Until the USSR fell in 1991, a nuclear stand-off existed between that country and ours. We believed:
- That if the USSR launched nuclear missiles at the US, we would retaliate with our nuclear missiles.
- That the power of nuclear weapons even by the 1950s was so great that each country would be destroyed and made virtually inhabitable by a nuclear exchange.
- That the knowledge of this ability to each side knew the other had to destroy much of civilization actually kept the peace.
We believed this even though President Dwight Eisenhower said in 1953: “This is no way of life at all…Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.”
It was called nuclear deterrence.
Nuclear deterrence went through at least three overlapping phases.
In the early stages of the Cold War the US government policy toward the USSR was called Containment, which represented a stance that European and developing countries would be protected from a Communist takeover. The architects were American policy makers who believed that the democracies had not moved to check Hitler until it was too late to avoid an all-out war. The philosophy of Containment was behind our effort in Vietnam.
In the early 1970s, our policy was called Détente and it represented a desire for peaceful co-existence. It was a product of Richard Nixon’s strategic thinking and by such factors as our quitting the war in Vietnam and the USSR-China spilt. Besides Richard Nixon, history lists Henry Kissinger as an architect of Détente. For 1972, Time Magazine picked Mr. Nixon and Mr. Kissinger “Men of the Year.”
President Reagan’s arms build-up in the 1980s brought nuclear deterrence into the third and probably most dangerous phase. It does not have a handy label but was more of a roll-back strategy than Containment was. In addition to building more weapons we funded proxy wars against Soviet puppets and allies. This led to us supporting Saddam Hussein in the Middle East, the Contras in Nicaragua, the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan and the government of El Salvador, among others.
As the international stakes rose, anti-nuclear movements emerged in the US such as Physicians for Social Responsibility and assorted nuclear freeze movements.
A made for television movie called “The Day After” aired in 1983 and set a record as the highest watched television movie film in history, a record that still stood as late as 2009. It portrayed a fictional war that escalated into a nuclear exchange between the USSR and the US and a very dark aftermath. President Reagan wrote in his diary that the film was “very effective and left me greatly depressed,” (It was not shown in the USSR until four years later.)
President Reagan’s approach seemed to work. Eventually a different type of Communist, Mikhail Gorbachev, rose to power. He tried to compete with the US diplomatically and through some of the military conflicts but he failed and eventually the USSR went out of business. When it did, ongoing concern over nuclear war which had impacted public policy and public attitudes for over forty years dissipated.
President Donald J Trump is faced with the reality of the hermit kingdom of North Korea possessing and testing intercontinental nuclear missiles which their propaganda says can reach or soon will be able to reach Japan and even as far as American cities.
President Donald J Trump is faced with the reality of the hermit kingdom of North Korea possessing and testing intercontinental nuclear missiles which their propaganda says can reach or soon will be able to reach Japan and even as far as American cities. Mr. Trump has pressured China to get these missiles eliminated but so far to no avail.
We have held in the past and maintain still that Jimmy Carter’s meddling in American diplomacy during the Clinton administration was a significant factor on the road to this crisis but our concern now is with the present.
The doctrine of nuclear deterrence is probably inapplicable in North Korea because our allies in that region would never believe that we would retaliate against North Korea for attacking them out of fear that the Communist country would send missiles against American West Coast cities.
So what to do?
There is talk in certain reaches of American opinion that our best option is to prepare to provide nuclear weapons to North Korea’s neighbors, South Korea and Japan. The reasoning is that even if we just threatened to give nuclear weapons to Japan, China would have greater motivation to pressure North Korea to, as President Obama told Vladimir Putin over the issue of computer hacking, “knock it off.” We suspect that the Chinese could say that to the North Koreans and back it up if it wanted.
However, this logic comes down to us fueling an arms race. This is the type of reasoning which works so well in the planning, but in the implementation is unpredictable and liable to misunderstanding and escalation.
For his part, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is in his state media urging his scientists to “frequently send big and small ‘gift packages’ to the Yankees” – apparently a reference to more missile tests.
President Trump said of North Korea last week:
“It’s a shame they’re behaving this way — they’re behaving in a very very dangerous manner and something will have to be done about it.”
There are difficult decisions ahead, a relationship with China to be maintained and – for those who believe in its efficacy – of intercessional prayers for wisdom Donald J Trump to be made.