Witcover: The nuclear threat, then and now

President Trump's aggressive manner and words could push this country into a "mutually destructive catastrophe," says Jules Witcover

This is how mankind has made progress in the more than half a century since the Cuban Missile Crisis: Then, out of fear of nuclear radiation fallout, we at home were urged to build concrete shelters in our basements. Now, the plan is to rely on two mutually menacing leaders in Pyongyang and Washington somehow to avoid unleashing nuclear Armageddon on the human race.

Yet here in the District of Columbia, the peril somehow seems less ominous now than it did then, if only because the concept of total annihilation in targeted cities in North and South Korea, Japan, Guam and elsewhere boggles the mind.


In 1962, I was working as a young reporter at the Pentagon during the run-up to the threatened nuclear exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union over Russia's secret installation of nuclear weapons in Cuba.

Playing chicken is a dangerous indulgence for the leader of a nuclear superpower.

In nervous humor, we dubbed the Pentagon "Ground Zero," and I went home each night to resume construction of a makeshift fallout shelter for my young family. Some colleagues at what we called the Puzzle Palace across the Potomac scoffed at the dubious defensive measure, while some neighbors hinted their desire to share the shelter if it came to that.


In the bizarre atmosphere of the time, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara briefed us on this country's military deployments as security would allow, while at first incongruously allowing accredited Soviet reporters from Pravda and Tass to sit in.

Nightly, Washingtonians and other Americans across the country sat around their radios and black-and-white television sets, anxiously monitoring the latest reports on intense White House war room deliberations run by President John Kennedy and select Cabinet officials.

The Atomic Age was born in Chicago, accompanied by wonder and pride in the power of science, but it morphed into an age of anxiety.

Only at the 11th hour of the long-distance faceoff between Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was it resolved, by a secret agreement to remove the Russian missiles in Cuba in exchange for dismantling U.S. missiles in Turkey. Absent was any combative rhetoric from either side in this capital city or in Moscow, and across the world all breathed a collective sigh of relief.

Flash forward to the present. In the current threat of nuclear war between North Korea and the United States, President
Donald Trump seems to be treating it as a poker game, raising his opening bid of tough talk, brushed off by Kim Jong Un as "a lot of nonsense."

Mr. Trump then toughened it, saying the U.S. arsenal was "fully locked and loaded," and reducing the impasse to some schoolyard dispute in which it was "about time somebody stuck up for the people of this country."

President Trump on Friday released a third provocative statement aimed at Pyongyang, as China issues its own warning that both U.S. and North Korea should show restraint

There was no retreating, even as nervous Americans looked to the three retired generals on Mr. Trump's staff to walk his words back a bit. As a businessman, Mr. Trump always has talked tough but often has negotiated, sometimes losing court judgments, yet always maintaining he has gotten the upper hand.

The world is left now with Mr. Kim, the young strongman in Pyongyang, maintaining wide public support at home by browbeating Mr. Trump in Washington, and Mr. Trump responding in kind, rallying his angry and loyal faithful and making punching bags of his own selected enemies in and out of Congress.

Mr. Kim has the additional weapon of intimidating and punishing those in his flock who risk imprisonment or social ostracism for not falling in line, not to mention his total control of the state-owned press and television.

Reports that North Korea developed a nuclear weapon small enough to load inside a missile alarmed San Diego’s and California’s congressional delegation, with members calling for tougher diplomacy.

Mr. Trump achieves much of the same result among his followers by playing on their racial, ethnic, religious and other biases, as well as their gullibility to his serial misrepresentations and lies, and his endless undermining of our free press and other communications media as "fake news."

As Mr. Kim makes bellicose threats welcome at home, Mr. Trump must deal with considerable pushback in his own backyard. He may intend to intimidate the North Korean leader and his military advisers, but his threat to deliver "fire and fury" on North Korea assumes a "clean" victory could be achieved without unacceptable ancillary consequences.

He is not engaged now in some bloodless "art of the deal" testing his manliness. Through his aggressive manner and words, this country could blunder into a mutually destructive catastrophe from which the generals he professes to adore might not be able to divert him.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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