In January 1984, Dr. Seuss, one of the most popular authors of children’s books ever, who sold hundreds of millions of copies of his books, published The Butter Battle Book. It was a totally unexpected book from a children’s author―an overt political satire and protest against the nuclear arms race. Dr. Seuss considered it his best book, but one that ends pessimistically unlike most of his others. The Butter Battle book is full of references to the US-Soviet Cold War, from the building of the Berlin Wall to the deployment of more and more kinds of “advanced” weaponry. The main characters are members of the Yooks, who appear to represent the US and NATO countries, while the antagonists, the Zooks, appear to represent the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact countries.

After a minor incident, the arms race between the Zooks and the Yooks escalates as weapons move up in sophistication from sling shots to the "Tough-Tufted Prickly Snick-Berry Switch," the "Triple-Sling Jigger," the "Jigger-Rock Snatchem," and the “Kick-A-Poo Kid." The latter was loaded with "powerful Poo-A-Doo powder and ants' eggs and bees' legs and dried-fried clam chowder". The Zooks then developed an "Eight-Nozzled Elephant-Toted Boom Blitz", which was a machine that shoots "high-explosive sour cherry stone pits"; the Yooks counter with the "Utterly Sputter" which is intended "to sprinkle blue goo all over the Zooks".

Eventually, both sides are able to acquire an extremely destructive nut-sized bomb called the "Bitsy Big-Boy Boomeroo." The name makes it sound like it is a miniaturized tactical nuclear version of Little Boy and Fat Man, the uranium and plutonium bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Dr. Seuss story ends with the question as to who might drop the Bitsy Big-Boy Boomeroo first: "Who's gonna drop it? Will you, or will he?" with the answer, “be patient, we’ll see… we will see.” The book then finishes with the lines, “The End” (Maybe). In effect, as the two sides continued to build more and more destructive weaponry, Dr. Seuss was parodying the nuclear arms race and the theory of mutual assured destruction (MAD) and its probable inability to prevent a nuclear war―particularly if one side believed it possessed a tactical and technical advantage over the other.

The Butter Battle Book was controversial, and it was banned from some libraries. A number of American Neo-conservatives argued that it promulgated the so-called liberal “moral equivalence” argument. The latter perspective was dismissed by neo-conservatives who argued against liberal concepts of “cultural relativism” and “moral equivalence” that made it look like the US and Soviet Union were similar societies that could be equally criticized and that the struggle against Soviet Union had nothing to do with values such freedom.[1]

But the theme of Dr Suess’s story did not imply “cultural relativism” or “moral equivalence”; this was a total misinterpretation. The Butter Battle Book wanted to show through poetic satire the absurd extent to which conflicting societies with different values and interests could go to defend themselves―to the point of actually perverting their own values and at the risk of destroying both societies, if not the whole world―due in large part to their unwillingness to reach realistic compromises with their adversaries.

In Dr. Seuss’ book, the tensions between the two societies and the escalating arms race were largely a result of opposing social customs. Each society buttered different sides of their bread. The Yooks, who saw themselves as right and honest, buttered their bread on the topside; they saw the Zooks as being untrustworthy and having “kinks in their soul” because they buttered their bread on the bottom side. Even though it appears absurd to spark a major conflict over different ways to spread butter over bread, the metaphor has at least four possible meanings.

The first meaning is the geo-economic battle for sustenance, for money and for survival, for bread and butter. The second is the economic law of opportunity cost, how a society decides to spend its economic surplus on “guns” (or on warfare) impacts how much it can then spend on “butter” (or on welfare). Somewhat similarly, the third meaning depicts the way one spreads one’s butter, i.e. how a country distributes or spreads wealth within a society, more or less equitably or inequitably. The fourth is the meaning of the term to “know which side of one's bread is buttered” which is to say, “to be aware of where one's best interests lie.” In this perspective, each side, the Yooks and the Zooks, possess very different values and interests which made it very difficult to cooperate. So the way the two societies in The Butter Battle Book spread their butter as cause of very dangerous conflict that appears to be started by a very trivial dispute is really not that absurd at all.

Cold War Political Warfare

In Dr. Seuss’s book, the colors of the Yooks are blue and the Zooks are orange. This appears to be in contrast with the usual Blue or else Red, White and Blue, for the Americans and Red for the Soviets. Yet, whether by purpose or accident, these colors are the same colors as the two sides in the NATO war games, called Operation Able Archer, played by NATO in September 1983, which, coupled with the deployments of US Cruise and Pershing missiles in Europe, came pretty close to setting off a nuclear war.

