The famous “Doomsday Clock,” first unveiled in 1947 in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and periodically updated since, was recently reset at two minutes to midnight. Only once previously has the clock warned of being so ominously close to the nuclear abyss. That was back in 1953, shortly after the United States and the Soviet Union, engaged in an all-out arms race, had each detonated their first hydrogen bomb.
To judge by its Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), released in early February, the Trump administration largely agrees with the Bulletin as to the gravity of the present moment. In his preface to the NPR, Secretary of Defense James Mattis describes an “international security situation that is more complex and demanding than any since the end of the Cold War,” while the body of the report warns of a “deteriorating threat environment.” Where the keepers of the Doomsday Clock and Trump administration officials like Mattis differ is in how they believe we should respond to these troubling developments.
The Doomsday monitors urge the U.S. to move back from the brink through serious and sustained engagement with its rivals. The NPR calls for a different approach: it proposes the creation of a whole new generation of nuclear weapons and delivery systems, enabling the United States to “enhance the flexibility and range of its tailored deterrence options.”
In fact, the Trump NPR endorses a nuclear modernization program inaugurated by the previous administration. It is an Obama holdover—a rare example of President Trump endorsing a project begun by his predecessor. The program’s total estimated costs (unmentioned in the NPR) exceed one trillion dollars, equal to Trump’s promised but as yet unfulfilled investment in domestic infrastructure.
The lengthy report does not make for easy reading. Given Trump’s reported work habits and short attention span, one may wonder if he has actually absorbed its contents or understands its implications. Yet in terms of substance, the NPR comes straight out of those establishment precincts that candidate Trump repeatedly derided as “the swamp.” For evidence that Trump’s vow to drain that swamp remains unfulfilled, look no further.
To plow through the text of the NPR is to travel back in time. The argument it advances reiterates precepts that were in fashion sixty years ago, before the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Vietnam War, or 9/11. Certainly the sentiments it expresses would have found favor with pioneering figures of nuclear strategy such as Herman Kahn and Albert Wohlstetter, with the Cold War-era editorial board of the New York Times, and with military officers like General Curtis LeMay.
Kahn and Wohlstetter, advocates of the Cold War policy of “mutual assured destruction,” would appreciate the allusions to “diversity,” “tailoring,” and “flexibility,” which lend the document a veneer of sophistication. Times editors would take solace in the NPR’s assurances that, in the event of an actual nuclear conflict, U.S. forces will “adhere to the law of armed conflict” while taking steps to “minimize civilian damage to the extent possible consistent with achieving objectives.” LeMay, who back in the 1950s transformed Strategic Air Command into an instrument of “overkill,” would be especially pleased. Stripping away the packaging, the storied architect of SAC would see the NPR for what it is: a blueprint for extending U.S. nuclear dominion far into the future.