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Sunday, December 11, 2016


I spoke yesterday about the domestic threats that Trump poses as president.  Today I shall discuss the genuinely existential threat he poses as the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces of the United States with authority to order the use of nuclear weapons.  I do not want to talk about this.  It terrifies me, and there is virtually nothing I can do to diminish the threat.  It is in this way very different from the domestic threats, in the combatting of which we have many weapons and many comrades.  However, I think I have an obligation to write about this, since it is something about which I know a certain amount.  It is just barely conceivable that by talking openly and clearly about this threat, I may in some way be able to contribute to its diminution.

Let me begin by stating a few simple facts about nuclear weapons and their delivery systems that are second nature to me but may not be entirely clear to those of you somewhat younger.   There are two kinds of nuclear weapons:  fission weapons, whose explosive power is released by the chain reaction splitting of unstable heavy atoms – Uranium, Plutonium; and fusion weapons, whose explosive power is released by the fusion of Hydrogen atoms.  Because these weapons were invented at a time [the middle 40’s and then the 50’s] when familiar weapons of war used the explosive TNT as their source of destructive power, and because nuclear weapons are so much more powerful than even the largest TNT bombs, the destructive force of nuclear weapons is measured in tons of TNT.  One ton of TNT weighs 2000 pounds, pretty much the most TNT that can be usefully and manageably packed into a bomb [although there are some exceptions.]  Fission bombs are rated in thousands of tons of TNT, which is to say in millions of pounds of TNT.  It is actually rather difficult to imagine gathering a million pounds of TNT in one place and detonating it simultaneously.  It is even more difficult to imagine the effect of such an explosion.

Now then, one ton of TNT is 2000 pounds.  One thousand tons is 2,000,000 pounds.  This is by convention referred to as a “kiloton” of TNT, but since we are now accustomed to referring casually to megabytes and even gigabytes of data, all fitting comfortably in our pockets, you really have to work at it to keep remembering just how much TNT one single ton is, and how much one kiloton is.

The very first nuclear weapon produced, and then exploded, by the United States over the Japanese city of Hiroshima was rated at 15 kilotons, which is to say 15 thousand tons of TNT, or 30 million pounds of TNT.

Fusion bombs are so much more powerful that fission bombs that they are rated in millions of TONS of TNT, which is to say billions of pounds of TNT.  The very largest fusion bombs are rated at perhaps 15 megatons.  The missiles carried on American nuclear submarines are, I believe, .5 megaton weapons.

Because of the unimaginable destructive power of nuclear weapons, there is no practicable defense against them.  If one hundred such weapons are launched against a nation and its defenses manage to destroy ninety of them before they explode — a rate of success that no air defense system has ever been capable of – the result would still be a level of destruction from the remaining ten weapons that would be catastrophic.  Consequently, there is in the short run only one rational non-suicidal defense policy, namely deterrence.  Hence, for the past sixty years, the United States has sought to deter potential enemies from launching nuclear weapons.  The United States has also sought to persuade other nations, beyond the small number in possession of nuclear weapons, not to develop and build them.  This effort has been partially successful, although currently America, Russia, France, Great Britain, Pakistan, India, Israel, and several former Soviet Socialist Republics have nuclear weapons, North Korea appears to have several, and countless other nations possess the capacity to build them [it is by now old science, well understood by everyone involved.]   Under at least some presidential administrations, the United States has also sought to reduce the number of nuclear weapons in the world in order to diminish the danger that a non-state actor could get hold of one – a group that could not be deterred by the threat of counterattack because it does not have a homeland.

Authority to use nuclear weapons in the United States is lodged with the president, and for reasons that it would take too long to explain, unless someone is interested, things are arranged to stop anyone from countermanding a president’s order to launch nuclear weapons.  Let me say that again.  The entire command structure of the United States military is deliberately designed to make it difficult if not impossible for anyone to stand in the way of a president giving the order to use nuclear weapons.  The actual men and women controlling those weapons are trained to obey a presidential order no matter what anyone else says and no matter what they may think.

This is the situation we confront when Trump becomes president.

