Donald Trump Has Put the U.S. into a Precarious Position

News Abroad

John Prados is a senior fellow and project director with the National Security Archive in Washington, DC. His forthcoming book is The Ghosts of Langley: Into the CIA’s Heart of Darkness(The New Press). See more at

The North Koreans will experience “fire and fury”—or, perhaps that wasn’t strong enough. The weapons and war plans are “locked and loaded.” These are not predictions or opinions but plain statements. When was the last time you heard purple rhetoric of this sort? Let’s pause a moment, take a deep breath, and think a bit.

A number of people have suggested the Cuban Missile Crisis as a comparison. That is off the mark in some important ways. In Cuba in 1962 the adversary had fielded actual nuclear-armed missiles pointed at the United States. They were directly aimed at the United States and in range of tens of millions of people. The U.S. was openly engaged in a long-running Cold War against the Soviet Union and had recently provoked adversaries by staging a CIA-organized invasion of Cuba.

  In North Korea in 2017 our leaders are confronted by nothing more than an engineering development program plus inflamed rhetoric from the other side. President Donald Trump himself, complaining of more than two decades’ worth of barren negotiations with North Korea, reveals he is also aware of Pyongyang’s atavistic denunciations of the United States that have been a recurrent theme. The sole difference is that North Korea’s weapons development is further ahead than before.

In 1962 there was a full-blown crisis. President John F. Kennedy assembled officials plus those he trusted most as the Executive Committee (EXCOM) to advise him. Among the EXCOM crew was Dean Acheson, a grand statesman of American foreign policy, who had been secretary of state under President Harry S Truman. Acheson’s advice was to go for a “surgical strike” to eliminate the Soviet missiles in Cuba. Kennedy toyed with that option until he found out that “surgical” meant a mass bombardment by five hundred planes, that the generals could not guarantee such a strike would, in fact, eliminate the missiles, and that to be sure the bombing ought to be followed by invasion. Listening to the EXCOM discussion, JFK’s brother Bobby pointed out that would be a Pearl Harbor-type attack and asked how that America would be different than Japan in 1941. There was no attack on Cuba. Kennedy found a different path out of the nightmare. Seven years later, in February 1969, Dean Acheson published “Homage to Plain Dumb Luck” in Esquire, with his reflections on the Cuban crisis. By Acheson’s lights President Kennedy was lucky to have survived.

President Trump occupies a worse position by far. Except for offensive words North Korea has done little. Its missile tests are quite provocative, to be sure, but they are legal and not any different from weapons development programs the world over. The development and possession of a missile with sufficient range to hit the United States is disturbing, but no justification for war or pre-emptive attack. If Washington actually executed such a strike there could be no assurance the “surgical” attackers had actually eliminated every vestige of North Korean power, the U.S. would be ensuring that North Korean avengers would someday strike America, and that the United States would be forever branded as an aggressor. In the meantime the spasm war would very likely break the world’s taboo against nuclear weapons, millions in Northeast Asia would die, and the results for an already-challenged global environment are not calculable.

Donald Trump’s fire and fury language is egging North Korean leader Kim Jong Un toward the abyss, in service of a goal that cannot be achieved by force, creating a situation which may not be exited except through force. The logic here ought to scare everyone. Michael Gerson, David Frum, George F. Will, and William Kristol are all died-in-the-wool conservatives. The notorious January 2002 speech that consigned North Korea to the “Axis of Evil” was actually written by Frum and assigned by Gerson. Those two worked for an administration that famously asserted others might exist in a “reality-based” world but the Bush administration would create its own faith-based history. The Trumpists have obviously gone farther than that. All four of these principled conservatives are now speaking out against Mr. Trump.

If Donald Trump had a sense of history, Dean Acheson should serve as his point of shining light. Not only was Acheson wrong on the Cuban Missile Crisis—now considered Jack Kennedy’s most heroic moment—but he was wrong on Korea too. In January 1950 Acheson gave a speech delineating America’s defense perimeter along the Asian littoral. The secretary of state omitted mention of Korea. For a long time historians have debated whether Acheson’s omission served as an inducement to Kim Jong Un’s grandfather, Kim Il Sung, to mount the invasion that started the Korean War. Americans need Acheson’s plain dumb luck—right now!

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