WASHINGTON — On June 14, 1946, the United States representative to the Atomic Energy Commission, Bernard Baruch, presented a novel and ambitious plan to his fellow commissioners. Less than a year earlier, the U.S. had awakened the world to the destructive power of two atomic bombs. Now, Baruch was proposing that the United Nations take control of all nuclear weapons and ensure the peaceful use of nuclear power. “We are here,” Baruch declared, “to make a choice between the quick and the dead.”
The Baruch Plan, we now know, was doomed to failure: The Soviet Union was already pursuing its own nuclear weapons program. But the day of Baruch’s speech was notable for another reason. One borough away from the Atomic Energy Commission’s Manhattan headquarters, at a hospital in Queens, a real estate magnate and a Scottish immigrant were welcoming a new baby into the world. His name was Donald J. Trump.
In more than one way, then, June 14, 1946 marked a significant day in the history of nuclear weapons: First, as the most serious proposal by the U.S. to fully eliminate the threat of nuclear weapons; and second, as the birth of a president who seems to be seriously contemplating the use of nuclear weapons. The failure of the Baruch Plan marked the inevitability of the first nuclear arms race. The question today is: Will President Trump’s apparent failure to understand even the most basic horrors of nuclear war mark the second? If he truly wants to lead, he has much to learn from another president who defied low expectations to help usher in the era of nuclear arms control: Ronald Reagan.
Donald Trump has a long history of disturbing comments on nuclear policy. In the 1980s, he bragged that he could negotiate a great nuclear deal with the Soviets easily because it was just like a real estate deal. “I often think of nuclear war,” Trump told Playboy in 1990. During a Republican primary debate in early 2016, he said “the devastation is very important to me.” At a Pentagon meeting in July, the President was reported to have called for a tenfold increase in America’s nuclear arsenal, which allegedly inspired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, as the meeting was breaking up, to say that Trump was a “moron.”
And, of course, there is the President’s continual Twitter taunting of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un as “Little Rocket Man.” This is a man whose nation has defined its very strength and security through nuclear weapons. Promising to rain “fire and fury” down on this nation, as Trump did in August, or belittling Kim in a speech to the U.N. General Assembly didn’t sound to Pyongyang like a threat – it sounded like a declaration of war.
Americans of a certain age will remember that we’ve been here before. I’m not talking about the 1950s and 1960s, when schoolchildren practiced hiding under their desks in the event of a Soviet attack. In November of 1981, the vast majority of Americans believed that America would be in a nuclear war within two years. The reason? President Reagan, whose critics at the time believed he was the vacuous, unhinged warmonger that Donald Trump projects today.
Like Trump, Reagan talked tough. A long-time critic of arms control, he scoffed at the idea of détente with Moscow. In his first year, the Reagan Administration hired 32 members of the hawkish Committee on Present Danger, which had led opposition to arms control measures promoted by Reagan’s predecessor, Jimmy Carter. Reagan’s first strategic initiative was a huge buildup of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, including publicly advocating for a powerful new weapon, the MX missile. European allies were up in arms. The nuclear freeze movement became every bit as vocal as the “Resist” movement to Trump is today. When Reagan advocated a space-based missile defense system capable of shooting Soviet missiles out of the sky, critics poked fun of it as “Star Wars”.
What nobody realized about Reagan is that he hated nuclear weapons as much as he hated communism. As far back as 1945, when he was a young Hollywood star, he publicly spoke out against the use of atomic weapons. In the face of so-called “nuclear theologians” in the early 80s – who spoke of nuclear conflict as a winnable war and warned that the U.S. was in deep trouble because we only had 23,000 nuclear warheads to Moscow’s 26,000 – Reagan publicly said that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” Terrified when he realized that an estimated two-thirds of the U.S. population would die in a nuclear war, and spooked when he learned that Moscow misread a nuclear war game between the U.S. and its NATO allies in 1983 as the real thing and nearly launched a nuclear counter-strike, Reagan committed the rest of his presidency to nuclear sanity.
I remember because I was there. As the business fellow at Harvard’s Center for International Affairs in the late 1970s, I was so horrified by the top MIT and Harvard professors, I called “nuclear theologians” that I started an organization called Business Executives for National Security (BENS) in 1982, which advocated practical solutions on how to avoid the use of even one nuclear weapon.
Ultimately, it took President Reagan’s leadership and the efforts of many organizations, including BENS, to make simple common sense a central part of our nuclear orthodoxy: that we’re all better off when the number of nuclear weapons we have is closer to zero. In fact, in just over a month, we will mark the thirtieth anniversary of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty that Reagan convinced Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev to sign, leading to the complete elimination of an entire class of U.S. and Soviet nuclear missiles.
So how can Donald Trump learn from Reagan’s playbook to make the United States – and the world — safer?
First and foremost, he should focus his attention on perfecting our missile defense systems. It’s time we say: Reagan was right about Star Wars. The more capable that America and its allies are at shooting down nuclear missiles, the more pointless those weapons become. Our Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system and the sea-based Aegis system have both performed well on tests. If Trump can improve these missile defense systems and develop better ones, he’ll reduce the risk of nuclear war.
To manage the reactions of China and Russia – who have fiercely opposed an effective U.S. missile defense system – the Administration should use the Pentagon’s ongoing Ballistic Missile Defense Review, expected this year, to articulate a new nuclear doctrine centered around missile defense. That could include reassuring China and Russia by phasing out offensive nuclear weapons as missile defense systems increase.
Second, Trump should rule out a first strike against nuclear states like North Korea and rule out the use of nuclear weapons entirely should North Korea take steps toward denuclearization.
Third, Trump should restart a campaign of nuclear confidence-building and arms control with Moscow – stabilizing the U.S.-Russia nuclear relationship, fully implementing existing agreements like the 2011 New START Treaty, and pursuing additional arms control initiatives.
Collectively, we all hope that Hillary Clinton was wrong when she said of Trump that “a man you can bait with a Tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons.” It’s not too late for him to move in the direction that Bernard Baruch advocated on the day Trump was born. So many of the President’s policies today threaten to turn back the clock in America. But when it comes to nuclear doomsday, let’s hope that Trump will make the right choice –quick, before we’re dead. After all, as I first told Today Show co-host Jane Pauley in 1983 when she asked why a group of business executives cared about nuclear weapons — being dead is bad for business.