There is absolutely no evidence that Trump understands any of this, and there is a great deal of evidence that he actively resists learning any of it.  He has already stated that he is in favor of more nations having their own nuclear weapons.

What is most terrifying is the prospect that some foreign leader will say something critical of Trump and in the middle of the night he will pick up the phone and order a nuclear strike. 


 I have neither comforting words nor realistic proposals to guard against this.


howie said...

Do you see any evidence that self interest of the most basic sort will hinder him or that he is an entirely irrational actor?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I think he is impulsive and utterly narcissistic. I do not think he is capable of imagining oir caring about the destruction that would be caused.

Ed Barreras said...

There's a line of thinking on the Left (e.g. Chomsky) which sees the possibility of brinkmanship with Russia as our greatest threat with respect to nuclear weapons. This seems to involve somewhat of a contortion, as usually those who think this way bend over backwards coming up with new ways to condemn Trump, and yet when it comes to the ultimate threat to survival, they seem forced to admit that Trump is far preferable to Hillary.

Now perhaps I'm totally naive (it's likely), but I was never much worried about nuclear war with Russia. Now that Trump will soon be in office, I find myself contemplating nuclear war -- with whomever -- as a not unreal possiblity.

I wonder though: if Russia really does have incriminating, or at least embarrassing, information on Trump, what will this mean geopolitically? Will Putin be able to roll his tanks into wherever he pleases with impunity? Or suppose that Trump's feelings on Putin sour if he feels he's being made a fool of? Won't this be very, very bad given that Trump is basically a mental four-year-old? Or should we be grateful that the Russia situation will soon devolve into a kleptocratic orgy, since the alternative is much worse?

s. wallerstein said...

No one gets to where Trump has gotten in life if they are utterly impulsive. People who are totally impulsive end up in jail for homicide at age 17 when they kill the guy who scratches the paint on their new car in the parking lot. Trump not only successfully schemed his way into the presidency, but also has had a successful career in television and a semi-successful career in real estate: all of that takes a lot of deferred gratification.

Trump does not have the patience of a good chess player (nor do I), but I bet he's a good poker player.

People compartimentalize a lot: the guy (Trump) who can't control his hands or his tongue when nice looking women are around can control them when he feels that "something is a stake".

Trump has four children and from what I observe, he seems to love them and they seem to matter to him. Would he launch a nuclear war knowing that that war would probably destroy those four children or at least make a flourishing life impossible for them after they emerge from the fall-out shelter?

howie b said...

Dear S. Wallerstein.
In this post, a sociologist normalizes and contextualizes, Trump and his modus operandi.
If you look at him from the standpoint of psychopathology as I and Professor Wolff are, it gives one pause and shudder.
Your observations sound reasonable but I'm not entirely reassured.

To me he acts erratically but shrewdly angling for the advantage- gamesmanship by someone who can be gamed

Ed Barreras said...

S. Wallerstein, a correction: Trump actually has five children. You either forgot about Barron, the 10-year-old, or Tiffany, AKA Not Ivanka.

More importantly, I'm sure you're right that the odds are slim we'll soon experience nuclear winter. However, I do think we can understate Trump's impusilveness and petty vindictiveness. This is a man who, for years after being insulted as a "short-fingered vulgarian" by Spy magazine, would send the editor pictures of himself in the press, his fingers circled in gold maker and captioned "See, not so small, are they?" This is a man who pretended to be his own press agent and bragged about the famous women he was dating, not seeming to realize the transparency of the stunt. This is a man who held a press conference with Bill Clinton's accusers right before the debate with Clinton's wife. This is... well, the point is that this person is not psychologically well. It goes beyond mere lecherous behavior.

Also, let's not forget that in the past 70 years the world came perilously close to nuclear strikes on two occasions: the Cuban Missile Crisis and the 1983 Soviet false alarm incident. This is not a good record. Now perhaps the CMC is evidence that we can't even trust allegedly even-tempered politicians not to bring us to the brink of worldwide catastrophe. However, personally, I'm glad it was Kennedy at the helm during that situation and not someone like Trump. The existence of nuclear weapons has meant that we're basically constantly on the brink of annihilation; there is very little margin for error.

