Can reading a book save us from nuclear war?

Well, now, there’s a headline I can’t say I thought I’d write someday but there it is. Not since 1962 — at least as far as we know officially — have Americans woken up wondering whether it was worth doing the long-term financial planning this week or not, considering the life expectancy of the planet.

Two world leaders are now hurling hyperbole missiles (so far) at each other. We’re used to hearing it from North Korea, but it was a stunner on Tuesday when Donald Trump threatened “fire, fury and frankly power the likes of which this world has never seen before” if North Korea continues to make nuclear threats against the United States.

It didn’t work, of course. Overnight North Korea responded by suggesting they’d nuke Guam first.

What’s the next move?

Nothing has worked with North Korea and the president’s indelicate threat reflects the frustration world leaders experience when trying.

This might be, Sarah Vowell writes in the New York Times today, a good time to read a book.

President Kennedy got lucky during the Cuban missile crisis. But he’d also just read Barbara Tuchman’s book, The Guns of August, about the opening events of World War I.

Would a more curious mind like Kennedy have made different decisions from Truman in 1945? Probably not — once “the Gadget” worked, it was going to be used. But he might have asked more questions beforehand. What we do know is that in 1962, nuclear holocaust was averted in part because a president read a book and learned from it.

We know that our current president reads neither books nor the Australian prime minister’s mood. And thanks to a leaked talk to congressional interns last week, we know that his son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner, the administration’s supposed voice of reason who is charged with ending the opioid epidemic, brokering peace between Israelis and Palestinians, and presumably proving the existence of God, actually said these words, out loud, to people with ears: “We’ve read enough books.”

No doubt the president has been briefed by experienced and learned military leaders. Truman listened to his. Kennedy didn’t.

The world seems closer to nuclear war this morning than it has for 55 years.

What book might calm tensions?

A commenter suggests “Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes,” a story about a girl who develops leukemia 10 years after Hiroshima.

When I reached the end, I cried for what felt like hours. I remember a heavy, horrible feeling, as though 50 years later and a continent away, I was being suffocated under the weight of her suffering. I couldn’t bear it.

The long-term consequences of war were clear to me, a 10 year old boy, then. And while I see slightly more nuance now, as an adult, I find my opinion is more-or-less unchanged. We cannot foresee all the consequences of an atomic war, but we can feel certain that it will involve decades of pain.

It’s impossible to imagine that there’s anyone walking the planet who doesn’t realize that, and for decades that fact alone has been enough to keep earthlings from waging a nuclear war that destroys the blue dot. And yet, here we are, comforted only by the thought that two of them can’t possibly be insane enough to try.

  • MrE85

    “The Guns of August” is an excellent book. The first World War helped to shape the world as it is today, especially in the Middle East.

  • MikeB

    Here’s hoping the institutional guardrails are resilient enough to hold.

    Book titles would be the closest Trump gets to reading the contents. So the WH staff should insert flattering titles in the daily fluff files provided to POTUS.

    • Jerry

      I think he might misunderstand the point of On The Beach if he only goes by title.

      • Rob

        Wasn’t that the prequel to “Gidget Goes Hawaiian?”

      • RBHolb

        “Think of all the grabbing opportunities,” he said, after much editing.

  • jon

    I say we have the 71 year old healthiest president ever, with painful bone spurs that kept him out of vietnam, fight the 33 year old with debilitating gout.

    They can both ride their golf carts into the ring, but once there the golf carts need to be exited for the actual fight.

  • Jim in RF

    Criminey, I think most any book that would occupy 4 or 5 hours of his time would do well.

    • Jerry
      • Jim in RF

        Yeah, okay I suppose. I guess I was thinking of an owner’s manual for a toaster oven or something. War and Peace might be biting off too much.

    • RBHolb

      While I don’t think Trump is in the running for Top Presidential Intellect, I don’t know that he’s stupid. He has the attention span of a dog in a squirrel farm, and he has less intellectual depth or curiosity than the average “Bachelorette” viewer, but that isn’t the same as being stupid.

      He may be worse than stupid. A stupid person may at least know his own limitations. A lack of curiosity, on the other hand, means he has his mind made up, and has no need to think about anything.

      In the Sarah Vowell Op-Ed Bob quoted, she mentioned how President Truman learned the evils of rash decision making after Hiroshima. We can only hope President Trump learns that lesson in a way that is much less costly.

  • Al
  • Rob

    Our book-phobic POTUS is the ultimate wrong person in the wrong place at the wrong time. Gods help us.

