Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.
--Daniel Patrick Moynihan

June 19, 2018

Empathy vs. Self-Interest


By David K. Shipler

Making America Cruel Again: Part 1 of an occasional series

            It was sadly appropriate for Attorney General Jeff Sessions to use a biblical verse once cited by some slave owners to justify cruelty to other human beings who were considered less than human: by Sessions about separating children from parents who enter the US illegally and “infest” the country (President Trump’s word, reducing them to insects and rodents), and by planters about returning fugitive slaves to their rightful place in bondage. It was the law, after all. Romans 13:1.
            Not that ripping weeping children from their parents’ arms is slavery—although slavers did so when profit and efficiency dictated. And not that the US is perpetrating “genocide” or acting like Nazis, as some critics have said, reaching for the most dreadful terms to harness their disgust and shame at the behavior of their beloved country.
But the outrages being perpetrated on the Mexican border signify the resurrection of practices and hatreds that might have seemed long buried in history if you were one of those citizens who believed America was destined to become better and better: more welcoming of difference, more just, more decent, more humane. How naïve of those of us who fostered such faith in their beloved country.
Nasty attitudes and impulses from the worst dimensions of America’s past are resurfacing as if they had merely hibernated waiting for the oxygen and sunlight of demagoguery to nurture them back into thorny bloom. And our past is replete with unsavory precedents: slavery, of course, and racist law in the form of Jim Crow; Native American families torn apart as authorities tried to stamp out tribal culture; citizens of Japanese descent interned during World War II; explicit anti-Semitism and white supremacy.
We have not yet succumbed to the most damaging elements of our historical psyche, but we are getting there. We have already lost something precious—and so quickly! Through the strange, sick man we elected our president, we cozy up to dictatorships and feud with pluralistic democracies, we care nothing for human rights either at home or abroad, we no longer stand tall in the world for liberty. We are no beacon, except to hate-mongers and autocrats. We are at risk of becoming an ash heap of slogans and lies, nursing grudges and generating lonely antagonisms.  
 There is no empathy in Trump that has been visible, and none apparent in all of the cringe-producing steps by him and his accomplices. The impression is given that empathy is a synonym for weakness, that it stands in juxtaposition to self-interest. That is not always the case, however. The two do not inevitably form a dichotomy, and it’s easy to see where empathy and self-interest overlap.
Take the forced separation of children from parents whom the Justice Department now chooses to charge criminally with illegal entry. (Contrary to what Trump has said, the law does not require that criminal charges be brought; the statute permits such action, but most illegal aliens have routinely been processed by the administrative immigration system, which can detain whole families together pending deportation or release them and summon them later to appear in immigration court.)
Psychiatrists, pediatricians and others who have studied the brain’s response to stress paint a devastating picture of trauma in children who are forcibly separated from their parents. “Their heart rate goes up,” wrote William Wan in a Washington Post report on experts’ findings. “Their body releases a flood of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. Those stress hormones can start killing off dendrites—the little branches in brain cells that transmit messages. In time, the stress can start killing off neurons and—especially in young children—wreaking dramatic and long-term damage, both psychologically and to the physical structure of the brain.”
The effects can be lifelong. And children in such situations are more susceptible to the appeal of belonging to a group other than family—a gang, for example. How it’s in our self interest to generate more gang members, or do long-term harm to children who might very well end up staying in the US, is a question you’ll have to ask the White House. Here, empathy and self-interest coincide.
Further, when the Bush administration stepped up criminal prosecutions of adults entering illegally, without minor children, the US Attorneys’ offices in border states were so overwhelmed that they couldn’t prosecute other crime as vigorously, including violent crimes. The same problem will surely be created now, even though federal judges are accepting guilty pleas from dozens of illegal immigrants at once. If you’re in criminal court, you get a lawyer at government expense; not so in immigration court. So public defenders, who are usually swamped with work, will now be inundated to the point where they will not be able to provide adequate counsel in ordinary criminal cases.
The long-term costs to upstanding US citizens of short-sighted government policies could make a very long list. Inadequate health insurance, for example, forces people to use hospital emergency rooms as clinics, driving up costs for everyone. Inadequate food stamps and housing subsidies force families into patterns of inadequate nutrition, which can impair brain development in fetuses and young children. Cognitive impairment from early childhood leads to learning disabilities, failure in school, flawed labor skills that damage the economy, and criminal behavior that victimizes innocent citizens and costs huge amounts for prisons.
Aside from being morally right, empathy can also serve our self-interest. Is it naïve to believe that the next time around, enough voters will get it?