The 1983 NATO Operation Able Archer military exercises involved some 40,000 US and NATO troops. The war games envisioned a very unlikely scenario in which Blue Forces (NATO) defended their European allies after Orange Forces (Warsaw Pact countries) sent troops into Yugoslavia, before invading Finland, Norway and Greece. In actual response to these exercises, Moscow went on a heightened nuclear alert. (Some somewhat similar exercises, called Trident Juncture 18, were recently played out in Norway in October-November this year with some 40,000 participants from more than 30 countries, including Finland and Sweden, which are not NATO members.)

But back in 1983, much like today after the Russian annexation of Crimea in February 2014, and now after the deployments of new intermediate range ballistic missiles, the Novator 9M729 (or SSC-8 in NATO lingo), among other weapons systems, tensions between Washington and Moscow had been escalating after the Soviet Union had deployed of intermediate range SS-20s in 1977 in Europe and Asia. In strategic terms, it was feared that Moscow could launch its intermediate range SS-20 missiles against NATO, Japanese, as well as Chinese, targets, while holding its long range intercontinental ballistic missiles that could strike US territory in reserve―in order to counter the possibility of a US retaliation. In a word, Moscow could theoretically strike the Europeans, if not the Japanese as well as the Chinese, while holding the US nuclear deterrent at bay so that Washington would not counter-attack.

As tensions began to mount, Washington and Moscow began to engage in disarmament negotiations, but without an agreed upon result. In November 1983, US Ambassador Paul Nitze and his Soviet counterpart Yuli Kvitsinsky did work out a negotiated compromise, that was dubbed the “Walk in the Woods” proposal, but that proposal was rejected by the Reagan administration. Paul Nitze’s proposed “Walk in the Woods” deal may have been supported on the Soviet side, but it had no backing from the highly ideological Reagan administration, who preferred to take the risk of nuclear war than accept diplomatic compromise and a “problem-solving” approach.[2] In short, Reagan administration neo-conservatives considered detested compromise with Moscow as a form of “appeasement.”

The Reagan administration refusal of the “walk in the woods compromise” eventually led NATO to engage in the “double track” decision by 1983. On the one hand, NATO offered the Warsaw Pact the option to engage in a mutual limitation of intermediate-range ballistic missiles. On the other, NATO threatened to deploy Tomahawk Cruise and Pershing land-based intermediate-range nuclear weapons that could strike Moscow in minutes in western Europe―in case that Moscow refused to withdraw and destroy their SS-20s. Since no deal was reached, the US and NATO opted to deploy US Cruise and Pershing missiles in Europe. Most crucially, the German Bundestag agreed to the deployment of those weapons on West German territory in 1983. This led Moscow to drop out of the INF talks.

Protests Against Nuclear War

The decision to deploy new and advanced nuclear weapons in Europe led to mass protests, with the European Nuclear Disarmament movement obtaining considerable popular support.[3] In addition, there were protests throughout the US. Poets spoke out against the threat of nuclear war. The original version of my poem, “A Sub-Urban Landscape” that was published as One Nuke, Two Nuke, Blue Yook, Orange Zook (after Dr Suess) was first published in Peace or Perish: A Crisis Anthology in 1983. [4] It was my first publication in a major poetry anthology. The book was described as: “The poets’ mobilization against the nuclear holocaust.”

At that time, I was working on my PhD Dissertation at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington DC. As I was seeking to compare the Cold War to previous major power conflicts in history, I went to the Library of Congress to begin my research. I plugged into the search engine of that now ancient computer system, “World War I”, and several thousand books appeared in green letters upon the computer screen; I then plugged in “World War II” and even more books appeared. And I then plugged in “World War III.” Only ten books appeared. The tenth book was Peace or Perish: A Crisis Anthology.

Contrary to official propaganda against them, the protesters were not wrong. The US and Soviet Union came very closer to nuclear war. Seeing itself threatened by NATO-Japanese-Saudi “capitalist encirclement” aligned with China, Soviet paranoia at the time was illustrated by the apparently accidental shooting down on September 1, 1983 of a South Korean airliner—which was purportedly confused for a US spy plane. Later in September 1983, an apparent launch of US Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles was detected by the Soviet Oko early-warning radar systems, but these were identified as a false alarm. The officer on duty fortunately decided to his disobey his official orders that demanded retaliation with a nuclear counter-attack―at great risk to himself in disobeying Soviet military protocol.[5]

The Trump Administration Dumps the 1987 INF Pact

Five years after the Reagan administration initiated its deployments of Cruise and Pershing missiles in Europe despite mass protests throughout much of the world, on December 8, 1987, Washington and Moscow signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF treaty) after Mikhail Gorbachev came to power. The 1987 INF treaty led to the destruction of all land-based middle range missiles, but not sea-based intermediate-range systems. As the treaty was signed only by Washington and Moscow, it did not prevent China, Iran, India, Pakistan, North Korea, or other states, from building intermediate range missile systems. But the Treaty was nevertheless a major step in forging the peace between Moscow and Washington and helped to bring an end to the Cold War.

