We are one tantrum away from accidental war with North Korea

We are one tantrum away from accidental war with North Korea
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On Aug. 15, 2017, two radio stations in Guam mistakenly issued a civil danger broadcast that warned of an imminent military strike or terrorist attack. Five months later, on Jan. 13, 2018, an erroneous warning of a ballistic missile attack on Hawaii panicked residents and tourists. Shortly before the false alarm in Hawaii, President TrumpDonald John TrumpDems make history, and other takeaways from Tuesday's primaries Pawlenty loses comeback bid in Minnesota Establishment-backed Vukmir wins Wisconsin GOP Senate primary MORE and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, like schoolyard bullies, had bragged about the size of their so-called nuclear buttons.

Mindful of human and technological error and the impulsive character of these two ego-driven leaders, Beatrice Fihn, executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons and winner of the most recent Nobel Peace Prize, warned that “mutual destruction is only one impulsive tantrum away.” She added, “We have avoided nuclear war, not through prudent leadership, but good fortune. And sooner or later, if we fail to act, our luck will run out.”

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Most Americans share Fihn’s concerns. According to a new Washington Post/ABC News poll, 60 percent of respondents do not trust President Trump “to handle the authority to order nuclear attacks on other countries.” Twice before, the world came to the brink of nuclear war not intentionally but inadvertently. We can’t change the temperaments of Trump or Kim, but we can adopt appropriate safeguards to minimize the chances of war by accident or miscalculation.

During the Cuban Missile Crisis, U.S. naval commanders had ordered destroyers to surface all Soviet submarines located near Cuba by firing “practice” non-lethal depth charges as a warning. On Oct. 27, 1962, after destroyers detected the presence of a Soviet Foxtrot submarine, B-59, they dropped their practice depth charges, but received no response from the sub. Yet, under the seas, exhausted, overstressed men in tight, hot quarters pondered a catastrophic response as explosions rattled their vessel.

The B-59’s captain, Valentin Savitsky, had been out of touch with Moscow and knew nothing about practice explosives. He likely believed that World War III had already begun, and the Americans were trying to sink his vessel. Savitsky ordered the crew to prepare for launching the sub’s nuclear torpedo, which packed enough explosive power to destroy a small city. Their target was the aircraft carrier USS Randolph, the flagship of the American fleet.

Any use of the B-59’s nuclear weapon, however, required consent from its three senior officers. The political officer, Ivan Maslennikov, apparently consented, but the first officer Vasili Arkhipov, said no. His opposition gave the captain time to cool down, rescind his order and bring the B-59 to the surface. A day later President Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev agreed on a plan for withdrawing the Soviet missiles from Cuba.

Had the Randolph disintegrated in a mushroom cloud, it could have precipitated nuclear war. However, the cool-headed Kennedy might have refrained from launching a civilization-ending nuclear strike against the Soviet Union by instead ordering the military to sink the B-59, and bomb the missile sites in Cuba, followed by an invasion of the island. We can hardly count on impulsive, self-absorbed leaders like Trump or Kim to refrain from massive retaliation, even if confronted with a lesser provocation, such the downing of an opposition warplane.

Another incident brushed the edge of catastrophe just after midnight on Sept. 26, 1983, when an alarm flashed in a secret early-warning bunker near the western edge of Russia on the watch of Soviet Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov. His instruments showed first one and then five missiles from America screaming across the Arctic toward his homeland. With red warning lights flashing and horns blaring, Petrov did not pass on the warning. Instead, he correctly decided that the system had registered a false alarm.

Had Petrov reported the warning of an American missile attack to his Kremlin superiors, who already feared that President Reagan was a dangerous warmonger, they would have had less than twenty minutes to decide on launching a retaliatory nuclear strike against the United States. Confronted with such time-driven, critical decision-making, an impulsive response from Trump or Kim could start a war with potentially millions of casualties.

Beyond a still unimagined solution to the controversy with North Korea, the U.S. can strive to reduce the risk of war by accident or miscalculation. First, keep weapons systems off hair-trigger alert. Second, avoid provocations by planes and ships that come too close to North Korean territory. Third, be sure that all warning systems are regularly maintained and have adequate backup. Fourth, tone down the personal war of words with Kim Jong Un. Fifth, strive to reach a diplomatic agreement with North Korea on a no-first-strike pledge.

We need to set up a communications hotline between the United States and North Korea, like the one installed between Washington and Moscow after the Cuban missile crisis. This hotline helped avoid dangerous miscalculations during several Cold War era crises, such as the Indo Pakistani War of 1971, the Yom Kippur War between Arabs and Israelis in 1973, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. We can no longer rely on luck alone to avoid a war by accident or miscalculation.

Allan J. Lichtman, Ph.D., is a distinguished professor of history at American University. He is the author of “The Case for Impeachment.”