Tension between the U.S. and North Korea escalated sharply Tuesday after President Trump suggested he was prepared to start a nuclear war, threatening to unleash “fire and fury” against North Korea. Hours later, North Korea threatened to strike the U.S. territory of Guam in the western Pacific. Guam is home to 163,000 people as well as major U.S. military bases. For more, we speak with longtime investigative journalist Allan Nairn.
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AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show looking at North Korea. Tension between the U.S. and North Korea escalated sharply Tuesday, after President Trump suggested he’s preparing to start a nuclear war, threatening to unleash “fire and fury” against North Korea.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen. He has been very threatening, beyond a normal statement. And as I said, they will be met with fire, fury and, frankly, power, the likes of which this world has never seen before. Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: President Trump was speaking from his golf resort in Bedminster, New Jersey, where he’s on vacation for 17 days.
Hours after he spoke, North Korea threatened to strike the U.S. territory of Guam in the western Pacific. Guam is home to 163,000 people as well as several major U.S. military bases.
Tension has been rising over North Korea in recent weeks. The U.N. Security Council recently imposed a new round of sanctions against North Korea over its test launches of two intercontinental ballistic missiles last month. The sanctions ban North Korean exports of coal, iron, lead and seafood, which could slash up to one-third of the country’s export revenue. Then, on Tuesday, The Washington Post reported U.S. intelligence officials have concluded in a confidential assessment that North Korea has successfully produced a miniaturized nuclear warhead that can fit inside its missiles.
In response to the rising tension, China has called on all sides to de-escalate their rhetoric. Concern is growing that the North Korea crisis might result in a new arms race in Asia. Some conservative politicians in South Korea are now calling for the U.S. to deploy tactical nuclear weapons in the country. In Japan, some senior officials are pushing for the country to acquire long-range cruise missiles and air-to-ground missiles.
We’re joined now by longtime, award-winning investigative journalist Allan Nairn, who spends a good deal of time in Asia.
Welcome to Democracy Now!, Allan.
ALLAN NAIRN: Thanks. Good to be with you.
AMY GOODMAN: Your response to “fire and fury,” the words of President Trump at his Bedminster golf resort, against North Korea?
ALLAN NAIRN: Well, the U.S. nuclear system was already dangerous, irresponsible, insane, because it’s on, most—many of the U.S. weapons are on hair-trigger alert. The missiles in the silos, the missiles on the submarines, they can be fired within minutes, which could easily lead to a mistaken firing. And now there’s a president who’s on hair trigger.
For years, there was a consensus, a complete consensus, within the U.S. establishment and military, that military action against North Korea was unthinkable, because, just with conventional artillery, North Korea could immediately devastate Seoul, killing more than 100,000, perhaps. But recently, the political culture and discussion around military action against North Korea has shifted. Colonel Guy Roberts, who’s a longtime Pentagon and NATO official, last year wrote an article calling for the U.S. to adopt a first-strike nuclear policy, to be willing to use nuclear weapons against a country—and he specifically mentioned North Korea as one—in the event they use conventional weapons. He wrote that last year. This year, Trump nominated him to be the assistant secretary of defense for nuclear policy. John Bolton recently wrote in The Wall Street Journal that the U.S. should consider a ground invasion of North Korea. Lindsey Graham recently quoted Trump as saying that the U.S. should be ready to destroy—
AMY GOODMAN: Let me go to that quote.
ALLAN NAIRN: —North Korea itself.
AMY GOODMAN: Let me go to that quote of Lindsey Graham, the Republican senator from South Carolina, being questioned last week on the Today show by Matt Lauer.
MATT LAUER: Every military expert says there is no good military option.
SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: Well, they’re wrong. There is a military option.
MATT LAUER: What’s a good one?
SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: To destroy North Korea’s program and North Korea itself. He is not going to allow—President Trump—the ability of this madman to have a missile to hit America. If there’s going to be a war to stop him, it will be over there. If thousands die, they’re going to die over there. They’re not going to die here. And he’s told me that to my face.
AMY GOODMAN: “He’s told me that to my face,” he said. President Trump told him, Lindsey Graham. Allan Nairn?
