Last week’s headline was déjà vu all over again: “US flying B-52s over South Korea.” The story explained that “training missions” will “highlight Washington’s commitment to defend an ally amid rising tensions with North Korea.” Although the B-52s involved are not armed with nuclear warheads, the Pentagon emphasized the bomber’s role in the “nuclear umbrella” that reassures South Korea and Japan in the face of North Korea’s recent belligerence. A December missile launch and Pyongyang’s third nuclear test last month prompted a new round of UN sanctions. North Korea abruptly “declared invalid” the truce that ended the Korean War, and Kim Jong Un, the eccentric 30-year-old leader, threatened war.
If, nearly a generation after the end of the Cold War, the Korean flashpoint seems fossilized, so does Washington’s response. Is there really nothing for the United States to do but scramble B-52s? The bomber is itself an astonishingly long-lived relic of the Cold War — but it is also a personal icon of my own.
As a teen-ager, I played golf with my Air Force father at Ramey Air Base in Puerto Rico. It was a Strategic Air Command base, home to a wing of B-52s, part of the strike-alert that sought to deter Moscow by keeping nuclear-armed bombers in the air 24 hours a day. The golf course ran alongside the runway, with one green just shy of the planes’ touch-down point. As my father addressed his long putt, the B-52s came swooping in, close enough overhead to make us want to duck. The behemoth has eight jet engines, an ungodly screech. I was intensely aware of nuclear bombs only a few dozen feet above my head, but mistook my intimidation for awe. As for my father, when the last plane had landed, the roar gone, he stepped to his ball and sank it.
I believed the Strategic Air Command motto — “Peace is Our Profession” — and when, as an honored ROTC cadet, I was presented with a gleaming model of a B-52, I treasured it. But the B-52 defined the moral mayhem of the Vietnam War, from the 1-kilometer-by-3-kilometer “target box,” inside which the high-altitude bombers scorched everything, to the infamous Christmas bombing of 1972, when B-52s ravaged Vietnamese cities. By then, I had long since thrown my prize model into a ravine.
The Korean War was raging when the B-52 made its maiden flight, and so it seems perversely fitting that the bombers should still be flying there. But the juxtaposition demands a reckoning. America’s Cold War containment strategy, and mutual Soviet-American nuclear restraint, allowed enough time to pass for the harrowing Moscow-Washington standoff to end without catastrophe. But one of numerous deadly mistakes was the American intervention in Korea in the first place, an error repeated in Vietnam. The tension on the Korean peninsula today shows how some mistakes have consequences that defy every effort at resolution. The B-52 symbolizes that paralysis, too.
But North Korea’s bomb-swagger demands a response. If the nuclear saber-rattling of yesteryear is wrong, what would be right? Clearly the only road to “reconciliation and cooperation on the Korean peninsula” runs through China, and that country’s newly empowered leader, Xi Jinping, used exactly that phrase last week in defining his purpose. China had joined the United States in slapping new sanctions on Pyongyang early this month — unprecedented pressure that even North Korea’s oddball leader must heed.
Yet only days later, pulling another old trick out of its Cold War bag, Washington announced a ramping up of its Pacific Coast missile defense systems, aimed at North Korea — Chuck Hagel’s first important act as secretary of defense. But China immediately took umbrage, warning the action will only “intensify antagonism” in the region, not to mention Kim Jong Un’s paranoia. China at last joins Washington in squeezing Pyongyang — and gets what in return?
B-52s, missile defense: We have seen this movie before, and it’s a horror show. Once the B-52 began to fly 60 years ago, it took decades for the United States to find the balance between military threat and diplomacy. Weapons systems are always too heavy on the scale. A new partnership with China should weigh more.James Carroll writes regularly for the Globe.