Magazine | February 25, 2019, Issue

Rocket–Paper–Nuke

President Trump gestures at reporters in the Diplomatic Room of the White House, May 8, 2018. (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst/File Photo)

Some think the POTUS plays 4-D chess; some think he’s stumped by rock–paper–scissors. The latter group was horrified when President Trump pulled out of the INF treaty over Russian violations. The Orange Man, previously a Lamb Chop to Russia’s Shari Lewis, was now regarded as a reckless moron who would scour the earth with nuclear fire. It was quite amazing: The old ’80s tropes came instantly to life, like Sea Monkey powder dumped in a fishbowl.

AARP-demographic citizens recalled when the Rooskies moved intermediate-range ballistic missiles into the captive nations of Eastern Europe. Why? Maybe they were warty old oligarchs who actually thought the West wanted to attack them and end the world instead of enjoying our lives full of bountiful groceries and TV shows with jouncy girls.

Eventually, NATO countered the move. A provocative escalation! You’d think the Soviets had deployed the missiles to counter the anticipated U.S. response. There were protests in Europe — and you know it takes a lot to make those guys leave the cafés and yell about America. The evening news no doubt showed the dreaded Doomsday Clock, with some guys in white lab coats solemnly ad­vancing the minute hand closer to midnight.

I grew up terrified of that damned clock until I realized that it actually had no power. If someone grabbed the minute hand and set it to twelve, the missiles would not sprout from their silos. But sure enough, when Trump said CU L8R INF, social-media types brought up the Clock, and fretted that the ’80s were about to be replayed.

Which is apparently bad, because . . . we won?

No, they said. It’ll be a new arms race!

Okay. And how’d the last one turn out?

There were two ideas for avoiding nuclear war back when the USSR was a going concern:

1) Stop provocatively opposing them! Just . . . let them get it all out of their system. Eventually we’ll learn to live together. This was the convergence theory, which held that the USSR would become a little more capitalist, and the West would become a little more socialist, and we’d meet in the middle with silly grins: Man, what was that all about?

Nonsense, of course, but it was interesting that the supposedly ideal outcome for Americans was for the U.S. to become more like the USSR. How would that work, exactly? They’d have McDonald’s and Pepsi, and we’d have internal passports! It’d be fun — people could collect visas from the states they were permitted to visit.

2) Treaties. Yes, that would save the world: crafting a piece of paper that limited each side to 15 billion megatons of dynamite instead of 16 billion megatons. The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty had a nice acronym, “START.” This meant the arms-control people could say, “Well, it’s not perfect, but it’s a START!”

The more detailed the accord, the thicker and creamier the paper, the more elegant the pens used to sign it, the safer we were. People saw the treaties being signed and relaxed a little. Well, at least we’re talking. The world is a little safer today. They forgot what Lenin said: “Treaties are like pie crusts, flaky containers that hold the minced flesh o the kulaks, made to be broken by the hard stabbing knife of the people’s will, allowing the rich filling to ooze out into the pan if it’s not properly refrigerated.” I think they cleaned that up for public consumption.

One of the new theories bruited about on Twitter: Putin has Trump under his control because he has secret tapes that could totally destabilize the government by proving the president, oh, I don’t know, slept with a porn star. Putin used kompromat to make Trump withdraw from the treaty so that they could develop their own Terrible Weapons.

To believe this, one must imagine a Russian general tells Putin that they can begin production of their cobalt-barium-cyanide-botulism bomb that also gives paper cuts and rug burns to people 100 miles out of the blast radius, but Putin pounds the table: Nyet! We have signed a treaty! Do you want to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the entire international order?

The sudden surge in nuclear panic on social media will evaporate since no one has an attention span longer than two days. In my time, by jiminy joseph, we had nuclear dread 24/7/365. It never let up. If the United States came up with an idea that sounded madcap — let’s put the missiles on trains and haul them around the desert! — people lost their minds. What’s the point? the activists would weep. Well, it makes it difficult for Ivan to hit everything, so we could retaliate. And knowing that, they won’t strike first.

So you intend to fight a war? No, not at all. That’s why we call the missiles the “Peacemakers.” The mobility of the launchers brings an element of uncertainty into the —

Peacemaker? That’s obscene! Nuclear war is the opposite of peace!

Yes, but like the Colt .45, which was also called the “Peacemaker,” its deterrent effect —

You named a bomb after a gun?

Here, breathe into this bag.

The Left hates nukes, but it really hates that the West has them. If we gave them up, so would everyone else. If the enemies of the West were the only ones with nukes, that would be okay, since it would deter imperialism. There was no nuclear dread under Obama, since everyone knew he wanted treaties. He didn’t believe in scissors. He believed in paper. And paper covers rock.

Which works in the game, but not in the real world, when the rock’s thrown straight at your head.

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