ALLAN NAIRN: Yeah, well, given Trump’s comments yesterday, it sounds like Graham was quoting Trump accurately. You know, recently, even Mother Jones ran a column asking, “Well, why shouldn’t the U.S. do multiple nuclear strikes on North Korea?” During the campaign, Trump talked about nuclear weapons for South Korea and Japan and said, “Well, if there’s a North Korea-Japan war, go for it. Have at it.”
And also, this is not something that Trump just stumbled upon. There are really only three substantive issues that Trump has been engaged with throughout his career. One is trade. One is racism. He’s for it. He campaigned for the execution of the Central Park Five, who were innocent. But also nuclear weapons. During the Reagan administration, Trump tried to get appointed as a U.S. special envoy to negotiate a nuclear weapons deal with the Soviet Union. He’s been thinking about this for decades.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to recent comments by the commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, Admiral Scott Swift. He recently spoke at a security conference in Australia and took questions from the audience.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: If, when you return to your command next week, you were to receive an order from the commander-in-chief, the president of the United States, to make a nuclear attack on China. Would you do it?
ADM. SCOTT SWIFT: These—so far, these are yes-or-no answers. The answer would be yes. So, every member of the U.S. military has sworn an oath to defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, and to obey the officers and the president of the United States, as the commander-in-chief appointed over us.
AMY GOODMAN: Commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, Admiral Scott Swift. The significance of what he’s saying, Allan?
ALLAN NAIRN: You know, I had read that quote, but I hadn’t seen the tape before. The laughter is interesting, because the establishment is a—it’s an organism. It has this clubby ethos. And they discuss nuclear Armageddon very easily, very casually.
What he’s talking about is just following the normal authoritarian chain of command that exists within the U.S. executive branch. And he and other officers do indeed swear an oath to carry out orders like that from the top.
In more rational times, what Trump said yesterday would be an article of impeachment. There’s been a lot of talk of impeachment from some people up to now, for things like Trump’s crimes, like racism, injustice, stupidity, regarding the threat of climate change, all sorts of things. But, in a sense, all of those things fit within the normal parameters of the U.S. presidency. Lots of U.S. presidents, at one time or another, have engaged in talk and activities like that, although none so intensively as Trump. But with what he’s doing now, provoking North Korea, risking actual destruction of part of the U.S., he is violating the system’s rules on its own terms. He’s committing an actual threat against U.S. national security. And you would think that in just pragmatic political terms in Washington, that is the kind of thing that could be grounds for impeachment. But as long as he sits in that chair, it’s true, the commanders are obligated to obey his order.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence. He was speaking at the Aspen Security Forum about the North Korean president, Kim Jong-un.
DAN COATS: Well, he’s a very unusual type of person. He’s not crazy. And there is some rationale backing his actions, which are survival—survival for his regime, survival for his country. And he has watched, I think, what has happened around the world relative to nations that possess nuclear capabilities and the leverage they have, and seen that having the nuclear card in your pocket results in a lot of deterrence capability. The lessons that we learned out of Libya giving up its nukes and Ukraine giving up its nukes is, unfortunately, if you have nukes, never give them up.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence.
ALLAN NAIRN: Yeah, he’s got a point. In many ways, Kim Jong-un is—comports himself like a crazy person, as does Trump, but there is an underlying rational incentive for the North Korean regime to get nuclear weapons, as Coats just acknowledged. You know, they always say there are no good options regarding North Korea. Well, there are no good military options. But as part of their goal of regime survival, one thing that the North Korean regime has always said is that they have two principal goals. One is to stop the U.S.-South Korean military exercises, which are provocative. And, two, end the Korean War. There’s an armistice now, but the Korean War is not formally over. That’s the kind of thing that, if the U.S. were serious, it could sit down on the table and—at the table and negotiate.
AMY GOODMAN: You know, I just was listening to Rex Tillerson, who made a surprise trip today. He went from Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, a place you have been a good deal, to Guam, where you’ve also spent time. Both of us returning to and from East Timor covering the Indonesian occupation there, we would go through Guam, a site of several major military installations. And on the plane, he said this was a very good week for the U.S. and the international community. He said this today.
