When nuclear weapons were deployed against a U.S. enemy at the end of World War II for the first and last time, the U.S. public initially mostly supported their use. That changed when the fallout — tens of thousands were killed within seconds in the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki — became apparent.
It’s a sentiment that has endured for decades, and if anything appeared only to get stronger — until recently.
When President Barack Obama paid tribute to the people of Hiroshima in May 2016, he urged the international community to “choose a future when Hiroshima and Nagasaki are not considered the dawn of atomic warfare but as the start of our own moral awakening.”
At the time, nobody would have predicted Donald Trump's victory in the U.S. elections the following year. During his first year in office, Trump has dramatically changed the cautious and history-burdened way we used to discuss nuclear weapons.
On Tuesday evening, the president escalated his war of words with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Trump asserted, in response to Kim's New Year’s Day taunt that his nuclear button was always on his desk, that his “nuclear button” was “much bigger & more powerful” than the North Korean leader’s. He went on to threaten that the U.S. arsenal “works.”
The president’s response was only the latest such rhetorical salvo — last summer, Trump warned North Korea of “fire and fury” — and his remarks have made analysts wonder whether Trump is aware of the catastrophic effect an activation of either of those buttons would have.
Observers from the United States and elsewhere criticized the remarks as “infantile” and ill-advised.
“Trump plays with the subject so carelessly and recklessly as if it were some kind of video game,” Aaron David Miller, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars who has advised several secretaries of state, said on Twitter. “My head’s exploding.”
“President Trump seems to take grim pleasure in reminding the world that he can end it on a whim,” said Matt Korda, a researcher with King's College London who focuses on nuclear weapons. “At the very least, Trump's erraticism has reinvigorated a long-overdue debate on the wisdom of concentrating nuclear launch authority in the small hands of a single individual.”
Although Trump may be the first U.S. president to engage in such rhetoric, there appears to be some precedent for it. The way Trump discusses nuclear weapons may fall into a pattern at times observed among military officials in the past, as researchers pointed out Tuesday. They were referring to a 1985 study by Carol Cohn, who analyzed military remarks that compared nuclear war with “an act of boyish mischief.” Cohn said that such remarks were an expression of a “competition for manhood” and “a way of minimizing the seriousness of militarist endeavors, of denying their deadly consequences.” She concluded that they posed a “tremendous danger” in real life.
That is especially true if you’re the president of the United States.
The worry is that Trump may be willing to upend a decades-long consensus that has probably prevented world leaders from using nuclear weapons again. Some researchers say this consensus was underpinned by the notion of deterrence, which assumes that the repercussions of a nuclear war would be so catastrophic — some scenarios predict a “nuclear winter” that would wipe out the majority of humans — that no leader would want to start such a conflict. For that reason, several nations have committed to not using nuclear weapons first.
To some, Trump’s August “fire and fury” remarks indicated that the U.S. commander in chief may be open to a preemptive nuclear attack on Pyongyang, even though he later softened his stance at the insistence of his advisers.
A second theory for why the use of nuclear weapons has remained ostracized for decades frames the decision in terms of a “moral taboo.” In her book “The Nuclear Taboo,” researcher Nina Tannenwald writes that U.S. leaders have been dissuaded from nuclear-weapons use by moral restraint. Relying on historical analysis, Tannenwald said that “powerful revulsion associated with nuclear weapons had played a role in inhibiting their use.”
Compare that with Trump’s references to Kim as “rocket man,” or his proclamation in August that his “first order as president was to renovate and modernize our nuclear arsenal.”
“It is now far stronger and more powerful than ever before,” Trump wrote.
Adm. Mike Mullen, who was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Obama, warned Sunday that the United States was now “closer to a nuclear war with North Korea” than ever before. Trump is not the only one to be blamed for that, as North Korea’s continuing missile tests have put significantly more pressure on him.
But analysts fear that Trump's response to that pressure may dangerously normalize the possibility of a nuclear strike. A Gallup poll in September found that U.S. public support for attacking North Korea was already extraordinary high, considering the likely fallout.
An extensive Stanford study last year similarly found that a majority of U.S. citizens would favor relying on nuclear power to attack civilians in an adversarial nation that was not armed with nuclear weapons. In the study, 60 percent of Americans said they would accept the deaths of 2 million Iranian civilians in such an attack, for instance, if the strike spared the lives of 20,000 U.S. military personnel.
“These findings highlight the limited extent to which the U.S. public has accepted the principles of just war doctrine and suggest that public opinion is unlikely to be a serious constraint on any president contemplating the use of nuclear weapons in the crucible of war,” wrote the two researchers, Scott Sagan and Benjamin Valentino.
The social media outrage over Trump's remarks on Tuesday may have been fierce, but public acceptance of his threats appears far more widespread than advocates of nuclear disarmament would like to see.