Like most Americans, I agree that North Korea’s Kim Jong Un is a terrifying despot the world needs to contain. At the same time I’ve become increasing unnerved by the escalating tensions between our nations and the reckless name-calling and saber-rattling language our president has used in reaction to it. In his first speech to the United Nations, President Trump basically threatened to obliterate a country of 25 million people: “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 for himself.” One could argue the same about Trump with his bluster of unleashing American “fire and fury” and gathering generals at the White House and calling the meeting “the calm before the storm.” Except, of course, with nuclear weapons the suicide mission will include all of us.
I can’t quote this word for word, but yesterday as I was driving home from the Lewes History Book Festival I was listening to the Sunday morning political talk shows break down the disagreements between Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and President Trump, who has tweeted that Tillerson is wasting his time on diplomacy with the North Koreans. I heard a Congressman say that he hoped his and other Americans’ lives were worth more than a nuclear war that happened solely because Trump was fixated on “poking his opponent in the eye” like any playground bully. The comment chilled me to the bone.
How can Donald Trump not realize he is playing with fire, of Armageddon proportion? My head is filled these days, of course, with facts about the McCarthy era as I go around speaking about SUSPECT RED. But I realized yesterday that Trump grew up during an age where the public was told it could survive a nuclear holocaust by “ducking and covering,” hiding under desks or piles of newspapers….I showed this clip to a high school group and they laughed aloud at the naivety in it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=2&v=IKqXu-5jw60
Given the growing BTO posturing and menacing word-war—(“BTO” is a 1940s acronym my WWII veteran dad used about guys who threatened fights but had never served in a war themselves—“Big Time Operators”)—I am particularly honored to be speaking Wednesday at the GMU Fall for the Book Festival with the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of Oppenheimer. After this weekend, I am even more interested in hearing Dr. Sherwin speak about the man who created the atom bomb and then pleaded we never use it again. Largely because of his arguments against developing a hydrogen bomb, Oppenheimer was destroyed by McCarthyism. The senator and other red-hunters called the physicist’s opinions tantamount to disloyalty. They found ways to paint him as a potential security risk, even a “Red” or “fellow traveler.” Oppenheimer was stripped of his security clearance credentials and reputation, but he remained firm in his convictions. I think we have a great deal to learn from him.
Below are some other 1950s images of how to survive an atomic bomb: