Witcover: On edge in the age of Trump

Donald Trump's rhetoric raises the possibility that miscalculation, if not madness, may plunge us into Armageddon, says Jules Witcover.

The false alarm in Hawaii over the weekend warning of an imminent nuclear attack had particular relevance in my family, because I have a cherished granddaughter going to graduate school there.

Also, television images of frantic Hawaiians seeking underground shelter or other havens brought back those days in the 1960s when similar fears were stirred all across the U.S.A.


As a younger reporter in Washington covering the Pentagon, I had three small children and took seriously the option discussed there of building a nuclear fallout shelter in my basement -- a dubiously effective but well-intentioned precaution.

My efforts were unusual, and one of my next-door neighbors packed up his family and headed for the West Virginia mountains, taking sick leave with pay from his government job!

It was truly a scary time, and families were split over the debate whether building such a shelter of heavy cinder blocks and stocking it with survival food was an act of patriotism or one of cowardice. Should the shelter be shared with the close-by community or kept for one's own family (in my case including Lucky, the family beagle)?

Across the river at the Pentagon, I daily attended Defense Department briefings on the imminent threat of nuclear war from ballistic missiles secretly shipped into Cuba by the Soviet Union. We reporters, at what normally was called the Pentagon Puzzle Palace, now in uneasy jest referred to it as Ground Zero.

When the Russian missiles were shipped back to the Soviet Union in the secret deal that included U.S. dismantling of its own missiles in Turkey, I was able to witness their shipboard uncovering for verification from a navy plane over the Atlantic.

In the half a century since then, what was considered to be totally unthinkable — the first-strike use of a "nuke" against any civilized country — has become something that our country's leader openly muses about. The repeated threats from North Korea to use nuclear weapons against American territories in the Pacific and the mainland have been given weight by the fact that it appears to have developed missiles of intercontinental range. Meanwhile, President Donald Trump talks of launching "fire and fury" as never before seen against North Korea.

Beyond the much-advanced technology that has intensified the fears, the reckless and challenging rhetoric of Mr. Trump in his war of words with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un has elevated world concern that miscalculation, if not mutual madness, may blunder into Armageddon.

Mr. Trump's latest firestorm, ignited by his crude disparagement of several Latin American and African nations as "shithole countries," only underscores the peril of an intemperate and undisciplined president. He likewise disparages the entire melting-pot concept of America as a place that harbors immigrants while enriching itself with their skills and energy.

In a true sense, Donald Trump's determined assault on this country's core immigration policies and goals rivals his reckless and perilous nuclear gamesmanship toward the North Korean regime, as if it were merely a schoolyard exchange of taunts.

By now, this American president's denials that his remarks are blatantly racist are also an insult to the intelligence of fellow countrymen, immigrant or native-born. His clumsy reference to predominantly white Norwegians as preferable to aspiring immigrants of other races is laughable.

Every day Trump provides new evidence to demonstrate the colossal misjudgment that the American electorate, or at least the Electoral College, made more than a year ago in giving the presidency to a man who pledges to "make America great again" but fails to understand what and who have already done to do so.

Much of the "Trump base" that reveled then in his crude and blunt rhetoric about Latinos and other minority immigrants may still remain firm, pleased rather than repulsed by what he says and how he says it.

But what about the other Republicans who now grit their teeth at Mr. Trump's remarks that reveal his contempt for the melting pot so accurately captured by Emma Lazarus in her Lady Liberty description of "the huddled masses yearning to breathe free?"

Jules Witcover's latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power," published by Smithsonian Books. You can respond to this column at