“ We could, obviously, destroy North Korea with our arsenals .” —Barack Obama, April 2016
The media recently went ballistic over President Trump’s impromptu promises of “fire and fury” in reply to the latest North Korean threats—and even more so when he later doubled down under criticism and claimed he had not been tough enough.
But American leaders have always resorted to such blunt talk in exacerbating circumstances such as the current one.
Recall Bill Clinton’s now widely quoted remark that it would be “pointless” for North Korea to develop nuclear weapons because using them would mean “the end of their country.”
Likewise, President Harry Truman once promised Japan a “rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth” after dropping the bomb on Hiroshima. Japan apparently got the message that there was no way out but unconditional surrender.
President John F. Kennedy referred publicly to an “abyss of destruction” during the Cuban crisis.
And President Ronald Reagan was the master of the apocalyptic allusion. Remember his hot mic quip: “My fellow Americans, I’m pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes”? Or his “evil empire” reference to the Soviet Union, delivered to a group of Florida evangelicals?
George W. Bush was channeling Reagan when he dubbed Iran, Iraq, and North Korea an “axis of evil”—“axis” was a World War II allusion that left no ambiguity, especially when married to the Reaganesque use of “evil.”
The media seems to have also forgotten the (now prescient) 2006 Washington Post joint op-ed by former Defense Secretary William Perry and future Defense Secretary Ash Carter. The two former Clinton administration officials called for a pre-emptory U.S. strike on a North Korea missile site.
They mostly discounted the threat that North Korea would hit Seoul in response:
Should the United States allow a country openly hostile to it and armed with nuclear weapons to perfect an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of delivering nuclear weapons to U.S. soil? We believe not. . . .But diplomacy has failed, and we cannot sit by and let this deadly threat mature.
Later, Perry and Carter backtracked somewhat from such calls for nuclear brinksmanship. But in retrospect, given North Korea’s new nuclear capabilities, their idea of limited preemption might have been right. Regardless, publishing their preemptive call for war did not enrage North Korea to the point of no return.
By using such strong rhetoric, Trump was likely trying to remind North Korea and China that the United States is not necessarily the predictable rational actor they had assumed it was, but is now subject to episodes of fury and anger, especially when its West coast citizens are routinely threatened with extinction.
Of course, there are various ways for a president to sound dangerous—which should be distinguished from the various ways he actually becomes recklessly dangerous by sounding too accommodating or keeping silent.
The most inflammatory thing a recent president has said might have been President Barack Obama’s hot mic, quid pro quo quip. Obama got caught stealthily offering Russia a deal affecting our national security:
On all these issues, but particularly missile defense, this, this can be solved but it’s important for him [Putin] to give me space. . . This is my last election. After my election I have more flexibility.
Given our current uncertainty about the effectiveness of our missile defense systems, Obama’s offer to back off now seems particularly chilling.