As the Justice Department investigations and Congressional hearings into Watergate closed in, Richard Nixon—as a brag—once said something to the effect of, “I can go into my office and pick up the telephone and in 25 minutes, millions of people will be dead.”
That was when he was sober. In the depths of his stress and depression, the U.S. president was also mixing alcohol and sleeping pills, and his natural paranoia became even worse.
“He really got paranoid when he got three drinks in him. There are things I’m not even going to discuss that were said, but they were the result of drinking. He could not handle drink,” one of Nixon’s political strategists said.
This is a man who semi-regularly “beat the hell” out of spouse Pat Nixon. Considering that more than half the mass shootings in the United States involve attacking a former or current romantic partner, it’s not implausible that a too-drunk Nixon might have gone too far hurting his wife and decided to kick off the destruction of humanity by picking up a phone to kill 70 million Russians half an hour later. Legally, there was nothing anyone might do to stop him, except perhaps invoke the just-passed 25th Amendment.
Otherwise, all United States presidents since Harry S. Truman have had and still have the legal authority to translate a vicious, narcissistic whim into genocide, and along the way, America’s nuclear arsenal grew so that power became omnicidal, capable of unilaterally ending all human life on earth without requiring any return shot.
Since the end of the Cold War and dissolution of the Soviet Union, the reasoning for that godlike authority remaining vested in a single person no longer exists: there is no longer a prospect of an unannounced first strike that’d have no ability to respond to without deliberation.
Yet, by inertia, the imperial presidency of the United States still has this capacity, and it seems unlikely any White House willingly would devolve such a power back to a legislature or extend the process to involve oversight and review.
As a candidate, publicly and presumably as a president, privately, Trump has expressed some befuddlement at the idea of the United States having nuclear weapons but not being able to use them except in a retaliatory exchange. Our only reassurance is that he’s said a lot of things on nuclear weapons; we sleep at night assuming the best interpretation of those inconsistencies and not the worst.
The Roman emperor Caligula thought he was a god, but Caligula couldn’t end the world in reaction to an especially scathing sketch on a re-run of Saturday Night Live.
* * *
Time’s arrow being such as it is, cause and effect being understood such as they are, each discrete step makes sense from conceptualizing the nucleus of the atom and discovering fission to release theretofore unimaginable energy, all the way till now where all trace of human achievement rests on one emotionally brittle septuagenarian not exercising his veto on the existence of complex terrestrial life.
Young Millennial and Gen Z humor tends toward a particularly absurdist flavor of nihilism, which dovetails quite well with our entire conscious lives involving inescapable, looming murder—from mass shooters to nuclear catastrophe—for no reason other than “that’s just the way it is”.
People with power could make direct and obvious changes for the better, but the status quo is easier and most benefits those who currently have power.
So here we are.
* * *
Continue reading “BOOK REVIEW: Peter Watson’s “Fallout” shows how the nuclear world we got didn’t have to be this way—and doesn’t”