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Trump, N. Korea, and nukes - they tried to warn us for 72 years. We didn't listen

From Einstein to JFK, wise men have warned that some day, nuclear weapons would be in the hands of leaders who were not wise.

The North Korean government claimed last month to have launched a Hwasong-14 intercontinental ballistic missile.
The North Korean government claimed last month to have launched a Hwasong-14 intercontinental ballistic missile.Read moreKorean Central News Agency / Korea News Service via AP

— "Wait a minute, boys. We're not going to be reconstructing the dollar. We're going to be grubbing for worms." 

— President Dwight Eisenhower, interrupting a 1950s White House meeting at which aides were discussing restoring the money supply after an all-out nuclear war

For 72 years, they've tried to warn us that a time like this would come.

The world-renowned scientist Albert Einstein — whose 1939 letter to President Franklin Roosevelt played a critical role leading to the atomic bombs that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki — tried to warn us, writing in 1952 to lament his role and to argue that continued development of nuclear warheads "leads inevitable (sic) to war, which, in turn, under today's conditions, spells universal destruction."

The president who made the fateful decision to drop those two bombs on Japan in 1945 — Harry Truman — tried to warn us, stating in his 1953 farewell address that "starting an atomic war is totally unthinkable for rational men."

The president who came closest to that unthinkable action — John F. Kennedy, in the 1962 Cuban missile crisis — did more than just warn us, pivoting in the final months before he was assassinated toward a focus on reducing tension with a ban on new nuclear tests after he'd overruled his most hotheaded generals, who seemed so eager to use the Cuba crisis as a pretext for a wider conflagration.

For the most part, we haven't been listening. We instead grew bored and even apathetic about the incomprehensible destructive power of nukes. More than seven decades into the Atomic Age, more nations than ever collectively possess enough nuclear warheads — nearly 15,000 — to theoretically destroy the planet at least five times over, and possibly many times more than that (although five times seems more than sufficient, no?). And there were two things that, assuming the world continued to build nuclear bombs, which we did, worried the great scientists and political leaders of yesteryear more than anything else.

The first was nuclear proliferation, that eventually the technology to build and deploy nuclear weapons would fall into the hands of an unstable dictatorship (or, even worse, terrorists or other unaccountable stateless actors). The second fear, less clearly stated, is that the great powers with the bulk of the world's nuclear arsenal, like the United States and the USSR/Russia, might not always have wise leaders with the savvy to see radioactive hellfire bombs as a beyond-last-resort deterrent to conventional war, that a superpower might someday have a top man who asks, if we aren't going to use our nuclear bombs, then "why are we making them?"

Instead of getting rid of the planet's horrifying nuclear arsenal, humankind's only winning strategy for avoiding Armageddon these last 72 years was not having nuclear launch codes in the hands of people like North Korea's dangerous and despotic Kim Jong Un or a hotheaded, impulsive, and unconventional American president like Donald Trump. The last week has revealed the utter folly of that notion.

The good news is that the experts still believe, despite the insane rhetoric and threats from both sides, that a nuclear war involving the United States, North Korea, and assorted allies is highly unlikely. In that sense, it's a little like comedian Steven Wright's joke about his plan to live forever: so far, so good. So let's ponder the possibility that this crisis can create an opportunity for America and the world to take seriously nuclear arms control — and, in the long run, disarmament — for the first time in at least a couple of decades.

The thing is, we've been lucky, starting with the leadership shown by Eisenhower, whose successful strategy for avoiding World War III during the fraught early days of the Cold War meant threatening rivals with the use of America's then-sizable nuclear advantage, even though privately he vowed to do everything possible never to follow through. But the scheme that author Evan Thomas labeled "Ike's Bluff" meant America developed a bat-guano-crazy arsenal of 30,000 nukes during those years, six times larger than today.

Since then, our ADD-addled interest in nuclear bombs has ebbed and flowed. The nuclear-freeze movement of the early 1980s and the buzz generated by TV's The Day After was followed by some real progress on disarmament through President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, punctuated by the hopeful end of the Cold War. But the next generation of leaders has mostly botched the follow-through.

After the rogue state of North Korea started developing its own nuclear arsenal, a briefly successful deal to freeze its program was obliterated by George W. Bush when, in a mindless exercise in political branding to sell his lie-based war on Iraq, he included the Asian nation in a so-called Axis of Evil. But nothing epitomized the failure of our nuke-free dreams more than the disappointing policies of President Barack Obama.

The irony is that the nuclear-freeze movement was what had motivated the young Obama, then a student at Columbia, to take an interest in politics in the first place. Unlike the thousands of others in that movement with him, Obama grew up to take charge of the world's largest nuclear arsenal, only to lose focus on the wider issue of disarmament while he focused on the more immediate problem of Iran. Not only did Obama not reduce the vast number of warheads as much as his predecessors did, but near the end of his term, he actually endorsed a $1 trillion — that's trillion with a TR — plan to modernize, replace, and restore the stockpile.

"We think it's a dangerously extreme proposal," Tom Z. Collina, policy director of the Ploughshares Fund, the largest U.S. philanthropy focused on arms reduction, told me. "We can maintain U.S. security and spend a lot less money and be a lot less provocative."

The Obama plan would take that ability to destroy the world a few times over and simply preserve it. That's the scheme Trump has now also endorsed and tweeted, falsely, of course, that he has been busy carrying out. (In the reality-based world, the plan is still under review.) Not surprising, Russia's Vladimir Putin wants to modernize and upgrade the nukes he controls — exactly the arms race the 21st century didn't need.

It doesn't have to be this way, and hopefully the sudden new surge of worry about nuclear destruction (and all the fun baby boomer reminiscences about "duck-and-cover" drills) will prompt us to take some concrete action. The Ploughshares Fund has called for removing some outdated and unnecessary elements from the proposed nuclear overhaul, such as cruise missiles launched from jet aircraft and land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). "We don't need them. The Cold War has been over for 25 years," Collina said. That would free up hundreds of billions of dollars for things other than annihilating human civilization.

But that doesn't solve the more immediate problem, the one the Einsteins and the Trumans worried most about:  unstable leaders with their fingers on the button. Here at home, Trump's erratic behavior in the Oval Office has people questioning, for the first time in the decades, why so much destructive power rests solely with one human being. In January, Democratic lawmakers introduced a Restricting First Use of Nuclear Weapons Act that would bar the president from launching a nuclear strike without a declaration of war by Congress unless the United States was under a nuclear attack. That's a commonsense safeguard that's long overdue, and a sign that most Americans treat the threat of atomic destruction more seriously than our current president with his reckless "fire and fury" rhetoric. I don't know about you, but I'm still hoping to reach old age without ever appreciating the rich flavor of worms.