June 10, 2018

Kim, Trump's Foil


By David K. Shipler

            Whether Kim Jong-un knows it or not, he is about to play the role of Donald Trump’s foil in the farcical vaudeville routine that the American presidency has become. Unless Trump blunders egregiously (always a possibility), the Singapore meeting—no matter what its result—promises to entertain his American supporters with tough-guy antics and, possibly, the pretense of a “deal” that can be simplified by Fox News into an adoring sound bite. If the meeting blows up and Trump storms out in a blizzard of tweets, he’s a strong, combative leader who takes no prisoners. If the meeting’s vibes are friendly and promising, Trump is a clever negotiator who maneuvers his adversaries into compromise. Trump can’t lose. Only the world can.
It’s wise to remember that Trump, who touts himself as a champion deal-maker, has not made a single deal in nearly 18 months in office. He’s been more of a deal-breaker: on Iran, the climate, trade, and so on. His record in his real estate and branding business is little better, tarnished by a string of bankruptcies, failed ventures, scams, and refusals to pay struggling subcontractors. His “deal” to assist American workers lies in tatters after his hostile regulatory decisions and extremist court appointments, not to mention his new tariffs, which are expected to hurt more American laborers than will be helped.
There is nothing in Trump’s background to suggest a capacity to bargain well over complex issues. He fumbled around on health care with no effect. His Republican colleagues in Congress passed the tax bill without significant input from him. He is instead a showman and a propagandist who convinces a large minority of Americans that when he says things are good, they are good. His top priority seems to be fostering a cult of personality, which could be deadly to democracy if our constitutional institutions and reflexes fail.
 From what we have seen of him, Trump values his cult of personality far above the national security of the United States and, therefore, the denuclearization of North Korea. As a bully, he is making the United States into a bully as well, as we’ve witnessed; a bully kicks the smaller and the weaker (e.g., France, Germany, Canada, Mexico), and hesitates before the strong (e.g., Russia and China).
Now, it must be recognized that employing bullying against bullies, or convincing the dictator on the other side of the globe that you’re just crazy enough to unleash a nuclear firestorm, might make the “Little Rocket Man” tremble a little. It’s reasonable to speculate that Kim is sitting down with Trump because he thinks the US president is frighteningly unhinged—yet vulnerable to flattery.
Indeed, Trump has flattered himself about this meeting. Before abruptly canceling the summit and then restoring it, Trump and his acolytes had pumped it up so much that the president seemed to need it for both ego and domestic politics. Trump voters interviewed at recent rallies cited peace with North Korea, albeit prematurely, as a justification for their continued support. That seemed to give Kim leverage.
Therefore, if he’s clever enough, Kim might be able to out-maneuver Trump in practical reality: a phased reduction in sanctions in exchange for a very gradual phase-out of the nuclear program, an elimination that is never quite completed or an inspection regime that doesn’t penetrate all the mountain facilities hidden and buried in the North. But Trump’s fantasy world would remain, because talks could be protracted, and it would take a long time for the reality to catch up with his propaganda machine’s fiction: Victory, he would crow, as negotiations proceed slowly and keep American voters on a hopeful edge, along which only Trump can lead the way.
Trump and his collaborators in the White House and Congress would hail his iconoclastic approach to foreign relations: stare them down, shout them down, bulldoze them aside, and to hell with the wimpy experts with their obliquely polite diplo-speak. As long as Kim plays along and pretends to be disarming while getting the benefits of reduced sanctions, Trump can claim progress and success right up to his reelection. Yes, reelection. Kim will get his way, if he wants to keep the nukes, by stringing Trump along, and Trump will get his crown as deal-maker, at least in the eyes of Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh.
Of course it’s to Trump’s credit that he agreed to talk to Kim without setting preconditions or casting a summit as a big prize that North Korea had to pay for in advance. That straight-laced, uptight diplomatic calculation might be useful in some cases, but it’s not always productive, and it’s often taken by the opposition as humiliating. Further, if the US and North Korea can establish continuing dialogue to avert military miscalculation in that tinderbox of the Korean Peninsula, devastating warfare might be avoided. That would be a huge achievement, and a legitimate feather in Trump’s cap.
 The trouble is, Trump has made the United States untrustworthy. If Trump’s passion for self-puffery sets the two countries on a path to a real “deal” that Kim would observe, bravo. But if Kim is truly smart, he will insist that no agreement is valid without US Senate ratification, so that Trump or the next president could not toss away a solemn international accord like used Kleenex.

