Trump’s Harsh Language on North Korea Has Little Precedent, Experts Say

Mr. Trump's remarks echo tone and cadence of President Truman during his 1945 announcement that the U.S. had dropped a nuclear weapon on Hiroshima

Julie Hirschfeld Davis, The New York Times
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People watch a television news program showing U.S. President Donald Trump at a railway station in Seoul on August 9, 2017.
People watch a television news program showing U.S. President Donald Trump at a railway station in Seoul on August 9, 2017.Credit: JUNG YEON-JE/AFP
Julie Hirschfeld Davis, The New York Times

President Trump’s warning on Tuesday that North Korea would experience “fire and fury like the world has never seen” if it continued threatening the United States was a remarkable escalation of military rhetoric with little precedent in the modern era, historians and analysts said.

Mr. Trump’s menacing remarks echoed the tone and cadence of President Harry S. Truman, who, in a 1945 address announcing that the United States had dropped a nuclear bomb on Hiroshima, urged the Japanese to surrender, warning that if they did not, “they may expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth.”

It is not clear whether Mr. Trump intended the historical parallel — White House officials did not respond to questions about how much planning went into his brief statement, or what was intended by the alliterative language — but it was a stark break with decades of more measured presidential responses to brewing foreign conflicts.

“It’s hard to think of a president using more extreme language during crisis like this before,” said Michael Beschloss, a presidential historian. “Presidents usually try to use language that is even more moderate than what they may be feeling in private, because they’ve always been worried that their language might escalate a crisis.”

Mr. Truman delivered his muscular message at a time when the United States had an overwhelming military advantage over Japan, which did not have a nuclear weapon; Mr. Trump’s threat was aimed instead at a government that has developed nuclear weapons and has been testing intercontinental ballistic missiles.

President John F. Kennedy was similarly restrained in his rhetoric in the run-up to the Cuban missile crisis, which was prompted by the discovery that nuclear missile sites were being constructed by the Soviet Union in Cuba, Mr. Beschloss said. In an address on Oct. 22, 1962, he called upon Khrushchev “to halt and eliminate this clandestine, reckless and provocative threat to world peace and to stable relations between our two nations” and “move the world back from the abyss of destruction.” As for the United States, Kennedy said, “the greatest danger of all would be to do nothing.”

Mr. Trump’s statement, delivered from his Bedminster, N.J., golf resort, went far beyond the usual tough-but-vague language that past presidents have used to confront North Korea’s frequent provocations.

Their responses — full of strong condemnations and recognition of grave threats — have mostly left out the fiery, nationalistic language favored by the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, and his father, Kim Jong-il, before him. Mr. Trump’s, by contrast, seemed to have adopted it.

“This is a little bit more jingoistic, and it borrows a little bit from the tone of the North Koreans,” said Peter Feaver, who helped shape President George W. Bush’s message as an adviser on his National Security Council staff.

Mr. Feaver, now a political science professor at Duke, compared Mr. Trump’s choice of words to comments that Mr. Bush made in 2003 about Iraqi militants targeting American troops in Iraq.

“There are some who feel like that the conditions are such that they can attack us there. My answer is bring ’em on,” Mr. Bush said then, in remarks he later said had been ill advised, much like his declaration that he wanted to capture Saddam Hussein “dead or alive.”

The similarities to Pyongyang’s over-the-top rhetoric prompted rebukes from senior Democratic lawmakers who said they feared Mr. Trump was blithely marching the United States closer to a costly war.

Senator Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, said that Mr. Trump’s comments showed that he “lacks the temperament and judgment to deal with the serious crisis the United States confronts.”

“We should not be engaging in the same kind of blustery and provocative statements as North Korea about nuclear war,” Mr. Cardin added.

Mr. Trump is well known for using harsh language, threats and taunts against adversaries when it comes to domestic matters, often using his Twitter feed as a weapon. But he has mostly been more careful on the international front, leaving his utterances about North Korea vague, though last month he ridiculed Mr. Kim after one of his missile launches, saying, “Does this guy have anything better to do with his life?”

Victor Cha, a former National Security Council official who holds the Korea chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the closest an American president had come to Mr. Trump’s bellicose language was when Bill Clinton declared in 1993 during a speech in the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea that if Pyongyang ever used nuclear weapons, “it would be the end of their country.”

“I take Trump’s statement in the same spirit,” Mr. Cha said, describing the president’s comments not as the promise of an American attack but as a warning of the consequences if the North were to use a nuclear weapon or intercontinental ballistic missile. It sounded, Mr. Cha said, like “a message of deterrence, which is important now to avoid any miscalculation.”

Mr. Feaver said the explosive statement put Mr. Trump on a “risky path” because of its potential to inflame Mr. Kim, but was in keeping with his penchant for upending the established protocols of diplomacy in efforts to bring about a better outcome.

“They may be saying, ‘Look, we have a 30-year record of bipartisan failure on this issue, so let’s flip the script and give North Korea a bit of its own medicine and see if we can get a different result,’” Mr. Feaver said.

But breaking with tradition can have perilous consequences when bombs and missiles are involved.

“If this was impulsive, that would be very much out of the history of the presidency on matters like this,” Mr. Beschloss said. “You don’t have presidents blurting out things when lives are at stake, and if that is what it was, it would be scary.”

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