President Donald Trump threatened nuclear war this week, just six months into his presidency.
Speaking from his luxury golf resort in Bedminster, New Jersey, Trump warned: “North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.” He was responding to a question about a news report that North Korea had successfully miniaturized nuclear warheads, which could theoretically strike the U.S. mainland.
After Trump’s threat, North Korea responded, saying it was reviewing plans to launch a nuclear attack on Guam, a United States territory in the South Pacific with major U.S. Air Force and naval bases. The statement went on, “The army of the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] will turn the U.S. mainland into the theatre of a nuclear war before the inviolable land of the DPRK turns into one.”
Words matter. This is how wars start.
When the president of the United States promises “fire and fury like the world has never seen,” we need to take him seriously. The U.S. nuclear arsenal has unsurpassed lethality. The only atomic bombs ever used in war, those the U.S. dropped on Japan 72 years ago this week, wrought horrific death and destruction on the civilian populations.
There are still people alive who survived the “fire and fury” of those first atomic bombs. Trump’s bellicose threat this week fell between the anniversaries of the 1945 atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima, on Aug. 6, and Nagasaki, on Aug. 9. Over 200,000 people were killed in those two attacks, whether vaporized instantly or from fatal burns and radiation sickness. The survivors are highly respected in Japan, where they are called “hibakusha.” These are the voices that should be heard on the news networks this week, reflecting on the horror of nuclear war.
Several years ago, we were given a tour of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park and Museum by a hibakusha, Koji Hosokawa. He was 17 years old on the day of the blast. He walked home to the distant suburbs, surrounded by death and destruction. His sister, Yoko, was 13 years old. “My biggest sorrow in my life is about my younger sister, who died in the atomic bomb,” he recalled, tears in his eyes.
Another hibakusha, Setsuko Thurlow, was also 13 on that day. “I saw the bluish-white flash in the windows. I was on the second floor of a wooden building, which was one mile away from ground zero,” she told us on the “Democracy Now!” news hour. “I had a sensation of floating in the air. All the buildings were flattened by the blast and falling … the building I was in was falling, and my body was falling together with it.” She blacked out, regaining consciousness as her classmates were calling out in the darkness for help. “All of a sudden, a strong male voice said: ‘Don’t give up. I’m trying to free you. Keep moving. Keep pushing. … Crawl.’ That’s what I did in the total darkness.” She emerged, witnessing the carnage from the first use of atomic weaponry, her city wiped off the earth, burning corpses everywhere.
Trump’s use of “fire and fury” recalled the words of President Harry Truman, who authorized the atomic bomb attack on Japan. On Aug. 6, 1945, after Hiroshima but before Nagasaki, he demanded Japan surrender, saying, “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.” The surrender didn’t occur until after Nagasaki was laid to waste, with at least 70,000 more civilians killed.
Investigative journalist Allan Nairn calls Trump “the hair-trigger president,” citing his dangerous impulsiveness. “The U.S. nuclear system was already dangerous, irresponsible, insane, because many of the U.S. weapons are on hair-trigger alert. The missiles in the silos, the missiles on the submarines, they can be fired within minutes. Now there’s a president who’s on hair trigger,” Nairn said on “Democracy Now!” “In more rational times, what Trump said would be an article of impeachment.”
North Korea says it’s closely watching the “speech and behavior” of the United States. It’s time for Trump to tone down his rhetoric, stop tweeting and assign genuine diplomats, working in concert with other countries — including China — to help achieve a lasting peace on the Korean peninsula.