Hawaii False Alarm Highlights Nuclear War 'Tightrope'

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - A missile alert mistakenly sent out across Hawaii highlighted the thin line between a mistake and a massive disaster, and according to experts, a look at history could explain how that escalation starts.

"What clearly influenced things in the past is the way national leaders are talking," said Thomas Schwartz, a professor of history at Vanderbilt University.

Schwartz pointed toward examples throughout the Cold War, including the tragedy of Korean Airlines Flight 0007. In 1983, the Soviet Air Force shot down a passenger plane, mistaking it for a U.S. spy plane.

President Reagan had taken office promising to confront the Soviet Union, but that rhetoric became even more fiery following the loss of the passenger plane.

"He talked about it as the empire of evil and it being consigned to the ash heap of history," Schwartz said. "It did have an effect and did cause people to begin worrying again about the possibility of nuclear war."

President Trump has unleashed similar rhetoric against North Korea, particularly via social media. On January 2, President Trump tweeted about possessing a nuclear button much bigger and more powerful than any nuclear button North Korean leader Kim Jong Un may possess.

In 1983, rhetoric pushed us toward some of our tensest moments in the Cold War. Shwartz said it's important to remember the same could happen again.

"It should be instructive to our own leaders, that rhetoric matters, that people are as fearful of nuclear wars as they once were," he said.

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