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.