Presidents who gamble with nuclear Armageddon

Jun 2, 2024
The White House in Washington DC under dark stormy clouds.

Each of the last five presidents, both Democrats and Republicans, have brought us closer to the brink. We desperately need leaders with a knack for peace who can steer the nation, and the world, toward a more secure and less dangerous future.

The overriding job of any U.S. president is to keep the nation safe. In the nuclear age, that mainly means avoiding nuclear Armageddon. Joe Biden’s reckless and incompetent foreign policy is pushing us closer to annihilation. He joins a long and undistinguished list of presidents who have gambled with Armageddon, including his immediate predecessor and rival, Donald Trump.

Talk of nuclear war is currently everywhere. Leaders of NATO countries call for Russia’s defeat and even dismemberment, while telling us not to worry about Russia’s 6,000 nuclear warheads. Ukraine uses NATO-supplied missiles to knock out parts of Russia’s nuclear-attack early-warning system inside Russia. Russia, in the meantime, engages in nuclear drills near its border with Ukraine. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg  give the green light to Ukraine to use NATO weapons to hit Russian territory as an increasingly desperate and extremist Ukrainian regime sees fit.

These leaders neglect at our greatest peril the most basic lesson of the nuclear confrontation between the U.S. and Soviet Union in the Cuban Missile Crisis, as told by President John F. Kennedy, one of the few American presidents in the nuclear age to take our survival seriously. In the aftermath of the crisis,  Kennedy told us, and his successors:

“Above all, while defending our own vital interests, nuclear powers must avert those confrontations which bring an adversary to a choice of either a humiliating retreat or a nuclear war. To adopt that kind of course in the nuclear age would be evidence only of the bankruptcy of our policy—or of a collective death-wish for the world.”

Yet this is exactly what Biden is doing today, carrying out a bankrupt and reckless policy.

Nuclear war can easily arise from an escalation of non-nuclear war, or by a hothead leader with access to nuclear arms deciding on a surprise first strike, or by a gross miscalculation. The last of these nearly occurred even after Kennedy and his Soviet counterpart Nikita Khrushchev had negotiated an end to the Cuban Missile Crisis, when a disabled Soviet submarine came within a hair’s breadth of launching a nuclear-tipped torpedo.

Most presidents, and most Americans, have little idea how close to the abyss we are. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, which was founded in 1947 in part to help the world avoid nuclear annihilation, established the Doomsday Clock  to help the public understand the gravity of the risks we face. National security experts adjust the clock depending how far or how close we are to “midnight,” meaning extinction. They put the clock today at just 90 seconds to midnight, the closest that it’s ever been in the nuclear age.

The clock is a useful measure of which presidents have “gotten it” and which have not. The sad fact is that most presidents have recklessly gambled with our survival in the name of national honor, or to prove their personal toughness, or to avoid political attacks from the warmongers, or as the result of sheer incompetence. By a simple and straightforward count, five presidents have gotten it right, moving the clock away from midnight, while nine have moved us closer to Armageddon, including the most recent five.

Truman was president when the Doomsday Clock was unveiled in 1947, at 7 minutes to midnight. Truman stoked the nuclear arms race and left office with the clock at just 3 minutes to midnight. Eisenhower continued the nuclear arms race but also entered into the first-ever negotiations with the Soviet Union regarding nuclear disarmament. By the time he left office, the clock was put back to 7 minutes to midnight.

Kennedy saved the world by coolly reasoning his way through the Cuban Missile Crisis, rather than following the advice of hothead advisors who called for war (for a detailed account, see Martin Sherwin’s magisterial Gambling with Armageddon, 2020). He then negotiated the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty with Khrushchev in 1963. By the time of his death, which may well have been a government coup resulting from Kennedy’s peace initiative, JFK had pushed the clock back to 12 minutes to midnight, a magnificent and historic achievement.

It was not to last. Lyndon Johnson soon escalated in Vietnam and pushed the clock back again to just 7 minutes to midnight. Richard Nixon eased tensions with both the Soviet Union and China, and concluded the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT I), pushing the clock again to 12 minutes from midnight. Yet Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter failed to secure SALT II, and Carter fatefully and unwisely gave a green light to the CIA in 1979 to destabilize Afghanistan. By the time Ronald Reagan took office, the clock was at just 4 minutes to midnight.

The next 12 years marked the end of the Cold War. Much of the credit is due to Mikhail Gorbachev, who aimed to reform the Soviet Union politically and economically, and to end the confrontation with the West. Yet credit is also due to Reagan and his successor George Bush, Sr., who successfully worked with Gorbachev to end the Cold War, which in turn was followed by the end of the Soviet Union itself in December 1991. By the time Bush left office, the Doomsday clock was at 17 minutes to midnight, the safest since the start of the nuclear age.

Sadly, the U.S. security establishment could not take “Yes” for an answer when Russia said an emphatic yes to peaceful and cooperative relations. The U.S. needed to “win” the Cold War, not just end it. It needed to declare itself and prove itself to be the sole superpower of the world, the one that would unilaterally write the rules of a new U.S.-led “rules-based order.” The post-1992 U.S. therefore launched wars and expanded its vast network of military bases as it saw fit, steadfastly and ostentatiously ignoring the red lines of other nations, indeed aiming to drive nuclear adversaries into humiliating retreats.

Since 1992, every president has left the U.S. and the world closer to nuclear annihilation than his predecessor. The Doomsday Clock was at 17 minutes to midnight when Clinton came to office, but just 9 minutes when he left it. Bush pushed the clock to just 5 minutes, Obama to 3 minutes, and Trump to a mere 100 seconds. Now Biden has taken the clock to 90 seconds.

Biden has led the U.S. into three fulminant crises, any one of which could end up in Armageddon. By insisting on NATO enlargement to Ukraine, against Russia’s bright red line, Biden has repeatedly pushed for Russia’s humiliating retreat. By siding with a genocidal Israel, he has stoked a new Middle East arms race and a dangerously expanding Middle East conflict. By taunting China over Taiwan, which the U.S. ostensibly recognizes as part of one China, he is inviting a war with China. Trump similarly stirred the nuclear pot on several fronts, most flagrantly with China and Iran.

Washington seems of a single mind these days: more funding for wars in Ukraine and Gaza, more armaments for Taiwan. We slouch ever closer to Armageddon. Polls show the American people overwhelmingly disapprove of U.S. foreign policy, but their opinion counts for very little. We need to shout for peace from every hilltop. The survival of our children and grandchildren depends on it.

 

First published in Common Dreams on May 29, 2024

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