neat, obedient second-graders crouching on knees and elbows against a protective concrete hallway wall, hands covering the backs of our necks. I remember coming home from school, recounting that day’s activities to my mother and watching as she rushed to the bathroom to vomit — her all-too-literal gut reaction to a world in which her children were being prepared in school for global annihilation.
n class, we saw civil defense films produced by the government, like the one that encouraged us to “set aside a small supply of canned goods” in makeshift basement shelters. “They’re safe from radioactivity,” the narrator assured us, as a lovely, young, white mother confidently placed the last can firmly on the cupboard shelf. (The film was far less enlightening about what to do once that “small supply” ran out.) Other movies reminded us that we should always be aware of the location of the nearest fallout shelter or taught us how to duck and cover.
By 1961, my family had moved from rural New York State to Washington, D.C., where my mother got a job with the brand new Peace Corps. Everywhere in my new city I saw the distinctive black-and-yellow signsindicating fallout shelter locations. The student body at Alice Deal Junior High School was too big for hallway drills. Instead, at the appointed time, we would all be herded into the auditorium, where a solemn-faced principal would describe the secret underground shelter where we would all be safe, should the Soviets actually launch a nuclear attack on our country. I remember bursting out laughing, while my homeroom teacher fixed me with an angry stare. Who was the principal kidding? We lived in Washington, the number one political target of any potential Soviet nuclear strike. Even then, I was aware enough to know that, whether above ground or under it, we would either fry immediately or die of radioactive poisoning thereafter.
Even retired General Kelly has recently said that North Korea simply cannot be allowed to have “the ability to reach the homeland” with nuclear-armed missiles, “cryptically telling reporters,” according to CNN, that “if the threat grows ‘beyond where it is today, well, let’s hope that diplomacy works.'”
* Trump’s civilian advisors aren’t much better. In September, U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley told CNN’s “State of the Union” that the administration “wanted to be responsible and go through all diplomatic means to get [the North Koreans’] attention first.” But, she warned, “if that doesn’t work, General Mattis will take care of it.” Lest listeners should be confused about how he’d “take care” of that country, she explained as bluntly as the president had: “If North Korea keeps on with this reckless behavior, if the United States has to defend itself or defend its allies in any way, North Korea will be destroyed.”
Certainly, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has repeatedly brought up the need to keep communication channels open to North Korea, even in the face of Trump’s tweeted advice “that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man.” Nevertheless, he seems to expect diplomacy to “fail.” On October 15th, Tillerson explained to CNN that “those diplomatic efforts will continue until the first bomb drops.” Until? Why does he assume bombs will fall? And exactly who does he expect to drop the first one? Is he talking about a possible U.S. first strike?
It’s as if the entire administration has accepted the inevitability of an otherwise optional war. If you want an analogy, consider the way George W. Bush’s administration maintained the pretext of being open to negotiations with Iraqi autocrat Saddam Hussein until it launched its preordained invasion and the first bombs and cruise missiles began to hit Baghdad on March 20, 2003.
* Trump wants to rule by command. The niceties of the Constitution, the law, and the doctrine of the separation of powers have made this harder than he thought. So far, his attempts to run the country by executive order have largely failed, with his “third one’s the charm” Muslim ban once again stalledin the courts. Even his latest move to dismantle Obamacare by ending federal premium subsidies won’t take immediate effect. Indeed, it already faces legal challenges from at least 18 states.
He’s frustrated. Why can’t he just wave a hand, like Jean-Luc Picard, commander of the Starship Enterprise, and order his underlings to “make it so”?
As it happens, there is one realm in which the Constitution, the legal system, and Congress make no difference, one realm where he can do exactly that. He, and he alone, has the power to order a nuclear strike. The more that what remains of law and custom can still prevent him from ruling by fiat elsewhere, the more likely he may be, as Senator Bob Corker has warned us, to put the world “on the path to World War III” and to the first use of such weapons since August 9, 1945.
Pull his fingers off the button
Congress would still have time to stop this madness, if it had the courage to do so. There are a number of actions it could take, including passing a law that would require a unanimous decision by a specified group of people (for example, officials like the secretaries of state and defense together with the congressional leadership) for a nuclear first strike.
Better yet, Congress could reassert its long-abdicated constitutional right to declare war. It could, for example, approve a simple piece of legislation introduced in January by Representative Ted Lieu of California. According to the Congressional Research Service, his bill, House Resolution 669, the Restricting First Use of Nuclear Weapons Act of 2017, “prohibits the president from using the Armed Forces to conduct a first-use nuclear strike unless such strike is conducted pursuant to a congressional declaration of war expressly authorizing such strike.”
Congress should act while there is still time. Removing Trump’s ability to unilaterally launch a nuclear attack might ease some fears in Pyongyang. And the rest of us might once again be able to sleep at night.