As if you didn’t have other things to worry about, add “think about the threat of nuclear war” to your to-do list.
The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists says we are, metaphorically speaking, only two and half minutes away from nuclear doomsday — the Bulletin's closest Armageddon estimate since the early 1980s. Former Defense Secretary William Perry says he is "terrified." Novelist Philip Roth says what is most frightening about President Donald Trump “is that he makes any and everything possible, including, of course, the nuclear catastrophe."
And the hell of our predicament, experts say, is that Trump’s emotional instability is only part of the problem. The 45th president sits atop a command and control system that is already aging, prone to accidents and vulnerable to hacking, according to Eric Schlosser, author of "Command and Control," a gripping history of the U.S. nuclear complex.
And the American political economy offers vast incentives to those who want to expand and modernize America’s nuclear arsenal, instead of reducing and restraining it, as policymakers across the political spectrum recommend.
Before the 2016 election, Schlosser said the notion of Trump “with the launch codes, capable of devastating cities and countries, is extraordinary. It’s like the plot out of a science-fiction film."
Now that film is reality, and the opening scenes are already scary.
Cold War to Gold War
The early hopes that Trump’s admiration for Russian president Vladimir Putin might translate into a new nuclear arms agreement went a-glimmering on Feb. 24 when Trump told Reuters that he thought the existing U.S. Russia accord, known as New START, was "one-sided."
In fact, the New START treaty limits both countries to the same number of deployed nuclear warheads — 1,550 — by Feb. 2018. And, in any case, Gen. James Cartwright, former vice chair of Joint Chiefs of Staff, says that the United States could reduce its nuclear arsenal by a third without harm to U.S. security.
“Mr. Trump’s comments suggest, once again, that he is ill-informed about nuclear weapons and has a poor understanding of the unique dangers of nuclear weapons,” said Daryl Kimball, director of the Arms Control Association in Washington.
“Discarding New START would irresponsibly free Russia of any limits on its strategic nuclear arsenal and would terminate the inspections that provide the United States with significant additional transparency about Russian strategic nuclear forces,” Kimball wrote.
The United States is going from "Cold War to Gold War," said Tom Collina, director of policy at Ploughshares Fund, a global security group in Washington, D.C. He noted that when Trump recently announced plans to seek an additional $54 billion in defense spending, Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget, said that a key priority would be “restoring our nuclear capabilities,” meaning more money for nuclear weapons.
“To be fair,” Collina adds, “Trump did not start this arms race. That dubious distinction goes to former President Obama, who set the United States on a misguided course to spend more than $1 trillion on nuclear weapons over the next three decades.”
What can be done?
Perry, a scientist who served as defense secretary under President Bill Clinton, is hoping for a meeting with Trump and/or his national security team, including Defense Secretary James Mattis, who has said some sensible things about reducing nuclear weapons.
Perry’s message for the Trump administration is stark.
“We are starting a new Cold War,” he told Politico. “We seem to be sleepwalking into this new nuclear arms race. . . . We and the Russians and others don’t understand what we are doing.”
To get a grip on nuclear reality, you could do worse than take Perry’s online course on "Living at the Nuclear Brink."
Senator Edward Markey of Massachusetts and Representative Ted Lieu of California, both Democrats, have proposed legislation to prohibit any president from launching a first-strike nuclear weapon without a declaration of war from Congress.
You can sign a petition supporting the Markey-Lieu bill; more than 139,000 people already have.
You can join GlobalZero, the international movement for the elimination of nuclear weapons.
Yet, the Pentagon is actually pressing for more nuclear weapons. In a recent report, the Defense Science Board recommended “a more flexible nuclear enterprise” that could include a “tailored nuclear option for limited use” and “lower yield, primary-only options.”
“With Trump’s call to 'expand' the U.S. nuclear arsenal, there is a growing possibility that these recommendations could turn into reality,” write Philip E. Coyle and James McKeon, analysts at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, in Politico.
“This is terrifying,” said Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) in the Washington Post, “and deserves a swift, full-throated rebuke.”
Antidote to dread
The only antidote to dread, said Daryl Kimball of the Arms Control Association, is action.
"Objectively speaking, the risk of nuclear weapons use is greater now than it has been at any time [since the end of the Cold War], though it is not as severe [as] during the worst crises of the U.S.-Soviet Cold War," Kimball, a 27-year veteran of disarmament work, told AlterNet in an email.
“It is not just the uncertainty about Trump’s impulses about nuclear weapons and his temperament, but the growing regional tensions on the Korean Peninsula, in South Asia and with Russia that could lead to nuclear consequences,” he wrote.
“Now, as in the past, there are practical solutions that can steer us away from the precipice and we must all look for way to work together to effectively engage our elected leaders to take the actions that reduce the nuclear dangers. As the old saying goes, ‘don’t mourn, organize!'”