President Barack Obama arrives in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, Friday, June 14, 2013.

President Barack Obama arrives in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, Friday, June 14, 2013. Evan Vucci/AP

Here’s What 71 Years of US Presidential ‘Red Lines’ Have Taught Us

The country has walked to the brink of war or beyond with Iran, North Korea, Iraq, and Syria to prevent or stop them.

The American foreign-policy establishment is fond of punishing those who threaten to use weapons of mass destruction against innocents. For CNN commentator Fareed Zakaria, all it took was a Tomahawk missile strike on the Syrian air base suspected of sending jets to bomb the rebel-held village of Khan Sheikhoun with sarin gas to make Donald Trump “presidential.” The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza questioned neither the moral nor the strategic purpose of strike, only its legality. Former Obama staffers like Anne-Marie Slaughter struck positive notes in response, grateful that some message, any message, had finally been delivered to Bashar al-Assad. Nicholas Kristof and David Brooks both praised the country for standing up for the taboo against chemical weapons that arose among European nations after World War I.

Since the 1960s, categorical opposition to weapons of mass destructionbiological, chemical, and nuclear—has been a hallmark of American foreign-policy thinking. John F. Kennedy recast the American president as a protective father to the world. So when reports noted that images of “young children and babies being gassed” reportedly moved Trump to action in Syria, they were echoing a long tradition, one that has both helped to justify international cooperation to combat the most terrible weapons of war, and given license to presidents to strike out in humanity’s name.

The U.S. campaign against the use of inhumane weapons began not with the interwar debates about the prohibition of chemical weapons after Somme and Verdun, or when the U.S. Senate refused to ratify the 1925 Geneva Protocol on Chemical Weapons, but with the arrival of the atomic age. After Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Americans viewed the bomb as the fruit of their own ingenuity, its use justified as the only means to end World War II at a minimal cost to American lives. In a poll conducted by Fortune magazine four months after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, more than four out of five respondents approved of the bombings, with nearly one in four wishing more bombs had fallen. (One woman explained: There “may be innocent women and children, but they only in my opinion breed more of the same kind of soldiers.”)

John Hersey’s issue-length account of six individuals struggling to survive in the ruins of Hiroshima, published in The New Yorker just over a year after the bombing, sought to subvert that callous narrative. Hersey set part of his piece in the city’s Red Cross hospital, where its shattered residents shuffled like zombies after the bombing. He concluded with a quotation from the diary of 10-year-old survivor Toshio Nakamura: “Next day I went to Taiko Bridge and met my girlfriends Kikuki and Murakami. They were looking for their mothers. But Kikuki’s mother was wounded and Murakami’s mother, alas, was dead.”

By humanizing the victims, Hersey helped inaugurate a reappraisal of total war’s morality; gradually, American approval for the atomic bombings declined. When former Secretary of War Henry Stimson told Harper’s magazine the following February that he and President Harry Truman had believed that dropping the bomb in Japan would provide “an effective shock [that] would save many times the number of lives, both American and Japanese, than it would cost,” he implicitly conceded Hersey’s basic point—human lives, regardless of nationality, were the only measure by which to judge such instruments of death.

American attitudes toward nuclear weapons would shift, however, after plans to place atomic energy under international control fell apart with the onset of the Cold War. When the Soviet Union entered the nuclear club in 1949, Truman refused to heed his General Advisory Committee’s counsel not to build the hydrogen bomb, which the body had likened to “a weapon of genocide.” Phrases such as “massive retaliation,” “brinksmanship,” and “megadeaths” entered the strategic lexicon as the nuclear arsenal mushroomed from 1,000 to 24,000 warheads under Dwight Eisenhower. The muscular grammar of deterrence, credibility, and risk-taking initiated a contest to see which politician could talk the toughest.

But Eisenhower saw the dangers that lay ahead. In his “Chance for Peace” speech in 1953, he called military spending “a theft,” complaining that “[t]he cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities.” He warned in his farewell address that “we cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren” to feed the country’s growing military-industrial complex. Ironically, Eisenhower’s messages of caution, delivered in the language of domestic protection, laid the groundwork for what was to come.

Where committed peacemakers like Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic presidential candidate in 1952 and 1956, advocated a ban on nuclear testing to save children from fallout, the young John Kennedy advertised his youth and masculinity, winning a Pulitzer for Profiles in Courage, highlighting his wartime naval service, waxing eloquent about his touch football days, hiding the truth of his chronic back pain, and charging that Eisenhower, the hero of Normandy, had allowed a non-existent “missile gap” to open up between the United States and its Soviet nemesis.

