President Donald Trump’s aggressive rhetoric on North Korea has very little recurrence throughout history – and it could bring the country dangerously close to a nuclear war.
On August 8, Trump said that North Korea’s threats to the US will be met with “fire and fury like the world has never seen” after The Washington Post reported that the country could have up to 60 nuclear warheads small enough to fit on missiles. Within hours, North Korea threatened to fire nuclear missiles at US military bases in Guam.
While US presidents have frequently taken tough stances on North Korea’s threats to use nuclear weapons, Trump’s rhetoric has very little recourse throughout the history of modern nuclear threats, The New York Times reports.
“It’s hard to think of a president using more extreme language during crisis like this before,” historian Michael Beschloss told the Times.
According to Beschloss, President Dwight D. Eisenhowever remained moderate even when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev told Americans that the Soviets “will bury you.” President John F. Kennedy called for “stable relations between our two nations” and to “move the world back from the abyss of destruction” even in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis with the Soviet Union.
“Presidents usually try to use language that is even more moderate than what they may be feeling in private, because they’ve always been worried that their language might escalate a crisis,” Beschloss said.
The few exceptions came when, in 1945, President Harry Truman said that the US had dropped a nuclear bomb on Hiroshima and would bring “a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth” if Japan did not surrender in World War II. According to former National Security Council official Victor Cha, President Bill Clinton once also told North Korea that any attempt to use nuclear weapons “would be the end of their country.”
But experts agreed that Trump’s words of “fire and fury” came off less like a response and more like a direct provocation of North Korea – a move that most closely resembles Kim’s tendency to test the country’s nuclear missiles and threaten to use one on the West.
- KCNA/ via REUTERS
“This is a little bit more jingoistic, and it borrows a little bit from the tone of the North Koreans,” Peter Feaver, a Bush-era National Security Council staff adviser and current political science professor at Duke, told the Times.
But while it is unlikely that the exchange of bravado between the two countries will result in a real-world attack, experts agreed that the stakes of bringing the US even a little closer to a potential nuclear war scenario are just too high.
Former US defense secretary Leon Panetta told Politico that, while Trump’s comments on North Korea are typical compared to the president’s other bombastic comments, the fallout of doing so with North Korea could spell disaster for both countries.
“You’ve got two bullies chiding each other with outrageous comments – and it doesn’t help the situation in terms of trying to resolve something that has to be resolved peacefully … because the consequences of nuclear war would be devastating,” Panetta said.