President Ronald Reagan said in 1983, “I can’t believe that this world can go on beyond our generation and on down to succeeding generations with this kind of weapon on both sides poised at each other without someday some fool or some maniac or some accident triggering the kind of war that is the end of the line for all of us.”
We can be reasonably certain that the “fool” or “maniac” Reagan had in mind was not the American president.
On Tuesday, Trump threatened nuclear war on the constantly belligerent North Korea. After 48 hours of criticism from politicians and pundits across the ideological spectrum, on Thursday Trump said maybe his “fire and fury” comments didn’t go far enough. Which is precisely the kind of thing a fool or maniac might say about something as nightmarish as a nuclear holocaust.
Growing up in the 1980s, I remember the constant public fear of nuclear war — even just the idea that it could actually happen. Movies like “Red Dawn,” “War Games” and “The Day After” were popular precisely because the notion that an armed conflict between the Soviet Union and the United States could feasibly end in the total destruction of both countries was understood by all. It would be a war like nothing in human history, one that would claim more lives than anything the world had ever seen.
Despite his critics’ attempts to peg Reagan as an uber hawk — a gross misreading of history, despite the president’s strength — the 40th president’s rhetoric on this constant nuclear threat was responsible and comforting.
“A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. The only value in our two nations possessing nuclear weapons is to make sure they will never be used,” Reagan said in his 1984 State of the Union address. “But then would it not be better to do away with them entirely?”
“We seek the total elimination one day of nuclear weapons from the face of the Earth,” Reagan said in his 1985 Inaugural address.
“Our moral imperative is to work with all our powers for that day when the children of the world grow up without the fear of nuclear war,” Reagan said.
Before he threatened to use nukes against North Korea this week, President Trump has never seemed to understand the gravity of nuclear war, or even why a man in his position discussing the subject so nonchalantly is dangerous. “If we have them, why can’t we use them?” Trump once reportedly asked his befuddled advisers. “Somebody hits us within ISIS, you wouldn’t fight back with a nuke?” he said during a 2016 interview.
A Trump spokesperson even once said, “What good does it do to have a good nuclear triad if you’re afraid to use it?”
The point of having nuclear weapons, Trump spokesperson, weapons that Reagan wanted to eliminate completely, is the pact of mutually-assured destruction that ensures no parties possessing such weapons are likely to use them. Reagan always considered this theory — which apparently Trump and some of his people haven’t even considered — to be more of a suicide pact.
Reagan was a tough president. He told Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall” in Berlin and his Peace though Strength approach helped end the Cold War, but he also understood that doing something as reckless as threatening nuclear war would be madness.
The Heritage Foundation’s Paul Lettow described Reagan the “nuclear abolitionist” on the late former president’s 95th birthday in 2006:
He loathed nuclear weapons. Immediately after the United States dropped two atomic bombs over Japan in 1945 to end World War II, Reagan became involved in anti-nuclear politics. He was an ardent proponent of the abolition of nuclear weapons and the internationalization of atomic energy. In December 1945, Reagan intended to help lead an anti-nuclear rally in Hollywood. He planned to read an anti-nuclear poem at the rally, but Warner Brothers, the studio to which Reagan was contracted as a film actor, informed him that he could not participate, ostensibly because it would violate his performance contract, but almost certainly because the studio did not want that kind of political attention. So we were denied our first chance to see Reagan’s anti-nuclearism in public.
Many views that Reagan held in the mid-1940s changed as he evolved from liberal Democrat to conservative Republican. But he never abandoned his hatred of nuclear weapons and his desire to eliminate them. Reagan’s “dream,” as he himself described it, was “a world free of nuclear weapons.” He pursued that dream as a personal mission.
Apparently even before the Cold War, even before he became a conservative Republican, Reagan had a lifelong determination to prevent nuclear conflict at any cost, a disposition that helped win the Cold War without turning it into a hot one and soothed a worried nation.
Does Trump have even an ounce of this in him? Or has America finally elected the menace of Reagan’s nightmares?