“It is a town like any other in America,” says the Rod Serling in my head, where I keep the worst Twilight Zone episode ever conceived, “Of verdant yards, yapping dogs, and running children, from families of all walks of life. The sun is always shining on Evergreen Way (or whatever). But out of their view, just beyond the horizon, a threat to their way of life steadily approaches, its final destination the Twili—” you get the point. Anyway, a flying saucer or a pod of some kind is supposed to land in the middle of a cul-de-sac, out of which comes … my grandfather George F. Morgan; tall, stern, and statuesque. Of course, he is not the danger but the harbinger of it. He doesn’t really get into specifics but does say he has for them the ultimate defense, and leaves the town—probably in the hands of some freckled kid—a small black box, and leaves. The end.
Grandpa George served as a Lieutenant in the United States Air Force during World War II. That he earned his rank without a college education is apparently a big to-do. He didn’t make much of it, however, as he spent the bulk of it in an infirmary in, I think, Montana, for a collapsed lung. When he did make it to Japan it was during the occupation and to serve as a payroll officer. Having died 30 years ago, I have no idea what his voice sounded like or what his opinions were. But the image I have of him is a classic example of the Greatest Generation, but then so is everyone else’s grandfather.
American culture never quite got it right with the fighters of its other wars. The World War I generation was castigated for not fighting; the Vietnam generation was castigated for doing the opposite. The World War II generation seemed to fulfill our expectations like no other. They are our Olympians, and everyone else, somehow, are the Titans. Their legacy gives some kind of order to a situation that seems to be hemorrhaging it everywhere else. To me, however, they seemed simply alien, living by temperament, mores, principles, and even language that seem galactically unfit. Perhaps I am not the only one with this imagined Twilight Zone episode. Each Messenger is interchangeable with each other’s grandfather, and each message is interchangeable with their own concerns. In my case, the black box has on its top a simple atomic symbol. “Use it to the best of your ability,” Grandpa George tells the townspeople, and beams back up.
“A flash! A blast! The release of deadly radioactive rays,” beckons the narrator of the 1951 film One World or None. “And in a matter of seconds, downtown New York would be a mass of ruins. Throughout the entire end of lower Manhattan most people would be dead. All buildings from Washington Square to the Battery would be destroyed.” A graphic is displayed, starkly slick and terrifying in its gross lack of subtlety, of a skull imposed over a map of lower Manhattan, encircled by layers of crosses. This is one of several such instructional scare films of the “duck-and-cover” era to have appeared on YouTube. I enjoy watching most of them but this one especially; it is in the best condition and hence pays better tribute to its immaculately designed vision of violence and death. It is fascinated with the evolution of human carnage up to this incomprehensible culmination, and parades an endless succession of disaster scenarios that could have been and could be.
Living in the Cold War era, it was commonplace to set aside some time of the day to consider, even actively prepare for, the possibility of being nuked. “God may have willed the destruction of the planet in an atomic Gotterdämmerung,” Willmoore Kendall wrote, “but we are still obligated to use the means at our disposal in order to preserve justice in the situations in which we are involved.” Much of the 1990s was spent laughing at this mentality as sheer hyperventilation. The triumph of liberal democracy over totalitarianism was synonymous with the triumph of sanity over madness. The Cold War was seen less as historical procession and more as a collection of interconnected, morally affirming short stories. The atomic bomb became a mythic symbol, perplexing but coated in a protective shell of GI heroism. The nuclear defense program can be forgotten in a world bending toward competent stewardship.
The second Era of Good Feelings was only slightly longer than the first. Competence, it turns out, is very boring, and also not all that competent. The experimental regime under which we currently find ourselves being governed has upended or seems very eager to upend many of the comforts of that bygone time. Among the norms shattered seems to be the pervading security that peaked in the 1990s. This had been on the wane for some time, of course, only now in a way that is rather unavoidable. It is humbling and regrettable to face fears one had long thought behind them, or had only heard of secondhand, but such discomforts call just as much for revisiting how those fears can be better dealt with in the new Era of Precariousness. What better catalyst for change than mortifying discomfort?
I’ve long held that the next great American paradigm shift must be rooted in doing the exact opposite of conventional intuition. The taboo-shattering of the Trump administration rests largely on process and decorum. And while many of the policy changes the administration has tried to enact have been met with strong pushback, defense policy remains static. Its budget continues its steady climb, gestures toward pre-emptive force continue to be relied on, drones continue to drone, and torture is once more being enthusiastically pursued. Moreover, the Trump administration seems content to uphold America’s first-strike policy of nuclear defense. Even so, Trump instills unease by virtue of his access to our nuclear mechanisms.
Trump, at the present moment, is entitled to pursue whatever policy inclination he wishes. But the United States tends to forge greatness in such a way that it both glorifies the individual who presides amidst it and perpetuates the survival of the people he or she presides over. If any President in this era seeks heroic deeds of this magnitude, dismantling the entire nuclear defense apparatus is one good option.
