Michael Gerson: For wisdom on North Korea, Trump should pay a visit to the White House library

Ahn Young-joon, AP

“Ultimately, the most consequential event in the current crisis will take place between the president’s ears. He must decide if a North Korea with nuclear-tipped ICBMs is acceptable or not. Yes or no.”

WASHINGTON — Donald Trump doesn’t spare much time for reading. “I never have,” he explains. “I’m always busy doing a lot.”

But what he is now busy doing is managing a global crisis with nuclear dimensions and historical precedents. One adviser, Sebastian Gorka, has said, “This is analogous to the Cuban missile crisis.” Which demonstrates how a little bedside reading might come in handy.

In his account of that 1962 nuclear standoff, “Thirteen Days,” Robert F. Kennedy describes a meeting with President John F. Kennedy early in the crisis. “A short time before,” recounts RFK, the president “had read Barbara Tuchman’s book ‘The Guns of August'” — a still-compelling account of the lead-up to World War I. “He talked,” RFK continues, “about the miscalculations of the Germans, the Russians, the Austrians, the French and the British. They somehow seemed to tumble into war, he said, through stupidity, individual idiosyncrasies, misunderstandings, and personal complexes of inferiority and grandeur.”

“I am not going to follow a course,” JFK later says, “which will allow anyone to write a comparable book about this time, ‘The Missiles of October.’ … If anyone is around to write after this, they are going to understand that we made every effort to find peace and every effort to give our adversary room to move.”

Is it possible to imagine our current president reading “The Guns of August” and applying its lessons to current events? By all indications, Trump lives in the eternal now of his own wants and compulsions. He combines a total ignorance of the past with a total confidence in his own instincts. Now, in the first crisis not of his own making, he must produce traits of leadership he has not exhibited before: judgment, prudence and wisdom. His default mindset is not only indifferent to these traits; it is antithetical to them.

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