Just before noon Wednesday, when President Joe Biden took the oath of office, the nuclear codes in the briefcase carried by a military aide to Donald Trump became invalid. The United States and the world survived the four years of Trump’s presidency without him starting a nuclear war.
This was a genuine possibility during 2017 and early 2018, Trump’s first year in office, when he brought the U.S. far closer to a nuclear conflict with North Korea than most Americans realize. Incredibly, the American foreign policy establishment seemed to look upon this risk with equanimity at the time and by now seems to have completely forgotten it.
The significance of Trump’s actions on this one issue outweighs every other aspect of the Trump years, including his response to the coronavirus pandemic. A conflict with North Korea could have led to the deaths of millions, tens of millions, or even more. Yet it’s received less attention than many of his tweets.
Here’s what happened and why Trump’s behavior was extraordinarily dangerous.
North Korea first successfully tested a nuclear weapon in 2006. By the time Trump took office in January 2017, the country had conducted four more tests, with U.S. analysts concluding that the country had a stockpile of dozens of devices. North Korea claimed that it had produced nuclear weapons small enough to be paired together with ballistic missiles. It conducted test launches of four such missiles that March and by July 2017 had successfully tested intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs, that could plausibly reach the continental United States.
It was this that prompted Trump to declare on August 8, during an unrelated event at his New Jersey golf club, that “North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.” The next month at the United Nations, Trump similarly said that “the United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea. Rocket Man is on a suicide mission.”
These would be dangerously reckless statements by a U.S. president under any circumstances, but were especially so given the history of U.S.-North Korea relations.
These would be dangerously reckless statements by a U.S. president under any circumstances, but were especially so given the history of U.S.-North Korea relations. During the 1950s Korean War, the U.S. military dropped a greater tonnage of bombs on Korea than it had used in the Pacific theater during all of World War II. According to Curtis LeMay, head of the Strategic Air Command during the war, the U.S. killed “twenty percent of the population of Korea as direct casualties of war, or from starvation or exposure.”
More recently, the North Korean regime took notice of what happened to the leaders of other countries when they gave up their nuclear weapons programs at the demand of the United States. Iraq came fairly close to building a nuclear device in the 1980s but surrendered everything during the 1990s. Then the U.S. invaded in 2003, and Saddam Hussein was hanged. Muammar Gaddafi disclosed Libya’s barely existent nuclear program that same year. In 2011, the U.S. helped overthrow his government, and he was sodomized with a bayonet.
Even Dan Coats, Trump’s first director of national intelligence, told the truth in 2017 about what this meant to North Korea’s dictator Kim Jong-un: “There is some rationale backing his actions which are survival, survival for his regime, survival for his country. … The lessons that we learned out of Libya giving up its nukes … is, unfortunately: If you had nukes, never give them up.”
Meanwhile, the motivation of the U.S. was clear. We did not in fact fear that a North Korean regime would engage in a suicidal first nuclear strike against America. As a top CIA analyst put it, “The last person who wants conflict is Kim Jong-un. … [Kim] has no interest in going toe to toe [with the U.S.]” Instead, our concern, as the Defense Department explained, was that nuclear weapons “could provide greater freedom of action for North Korean aggression or coercion against its neighbors.”
In other words, North Korea would not attack us, but with ICBMs that could reach America, it might be able to deter us from completely running the region ourselves. This is not an irrational perspective: If North Korea clearly develops this capacity, both South Korea and Japan might decide that they can no longer count on U.S. protection and need to obtain nuclear weapons themselves. However, few people in the United States or on Earth believe that it’s worth risking nuclear war so that the U.S. can maintain those countries as vassal states.
That’s exactly what Trump did, however. He didn’t merely threaten to attack North Korea if it possessed the ability to strike the U.S. He ordered the Pentagon to develop new plans, over the resistance of then-Secretary of Defense James Mattis, to do so. As Slate columnist Fred Kaplan reports in his book “The Bomb,” the Joint Chiefs of Staff created new war plans “that assumed the United States would strike the first blow.”
The first step in these plans was not all-out war but usually bombing North Korean launch pads when a missile launch was detected to be imminent. But the Pentagon believed that this could easily spiral out of control. Kaplan writes, “The Joint Chiefs of Staff urged the president to take no action unless and until he was ready to go the full distance, H-bombs included.”
