A Slow March to Nuclear War

My mom blames President John F. Kennedy for my Uncle Jimmy’s first marriage.

It was October 1962. President Kennedy went on TV and told a stunned America that there were Russian nuclear missiles in Cuba. He explained he was going to blockade Cuba until the missiles were removed. And he made it clear the U.S. was prepared to use military force to neutralize this threat.

That was the Cuban Missile Crisis. I don’t really remember it. I do have a vague memory of my parents watching TV. A LOT. My dad was a newspaperman, so at least he got out and got fresh news on what was happening every day.

Mom, though, was stuck at home, with a colicky 2-year-old and a blaring idiot box scaring the bejeezus out of her all day long. And that’s when my Uncle Jimmy asked my mother about his girlfriend. He was thinking of popping the question.

I’ve told you about my large, extended Irish family in the past. I wrote a column, "Standing on the Shoulders of Immigrants," for Money and Markets. Mom and her brother Jimmy were two of 13 children.

Thirteen kids! My maternal grandmother was exhausted for most of her adult life.

Here’s a photo of the "kids" in the days of good times and bad suits.

That’s my uncle Jimmy in the front row, on the far right. My mom is right beside him. Today, five of “the kids” are still alive.

Anyway, Jimmy asked my mom if he should propose to his girlfriend. Mom’s answer: "The world could end tomorrow! Of course you should marry her. Marry her right now!"

But the world did not end. President Kennedy skillfully negotiated us out of the crisis. The Russian missiles were withdrawn. Kennedy got a lot of praise for that.

What many people don’t know is the U.S. then withdrew nuclear missiles based in Turkey. So the Russians got something out of it, too. That’s how negotiations work.

Here’s something else the world doesn’t know …

There were six separate incidents where the Cuban Missile Crisis almost triggered nuclear Armageddon. If not for the actions of brave men who went against standing orders and procedure, you wouldn’t be reading this today.

Those men include unsung heroes like Vasilli Arhipov and Stanislav Petrov. Russians. They saved the world. You can read about that here.

My point is, there is a lot that could have gone wrong in the Cuban Missile Crisis. I mean, besides Uncle Jimmy marrying a "witch."

Jimmy shouldn’t complain so much. He got three good kids out of it.

Anyway, fast-forward to today. There is something going on right now that could end a lot worse than Jimmy’s marriage.

And buddy, you won’t believe just how badly things could go.

***

We are on what experts are calling "a slow march to nuclear war." Specifically, we’re on the brink with North Korea. It’s a desperate backwater of a country that has nuclear weapons. It’s ruled by a tin-pot tyrant with delusions of grandeur.

Robert Litwak of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars says this is "the Cuban missile crisis in slow motion."

And President Trump is ratcheting up the pressure. He sent Vice President Mike Pence to the Korean Demilitarized Zone to say: "We’re going to abandon the failed policy of strategic patience."

Maybe playing tough will work. I don’t have a crystal ball. I do know that both South Korea and Japan are in range of North Korea’s nuclear missiles.

I also know that President Kennedy accomplished a lot by statecraft, when hawks all around him were urging him to push the big red button.

And I do know that there is the potential for the worst to happen.

What if — WHAT IF — Kim Jong-un, dictator of North Korea and president of the Bad Hair Club for Men, believes his own hype?

What if he gets pushed so far, he thinks he has nothing to lose?

What if he hits Tokyo with a nuclear missile?

Never mind the devastation to poor Tokyo. Can you imagine what that would do to global markets? To the global financial system?

Sure, we’d wipe North Korea off the face of the Earth. But that’s little consolation.

These thoughts — these awful possibilities — must be running through the heads of global investors right now.

And that’s why gold showed such strength recently when tensions with North Korea cranked higher.

Now for the really bad news: North Korea isn’t the only potential crisis facing the world today.

Take your pick: Iran … ISIS … Russian hackers … Mexican drug gangs … and enough rogue nuclear weapons to outfit the Devil’s own arsenal.

What assurance do you have that the people in charge will make the right decisions when the crisis hits the fan?

Let’s hope for the best. And for the worst, there’s gold.

Gold can’t be destroyed by fire, flood or plague. It CAN survive the complete collapse of a financial system. I’m not saying that’s what’s going to happen. But if you want to play it safe, own gold.

The fact is …

  Central banks can’t print gold, whereas, eventually, the value of every paper currency will go to zero.

  Gold has a well-earned reputation as the ultimate safe harbor.

  Gold is eternal. Unlike my Uncle Jimmy’s marriage.

Also unlike my Uncle Jimmy’s woes, there are some problems that can’t be solved by a trip to divorce court. Some bad decisions have permanent consequences.

Just something to think about as the world skates on thin ice toward the future.

All the best,
Sean Brodrick

Your thoughts on “A Slow March to Nuclear War”

  1. Sad story that I hope has a happy ending whether by accident or design. I don’t have high hopes for the ‘by design’ option though.

  2. Outstanding! Thanks for the analysis, history & humor- I concur with the other commentors- you can tell a great story !

  3. A great piece — although “slow” may be overly optimistic. I really like your easygoing storyteller style! The high school teacher who taught us about the Cuban Missile Crisis was hip enough to tell us that during that dark episode, she and her boyfriend headed for a remote cabin and she gave up her virginity in anticipation of the end of the world. Frankly I think this “crisis” has been trumped up to distract the media from the Russia scandal and give our prez a profiles-in-courage moment. But Mama always said children shouldn’t play with matches. (copied and pasted this to site’s comment section).

  4. I remember I had a professor who was also a CIA analyst (not a spy, one of the boring guys who looks at the world and writes papers, and then teaches classes in his free time. Great classes, by the way.) Anyways he talked about how one day, years ago, he got to meet and talk with Robert McNamara.

    Robert McNamara had just came back from a meeting in Russia where US officials and Russian officials who had been involved in the Cuban Missile Crisis had had a get-together. Just for fun, to sit and trade translated stories.

    Anyways McNamara had met a former sub commander who told him this story. This Russian sub commander had been off the coast of Virginia (either that or one of the Carolinas, I don’t remember) with a nuclear tipped torpedo. Should he fail to get some sort of check-in with the Russian government/military every so often he was supposed to fire it into the shore at a coastal city (I don’t remember which one).

    At one point he failed to receive his check-ins and was supposed to fire it, but he didn’t know if it was because war had started or because his equipment was fault or what. So he turned around and headed back to the nearest Russian base. He figured either it was a mistake and he was right to do so, or WWIII had started in which case who cared, they were all dead anyways. His superiors court-martialed him for refusing to follow orders, but then immediately forgave and pardoned him for not starting WWIII.

    McNamara was telling this story and he was rather shaken by the whole thing, since the story all the Kennedy officials had always told each other was that WWIII didn’t happen because they made all the right moves and were awesome. And this sub commander had just told him that actually WWIII didn’t start because this sub commander trusted in the common sense and forgiveness of his superiors (who had not historically been known for forgiveness. This was less than a decade after Stalin.)

  5. Sean Brodrick, that was some great writing! Very well said and loved the personal family angle to it.

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Sean travels far and wide to seek out small-cap values in the natural resource sector. His journey started in New England. As a youth he worked on Mt. Washington, on the cog railroad that runs to the summit. Working on…