Aug. 8, President Donald Trump declared that if North Korea continued to use its burgeoning nuclear program to threaten the United States, “they [would] be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.” Trump’s words, which raise the prospect of nuclear warfare to its highest level in decades, eerily mirror the words of another American president who faced off against a belligerent and ambitious foreign power.
On Aug. 7, 1945, the day after the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and two days before the second nuclear strike on Nagasaki, then-President Harry S. Truman justified the use of the atomic bomb as a necessary evil in forcing the Japanese to surrender and ending World War II: “If they do not now accept our terms they may expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth.”
While Trump might think his hardline stance against North Korea proves his strength both at home and abroad, he should be wary of following Truman’s path and continuing to escalate this conflict. Trump is needlessly escalating tensions with a volatile foreign power instead of approaching the situation through diplomatic channels. Additionally, if Trump fails to follow through on his threats, he undermines his own power as well as the United States’ influence with its allies and other countries around the world. All of this, of course, pales in comparison to the actual prospect of nuclear war and the loss of life that would result from a direct military assault on North Korea.
While it is important to acknowledge the parallels between the language of Truman and Trump, the underlying contexts of the two situations are radically different. The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were ordered by Truman as the alternative to a proposed full-assault by the U.S. army on the main Japanese islands — a massive offensive that would have incurred significant casualties on both sides. With this information in mind, Truman determined that these two targeted atomic strikes would better serve American interests and would hasten the end of World War II, a determination that — despite the ethical issues with the bombings — would prove to be correct.
In our contemporary world, there is no war raging across the globe and no appetite in the American psyche for another prolonged conflict following the quagmires still playing out in Afghanistan and Iraq. Moreover, North Korea has demonstrated that it has weaponry capable of striking South Korea and even Japan, two critical American allies in the region that would suffer from a military conflict between Kim Jong-un and Trump. While it might be appealing to his hawkish base to take a hard line on North Korea and boost American military superiority, the president should consider the very real and very dangerous consequences of his rhetoric. This situation is not like the campaign trail, where Trump could belittle his rivals without any repercussions. There are real, human lives at stake in this conflict; the president would be wise to remember that and to work toward a diplomatic solution in order to avoid a nuclear conflict and massive loss of life.
Truman made his decision to drop the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki with the belief that these strikes would prevent a long, drawn-out assault and a catastrophic loss of life. However, Trump stands in a different position than Truman did. Instead of considering a strike against a foreign power in order to end a conflict, Trump risks igniting a war with a pre-emptive attack that would lead to catastrophic loss of life and the threatening of our Pacific allies in the region.
According to the Trump administration, all military and diplomatic options are on the table concerning the North Korean nuclear situation. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson argued that Americans should rest easy about North Korea; the president’s rhetoric was simply a shot across the bow for the North Korean leader who seems unable to respond diplomatically to any situation. However, Trump should listen to his dovish advisors, if he has any, in order to de-escalate tensions and seek economic and diplomatic solutions to the North Korean nuclear crisis. The risks of doing otherwise are almost unthinkable.
Grant Olson is a junior in the College. This is the final installment of Past as Prologue.