  • Mike

    We’ve more or less just been lucky since 1945 that nuclear war hasn’t happened. The only thing that’s kept it from occurring, in my opinion, is mutually assured destruction (MAD). The problem with that theory is that it assumes a) the players are rational, and b) accidents don’t happen. We came very close to nuclear annihilation in the early ’60s and the early ’80s, but luckily cooler heads prevailed both in the US and the USSR.

    The only answer is disarmament, and more efforts towards global peace generally. But the U.S. government isn’t remotely interested in those ideas. The domestic peace and anti-nuclear movement, which was active through the early 1980s, has virtually disappeared amid the onslaught of “good v. evil” political rhetoric we’ve had to endure since 9/11.

    If we actually want peace, it’s high time our government started practicing it.

  • AL287

    The most frightening thing about this whole cataclysm in the making precisely is that Donald Trump is NOT John F. Kennedy and Kim Jong Un is NOT Nikita Kruschev. Both of these men are psychologically flawed and immature enough to call the other one’s bluff in this game of nuclear chicken. They remind me of bucks during rutting season in the wild.

    One is a narcissistic demagogue and the other one is a paranoid dictator, not a good combination if you want to prevent an all out nuclear war and neither one is very good at negotiating as the leaked transcripts of Trump’s phone calls to Pena-Nieto and Trumbull all too painfully point out.

    Much as Trump would like to think he does, he does not rule the world. What was left of the United State’s influence in the world disappeared with his presidential campaign tactics and his Twitter addiction.

    I’m watching “The Winds of War” which I highly recommend to the younger commenters in this bunch. While it is a work of fiction, it accurately depicts the events that led up to WW II. If Trump won’t (or can’t) read the book maybe he could be cajoled into watching the movie.

    If North Korea does launch a missal at Guam, one strike from us will make North Korea a burned out spot on the map and likely South Korea along with it.

    Let’s hope cooler Chinese heads can prevail.

  • Ian Maitland

    If you want some insight into how things got to this pass with Kim Jong-un, I recommend reading any book about how the West drifted into WWII. Here is a definition of appeasement:

    “Appeasement policy, the policy of appeasing Hitler and Mussolini, operating jointly at that time, during 1937 and 1938 by continuous concessions granted in the hope of reaching a point of saturation when the dictators would be willing to accede to international collaboration. … It came to an end when Hitler seized Czechoslovakia on March 15, 1939, in defiance of his promises given at Munich, and Prime Minister Chamberlain, who had championed appeasement before, decided on a policy of resistance to further German aggression.” Walter Theimer (ed.), The Penguin Political Dictionary, 1939.

    For Ramsay MacDonald, Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain substitute Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

    • Mike

      The main difference being, of course, that North Korea hasn’t invaded any other nation, and isn’t in any position to do so. Kim Jong-un is not Hitler; he’s more like a farcical Chairman Mao, running a bankrupt little tinpot totalitarian regime. That’s not to say he can’t do any damage, but it also doesn’t make North Korea remotely similar to 1930s Germany.

      U.S. military-industrial complex discourse wants to turn every leader we don’t like into Hitler, regardless of how poorly the analogy fits. It’s beyond tiresome.

      • Ian Maitland


        “North Korea hasn’t invaded any other nation”.

        But have you ever stopped to think why it hasn’t done so? I’ll let you in on a secret: It is not because the Kims are a peaceful, law-abiding regime. It is because our threat of military force constrained them. What would that threat be worth if Kim could take out Seattle?

        Do I really have to remind you of the monstrous crimes the North Korean regime has committed just short of invading the South? Do you think that a regime capable of those monstrosities would show restraint if we sat idly by when it deployed nuclear-tipped ICBMs?

        The status quo has worked well. Under our nuclear umbrella, South and East Asia have become immensely prosperous. The ” bankrupt little tinpot totalitarian regime” in North has decided to disrupt the status quo and start a nuclear arms race.

        You can make silly jokes about the North’s “farcical” leader, but I am not reassured. With the time that you would give him, he will become a farcical leader brandishing nuclear weapons.

      • Ian Maitland


        Another follow-up. You say my analogy of North Korea with the catastrophic results of appeasing Hitler is flawed by pointing out that “North Korea hasn’t invaded any other nation.”

        But the analogy fits perfectly. You are making my point. If North Korea hasn’t invaded the South, that is precisely because of the bitter lesson we learned from appeasing Hitler. We learned that if we wanted to give peace a chance, we had to leave the Kims in no doubt that any attack on the South would inevitably lead to the destruction of themselves and their regime.

        The result of the “U.S. military-industrial complex’s” containment of North Korea? 65 years of peace.

        All that is in the balance now. And your response is to invite us to snicker at Kim Jong-un. He won’t seem very funny when he waves his ICBMs at the rest of the world.

  • Jerry
  • AmiSchwab

    too bad donnie can’ read.