May 26, 2018

The NFL's Unpatriotism


By David K. Shipler

            American football is a metaphor. It rewards violence but depends on canny brainpower. Its plays look fairly simple from a distant stadium seat or a television screen, but beneath the raw muscle are intricate tactics and mental tricks, sometimes in the players’ taunts you cannot hear, often in the feints and ploys you cannot perceive. If you could see the quarterback’s eyes faking one way while he’s about to throw the other, or if you could watch every receiver at once and comprehend the dance steps and glances each uses to deceive the defense, you would appreciate more richly the complex game that enthralls so many Americans and earns such fortunes for players and owners.
None of that makes it a very civilized sport, however. A century from now, if human progress were inevitable, history would look back at football with something of the same revulsion now visited on the ancient bloodletting of gladiators in the Roman Colosseum. Not just the obvious physical damage to tendons and limbs, but moreover, the stealthy destruction of brains. Repeated hits to the head, long dismissed by the mercenary National Football League as medically insignificant, are finally acknowledged as causes of chronic traumatic encephalopathy later in life. Symptoms can include impaired thinking, depression, impulsiveness, short-term memory loss, substance abuse, and suicidality.
A study two years ago found that 40 percent of retired NFL players had evidence of traumatic brain injury. Last year, after lawsuits and public humiliation, the NFL finalized a settlement with players that has paid over $431 million to date. (The league even has a website devoted to the terms.) And, as every football fan knows, team owners voted in 2013 to impose a 15-yard penalty and a possible fine for leading with the head, whether on defense or offense. As every football fan also knows, referees are inconsistent in making that call.

May 15, 2018

Middle East Fantasies


By David K. Shipler

            At the end of an interview I did several years ago with Palestinian high school students in Ramallah, the West Bank, the teenagers asked for my opinion about the conflict. I said, in part, that on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday I thought the Palestinians were right; on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday I thought the Israelis were right, and on Sunday I thought they both deserved each other. (Their Palestinian teacher was outraged that I’d consider the Israelis right on any day.)
Now I’d add the United States to that mix, because it’s become a party that’s both right and wrong and deserves all the praise and criticism it’s getting for moving its embassy to the disputed city of Jerusalem.
            Logically, yes, a country gets to pick its capital, and Israel chose Jerusalem both in ancient and modern times. As President Trump declared in a videotaped message, “For many years, we have failed to acknowledge the obvious, plain reality that the [Israeli] capital is Jerusalem.” But logic does not rule there. If it did, the clash of Israeli and Palestinian nationalisms, and their overlapping territorial claims, would have been resolved long ago. No, what Trump and his smiling acolytes at the embassy’s opening ceremony do not get is the power of symbols to trigger zealotry in that weary land, where Israel, the Palestinians, and now the United States indulge in fantasies.
            It’s easy to see this by simply asking which image from that event represents reality: the jubilant Israeli and American officials, well-coifed in a clean, safe pageant of platitudes about peace, or the billowing black smoke, teargas, and bloody bodies of Palestinians who were raging toward Israel’s border with Gaza. Their demand? To return to villages that they had never seen, that mostly no longer exist, that had been emptied of their ancestors during Israel’s 1948 war of independence, which Palestinians call “Nakba,” Arabic for catastrophe.
            Neither the embassy ceremony nor the Gaza protest is remotely realistic. Palestinian kids have been indoctrinated to dream angrily of a return after 70 years to their grandparents’ lands inside Israel proper, where the orange groves and vineyards were rarely as lush and idyllic as in their imagination. For both security and political reasons, Israel is not about to permit a largescale return, and that demand by Hamas, which rules Gaza, simply reinforces Israeli fears that Palestinians want the obliteration of the Jewish state.