Also, I honestly don't detect much in terms of a capacity for love in Trump's personality. This is a tricky concept, but I'm generally persuaded by those who claim that Trump suffers from pathological narcissism.

s. wallerstein said...

No, I wouldn't consider Trump to be "psychologically well". Obama seems "psychologically well" to me, for example.

On the other hand, I don't think that he's as impulsive as the rest of you do. He gets up early, he doesn't drink, he's a bit overweight, but not morbidly obese, he's punctual, he's very persistent and he has the self-discipline to go through a grueling presidential campaign. Those are not signs of a totally impulsive person.

He obviously has different values than you and I do (even if we do not share the same values) and thus, gives himself permission to be "childish" where I would not and probably is serious about things that don't matter to me at all, especially where making more money and "winning" are concerned. There is always a temptation to proclaim one's own values as "sane" and to see those of others are stemming from a sick mind.

Does Trump have the capacity to love in the Erich Fromm sense of the word "love"?
Undoubtedly no, but his kids matter to him, perhaps for totally narcissistic reasons: they are HIS kids!!!

He is very competitive: winning in the most conventional sense of the term "win" is very important to him, and being a "winner" in a complex society such as ours involves a lot of self-discipline.

Do I trust him with nuclear weapons? No, but then again, the only U.S. presidential that I trust with nuclear weapons is Obama. Obama is very cautious and prudent. I don't especially trust Hillary with nuclear weapons, by the way either.

Ed Barreras said...

Perhaps what appears to me as Trump's pathological insecurity really is just a reflection of my bourgeois morality. But whatever the case, that trait, combined with what you correctly identify as a baseline self-discipline, is what makes the prospect of a Trump presidency so disconcerting. He's a petty narcissist driven purely by will to power (though without Hitler's ideological zeal, thank god).

I also wonder to what degree you're being too charitable to Trump when it comes to his business acumen. Certainly, those who claim that Trump simply "fell up" in life -- using his daddy's money to bully his way to the appearance of great success -- may be underestimating the man. Still, the things that were reported about him during the campaign (pathological liar, small attention span, takes on the opinions of the last person he spoke to, not interested in security briefings or any other mentally demanding material) are not comforting.

s. wallerstein said...

I'm not claiming that Trump is a great business person. In fact, above I said that he has a "semi-successful career in real estate". Still, someone who is totally impulsive and totally childish would have blown all his father's money on wine, women and more women. It's not hard to spend a large fortune. He did have a successful career in television and he did successfully run for president, which demands political sense, if not business sense.

As for the negative personality traits which you mention (small attention span, not interesting in mentally demanding material, etc.), don't we have the problem here that we now know so much more about presidential candidates than we used to? What if we had known all the facts about JFK (serial womanizer, etc.), about Nixon, about Reagan, about Bill Clinton, about George W. Bush before they entered the White House? Back in the "good old days" the new president entered the White House with an air of mystery about him and with the prestige of being elected president. Was Reagan really interested in intellectual demanding material? Was George W. Bush interested? Was Bill Clinton interested? Was Nixon interested? Was even Kennedy really interested?

Charles Pigden said...

'Was Reagan really interested in intellectual demanding material? Was George W. Bush interested? Was Bill Clinton interested? Was Nixon interested? Was even Kennedy really interested?'
In the cases of Nixon and Clinton and maybe Bush senior, I think the answer is 'yes'. Nixon was a nasty piece of work, but he was interested in ideas.

Ed Barreras said...

S. Wallerstein,

Any one person's particular constellation of neuroses is something we can never fully get a handle on; Trump is certainly a piece of work, and now will surely be an object of perpetual fascination.

But it seems your goal here is to throw cold water on what you take to be our overreactions to the man, suggesting that while Trump may be an emotional cripple and is certainly flamboyant and tacky, underneath all that, he's probably no worse, all things considered, than many of his predecessors. If I can discern your basic point, it's that the engines of state are going to keep churning away no matter what, and it doesn't much matter whether we have a psychologically healthy person like Obama occupying the highest office or an unhealthy one like Trump or Nixon -- or, at least, it doesn't matter as much as we all think it does. The U.S. is going to keep doing the awful things it always has done.

