The Worst Thing that Could Happen

Arthur Cody, Santa Cruz


Is the worst possible?  I used to think it wasn’t, but the recent exchanges between President Trump and the leaders of North Korea has shaken my confidence. I now see a story line in which the worst may take place. I do not think it will, but I am not sure it won’t.

If it should happen that President Trump thinks it best that he become president of the United States of America for life and de facto dictator of the world, there is a way it can be brought about. There are two threads to the plot line.

First, how could it happen? If Kim Jong Un should decide to make a show of power and of his personal formidability, he might do something so dramatic that no one could deny either. He might test a ballistic missile over the Alaskan peninsula or send one or two missiles to splash down near Guam. Kim might wish, at least for a time, to remain deaf to Tillerson’s urgent cries for diplomacy. Tillerson has declared that he will pursue every means toward a diplomatic settlement with North Korea, “until the bombs start to fall.” Kim’s strategic interval might by miscalculation be too long. Trump has said would if there is no other way to deprive NKR of nuclear power he would have no choice but to wipe Korea off the face of the earth.   He said that with regret but fully aware of the terrible destruction that North Korea would inevitably visit upon South Korea and Japan. So, it is already declared Trump might order a nuclear attack on North Korea.

Nuclear war, in Trump’s opinion as in ours, would be terrible, but it is not unthinkable. It would be unthinkable against Russia or China; they have a huge stockpile of weapons capable of delivering horror to any, to every place on earth.  North Korea cannot do as much.  If North Korea is bombed, even if they have and launch one or two ballistic missiles armed with nuclear warheads, the United States will survive, and so will the rest of the globe. It is unlikely that either China or Russia would thereupon attack the US.  After all the logic of mutually assured destruction (MAD) still applies. When the dust settles there would be millions of dead, cities (in Asia) destroyed, and widespread terror and confusion wrought throughout the world. Who would win? In the exchange, the United States would continue to exist, North Korea would not. At that point Trump would remain president and commander-in-chief with every reason to declare Martial Law.

The other line of the story has to do with will and motivation. It is possible that Donald Trump is convinced that the people of the US and of the rest of the world would profit most if he, alone among the entire population of the World, is entrusted with the right and power to discern and to put into effect what he perceives is best for everybody. At first, he would be the supreme president of the USA, but unquestionably he would be opposed by the rest of the nations of the world. Since those nations are ruled by human beings with minds inferior to his and with entirely inadequate experience in making deals, he would be compelled, for the good of everyone, to assume effective if not legitimate power in every significant foreign nation upon earth.  Since the US would then be a surviving nuclear power, one that has demonstrated its willingness to use that power, no legal authority elsewhere could stand against us.

Trump would survive. We must grant Trump honestly believes he knows what is best for everyone. No ruler before him has articulated, much less pulled off, the necessary corrections to our social and economic fabric that he perceives. It follows that he is justified in bringing those corrections about in whatever way lies open to him.  Every dictator has come to the same conclusion about the basis of his authority. What else could justify the complete arrogation of power?

How can this be avoided? However slight the prospect of it, we must avoid this happening if only on cost-benefit logic. Nuclear bombing may be a remote prospect, let us agree, but the chance of it is not worth taking. It is extremely unlikely that an airbag will explode and kill your child, but no matter what the expense of fixing millions of cars only a few of which have a potential airbag defect, we demand all airbags be fixed. What are a hundred million dollars if just one life can be saved?

Is there a solution?  We can require that at least two people concur in the use of the button. No one man on earth should have the power unilaterally to bring about the damnation of the world. There was a practical consideration that brought us to this unwise place where presently only one man has this obligation.  In the event of a nuclear attack by a foreign power, retaliation must be immediate. It was feared that having to bring two people together, who might be far apart, a response could be so delayed as to be worthless. The opportunity for just revenge could be lost. Therefore, response was designed to be as prompt and uncomplicated as possible. The reasoning is sound, but it cannot be decisive.  Too much hangs on the wisdom of an act that brings about the ruination of life on earth. To permit retaliation for a heinous deed to lie with just one man at one moment in time is folly: none of us is to be trusted.

Let us follow the recommendation by Erik Chivian in the Times of October 15, 2017 re. editorial October 12.

The only way to prevent a potential catastrophe is for Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to secretly order military commanders to check with him and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson before executing any nuclear launch order from Mr. Trump, as was done by Defense Secretary James Schlesinger when Richard Nixon was dangerously unstable at the end of his presidency.


[Arthur Cody is 91 years old, a former philosophy professor.]

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