The Atlantic

Washington Resumes Talking About Nuclear War

As the North Korean crisis escalates, the unthinkable has suddenly become discussable.
Source: Yuri Gripas / Reuters

On an unseasonably warm October day recently, Donald Trump’s CIA director and national-security adviser appeared one after another at a conference in the nation’s capital. They soberly assessed the world’s greatest threats below the gentle light of chandeliers in a hotel ballroom. In between their remarks, D.C.’s cognoscenti spilled into an adjoining courtyard to conduct their own threat assessments over wraps and caesar salad. All was normal in Washington—except that two of the president’s top aides were signaling, with deadly seriousness, that conflict could soon erupt between two nuclear-weapons powers.

Talk of nuclear war—of the “general and universal physical fear” of being “blown up” at any moment, as William Faulkner —subsided of the Cold War. Americans instead cited “fear of the greenhouse effect, the ozone in 1992, when George Bush and Boris Yeltsin officially concluded the rivalry between the nuclear superpowers. Just a few years ago, former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry that while it was good that “our children don’t know what the threat of nuclear war really feels like,” this generational divide made it more challenging to convey the urgency of ridding the world of its deadliest weapons.

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