If it is not advantageous, do not move. If objectives cannot be attained, do not employ the army. The ruler cannot mobilize the army out of personal anger … When it is advantageous, move. When not advantageous, stop. Anger can revert to happiness, annoyance can revert to joy, but a vanquished state cannot be revived, the dead cannot be brought back to life.


 [Dear Fred. I’m up at the mountain cabin this weekend, doing an inventory of freeze-dried food packets and potassium iodide tablets, so I haven’t had time to concentrate on the latest news about North Korea, China and the Russians. I know the rhetoric has heated up, and our media are beginning to scare the snowflakes, but I’m not impressed. You and I have seen this before; we’re older than a lot of folks, and remember the Bay of Pigs, and the October, 1962 nuclear showdown between us and the Russians [aka the old Soviet Union]. They installed intermediate range nuclear missiles in Cuba and aimed them at us.[2] We took exception but it was a knotty problem because we had done essentially the same thing when we installed similar weapons in Italy and Turkey. Our missiles were right at the Soviets’ doorstep and, of course, were aimed at them.

I was in college at the time, and in the ROTC, so I had a basic understanding of the forces in play. World War II had ended not 20 years earlier, so I knew for sure that global wars were possible. I also knew, because this was a big topic when I grew up, that the next big one could be fought with far deadlier weapons. That is, with bombs and missiles of the nuclear persuasion. Our Government thought so too. See Boom, Watch the Fallout!, a blog we did last May on bomb shelters and war planning.[3] Frankly I was appalled at the prospect of a first ever, widespread nuclear war. It was like science fiction gone bad.

Why didn’t we have a nuclear slugfest in 1962? Well, perhaps somebody on our side, and the Russian one as well, had read Sun-tzu. A war at that time and place simply made no sense:

  • We and the Soviet Union were evenly matched, more or less, in that each of us could severely, if not permanently damage the other in any nuclear war;
  • Elements in our respective Governments realized this basic truth; and
  • There was nothing at stake to warrant extreme measures and possible mutual destruction.

Both sides had long range bombers that could reach the other’s homeland, so strategically it wasn’t really necessary for either of us to have intermediate range missiles on the other’s doorstep. Such missiles were useful, perhaps, but not absolutely essential.  Also, each side continued to develop and deploy long range ballistic missiles and warheads for them; these were easier to secure, because they could be stationed far from an enemy, yet could strike an opponent’s homeland within minutes of launch.[4]

With such weapons coming into inventory, why would any strategist recommend going to war to protect shorter range capabilities? Even the winner of such a war, if there were one, wouldn’t gain much, and would lose a lot. So war was not advantageous to either side, and that made negotiations possible. Eventually the Soviet Union moved its intermediate range missiles out of Cuba and we removed some that we had put in Italy and Turkey. The details of our negotiations didn’t come out for years, but that was the deal and that was what happened.[5]

Anyway, please take a look at our current situation with North Korea and tell me your thoughts. Is it at all like the Cuban Missile Crisis and, if so, what are the prospects for a peaceful resolution? Good, I hope, but tell the truth. And go ahead and publish your thoughts when you’re ready. You don’t need my input for this kind of thing and, anyway, I won’t be back in town for a while. G. Sallust.]

Then and Now

OK, Mr. G. Sallust, I understand. This is Fred, by the way. Normally G. Sallust would write this piece, but he’s doing inventory so I’m to fill in. The question he’s posed is, is the current unpleasantness with North Korea similar to the situation we had with Cuba and the Soviet Union 50+ years ago?

Similarities and Differences

  1. Originally I thought there’s no similarity between the two situations. Back then it was us against the old Soviet Union, two giants each of whom had weapons that might destroy the world. This time it’s us against North Korea, a very, very minor power with, at the moment, a modest nuclear capability. So what we have today, I thought, is definitely not the Cuban Missile Crisis.
  2. But actually the similarities are greater than the differences. We tried to “covertly” invade Cuba in 1961, did a very bad job of it with “volunteers” at the Bay of Pigs, and failed.[6] Naturally Cuba worried that we might make a second attempt, so Fidel Castro [yes, the Castro who just died] invited the Soviets into Cuba to station troops and missiles there. We found out and demanded that the Soviets remove them. The result was a major confrontation.
  3. From 1950 to 1953 we and the U.N. fought a “police action” in Korea to prevent the North from invading the South. The battle was fought to a stalemate, a line was drawn between the two Koreas, a “demilitarized zone” was established, and the areas around it were heavily fortified. Since then we’ve maintained a substantial force of ground troops, etc. in the South to help with its defense.[7]
  4. By all accounts, no foreign power has stationed nuclear weapons in North Korea. Instead the Government there has developed its own over a period of many years. No doubt it had substantial foreign assistance in this effort. But the net effect is that North Korea, not some foreign power, controls the North’s nuclear forces. At least that’s the way it seems. It’s North Korea that has been making direct threats to attack the U.S. The threats are credible, in that apparently North Korea has some capability to do so. On the other hand, North Korea is not a military equal of the U.S.
  5. But it also has potential allies: Russia and China. To date Russia has shown little interest in intervening on behalf of North Korea in its dispute with us. Russia says that it is “deeply worried” about the “bellicose rhetoric” between us and the North, [8] but hasn’t offered military or other assistance to any party. At least not officially, that we know of. To date Chinese state media say that “it would remain neutral if North Korea attacks the United States, but warned it would defend its Asian neighbor if the U.S. strikes first and tries to overthrow [the North Korean] regime …”[9] I think that means the Chinese intend to intervene if we do more than shoot down North Korean missiles.
  6. But, of course, these are only words, and they can change overnight, with circumstances.

