Is Kim Jong-un an unscrupulous, cold-blooded despot, or a mad dog? Either way, his threats to make aggressive use of nuclear weapons are not just a danger to those he directly threatens. They are a danger to the peace and security of the entire world.
Since their invention nuclear weapons have only once actually been used as such. Whatever one thinks of President’ Truman’s decision to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the fact is that it took place in the context of ongoing warfare. In Emperor Hirohito’s Japan, The United States and its allies faced an enemy responsible for the coldly calculated and unprovoked act of aggression with which that warfare began. Tragically, once unleashed even the dogs of a defensive war naturally seek to inflict whatever damage is necessary to break the enemy’s will to fight. In a war where one side made the suicidal sacrifice of combatants a routine feature of combat, America’s decisionmakers must be forgiven for believing that no mere demonstration of power was likely to effect peace—it would take a decisive blow .
Where the sacrifice of individual soldiers was accorded the highest honor, did it make sense to believe that only the prospect of national suicide would break the enemy’s adamantine will? If it was a roll of the dice to think so, history proved it successful. As time measures the momentous events of history, Japan’s surrender followed the unleashing of nuclear weapons almost instantaneously. The terrifying damage inflicted on the Japanese cities involved remains to this day a specter that haunts the memory and conscience of humanity. As it turned out, the devastation of life and property made the advent of weapons of mass destruction so disturbing it led most decent people to conclude that the only even marginally moral reason for their existence was to permanently discourage their use.
This is not a conclusion about the welfare of this or that nation, or this or that form of government. It is a conclusion about the viable existence and perpetuation of humanity itself. It was more than a little responsible for the spirit of revulsion against war that led to the successful formation of the United Nations. For all its dangerous deficiencies, the formation of that organization spoke, and still speaks to the commitment, born of dire experience, to avoid wars of massive devastation, affecting all the earth, whether the exchange of blows they involve endures for a matter of years or a matter of moments.
It is tragically significant that the presently escalating crisis precipitated by North Korea’s adamant determination to develop nuclear weapons is being discussed as if it is just a matter of war between Kim Jong-un’s regime and the states and peoples he is bellicosely threatening. Whatever its deficiencies, the sense of peril to humanity that has characterized any and all prospects of nuclear war since their first and only actual use, coincides with the fact that it has never been repeated. God knows how different the world might be today if that were not the case.
Sometimes our well-intentioned willingness to concentrate on dealing with the evils too often produced by human passion and conviction lead us to devalue humanity’s most important achievements. The actual avoidance of nuclear war is without doubt one of those achievements. The most important fact about Kim Jong-un’s deliberate abuse of the threat of nuclear war is not the danger it poses to the United States and its allies. Nor is it the prospect of annihilation for the people of both North and South Korea; or the threat it must inevitably pose to the state sponsors of his regime’s existence, China and Russia. The greatest harm consists in turning humanity’s thus far permanent abstention from the repeated use of nuclear weapons into the forlorn hope that they will not be used again, and again and again.
I have pondered the thinking of savants like Herman Kahn. I understand that there is reason to believe that the United States, or some other state willing to prepare against it, could survive and rebuild some kind of life for its people after a nuclear exchange. But how often, and for how long? More important even then this, however, is the question ‘At what cost to humanity’s decent spirit, and the mutually trusting good will required to build upon the opportunities for co-operation such good will offers?’
Even now, powerful nations, including the United States, fall prey to the insane belief that the powers unleashed by our scientific advances allow us to dispense with the view that there is any permanent substance of right and wrong. What will become of this self-idolatry if and when it becomes commonplace for the wielders of this power to pretend that they are as gods, having such destructive power as people once associated exclusively with Divinity itself? Do we honestly believe that, in a world where order is sustained mainly by this perception of superior force, the power to construct and build will be more valued than the power to destroy? Having rejected the concept of God’s creation, and living always with the prospect of recurring nuclear devastation, what hope will there be but for the moment; what incentive to prepare for the future when every future repeated annihilates itself?
I thank God that, until the present day, the leaders of my country have never consented to join in the dance of death involved in threats of nuclear annihilation. They made it clear, again and again, that the aim of maintaining the greatest military power was not just to defeat our enemies in war, but to defeat the enemy that is war itself. I took comfort in the fact that, for a time after the global wars of the twentieth century, our heroes were not human beings anxious to test their mettle against the most obdurate and skillful foes.
They were people who accepted the duty that a talent for war and combat must impose on decent men and women—which is to use their great talent in defense of the talents that are greater still—the talents that not only build the homes, and cities in which people may dwell in active happiness and peace, but build the souls, in love with God, and good, and justice that shine so as to make those places watchtowers of hope, casting a light ahead that discovers the way to the sunlit highlands of achievements that are worth something because they are worthy of God’s love.
Not long ago I wrote a column suggesting that the Trump administration’s willingness to trade bellicose barbs with North Korean may adversely “invite contemptuous doubts… about our own sense of our status.” From the beginning, a hallmark of American statesmanship has been to recognize our Providential role as a beacon of hope to all humanity. When it comes to nuclear war, that hope rests especially in the forbearance we displayed after the World War II. For a brief moment, we had the thunderbolts Napoleon fondly dreamt of, but we abjured to make active use of them.
No matter how eager Kim Jong-un may be for war, we have proven our awareness that true greatness lies in being anxious to assure the peace and prosperity of others, not just our own survival, and the destruction of our enemies. What we must do now is challenge China and Russia to prove that they, too, are able to satisfy that test of true greatness. Will they join with us in a common effort to defend the record of nuclear peace against Kim Jong-un’s aggressive threats? Or will they go on tolerating his defiance of the commitment to peace so many people around the world sacrificed life, treasure and pride to regain, and then united to serve?