Can Trump Say No to His Generals?
President Donald Trump generally won praise for his decision to launch 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles into Syria on April 6.
A vast majority of Americans also gave Trump a standing ovation for the use of the gigantic MOAB bomb in Afghanistan last week.
Anyone who has seen Trump’s performance at rallies knows that the president revels in applause. And there is no doubt that he has worked on perfecting his tough guy persona for decades. Finally, he has always loved his toys – many men, when they get bored, will buy a new set of golf clubs; Trump will purchase a new golf course.
Put those traits together and it is easy to imagine the president becoming enamored with the Pentagon’s vast collection of weapons. After all, the 1,092-foot-long aircraft carrier Carl Vinson, currently off the coast of North Korea, makes the 281-foot Trump Princess, once the Donald’s pride and joy, look like a dinghy.
Of course the U.S. military’s toys are not playthings, and when they are used, Playground Earth can quickly become a dangerous place. But TV’s talking heads, our newspapers’ op-ed page scribes and politicians on both sides of the aisle are convinced that Trump’s generals – National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly – are the adults in the room who will keep the impetuous president from sparking a serious international schoolyard brawl.
I’m not worried about the generals being able to keep Trump from doing something rash. My concern is if Trump will be able to rein in his generals.
In my last column – “Murder and Mayhem in Norman Rockwell Country” – I talked about being a toddler in the late 1950s in what I called a “blessed place at a blessed time in history,” a region where kids could walk down the street with no fear of being abducted and where nobody worried about locking their doors. But between kindergarten and first grade my family moved to a town called Ellenburg in the far north of New York near the Canadian border. Oh, it was still bucolic enough, with a population of around 1,500 people and farms galore. It was, though, a scary place in the early 1960s.
Ellenburg was about 25 miles away from Plattsburgh Air Force Base, a key component of the Strategic Air Command, the home of God only knows how many squadrons of B-47s and B-52s, the long-range, heavy bombers that, in those technologically crude times, were still the backbone of our nuclear forces. Plattsburgh also served as the headquarters of the 556th Strategic Missile Squadron, which was responsible for a dozen Atlas intercontinental ballistic missile installations in the Adirondacks and upstate Vermont within a 50-mile radius of the base, the only ICBM base east of the Mississippi River. One of those missiles was located in Ellenburg.
Living a couple miles away from an 81-foot-long missile armed with an atomic warhead could be frightening. I faintly remember a time when there was a fire at the Ellenburg installation. Sirens went off and word quickly spread, resulting in every man in town racing off to the silo, volunteer firefighters or not, an “Indians are attacking the fort” moment to be sure.
I definitely remember October 1962 and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Ellenburg’s residents were all glued to their televisions on Oct. 22 when President John F. Kennedy informed the American public about the presence of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba and announced his “quarantine” of that island, a diplomatic way of saying naval blockade.
Folks in Ellenburg had been aware something serious was up before Kennedy’s televised speech. Air Force trucks had been steadily rolling through town for several days; rumors had leaked out that Plattsburgh AFB was at full alert.
Indeed it was. According to Strategic-Air-Command.com, “on Oct. 22, 1962 the (Plattsburgh) Wing responded to the Cuban Missile Crisis. As at all SAC bases, every bomber on the base was prepared for war. Nuclear weapons were often seen on the flight line, but this was different. They were everywhere as all the planes were being simultaneously uploaded. One airman commented, ‘if they had pylons under their wings, they’d stick them on the tankers too.’”
Needless to say, if a nuclear war with the Soviet Union broke out, Plattsburgh and its environs would be a priority target for the Russians.
We’d previously held the now laughed-at “duck and cover” drills at my school. Now we were taken down for tours of the “bomb shelter,” which, if I recall correctly, was the building’s basement complemented with barrels of water and rice. Kids thought a nuke strike might result in a two-night sleepover; parents knew better.
I started being sent to bed earlier at night during the remaining week of the crisis so my mom and dad could watch Huntley-Brinkley and Walter Cronkite without providing me with nightmare material. But 7-year-olds are like dogs – they can sense when something is wrong. I started creeping down the stairs in my pajamas to hear my mother crying and my father reassuring her.
In the end, of course, a nuclear holocaust was avoided. The quarantine, along with an American pledge not to invade Cuba and a secret agreement to remove U.S. medium-range missiles armed with nuclear warheads from Turkey and Italy, convinced Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to take his missiles back to the USSR.
I thank God to this day that Kennedy was in charge in October 1962 because he kept his generals on a short leash.
His joint chiefs of staff had unanimously recommended immediate military action during the crisis: massive air strikes against Cuba’s missile sites and a full-scale invasion of the island. Little did they know the Russians had dozens of short-range tactical nukes in Cuba. If the Americans had invaded, there would have surely been a nuclear war.
Cooler civilian heads in Kennedy’s EXCOMM (Executive Committee of the National Security Council) prevailed, although it wasn’t easy. U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson had first made the suggestion to trade the U.S. missiles in Turkey for their Russian cousins in Cuba. Another EXCOMM member, George Ball, wrote the hawks “intemperately upbraided Stevenson” and were “outraged and shrill.” Stevenson himself remarked, “I know that most of those fellows will consider me a coward for the rest of my life for what I said today, but perhaps we need a coward in the room when we are talking about nuclear war.”
You can be sure that generals throughout the U.S. military are keeping their staffs busy drawing up war plans for Syria, Afghanistan, Korea and other hotspots throughout the world. And they will present their plans as having a great chance of success because, after all, you don’t give a president a plan saying it could be a disaster.
Generals throughout the Vietnam War continually drew up new plans, usually requesting additional troops and weapons, and told Presidents Johnson and Nixon they would achieve victory. We saw how well that worked. The generals who drew up the plans for the war in Iraq didn’t recognize the destabilization the removal of Saddam Hussein would create. Again, we saw how well that worked.
Kennedy had the courage to face down his generals, who generally despised him, considering he had been a mere lieutenant junior grade in World War II. How dare he overrule them?!
Will Trump, who never served in the military at all, follow them blindly? After all, he once said he knew more about ISIS than the generals, but now calls them great men and has surrounded himself with them. Is there an Adlai Stevenson in his administration? Is the president getting and listening to good diplomatic advice considering he is proposing a huge cut in the State Department’s budget, hasn’t nominated people for dozens of top-level posts, including an ambassador to South Korea, and considers Obama holdovers and career diplomats part of a shadow government bent on his destruction? And is it just me, or are there other people out there who think we’re headed toward a major war or even wars?
One last question: Where’s a bomb shelter when you need one?