Everyone from Former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and President Vladimir Putin to Steve Bannon and China agree: war with North Korea would be so horrific that it simply can’t happen. Up to one million people could die on the first day of such a war. At that rate, it would take two months to match the death toll of the whole of World War II.
According to Paul Edwards, an international security expert at Stanford University, the effect of a major nuclear war would be comparable to the “giant meteor believed to be responsible for the extinction of the dinosaurs.” Leading researchers Alan Robock and Owen Toon warn that even “a regional conflict has the potential to cause mass starvation worldwide.”
If it wasn’t for Donald Trump’s threatening rhetoric, his continual sabotage of diplomatic efforts, and his personal insults directed at Kim Jong-Un, the U.S. would not be on the verge of war. No other American president has elevated tensions so dramatically, but Trump shows no signs of changing track.
Nevertheless, the U.S. still has alternatives: despite numerous reports to the contrary, North Korea has said they would be willing to negotiate about their nuclear program if the U.S. stops threatening to destroy it. In that case, what can be done to build pressure inside the U.S. to pursue a peaceful solution to the crisis, and how can ordinary people help?
It’s here that historical precedent may be useful. When we reflect on the Holocaust, for example, we tend to vilify prominent Nazi leaders like Adolf Eichmann who were “just following orders,” while extolling ordinary citizens like Oskar Schindler who used creative strategies to prevent atrocities.
Few of us believe we would have behaved like Eichmann. Many of us would like to think we would have acted like Schindler, and hundreds of others who have developed non-violent resistance when faced by the prospect of war and large-scale killing. The choice we face is the same today—and we have the strategies and tactics to make nonviolence work. But first we have to recognize the seriousness and urgency of the situation.
Several indicators suggest that Trump could be preparing to initiate a pre-emptive strike against North Korea in the second half of November.
First, according to the State Department, he has already said that he would launch a first strike if North Korea developed the capacity to deliver nuclear warheads to the continental United States. Last week, CIA Director Mike Pompeo announced that North Korea is “on the cusp” of achieving that goal and “it's now a matter of thinking about how do [sic] you stop the final step.” Pompeo’s statement is consistent with earlier predictions that North Korea would develop such capabilities by early 2018.
Second, in early October Japan’s Minister of Defense, Itsunori Onodera, implied to reporters in Tokyo that Trump would initiate military action in mid-November unless North Korea complies with US demands.
Third, back in August of 2017, U.S. military officials said that they needed a few months to prepare logistically for war. Then they began preparations. This timeline suggests that they will be ready to carry out a first strike in November.
Fourth, on October 20th 2017, Trump declared a national state of emergency and legalized a limited military draft.
Even GOP members are reportedly “praying Trump doesn’t do something really, really stupid,” according to a former Republican member of Congress who wants to remain anonymous. His former colleagues have said that they would support Trump’s removal—potentially by invoking the 25th amendment to the U.S. Constitution—if the leadership of the Republican Party gave “the signal to everyone they can bail.”
It seems that in this process, Republicans are just ‘obeying orders’—as with Eichmann’s defense of his actions in World War II. Perhaps they need a reminder that the judge in Eichmann’s trial ruled that “blind obedience” made him no less culpable when he found him guilty of war crimes.
None of these developments guarantee that nuclear war is imminent, or that a preemptive strike against North Korea would necessarily be judged a war crime, but they do suggest that such a strike is highly plausible, if not probable. The stakes are high enough to make all Americans take the threat of war very seriously, and to organize immediately to prevent it. Yet large-scale activism has failed to materialize thus far. Why?
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The first problem is that there is little sense of urgency, largely because government officials never offer a time frame for when they expect hostilities to break out. It’s easy to become complacent when you’ve been hearing that we are “on the brink of war” for months.
A good example of this problem in another area was the failure of activists to mobilize people in response to the May 4, 2017 House of Representatives vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA), despite successfully doing so around other votes to repeal the ACA both before and afterwards.
What made the difference? The May 4th vote wasn’t scheduled until one day before it took place, so people didn’t “realize how close the GOP [was] to repealing," and therefore it “didn’t feel like we were in an emergency,” according to Moveon.org’s Ben Wikler.
Conversely, a clear timeframe was a major factor behind one the biggest success stories in terms of resistance against the Nazis. In Denmark, 95 percent of the local Jewish population survived, in part because a German diplomat leaked the Nazi’s plan to remove them to death camps three days before the projected start date of the operation. That information was widely disseminated through the Danish population, who then organized to help the vast majority of Jews escape to Sweden in the span of 72 hours.
The second problem is insufficient awareness about the potential consequences of nuclear war. According to Alan Robock’s research, “most people, including high-ranking defense officials, are unaware that a nuclear war occurring halfway around the world…could seriously harm the homeland.”
Even Schindler didn’t act until he fully understood the magnitude of the Holocaust. In fact he was a member of the Nazi party himself, and only began his efforts to save Jews after he began witnessing atrocities against them.
Third, there is no consensus on the best way to prevent a war. While there is general agreement that Trump is responsible for escalating tensions with North Korea, opinions are divided as to the best solution, and most of the suggestions that have been made are unviable.
Many groups and individuals—including most recently Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi—have advocated for legislation that would prevent Trump from launching a nuclear strike unilaterally. While such laws would (theoretically) pry Trump’s finger off the nuclear trigger, they won’t stop him from escalating tensions to breaking point.
There have also been increasing efforts to instigate an impeachment process (so far with little sign of the necessary Republican support), but even if proceedings were initiated now, Trump would still have plenty of time to launch a nuclear strike. War could start in as little as four to six weeks, whereas historical precedent suggests that impeachment would take several months: President Clinton's impeachment process took over four months, and Andrew Johnson's more than three.
The only remaining viable option is invoking the 25th amendment, which would remove Trump immediately, but that would still require the support of either a majority of Congress or Trump’s cabinet, as well as Vice President Mike Pence. Pence’s acquiescence might not be as difficult as some imagine, especially under pressure from both the American public and Congress. Invoking the 25th would satisfy Pence’s presidential ambitions, not to mention his suspected deep-seated but carefully concealed resentment of Trump.
Even in this scenario, large-scale public pressure would be vital, so what kinds of actions might help to create it?
The efficacy of activism is not predicated on the size of a protest crowd, but on the leverage that the public exerts on decision-makers’ interests. Members of Congress care about their re-election. Organizing locally and holding representatives individually accountable can be effective because they are afraid of losing the support of the people who would be voting for them in the next election.
The grassroots activism that—so far—has prevented Congress from axing Obamacare is a great example of this strategy in action. Even though Republicans had spent eight years swearing to ‘repeal and replace’ the Affordable Care Act, many of them retracted their support because thousands of their constituents called their offices, turned up at town hall meetings, and publically embarrassed them.
The obedience of Republicans in Congress is always politically motivated, since they fear that moving outside of party lines will cost them their jobs. But if they think that their obedience will actually lose them the next election they will be less likely to follow in Eichmann’s footsteps. That’s why large-scale public pressure is the key to preventing nuclear war.