US Presidents Who Gamble With Nuclear Armageddon

Talk of nuclear war is currently everywhere, writes Jeffrey Sachs. We desperately need leaders who can steer the nation, and the world, toward a more secure  future.

Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky and U.S. President Joe Biden during the G7 Summit on May 21 at the Grand Prince Hotel in Hiroshima, Japan. (White House /Cameron Smith)

By Jeffrey D. Sachs
Common Dreams

The overriding job of any U.S. president is to keep the nation safe. In the nuclear age, that mainly means avoiding nuclear Armageddon. 

Joe Biden’s reckless and incompetent foreign policy is pushing us closer to annihilation. He joins a long and undistinguished list of presidents who have gambled with Armageddon, including his immediate predecessor and rival, Donald Trump. 

Talk of nuclear war is currently everywhere. Leaders of NATO countries call for Russia’s defeat and even dismemberment, while telling us not to worry about Russia’s 6,000 nuclear warheads. 

Ukraine uses NATO-supplied missiles to knock out parts of Russia’s nuclear-attack early-warning system inside Russia. Russia, in the meantime, engages in nuclear drills near its border with Ukraine.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg give the green light to Ukraine to use NATO weapons to hit Russian territory as an increasingly desperate and extremist Ukrainian regime sees fit. [Russia has warned of “serious consequences” if it is hut with such long-range missiles.]

Blinken and Stoltenberg at NATO meeting in Brussels, March 2021. (State Department, Ron Przysucha)

These leaders neglect at our greatest peril the most basic lesson of the nuclear confrontation between the U.S. and Soviet Union in the Cuban Missile Crisis, as told by President John F. Kennedy, one of the few American presidents in the nuclear age to take our survival seriously. In the aftermath of the crisis, Kennedy told us, and his successors:

“Above all, while defending our own vital interests, nuclear powers must avert those confrontations which bring an adversary to a choice of either a humiliating retreat or a nuclear war. To adopt that kind of course in the nuclear age would be evidence only of the bankruptcy of our policy — or of a collective death-wish for the world.” 

Yet this is exactly what Biden is doing today, carrying out a bankrupt and reckless policy. 

Nuclear war can easily arise from an escalation of non-nuclear war, or by a hothead leader with access to nuclear arms deciding on a surprise first strike, or by a gross miscalculation. 

The last of these nearly occurred even after Kennedy and his Soviet counterpart Nikita Khrushchev had negotiated an end to the Cuban Missile Crisis, when a disabled Soviet submarine came within a hair’s breadth of launching a nuclear-tipped torpedo. 

Kennedy with Khrushchev in Vienna in June 1961. (National Archives and Records Administration, Public domain)

Most presidents, and most Americans, have little idea how close to the abyss we are. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, which was founded in 1947 in part to help the world avoid nuclear annihilation, established the Doomsday Clock to help the public understand the gravity of the risks we face. 

National security experts adjust the clock depending how far or how close we are to “midnight,” meaning extinction. They put the clock today at just 90 seconds to midnight, the closest that it’s ever been in the nuclear age. 

The clock is a useful measure of which presidents have “gotten it” and which have not. The sad fact is that most presidents have recklessly gambled with our survival in the name of national honor, or to prove their personal toughness, or to avoid political attacks from the warmongers, or as the result of sheer incompetence. 

By a simple and straightforward count, five presidents have gotten it right, moving the clock away from midnight, while nine have moved us closer to Armageddon, including the most recent five.

Harry Truman was president when the Doomsday Clock was unveiled in 1947, at seven minutes to midnight. Truman stoked the nuclear arms race and left office with the clock at just three minutes to midnight. Eisenhower continued the nuclear arms race but also entered into the first-ever negotiations with the Soviet Union regarding nuclear disarmament. By the time he left office, the clock was put back to seven minutes to midnight. 

Kennedy saved the world by coolly reasoning his way through the Cuban Missile Crisis, rather than following the advice of hothead advisors who called for war (for a detailed account, see Martin Sherwin’s magisterial Gambling with Armageddon, 2020). 

He then negotiated the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty with Khrushchev in 1963. By the time of his death, which may well have been a government coup resulting from Kennedy’s peace initiative, JFK had pushed the clock back to 12 minutes to midnight, a magnificent and historic achievement. 

It was not to last. Lyndon Johnson soon escalated the war in Vietnam and pushed the clock back again to just seven minutes to midnight. Richard Nixon eased tensions with both the Soviet Union and China, and concluded the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT I), pushing the clock again to 12 minutes from midnight. 

