Keep Trump’s (and Hillary’s) Hands off the Nuclear Trigger

May 15th, 2016 - by admin

John Buell /The Progressive Populist – 2016-05-15 22:40:52

Keep Trump’s Hands off the Nuclear Trigger
John Buell /The Progressive Populist

(May 1, 2016) — In their frantic efforts to derail Donald Trump’s bid for the Republican presidential nomination, the Republican establishment has resorted to the nuclear option. They repeat the provocative question Lyndon Johnson’s infamous daisy ad raised in 1964. Would you want this man’s fingers on the nuclear trigger?

My answer is no, but many of those who raise this question share the misconception that anyone can be safely trusted with this trigger. If Trump used nuclear weaponry, he would not be the first American president to employ these weapons irresponsibly. And were he to threaten their use in an effort to bully US opponents, he would have distinguished company.

Those who are concerned with trigger-happy presidents should consult the historical record. Every US president from Harry Truman on has threatened use of nuclear weapons. Truman laid the groundwork for making nuclear weapons bargaining chips in international relations.

Most Americans believe the nuclear incineration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was required to save US and Japanese lives. Recent historical work, including testimony from military and diplomatic leaders, indicates that Japan was already decimated and near surrender and that US leaders knew that.

As one historian has commented: “Truman and many of his advisors hoped that the US atomic monopoly might offer diplomatic leverage with the Soviets … the dropping of the atomic bomb can be seen as the first shot of the Cold War.”

Though often portrayed as endangered by a relentlessly expansionist power, the US led every step in the arms race. While Soviet repression of its own people and its satellites added ideological fuel to the Cold War, US weapons development and enhancement of NATO helped initiate and solidify a climate of perpetual hostility.

Even when not being used, nuclear weapons have played a key role in the evolution of the Cold War and US foreign policy. As Joseph Gerson, author of Empire and the Bomb, points out:
“On at least 30 occasions since the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, every US president has prepared and/or threatened to initiate nuclear war during international crises, confrontations, and wars — primarily in the Third World.”

Lyndon Johnson’s Defense Secretary, some months after winning a landslide election on the fear that Barry Goldwater would plunge us into nuclear conflagration, warned that “inhibitions” against the use of nuclear weapons might soon be lifted.

(One may argue that in all these situations no nuclear bombs were dropped, Bullies, however, lose their influence if their victims are confident they won’t ever attack. They must eventually punch to retain credibility. Just when tipping points are reached is unpredictable.)

That presidents did not employ nuclear weapons in some situations was a reflection not of their good judgment but rather of the work of war critics.

The Nixon administration seriously contemplated the use of tactical nuclear weapons in Vietnam but backed off out of concern for escalating anti-war protests.

Gerson also reminds us that the nuclear freeze movement forced Ronald Reagan to turn from the rhetoric of winning nuclear war to arms control negotiations.

If anti nuclear protest has saved us from nuclear atrocities, plane luck has been a factor as well. We have come within a hair’s breadth of accidental detonation of nuclear weapons. In addition, the production and domestic transportation of these weapons entails substantial risks. Nonetheless, claims of national security historically have prevented inquiring journalists from adequate access to the nature of these risks.

Even presidents who publicly repudiate nuclear weapons have played a major role in their continuation. Nuclear weaponry and its delivery vehicles are the ideal stimulus package. These weapons don’t interfere with the private market in the way public transit or public housing would. And weapons are always in need of modernization.

Thus President Obama has declared he would not use nuclear weapons in any circumstance to fight terrorism in Pakistan or Afghanistan. Nonetheless, in ways reminiscent of the Cold War, his administration has declared that Putin’s aggressiveness in the Ukraine and Crimea negates any opportunity for nuclear disarmament.

Obama here glides over the US role in extending NATO membership to nations on Russia’s border in violation of agreements with President Gorbachev.

Now Obama advocates a wide- ranging and costly modernization of our nuclear weapons. This would include a new generation of bombers and more flexible tactical weapons.

It takes no great act of imagination to see military leaders pressing for the use of such weapons in a regional conflict. And once the nuclear threshold is again broken and the winds of war diminish other options, how far this escalation would go is hard to say.

No one should be trusted with the nuclear trigger. The most responsible course is disarmament. The US, which already has an overwhelming lead in nuclear weaponry, could safely decommission and dispose of a vast portion of its nuclear arsenal and still be safe. It could then await the response. Such a unilateral step by the world’s preeminent military power would revitalize anti-nuclear resistance worldwide.

Used even in defense nuclear weapons would make the world less inhabitable for aggressor and defender alike. Unfortunately this issue has received far less attention than it merits. Perhaps one positive outcome of the Trump candidacy would be more recognition of a nuclear risk that has long outlived its half -life.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine and writes on labor and environmental issues. His books include Politics, Religion, and Culture in an Anxious Age (Palgrave MacMillan, 2011). Email

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