My Meeting with Mr. X

Here is a story that took place many years ago—about twenty-five, if memory serves me right. I was conversing with a high-up defense official in the Pentagon; since he is still alive, though retired, I shall not call him by name. He and I had known each other for some years, and I knew that normally he was the most tight-lipped of men. As, indeed, his position required him to be.

That day, however, he was feeling unusually expansive. We were discussing something, I can’t remember what. “Martin,” he suddenly said, “Out of about 30,000 persons who work in this building today, I am probably the only one who has actually seen a nuclear weapon exploding.” And, he added, “It is not at all like what you see on TV.”

From this point the story went as follows. In 1955—if memory serves me right—Mr. X, who at that time was a young economist cum mathematician, and a friend of his were invited to witness a one of a series of nuclear tests being conducted by the U.S Army in Nevada. Along with many others, they were told to sit down in the desert, about three miles from ground zero. Wearing goggles, they were ordered to turn their backs to the planned site, close their eyes, and put their faces on their arms and knees. Also, for heaven’s sake not to turn around and look before counting ten from the moment of the explosion—or else, if they did so, they would go blind.

If these arrangements sound primitive, that is because they were. This, after all, was the period when U.S combat aircraft, carrying nukes, were standing at the end of runways in West Germany, ready to take off. With little if anything to prevent them from doing so if, for example, one of the pilots went mad. In Nevada, though, there was no time for ifs and buts. Both men were understandably worried about the possibility that they might turn around too early. But they did as they were told, waiting for the explosion to take place.

It turned out that they need not have worried. Not because the detonation was not powerful, but because it was much more powerful than they had thought. Miles away from ground zero, with their backs turned to it, with their faces on their arms and knees, wearing goggles and with their eyes closed, Mr. X and his friend actually saw it taking place. How was this possible? Because the light, reflected from the rocky soil, was so strong as to go right through all the obstacles that had been put in its way.

“Since then,” he concluded, “I have been walking around with an idea in my head. Let there be assembled, every few years, a gathering of all the world’s heads of government. Bring them to Nevada or to some other suitable site, and make them watch a real-life nuclear test. It might drive the fear of God into their heads.” And, by doing so, contribute to world peace.

“It might indeed,” I countered. “But consider the following. There could be, among all these people, a few who do not see your point. Instead of concluding that nukes are too awful to use, they might just say: ‘How wonderful! I too want a couple of these things. Just in case!’” Whereupon we both laughed.

Why am I telling you this story? Because we now have, in the White House, the wildest, least restrained, president in the whole of American history. One who even many of his supporters think may be more than slightly mad. One who, by some reports, asked why his country should have nuclear weapons if it did not intend to use them. One who has openly threatened to launch an offensive war against another nuclear power. One whose verbal bellicosity seems matched only by his ignorance of the consequences that could follow if he carried out his threats. Not just for North Korea. Not just for South Korea, not just for the whole of East Asia, not just for the U.S. But for the entire world. Both present and future.

As Clausewitz wrote, many barriers only exist in man’s ignorance of what is possible. With the result that, once they are torn down, they are not easily set up again. In plain English: if one nuclear weapon is used in anger, then it is very likely that all will be. And sooner rather than later.

There is, however, a silver lining. A few days after the crisis in Korea started, it seems to be more or less over already. The threats, instead of being translated into action, are beginning to fade into history. As, given that no nuclear weapons has been used in anger since 1945, so many other nuclear crises have in the past.

So perhaps Mr. X was right after all. If the prospect of a nuclear war can deter a Trump, then presumably it can deter anyone. Even a Hitler, if you ask me: see on this my recent book, Hitler in Hell. Meaning that proliferation, rather than nonproliferation, is the right route. If not to peace on earth and the brotherhood of men, at any rate to preventing major war between major powers.

And Pray, Sir, What Does Italy have to Offer?

What has not been said about President Obama’s failure to deal with Pyonjang and its ballistic missiles? That he did not have what it takes. That he was hesitant. That he was unsure of himself. That he was weak, weak, weak. Too weak for this particular job, too weak for holding the presidency in general.

After January 20th 2017, we were told, all that would change. A new and decisive, albeit mentally somewhat disturbed, president would take over in the oval office. He would not allow his hands to be tied by political correctness. To provide advice, he would surround himself not by nancy-pancy Department of State types but by tough, no-nonsense, former generals (including one who had been nicknamed “Mad Dog” by his fellows). He would disregard diplomatic niceties. He would call a spade a spade, and a punk a punk. And he would take action, decisive action. Including, if nothing else worked, military action.

Two thirds of a year have passed. Kim-Jong un has continued to “provoke the world” by testing his ballistic missiles. Here it may be worth mentioning, in parenthesis, that there is really no reason why North Korea, a sovereign state that has long been under siege, should not own and do what other states, the U.S included, have owned and done for several decades. Also that, for a small state like North Korea, virtually the only way to defend itself against the great bully, the U.S, is to acquire nuclear weapons and their delivery vehicles.

After each test headlines were broadcast or printed, screaming that “a crisis” was at hand. Each time “top level” conferences were hurriedly organized and held. The armed forces of several countries were put on alert, and militarily units made to maneuver as close to the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas as safety would allow. And then, nothing except, earlier this month, yet another round of sanctions that everyone knows will achieve nothing.

The immediate reason why so little has happened, of course, is North Korea’s armed forces. By using his conventional artillery Kim-Jong il could inflict enormous damage on Seoul. By using his ballistic missiles, assuming they carry nuclear warheads, he could inflict much greater damage still on South Korea as well as Japan, a key U.S ally, and perhaps at least parts of the U.S as well.

Faced with nuclear weapons in particular, no wonder President Trump, for all his professed love for grabbing women by the genitals, has found himself castrated. A fate that often overcome many other rulers, both American and foreign, over the last seventy-two years. And one which, almost regardless of any developments that may still take place in the field of anti-ballistic missile defense, is likely to be shared by many future ones as well.

In- and out of the administration, quite some people put their hope in China. Beijing, they say, has what it takes to bring its troublesome client to heel. By applying serious economic sanctions such as North Korea, which has few other major trading partners, could hardly survive. Or massing troops on the border and make them engage in maneuvers. Or even launching a limited strike (limited it would have to be, or else it might lead to a nuclear exchange). Briefly, anything that might pull Washington D.C’s chestnuts out of the fire for it.

Sounds nice. But what could the U.S offer China in return? Several options exist. Perhaps a withdrawal, partial or complete, of its troops from South Korea. Or perhaps a loosening of ties with Taiwan (instead of selling it weapons, as Trump has recently announced he would do). Or making concessions in the South China Sea, an area which China, not without some reason, sees as historically its own and strategically vital to its future development.

So why doesn’t the U.S, with Trump at is head, pursue this option? Presumably there are many reasons; presumably one of them is that Trump, as a self-declared He-man, cannot afford the damage to the image of himself he has tried so hard to cultivate.

All this reminds me of an old story told about another self-declared he-man, Benito Mussolini. In November 1922 the newly appointed, young—he was just 39 years old—Italian prime minister went to Territet, near Montreux in Switzerland. There he, the son of a small-town blacksmith, one time day laborer, agitator, and recent goon-in-chief met with British foreign secretary Lord Curzon, 24 years his senior. As ancient, as well-heeled, as courteous, and as flinty a representative of Britain’s ruling aristocracy as there used to be.

Mussolini opened by discussion by announcing that he had come up with “a new principle in diplomacy: nothing for nothing.” “Very interesting, very interesting,” Curzon is supposed to have answered. “And pray, Sir, what does Italy have to offer?”