Dear Donald Trump: This Is Why Nuclear Weapons Are Bad
This morning on his show Morning Joe host Joe Scarborough said that according to one of Donald Trump’s foreign policy advisors, the Republican nominee recently asked why the United States can’t use nuclear weapons.
“Three times he asked at one point if we had them why can’t we use them,” Scarborough said, as the panel seated around him fell silent.
And it’s only Wednesday, y’all.
Listen. We know most of you out there are well aware of the dangers and lasting effects of nuclear weapons. And, of course, it’s possible this is all a misunderstanding (the Trump campaign didn’t respond to WIRED’s request for comment). But this report, combined with other comments Trump has made about nuclear war in the past, form a rough—and terrifying—outline of what a potential Trump nuclear doctrine would be.
Like so many of Trump’s statements on thorny national security issues, his public pronouncements on nuclear weapons have often been contradictory. He has, in the same breath, said he is against nuclear proliferation, and that “it’s going to happen, anyway.”
“At some point we have to say, you know what, we’re better off if Japan protects itself against this maniac in North Korea,” he said during a CNN-moderated town hall in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. “We’re better off, frankly, if South Korea is going to start to protect itself.”
He told The New York Times that nuclear capability is “the biggest problem the world has” during the same interview in which suggested more countries should have them, saying, “Would I rather have North Korea have them with Japan sitting there having them also? You may very well be better off if that’s the case.”
That Trump would flip flop on policy with such speed and regularity is standard fare for his campaign. But security experts like John Noonan, a former missile combat crew commander and national security advisor to Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney, say that when it comes to nuclear warfare, that type of say-anything attitude is flat out dangerous. (If you’re interested, you should probably check out his entire tweetstorm on the subject.)
“When you’re in the nuclear business and talking about nuclear weapons, your statements are policy,” Noonan says. Already, he says, Trump’s words may well be informing the calculus of other countries that could just as easily arm themselves, but have held off because of the United States’ commitment to deterrence.
If Trump continues to signal that US commitment to nuclear deterrence could wane during his administration, Noonan says, “What you’re looking at is not only a great destabilizing of a robust and sturdy security architecture. You’re looking at potentially one of the widest expansions of nuclear proliferation in history.”
At the heart of Trump’s argument on nuclear power seems to be the idea that it’s better for every country to be able to defend itself against nuclear war than for the US to do it for them. With this approach, Trump seems to be washing his hands of a time-tested precedent in which the United States plays a key role in disarming foreign countries’ nuclear programs.
What’s more, Noonan says, the United States’ nuclear power is strongest when used as a bargaining chip between nations. What affect it would have against ideological terrorists such as ISIS is unclear. But Trump seems poised to use it as a tool in the ground fight against ISIS, a plan Noonan says would “backfire spectacularly.”
“There’s a difference between communicating with a foreign power like the Soviet Union, Moscow, or China, and using these with something like ISIS,” he says.
All of this might be a predictable stance for Trump, a candidate who is proudly isolationist and has framed the US as the world’s punching bag throughout this election cycle. Except for the fact that he is talking about nuclear warfare—a threat that is so destructive, it has no victors. It leaves its targets victims and its first movers vulnerable. As Ronald Reagan once said, “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”
That much may be painfully obvious to most of us, but it seems the guy who’s now vying to be the most powerful man in the world didn’t get the memo about why nuclear war is a bad thing. So here’s a primer.
First, American Security
Before we get around to the ethics of deploying nuclear weapons on entire civilizations and the planet, we’ll start with the logic Trump’s “America First” position suggests he’s most likely to respond to: national security.
Yes, the United States is home to a substantial share of nuclear weapons around the world. But it’s not the only country that has them. According to the Nuclear Threat Initiative, there are 16,000 nuclear weapons spread throughout China, India, Israel, France, North Korea, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is growing in a time of increasing unrest in the neighboring Middle East.
Trump knows all this, but he’s missing the key point. The best way for the US to guarantee other nations won’t abuse their nuclear power is for the US not to flex its own. This is known as the strategy of Mutually Assured Destruction; it’s the backbone of our nuclear deterrence policy and it’s worked for decades. Moreover, even from the beginning nuclear weapons were designed to not be used, but rather to act as the ultimate ace up the sleeve that you never play. As the famous quote from the movie WarGames goes, “The only winning move is not to play.” To Trump’s question about using the nukes, he’s really asking, wouldn’t a threat of nuclear force scare the United States’ foreign enemies? The answer is sure. But it should also scare anyone who knows that a retaliatory attack is now far more possible than it was when the US bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II.
As Noonan puts it, “The ensuing backlash against the United States by allies and adversaries alike, as well as the inevitable swelling in ISIS’s ranks in response to such a brutal use of power would be a colossal strategic loss for the United States. It’s something ISIS would want.”
Second, the Moral Problem
Still, it’s hard to overstate the ethical argument against nuclear weapons. Though the actual numbers are unknowable, estimates say that in Hiroshima, the atomic bomb killed approximately 80,000 people, mainly civilians, instantly. More than 100,000 more would later die from radiation and after effects. Another 70,000 plus people were killed in the bombing of Nagasaki.
The Radiation Effects Research Foundation, which is a collaboration between the United States and Japan, is still studying the effects of radiation exposure. Meanwhile, a report by the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Japanese Red Cross Society recently found that some 70 years after the blasts, Japanese hospitals are still treating patients for radiation-related illnesses, as well as post-traumatic stress disorder.
While the national security argument may appeal to Trump’s sensibilities, it’s this ethical argument that Noonan says is the foremost reason the country does not deploy its nuclear weapons. “We don’t use them first because that would be an ethical conundrum,” he says. “That would be morally unfit of the United States and the values it holds dear.”
And then, of course, there’s the climate argument. If any case against nuclear weaponry is unlikely to compel Trump, it’s probably this one. But it should. Experts have found that the detonation of 50 Hiroshima-sized bombs has the power to kill 20 million people, and produce so many fires that the smoke would block out the sun, setting off a process of mass cooling within a few weeks.
As Alan Robock, a professor in the Department of Environmental Sciences at Rutgers University, recently told Time, “The sky would not be blue. It would be gray.”
No one on Earth wins in that scenario. Not America. Not anyone. But you already knew that.
That this is an article we need to write in the year 2016, nearly 30 years after the end of the Cold War era, at a time when the risk of nuclear weapons falling into the wrong hands is at an all-time high and therefore a sane nuclear policy is of the utmost importance, underscores how much this election cycle is unlike any before. Since the “Daisy Girl” ad first aired in 1964, presidential nominees suggesting that their opponent might use the nuclear option was the political nuclear option. Now it’s just another Wednesday.