In the Cold War days, some of us used to say, “Better red than dead”- to rebuff those who believed in nuclear deterrence as a way of political life that gave them security. Now those of us who are frightened that Trump could start a nuclear war over Iran or North Korea should coin a new phrase. How about: “Better alive than going to the grave with Kim Jong-un”? Admittedly that doesn’t have the same snappy ring, but get my point?
At the UN recently, President Donald Trump (aka Fire and Fury) threatened to “totally” destroy North Korea if the US was forced to defend itself.
This past weekend Senator Bob Corker, the chair of the US Senate’s Foreign Affairs Committee, and at one time an important backer of Trump, the candidate, said that Trump could set the nation “on the path to World War 3”.
I would surmise, even though I have no polling evidence, that an overwhelming majority of the world would not accept the use by the US of nuclear weapons in any circumstances, even if they believe in what I think is the false notion of “deterrence”. In Europe I doubt if more than 5% do.
But in America it is another matter. According to a survey carried out in the US and analysed at length in Harvard University’s “International Security” some 50% of American adults believe that their use would be justified, especially if it saved the lives of 20,000 American soldiers. (Which is less than the 38,000 US soldiers stationed in South Korea today).
It’s the same argument that President Harry Truman used to justify the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In order to protect the lives of hundreds of thousands of American soldiers who were fighting their way from the south of Japan to Tokyo the bombs had to be used. In fact we now know from well-regarded historians that this was not the most important argument that persuaded Truman to give the order to bomb. It was the fear that the US ally, the Soviet Union, invading from the north, would get to Tokyo first if the US didn’t immediately intimidate Japan to surrender.
In August, 1945, 85% of Americans told pollsters they approved of Truman’s decision. Support for that decision has declined over the years. A poll in 2015 said that only 46% thought it was justified, but even that is a lot. Hence the false idea that Americans consider the further use of nuclear weapons a taboo. John Hersey’s popular book that sold millions of copies, “Hiroshima”, did much to build up the sense of taboo, but over time it wasn’t sufficient. All Americans were not inoculated against future use. Harvard professor, Stephen Pinker disagrees. In his widely-acclaimed book, “The Better Angels Of Our Nature”, he argues that for Americans “the only acceptable wars are surgical routs achieved with remote-control technology”. There has been in recent years, he argues, an “expansion of prudence, reason, fairness, self-control, taboos and conceptions of human rights.”
At the time of the last Korean War in 1953-55 Truman again nearly used nuclear weapons to halt the Chinese coming to the aid of the North, but was dissuaded by Churchill. Advisors to President John F. Kennedy including his (later pacifist-inclined) secretary of defence, Robert McNamara, considered their use against the Soviet Union during the Cuban crisis and were mentally prepared in extremis to use them. During the Vietnam War, President Richard Nixon and his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, thought seriously about using nuclear weapons against the North. Georgi Arbatov, an advisor to the Soviet president, Leonard Brezhnev, confided to me that there had been two or three occasions when the generals had argued to Brezhnev that they should be considered for use in a first-strike against the US. If Donald Trump feels unconstrained to use them he won’t be the first president to think the unthinkable.
A sophisticated poll by YouGov in 2015 examined how America would react if Iran was caught violating the 2015 Agreement that sharply reduced world sanctions in return for Iran giving up its nuclear research program. Most likely on October 15th Trump will announce he thinks it has. YouGov asked its sample what would they think if Iran then attacked an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf killing over 2,000 military personnel and then the US retaliated with airstrikes and a ground invasion. A 56 % majority of those polled agreed that if Iran did not then surrender a nuclear strike was OK. Even women did not think differently. The taboo is no longer all-encompassing.
We don’t have such a detailed and careful poll of American attitudes to a possible nuclear strike on North Korea. But one can guess. If Trump decided to he might have the support of a good half of the population. He knows that. Do we?