“...we’d lie in bed thinking, Please don’t get divorced, please please please. That and the atomic bomb were our big scares.” Nobody’s Angel, Tom McGuane
I dislike the current President for his spoiling the word “trump” for everyone else. Powerful, utile, one whose meaning and sound complement each other in an almost onomatopoeic symbiosis. The word, not the President. It is one that stands alone in purpose, having no pure synonym that truly encompasses its myriad of facets and subtleties. The word, not the President, if for no other reason than the President’s name is not his family’s true given name but was changed from Drumpf.
I dislike the current President for his referentially dragging the beloved Sir Elton John into the chaos of the Washington administration with the President’s use of the taunt “Little Rocket Man” toward Kim Jong Un, and the President’s utterly nonsensical claim of breaking “all Elton John’s records”(?!) during a rally in Montana.
I dislike him for his now and forever having a place in children’s textbook montages of all the U.S. Presidents. His face will forever be on country restaurant placemats of all the U.S. Presidents, and museum wall charts of the Presidents, and playing cards and bookmarks and overhead projection cels and Disney’s Hall of Presidents and souvenir plates and commemorative coin sets and the Wikipedia page “List of Presidents of the United States”(he’s there now).
But mostly I dislike the current President because if it was a school-day Tuesday the nuns would stop class and have us say a silent prayer for world peace.
If it was a Tuesday we were off school we’d go outside to hear the sound bounce off the neighborhood houses. The tone of the wailing sirens changed depending on which direction your ears were facing, or if it was echoing off trees and garages.
As time passed these public alert sirens were rebranded as tornado sirens, intended for use in signaling dangerous weather conditions. But when I was growing up, when I was hearing them tested every Tuesday morning at 10:30, the sirens were still called what they were when they were first installed during WWII all across a frightened America – air raid sirens.
The closest air raid siren to our Cicero house was on top of Morton East high school. The siren system was originally meant to warn citizens of an air raid in the conventional bomb-dropping sense as seen inflicted upon many cities of Europe. With the post-war dawn of the nuclear weapons age the sirens became warnings of imminent nuclear attack. This attack was first imagined as coming via an air raid like the type America ran on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Advances in technology would soon warrant the term air raid denote nuclear attack via intercontinental ballistic missiles launched from distant locales.
Whichever way the nukes were delivered, in the world in which I grew up they could come at any second, any month, any day or year of what became known as the Cold War. I and every American knew that unfortunate possibility, and believed that possibility. Imagine every American knowing that nuclear bombs were a mere button-push away and living every day with that in the back of their minds.
We all knew that these were bombs that would destroy nearly everything they came in contact with. Bombs that would wipe a huge chunk of humanity off the face of the planet, and that would mess up the rest of the planet for generations to come.
We learned to live with that knowledge. All of us. Baby Boomers, Wedgies, Gen Xers. Essentially anyone alive at the end of WWII to anyone born up to 1989 lived some or all of their lives in which the possibility of nuclear war was just a part of life. Those born between 1945 and 1989 were born into the inherent fear and guilt that we as humans had developed the technology to destroy human life as we knew it. We all shared in that threat of annihilation, we all shared in a pervasive hopelessness toward end of the world order as we knew it.
But it wasn’t like this for the whole of our lifetimes. There was a period that began in 1989 when the threat was suddenly gone, when the crippling fear was gone. A moment when the world breathed a sigh of relief that we as a human race had not been destroyed by a militaristic hubris. For a period of our lives the world was disarming, making a promise that we would never move backwards to balancing on such a precipice of utter ruination in the name of misguided nationalism.
But then in 2016 we elected the current President. And we are moving backwards.
I dislike the current President because, through his bumbling ineptitude and utter lack of both a sense of international detente and even the most rudimentary knowledge of nuclear arms, he has brought back the threat of imminent nuclear war. He has brought back the fear of imminent nuclear war and somehow he has managed to make that fear even worse. I dislike the current President because he has brought back the staggering nihilism that the last of us Cold War generations had thought abolished from the world community forever.
This particular dislike of mine has roots that stretch way back to when I was just a kid. From a relatively early age I was quite a bit more aware of what was at stake than many my age.
Early on I developed a keen interest in nature and ecology and the environment. Pre-internet, one of the best opportunities to network on these interests was my father’s taking me to the annual International Sportsman’s Show at the old Chicago stadium. While he checked out the newest innovations in fishing tackle, I visited the booths of environmental organizations and conservation groups. I corresponded by written letter with organizations around the globe, oftentimes discussing the threats to the planet’s natural environment and our place in it. Acid rain and leaded gasoline were definite threats when I first began studying the issues. The Iron Eyes Cody’s “Crying Indian” PSA turned the nation’s attention to the scourge of littering, and the first warnings about the thinning ozone layer and the possible ramifications of greenhouse gasses were heard.
