This week President Trump essentially threatened North Korea with an attack--possibly a nuclear attack--if it did not stop its attempts to develop intercontinental missiles with nuclear warheads. His intemperate language--once again so reminiscent of the Emperor William II of Germany--was new, inappropriate, and further proof of his unsuitability for the office he holds. Yet the crisis that we face has much deeper roots than the election of 2016. It reflects the new nuclear weapons policy developed by my own Boom generation, abandoning the saner strategy which our parents had bequeathed to us.
From the moment that the A bombs went off over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, the leadership of the American government took the position that this new weapon had to be brought under control. This was particularly the view of Henry M. Stimson, the Secretary of War who had overseen the Manhattan project and stopped the military from dropping the first A-Bomb on the ancient Japanese city of Kyoto. The result was the Acheson-Lillienthal plan to put fissile material and nuclear weapons under international control--but the Soviets rejected it, preferring to develop their own nuclear weapons. The British, humiliated by their new dependence on the US, decided to go the same route, as did the French during the 1960s and the Chinese in the early 1960s.
Yet having negotiated the Test Ban Treaty in 1963, the three victorious powers in the Second World War--the US, Britain and the USSR--went ahead and negotiated the non-proliferation treaty that was eventually signed in 1968. Non-nuclear signatories pledged not to acquire nuclear weapons, while nuclear states--in a provision of which few people are still aware--pledged to do away with them. Unfortunately, the nuclear arms race was at its height, it was another twenty years before the two superpowers took real steps in that direction. By that time China, Israel and India already had nuclear weapons as well. Pakistan also went to work on them, eventually successfully. The US and Russia agreed on very large cuts in their arsenals after the fall of the USSR, but proliferation continued.
The George W. Bush Administration was the first in which the Boom generation dominated national security strategy, and it came in determined to abandon the limitations of the Cold War in favor of a new vision of American power. Believing, against all evidence, that defense against ballistic missiles was possible, they denounced the ABM treaty. Then, in the 2002 National Security Strategy it released, the Bush Administration specifically abandoned deterrence as a strategy against new nuclear-armed states. "The United States," it read, "has long maintained the
option of preemptive actions to counter a sufficient
threat to our national security. The greater
the threat, the greater is the risk of inaction—
and the more compelling the case for taking
anticipatory action to defend ourselves, even if
uncertainty remains as to the time and place of
the enemy’s attack. To forestall or prevent such
hostile acts by our adversaries, the United States
will, if necessary, act preemptively." This was, of course, the heart of the rationale for the attack on Iraq that began a few months later--even though it turned out that Iraq neither had weapons of mass destruction nor any program to develop them.
During his last year in office, Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, in a courageous act of statesmanship, negotiated the nuclear deal with Iran to keep it from developing nuclear weapons. Yet in previous years Obama had essentially endorsed the 2002 strategy, declaring again and again that Iran would not be allowed to develop a nuclear weapon. The last two administrations, in short, had abandoned the concept of national sovereignty insofar as it relates to weapons development, and argued that no nation on earth would be allowed to have weapons that the United States did not believe they should have. This is an unprecedented claim to world domination--one that President Trump has now revived. There has never really been a national discussion or debate on whether we have the right to assert such power, or whether this claim really serves our interests. It makes for an interesting contrast with the Non-proliferation treaty, which recognized that states could not be expected to foresake nuclear weapons if established nuclear powers insisted on retaining them.
President Trump is now threatening a pre-emptive nuclear attack on North Korea. This strategy also has deep roots. Just as General Turgidsen (George C. Scott) argued in Dr. Strangelove, if nuclear war is perceived to be inevitable, it obviously makes sense to go first. US targeting plans against the Soviet Union would have also encouraged going first in a crisis, since they were designed to eliminate Soviet nuclear capabilities, which meant using ours before they used theirs. But I have another perspective from which to view the nuclear saber-rattling of President Trump and his contemporary President George W. Bush--also born in 1946--before him. It comes from my late friend Bill Strauss, the co-author with Neil Howe of Generations and The Fourth Turning.
Bill was among other things a playwright, and sometime around 2000, I believe, he asked me if I might want to help him on a play he had in mind. That project unfortunately did not get off the ground. Bill and I were very close friends with enormous mutual respect, but our initial exchanges convinced me that we would not be able to collaborate successfully. (He had collaborated with other people on all his books; I never have, except with William Young, who had died when I took over his project about Sacco and Vanzetti.) But the idea Bill had still haunts me.
Set in New York, the play would have had two acts: the first on the day of the stock market crash in October 1929, and the second on the day after the Hiroshima bomb in 1945. It dealt with a distinguished New York family, led by a member of the Missionary generation who seemed to me to be modeled on Henry M. Stimson, although I think he was an academic. Let's call him Michael. The family also included his father Gus, an aged civil war veteran; his Aunt Polly, Gus's younger sister, who remembered Lincoln's death; and two sons, Larry and George. Larry was about 30 in 1929, while George was only a teenager. (Studnets of generational theory will perhaps realize the pattern behind the names.) Act I was designed to portray an atmosphere of frenzied speculation and irresponsibility, parallel to what was happening around 2000 when Bill conceived the idea. It was a portrayal of an Unraveling, or Third Turning, as Bill and Neil defined them--the profligate, partisan era that leads to a crisis in which new leadership takes the country in a new direction.
Act II, on the other hand, hoped to convey the atmosphere of the Second World War, in which the country had pulled together and devoted unprecedented resources ot the common good. Gus was dead, but Polly, now very old, was still with the family. Michael had been working in a high position in Washington. Larry had become a bomber pilot but was now at home. George, a physicist, had not gone to war--he had been doing secret work for the Manhattan project. In one of the revelations of Act II, George learned for the first time that his father was among those who had convinced President Roosevelt to undertake the development of the atomic bomb.
I tried to imagine the conversation the family might have about the atomic bomb, just before the last moment of the play, which Bill had already planned. Michael would have explained that it was now our mission to put the bomb under international control, to make it the foundation of lasting peace. George, who had helped develop it--from the generation of Kennedy and Nixon-- would have agreed. Larry, his older son, from the cynical Lost generation, would have chuckled at this misplaced idealism. "Next time," he said, "it won't be dropped on the last day of the war--but on the first day." But Polly, a pacifist whose hero had been Woodrow Wilson, would have sunk to the depths of despair. She would have remembered Michael's idyllic childhood and his work in settlement houses in the 1890s--only to have it all come to this. "We never believed after 1865 that we could live through another war like that," she would say. "It was a few years after that, Michael, that you were born. We had so much hope for you and your generation, especially after President Wilson came along. And how you've done this horrible, horrible thing."
At that point, in Bill's formulation, the door opened, and Gretchen, George's wife, entered, crossed the room, and give her husband a hug.
"I'm going to have a baby," she said.