Trump vs North Korea: A 1945 Echo
Paul Rogers: Trump's bombast amplifies a perilous nuclear crisis. The risk of war is real.
Donald Trump’s bombastic statement on North Korea on 9 August was not as impromptu as it might have seemed. It included at least one prepared section: his “fire and fury” threat, which echoed Harry S Truman’s own in August 1945 after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. A "rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth”, was the then president's pledge.
The immediate effect of such a warning on a paranoid North Korean leadership is bound to be severe. But there are specific reasons why Truman's words would have had an even greater impact. That leadership has a very clear sense of its own history, not least the Japanese occupation of the peninsula from 1910-45. That knowledge extends to the shattering defeat of Japan in August 1945, and the United States's readiness to continue destroying Japanese cities with atomic bombs at the rate of two a month unless Japan surrendered after Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The Pyongyang leadership will also be aware, much more than the public and even most western analysts, that in mid-1945 the US government was already preparing a back-up plan if the Manhattan Project failed to produce atomic weapons. That plan, revealed many years afterwards, involved the drenching of Japanese cities with chemical weapons at an extraordinary intensity. As many as 5 million civilians might have been killed (see "By any means necessary: the United States and Japan", 4 August 2005).
The Manhattan Project did succeed – witness Hiroshima and Nagasaki, respectively pulverised on 6 and 9 August 1945 – so the plan was never put into action. But Pyongyang's very knowledge of how far the United States would have gone then is significant. The North Korean leadership will connect it to Trump's threat of “fire and fury”, and its fear will be heightened. The old quip, “just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they are not out to get you”, could certainly apply to North Korea just now.
The previous column in this series focused on the wider context of North Korea as one of a number of post-1945 “fortress states”. It also pointed to the dangers of even contemplating a military solution, whatever the view in Washington. Like Gabrielle Rifkind’s more recent analysis, it argued for a greater emphasis on diplomacy (see "North Korea: the art of the deal", 3 August 2017).
A spiral of risks
This, however, is likely to fall short of many people's hopes, and for two reasons that lie much more in Washington than Pyongyang. The first and more obvious is that Trump has boxed himself into a corner by stating that North Korea will not be allowed directly to threaten the United States. The problem here is that, even allowing for exaggeration, North Korea’s nuclear warhead-and-missile progress mean that the Pyongyang regime will certainly be able to do just that before the end of Trump’s current term of office.
Trump may have many other failures – Obamacare proving difficult to wreck, the Mexicans not paying for a wall, just to begin with. But failure over North Korea will go much further than either issue, and certainly threaten his chances of re-election in 2020. From his perspective, making North Korea a core element of his presidency means he has to win this one (see "A century on the edge: 1945-2045", 29 December 2007).
The second and less obvious reason is to do with the nature of the administration now assembled in Washington. Its internal civil-military balance is the key factor. The state department is presently much weakened, with many key diplomatic and executive appointments still unfilled after nine months. This contrasts with the remarkable penetration of the administration by senior military personnel.
The position of the chair of the US joint chiefs of staff is invariably held by a general or admiral, but three other key posts are not. The current, highly unusual situation is a departure: the secretary of defense, the national-security advisor, and even the chief of staff at the White House are all retired generals.
A yet further element is being missed. It concerns one of these positions and its occupant – the role of national-security advisor, held by General Herbert “HR” McMaster. Although above all a military man, McMaster has something of a cerebral reputation. This may on occasions where perceived threats must be dealth with, lead him to advise caution.
There have been several such occasions in recent weeks, including his decision to dispense with the services of three NSC officials: Derek Harvey, Rich Higgins, and Ezra Cohen-Watnick. The far-right interpret this and others as an indication that McMaster is variously anti-Israel, too soft on ISIS, and not supportive enough of Trump’s “America first” policy. As a result, a vigorous far-right campaign – fuelled both in social media and many conventional far-right media outlets – is now being conducted to have McMaster sacked.
The implication is clear. Behind Trump’s bluster is a powerful and single-minded movement that is watching for the smallest sign of, in its terms, betrayal by the administration. This is reminiscent of the anti-Soviet movements of the late 1970s, and (after Ronald Reagan came to power) the early 1980s: High Frontier, the Committee on the Present Danger and the rest. In raising acute tensions, they helped make this one of cold war's most fearful periods. It is also evocative of the Project for the New American Century two decades later. The latter group did much to ensure the hardline response to the 9/11 atrocities, and the disastrous "war on terror" that continues to this day.
The ideological battle for a pure “America first” worldview is now threatening to put North Korea, rather than ISIS, at its centre. This time, the contest involves two nuclear-armed adversaries, and is intrinsically more perilous. The region and world may survive this crisis. But diplomatic sense must be applied soon. If not, the risks, and all they entail, are likely to persist at least until 2020. The stakes could not be higher.