Still with all these valid concerns bearing negatively on the environment, the consensus held that the most immediate and all-encompassing threat to the planet as a whole was man’s use of nuclear technology. All nuclear technology, including its use in the production of municipal energy. And while the threats of accidents at nuclear power plants was certainly a concern, nuclear power production did have the positive aspect of being the cleanest, most fuel efficient mass produced energy in the history of industrialized man.
The weaponry side of the technology, however, had only one purpose ─ widespread death and destruction. Thusly it received the lion’s share of attention for its ability to negatively affect life on the planet.
Unofficially monitoring this nuclear weaponry became a hallmark of the environmental movement. One of the most notable and most striking manifestations of this was known as the Doomsday Clock.
Conceived in 1947 by a group of international researchers, the Doomsday Clock used the image of a clockface to figuratively surmise how close the earth was to a planet-wide catastrophe. Midnight on the clock represented that ultimate catastrophe and the minute hand showed how many minutes away the world was from it. In 2007 climate change first began to be considered as a factor in positioning the minute hand, but for the first six decades of the clock’s existence there was no mistaking that the titular Doomsday was global thermonuclear conflict.
When the clock was first created the minute hand was set at seven minutes to midnight. The furthest away the minute hand has been from midnight was in 1991 when the signing of the START I treaty and the dissolution of the Soviet Union had the clock set at 17 minutes away. In 1953, due to the Cold War combatants’ development and testing of hydrogen bombs, the hand of the clock was set to just 2 minutes to midnight, the sole time the minute hand had been set that close to disaster. Until now.
I dislike the current President because for the first time since 1953 the clock’s monitoring scientists, citing “The failure of world leaders to deal with looming threats of nuclear war...”, set the minute hand of the clock at 2 minutes to midnight. Two minutes to destruction and mayhem and meltdown and eradication of modern life.
Since ’89 I had rid myself of the innate dread of those two-minute consequences. I had put behind me megatonnage figures and blast radii schematics and the green-hearted speculation on how many times over we could blow up the world.
Another of the period’s popular monitoring memes, this pseudo-algorithm used the ever-increasing worldwide nuclear arsenal to calculate how many times that arsenal could blow up the entire planet. At any given time it was calculated that man had the capacity to blow up the world 20 or 30 or 40 times over. Of course the imagery was fanciful; no matter how advanced the technology man does not have anywhere near the capability to inflict a pinprick on the physical earth let alone destroy it. But still the world ran with it, used it as a core belief in the anti-nuke movement, cemented it as an element of the nihilistic Cold War mythology.
But just as with all myth there is an inherent and universal truth to it. While we could not destroy the actual earth itself we did have the means to possibly eliminate a great deal of the lifeforms across vast swaths of the earth’s surface.
Predominately human life forms. The flora and fauna of the planet have been surviving disasters and extinctions and climate changes for millions if not billions of years. Sea life would be relatively unaffected, as would the natural denizens of most self-sufficient ecosystems outside of direct nuclear blast zones. Even in the very core of the blast zones the storied cockroach and scorpion and tardigrade would continue to thrive as if nothing happened. It would be the humans.
And even then there would be survivors. Remote populations and those outside the path of the nuclear fallout cloud might have to resort to homesteading methods as the machine of the world is disrupted but they would survive a nuclear event.
Concentrated city populations, however, would most likely be targeted to receive direct first strikes, as would those areas containing important military, communication, logistic and supply chain elements. In densely populated areas most humans would be vaporized immediately, others killed by the destructive forces tearing their world apart. An area like my neighborhood of Cicero, tucked into the west side of Chicago, would be vaporized immediately. My house on 58th Avenue would be vaporized. My gradeschool, seven blocks away, would be vaporized.
But still we had air raid drills in school. Still the air raid sirens were tested every Tuesday morning, as if warning the citizenry of instant vaporization was a good thing. During our school drills most of the times the teachers would claim they were tornado drills; sometimes a teacher slipped up and said air raid drill. Whatever it was called we marched down to the school’s basement, sat in rows along the outer walls of the building right next to the heating pipes that were wrapped in thick layers of asbestos, folded over and placed our hands over the back of our necks in a modified duck’n’cover that was a bit more hathic than the classic. The drills were boring, but they did get us out of class. Some kids took them quite seriously and cried. I thought about how Chicago with its military bases and its role as a transportation and communications hub and its immense population numbers would be a first-strike target.
