I’m a Nuclear Weapons Expert. Trump’s Presidency is My Personal Nightmare.

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August 24, 2017
Jeffrey Lewis

This article originally appeared in The Washington Post on August 24, 2017.

My greatest fear is a reality: A lunatic has gained control of nuclear-armed missiles that could reach halfway around the globe. And, to make matters worse, Kim Jong Un has them, too.

I jest, of course: It is unfair to compare the president of the United States to Kim, a man who has allegedly executed people with antiaircraft machine guns and worse. President Trump has not shot someone on Fifth Avenue, at least not yet, but as someone who studies nuclear weapons and their uses, this doesn’t comfort me. With Trump in the White House and Kim at the helm in North Korea, nuclear deterrence, the bedrock of U.S. security policy for the past 72 years, seems to be in peril. Staring at Trump and Kim, each armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons, we have to ask ourselves whether we really think that no leader would ever be so reckless as to plunge us into the nuclear abyss and that mutually assured destruction can be safely relied upon indefinitely to preserve the peace.

The very phrase “mutual assured destruction” is a calumny, a term of abuse created by those who wanted the United States to plan to fight and (somehow) win a nuclear war. The Kennedy administration had a policy of assured destruction — the ability to destroy the Soviet Union in retaliation for any nuclear attack. Hawks, though, thought that deterrence might very well fail — and the United States should be prepared to win a nuclear war. They lampooned settling for a nuclear deterrent by calling President John F. Kennedy’s approach assured vulnerability or mutual assured destruction, to emphasize the point that limiting ourselves to a retaliatory capability meant accepting vulnerability to Soviet missiles.

But in one of those perverse repurposings that are common in language, most people thought: Yeah, that’s an apt description of the nuclear age. I mean, it is sort of crazy, but then again basing our security on the permanent threat of nuclear holocaust is fairly crazy to begin with.  And the alternative — the notion that we could arms-race ourselves into a position where we might plausibly “win” a nuclear war was insane.

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