And Mattis had the authority to order the bombing of North Korean launch sites — that is, to start an escalation that could lead to nuclear war — without the approval of Congress or even Trump. While it was little-noticed in the United States, Mattis did in fact approve the firing of a U.S. missile as a warning after one of North Korea’s July missile tests — though only into the sea.
The greater risk, however, was not the U.S. starting a war on purpose, but the situation getting out of control thanks to miscalculation on both sides. Jeffrey Lewis, an arms control expert and professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, was so concerned about this that he wrote a novel imagining how it could happen.
Lewis says he believes that Trump “at his core is a coward, he loved to talk tough, he is someone who believes that by bullying he can get what he wants. But this is not a person who will purposefully risk a nuclear exchange.” However, “not wanting to have a war does not necessarily mean you won’t have a war. You can flirt with disaster only to realize that the situation has gotten out of control, and you have a real disaster.”
This seemed particularly plausible at the beginning of 2018. Trump tweeted on January 2, “I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than [Kim Jong-un’s], and my Button works!” Several weeks later, as reported in the book “Trump and His Generals” by Peter Bergen, Trump informed his national security staff that he wanted to order the evacuation of all American civilians from South Korea. One official told Trump, “Well, sir, if you’re trying to signal that you’re ready to strike and start a war … this is the way to do it.”
Trump ordered them to go ahead nonetheless — and then appears to have forgotten about it. But if in fact it had happened, the North Korean regime would have received the signal loud and clear. And as Lewis puts it, “They may not know Trump’s a coward.” It is easy to imagine situations in which North Korean leaders would have believed that they needed to preempt an attack from the U.S., whether or not Trump in fact planned one.
Add all of this together, and many prominent political figures believed that the risk of war was alarmingly high. Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a constant Trump confidant, said there was a 30 percent chance that the U.S. would start a war with North Korea. Retired Navy Adm. James Stavridis, who once ran NATO, put the odds of a nuclear war at 10 percent, with an additional 20 to 30 percent chance of a conventional war that would kill over a million people.
Likewise, John Brennan, head of the CIA under President Barack Obama, said the likelihood of war was 20 to 25 percent. Joel Wit, a top academic expert on North Korea, said it was 40 percent. Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, believed that it was 50/50. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists set its famous Doomsday Clock at two minutes to midnight, as close as it had ever been, largely thanks to the North Korea crisis.
Yet this was essentially unknown to regular citizens. As journalist Bob Woodward wrote in his book “Rage,” “The American people had little idea” that this period “had been so dangerous.”
The U.S. foreign policy establishment simply did not communicate any clear sense of alarm about what was going on because they didn’t seem to be alarmed.
The reason for this is straightforward: The U.S. foreign policy establishment simply did not communicate any clear sense of alarm about what was going on because they didn’t seem to be alarmed. Graham himself said that there would be heavy casualties, but “if there is going to be a war … it will be over there. … They’re not going to die here.” Sen. Jim Risch, a Republican senator from Idaho, told an audience in Germany that Trump was prepared to commence “one of the worst catastrophic events in the history of our civilization. It is going to be very, very brief. The end of it is going to see mass casualties the likes of which the planet has never seen. It will be of biblical proportions.” But he had no proposals to prevent this, and he did not even appear to believe that this was a bad idea. A few mandarins did murmur disapproval, but not at a volume anyone could hear. Others remained discreetly silent.
Then, of course, Trump did a complete about face, taking a history-making step into North Korea and eventually declaring that he and Kim Jong-un “fell in love.” Trump did not procure any kind of disarmament by North Korea, but that is far less important than the fact that he did not kill millions, accidentally or on purpose. And as Jessica Lee, an Asia expert at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, puts it, there was one good thing about Trump and North Korea: He certainly “increased both the visibility of North Korea as an urgent issue and the American public’s support for a peaceful resolution upon which the Biden administration can now build.”
So now we can return to the normal risk of nuclear war — more than high enough — and simply be grateful that Trump is gone. When Trump was in the middle of his bizarre diplomacy with Kim Jong-un, he said something hilarious for perhaps the only time in his life: “As far as the risk of dealing with a madman is concerned, that’s his problem, not mine.” It was funny because it was true.