Jacksonville, Florida, is the most populous city in the Sunshine State, is home to three US Naval facilities, is one of the Atlantic coast’s busiest sea ports and a major rail hub. I moved to Jacksonville in 1997. I dislike the current President for making me live once again in a first-strike city.
But it wasn’t being thought of in that sense when I first moved down here. In fact neither was Chicago for almost the entire decade before I left. That was the beginning of the period after the Cold War was declared over. In 1989 the Berlin Wall came down and Glasnost became a watercooler topic and there was a palpable easing of international tensions between the nuclear superpowers.
The averagely educated American might not have fully comprehended the complicated implications of US/USSR nuclear dismantling. I sure didn’t. But every American knew that this was the end of the nuclear arms race.
This all occurred in the heart of my formative years and I remember that life-changing period of relief, a time that changed my worldview for the better.
Mine and humanity’s as a whole it seemed. While trickle-down economics had just begun to implement its ugly head, the optimism of denuclearization seemed to do just the opposite – trickling upward from the common people of the planet to the leaders. People in charge seemed much more level-headed, much more focused on detente than chest-thumping and buffoonery. Issues were approached calmly and logically and adapted as other nations developed or acquired their own nuclear weaponry. Global leaders focused their superpowers on dealing with possible future threats in the Middle East and Southeast Asia instead of generating their own threats.
Gone from the zeitgeist were the scenarios of a post nuclear apocalypse which had frightened us all. Gone the fears of doomsday occurring during our lifetime. Gone was that feeling of dread, and with that gone all the energy we as a world population had dedicated to dealing with the peril of utter annihilation was freed up. Who knows where all that energy could go, what the possibilities, the opportunities for positivity.
Perhaps toward the creation of art, the loving dedication to a good day’s work, the love of our fellow man or the creation of babies born into a world without the looming threat of nuclear war. Babies who would never hear air raid sirens being tested on Tuesday mornings, who would learn about the Cold War in history class. Babies for whom the Atomic Clock was just a clickbait on a nostalgia site, who would grow up in a world where people respected each other enough to not want to destroy what we all built.
Perhaps this is the root of what happened in November of 2016. Did we become complacent because the single greatest threat to human existence, the archetypal threat under whose auspices we were raised, was out of the picture? Perhaps we felt that because we had survived that threat there was nothing that could harm us now. There was nothing could be worse than that.
But there was.
It’s sitting in the Oval Office. Label him however your perception proscribes; the one universal perceptionary certainty is that he knows absolutely nothing about the position into which he was elected. Nothing about governance, about international detente, about our Constitution.
He knows absolutely nothing about what it means to be POTUS, and that includes being Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces which in turn includes control of the nation’s nuclear arsenal.
He knows nothing about the nuclear triad. I’m no scientist and I’m no politician but I know what the nuclear triad is. We made fun of Dubya for saying “Nucular” but I bet he knew what the “Nucular” triad is.
I dislike the current President for asking, numerous times and most of those in public or on the record, what good is having a nuclear arsenal if we don’t use it. And for not knowing this most basic, most elemental certainty of nuclear arsenal stewardship: that a country’s nuclear arsenal is like a first-generation Luke Skywalker action figure, mint condition, sealed in its original packaging, sitting prominently on a display shelf for everyone to see. Someone who has no knowledge of the value of toys might want to take that action figure off the shelf, out of its original packaging and play with it. They might even ask “What good is having a toy if we don’t play with it?” Here’s what’s good. The intrinsic value of that toy – monetarily, pop-culturally, eBayability-wise, bragging rightly – is in letting everyone see that not only is it in your possession and is in pristine, untouched, unhandled condition, but that you can and just might tear open its original packaging and play with it an any time you want. As long as the world sees that America has the first-generation Luke Skywalker of nuclear arsenals and has the capability to “play with it” at any time, it remains at its most valuable.
Without comprehending this basic principle the current President has blundered and blurpled his way along a path that is leading the whole world into the maw of possible nuclear aggression.
The earliest steps on the path were taken almost immediately at the start of his presidency with all his talk about the new “toy” he had at his disposal. The reality-show approach of “We’ll see what happens” when it comes to world affairs and his blustering toughguy talk to our nuclear adversaries dredged up resentments that had lain dormant for decades.
He has most famously and most clumsily prodded nuclear toddler North Korea. With the eyes of the world watching he twice now allowed himself and the entire country to be played like a fiddle by the only world leader who comes close to being as unstable as he is. Alternating currents of amity and animosity toward North Korea make the incongruousness of the threats from both sides even more volatile.
