John Colson: Balancing on a nuclear teeter-totter

John Colson
Hit & Run

I’ve never been to Hawaii, and last weekend I was prompted to wonder if I’d ever get the chance before Kim Jong Un decides to re-enact the Pearl Harbor attack by Japan that dragged the U.S. into World War II back on Dec. 7, 1941.

Kim, the nutty leader of the deeply paranoid and internationally isolated country of North Korea, has been trading barbs and blowhardiness with our own nutball, President Donald Trump, for months, leading to a growing concern that nuclear war could easily happen when two such unstable individuals are in charge of nuclear weapons.

When a mistaken nuclear-missile alert went out to Hawaiian cellphones last week, there must have been a lot of freaked-out people wandering around for the half-hour or so before authorities were able to say clearly that it was all a mistake.

According to Hawaiian news reports, students at various schools on the islands immediately began running for cover when their phones pinged with the false alarm.

Had I been there that day, I might have done the same, thinking back to my days as a school kid in Madison, Wisconsin, in the 1950s, when “duck and cover” was the watchword for preparing for nuclear attack during school hours. Madison, as it happened, was a prime target in the nuclear standoff between the U.S. and the former U.S.S.R., as Madison’s Truax Field was home to a satellite hub of the Strategic Air Command at that time.

Last Saturday at the USS Arizona memorial (built on the sunken remains of one of the warships destroyed by Japanese air fighters attacking Pearl Harbor), tourists were watching a video of the 1941 sneak attack when their phones pinged with the erroneous alert. Hard to imagine what kind of visions of death and destruction must have been running through viewers’ heads, or how they rationalized the news on their smartphones in comparison with the historic images on the video screen.

According to news reports, the White House issued a statement about the erroneous alert well after it had been clearly established that it was an error (apparently a technician activated the wrong template on a computer screen during some kind of drill).

Trump himself, caught out on the links somewhere in Florida when the false alarm went out, did not send out anything via his famed Twitter account for nearly three hours, according to a report by CNN.

And when he did, the tweet had nothing to do with the terror felt by Hawaiian residents a few hours earlier.

No, it was all about how the media was once again treating him badly, this time regarding a report from some Eastern outlet that Trump had paid hush money to a porn star he once allegedly had an affair with.

As of Sunday morning, as far as I could determine, there still had been no word from the president about the false alarm in Hawaii. He was more worried about his own image than about the anxiety suffered by people on an island a few thousand miles to the west, which might or might not have something to do with the fact that Hawaii went for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election.

Tellingly, there also has been no news that I could find about how our national nuclear preparedness system reacted to the Hawaiian alert, or about how close we might have come to some kind of nuclear conflict as a result of the false alarm.

As I pondered the situation and scouted around various news sites to learn what I could, I came across a New York Times story about a 1983 event that brought the U.S. and the Soviet Union about as close as we had been to nuclear war since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.

In 1983, during the presidency of Republican Ronald Reagan, Korean Air Lines Flight 007 strayed into Soviet air space and was misidentified by Soviet air officials as a U.S. spy plane.

After firing warning shots near the Korean air liner, the Soviets shot it down, killing all 269 people on board.

Although the tragedy was quickly recognized as a mistake, an atmosphere of mutual distrust pushed the U.S. and the Soviets frighteningly close to a nuclear exchange, according to the NYT.

Both sides were disinclined to believe the other, particularly as lives had been lost, and precise information about the downing of the aircraft was in short supply.

As a result, nuclear warriors on both sides were sure they were being lied to, and that a pre-emptive nuclear strike by the other side was only moments away.

Reagan, having apparently missed a CIA briefing document that concluded the downing was a mistake, not a provocation or first strike, started denouncing the Soviets as a rotten nation bent on world domination and other, equally unfriendly names, further convincing the Soviets that he was about to launch an all-out missile attack.

And each side was fully aware that whoever launched first would be the likely winner of the resulting nuclear war — a theory that thankfully was never put to the test for a number of reasons.

Last weekend’s false alarm, while not nearly as tragic as the downing of KAL 007, might have been far more hazardous had it occurred during, say, a verbal duel between Trump and Kim, or some other hot-button incident involving the U.S. and North Korea.

Kim, for instance, might have interpreted the Hawaiian false alarm as cover for a sneak nuclear attack by the U.S. and, in a panic, might have fired his paltry nuclear arsenal at the USA, rather than wait for the US misses to either materialize or not.

Or Trump, groggy from too much Twittering in the wee hours, might have misinterpreted his briefing on the false alarm, deciding that Kim had opted to pull the trigger and firing off our own salvo of misses.

Exactly this kind of potential nuclear disaster was theorized over the weekend by one of our nation’s top nuclear experts, Vipin Narang of MIT, who according to the NYT, tweeted his theory out to the world and then asked, “Think it can’t happen?”

Well, do you?

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