Kennedy softened his image only after the Cuban Missile Crisis bolstered his alpha-male bona fides. Members of Camelot’s inner circle recalled the Cuban Missile Crisis as a test of wills between Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev; Secretary of State Dean Rusk reportedly intimated to National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy: “We’re eyeball to eyeball, and I think the other fellow just blinked.” In truth, Kennedy chose forbearance and flexibility, secretly trading U.S. missiles in Turkey for the Soviets’ in Cuba. Afterward, Kennedy pursued negotiations to prevent a return to the brink as well as to stymie potential nuclear challengers to American power in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. To do so, he needed to rewrite the script for presidential masculinity amid the Cold War.

Kennedy’s commencement address to American University on June 10, 1963, marked a return to the more familiar style of Franklin Roosevelt. In the speech, he staked out a more intimate role, casting himself as the worried father of the human family, expanding on “the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living, the kind that enables men and nations to grow and to hope and to build a better life for their children.”

Kennedy’s appeal helped win public support for the Limited Test Ban Treaty (LTBT) after it had been finalized that August over opposition from his Joint Chiefs of Staff. Co-written by anti-nuclear activist Normal Cousins and inspired by such organizations as Women Strike for Peace and such individuals as baby expert Benjamin Spock, whose counsel that women should forgo employment to rear their children at home typified the era’s cult of domesticity, Kennedy used language that acknowledged parents’ fears of nuclear fallout. He and Khrushchev had ulterior motives—namely, freezing Mao’s China out of the nuclear club even as American officials contemplated preventive strikes against its nuclear facilities. But when the White House wrestled over how to defend the first major nuclear-arms control treaty before Congress, Kennedy scribbled the key to public opinion down on a sheet of scratch paper—“Diminish danger, war by other means … fallout—radiation. Children.”

Lyndon Johnson, of course, went on to weaponize Kennedy’s paternalism. In his 1964 “Daisy commercial,” a Shirley Temple lookalike picked petals as a portentous voice counts down to Armageddon. “These are the stakes,” the voiceover concluded, “[t]o make a world in which all of God’s children can live, or to go into the dark.” The ad sunk Barry Goldwater’s campaign after the Republican candidate suggested nukes might turn the tables in Vietnam.

Children became a fixture of speeches by those who supported nuclear arms control. On the first anniversary of the LTBT, Robert Kennedy echoed his brother: “if we would preserve the air we breathe and the health of our children and our children’s children.” He soon emerged as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty’s (NPT) most vocal champion; in his maiden speech, the junior senator from New York pushed Johnson to refocus his administration on halting the spread of nuclear weapons to new states rather than escalate in Southeast Asia. He followed up with an article in Frontier, entitled “Will There Be Any World Left For Our Children?” When Johnson’s torch-bearer, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, ran against Richard Nixon in 1968, the president stumped for the NPT to contrast the two men’s fitness for office. Johnson charged that for the Senate not to ratify the treaty, which the United Nations had finalized that summer, as Nixon demanded, would result in “the world our children will inhabit made far more perilous.”

Historians have illuminated how images of suffering children emboldened human rights and humanitarian activists in the 1970s, leading them to support targeted interventions in the name of universal values and moral sentiment. But however much images of suffering children from Bangladesh to Kosovo to Darfur have galvanized action to aid those threatened by civil war, famine, natural disaster, or genocide, humanitarian interventions have been rare, while the country has walked to the brink of war or beyond with China, Iran, North Korea, Iraq, and Syria, on grounds that these states had pursued or used monstrous weapons.

Years of linking the threat posed by these arms to paternal or maternal impulses has helped liberals lock arms with conservatives where weapons of mass destruction are concerned. Beginning with Barry Goldwater, conservatives tended to be less skeptical over their use, a trend that continued with Ronald Reagan, who largely turned a blind eye to Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons in the Iran-Iraq War.

When Hillary Clinton explained to the Council on Foreign Relations why she voted to authorize lethal force to disarm Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, she concluded that “the most important” reason to intervene were “our children, our future grandchildren, all the children who deserve from this generation of leadership the same commitment to building a safer, more secure world that we inherited from the last generation.” Clinton thus reinforced her interventionist impulses with her lifelong advocacy for women and children at home and abroad.

While Trump’s impulse to save “beautiful babies” might be a welcome change of tone for him and his administration; the desire to protect the innocent springs from humane sentiments. But in empowering one man to act as a vengeful father, Americans abjure their democratic duties. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., Kennedy’s court historian, explained how the “imperial presidency” had severed the checks and balances that traditionally subjected the executive’s war-making powers to democratic scrutiny. The paternal presidency has made American citizens, including those who cherish liberal values such as international norms and human rights, similarly docile.

As President Trump opts for spectacular shows of force in Syria, Afghanistan, and Korea, Americans would do well to tell their representatives that military actions, including standoff air or missile strikes, apart from threats to “the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces,” warrant vigorous public debate.