In his sociopathic obsession with undoing everything implemented by his predecessor Barack Obama he moronically violated the Iran nuclear deal which opens the door for that country’s nuclear proliferation.
Likely at Russia’s behest he has implemented an isolationist foreign policy that threatens the very structure of the western world that has been in place since the end of WWII, and continues to undermine NATO and other alliances which have kept the peace as well.
In another apparent nod to Putin’s wish list the current President has moved to dispense with the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty which has essentially provided the guidelines of Superpower denuclearization since 1987
Most egregiously he’s proven to be as much of a Russian puppet as was first suspected during the election. Even worse, due to the missteps he has committed at every opportunity in regards to Russia, other than the few executive machinations mentioned above the President’s power to implement any Russian agenda has been lessened considerably. This makes him a dangerously useless puppet, meaning that Russia would risk nothing were it to take the opposing side on any conflict instigated by the US. Russia has absolutely nothing to lose and is thusly in the catbird seat were it to choose to blackmail and extort and utterly embarrass their patsy whose return investment is essentially nil. This would not bode well at all to the paper-thin ego of he who has the launch codes.
So the minute hand of the Doomsday Clock has been moved to two minutes to midnight, television news chyrons read How Close Are We To Nuclear War, and those of us who lived through the first time are forced to revisit that ominous and innate anxiety.
Gone is the certainty we felt that the earth would survive for at least our lifetime if not for generations to come. The relief that we all shared of the earth making it through that tense and tenuous period in its history is now nullified.
On the bright side, at least most of us already know what to expect. Honestly, facing the eminent doom of the human race is like riding a bike – once you learn how you can simply re-position yourself back under the dour pallor in which you were raised. Except now we have to introduce that doom to a new generation.
I dislike the current President for inflicting the ominous pall of nuclear threat upon the generation and a half that have never had to live beneath the threat under which I was raised. I am ashamed that children who are just becoming socially sentient will do so in a world that is regressing into a period of peril and risk. A world where Netflix has moved apocalyptic films like “Threads” and “The Day After” from the Classics category to the Hot 100, where Google hits on “Clock, Atomic” and “how many times can we blow up the earth” are all page one.
Despite the seriousness and the urgency of now introducing children to nuclear war capabilities, don’t expect to hear the current President address the issue. He may dance around the periphery with his love/hate Kim Jong Un bromance, and he’s quick to whip out the Iran indictments whenever he gets in front of the right audience. But he’s absolutely mum about Russia’s role in the globe’s nuclear identity, and it is latenight comedians, not he, who constantly mention how he’s got the nuclear launch codes. Instead our Distractor In Chief distracts from the issue whenever he needs to.
And that’s okay.
Because as long as he’s distracting from it he can’t use it as a distraction. Because it’s as a distraction that the nuclear arsenal is at its most dangerous.
The criminal investigations plaguing his administration are getting closer and closer to the Oval Office. His closest appointees are being picked off by the prosecutor one by one, and to a man they are singing to the feds. The walls are closing in on the current President; the progressively manic timbre of his twittering shows that he’s feeling it.
Of course here’s the fear: when the investigation finally is about to drag him away in handcuffs, essentially becoming the greatest investigation in US history, might this deranged individual parry with the greatest distraction in human history – beginning an all-out global thermonuclear war.
I for one resent having to wonder if that’s going to happen. I resent having to deal with that fear and angsty dread all over again. I have nightmares of living with the dread and fond memories of living without it. Dread is exhausting and I’ve got more important things to do with my life than to revisit some pervasive anxiety just because one demented idiot might like to make things go big boom boom. Seriously, I’m getting too old for this shit and what this shit may require of me.
Still, if the air raid sirens do suddenly echo through the neighborhood, a deeply embedded cue will have me murmuring a prayer for world peace. If it’s a school day I would still be able to march down to the gradeschool basement, sit on the floor right up against the heating pipes, think about the vaporization that was mere minutes away. I’ll be damned, though, to think that my middle-aged lumbar issues would allow for a suitable duck’n’cover.
Speaking of my old gradeschool basement, I hear the current President is bringing back asbestos too.
Johnny Masiulewicz is a writer, journalist and creator of the Happy Tapir zine series. His work has appeared in a wide variety of periodicals and journals including The Chicago Tribune, The Florida Times-Union, The Main Street Rag and Curbside Review. A native Chicagoan, he now lives and works in Jacksonville, Florida.