Trump and the Doomsday Machine

Jeremy Bernstein

This is not an abstraction

At the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Stanley Kubrick was living in England. He decided that it was not safe there and he should move his family to Australia. Since he refused to fly commercially, he booked passage on a boat. But when he found that he would have to share the bathroom facilities with a neighbouring cabin he cancelled the whole thing, preferring to take his chances with the bomb.

He had studied the RAND Corporation’s game theory analyses of nuclear deterrence, and read Herman Kahn, who thought the planet could survive a few megadeaths. He came to the conclusion that all of this was delusional. Every strategy led to paradox and none could anticipate reality. This is what inspired him to make Dr Strangelove.

The film came out in 1964, when there was still above ground nuclear testing. The last such test was by the Chinese in 1980. That nobody does them any more is a good thing, given the dangers of fallout, but it has had the effect of turning nuclear weapons into something of an abstraction. I come from a generation of schoolchildren who were taught to hide under our desks in case of a nuclear raid. I sometimes wish there could be a demonstration test of a hydrogen bomb. I saw two nuclear bomb tests in the Nevada desert in 1957, and it is a sight you never forget. Observing such a test might be of special value to Donald Trump, whose comments on nuclear weapons have become more and more inane and more and more dangerous.

‘Let it be an arms race,’ the president elect said on MSNBC before Christmas. ‘We will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all.’ What can this possibly mean? Who are ‘they’ and how will we outmatch ‘them’? Is this a contest to build more and bigger and bigger bombs? Is it some sort of endurance race in which we will ‘outlast them all’? In these matters President Putin sounds more rational than Trump. He has said his goal is to modernise Russia’s nuclear weapons and limit the cost. A case can be made for modernising America’s weapons too. This would cost a trillion dollars or so.

Who knows what Trump’s plan – if there is a plan – will cost? What does he plan to do about North Korea, which seems to be approaching full nuclear status? This is especially acute if he continues to alienate the Chinese, who might be able to put a brake on the Korean programme. He is like someone in a bumper car at a fairground, lurching from place to place, babbling incoherently. Even Stanley Kubrick could not have invented Donald Trump and even Australia may not be safe.


  • 11 January 2017 at 5:42pm
    SamGamgee says:
    I'm not being snarky. But "Every strategy led to paradox" (not "lead") and "the dangers of fallout" (not "fall out").

    An admirable post. Maybe eds can correct silently.

    • 18 January 2017 at 7:16pm says: @ SamGamgee
      Get a dictionary.

  • 11 January 2017 at 8:02pm
    Stu Bry says:
    It's a strange article on nuclear weapons which doesn't mention the USA's Star Wars program and Obama's recent attempts to create a viable missile shield.

    • 17 January 2017 at 6:26pm
      Russell Seitz says: @ Stu Bry
      Really? As Jeremy opens on the Cuban Missile Crisis , it might be apposite to recall who asked for a nucear first strike in the first place-

      Global megatonnage fell by half between the crisis and Star War's debut.

  • 11 January 2017 at 8:27pm
    Jeremy Bernstein says:
    I got a B- in Freshman English at Harvard.

    • 18 January 2017 at 6:53pm says: @ Jeremy Bernstein
      I work as a professional copy-editor.
      "Led" is the correct spelling of the past tense of the verb "lead" and "fallout" is the correct spelling of the noun in the New Oxford Spelling Dictionary (OUP). "Sam Gamgee" is evidently completely GeeGam. Your English is A+.

      I spent the morning of 9 November after the election researching fallout shelters and the effects of an 8-megaton warhead detonating on or over the German air force base at Lager Lechfeld south of Augsburg where I live. Clearly even if we survived the first blast effects in the cellar (a cell with 40 cm of concrete on all sides) we would be buried under metre-high contaminated rubble and would be in the position of those people described in Revelation chapter 9 verse 6.

  • 12 January 2017 at 9:12am
    Graucho says:
    Given Mr. T's pronouncements on various defence issues and Russia and NATO, maybe the best use of our nuclear deterent is to point the trident missiles at the White House and let him know that if he allows Putin to walk into Western Europe he's next.

