Since the 2016 presidential election season began, many Americans have wondered: Will a Donald Trump presidency result in nuclear war with North Korea?
In his new speculative novel to be published later this month, nuclear weapons expert Jeffrey Lewis imagines a world in which the answer to that question is yes.
In The 2020 Commission Report on The North Korean Nuclear Attacks Against the United States, Lewis lays out step-by-step how a series of bad decisions by government officials in Washington, Mar-A-Lago, Pyongyang, and Seoul culminates in the worst nuclear disaster the world has ever seen, and the deaths of 1.4 million Americans.
It starts with an Airbus malfunction. An airplane full of South Korean children is heading from Seoul to Ulaanbaatar when the cockpit temporarily loses power and the plane flies dangerously close to North Korean airspace before regaining power and veering west towards the sea.
That may not have been disastrous. But unbeknownst to South Korean air traffic controllers, who otherwise might have rerouted flight plans, for several months prior to the incident, the United States had been secretly sending bombers on missions to approach North Korean airspace on apparent warpaths to target various military facilities — then recalling them at the last minute. It was a psyops campaign known as Scathe Jigsaw, intended to unnerve Pyongyang, and Kim Jong Un specifically.
It worked. Believing the Airbus to be an American warplane, they were so unnerved that they shot down the commercial airliner, which unknowingly had traced the flight path of the latest bomber to charge North Korean airspace, killing all 228 passengers.
And here’s where Lewis’s novel starts tracking closely to a frighteningly familiar reality. The president’s advisors had thrown their support behind Scathe Jigsaw, despite its obvious risk of escalation, not because they believed it was the best plan, but because they believed it would contain the more hawkish elements in the Trump administration who were pushing for a “bloody nose” preemptive strike after the failure of the 2018 denuclearization negotiations.
The shooting down of the South Korean passenger airline set in motion a chain reaction: a retaliatory but limited South Korean airstrike, communication failures in the White House, angry Trump tweets, nuclear retaliation, a failure of U.S. missile defenses, massive civilian casualties, and finally, a bitter partisan debate in the United States about whose fault it was.
A string of poorly calculated decisions — some made to appease a stubborn leader, some made with good intentions, and some made out of fear, a desire for self-preservation, or lack of accurate information — is a theme throughout the book.
The emphasis on decisions flows from Lewis’s expertise. “I teach a class on decision-making, how presidential leaders make decisions,” said Lewis, who works at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California. “And Trump has been amazing for that class because he breaks all the rules.”
In the telling, Lewis focused on outlining the relative rationality of the actors. “I didn’t want there to be any villains,” Lewis said. “I wanted everyone to be trying to do their best, but just not making good decisions.”
Lewis deftly intertwines real-world reports with a fictional narrative that extends some of the president’s worst flaws to logical conclusions. Several of the chain reactions in the book stem from Trump’s notorious difficulty focusing on details and his penchant for ignoring his own experts, and the resulting nanny-like attempts of his White House staff to curb his worst instincts.
During the crucial hours after the North Koreans shot down the passenger plane, for example, Trump was in Mar-A-Lago. That’s because, in the novel, the latest White House chief of staff (after a series of departures) had taken to carefully scheduling Trump’s hours at the White House in order to minimize his opportunities to tweet or make sudden, significant decisions while alone. But the president chafed at the control and thus had taken to spending more and more time at his private club in Florida to escape the restrictions, where the chief of staff rarely went.
As a result, Trump didn’t learn about the shooting down for six hours after it happened — and only learned about it from watching news reports on TV, since his staff had decided it would be too risky to call him during the night from Washington and disturb his vacation routine.
And it’s easy to imagine, as Lewis has in the novel, what Trump did next. He tweeted, “LITTLE ROCKET MAN WON’T BE BOTHERING US MUCH LONGER!”
Kim Jong Un, hiding in a bunker after South Korea’s mostly symbolic missile strike, saw the tweet and took it as evidence that the United States had ordered the strike as a precursor to a total assault aimed at killing Kim and changing the regime in Pyongyang.
Kim, then, believed he had nothing to lose. So he ordered his country’s entire nuclear arsenal to be mobilized and launched at targets in South Korea, Japan, Guam, and cities across the United States. U.S. missile defenses in Alaska, known to achieve only around 50 percent accuracy on a good day, missed most of the missiles. Honolulu, Manhattan, northern Virginia, and a Florida city dozens of miles away from Mar-A-Lago, the intended target, were flattened in a nuclear catastrophe. 1.4 million Americans died instantly, and millions more died of radiation poisoning and injuries in the following weeks.
The latter portion of the book focuses on the testimonies of survivors. “I still felt very thirsty, and there was nothing I could do about it,” recounts one. “What I felt at that moment was that Virginia was entirely covered with only three colors. I remember red, black, and brown, but nothing else. Many people on the street were killed almost instantly.” (Thirst is an early symptom of radiation poisoning.)
Some of them are quite graphic. “I looked next door and I saw the father of a neighboring family standing almost naked,” recounts another. “His skin was peeling off all over his body and was hanging from his fingertips. I talked to him, but he was too exhausted to give me a reply. He was looking for his family desperately.”
What’s astonishing is that some of these testimonies are real — adapted from accounts of those who lived through Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Lewis said that he hopes his book can bring to life the real suffering that tactical, strategic, and policy mistakes made in the halls of power can wreak, and the devastating, gut-wrenching consequences for countless innocent people.
“We have this idea that if you talk about the suffering of people or if you condemn war generally that you’re kind of naive,” said Lewis. “But I actually think it’s kind of naive to pretend those impacts don't happen.”
The threat of nuclear war is real, the book warns, and the palace intrigue and power struggles and policy jargon shouldn’t keep us from remembering that.
“The survivor testimonies are an opportunity to get people to listen.”