May 26, 1972: Nixon and Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev signing the ABM Treaty and Interim Agreement on Strategic Arms Limitation in Moscow. (Richard Nixon Presidential Library/Public domain/Wikimedia Commons)

Yet Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter failed to secure SALT II, and Carter fatefully and unwisely gave a green light to the C.I.A. in 1979 to destabilize Afghanistan. By the time Ronald Reagan took office, the clock was at just four minutes to midnight. 

The next 12 years marked the end of the Cold War. Much of the credit is due to Mikhail Gorbachev, who aimed to reform the Soviet Union politically and economically, and to end the confrontation with the West.

Yet credit is also due to Reagan and his successor George Bush, Sr., who successfully worked with Gorbachev to end the Cold War, which in turn was followed by the end of the Soviet Union itself in December 1991.

By the time Bush left office, the Doomsday clock was at 17 minutes to midnight, the safest since the start of the nuclear age. 

Sadly, the U.S. security establishment could not take “Yes” for an answer when Russia said an emphatic yes to peaceful and cooperative relations. The U.S. needed to “win” the Cold War, not just end it.

It needed to declare itself and prove itself to be the sole superpower of the world, the one that would unilaterally write the rules of a new U.S.-led “rules-based order.”

The post-1992 U.S. therefore launched wars and expanded its vast network of military bases as it saw fit, steadfastly and ostentatiously ignoring the red lines of other nations, indeed aiming to drive nuclear adversaries into humiliating retreats. 

Since 1992, every president has left the U.S. and the world closer to nuclear annihilation than his predecessor. The Doomsday Clock was at 17 minutes to midnight when Clinton came to office, but just nine minutes when he left it.

Bush pushed the clock to just 5 minutes, Obama to 3 minutes, and Trump to a mere 100 seconds. Now Biden has taken the clock to 90 seconds. 

Biden has led the U.S. into three fulminant crises, any one of which could end up in Armageddon. By insisting on NATO enlargement to Ukraine, against Russia’s bright red line, Biden has repeatedly pushed for Russia’s humiliating retreat.

By siding with a genocidal Israel, he has stoked a new Middle East arms race and a dangerously expanding Middle East conflict.

By taunting China over Taiwan, which the U.S. ostensibly recognizes as part of one China, he is inviting a war with China. Trump similarly stirred the nuclear pot on several fronts, most flagrantly with China and Iran. 

Washington seems of a single mind these days: more funding for wars in Ukraine and Gaza, more armaments for Taiwan. We slouch ever closer to Armageddon. Polls show the American people overwhelmingly disapprove of U.S. foreign policy, but their opinion counts for very little.

We need to shout for peace from every hilltop. The survival of our children and grandchildren depends on it.

Jeffrey D. Sachs is a university professor and director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University, where he directed The Earth Institute from 2002 until 2016. He is also president of the U.N. Sustainable Development Solutions Network and a commissioner of the U.N. Broadband Commission for Development.

This article is from Common Dreams.

Views expressed in this article and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

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21 comments for “US Presidents Who Gamble With Nuclear Armageddon

  1. anon
    June 1, 2024 at 10:19

    In the run up to D Day, Azov Nazis and their Nazi banner are welcomed in the Houses of Parliament.

    Bojo The Clown did not want to be outdone by Trudeau, with standing ovations in the Canadian Parliament for real SS Nazi killers.

  2. Rafi Simonton
    May 30, 2024 at 23:43

    Must be the old political gambit of escalating external conflict to deflect from internal conflict. Look! Scary Russian bear! Dreaded Chinese dragon! This is a U.S. election year; both parties will be screaming about how their powerful butch leader will protect us. The Ds think we working people are too stupid to notice their neolib economics, neocons running the State Dept, support for Ukrainian Nazis, or risking nuclear war. Whatever it takes to preserve Empire. For which there should be more room once undesirables like in Gaza are removed.
    Anyone in the media who mentions any of this will be deplatformed or worse. Consider Assange a warning. The NYT will tell us all we lessers need to know and what we should believe.
    The Rs (and their like in the world) are the autobahn to oblivion. But the D elite (and their Euro allies) are headed in the same direction. Just along a slow, winding route where all the scenery hasn’t been destroyed…yet. I’m not too sure which is a worse political act–a result where the destruction will become obvious to everyone, or the one from passively going along with the Potemkin political party trying to hide it. The Dem line of “the lesser of two evils” is still about evil; here bringing to mind the ’60s war protest song “Eve of Destruction.”

  3. wildthange
    May 30, 2024 at 20:52

    Our western alliance with the full spectrum dominance and pivot to Asia is promoting permanent war as if we are in a permanent Viking Valhalla world for R2P the Right to Plunder and worship the Thunder.
    The mythical God of monotheism has been invented just to excuse our wars for its honor and cult-ural world
    Cyber war could hit the wold hard without the radiation however so could increasing economic sanction merged with rising inflationary world disasters.