    • 12 January 2017 at 12:52pm
      Stu Bry says: @ Graucho
      Are you genuinely concerned about Russia invading Western Europe?

    • 12 January 2017 at 5:08pm
      Graucho says: @ Stu Bry
      Well as I would now include the Baltic states as part of the West and 34% of Latvia is Russian and from what we have seen in Ukraine I would not be surprised to see invasion by stealth.

    • 12 January 2017 at 8:04pm
      Stu Bry says: @ Graucho
      It would be surprising if the elected government of Latvia was removed in a US backed coup as happened in Ukraine but I suppose anything is possible these days.

  • 12 January 2017 at 9:38am
    streetsj says:
    Ironically Trump's irrational unpredictability improves the deterrent effect of nuclear weapons. Putin has successfully anticipated that the West would do nothing to stop him intervening in the Ukraine and Syria. Would he be so confident with Trump in the White House?
    [This argument, unattractive as it is, assumes that Trump isn't owned by Putin]

    • 17 January 2017 at 7:16pm
      John Cowan says: @ streetsj
      Perhaps. In the nuclear age there have been three military strategies: strong-and-sane, like the U.S. and the Soviet Union (evil does not mean insane); weak-and-sane, like Western European countries; and weak-and-crazy, like North Korea. Nobody knows what strong-and-crazy looks like.

    • 19 January 2017 at 3:22am
      zbs says: @ John Cowan
      There's something about the "madman theory"--the theory part, I guess--that carries the suggestion that it was a cunning, finely-reasoned, daring kind of insanity. Or rather a kind of super-sanity, which condescends to mute incomprehension, such as might accompany the photo illustration for this post.

  • 12 January 2017 at 3:48pm
    IPFreely says:
    So what about a remake of Dr. Strangelove before reality closes in on us?
    For a very good summary of the nuclear arms race viewed from the American angle, take a look at "The Atomic Café' which is available on You Tube.

    • 12 January 2017 at 6:09pm
      Jeremy Bernstein says: @ IPFreely
      Let me endorse "The Atomic Cafe'. The test that is described was one of the ones I saw in 1957 in which soldiers were marched the "ground zero" and some got sick.
      About a year ago Trump gave an on record interview to two reporters in the New York Times about nuclear weapons. I wrote a long blog that you can find on the New York Review of books website. There is a link to the interview. It shows Trump's ignorance of the subject. He is against proliferation but Japan and South Korea should have them to save us money. The Iran treaty is bad because Iran bought planes from Airbus and not Boeing.When it was pointed out to him that it was against the law for Boeing to sell to Iran Trump said "Huh?" I thought at the time that there was no chance that the American people would let this "short-fingered vulgarian" anywhere near the nuclear codes. I was wrong evidently. But I do not see any evidence that he has learned anything. When he was asked about North Korea's missiles he said "It won't happen." Yes?
      Things were stable for decades precisely because they were predictable. That is what Mutually Assured Destruction is.Is there anyone in that group he has selected who can keep him in check?

    • 12 January 2017 at 8:12pm
      Stu Bry says: @ Jeremy Bernstein
      Surely the death knell for MAD was the US withdrawal from the ABM treaty in 2002?

      Reagan had Alzheimers and was under the influence of Teller. Bush was a moron surrounded by war crazed Neocons. It's hard to imagine how Trump can be worse.

    • 12 January 2017 at 9:21pm
      Graucho says: @ Stu Bry
      Personally, don't find it hard at all.

  • 13 January 2017 at 3:13pm
    IPFreely says:
    The ladies in hats interviewed in "Atomic Café' were all proto-Trump supporters. While you're at it, take a look at "Hearts and Minds" to see how predominantly democratic administrations went about foreign policy during the fifties and sixties. Is it possible that Trump will do it worse than Kennedy and Johnson?

    • 13 January 2017 at 9:32pm
      randalstella says: @ IPFreely

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