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Capitalism’s nuclear fallout

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We can’t rely on another Henry Kissinger stopping a drunk US president pressing the button, writes Simon Basketter. Removing the nuclear threat requires changing the system
Issue 2573
The devastation at Hiroshima
The devastation at Hiroshima (Pic: US federal government )

Fighter pilot Bruce Charles was on duty at Kunsan Air Base in South Korea on 15 April 1969. His target was an airstrip in North Korea.

Charles said, “When I got to see the colonel, it was very simple. He had a message saying to prepare to strike my target.”

His F-4 plane was carrying a nuclear weapon 20 times more powerful than the bomb dropped over Japanese city of Hiroshima in 1945.

The colonel came back and said, “It looks like we will not do this today. I do not know about tomorrow.”

Earlier that day a US spy plane had been shot down by North Korea.

US president Richard Nixon was drunk and ordered a nuclear strike in retaliation. National security advisor Henry Kissinger cancelled the order when Nixon passed out.

On 10 October that year eighteen B-52 bombers took off from Fairchild Air Force Base, Washington, each loaded with nuclear weapons.

The bombers were headed toward Moscow. The mission was to convince Russia that the US in the hands of President Nixon was willing to resort to nuclear war to win in Vietnam.

“I want the North Vietnamese to believe I’ve reached the point where I might do anything to stop the war,” Nixon told his chief of staff.

“We’ll just slip the word to them that, ‘for God’s sake, you know Nixon is obsessed about Communism.

“We can’t restrain him when he’s angry—and he has his hand on the nuclear button’ and Ho Chi Minh himself will be begging for peace.”

I want the North Vietnamese to believe I’ve reached the point where I might do anything to stop the war,”

Fotrmetr US president Richard Nixon 

Current US president Donald Trump, when asked about nuclear weapons, said, “You want to be unpredictable.”

In 1945 the power to use nuclear weapons was given to the president, partly because the military was seen as too keen on war.

But nuclear weapons are, among other things, a symbol of the lack of real democracy in the system.

The US president has authority to push the button at any time.

You want to be unpredictable”

Current US president Donald Trump 

There are no “checks and balances”—elected politicians and courts who are supposed to oversee decisions—when it comes to the destruction of the world.

After the atom bombing of Hiroshima US president Truman said that the Japanese people should “expect a rain of ruin from the air”.

It would be “the likes of which has never been seen on this earth”.


And 72 years later Donald Trump threatened North Korea with “fire and fury like the world has never seen”.

If a US president decided to launch nuclear weapons, he would turn to the military aide carrying the nuclear briefcase.

The aide is never far away—as shown by a party guest’s recent selfie with the man carrying it at a Trump party.

The first missiles would hit their targets 30 minutes later.

By the mid-1950s, the arms race reached its illogically logical endpoint. If one side struck, everyone would be wiped out. It was mutually assured destruction. MAD.

In the early 1960s during the Cuban Missile Crisis president John Kennedy toyed with nuclear war. He engaged in brinksmanship to make up for his failure to topple Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

The Russians blinked but it was a close call—one submarine commander was stopped from launching a nuclear missile just in time, and others nearly fired too. Nixon launched his “madman strategy” to convince the Russians he might nuke Vietnam. It didn’t work—the US lost the Vietnam war.

But the problem with this strategy is that you have to prove that you are mad. And while the B52s sent to Moscow turned back, others carrying “sane” non-nuclear bombs attempted the total destruction of Cambodia and Vietnam.

The logical illogic is brutal. The US kept troops in Berlin. US strategist Thomas Schelling pointed out it was the threat of escalation to nuclear war that made them useful.

He wrote, “What can 7,000 American troops do, or 12,000 Allied troops? Bluntly, they can die.

“They can die heroically, dramatically, and in a manner that guarantees that the action cannot stop there.”

If that seems an outdated example, the US military base at Guam today is a symbol of US strength in the Pacific. It’s both a target and a deterrence in the same way.

The line between a failed foreign policy based on drunken outrage and one based on sober feigned bravado is thin.

In response to complaints over his rhetoric over Korea, Trump said he wasn’t being tough enough. He has endorsed Nixon’s madman theory, “At a minimum, I want them to think maybe we would use [nuclear weapons], OK?”

Nixon said, “I can go in my office and pick up a telephone, and in 25 minutes millions of people will be dead.”

In 2015 Trump said, “For me, nuclear is just the power, the devastation is very important to me.” A thin line.

But the counter argument is that Nixon negotiated with China and held nuclearnon-proliferation talks with Russia.

When Nixon met Chinese leader Mao, Nixon proclaimed, “The Chairman’s writings moved a nation and have changed a world.”

Mao replied, “Your book, The Six Crises, is not a bad book.”

Mao said he would only discuss philosophy. Nixon got drunk and promised that the US would defend China against any foreign aggressor.

Kissinger gave the Chinese deputy foreign minister US intelligence on Russia—without telling anyone else.

Nonetheless, so the argument goes, officials held talks. Despite rather than because of Nixon and Mao, the US and China thawed in their relations.

It’s sort of a reassuring thought. There is a logic to combining bluster and sanctions with engagement to slow down the Korean nuclear programme instead of blowing up the world. But this can lead to the belief that, since our rulers aren’t actually insane, they will see sense even if just for their own protection.


At the beginning of the 20th century some socialists thought that because capitalism was becoming a global system the pursuit of profits would end wars.

Both the integration of the world system and the commitment to making cash would prevent it.

This is flawed for a number of reasons, including the need for capital to tie itself to states and that wars can help the pursuit of accumulating capital. The two world wars should have put the idea to rest.

Military competition is integral to capitalism. As the Russian revolutionary Lenin put it, “The capitalists partition the world. Not out of personal malice, but because the degree of concentration which has been reached forces them to adopt this method in order to get profits.”

So the US needs military dominance to protect its declining economic position. North Korea is a far smaller player but wants to compete on the nuclear field precisely to resist US dominance.

Iraq and Libya show that being a dictator is not enough, and nuclear weapons are supposed to deter after all.

The argument that capitalism doesn’t produce wars now usually appears from the right.

Thomas Friedman wrote in the 1990s that no two countries with McDonald’s had gone to war. He said global integration of capitalism prevented it.

The ink wasn’t quite dry on his book when a US-led bombardment took place against Yugoslavia—both had McDonald’s. As did Panama, which the US had invaded before the book was written.

One variation is more specific to nuclear weapons.

The socialist historian EP Thompson did much to kick start the anti-nuclear movement in the 1980s. He was a proponent of what he called “exterminism”.

The argument was that, because the threat of nuclear war is so extreme, we all have an interest in stopping it. So we need to convince our rulers that it is against their interests to blow up the world.

There is more than just the problem of hoping to convince Trump of the good sense of not nuking Korea. Or hoping there is a sober, modern day war criminal equivalent of Henry Kissinger hanging around.

Karl Marx pointed out the rich wallow in their alienation. Those who oversee the system may well end up destroying us all—including themselves.

We have to look to a force strong enough to stop them, rather than appealing to them.

Ending the First World War took global revolts of workers and soldiers across countries. It took revolution. To remove the real threat of nuclear annihilation requires the same scale of transformation.


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