  4. May 30, 2024 at 19:53

    This is a bit confusing. It says, “Ukraine uses NATO-supplied missiles to knock out parts of Russia’s nuclear-attack early-warning system inside Russia.” Then it warns that Ukraine might get the go-ahead to use NATO missiles to strike targets inside Russia. Haven’t they already done so?

  5. TDillon
    May 30, 2024 at 18:57

    This conflict in Ukraine is based on a brazen lie by Western “leaders” – that Russia launched a “full scale” invasion “unprovoked”. Biden, Blinken, Sullivan, Kirby et. al. know this, and and know they are lying to the American people. Same for the “leaders” of Europe. Same for the talking heads of the corporate media.

    They are all also lying brazenly about the conflict in Palestine. In fact, the Zionists have always been the actual terrorists there.

    Who is orchestrating this chorus of OBVIOUS lies? Who can afford to own the corporate media and the politicians? Who actually WANTS a major war? Who actually WANTS to rule the world? This is not being driven by the puppets of the evil financiers behind the scenes. To solve a problem we must describe it accurately. Focusing on false fronts like Biden or Sunak, while helpful to a point, will not get us to the root of the problem. On the other hand, going to the root can be personally dangerous.

  6. rudy haugeneder
    May 30, 2024 at 18:08

    Not many people I speak are at worried about nuclear war: almost none. And most are very well educated and successful. In fact, the vast majority, many of whom were anti-war rebels a few decades ago, now either fully or partially support sabre rattling American, European and Israeli leaders. These same folk, regardless of age, also don’t worry much about climate change even if they have in recent months and years suffered through a protracted heat wave, chalking it up to slightly abnormal but short term weather events. What has happened to us.

    • May 30, 2024 at 22:49

      They’re busy worrying that Trump paid a porn star to keep quiet about their affair.

  7. susan
    May 30, 2024 at 12:48

    Unfortunately, current American/Israeli/Ukrainian politicians don’t seem to realize that the use of Nukes will jeopardize their lives too. Biden doesn’t care because he already has one foot in the grave and the others are simply blinded by their avarice and lust for power which are illusions of course. The Earth is being destroyed by humans and humans are murdering each other daily because they disagree on almost everything. Maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad thing if the human genome were completely obliterated…

  8. Drew Hunkins
    May 30, 2024 at 12:41

    Let’s keep supplying Kiev with long range missiles that can strike deep within Russia and see what happens.

    Unreal the danger Washington is flirting with right now. But Trump’s payments to a porno gal should be the focus.

  9. May 30, 2024 at 12:08

    I am glad Jeffrey Sachs brought up the CIA coup against Kennedy, because it has been endless war ever since. The CIA won, and has everyone so intimidated that peace is not an option anymore. Hence Trump saying one minute that he would end the wars in 24 hours, and in the next saying he would bomb Moscow and Beijing. Biden’s handlers are running the show for now, and I am not sure how much they are filling the aging, incompetent president in on current events. But that doesn’t matter because Biden has been one of the biggest cheerleaders for endless war of any president of my lifetime. So, like I said, the CIA won, and we only get a choice of warmonger A or warmonger B. That’s US democracy for you.

    • Tim N
      May 31, 2024 at 07:23

      What CIA coup against Kennedy? Do you have proof of that?

    • Tony
      May 31, 2024 at 09:21

      In the immediate aftermath of the JFK assassination, President Johnson cynically suggested that the assassination could be the first stage in a Soviet attack that could be followed by a nuclear attack on the United States. If he had really believed that then he would have got into Air Force One immediately and taken to the skies.

      Later on, Johnson used the fear of nuclear war to get Justice Warren to serve on the commission that bore his name and he used the same argument on Senator Richard Russell.

      This is what Johnson told Russell:

      “You can serve with anybody for the good of America. This is a question that has a good many more ramifications than on the surface, and we’ve got to take this out of the arena where they’re testifying that {Soviet leader Nikita} Khrushchev and {Cuban leader Fidel} Castro did this and did that and check us into a war that can kill 40 million Americans in an hour. . . . ”

      So, there we have it. Fear of nuclear war was used by Johnson to ensure that the true nature of the JFK assassination would be covered up.

      This is a very good reason why we must eliminate nuclear weapons. I urge everyone who reads this comment to get involved in this most urgent task.


  10. Carolyn L Zaremba
    May 30, 2024 at 11:28

    Gorbachev was a traitor to the Russian Revolution when he handed over the USSR to capitalism. There was nothing good about that. It created a disaster in Russia that took more than a decade to overcome. Now that it has been overcome and Russia is in a position to defend itself and also its economy is in good shape, the U.S. and NATO seek nothing but to destroy it. The nuclear clock is nearly at midnight because of the collective west and the desperation of a dying U.S. empire to cling to power.

