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Fermi, Reagan, and Trump

January 16, 2018

President Reagan’s “nuclear football” on Red Square, 1988.

Enrico Fermi was the first to create a nuclear chain reaction.  He also coined what is now known as Fermi’s Paradox, a question asking, essentially: If, on the grand scale, the probability of intelligent extraterrestrial life developing elsewhere in the universe is so high, why haven’t humans yet been contacted?  One theory, pondered by Fermi and others, was that over the grand scale, all alien civilizations eventually gain enough knowledge to split the atom.  After that, the theory goes, it is an inevitability that on the same grand scale all civilizations eventually destroy themselves through nuclear war.  Hence, despite the high probable likelihood, no verified extraterrestrial contact has occurred.

Those that believe this answer to Fermi’s Paradox may be the correct one must have been startled to read a recent opinion piece in the Washington Post by Marc A. Theissen arguing that President Donald Trump’s provocation of a nuclear power was the act of a “stable genius.”  This dangerous commentary by a mainstream author in mainstream newspaper suggests that our civilization may be approaching this nuclear nadir faster than previously believed.

In his article Theissen claims that Trump is conducting an “intentional campaign designed to get North Korea to understand that Trump, unlike his predecessors, is willing to use force to stop Pyongyang from threatening American cities.”  He then postulates that Trump’s threats of war, combined with strikes on nuclear and missile facilities, or even, gasp, “a second Korean War” could be the best response to North Korea’s current ability to strike the United States with a nuclear weapon.

Theissen also argues that “stable genius” President Trump is simply following the successful strategy of President Reagan who tricked Soviet leaders into believing that he “might just be crazy enough to push the nuclear button constrained Soviet behavior and helped make possible a peaceful end to the Cold War.”

While most sober-minded readers will be able to spot the logical fallacies in Thiessen’s proposed solution – threatening and being willing to fight a war, possibly conventional, possibly nuclear, with North Korea– many may not know that his description of President Reagan’s views on nuclear war and his reaction to the Able Archer 83 War Scare, a realistic nuclear war game which spooked the Soviets to ready their nuclear arsenal to an unprecedented alert, was not accurate.

Reagan was a nuclear abolitionist, abhorred nuclear weapons, and believed nuclear war to be immoral.  While he did continue the Carter administration’s military buildup and contributed to the increased US-Soviet tensions with his rhetoric, he made absolutely clear on the floor of Congress that “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. The only value in our two nations possessing nuclear weapons is to make sure they will never be used. But then would it not be better to do away with them entirely?”

From President Reagan’s Diary, November 18, 1983.

Likewise, Reagan was chastened by the 1983 War Scare, which included Able Archer 83.  Weeks after Able Archer 83 he wrote in his diary, “[Secretary of State] George Shultz & I had a talk mainly about setting up a little in house group of experts on the Soviet U[nion] to help us in setting up some channels. I feel the Soviets are so defense minded, so paranoid about being attacked that without being in any way soft on them we ought to tell them that no one here has any intention of doing anything like that.”

Reagan reached out to his Soviet counterparts several times during his first term in an effort to reduce nuclear weapons and tensions.  This included sending a letter from his hospital bed after being shot, pleading to Leonid Brezhnev, the leader of the Soviet Union for “meaningful and constructive dialogue which will assist us in fulfilling our joint obligation to find lasting peace.”

During Reagan’s second term, he found a Soviet partner, Mikhail Gorbachev, to make this lasting peace, eliminating an entire category of over 2,600 nuclear missiles, ending the Cold War, and shepherding in the peaceful dissolution of the Soviet Union and totalitarian control of Eastern Europe.

Reagan made this hard bargain because of his desire to minimize the risk of nuclear war, including through miscalculation.  The president knew and feared that nuclear war could occur through misreading an adversary, bad luck, or a  human pressing the wrong button.  In September 1983, after Soviet fighter jets shot down KAL 007, a civilian airliner, because they mistakenly believed it to be a US spy plane, Reagan wrote, “If, as some people speculated the Soviet pilots simply mistook the airliner for a military plane, what kind of imagination did it take to think of a Soviet military man with his finger close to a nuclear push button making an even more tragic mistake?”

Thiessen –and the president— would do well to read Reagan’s own writing on nuclear statesmanship rather than misrepresent history.  In the meantime, the mischaracterizing of President Reagan as a nuclear cheerleader rather than a nuclear abolitionist is another troubling indicator that we may not like the answer to Fermi’s Paradox.

This essay may be reprinted.

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