Long before President Donald Trump mocked the size and strength of Kim Jong Un’s nuclear button at the beginning of 2018, before he called for a buildup in America’s nuclear stockpile weeks later, and even before he vowed to be “unpredictable” with the nation’s thousands of weapons of mass destruction, an American president called for the United States and the Soviet Union to get rid of their nuclear arsenals.
“A nuclear war cannot be won, and must never be fought,” President Ronald Reagan said in his 1984 State of the Union address. “The only value in our two nations possessing nuclear weapons is to make sure they will never be used. But then, would it not be better to do away with them entirely?”
It was nearing the end of his first term in office, and the U.S. and Soviet Union had been locked in a tense Cold War for the better part of four decades. Perhaps not a hawk by the standards of today’s GOP, Reagan was no dove. He’d won the presidency, in part, based on his criticism that a “window of vulnerability” had opened up between the U.S. and the Soviets under the leadership of Jimmy Carter, and in his first years in the White House Reagan oversaw a dramatic escalation of the nuclear arms race with the Russians.
But by the mid-1980s, Reagan had grown increasingly concerned about the possibility of nuclear war with the Soviets, and began calling for a “new beginning” to arms control negotiations, as well as the reduction of “the vast stockpiles of armaments in the world.” And though both the U.S. and the USSR continued to develop nuclear weapons, Reagan and new Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985 began having serious discussions about radically reducing the size of their nuclear arsenals — and eventually abolishing nuclear weapons entirely.
Those discussions over his second term in office eventually led to two landmark agreements: the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties. The INF Treaty, which took effect in 1988, banned short- and mid-range missiles. START I, which took effect in 1991 after Reagan had left office, limited the size of signatories’ nuclear arsenals.
Though Reagan left a complicated arms control legacy behind, these agreements, alongside with his public statements on the matter, reflect the deep concern about nuclear conflict that has long informed American foreign policy.
Decades later, the U.S. may be moving in a different direction. In his first year in office, Trump has criticized arms limitation treaties as “one-sided,” and called for an expansion of America’s nuclear capability. He has also expressed an unusual openness to using such weapons, both in public statements and reportedly in private conversations with advisers.
Experts are now saying they’re worried about Trump’s reckless rhetoric along with his administration’s nuclear posture, and are expressing concern that the broader issue of reduction and abolition is getting lost in conversations about more specific threats posed by actors like Trump and Kim. However, they said in interviews that such untrustworthy fingers on the nuclear buttons may also be leading to renewed public and political interest in the fundamental questions that have surrounded these weapons since they were first developed.
“People have remembered that this is still a problem,” Alexandra Bell, a former State Department official with the Obama administration and senior policy director at the Center for Arms Control & Non-Proliferation, said in an interview. “The broader public seems to be talking about how it’s not just that President Trump and nuclear weapons are scary, but that nuclear weapons are scary.”
“The most terrible bomb in the history of the world”
World War II was in its denouement when, in August 1945, the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Nuclear weapons had never before been deployed in war, and even some scientists who’d helped develop them had been warning against their use.
“If the United States would be the first to release this new means of indiscriminate destruction upon mankind, she would sacrifice public support throughout the world, precipitate the race of armaments, and prejudice the possibility of reaching an international agreement on the future control of such weapons,” Dr. James Franck wrote in a famous — and prescient — June 1945 report.
Harry Truman, who had assumed the presidency earlier that year following the death of former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, had only been made aware of the weapons’ existence that April, via his war secretary Henry Stimson.
“Within four months, we shall in all probability have completed the most terrible weapon ever known in human history,” Stimson told Truman, “one bomb of which could destroy a whole city.” The world, Stimson said, could eventually find itself at the mercy of such a weapon.
“In other words,” he predicted, “modern civilization might be completely destroyed.”
Truman himself was aware of the weapon’s awesome power, writing in a July 1945 diary entry that “we have discovered the most terrible bomb in the history of the world.”
“It may be the fire destruction prophesied in the Euphrates Valley Era, after Noah and his fabulous Ark,” Truman wrote.
Nevertheless, that same month he outlined terms for the surrender of the Japanese, warning them that failure to accept his ultimatum would result in their “prompt and utter destruction.” Japanese Premier Kantaro Suzuki replied to the declaration days later with the word “mokusatsu” (literally meaning “kill” with “silence”), apparently indicating that Japan would ignore the U.S. declaration. But a shoddy translation of the word suggested to the allies that Suzuki was rejecting the ultimatum and that Japan did not intend to concede.
So, on Aug. 6, 1945, the U.S. dropped the first nuclear bomb over Hiroshima, killing tens of thousands of people — including a huge number of civilians and devastating the city. Three days later, the U.S. blasted Nagasaki with an even more powerful atomic bomb, killing tens of thousands of others.