May 10, 2018

Predicting Iran

By David K. Shipler

            President Trump’s decision to violate the Iran nuclear accord is giving rise to competing forecasts: Iran’s moderates will be discredited, the hardliners will gain sway, the country will resume its rush to develop nuclear weapons and spark a nuclear arms race in the region, Iran’s military actions outside its borders will increase, and the United States will no longer be trusted to keep its word in international agreements. Or, Iran’s economic suffering will worsen, leading to regime change as Trump hopes, and curbing the country’s support of bad actors from Hezbollah in Lebanon to Houthi rebels in Yemen. Or, in yet another possibility, the United States will be isolated, for better or worse, as Europe finally acts in unison to go its own way.
            Most of these scenarios depend on the behavior of Iran, which has become the Middle East’s Number One Nuisance. To paint a picture, it’s worth listing some of the opportunities missed and the new ones that have now arisen.
            Missed Opportunities.
            1. Seeing vividly the divided American views on the nuclear agreement, which had so little support that President Obama could not even submit it to the Senate for ratification, and then hearing Trump’s promise to scuttle it, Iran might have tempered the two activities that generated the most resentment and opposition: its ballistic-missile development program and its strategy of expanding its influence into Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Gaza, Yemen, and elsewhere. Instead, the Revolutionary Guard and other hardline factions, which control those cross-border policies, increased arms transfers and moved military assets into Syria in what looks increasingly like a forward deployment threatening Israel.
            2. Iran might have toned down its anti-Israel rhetoric and avoided marching into confrontation with Saudi Arabia, which simply reinforced conservative Americans’ resentment over ending sanctions against Tehran.

March 24, 2018

"Make America Think Again"

--Sign at the March for Our Lives

By David K. Shipler

            Every big march has a personality and a mood. The 1963 March on Washington, where Martin Luther King Jr. declared, “I have a dream,” was the friendliest large crowd I’ve ever been in, with warmth and smiles and easy conversation among strangers—except during Dr. King’s speech, when the hundreds of thousands on the Mall fell quiet under the cadence of his hopeful appeal to the conscience of America.
            The November 1969 demonstration by the New Mobilization Committee against the Vietnam War, mostly grim and peaceful, disintegrated late in the day as militants in the Weather Underground threw rocks, bottles, and paint at the ground-floor windows of the Justice Department, and then at police officers who replied with volleys of teargas and nightsticks.
            The 1995 Million Man March, billed as a demonstration of atonement and renewal by African-American men, was conducted in an air of firm, morality-driven conviction and contemplation as speaker after speaker confessed, apologized, pledged, cajoled, preached, and promised.
            The 2017 Women’s March, the day after Donald Trump’s Inauguration, displayed all the difficult emotions of that moment for those who decried his election: defiance, bitterness, resentment, resolve—but with a tincture of dry wit represented in the hand-made pink pussy hats worn to mock Trump’s boastful claim to a pussy-grabbing habit.
            Today, the March for Our Lives in Washington was different. There was some wit in the signs, to be sure (“Trump Loves NRA Because It’s Easy to Spell”), and some laughter from the cramped crowds of teenagers and younger kids, of teachers and parents and other adults from the graying and limping to the lithe. We weren’t all solemn all the time. Just most of the time. It didn’t take a big push to get us to the edge of angry tears.
   

March 14, 2018

The Absence of Foreign Policy


By David K. Shipler

            If President Trump doesn’t get us into an all-out war on the Korean Peninsula or elsewhere, his lurching and staggering on the world stage might have the long-term benefit of inducing other countries not to take the United States so seriously. This would look bad from inside the Washington Beltway, where American power to influence the globe is exaggerated, but it could have an upside in certain situations.
For better or worse, the United States has been decisive, as in World War II, when its reluctance to enter the fight allowed Nazi Germany to overwhelm continental Europe, drive Britain back on its heels, and pummel the Soviet Union on the Eastern Front. Instead of opening a second front, the United States sent aid that included canned beef stew. For decades afterwards, Russians sardonically called canned stew “the Second Front.”
Combined with Soviet forces, the U.S. entry into the war, after the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, was pivotal to its outcome, as we know, and the postwar order in Europe, particularly the NATO alliance to balance Soviet expansionism, was a creature of American leadership. In addition, before the Trump administration, Washington promoted human rights and pluralistic democracy where they suited American interests, which arguably tempered some authoritarianism.
But in its anti-communist fervor during the Cold War, the U.S. also demonstrated dramatic hypocrisy by meddling in foreign elections, turning a blind eye to rights violations, and even installing rightwing dictatorships. As Lord Acton observed, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
It could be, then, that President Trump’s current lack of foreign policy, for which he has been so roundly criticized by specialists, is a good thing. It might be better than a hawkish alternative promoted by the hardliner Mike Pompeo as the next secretary of state.