Nuclear disarmament is one of those moral stances based largely on being pointedly shocking. For the gadfly senator with no legislative acumen it is indispensable. But because the last major party presidential hopeful to make defense rollback an integral part of his vision ended up carrying only one state, no serious contender since has articulated a defense doctrine that was short of “robust.” Should a similarly bold but dissimilarly electable politician come to the fore, there are at least three sufficient reasons to evaluate disarmament as a policy.
First is the shifting of the geopolitical landscape. Nuclear defense was not always easier to manage in the Cold War, but it was easier to conceive of and justify within the Cold War’s binary dynamic. For all of the paranoia, psyching up, and dodged bullets, hindsight shows a time period that was comparatively less precarious. The arms race looks less like a conflict over differing visions of how human affairs should be ordered and more like a global scale bodybuilding competition. (Think of Cold War strategy as a mullet: missile-parading deterrence in front, local level brutalization in back.) And developed nations interested in pursuing their own programs were absolved of many existential and practical burdens with the nods of their preferred super power. That stabilizer no longer exists as it once did. Indeed, there is an anxiety throughout the commentariat to find some kind, any kind, of adversary to restore that old balance. But the prime candidates have preoccupations that seem more complex than geopolitical odd-coupling; and so it is with every other nation with nuclear defenses. The United States as setter of the agenda feels more like a formality than a mark of its leadership. If we want to arbitrate the stakes of global peace anew, it will require more than slight, begrudging pivots or wishful thinking.
Second, therefore, are disarmament’s revolutionary implications. America’s long held role as arbiter of global peace is taken as granted, but it was not solidified as anything other than self-appointed without the dropping the atomic bombs. “Sad fact is,” James Poulos tweeted, “someone would have dropped the bomb first. Humans desire knowledge of good and evil. Fortunately for humanity it was us.” Perhaps more discomfiting than the immediate strategic and moral ramifications of the bombings is how much we owe our prestige to them. And in a global atmosphere in which we always seem one proxy war away from total global conflict, a similarly radical but tactically opposite act of nuclear self-abnegation might be called for. This, provided Niebuhrian irony does not take effect, a speculation floated in Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta, wherein a nuclear-free Britain, stands almost entirely alone in an otherwise annihilated planet.
Third is the paltry military experience of the American executive. Though the United States has prided itself on civilian-centric governance, and some of its exclusively civilian leaders have served admirably in states of war, increasing military activity being presided over by people with little to no experience in active service has proven problematic, not so much from a raw strategic standpoint (that can always be someone else’s problem) but from broad perspective. Harry Truman, Paul Fussell wrote in 1988, “is the only President in my lifetime who ever had experience in a small unit of ground troops whose mission it was to kill people. That sort of experience of actual war seems useful to presidents especially, helping to inform them about life in general and restraining them from making fools of themselves needlessly.” This seems a petty concern that does nothing more than put severe limits on voters’ options, but the conflict between civilian rule and the demands entailed in “Commander-in-Chief” are often dangerously at variance, and the messy concerns of campaigning always overstep just how much power we give one person. Disarmament, then, would necessitate a President with as much moral resolve, cold judgment, and humility. Shouldn’t be hard to find.
None of this is to suggest that peace through disarmament is not almost exclusively fantastic. One of the major obstructions to giving it even a serious hearing is the impracticability of applying it in our present system. Much like a libertarian presidency, nothing short of total social upheaval would justify its enactment and permit it to be carried out, erasing not just weapons, but procedures, protocols, strategies, and jobs from our operations. To refute nuclear weaponry is to refute the military-industrial complex in total, and the guiding principle of the United States as a war-making society.
No less an impediment is the decline of America’s moral authority. Imagine, if you will, a pig having been strung up by its hind legs and slowly bled, with the current administration proceeding to stab at its abdomen at random before flaying it and dumping it in a roadside ditch en route to other amusement.
Nuclear disarmament is not merely an unattractive alternative policy, but a heresy. Though America is not a religion, it carries itself much like one. It is gnostic in nature: granting redemption without a fall, and a vision of apocalypse that brings victory rather than justice. Even so, America has survived almost entirely on heresies against its own creeds. For a constitutional order that is predicated on explicit instructions, its application has a Stretch Armstrong elasticity to it, particularly under the guise of the conflicting wills and characters of chief executives. The heresies enacted by Jackson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt, for instance (and leaving aside the extrapresidential ones fomented by Hamilton, Marshall, Calhoun, and Warren), are distinguishable to one another to the point that they were executives of different nations entirely. Such is the level of fortitude required for anyone to give so unthinkable a policy a fighting chance in the national coliseum.
In the end, I have not figured out if the townspeople in my Twilight Zone episode live in an America as we now know it or in the America for which I’ve tried to argue here. The closest I’ve come to an ending for it is for the recipient of the box to look inside it, shrug, and place it on his dresser. The town stands just long enough for the box to be completely obscured by geological layers of pocket lint, empty Coke cans, prescription containers, Altoids, rolling papers, condoms, and pizzeria receipt after pizzeria receipt. Worst. Hypothetical episode. Ever.