As long as Trump is in office, he will be the center of media attention. But something different is happening now: the media is beginning to fixate on an issue that is actually important. This time Trump isn’t just tweeting about a talk show host, or calling Rosie O’Donnell a pig. This time Donald Trump holds lives in his hands.
North Korea has been growing ever more aggressive in recent months. On July 4th, North Korea fired an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile. More recently, leader Kim Jong Un has threatened to bomb the US territory of Guam.
The threat of nuclear conflict has haunted world leaders since the Cold War. John F. Kennedy’s presidency was dominated by negotiations and posturing against the USSR. Many of us living in modern times feel that nuclear war could never have happened; surely mutually assured destruction would be too much of a deterrent for any leader to move forth with an attack.
Despite the retrospective apathy that we have toward such a conflict, in the days of Kennedy and Khruschev, nuclear strikes were not off the table. Children were raised preparing for nuclear strikes, and many people were dedicated to building shelters and collecting food in the case of a disaster. In his 1989 song Leningrad, musician Billy Joel looked back on the early days of the Cold War and describes the fear that overtook America during this time. “I was born in ’49 / A Cold War kid in McCarthy time / Stop ‘em at the 38th Parallel / Blast those yellow reds to hell / Cold War kids were hard to kill / Under their desks in an air raid drill…”
Though it would be easy to chalk this up to another case of public hysteria (think McCarthyism for example), even leaders believed that nuclear war could take place at any time. Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense under Kennedy and Johnson, believed that nuclear strikes were 100 percent within the realm of possibility.
In the film The Fog of War, McNamara’s words strike like a hammer: “I want to say, and this is very important: at the end we lucked out…We came that close to nuclear war at the end.” And we should be wary of this. McNamara attributes the avoidance of war to leaders of all involved nations at least being rational. “Kennedy was rational; Khruschev was rational; Castro was rational. Rational individuals came that close to total destruction of their societies. And that danger exists today.”
This should knock us out of our complacency toward Trump’s presidency. Far too many of us believe that he’s a bad man or a weak leader, but we fail to speak incisively about his weaknesses. In this case, we should plainly criticize his administration for not being rational.
Kennedy was a president who tried desperately to keep us out of war with the USSR. In his time at Princeton, he formed the belief that most wars arise from misunderstandings. He tried hard to prevent an escalation of the conflict between America and Russia. By no means was he the perfect president, but he was tempered properly for the time. McNamara claimed that Kennedy was trying to keep the US out of war: that was his primary objective.
McNamara broke the whole experience down by explaining the lessons that he learned in the Cold War. His lessons are more numerous than I can fit in this article, but several of them are very important. He learned to empathize with the enemy by understanding their reasoning. He learned that in order to avoid war, you have to recognize that there is something beyond oneself. He learned that sometimes you have to step back and reexamine your reasoning: your first perception is often wrong.
Unfortunately, neither Kim Jong Un nor Donald Trump are reasonable. Neither of them put themselves in others’ shoes. Neither is reflective. Both are egomaniacs. They are both proud and dogged, and will refuse to back down. We are in a very different and, maybe, more dangerous situation than the Cuban Missile Crisis.
We should pray for our leaders. Just or not, we are subject to their rule. When a country is led by a foolish leader (as both the US and North Korea are), they are more prone to harm. But this is our fault. Proverbs 14:34 says that righteousness exalts a nation: but sin is a reproach to any people. We should remember that God is stronger than any hard-headed president or dictator. We shouldn’t panic. But we should understand that it is our own sin—our own hard-headedness that has given us into these leaders’ hands.
I disagree strongly.
The Cuban Missile Crisis happened because Kennedy drew a line in the sand far too late, a line that the USSR wasn’t willing to cross, but they had already committed to an antagonistic course. If Kennedy had been less pacifistic earlier, we wouldn’t have come close to crisis. Sometimes, the best way to stay out of a war is to show your enemy your determination, which is exactly what happened last week with Trump and Mattis. We said that if we were attacked, it would not be tolerated: and what happened? North Korea *immediately* backed down.
Now I’m not going to say that Trump isn’t an egomaniac: he clearly is. However, that fact has far less influence over public policy than it does in North Korea: to compare the President to a dictator is simplistic. The President does not have that kind of arbitrary power, even if his powers do extend beyond what they should be.
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