Days later, Japan announced its surrender.
To some, including British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, the brutal bombings served to hasten the end of the war and to prevent the casualties that could have resulted from the allies invading Japan. “There are voices which assert that the bomb should never have been used at all,” Churchill said in the House of Commons on Aug. 15, 1945. “I cannot associate myself with such ideas.”
But others, including future U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, felt that the attack was “completely unnecessary” to ending the war. What’s more, many argued that the bombings were immoral and constituted war crimes — including Dr. Leo Szilard, who worked on the Manhattan Project. In a 1960 interview Szilard said there’s little doubt that, had Germany used such weapons against the U.S, it would be considered a war crime, and the U.S “would have sentenced the Germans who were guilty of this crime to death at Nuremberg and hanged them.”
“My god, what have we done?”
The U.S. bombings in Japan are the first and only time that nuclear weapons were deployed in warfare — and the terrible impact of their use was immediately apparent.
“My god,” Robert Lewis, one of the pilots commanding the plane that bombed Hiroshima, reportedly said upon witnessing the destruction. “What have we done?”
Months after the bombings, the nascent United Nations called for the “elimination from national armaments of atomic weapons and of all other major weapons adaptable to mass destruction” as part of its first-ever resolution.
But the U.N.’s abolition efforts were quickly doomed by the burgeoning arms race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union — a game of nuclear chicken that would dominate global politics from the late 1940s until the early 1990s. It also led to proxy wars in Korea and Vietnam, but never in the full-blown nuclear war between America and Russia that had been presaged in so much art of the time.
The arms race nearly did boil over, though, in the fall of 1962, when the U.S. — which had tried and failed to invade Cuba the previous year — got into a standoff with the U.S.S.R. over the medium-range ballistic missiles the Soviets had on the island. In what would become known as the Cuban missile crisis, then-President John F. Kennedy attempted to get rid of the missiles without the situation escalating into a conflict that could result in the use of nuclear weapons. Ultimately, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. were able to strike a deal: the Soviets would remove their missiles from Cuba if the U.S. would promise not to invade it.
While nuclear war was averted, those 13 days in October 1962 left a long-lasting impression on the American psyche.
“With the Cuban missile crisis, we came very close to being the architects of our own destruction,” said Bell, who served as the director for strategic outreach in the Office of the Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security at the Department of State in the Obama administration. “The American public had a collective sigh of relief that we’d made it through this particularly scary part of our history.”
The popular movement against nuclear weapons grew through the 1970s and 1980s — peaking, perhaps, with the 1982 rally that drew hundreds of thousands to Central Park in New York City to demand disarmament.
“There’s no way the leaders can ignore this now,” one attendee told the New York Times. “It’s not just hippies and crazies anymore. It’s everybody.”
Among those present was Coretta Scott King — the late civil rights leader and wife of Martin Luther King Jr. — who linked the movement for equality to the disarmament.
“All of our hopes for equality, for justice, economic security, for a healthy environment, depend on nuclear disarmament,” she said at the rally, inspiring a young Barack Obama, who more than 30 years later would become the first sitting president to visit Hiroshima. There, Obama called on nations to “restrict and roll back and ultimately eliminate the existence of nuclear weapons.”
“We stand here in the middle of this city and force ourselves to imagine the moment the bomb fell. We force ourselves to feel the dread of children confused by what they see. We listen to a silent cry,” Obama said in one of the most powerful speeches of his presidency in 2016. “Mere words cannot give voice to such suffering. But we have a shared responsibility to look directly into the eye of history and ask what we must do differently to curb such suffering again.”
For decades, “in fits and starts,” U.S. administrations sought to move away from nuclear weapons. The nuclear policy community kept hammering away to drastically reduce global stockpiles. But, according to Bell, the issue gradually drifted from the attention of the broader public.
“Unfortunately, everyone else kind of thought it was done and moved on,” Bell said.
“Fire and fury”
Today, the election of President Donald Trump and his schoolyard taunts with North Korea have driven a “surge in public interest and political debate,” according to Derek Johnson, executive director of Global Zero, an organization dedicated to the elimination of nuclear weapons.
“We’ve spent decades in oblivious denial about nuclear risks and the fault lines buried in ‘red button’ systems geared for first strike and quick launch, with absolute authority in the hands of the president,” Johnson said in an email. “Men like Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un have brought these risks into focus.”
During his campaign for president, Trump said that “nuclear, and proliferation” were the biggest problems facing the world. But he also said that the U.S. arsenals were in “very terrible shape,” suggesting that he would seek to enhance the American stockpile, and warned that while he would consider it a “horror” to use nuclear weapons, he would “never, ever rule it out.”