March 1, 2018

The Faces of Children

By David K. Shipler

            You could not look away from the grim faces on the front page of The New York Times this morning. They were students in Parkland, Florida, who returned to classes two weeks after their school became the latest memorial in America’s litany of shootings.
            Their hollow gazes chilled me in a special way, because they wrenched me back to a picture I had taken 45 years ago of Cambodian children about two weeks after their village of Neak Luong had been mistakenly bombed by an American B-52. The huge bombs had marched through town leaving enormous craters like the footprints of some giant, smashing most of the hospital, obliterating fragile houses, killing and maiming parents of children and children of parents.
Unlike most kids I’d met elsewhere in Indochina, these youngsters of Neak Luong did not crowd curiously around an American to grin and laugh into his camera. They stood silent and unsmiling, their faces impassive from torment—just like those Florida kids—as if the reverberations of shellshock had not yet died away. And perhaps never would.
            The eyes of the tallest girl in my picture haunt me still. She is probably about 12 years old. She looks straight into the lens, but vacantly, without guile or passion. Her stare seems neither angry nor fearful but emotionally flat, like a veil across a wound.
            In the center of today’s picture, too, is a Florida girl whose downcast eyes, in shadow, should not ever be forgotten. She looks broken. Her head bends slightly forward; she might be carrying a red flower, just visible between two teenagers in front of her. She seems about to weep—for all of us.

February 16, 2018

Looking For a Political Bell Curve


By David K. Shipler


            Here is a simple illustration of what’s wrong with Congress. The graph below, plotted from an assessment of Senators’ voting records by The New York Times, shows the deep chasm in the moderate middle where bipartisan compromise and true governing can take place. Both Democrats and Republicans are clustered far outside that center, making negotiation on major issues difficult. We have just seen a result of this in the stalemate over immigration.


 
Chart by David K. Shipler. Data Source: New York Times


            Voters of various stripes will surely look at this and say, well, I’d like even more Democrats to shift to that liberal left, or I’d be pleased to see more Republicans at the far right of the graph. Fine. When we get to the ideal world, count me in the first group. I’d be glad to see a more liberal, or “progressive,” drift. But the country isn’t built that way, and it cannot be led effectively from either end of the spectrum, or with the current barbell-shaped political distribution. We need a traditional bell curve, where the line bulges in the center and tapers off at both extremes.
            Around that central axis there would still be sharp disagreements between Republicans and Democrats over the size and function of government, the regulation of business, the environment, immigration policy, budget priorities for the military versus social benefits, the makeup of the judiciary, and other matters. But more members of Congress clustered near the center would indicate less dogmatism and more flexibility; they might even be willing to listen seriously to the other side’s arguments.

