Kennedy’s conduct during the Cuban missile crisis was the opposite of the current president’s swaggering, ill-informed recklessness. In essence, Kennedy put into practice the ideas of the great civilian strategists, who counseled showing resolve through firm declarations of resistance and sober clarifications of military capacity, while leaving an adversary a palatable opportunity to back down and the diplomatic channels through which to do so.
In contrast to Kennedy, President Richard Nixon took repeated turns at playing the madman. In 1969, during negotiations with North Vietnam, he sent a squadron of 18 nuclear-armed B-52s toward Moscow and staged a worldwide nuclear readiness alert, all to appear so unbalanced that the Soviets would pressure Hanoi to give in. “I want the North Vietnamese to believe I’ve reached the point where I might do anything to stop the war,” he told his chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman.
Historians continue to debate how effective Nixon’s maneuver was; the Soviet Union was taken aback, but then again the American role in the war lasted three and a half more years. But it’s also important to remember that Nixon was not in fact a madman and chose his “irrational” moves with precision. An old foreign-policy hand, he knew exactly whom he was dealing with in Moscow and Hanoi, and could predict with reasonable accuracy how they would react. Yet even then, the results were inconclusive.
Put differently, the short history of nuclear confrontation demonstrates that effectively controlling the risks of nuclear war depends acutely on the personality of a particular president. It matters greatly that the world assumed Nixon was rational, and that many in the world harbor concerns about Mr. Trump. There is a crucial difference between playing against type to introduce new doubts and playing to type to reinforce existing ones. For example, critical to Nixon’s strategy was what he said to Haldeman — that he’d been pushed too far, implying that he would return to his senses if the Soviets and North Vietnamese gave in. But does anyone think Mr. Trump would do the same?
Consider the discombobulated way his administration has approached North Korea. Some members of his national security team are apparently trying to apply the sort of approach that the Cuban missile crisis enshrined, emphasizing diplomatic and economic pressure and characterizing military measures as a last resort. But Mr. Trump himself has frustrated and undermined them, doubling down on his own wayward improvisations by belittling Mr. Kim personally and proclaiming he “won’t be around much longer.” Meanwhile, he has undercut American diplomatic efforts on issues from the Iran nuclear deal to trade negotiations.
His threats to North Korea aren’t a case of temporary madness; they’re standard operating procedure. It’s hard to see the North Koreans backing down in hopes that Mr. Trump will return to reason and be a stable, rational negotiating partner.
The real risk here is that Mr. Trump does not actually understand the scope of the challenge he faces on the Korean Peninsula — and that he may in fact mean what he says in his threats. Any of the United States’ three basic offensive options — an all-out preventive attack on North Korea’s nuclear and missile facilities; a limited attack on those sites; or surgical special operations to overthrow or “decapitate” the regime — could set off North Korean artillery barrages against the people of Seoul (and the nearly 30,000 American military personnel in South Korea) and wider war in the region, potentially up to the nuclear level.
Mr. Trump may be clueless about nuclear strategy and incapable of empathizing with the South Koreans. But even he should blanch at immersing the United States in a destructive, unnecessary and ignominious war in Asia.