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The world's next nuclear nightmare

| Saturday, Aug. 19, 2017, 9:00 p.m.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un salutes at a parade in Pyongyang. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E, File)
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un salutes at a parade in Pyongyang. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E, File)
North Koreans watch a news report regarding a nuclear test on a large screen outside the Pyongyang Station in Pyongyang, North Korea. (AP Photo)
North Koreans watch a news report regarding a nuclear test on a large screen outside the Pyongyang Station in Pyongyang, North Korea. (AP Photo)

It's been more than a half-century since America's grade-school children learned how to properly fear the nuclear bomb — and protect themselves from it — back in the dark daze of the Cold War.

Children of the era learned their self-protection lesson well from the cartoon star of “Duck and Cover,” Bert the Turtle. “Bert is a very, very careful fellow,” the announcer says, as Bert suddenly vanishes inside his shell. All you can see are his eyes peering out.

“When there's danger, this is the way he keeps from being hurt,” the announcer explains. “Sometimes it even saves his life. We all know the atomic bomb is very dangerous. Since it may be used against us, we must get ready for it, just as we must get ready for the many other dangers that are around us all the time.”

Next, we see children who are just like us. When a warning siren sounds — or when there is just a terrifying light flash — the kids know how to duck under their desks and cover the back of their necks with clasped hands, fully aware window glass will be flying when an atomic bomb explodes.

This 1951 movie, a federal Civil Defense Administration production, was created in a studio in New York City's Astoria, Queens — just a few miles from where young Donald Trump was in kindergarten. Local New York kids all saw the movie's searing, unforgettable lesson; eventually, most kids coast-to-coast saw it, too.

One of those kids, now 71, sat in Bedminster, N.J., in the comfort of one of his golf course clubhouses and, repeatedly glancing down at words on a paper, sounded a warning heard 'round the world:

“North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.”

Flammable sound bite

Glancing down again, he repeated his flammable sound bite to assure the message was received by North Korea's irrational leader, Kim Jong Un, whose regime is reportedly capable of making missile-ready miniaturized nuclear weapons. “And as I said, they will be met with fire, fury and, frankly, power, the likes of which this world has never seen before.”

In the hours that followed, many in the news media began comparing Trump's “fire and fury” threat with what President Harry Truman said in 1945 after Japan refused to surrender after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Truman warned the Japanese that if they didn't surrender, “they may expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this Earth.”

But the comparison doesn't work — because Truman was warning the enemy that had attacked America, started the war and been defeated. Also: Defense Secretary James Mattis, a retired four-star Marine general, has long warned that America cannot launch a pre-emptive military attack capable of preventing North Korea from inflicting horrendous slaughter in South Korea.

As bad as all that was, it got predictably worse: North Korea's leader vowed to attack Guam, where U.S. military forces are based.

And then came this: Trump officials acknowledged that the president had issued his ultimatum without clearing his incendiary words with his team of generals. Trump just dredged up his “fire and fury” words from some very dark place deep inside.

Horrendous confrontation

The result is that Trump recklessly forced an already horrendous confrontation to a potentially even more calamitous level, one that could cause massive tragedy for both North Koreans and America's trusting allies in Seoul. Mattis, ever the loyal serviceman, protected his boss's backside by warning Pyongyang to halt its pursuit of a nuclear bomb and not launch any military action “that would lead to the end of its regime and destruction of its people.”

So now the world waits: Before this all ends, the question of whether a massive human tragedy occurs on the Korean Peninsula may be decided by the one world figure who never wanted this starring role. China's President Xi Jinping may find the diplo-guts and actual humanity to save Kim and Trump from their excessive selves.

Xi may finally insist that North Korea's only chance for a successful future will begin with China's help, and a world of guarantees — but only if the North ends its militaristic ways now.

There is only one way that can occur: The world's two most implausible co-protagonists, North Korea's Kim and America's Trump, must (for once!) stifle their nuclear-bombastic urges, duck out of the global spotlight, cover their gilded assets — and give peace a chance.

Martin Schram, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive.

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