War hawks have a long history of pitching the illusion of a survivable nuclear war to an American public that tends to be unenthusiastic about dying in a holocaust of fire and radiation. If the prospect of nuclear war is downplayed, public opinion may be more open to belligerent foreign policy that openly flirts with it. Perhaps the most explicit example of this attempt at messaging came from T.K. Jones, Reagan’s Undersecretary of Defense for Civil Defense Planning:
Nuclear war is not nearly as devastating as we had been led to believe. If there are enough shovels to go around, everybody’s going to make it. . . . You can make very good sheltering by taking the doors off your house, digging a trench, stacking the doors about two deep over that, covering it with plastic so that rainwater or something doesn’t screw up the glue in the door, then pile dirt over it. It’s the dirt that does it.
This attempt to burnish the image of Armageddon coincided with a near-suicidal binge of brinksmanship, defense spending, and saber-rattling by the Reagan administration that took the nation closer to all-out nuclear war than it had been since the Cuban Missile Crisis. The message predates Reagan, though. Like Dr. Strangelove’s General Turgidson promising the War Room that an American first strike against the Soviet Union could bring victory with “no more than ten to twenty million killed, tops, depending on the breaks,” arguments minimizing the horrors of nuclear weapons re-emerge every time the United States has a leader who is really itching to do some quality warmongering.
We have such a leader now. As Trump and his fellow lunatic Kim Jong-Un engage in a global and public dick-measuring contest, the prospect that one or both of these unstable megalomaniacs could pull the trigger forms part of the background noise of modern life.
The United States has a leader who is really itching to do some quality warmongering.
If our parents and grandparents lived in fear of a strategic nuclear exchange with the USSR, the zeitgeist of the Trump Era is the persistent fear that the end of the world (or a substantial part of it) will be a farce perpetrated by two bald men fighting over a comb.
Even if the names, locations, and precise technologies change, the message is consistent, and it is again being disseminated: It won’t be so bad. Ten, twenty million. Tops.
Americans first had to process the idea of global nuclear war and its consequences in the 1950s with the development of the ICBM and a nuclear Soviet Union. Military and political leaders quickly recognized a need to tamp down public fears. People needed to be convinced, as a necessary precondition to living under the constant threat of nuclear war, that it was somehow survivable. It wasn’t, of course. But perception overwhelms reality.
Shelter building was the first great bromide against fear, with Americans encouraged to construct their own backyard bunkers (which could double as sheds or poker rooms!) Very few homeowners did. The plan then evolved to include a subsidized program of nationwide mass public shelters. When Congress and the Eisenhower (and later Kennedy) administrations saw the price tag, any possibility of enough shelter space to house more than a fraction of the public disappeared.
Let it never be said that the Pentagon lacks for creativity. In place of public shelters, Civil Defense planners turned to an official policy of evacuating cities in advance of nuclear attack. How reassuring! A child could see through it. California Governor Edmund Brown, Jr. helpfully pointed out that “Los Angeles cannot even evacuate itself on a Friday afternoon.” One Civil Defense official drew up a plan—seriously—to facilitate the evacuation of cities by having cars with odd numbered license plates exit first. Even numbered plate holders would wait patiently at home for their turn. To where urban dwellers would evacuate was never stated, probably because the idea’s masterminds realized that a plan with such a bad Step One requires no Step Two. It was not a plan that needed to work; shelters and evacuation strategies were merely talking points.
In the sixties and into the seventies, the narrative shifted to a technological solution: missile defense. Anti-ballistic missiles (ABM) are and have been the Holy Grail of defense planning for more than half a century in the United States. The problem is that no matter how much money is hurled at the problem—and billions of dollars have—the goddamn things just don’t work.
It’s not for a lack of trying. The fundamental problem is that a missile and an incoming nuclear warhead both travel at several times the speed of sound. Imagine trying to defend yourself from a bullet fired at you by shooting it out of the air with a second bullet. That’s ABM.
The next several decades are littered (as is the physical landscape, in the case of early ABMs Nike Zeus and Safeguard) with abortive attempts to implement a workable missile defense. Reagan’s “Star Wars” plan is perhaps the best known, but far from the only, example. When George W. Bush withdrew the United States from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, spending ramped up to levels Reagan could only have imagined. It just happened much more quietly.
Today, fifty years into the experiment, the United States possesses ABM technology that can most favorably be called imperfect. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) is, as its name obliquely implies, effective over a limited area.
Relax, folks. We’ll shoot ‘em down. Honest.
As with Trump’s hard-on for nuclear war with North Korea, media pieces on the glories of American ABM technology appear as if on cue. CNN alone has run a dozen stories about THAAD and missile defense since Spring 2017. President Trump promised in November to throw four billion additional dollars at the problem . . . just as he was ratcheting up the risk of war by trading puerile insults with “Rocket Man.”
Relax, folks. We’ll shoot ‘em down. Honest.
Telling the public that nuclear war isn’t so bad because incoming missiles can be shot down is in keeping with the historical pattern but is, in the end, a moot point. Americans will not bear the brunt of the war Trump tweets into with North Korea. South Korea and Japan are where millions will die. That would be a serious problem if either the president nor his base of political support placed any value on non-American, non-Caucasian lives.
Seoul (population ten million) lies less than fifty miles from the demilitarized zone, and the twenty minutes between North Korea detecting an incoming attack and the American war machine destroying Pyongyang would be more than enough time to turn the city into something out of the Book of Revelations. Americans have a technological fantasy to reassure us that nuclear weapons can’t harm us, even though they almost certainly can. South Koreans have no such comfort.