So on what grounds can we say that Trump poses a unique threat? I want to say that it's the whole gestalt: the things he said and did during the campaign -- the norms he steamrolled over with impunity -- as well as his personal style and mannerisms -- the rambling word salad, the manifest meanness of his personality, the rancor in high speech patterns, the lying from one second to the next, the raging hatred of women -- all add up to one big awful portrait. I mean, *just look at him*. Just hear him talk. Don't you see something's wrong? Don't you see he represents a departure from what we've seen in the past? As Professor Wolff and many others have stated, he's a fascist, not just in what he's hinted at in his policies and personnel choices, but in his whole being.

Or perhaps you agree with most of this, and your intent is only to register skepticism about the topic at hand: namely, Trump's potential to be a crazed madman when it comes to nukes. If that's the case, I'm not quite convinced yet. I'm still more nervous than I was a month ago. And I'm not comforted to be reminded of Trump's "political sense." Having political sense doesn't preclude being crazy if the body politic is also crazy.

Doug Plumb said...

Trump does scare me a bit, his attitudes seem highly materialistic. But on purely moral grounds I would have voted for Trump as a rejection of Hillary Clinton and the Clintons. There was no one else - Jill Stein - no way!!

This past century has been shaped by a small set of extra-ordinary claims that are unmatched in terms of extra-ordinary evidence required to meet those claims. No way we put a man on the moon - impossible ! and I'm pretty much convinced that nukes are a fiction and a scare tactic.

Thanks for putting up those lectures on Kant !!!

s. wallerstein said...

Ed Barreras,

I'm not happy that Trump has nuclear weapons. Nor am I happy that Netanyahu has them nor that Putin has them nor that a series of Pakistani dictators have had them nor that the Chinese have them nor in fact, that anyone has them at all.

Our friend, Bertrand Russell, whom we discussed in another context last week, was right that the solution is global nuclear disarmament.

Of all the people who have had nuclear weapons, Stalin, Mao, Kennedy, Nixon, George W. Bush, Reagan, Brehznev, various Pakistani dictators, Ariel Sharon, Netanyahu, only Truman, the liberal democrat, has used them.

Let's hope that Trump has the good sense and prudence about nuclear weapons that Mao and Stalin had.

Unknown said...

Enoch says:

I think s. wallerstein makes a good point about how there is some reason to think Trump's impulsivity may be limited to certain areas, though it may not be as much comfort as one would like. In the interest of speculative psychology, though, let me offer another theory about what might increase the chances of Trump dropping the Bomb. The results of the election have given Trump the ultimate reinforcement for the idea that he knows better than everyone, especially the experts. Now combine that with the fact that the presidency will soon cease sating his insatiable need for self-aggrandizement. What can his ego reach for beyond the presidency? A world-historical presidency. Once he gets it in mind/finds some excuse for an epic military objective, I can totally see him getting in mind to prove everyone/experts wrong about the use of nuclear weapons to achieve said objective. This would be a 'planned' use by Trump, motivated by delusions of grandeur, rather than a failure of impulse control in the face of foreign insults (or whatever).

Feel free to pounce if such speculations are wild beyond the pale...

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Oh no, they are not at all wild or beyond the pale. I think they are quite shrewd, and utterly terrifying.

PJR said...

To be technically annoying, the current Trident II is normally fit with 8 (treaty limitation from a maximum of 12) W88 (475 kiloton) or W76 (100 kiloton) warheads. I'm not a military fan, just worried about this for decades.

My main concern with Trump is not a full-scale exchange with Russia or China but a standard bullying overreaction to an insult from a small country that cannot hurt him. My nightmare is the extremely stable leader of the Philippines or North Korea sounding off and getting a nuclear response. While this would be horrific and tragic in itself it is more that it would be another step in normalizing previously outrageous behavior, not a good thing in a world with far too many nuclear nations.

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