Donald Trump Is an Idiot Savant on Nuclear Policy
The Republican frontrunner has stumbled across the U.S. military’s biggest secret: It has no idea what it’s doing with its nuclear arsenal.
To me, Donald Trump evokes no fictional character better than Greg Stillson, the political demagogue in the Stephen King’s novel Dead Zone. Trump, as the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination, is a dead-ringer for Stillson from the film adaptation, from his phony working-class populism to his novelty hat on the campaign trail.
The Dead Zone is about a man with the power to see the future who, upon shaking Stillson’s hand at a campaign rally, foresees that he will go on to start a nuclear war as president. (And since Stillson is played by Martin Sheen, the movie offers West Wing fans the pleasure of watching Jeb Bartlett drop the big one.)
The story is a modern fantasy along the lines of going back in time to kill Hitler, although King avoided overtly supporting an assassination in a pretty fantastic way. Our hero misses the villain during the climatic assassination attempt, but a panicked Stillson picks up a nearby child to use a human shield. Apparently that’s bad for votes.
For some reason, I don’t have the slightest problem imagining Trump cowering behind a child. Still, I don’t think we are likely to get such a cathartic comeuppance in real life. And I worry about testing Trump’s boast that he could shoot random strangers on Fifth Avenue and not lose votes.
Which leaves me thinking about that scene in which Stillson starts a nuclear war, and entertaining the thought of the Donald’s stubby little fingers on the button. The conclusion I’ve reached is that Trump is actually something of an idiot savant when it comes to nuclear weapons. Trump is a bigoted, misogynistic bully, sort of like Nixon after a couple of drinks. But when he says “I wouldn’t be nuking anybody,” I believe him.
King had Stillson drop the bomb for an obvious literary reason: Nothing conveys the immense responsibility of the presidency like the authority to use nuclear weapons. More than any other trapping of office, the nuclear football conveys that electing a president is a decision of real consequence. That we can’t just elect any old buffoon and hope things turn out alright.
True to form, The Donald has made plenty of comments about nuclear weapons, to widespread horror and condemnation. The one most likely to have stuck in your mind happened during a debate in December, when Trump was asked about modernizing the nuclear triad of submarines, bombers, and land-based missiles. (See how I just did that? I told you what the Triad is, because I thought you might not know, which would be entirely okay, since you’re not running for president.) The Donald is, however, and when the debate moderator didn’t define “the Triad,” Trump was lost. He dodged the question with a long rambling answer that included this nugget: “With nuclear, the power, the devastation is very important to me.” The media was aghast. His campaign doubled down on that remark, with his spokeswoman adding, “What good does it do to have a good nuclear triad if you’re afraid to use it?”
Trump’s opponents tried to turn this into an issue, but to no avail. Jeb! got all bro-y, saying “the dude ought to try to figure out what the nuclear triad is.” Now Marco Rubio is calling Trump “a lunatic trying to get a hold of nuclear weapons in America.” And while that’s a fair description of Trump, I think the same goes for pretty much anyone seeking the presidency.
The funny thing is, Donald Trump actually has a long-standing interest in nuclear weapons, an interest that far predates his bizarre run to the White House. I know, that’s weird. But it’s true!
In 1984, when Trump was still building his tawdry brand of nouveau riche luxury, he volunteered in an interview with the Washington Post that was available to handle nuclear arms control negotiations with the Soviets. “It would take an hour-and-a-half to learn everything there is to learn about missiles,” he said. “I think I know most of it anyway. You’re talking about just getting updated on a situation.”
This wasn’t, so far as I can tell, an isolated incident. The writer Ron Rosenbaum had a lunch with Trump in 1987 during which the businessman regaled him with his knowledge of basing modes for the MX missile, the problem of warhead fratricide, and Strobe Talbott’s account of the U.S.-Soviet arms control negotiations, Deadly Gambits. We’ll come back to fratricide, but holy hell. The guy who blanked on the Triad was discussing the finer points of dense-pack to a reporter over lunch at the 21 Club. At the time, Rosenbaum was impressed by Trump’s sincerity. In some ways he still is — his recent recollection of the lunch is fascinating — though it’s clear that the thought of Trump as president terrifies him.
All of which raises the question: Is Trump really outside the mainstream on these issues? Take a look at the letter from “GOP national security leaders” denouncing the candidate’s views on foreign policy. I don’t see a single reference to any of his nuclear statements. It’s a stunning omission, at first glance — but less so when you realize that for lots of defense intellectuals, the problem isn’t what Trump thinks about nuclear weapons, it’s that he had the poor taste to say those thoughts out loud.
From this perspective, Trump’s greatest sin is that he has dispensed with the euphemisms that normally tangle up nuclear discussions, preventing us from ever talking about the underlying issues. We laugh at Trump’s nearly comical self-delusion, but it is the U.S. policy community that has been deluding itself for years about what nuclear weapons really mean.
There are plenty of stories about the counterpane world of nuclear planning, but my favorite happened in the autumn of 1989. Then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney received a briefing in Omaha on the U.S. nuclear war plan. My friend Janne Nolan tells this story in her excellent book, An Elusive Consensus. An important element of U.S. plans to use — or, if you must, employ — nuclear weapons is the order in which the United States destroys targets. If you aren’t careful, the blast, electromagnetic pulse, and debris from the first wave of nuclear weapons in an attack will damage subsequent waves — that problem known as fratricide that had Trump all worked up over lunch at the 21 Club. Cheney was shown a video that illustrated the schedule to avoid fratricide, with small red dots on a map of Moscow illustrating each weapon. “Moscow turned slowly into a solid red, covered over and over with ludicrous targets,” one participant later told Nolan. “Cheney started squirming around and finally asked one of his military aides why we were doing this kind of thing.”
