The brute force of weapons with the potential to wipe out mankind has been balanced by a wide strata of interlocking elements, nuance, perception and predictability in the past half century.
There was a reason Soviet Chairman Mikhail Gorbachev had a sculpture of a goose on his Kremlin desk, a reminder that such a flock once set off his nation’s early alarm system.
The system, manned by lieutenant-colonel level officers who must make quick decisions on credible threats before passing them up the power chain, flirted with catastrophe on a scale where Hiroshima and Nagasaki are mere drops in the bucket. Mutually assured destruction never became the epic chain reaction because with Soviet, then Russian Federation, and American leadership, there was a level of predictability following the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.
So it was with significant and general alarm this past week when President-elect Donald Trump announced via Twitter he thinks a nuclear arms race is a good idea.
If that wasn’t enough of a surreal moment, the following day, “Morning Joe” host Mika Brzezinski had a brief conversation with Trump, who reportedly said, “Let it be an arms race. We will outmatch them at every pass.”
In the nuclear era, no leader ever sought to overtly pursue a nuclear escalation. With the Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations and the Stalin and Khrushchev regimes, it was a tit-for-tat escalation. After the Cuban crisis, a hotline was installed between the Kremlin and the White House, and there were two decades of test ban treaties and missile limits.
And then came President Ronald Reagan, a man Gov. Mike Pence says reminds him of Donald Trump. Author David Hoffman, in his Pulitzer Prize winning book, “The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms race and its Dangerous Legacy,” reveals a Reagan walking through 25-ton blast doors of Cheyenne Mountain at the North American Air Defense Command.
The president asked what if a Soviet SS-18 hit nearby. “It would blow us away,” was the response.
Gen. James Hill would note that “a look of disbelief came over Reagan’s face.”
This is a president that in 1983 was one of 100 million Americans who watched “The Day After” movie about nuclear war coming to Kansas. It was a path that led Reagan to become a “nuclear abolitionist.” Reagan and Gorbachev unsuccessfully sought a plan to eradicate nukes. It put the U.S. and Soviets on a path of significantly downsizing their arsenals.
Prior to this month, Trump has displayed a troubling lack of knowledge about nuclear capabilities. Conservative radio show host Hugh Hewitt asked Trump about the triad, the three U.S. nuclear systems of submarines, silos and bombers. TIME magazine reports that Trump had no idea what Hewitt was talking about.
Trump replied, “To me, I think nuclear — the power, the devastation is very important to me.”
When pressed during the campaign, Trump is all over the radar.
The December tweets only heighten the angst about Trump, who doesn’t read history, isn’t taking his intelligence briefings and would choose to wade into the most sensitive policy arena with a Twitter blurt.
Our incoming leader is a man of thin skin, who holds grudges, and after noon on Jan. 20, will have monolithic power to use nuclear weapons as he sees fit.