President Donald Trump’s comments about North Korea on Tuesday caught a lot of people off guard, leading to widespread discussion of what could happen if the United States suddenly decided to initiate a nuclear war.
For perspective on how reporters covered similar events in the past, what mistakes they can avoid in the future, and a bit of sober context on the current capability of nuclear arms, CJR spoke with two journalists with experience covering the Cold War and a historian specializing in weapons of mass destruction.
The interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
David Martin, National Security Correspondent, CBS News and author, Wilderness of Mirrors: Intrigue, Deception, and the Secrets that Destroyed Two of the Cold War’s Most Important Agents
It’s a tempting comparison with the Cuban Missile Crisis, but at the time the Soviet Union had demonstrated the ability to test missiles and warheads that could destroy cities in the United States. North Korea has not yet demonstrated that capability. So they’re at different points in their development. The Soviet Union was trying to take a shortcut by placing these missiles in Cuba. Another difference that was noticeable to me was the Pentagon’s initial recommendation to President [John F.] Kennedy by the Joint Chiefs of Staff was to conduct a pre-emptive strike. President Kennedy was the one who said “not so fast.” [The US government] gave time for a diplomatic solution [13 days in October] and made a major concession to Cuba by agreeing to withdraw their missiles from Turkey.
I’m not aware of anyone in the Pentagon, military or civilian, who has recommended pre-emptive action against North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. They’ve looked at it in great detail and decided it would be hard and certainly ignite a war on the Korean peninsula that would lead to massive casualties. The United States would win, but a lot of civilians in South Korea would probably be exposed to North Korean artillery fire. This has been going on since the Clinton administration. People have been looking at this and [there is] just a long history of both sides working on this. In one sense, the US administration has to make a decision.
There was an unquestioned war hysteria at the time [of the Cuban Missile Crisis]. Government officials were telling their wives “I don’t know if I’ll see you again.” They were going to surplus stores and buying equipment. And those were the ones who knew what was going on. There was really a sense that this was going to be the culminating confrontation between the US and the Soviet Union.
Now, when we’re reporting this story [about President Trump and North Korea], you need to be careful not to feed a hysteria that war is nigh. But when you have a president and secretary of defense saying these things, it’s pretty easy to put together a story that’s apocalyptic. So you have to also pay attention to people like [Secretary of State] Rex Tillerson saying “nothing’s changed in the last 24 hours, sleep well at night.”
Back in 1962, Kennedy had been elected in part because of this false perception that there was a missile gap between the US and the Soviet Union. Soon after he was elected this was exposed as fictitious. But I think there was a perception back then that the Soviet Union was the nuclear equal to the US, and that wasn’t at all the case. The US had a major advantage in nuclear weapons at the time. Today, there’s no doubt who has the military advantage.
The North Koreans are always threatening to set New York on fire with a hydrogen bomb. But until recently that could all be dismissed as bluster because they didn’t have the capability. Now you have to take their rhetoric more seriously.
You need to pay attention to where this stuff is coming from and who’s saying [it] and the whole statement, not just the most sensational part of it. You have to look at what Kim Jong Un is really trying to do. I don’t know anybody that thinks he’s really waiting for the day to say, “Okay, today’s the day we launch a missile against the United States.” I think he wants his nuclear weapons program [to serve as] an insurance policy. But having that insurance policy does not mean he’s going to use a nuclear weapon against the United States. I don’t think he’s suicidal, which is what he would have to be to launch an attack. You got to keep what his real goal is in focus. And then you have to define what is the real goal of the US. And that’s a mystery.
At the end of the day, these are just estimates. We have learned the hard way that estimates can be wrong. Don’t be so quick to jump on the bandwagon. We need to be cautious and skeptical of intelligence reports. They’re not smoking guns.
Nicholas Daniloff, former Moscow correspondent for United Press International, author of Of Spies and Spokesmen: My Life as a Cold War Correspondent and professor emeritus at Northeastern University’s School of Journalism
The president is impulsively stating things, which really escalates the situation beyond what it should be.
The two functions of covering the facts and interpreting the facts, those two have to be clearly separated. What we’re seeing in the digital age is the blurring of the lines between those two. I don’t think there’s anything reporters can really do because the structure of media distribution has changed pretty seriously since the days of legacy journalism.
Now you have a fragmentation of news sources and some of those are totally irresponsible. It’s very difficult for a consumer of news to understand what he or she is getting. There’s no one single or even several sources where you can go to and feel like you’re getting accurate information. In my view the closest you can get to that is a combination of CNN, The Washington Post, and The New York Times. But is the ordinary citizen able to consume those three every day or several times an hour?
I think CNN stokes hysteria even though they try to present different points of view. It’s really the fault of the 24-hour news cycle. At CNN, they get on a subject and they turn it over and over and never seem to be able to get off it. This performance really feeds the hysteria.
There is a need for self-restraint [but] generally, journalists in previous historical periods have not been too concerned about self-restraint or even the consequences of what they say. The question of double or triple-checking is always important. In the United States, the First Amendment allows you to say anything you want at any time. I would urge reporters to think a little bit about what they’re going to put across with the notion that sometimes self-restraint is necessary.
Robert Neer, attorney and author of Napalm: An American Biography
One thing that’s helpful to be aware of is there is more than one kind of nuclear weapon. The bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima was a fission bomb, the kind that was used to compress uranium and produces a fission reaction. It’s big, but it’s not impossibly large. But in World War II, the United States wiped out a very large section of central Tokyo in one night using thousands of napalm bombs. They killed more people on that night and damaged the city more extensively than the Hiroshima bomb. With many conventional weapons you can accomplish similar destruction to the Hiroshima bomb.
Subsequently, scientists developed a new kind of nuclear technology, the fusion reaction, which are normally called hydrogen bombs. Those are many orders of magnitude bigger than the Hiroshima bomb. No one has ever used those in warfare.
I think the main discussion people have been having has really been about nuclear weapons. That’s really what is freaking people out. It’s possible to put other kinds of explosive devices on [intercontinental ballistic missiles] if that’s what the North Koreans have and to use them to deliver other weapons such as conventional explosives or napalm. But because [the missiles] are so expensive and those types are weapons have less of an impact [than nuclear weapons], it’s not really cost-effective based on the destruction wrought.
So often journalists just write about nuclear weapons as if they were [all] the same thing. It would be like writing about guns and not distinguishing between a submachine gun and a Howitzer, like a cannon. Or talking about ships and not making a distinction between a frigate or an aircraft carrier.
Consult encyclopedias like the Oxford Encyclopedia of American Military and Diplomatic History. Look at who gains from wars. More people lose in general and especially over time, but at the beginning it’s always interesting to look at who might gain.