From now until at least the midterm elections in November, we’ll be featuring essays from powerful cultural voices alongside one simple thing, chosen by the author, that you can do to take action against the paralyzing apoplexy of the daily news. Maybe it’ll be an organization that deserves your donation; maybe it’ll be an issue that deserves greater awareness. Whatever it is, our aim is to remind you, and ourselves, of the big and small things we can do to work toward justice and change.
For My Granddaughters
by James Carroll
I commit to take action because I have two young granddaughters, aged four and one. Just by coming into existence, they have given me an unprecedented experience of the deep future, extending the horizon of my hopes far into the next century. I have never before felt so fully and gratefully connected to the human prospect, and this pair of angels makes its promise complete. But President Trump is singlehandedly undercutting that promise, and, in ways not true since the worst days of the Cold War nuclear standoff, putting at risk the human future itself.
The president’s cruelty, crudity, and omnidirectional contempt merit an urgent citizen protest, but his position as the chief custodian of the U.S. nuclear arsenal alone is enough to prompt a massive cri de coeur, an unstinting declaration of his unfitness for such responsibility. It is not just that President Trump, in his erratic, ignorant, and profoundly careless impulsiveness (most notably his astounding irresponsibility in dealing with North Korea, dangerously veering from ad hominem fulminations to entirely phony “negotiations”), is clearly capable of setting in motion events that could culminate in a nuclear war. Equally worrying is the already demonstrated fact that his mindless bluster is even now initiating a new nuclear age — characterized, abroad, by a fresh impetus toward nuclear acquisition on the part of other nations (he has explicitly invited Japan, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia to develop their own nuclear arsenals; he has, in foolishly canceling the Iran nuclear agreement, invited that nation to resuscitate its own weapons program), and, within the United States, by an explicit reversal of a decades-long momentum toward nuclear arms reduction. Trump is sounding disarmament’s death knell, which is — be sure of this — the death knell of the human species.
The Nuclear Posture Review released by the Pentagon in 2010, taking its cue from President Barack Obama, a nuclear abolitionist, explicitly declared the American purpose to be that of reducing the role of nuclear weapons. Accordingly, the Review renounced the further development of new nuclear weapons (“The United States will not develop new nuclear warheads”), and concluded with a resounding chapter entitled “Looking Ahead: Toward a World Without Nuclear Weapons.”
But that was then.
This year’s Nuclear Posture Review, released in February, also takes its largest cue from the president — in this case, from a president who informed his national security establishment last July that he wanted the American nuclear arsenal to return to Cold War levels, with an upper warhead limit set not in the low thousands, as it currently stands, but at thirty-two thousand, a peak last seen in the 1960s. It was when Trump made this proposal that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reportedly called him a “moron.”
This new nuclear doctrine, reflected in the 2018 NPR, reverses the 2010 commitment to use nuclear weapons only in response to a nuclear attack, and expands the threatened use of this genocidal weapon to counter non-nuclear threats, like cyber attacks, as well. The Pentagon now proposes to develop a whole new generation of so-called “low-yield” nuclear weapons in the fantastic belief that they can somehow be “usable,” aiming to “provide an American President with flexibility” to initiate nuclear war not as a last resort but as a means of tactical dominance. Under Trump, that is, what was once the “absolute weapon” is being normalized, which shows how the Trump presidency has already empowered the most hawkish wing of the nuclear priesthood.
The momentous transformation is underway. Last summer, not long after Trump expressed his wish for a vastly expanded arsenal, the Pentagon let out contracts for a new hyper-stealth nuclear cruise missile, a profoundly destabilizing weapon — which will surely prompt other nations to match it. Also last summer, within weeks of Trump’s “moronic” declaration, the Air Force released contracts to replace the forty-year-old Minuteman silo-launched ICBMs, which, until this year, were on the way to being phased out altogether. For a generation, nuclear arms reduction was the watchword. Now the watchword is nuclear arms renewal. As was true in our long twilight struggle with the Soviet Union, such impulses in Washington inevitably spark their equivalents in Moscow — and now also in Beijing. Runners in a new Cold War–calibrated arms race are taking their marks.
The only reason nuclear weapons have not been used since the United States obliterated Hiroshima and Nagasaki is that world leaders of all stripes came quickly to understand that these weapons are a thing apart — Armageddon weapons. It was this recognition, not incidentally, that prevented President Harry Truman from accepting General Douglas MacArthur’s urgent demand for use of the atomic bomb in Korea; Truman, that is, preferred stalemate in that war to a nuclear victory. Having unleashed the nuclear monster in 1945, Truman made it taboo in 1951. In Korea. Korea is once more at issue, only now the taboo is at grave risk of being broken.
Nine nations have nuclear weapons: the great marvel of the twentieth century is that that number is so low. Dozens of other nations could readily have obtained the arsenal (and some, once in possession of the arsenal, renounced it), but the regime under the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, appealing to the most sacred impulses of humane statesmanship, created the precious hope of a nuclear-free world and enshrined it in a solemn international agreement. Despite — or perhaps because of — the failure of the nine nuclear powers to fulfill that hope by moving away from the deadly arsenal, as they are required to do, the UN General Assembly reaffirmed the treaty’s central premise last July, demanding the complete elimination of these weapons. Watching what is happening in America, the world has felt the shock of a whole new level of nuclear dread.
Meanwhile, under President Trump, American war planners are blithely normalizing and reinventing nukes. They are effectively abolishing the non-proliferation regime, and inviting non-nuclear nations (starting, surely, with Trump’s trio of South Korea, Japan, and Saudi Arabia) to join the demonic club. The cascade of proliferation is beginning to tumble. And as President Obama put it in Prague in 2009, “Make no mistake. We know where that leads.”
So do the worried nuclear wizards. Upon Trump’s inauguration in 2017, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists advanced the hands of its doomsday clock by thirty seconds. After a year of Trump’s bombast, the clock moved forward another thirty seconds. As of January 2018, the death clock is now back to where it was in 1953: two minutes before midnight.
Even if the United States (and the world) survives this impulsive, careless, trigger-happy President, even if he is somehow restrained from actually initiating a war, the dynamic he is setting in motion will, if left unchecked, rush on, ultimately to destroy the human future. In my case, that universal catastrophe has been distilled to its purest essence in the forms of my dear granddaughters. For their sake, and everyone’s, the hopeful human prospect must be protected. President Trump must be stopped.
Take action today:
Tell Congress to pass H.R. 669 and S. 200. Contact your Representatives to ask them to co-sponsor a bill to prohibit the President’s first-use nuclear strike without a declaration of war by Congress. And support the Council for a Livable World, the fifty-year-old NGO dedicated to reducing the risk of nuclear war.
James Carroll is the author of twenty books, most recently the novel The Cloister.