On Aug. 6, 1945, President Harry S. Truman, a mostly unknown political figure, commander in chief for just less than five months, and widely seen as a novice, made a stunning announcement:
“Sixteen hours ago an American airplane dropped one bomb on Hiroshima, an important Japanese Army base. We shall destroy their docks, their factories and their communications. Let there be no mistake; we shall completely destroy Japan’s power to make war.”
On Tuesday, President Donald Trump, widely seen as a novice on all things military and diplomatic, reacted to a report that North Korea had attained a miniaturized nuclear warhead with arms folded and clenched to his torso, saying, “North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.”
It was a chilling moment, underscoring comments U.S. Sens. Joe Donnelly and Todd Young made to me earlier this summer that Americans need to wrap their heads around the notion that we may be at war — nuclear war — in a matter of months. Perhaps it’s just weeks or days now.
Trump and Kim Jong Un are now locked in a duel of belicosity, neither providing the other much space to back down and save face. Kim responded to Trump with a threat to bomb Guam. It had TV producers seeking B-roll of MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough recounting a Trump conversation with foreign policy experts in 2016: “Three times [Trump] asked about the use of nuclear weapons. Three times he asked … if we had them, why can’t we use them?”
Scarborough asked former National Security Agency Director Michael Hayden a hypothetical question: How quickly could nuclear weapons be deployed if a president were to give approval? “It’s scenario dependent, but the system is designed for speed and decisiveness. It’s not designed to debate the decision,” Hayden said.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, himself a novice in diplomacy, tried to reassure a jittery world: “What the president is doing is sending a strong message to North Korea in language that Kim Jong Un would understand. So the American people should sleep well at night.”
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis added, “It must be noted that the combined allied militaries now possess the most precise, rehearsed and robust defense capabilities on Earth. The DPRK regime’s actions will continue to be grossly overmatched by ours and would lose any arms race or conflict it initiates.” But, Mattis acknowledges, the cost of lives would be “horrific.”
Mark Fitzpatrick, a nuclear nonproliferation expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, told the BBC in 2016, “There are no checks and balances on the president’s authority to launch a nuclear strike.”
Once the decision is made, it would be Mattis tasked with carrying it out. Fitzpatrick notes, “The idea of a rogue president taking such a monumental decision on his own is unrealistic. He gives the order, and the secretary of defense is constitutionally obliged to carry it out. The secretary of defense could, in theory, refuse to obey the order if he had reason to doubt the president’s sanity, but this would constitute mutiny and the president can then fire him and assign the task to the deputy secretary of defense.”
The questions quickly percolated up Tuesday. Was Trump speaking off the cuff, or were his words vetted? Was he simply ratcheting up the pressure on Chinese President Xi? Or, as he’s done in office and on the campaign, was he winging it?
The strong message has been sent, but with very little wiggle room. Kim lobs another missile, and does Trump then order a preemptive strike? Does he do it before non-essential U.S. military personnel are evacuated from South Korea, Japan and Guam? If that does occur, what kind of panic ensues in Seoul and Tokyo?
Remember that line I kept using through the 2016 campaign? Anything can happen.