February 11, 2018

Korean Kremlinology


By David K. Shipler

            The camera angle was perfect, and it was surely no accident. Caught in the same frame, diagonally in the row behind an unsmiling Vice President Mike Pence, sat Kim Yo-jong, the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, at the opening of the Olympics in South Korea. Neither, it seemed, dared to look at the other, exchange words, or shake hands.
            One interpretation is that Mr. Pence wants to stay alive politically, and that Ms. Kim wants to stay alive, period. Although she’s rumored to be a close and trusted adviser to her older brother, he has shown no compunction in terminating high-ranking individuals, including relatives, who present a threat to his power or deviate from the prescribed path. And Mr. Pence has thinly disguised presidential aspirations; the last thing he needs is a picture of himself shaking hands with the avowed enemy.
            It is a peculiar tradition in international relations that showing basic courtesy to your adversary is regarded as a concession, as if a hello or a handshake—not to mention actual conversation—were a grand reward to be conferred only in exchange for some prize from the other side. This kind of thinking has prevented the start of many negotiations where one party or the other demands that certain preconditions be met before talks can begin. Sometimes that works, but often it produces silence and misunderstanding.
            The “messages” sent by military actions or visual gestures are usually brittle and dogmatic, lacking the nuance essential to sophisticated approaches across the gulfs of hostility. Whenever the US suspended bombing North Vietnam during a discreet outreach toward launching peace talks, for example, Hanoi interpreted the cessation as pure propaganda aimed at making a warlike America appear conciliatory. When the outreach failed and bombing resumed, the North was convinced it had been right.
            Similarly, North Korea’s joint appearance with South Korean athletes in these Winter Games has been dismissed by the Trump administration as propaganda, aimed at driving a wedge between Seoul and Washington and undermining Washington’s campaign to isolate the North further for its threatening nuclear and missile program. It couldn’t also be that the North Korean leader, Mr. Kim, emboldened militarily, is looking not for domination but for security?
            Watching the VIP section at the Olympic ceremony was like gleaning policy by studying  the lineup of Soviet Politburo members atop the Lenin Mausoleum, and counting the missiles marching past in a parade through Red Square. (Soon, for President Trump’s entertainment, we’ll get to count American missiles rolling along Constitution Avenue.)
As the Korean teams marched together under the neutral flag symbolizing a unified Korean Peninsula, Mr. Pence and his wife remained seated, a technique he copied from the pro football players so vilified by President Trump. Too bad Mr. Pence didn’t take a knee.
            How will his defiant gesture be interpreted? As a rebuff to North Korea? As a rebuff to both Koreas? As a statement of opposition to reunification—or to peace on the peninsula? Take your choice. But you can bet that North Korea will see it differently from what the United States may have meant.
            As later histories often reveal, misunderstandings during acute tension can lead to absurd miscalculations that look comical in retrospect—or highly dangerous. Several episodes during the Vietnam War were revealed at a joint 1997 conference in Hanoi of former US and North Vietnamese officials.
            Comparing notes, they discovered what a pivotal mistake Washington had made in reading elaborate meaning into a coincidence more than three decades earlier. On Feb. 7, 1965, several months before US ground troops were deployed to South Vietnam, North Vietnamese forces attacked an American advisers’ compound and airfield at Pleiku, killing eight Americans and wounding numerous others. On that day, McGeorge Bundy, the national security adviser, happened to be in Saigon assessing the military situation for President Lyndon B. Johnson. And on the same day, the Soviet Premier, Aleksei Kosygin, was visiting Hanoi.
It was the first attack directly on Americans, and since it coincided with the Bundy and Kosygin visits, Washington read it as a calculated policy move by Hanoi. In retaliation, the US began bombing North Vietnam.
Americans at the conference asked why Hanoi had made the assault then. Across the table, Lieut Gen. Dang Vu Hiep, a former deputy of the North Vietnamese Army’s political department, then stationed near Pleiku, explained: “This was a spontaneous attack by the local commander,” he said, who had acted under general orders to do it when ready. The assault by 30 commandos had been planned long in advance; the timing was coincidental. “We did not know Bundy was in Saigon. We were just attacking,” said General Hiep. He told me during a recess that Kosygin “was not pleased” but apparently didn’t feel free to say so publicly.
This came as a revelation to Robert McNamara, defense secretary at the time, who had led the way in organizing the 1997 conference. Had he known about the accident of timing, he said, “I think we’d have put less weight on it and put less interpretation on it as indicative of North Vietnam’s aggressiveness.”
Mutual suspicion is a lens through which innocent mistakes can be distorted into assumptions of malice. As one effort to get negotiations going, for example, the American Ambassador to Poland, John Gronouski, was scheduled to meet with the North Vietnamese Ambassador on Dec. 6, 1966 to receive a reply to a proposal for talks. Gronouski waited in the office of the Polish Foreign Minister, Adam Rapacki, but the Vietnamese envoy did not show up. For 30 years this had been interpreted as a rebuff.
But at the conference, a retired Vietnamese diplomat, Nguyen Dinh Phuong, gave another version. He had been dispatched from Hanoi to Warsaw for the meeting, he said. He had arrived on Dec. 3 (a day that bombing was resumed) and waited with his ambassador at the North Vietnamese Embassy on Dec. 6. ''We waited the whole day,'' he said, ''but the US Ambassador did not show up. On the 7th, the US bombed more forcefully in downtown Hanoi. We concluded that the U.S. did not want to have negotiations.''
Today it would be wishful thinking to imagine that North Korea wants negotiations that might lead to a reduction or elimination of its nuclear arsenal, which is clearly regarded as a deterrent against an American attack. But at the brink of war, amid mutual vilification, the chance of miscalculation is high. If there were ever a moment for direct dialogue to reduce the probability of military accident, this would be it. At least South Korean President Moon Jae-in has been invited by Ms. Kim, at the behest of her brother, to visit Pyongyang, where even fruitless talks might ease tensions.
As for the US and North Korea, perhaps secret communications are ongoing, although no such indication could be seen in Mr. Pence’s frosty demeanor in the vicinity of Ms. Kim. Contacts wouldn’t be technically hard to arrange. North Korea has a delegation in New York at the UN, and both countries have embassies in third countries, where their ambassadors or other staff could converse—provided they didn’t get confused about where they were supposed to meet.