I suppose we should be feeling grateful this Thanksgiving for having survived so far the nuclear whims of the president.
In recent decades, as Cold War nuclear war fears have receded, we have mainly had domesticated nukes such as our own Pilgrim plant to worry about. Now once again nuclear war is an entree on the menu of possible futures being entertained by our dear leader. Back to the good old Cold war days of brinkmanship. Schoolboy baiting and taunting between world leaders. Machismo as international political style.
Flying across the country recently with the Trump-and-Kim show as backdrop, I got to appreciating anew the incredible cooperation involved in just the travelling part of life, this intricate airline civilization of planes flying more or less on schedule, thousands of fellow humans of all ages and colors thronging through soaring, hopeful airport architecture, the flight attendants and pilots and airport staff, the guy making my sandwich for inflight consumption, all fulfilling needed services with care and almost universal good cheer. Not to mention the beautiful land we flew over, the vast expanses, the cities, my country ’tis of thee.
Really? All this—our beautiful world– up for grabs, on the table, as it were, in a high stakes game between two of the least trusted men in the world?
How could we have let this happen? How can we have gotten ourselves back to Herman Kahn (satirized in the title character of the 1964 movie “Dr. Strangelove; or how I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb”) earnestly urging “thinking about the unthinkable.” (Yes, most of us would die in nuclear war, but some of us, you see, some of our leaders at any rate, could survive underground to emerge when “nuclear winter” permitted, to start again.)
Do we really have to regress to being grateful for surviving (so far) such thinking?
In the years following World War Two and its nuclear finale, for the first time in human history (outside of religious apocalyptic visions), species suicide became not only imaginable but more or less likely. WW1, WW2, with all the horrors thereof–why not WW3? And why would it not be nuclear? We had never fought a war and refrained from using our best technology; why would WW3 be any different?.
That probability was a large part of the quality of life of the Cold War decades. “Time” magazine had a cover story on a whole new neurosis, the nuclear nightmare of species annihilation. (My own version was a recurring dream of finding myself strapped to a nuclear missile.)
“Dr. Strangelove”’s black humor played on the probability of things not going as planned. Of course, nobody wanted nuclear annihilation—that was the whole basis of arms race deterrence. But what if there were a weird person, a nut, someone not quite as level-headed as you and I, in charge of the button? Someone like the general in the movie who had this thing about “precious bodily fluids”?
But more recently (despite the Doomsday Clock remaining very close to midnight) there has been the sense that perhaps the species has, amazingly enough, matured. That cooler heads have prevailed. Yes: 1, then 2; but perhaps not 3. Because, Herman Kahn’s upbeat calculations notwithstanding, the murder of millions and billions is not in fact thinkable.
And now, where are the cooler heads? Trump and Kim, two of the more infamously unstable characters in public life, in charge of our global future?
So no, I won’t be feeling grateful this holiday for having survived so far. That the thought even occurs is a big step back into a black humor past that I hoped my son and grandsons would not have to experience. When it comes to toasts, ”eat, drink, and be merry . . .” would be more to the point.