Nuclear Weapons

Currently North Korea is threatening to fire missiles at Guam, the site of several U.S. military installations. What if Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s leader, does that, hits something and blows it up? What if he uses a nuclear weapon? Then I suppose we will retaliate in force, and it would be up to Russia and China to decide whether they will get involved. What might they win by intervening and what might they lose?

  1. Some people already think we’re headed to some kind of war with Russia.[10] Others don’t believe it’s inevitable, but think it’s risky to blunder from a cold to a hot one because of small or nonexistent provocations[11]. I agree with both views, by the way.
  2. And war always brings up the question of nuclear weapons. Today we and NATO maintain the right to strike first with those things, if we’re properly threatened[12]; and the Russians will use them if Russia or its allies are attacked with weapons of mass destruction, or Russia is losing badly in a conventional war.[13]
  3. And the first one of us who decides that the other side intends to go nuclear will, of course, do it first, to minimize its losses and maximize the enemy’s. And if you want to know more about what happens after that, go read Herman Kahn’s book, On Thermonuclear War. [14]


I have no conclusions. North Korea’s threats are ridiculous, may lead to catastrophe, and it should be muzzled. Apparently China, the only country with influence, doesn’t want to do that. Why not? I wonder. What game are the Chinese playing?

This all very depressing! If there really is a large war faction in Washington, DC, they must be rejoicing! What does that crazy guy say on YouTube? Oh yes, it’s all Satanic!

Sun-tzu, anyone?

[1] That’s from Sun-tzu, The Art of War (Sawyer translation) (Barnes & Noble, 1994), at Incendiary Attacks, p. 227 – 228. Sun-tzu is a famous Chinese military strategist of the 5th Century B.C. For more about him, see the Wikipedia entry at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sun_Tzu . Henceforth we’ll cite this edition of the book as Sun-tzu at ___.

[2] For an explanation take a look at the Wikipedia entry on the Cuban Missile Crisis at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Saturday_(Cuban_Missile_Crisis) .

[3] See our blog of May 11, 2017, Boom, Watch the Fallout, available at https://opsrus.wordpress.com/2017/05/11/boom-watch-the-fallout/

[4] For information on ICBMs, see Wikipedia at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intercontinental_ballistic_missile .

[5] For more information, see the Wikipedia entry at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cuban_Missile_Crisis . It’s quite thorough.

[6] Id.

[7] For more information, see the Wikipedia entry at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/South_Korea . For the most up-to-date information, check out the CIA World Fact Book at https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/ .

[8] See MSN, Russia says that bellicose rhetoric on North Korea is over the top, at http://www.msn.com/en-us/video/peopleandplaces/russia-says-bellicose-rhetoric-on-north-korea-is-over-the-top/vp-AApTlYB

[9] See Fox News, Lukas Mikelionis, China pledges neutrality – unless US strikes North Korea first (August 11, 2017), available at http://www.foxnews.com/world/2017/08/11/china-pledges-neutrality-unless-us-strikes-north-korea-first.html

[10] See, e.g., Institute for Political Economy, Roberts, Will the November US Presidential Election Bring the End of the World?  ( May 24, 2016) sometimes available at http://www.paulcraigroberts.org/2016/05/24/will-the-november-us-presidential-election-bring-the-end-of-the-world-paul-craig-robert s/

[11] See, e.g., Rand Corporation, Libicki, Crisis and Escalation in Cyberspace (2012), especially pp. 97-99, available at http://www.rand.org/pubs/monographs/MG1215.html

[12] Actually, it’s worse than that. NATO maintains the right. See the Wikipedia entry on “no first use” at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/No_first_use

[13] Id. Russia will use nukes if others use them [or weapons of mass destruction] against it or its allies; or use even conventional weapons “when the very existence of the state is threatened.” I don’t know the Chinese position on this, but I think it’s probably similar to the Russian.

[14] See Kahn, On Thermonuclear War (Princeton, 1960, Transaction reprint, 2010), at p. 136. We’ve written a lot about that book. See, e.g., our blog of 12/28/2015, Bomb Them into the Stone Age, available at https://opsrus.wordpress.com/2015/12/28/bomb-them-into-the-stone-age/ .