Upon assuming office, Trump continued to push for the buildup of the arsenal, lamenting that the U.S. had “fallen behind” in its nuclear capabilities and vowed that he would put America back at the “top of the pack.” And earlier in 2018, in a draft of the Nuclear Posture Review, his administration seemingly called for an increase in the U.S. arsenal in the name of “deterrence.”
“U.S. nuclear capabilities cannot prevent all conflict, and should not be expected to do so,” the draft report read. “But, they contribute uniquely to the deterrence of both nuclear and non-nuclear aggression. They are essential for these purposes and will be so for the foreseeable future.”
Trump has not only called for a nuclear buildup, but has suggested a willingness to use the arsenal against “Little Rocket Man.” In August, he threatened “fire and fury” in response to Pyongyang’s provocations.
“[Kim Jong Un] has been very threatening beyond a normal state, and as I said they will be met with fire, fury and, frankly, power, the likes of which this world has never seen before,” Trump said at the time.
“Trying to reduce nuclear weapons worldwide should be a strategic goal for the U.S.”
All of that has seemed to awaken dormant Cold War anxieties about the possibility of nuclear conflict — and inspired lawmakers to attempt to rein in the president’s nuclear power.
In January 2017, Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) introduced a bill in the House of Representatives to prevent the president from launching a first nuclear strike without Congressional approval. The bipartisan bill, and its companion in the Senate, has so far not made it into law. But, Lieu said in a phone interview that the legislation has “more and more co-sponsors” each month, and he remains optimistic that it will eventually pass.
“Everything seems impossible until it happens,” Lieu said.
Lieu, like a number of his colleagues on Capitol Hill, is concerned with the lack of checks and balances on the president’s ability to unilaterally launch a nuclear attack. And, he says, he’s been heartened to see Americans increasingly question that system.
“I think just having more people becoming aware of this is important,” Lieu said.
But, according to Johnson, the new wave of concerns over nukes has been too narrowly focused on Trump at the expense of the broader issues of reduction and abolition.
“The conversation is myopic and focuses too much on the symptoms — madmen and red buttons — while ignoring the disease: the weapons themselves,” Johnson said. “Nuclear weapons are inherently dangerous; there are no safe hands for them.”
Other experts expressed similar concerns, praising the bills restricting first strikes put forth by Lieu, Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) and Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) as important safeguards against potential nuclear crisis, while also hoping that the public will look beyond the “fever” to the underlying illness.
“Are we going to continue this long commitment we’ve had to getting rid of the worst weapons humanity’s ever created?” Stephen Miles, director of Win Without War, said in an interview. “Or are we going to accept that these are here forever?”
For now, it’s difficult to say. On the one hand, the international community is pushing hard for disarmament amid this new wave of nuclear tensions.
But that treaty also lacks the support of the nine countries with nuclear powers: Russia, the U.S., France, China, the United Kingdom, Pakistan, India, Israel and North Korea. And instead of continuing in the tradition of recent administrations, the Trump camp is seeking a new focus on nuclear weapons. Some have characterized these moves as a “new arms race” — which Lieu said is not just dangerous, but “strategically stupid.”
“We have the most powerful military in the world, which means that in a nuclear race, we have the most to lose,” Lieu said, noting that the awesome destructive power of a nuclear weapon serves as an equalizer for countries with less developed militaries like Russia and China. “Trying to reduce nuclear weapons worldwide should be a strategic goal for the U.S.”
The Trump administration’s rhetoric on nukes has also threatened to undermine its efforts to block countries like North Korea and Iran from continuing their nuclear programs.
“There’s an inescapable contradiction between the U.S. extolling nuclear weapons as the cornerstone of national security and our insistence that no other nation should seek to acquire them,” Johnson said. “Trump is blazing a trail that other countries are sure to follow, one that leads toward a nightmare scenario that every American president since Eisenhower has worked to avoid.”
In interviews, experts remained optimistic that abolition can be achieved — even in this age of the “dotard” and the “Rocket Man.” Miles characterized it as a matter of “changing the choices we’re making” as voters and leaders, while Bell called for both “serious, expert-level discussion” and urgency from a general public that has, at times, been shut out of the debate. And Johnson pointed to a roadmap Global Zero created with international political and military leaders and experts in 2010, which would put us on a path to being a nuclear-free world in a matter of about 20 years.
But experts said that getting there will require reckoning with the full scope of the threat we’re facing. The issue isn’t just who has the weapons, they say, but the weapons themselves.
“The use of even one of these weapons — by anyone, anywhere in the world — would be a global humanitarian, environmental and economic catastrophe. We are utterly unprepared to respond to a disaster of that scale, let alone a full-blown nuclear conflict,” Johnson said. “That risk existed long before several thousand nuclear weapons passed into Donald Trump’s precarious custody, and will be hanging over heads long after he’s gone.”