    • June 1, 2024 at 18:46

      “Capitalism, it is said, is a system wherein man exploits man. And communism—is vice versa.”

      Daniel Bell, The End of Ideology

      I will add that capitalism, it is said truly, is a system wherein man exploits man.

      I think we all know that communism, as it played out in the Soviet Union, did not work out well for the people living under it.

      Here are some insights and lessons by the late political philosopher and commentator Ernest Partridge, aka “The Gadfly”, who had visited Russia a number of times. These are from an article he wrote in 1998.

      Under communism we had order without freedom. Then we tried freedom without order, only to discover that without order, there is no freedom.

      A Professor at Moscow University
      As told to The Gadfly
      Moscow, Summer, 1997.

      A lesson from Russia: Pure collectivism will not work. If a modern economy is to succeed, individual preferences must be reflected in prices, and individual initiative and productivity must be rewarded.

      A second lesson from Russia: no society can endure if its citizens are consumed by unconstrained self interest, untempered by compassion, civic loyalty, and personal investment in social justice. And no successful civilized society exists without the rule of law, effectively enforced by a government answerable to the public will.

      Here is his account of his encounter with an officer of a libertarian think tank on a flight on his way back from Russia:

      The wrong approach became painfully apparent to us several years ago on a flight back from Moscow. We happened then to sit next to an officer of a libertarian think-tank (whom and which we will mercifully decline to identify). During those hours over the Atlantic, he told us at length what he had “taught” the Russians, though we do not recall that he had a word to say about what he had learned from the Russians. He went to Moscow with his pre-packaged free-market libertarian dogmas, apparently uninformed and uninterested in the historical and cultural context into which he was eager to bestow his ideological gift. He was, we suspect, typical of a small army of “helpful” western advisors that descended upon Russia following the fall of the “iron curtain.”


  11. Michael Kritschgau
    May 30, 2024 at 10:01

    I am surprised that Jeffrey Sachs did not mention the 1983 events which culminated with the NATO’s Able Archer exercise. This exercise simulated a nuclear attack on Soviet Russia.
    By the time of November 1983 when the Able Archer exercise started, two other major events that happened earlier in September would create such a paranoia in the Kremlin that Able Archer almost triggered a nuclear shooting war.
    Those two events were the downing of Korean Flight 007 by the Soviets and the the Soviet early Warning Systems that erroneously detected 5 separate nuclear launches by the U.S. against the Soviet Union.
    All of these coupled with the Reagan bellicose rhetoric of the Soviets as being an evil empire and the weapons build up from 1981 onwards did not help ease the tensions.
    Many researchers believe that the 1983 events brought us closer than ever to a nuclear war.

    • vinnieoh
      May 30, 2024 at 11:41

      Also not mentioned is a factor that provoked the Soviets to place nukes in Cuba: the US had stationed nuke missiles in Turkey and Italy pointed at Russia. As part of the crisis resolution agreements, Kennedy agreed to remove those missiles and Khruschev graciously agreed not to make too big an international deal over it so Kennedy could save face domestically.

      • Tim N
        May 31, 2024 at 07:26

        Exactly so. It’s unnerving to see Kennedy turned into a saint and great “progressive” fighter for peace. He was an ardent cold warrior.

  12. Fastball
    May 30, 2024 at 09:57

    Sadly there are no leaders here, now, or on the horizon, who will shift the country onto a safer course. This is the bankruptcy of not only the now wholly corrupt mainstream party and media, but the entire U.S. government. If the U.S. government will not back down, it needs to be replaced with a saner, wiser government.

    Let him or her who would save us from these maniacs stand forth or be silent during the replacement process.

    • vinnieoh
      May 30, 2024 at 11:52

      The only leader that could save the US (and the world from the US) would have to stand up and tell us – “It’s over. The impossible dream to dominate and remake the world in our image is over; Also at an end is our obdurate denial that we are somehow disconnected or independent of all the other life on this planet.”

      Sadly, such leaders only exist in heroic fiction. There is no politician that would commit such political suicide.

      • sisuforpeace
        May 30, 2024 at 17:13

        Well there is – Jill Stein of the Green Party (anti-war, Pro-worker, pro-environment) but unfortunately the rigged US election system doesn’t seem to allow a third party of any kind of a chance at getting in on the “democratic” process.

        • Bushrod Lake
          May 31, 2024 at 09:20

          It certainly doesn’t and it was created in 1916 by President Wilson, to do exactly that. The main goal was to control who runs and offer a choice to the voters of tweedledum tweedledee candidates. This year is an exceptionally clear example of it, IMO.

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