President Donald Trump is playing a dangerous game with North
Korea, risking a repeat of one of the mistakes that ensnared
America in the Vietnam War — only worse.
The US president is castigating the leader of North Korea, Kim
Jong Un, in unusually personal and menacing terms. In early
August, he threatened
to unleash “fire and fury” on North Korea and then warned that
the US armed forces were “locked and loaded.”
At the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 19, he said that
if the US “is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have
no choice but to totally destroy North Korea. Rocket Man is on a
suicide mission for himself and for his regime.”
The Los Angeles Times has reported
that national security aides tried to get Trump to take out the
taunting reference to Kim as “Rocket Man,” but he keeps repeating
it. It’s the new “Crooked Hillary” or “Lyin’ Ted.”
Trump reveled in the reaction the phrase, now “Little Rocket
Man,” elicited Friday from the crowd at his Alabama rally, and
on Sunday he tweeted,
“Just heard Foreign Minister of North Korea speak at UN If he
echoes thoughts of Little Rocket Man, they won’t be around much
This is a long way from the standard diplo-speak of previous US
presidents who warned that the US would respond strongly to North
Korean aggression. At the same time as the president is goading
the North Korean dictator, the US military is flexing its
muscles. On Saturday, US B-1 bombers and F-15 fighters flew
farther north of the Demilitarized Zone along the North Korean
coastline than they have in years.
Trump clearly has Kim’s attention. The megalomaniacal North
Korean strongman responded with an unusually personal riposte of
his own, calling Trump
a “mentally deranged US dotard” and vowing to “tame” him “with
fire.” His foreign minister has likened Trump’s statements to a
declaration of war.
North Korea has already shown that it will not be cowed — since
the “fire and fury” threat in early August, it has tested three
ballistic missiles and carried out its biggest nuclear test yet.
North Korea is now threatening to test a nuclear device in the
Pacific Ocean and to attack the United States, although its
actual response may be something very different.
It is inconceivable that any previous president would have gotten
into such a war of words with a dictator. John F. Kennedy said,
“Ich bin ein Berliner”; he did not call Nikita Khrushchev a
“short, fat peasant.” Ronald Reagan said, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear
down this wall”; he did not label Mikhail Gorbachev “Red Spot.”
Those presidents knew that any confrontation with a nuclear-armed
state had to be handled with the greatest delicacy, lest a
miscalculation lead to Armageddon.
Trump shows no such awareness. Given that he does not read books,
he would be well advised to tune into the Ken Burns and Lynn
Novick PBS series on the Vietnam War to see what can happen when
the US acts too aggressively and thereby stumbles into a ruinous
In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson committed himself to
defending South Vietnam from North Vietnamese aggression. At the
same time, he authorized a covert campaign known as OPLAN 34A to
send South Vietnamese commandos on raids into the North supported
by the US military. Johnson had no idea that in so doing he would
be goading North Vietnam into a war with the United States. But
that is just what happened.
One of Johnson’s covert attacks took place at midnight of July
30, 1964, with South Vietnamese naval commandos raiding two North
Vietnamese islands in the Gulf of Tonkin while the destroyer USS
Maddox was steaming 120 miles away.
There was no direct connection between the commando raid and the
Maddox’s intelligence-gathering patrol, but the North
Vietnamese did not know that. On Aug. 2, three North Vietnamese
torpedo boats attacked the Maddox without doing any
Then on Aug. 4, another North Vietnamese attack was reported on
the Maddox and its sister destroyer, the Turner
Joy. The two destroyers fired 372 shells and at least four
depth charges while reporting that they had dodged multiple
torpedoes and enemy gunfire.
Yet American pilots overhead could not see any enemy ships. It
later became obvious that the second attack had not really
happened. But by then Congress had passed the Gulf of Tonkin
Resolution, giving Johnson a blank check to wage war against
North Vietnam. The eventual result: nearly half a million US
troops in South Vietnam, with 58,000 of them coming home in body
Trump’s current provocations could elicit an even more
catastrophic outcome. Imagine that Kim Jong Un, an inexperienced
observer of American politics, takes Trump’s words seriously and
then sees US warplanes heading for his borders. It is not
far-fetched to posit that he might give the orders to shoot down
one of those aircraft.
Indeed, North Korea’s foreign minister, Ri Yong Ho, said
Monday: “Since the United States declared war on our country, we
will have every right to make countermeasures, including the
right to shoot down United States strategic bombers even when
they are not inside the airspace border of our country.”
Or imagine that North Korea responds by firing a missile in the
general direction of Guam and it lands by mistake in US
territorial waters or even hits the island itself.
In either case, Trump would undoubtedly feel compelled to respond
militarily, even if no US lives or property were lost. Even a
single, symbolic US airstrike could further feed Kim’s paranoia,
convincing him that America is about to destroy his country just
as Trump has threatened. Backed into a corner, the North Korean
strongman may decide he has nothing to lose by unleashing his
nuclear arsenal on South Korea, Japan — even the United States.
This nightmarish scenario is becoming all too plausible because
of Trump’s over-the-top bellicosity. He should turn down the
rhetorical temperature. A policy of containment and deterrence
worked against the Soviet Union, a country with a far larger
nuclear arsenal than North Korea will ever have.
Eventually the USSR peacefully imploded. The same approach can
work with North Korea too, as long as we don’t stumble into an
unnecessary and calamitous conflict first because of our
president’s macho posturing.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Business Insider.