ALLAN NAIRN: Yeah. Well, maybe he’s referring to what used to be called the nuclear doctrine, the madman theory, which was something—an idea promoted by Kissinger and Nixon, which was that you had to persuade the potential adversary that you’re actually crazy enough to launch the nuclear weapons. And during the—his presidential campaign, Trump said he was ready to use nuclear weapons. And reportedly, in briefings, he would ask, “Well, what’s the point of having nukes if you don’t use them?” So, maybe by some theory, it’s good for Trump’s agenda, but it’s obviously very, very dangerous for the world.
And this idea that the generals around Trump—Generals Kelly, Mattis and McMaster—will somehow stop him, it doesn’t make sense, because that is not their responsibility. Their responsibility is to carry out his orders.
And politically, I think that Trump is just one quick war away from curing most of his political ills. The establishment press has been very critical of Trump. They’ve given him a lot of heat. But I think part of this is because they want to worship the U.S. presidency. They always do. They want to stand up and salute. But they’re very frustrated that Trump doesn’t let them because of his comportment, because he acts in a way that undermines the mystique of the U.S. presidency and also the mystique of U.S. power.
AMY GOODMAN: And he attacks them. He attacks the press.
ALLAN NAIRN: Oh, and he attacks the press, as well. And their main critique of Trump has been not the substance and the Republican agenda, but rather the claim that he has failed to efficiently implement it. And they praise General Kelly now, because, they say, “Oh, maybe he’ll make it efficient.” Well, I certainly hope not.
AMY GOODMAN: As the new chief of staff.
ALLAN NAIRN: Yeah. I certainly hope not, because this is a rightist revolution that is underway. They have—most governments, most new administrations that come in, follow the judicial principle of stare decisis. You accept precedent. You accept what’s already—most of what’s already in place. Not this group, not Trump and the Republicans, who now control all branches of U.S. government. They are a rollback administration. Their agenda is to roll back essentially all popular achievements that happened not just during the Obama years, but also back to Franklin Roosevelt and even Teddy Roosevelt. And on the racial justice and civil rights front, what they’re looking at is a rollback dating back to pre-Reconstruction, because, in principle—and you look at the statements of someone like Sessions over the years, someone like Bannon—they are looking to eliminate anything in law or regulations that specifically acknowledges rights for African Americans. So they’re out to do a massive project of dismantling. It’s a revolutionary movement. It hasn’t gotten nearly as far as it could, because of Trump’s incompetence. But if Kelly succeeds in making it efficient, God help us all.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, you just mentioned history, and before we go to those other issues you raised, I wanted to go back to the words of President Harry Truman. Today marks the 72nd anniversary of the U.S. atomic bombing of the Japanese city of Nagasaki that killed 74,000 people. That came just three days after the U.S. dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, killing over 140 [sic] people. This is President Harry Truman—140,000 people. This is President Harry Truman speaking on August 6, 1945, hours after he bombed Hiroshima.
PRESIDENT HARRY TRUMAN: If they do not now accept our terms, they may expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this Earth.
AMY GOODMAN: And you compare that to “fire and fury,” the words of President Trump, Allan Nairn.
ALLAN NAIRN: Yeah. Well, for one thing, Truman was speaking—even though it was an act of mass murder that he did to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he was in the midst of a brutal, vicious war against the mass-killing Japanese and Nazi regimes, so it was a different context from now.
But in a sense, it goes back to the point that this is a rollback administration we have. Since Truman spoke, in the years since then, due to pressure from peace and human rights activists, some U.S. standards in foreign policy have changed a little bit. There have some—been some constraints placed on the military, the CIA. Trump is seeking to eliminate those. Since he’s been in, civilian casualties as a result of U.S. airstrikes in Syria and Iraq have multiplied fourfold. He’s basically told the commanders, “Do what you will.” He’s rolling back—trying to roll back U.S. foreign policy to—regarding violence, to where it stood many decades before, even back to the years of Teddy Roosevelt. When Teddy Roosevelt used to speak about the glory of war, the glory of violence and killing, and how that was essential to both the national character and personal character, that’s the kind of thing Trump is evoking today.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to continue this discussion after break. We’re speaking with George Polk Award-winning, award-winning, longtime investigative journalist Allan Nairn. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: “Wichita Lineman” by Glen Campbell. Glen Campbell passed away Tuesday at the age of 81. He suffered from Alzheimer’s.