The last few days have felt like the return of the cold war days, with people, who had got used to the spectre of nuclear war fading into the background, suddenly asking the old questions: could it really happen? What would the aftermath be? Should I be scared?
As much as it is a terrifying prospect, it’s also a fascinating one: the idea of mutually assured destruction, mind games, psychology, and the final, awe-inspiring decision of what it takes, psychologically, to press that button and order the deaths of millions of innocent people.
As both Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un issue ever more bellicose statements, the question remains: could they actually make that decision?
In light of this, US writer Steve Silberman shared this chilling passage written by the academic Roger Fisher, who served in World War II as a weather reconnaissance pilot before working on the Marshall Plan, which aided the post-war reconstruction of Europe. As a teacher, lawyer and writer, he formulated a unique idea to bring home the reality of launching a nuclear weapon, which he wrote in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in 1981:
The passage reads:
“My favourite activity is inventing. An early arms control proposal dealt with the problem of distancing that the President would have in the circumstances of facing a decision about nuclear war. There is a young man, probably a Navy officer, who accompanies the President. This young man has a black attache case which contains the codes that are needed to fire nuclear weapons. I could see the President at a staff meeting considering nuclear war as an abstract question. He might conclude: “On SIOP Plan One, the decision is affirmative. Communicate the Alpha line XYZ..” Such jargon holds what is involved at a distance.”
“My suggestion was quite simple: Put that needed code number in a little capsule, and then implant that capsule right next to the heart of a volunteer. The volunteer would carry with him a big, heavy butcher knife as he accompanied the President. If ever the President wanted to fire nuclear weapons, the only way he could do so would be for him first, with his own hands, to kill one human being. The President says, “George, I’m sorry but tens of millions must die.” He has to look at someone and realize what death is – what an innocent death is. Blood on the White House carpet. It’s reality brought home.
“When I suggested this to friends in the Pentagon they said, “My God, that’s terrible. Having to kill someone would distort the President’s judgement. He might never push the button.”
It’s an intriguing idea. Would Donald Trump – or even Kim Jong-un for that matter – be prepared to take a life with their own hands before ordering the destruction of millions of others, no matter the justification?