One of those targets was later described by Gen. Lee Butler, who served as commander of what was then known as Strategic Air Command (SAC). After Cheney appointed Butler to lead SAC, Butler reviewed each target in the plan to find an answer to Cheney’s question as to “why we were doing this kind of thing.” According to Butler, 69 of those little red dots that Cheney saw were targeted on single facility — later described as a battle management radar in the Moscow suburb of Pushkino.
This story has since become a well-known anecdote about the madness of nuclear planning, but I think it illustrates something a little more subtle — and terrifying — than that.
Policymakers talk about deterrence, as Trump did, in terms of the destruction a nuclear war would create. But military planners, and their lawyers, increasingly reject terror bombing as a lawful strategy. The Law of Armed Conflict restricts nuclear targets to those with a military rationale — and over time, the definition of what constitutes a legitimate military target has narrowed. The fear of a nuclear apocalypse may do the work of deterrence, but the military won’t design plans to that end.
As a result, U.S. nuclear war planning represents a series of compromises designed to have our cake and eat it too. The military satisfies the lawyers by targeting the radar at Pushkino, but you and I know the Kremlin is deterred not by the loss of the radar, but by the 69 nuclear weapons landing in the suburbs of Moscow.
Maintaining a link between our strategic concepts and our war plans is an article of faith within the United States: American defense intellectuals believe that deterrence depends on the existence of credible plans for the use of nuclear weapons. This is a fancy way of saying we believe that deterring our enemies takes more than a bunch of really terrifying weapons. It takes intricate and realistic plans to use them, plans that are backed by diverse and alert nuclear forces. This is the link between our broad ideas about how the threat from nuclear weapons will keep our adversaries at bay, and the policies, plans and forces to make good on that threat.
Yet Pushkino exposes how tenuous that link really is. Moscow doesn’t have access to any of the intricately wrought details of our plans for attack. Hell, Cheney had no idea what was actually in the plans. If he didn’t know, how exactly were the Soviets to supposed to assess them as credible, and thus be deterred by them?
More to the point, the U.S. secretary of defense was bewildered by the plan. If he couldn’t explain why were doing this, why would Moscow regard the war plans as a credible threat that could be executed?
It is easy enough to recreate the logic chain from the presidential guidance about employment of nuclear weapons, through guidance issued by the secretary of defense and the Joint Chiefs, down to the operational plans and target sets. The problem isn’t in the link of the chain, but our fundamental discomfort with the reality of the threat to use nuclear weapons. There just aren’t any euphemisms or operational plans that fix the fact that we actually don’t want to start a nuclear war.
The end of the Cold War made this tension easier to ignore, but at the cost of further weakening the link between how we think about deterrence and actual nuclear war planning. Successive administrations have “scrubbed” target sets and cut the number of nuclear weapons. But as best I can tell, the number of targets has dropped faster than the number of weapons. The remaining weapons, in excess to any military requirement, are increasingly justified using abstract claims about the “unique psychological nature” of nuclear weapons.
Step back, though, and it is clear that the reference to the unique psychological benefits of using nuclear weapons is just another euphemism for terror bombing.
That brings me back to Trump. His main error on nuclear policy is not using the approved euphemisms. I simply don’t see much substantive difference between Trump’s various statements and how other presidents have talked about nuclear weapons. When he talks about how important nuclear devastation would be to him, how is that different from the Clinton administration’s policy of maintaining a nuclear force “capable of inflicting a devastating retaliatory response”? If you call it “unacceptable damage” or “adverse consequences,” we all know you mean Vladimir Putin is restrained by our ability to kill him and large numbers of his population with nuclear weapons.
Nor do I see the Trump spokeswoman’s rhetorical question — what good is a triad if you won’t use it? — as odd. It’s a pithy way of saying that deterrence depends on the existence of credible plans for the use of nuclear weapons. Our modern focus on nuclear planning rests on this notion. In his memoir, President Dwight Eisenhower spoke at length about the importance to have both the capability and will to use nuclear weapons. No one calls him a murderer.
Look, I am not attempting to redeem Trump. He terrifies the hell out of me. He is a fool. But he does what fools do — which is he says things out loud that smarter people keep inside.
And with nuclear weapons, sometimes simply explaining the concepts in clear language makes people very uncomfortable. As I have noted before, Stanley Kubrick intended Dr. Strangelove to be a serious movie at first. But the more academic literature he read, the more he realized the entire field was absurd. The funniest lines in Dr. Strangelove aren’t jokes — they are real quotations from academic literature, set in context. Kubrick realized all he needed to do to get a laugh is to quote the wonks.
In that sense, Trump has done us a favor. By saying these things out loud, he forces us to look at how we think about nuclear weapons and ask an uncomfortable question about whether we really believe all this. Do we really intend to base our security indefinitely on the threat of a nuclear holocaust? Do we really believe that deterrence is so strong that it can work forever? Do we believe in it so much that we think it might work despite a President Trump?
SPENCER PLATT/Getty Images