DANIEL VAUGHAN: False Hawaiian missile alert reminds us of real threats against America

January 15, 2018

Minutes to live — that’s the thought most Hawaiians had for a terrifying 15 minutes on Saturday after they received phone and television alerts blaring: “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”

The alarm caused panic, fear, and tears as people fled for shelter.

Thankfully, the entire ordeal turned out to be a false alarm. Hawaii’s state government claims an employee accidentally pushed the wrong button during a routine shift-change.

But while mistakes like that are bound to happen, it’s a stark reminder of the reality that some Americans live under the threat of a foreign power destroying them through missile strikes. As a country, it should be a wake-up call to toward a stronger defense.

The Hawaiin alarm wasn’t an actual close-call, as we’ve experienced in the past. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, Soviet Navy officer Vasili Arkhipov cast the sole vote against using nuclear weapons against the U.S. Navy.

U.S.S.R. policy required three officers to agree on using nukes, and Arkhipov voted against his captain and officers, likely averting global thermonuclear war.

Hawaii wouldn’t be the first false alarm we’ve experienced either. Zbigniew Brzezinski, National Security Advisor to Jimmy Carter, was woken up at 3 a.m. by one of his advisors with the terrifying news that 250 Soviet nukes had been fired at the United States.

He asked for confirmation, and his assistant came back with an even more frightening update: over 2,200 nukes launched for the United States. Brzezinski knew the president only had 3-7 minutes to respond, and everyone was likely to die within 30 minutes.

One minute before calling the president to tell him to launch everything the U.S. had at the Soviets, he learned it was a false alarm.

Someone had left old military practice tapes in the system.

The U.S.S.R. experienced their own scares, too. Stanislav Petrov manned an early warning system for the Soviets in 1983 when he received an alert that the United States had fired a nuclear missile at a Soviet target.

Petrov convinced his commanders to hold off because if the U.S. had launched an attack, they probably would have used more rockets. It turned out he was right — Soviet satellites had confused sun reflections off the clouds as a nuclear attack.

The scare in Hawaii may not rise to historical examples of close calls, but it does remind us that although the Cold War is gone, the threat of nuclear attack remains a part of American life. For Americans living in Hawaii, Alaska, and islands across the Pacific, the danger of a nuclear attack from North Korea is genuine.

American allies like Japan and South Korea face the same threat. We’ve watched multiple reports of North Korea firing ballistic missiles over their sovereign territory.

The Hawaiian alert was believable because we know our allies have experienced the same.

In the Middle East, Israel has faced multiple chemical and nuclear weapons threats from Iraq, Syria, and now Iran. As then-Secretary of State John Kerry put it in 2013, Israel and other U.S. allies “live just a stiff breeze away” from a chemical weapons attack from Syria.

These threats are real. That’s why John Kennedy said it was unacceptable for nuclear weapons to sit in Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis. It’s why Ronald Reagan pushed towards ending the evil Soviet Empire. And the realness of those threats is why poor American foreign policy in North Korea and Iran continues to impact us.

The scare in Hawaii is this generation’s first taste of the horrors of previous generations. The September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks were horrific, but they pale in comparison to a nuclear attack.

The Greatest Generation experienced Pearl Harbor, D-Day, and dropping the bomb on Japan. Several generations after that experienced the terrors and close calls of the Cold War. People today can recall civil defense drills in school, when taking cover under a school desk from ballistic missile threats was merely a fact of life.

It would behoove Americans, particularly younger Americans, to take this chance to brush up on the lessons from the Cold War warriors. We won the Cold War because a succession of presidents saw the appeasement of evil nuclear states as weak policy.

Appeasement only encourages countries to act more aggressively. It was an overarching lesson the United States and the West learned throughout the 20th century with Nazis, Soviets, and other evil groups.

We face a similar choice again. The first choice is merely learning to live with threat and fear of a rogue nuclear state threatening American citizens.

This is the specific path the Barack Obama administration chose to follow for eight years. This track thinks appeasement is a tool to keep evil at bay.

The second option is pursuing an aggressive policy of defending U.S. interest domestic and abroad. The policy choices here seek to deter and contain nuclear threats where they reside and views Americans living in fear as unacceptable. This is the path of Reagan and George W. Bush.

One thing is clear from the two options before us: appeasement has never worked.

The promises of the Obama administration in Iran have completely collapsed, as the protests show. North Korea remains unfazed.

All this means we need to dust off our parent’s and grandparent’s Cold War lessons — because once appeasement fails, history shows the only option left is an aggressive defense.


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Daniel Vaughan

Daniel Vaughan is a columnist for the Conservative Institute and lawyer in Nashville, Tennessee. He has degrees from Middle Tennessee State University and Regent University School of Law. His work can be found on the Conservative Institute's website, or you can receive his columns and free weekly newsletter at The Beltway Outsiders. Connect with him on Twitter at @dvaughanCI.