While the first phase of the US-Soviet conflict during the Cold War did not end in nuclear war as many believed might happen―but which could have and almost did―Dr. Suess’s “maybe” is still relevant in the post-Cold War phase of US-European-Russian-Chinese-Japanese-Indian geopolitical conflict. While the Cold War fortunately ended without a nuclear blast, the post-Cold War period is now entering a new phase that is potentially more dangerous. These new US-Russian-Chinese tensions are partly a result of the fact that the new forms of weaponry that are now being developed and deployed are much more accurate and much more usable.

In the 1980s, the Soviet Union feared US advances in stealth technology and the missile defenses of the Strategic Defense Initiative (or Star Wars as it was called at the time because it was supposed to be deployed in outer space); yet these latter systems were not well developed at that time. But now, stealth weaponry designed to avoid radar systems and advanced ground-based missile defenses that can help launch a first strike are largely operational and very accurate.

In October 2018, the Trump administration stated that it planned to drop out of the 1987 INF accord in part due to purported Russian violations of the INF treaty. Moscow has begun to deploy the intermediate range Novator 9M729 (or SSC-8 in NATO lingo), and plans to develop other weapons systems and modernize older ones. And much like the George W. Bush administration, who, in 2002, unilaterally dropped out of the ABM treaty signed with Moscow due to the feared development of missile systems by third states other than Moscow, the Trump administration somewhat similarly has planned to drop out of the 1987 INF accord ostensibly due to the fact that the INF treaty does not impact the land-based missile systems of other countries, particularly those of Iran, North Korea, and China.

Moscow has claimed that it is not in violation of the INF Treaty and points to US missile defense systems in eastern Europe that could theoretically be used launch a first strike. It should be noted that had Paul Nitze’s original “walk in the woods” diplomatic compromise been accepted by the Reagan administration and the Soviets, these issues dealing with intermediate range missile would probably not have arisen in contemporary circumstances, at least not in the same way. This is true as Moscow would have been able to deploy its missile systems in Asia. In fact, President Putin had already threatened to leave the INF treaty in 2007―unless it was renegotiated to include other states, including China, Pakistan and Iran.

But then again, much as I have argued in World War Trump, such issues probably would not have arisen at all in contemporary circumstances―if the Clinton administration had accepted the advice of Paul Nitze, one of the founders, after George Kennon, of US containment policy―not to enlarge NATO!!!

The Trump Administration’s New Nuclear Arms Race

President Trump’s National Security Advisor, John Bolton, has been arguing for several years that the 1987 INF Treaty interferes with the United States ability “to preserve global security” and that other countries, like China, North Korea, and Iran, face no limits on their intermediate range missiles. Prior to becoming Trump’s national security advisor (it was rumored Trump had initially rejected Bolton for the position because of his moustache!), Bolton argued that the United States “should see Moscow’s breach (of the 1987 INF Treaty) as an opportunity to withdraw” from the INF treaty so that the Pentagon can “have access to the full spectrum of conventional and nuclear options.”[6] Bolton has also been pressing Trump not to renew the 2010 New Start treaty with Russia that limits the numbers of deployed strategic nuclear warheads and their delivery systems, and which provides for international inspections. The treaty is due to expire in 2021; and even though Putin has hoped to extend the New Start Treaty, NSC Advisor John Bolton has opposed even discussing the future of arms control between the two countries. [7]

The fact of the matter is that the US has initiated a major nuclear modernization program that will cost roughly 1.7 trillion dollars over the next 30 years―money that could be better focused on education, health care, social security, job creation, and other vital social needs including that of resolving social and political conflict. And among other arms programs, the US Congress has mandated that the Pentagon begin to build a new ground-launched intermediate-range cruise missile, even though the US armed forces already possess numerous sea- and air-based systems, and new tactical nuclear weapons. This is all very dangerous and unnecessary.

