It all seems more like Game of Thrones than the measured threat escalation and bland bureaucratic language usually deployed by battling heads of state.
When President Trump on Tuesday threatened North Korea with “fire and fury,” starkly raising the image of a nuclear confrontation, he engaged in rhetoric rarely if ever used by American presidents.
Of course, this is a president whose career in commercial real estate and now politics has been marked indelibly by bombast and goading, and whose professional track seems more like a series of television installments than a dutiful trudge across a career obstacle course.
“North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States,” Trump said to reporters gathered at his golf club in Bedminster, N.J., where he has been vacationing. “They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.”
Trump’s remarks drew quick pushback from his longtime antagonist Sen. John McCain, (R. Ariz.), who worried that Trump might have maneuvered himself into a corner.
Typically, U.S. leaders play it very close to the vest, giving a face-saving option if military options become unpalatable.
President Harry S. Truman said little after dropping the first nuclear bomb on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, issuing a statement that began blandly but ended with a dire threat if the Japanese didn’t give in.
“A short time ago, an American airplane dropped one bomb on Hiroshima and destroyed its usefulness to the enemy,” Truman said. “That bomb has more power than 20,000 tons of TNT. These bombs are now in production, and even more powerful forms are in development. The Japanese began the war at Pearl Harbor, and they have been repaid manyfold.”
Then Truman said: “If they [Japanese leaders] do not accept our terms, they may expect a rain of ruin from the air the likes of which have never been seen on Earth.”
President Lyndon B. Johnson’s statement following the disputed Gulf of Tonkin attack on the USS Maddox by North Vietnam warships Aug. 2, 1964, was more anodyne. Following the incident, Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, which served as the basis for pouring hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops into what was then South Vietnam and the start of an extensive bombing of the north.
“The performance of commanders and crews in this engagement is in the highest tradition of the United States Navy,” Johnson said in a statement following a second alleged attack by the North Vietnamese on U.S. warships. “But repeated acts of violence against the armed forces of the United States must be met not only with alert defense, but with positive reply. That reply is being given as I speak to you tonight. Air action is now in execution against gunboats and certain supporting facilities in North Vietnam, which have been used in these hostile operations.”
President George W. Bush was a tad more aggressive one month after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when, speaking about plot leader Osama bin Laden, he promised: “We’ll smoke him out of his cave, and we’ll get him eventually.”
Hard to believe, but those were more decorous times. Bush’s remark, hinting at the brutality to come, shocked staid Europeans, and images depicting Bush as a warmonger soon began appearing regularly on European media. I recall having a beer with the then-German ambassador to the United States, Wolfgang Ischinger, at the German Embassy in Washington shortly after Bush’s comments. Ischinger, now chairman of the Munich Security Conference, told me he was appalled that an American president would use words that, to the European mind, would conjure images of a gas chamber.
On one of its covers, the German magazine Der Spiegel depicted Bush as a spear- and sword-carrying gladiator.
Bush’s father, President George H.W. Bush, was more in the mold of American presidents who avoided provocative rhetoric and leaned on bureaucratic jargon, even as the world was about to be turned upside down.
In a televised statement on the outset of the Persian Gulf War on Jan. 16, 1991, as U.S. cruise missiles rained down on Baghdad, Bush said the U.S was going to retake Kuwait from Saddam Hussein, who had invaded the tiny, oil-rich nation months earlier.
“This conflict started Aug. 3 when the dictator of Iraq invaded a small and helpless neighbor,” Bush said. “Kuwait, a member of the Arab League and a member of the United Nations, was crushed, its people brutalized. Five months ago, Saddam Hussein started this cruel war against Kuwait. Tonight, the battle has been joined. … We have no choice but to drive Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. We will not fail.”
It was a statement more in tune with C-SPAN than HBO.