Diplomatic Options

The dilemma is that US withdrawal from the INF Treaty will permit Russia and other states to continue their buildup of intermediate range ballistic missiles. And the decision puts the US at fault for dropping out of the treaty. What are really needed are new multilateral arms reduction negotiations that can lead to a significant conventional and nuclear weapons reductions on all sides, while concurrently enhancing security and confidence. In addition to Russian missiles, the UK, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel, Iran, North Korea, all possess intermediate range nuclear weapons. Instead of adding more dangerous nuclear weapons and missile systems, the Trump administration should be trying to reduce, if not eliminate, all of such Weapons of Mass Destruction―much as Michael Gorbachev, Henry Kissinger, George P. Shultz, William Perry, Sam Nunn, among other political leaders, have argued for the past decade. [8] And if nuclear weapons cannot be entirely abolished, then states should consider pledges of “no first use” of all Weapons of Mass Destruction; and they should renounce war as a tool of statecraft. [9]

There will be no abatement of this crisis unless the US and Europeans can find areas where the major powers, the US, Europeans, Russia, China, Japan and India can cooperate. This evidently will not be an easy task, but it can and should be attempted. Unlike the Gorbachev period, Moscow is more likely to take a much harder line toward US policy, even once Putin steps down. And it looks like both Russia and China―as some 95 percent of Chinese nuclear weapons are intermediate range and aimed primarily at Taiwan, Japan, India, and South Korea―will get even tougher in response to President Trump. The possibility of a direct clash between US, Russian, Iranian, Israeli, Turkish, and Saudi interests, for example, over Syria, or elsewhere in the wider Middle East, appears very plausible in the not so distant future, as does a potential clash between India and Pakistan, or between China and Taiwan, among other scenarios…

US sanctions and the threat to use force alone will not result in peace, but in counter threats and a renewed weapons buildup with more and more advanced systems of weaponry. Without truly engaged and multilateral diplomacy, the diplomatic options will soon narrow even further, and the real possibilities of World War Trump will become a reality. Dr Seuss’s The Butter Battle Book had tried to make future generations aware of the real dangers of a nuclear arms race, but it appears no one has learned…


[1]“It is also a perfect emblem of the moral equivalence that neutered so many liberals during the Cold War: It assumes that the half-century conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union was based on nothing more meaningful than a dispute over how people prefer to butter their bread–as if Communism weren’t a threat to liberty, but an eating preference.” John J. Miller, The Good “Dr.” The National Review (March 2, 2004).
This is simply an incorrect interpretation of Dr Seuss’s book, but was also argued at the time the book came out in 1984.
[2] See the demeaning comments of the neo-conservative Richard Perle to the pragmatic realist, Paul Nitze, in Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training, Paul Nitze and A Walk in the Woods — A Failed Attempt at Arms Control accessed October 26, 2018, ; Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training, The INF Treaty, Part II — Moving from Arms Control to Arms Reduction, accessed October 26, 2018, In the “Walk in the Woods” proposal, the Soviet Union would destroy 168 of its SS-20 launchers and 90 of its SS-20 force would stay in the eastern part of the USSR, aimed at China, and possibly Japan. The US would be allowed 75 launchers, but they would not include the Pershing IIs.
[3] For a powerful anti-nuclear statement of the European Nuclear Disarmament movement, see Ken Coates, European Nuclear Disarmament accessed) October 26, 2018.
[4] Hall Gardner, “A Sub-Urban Landscape” in Peace or Perish: A Crisis Anthology (1983), edited by Herman Berlandt and Neeli Cherkovski (San Francisco: Poets for Peace, 1983). Peace or Perish included poetry by Robert Bly, Robert Creeley, Diane di Prima, William Everson, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Carolyn Forché, Allen Ginsberg, Denise Levertov, and “other lesser-known poets of equal power, passion and vision” according to the back cover.
[5] Pavel Aksenov, Stanislav Petrov, The man who may have saved the world BBC Russian (26 September 2013). Petrov appears to be yet another unsung hero who helped prevent nuclear war!
[6] John Bolton and John Yoo, An Obsolete Nuclear Treaty Even Before Russia Cheated,” Wall Street Journal, September 9, 2014.
[7] John Bolton pushing Trump to withdraw from Russian nuclear arms treaty The Guardian (October 10, 2018).
[8] Mikhail Gorbachev, A New Nuclear Arms Race Has Begun New York Times (October 25, 2018), Henry Kissinger, George P. Shultz, William Perry, Sam Nunn, A World Free of Nuclear Weapons, Wall Street Journal (January 4, 2007).
[9] See Hall Gardner, World War Trump: The Risk of America’s New Nationalism (Prometheus Books, 2018) and Hall Gardner, IR Theory, Historical Analogy, and Major Power War (Palgrave-Macmillan, forthcoming).