Do you remember how, back in April 2008, we posted an analysis of the Emancipation Proclamation? It was called “If I could save the Union without freeing any slaves…”: The victory of the Emancipation Proclamation,” and it referred to the famous Lincoln-Greeley exchange:
In the months before Lincoln published his proclamation, Horace Greeley, of the New York Tribune, wrote an editorial letter on August 20, 1862 blasting the president for not abolishing slavery already. No one outside Lincoln’s cabinet knew he had the EP written and waiting. Lincoln’s response is famous, or infamous, to us now. It is the letter in which he said that if he could save the Union by freeing all the slaves, he would, and it he could save it by freeing none, he would, and if he could do it by freeing some and leaving others, he would do that.
In our effort to explain why Lincoln’s statement is not disgustingly pro-slavery but revolutionary in its essence, we said this:
Lincoln starts by saying that his main aim in the war is to preserve the Union. He sees a few options when it comes to saving the Union. He might be able to do it by freeing all the slaves. If that was the best option, he would take it. He might, though, be able to save the Union without freeing any slaves. If so, he would take that option. Or, he might be able to save the Union by freeing some slaves.
You, by now, should see that he is hinting very broadly at his Proclamation, which did just that: it freed some enslaved people and left others (in the border states) enslaved. (For the reasons we have already described—under war powers, he could only free slaves in territory at war with the U.S. without Taney and the courts striking the measure down.)
We still shudder at Lincoln calmly talking about not freeing anyone. But people at the time saw what was really shocking: Lincoln was saying that ending slavery was on the table. For the first time in the history of the United States, a president was saying he would outlaw slavery. This had never been on the table before.
It would be like an American president today saying, “If I can bring peace to the Middle East without using nuclear weapons, I won’t use them. If I have to launch a few nuclear strikes to bring peace, I’ll do that.” We would say, wait a minute—when did nuclear weapons come into this question? No one has ever talked about nuclear war in the Middle East before, but now the President is saying it’s on the table.
When we wrote that, we deliberately tried to think of the most exaggerated, not remotely possible scenario we could—a U.S. president saying s/he would use nuclear weapons on the Middle East.
But Republican presidential candidate Trump has yanked this scenario into the realm of the possible. He has in fact made our outlandish scenario look modest by saying he would bomb not just ISIS-held areas of the Middle East, but our allies and friends in Europe. Here is the relevant part of his interview with Chris Matthews:
Donald Trump: “First of all, you don’t want to say take everything off the table because you would be a bad negotiator if you do that.”
Chris Matthews: “Just nuclear?”
DT: “Look, nuclear should be off the table, but would there be a time that it could be used? Possibly.”
CM: “The problem is when you say that, the whole world heard that. David Cameron heard that in Britain, the Japanese where we bombed them in ’45 heard it. They are hearing a guy running for President of the United States talking about maybe using nuclear weapons. Nobody wants to hear that about an American president.”
DT: “Then why are we are making them [nuclear weapons]? Why do we make them?”
CM: “Because of the old mutually assured destruction, which Reagan hated and tried to get rid of.”
DT: “I was against Iraq, I would be the last one to use the nuclear weapons because that’s sort of like the end of the ball game.”
CM: “Can you tell the Middle East we’re not using nuclear weapons?”
DT: “I would never say that. I would never take any of my cards off the table.”
CM: “How about Europe? We won’t use in Europe?”
DT: “I’m not going to take it off the table for anybody.”
CM: “You’re going to use it in Europe?”
DT: “No! I don’t think so. But…”
CM: “Just say it, say ‘I’m not going to use a nuclear weapon in Europe’.”
DT: “I am not taking cards off the table. I’m not going to use nukes – but I’m not taking any cards off the table.”
And thus we have it: an American presidential front-runner, if not an actual president, saying he would use nuclear weapons on Europe. Lincoln’s statement that he would end slavery to win the war now takes second-place in the list of astonishing political statements made by presidents and/or presidential contenders. If we jinxed this by making the analogy, and by using the very words “on the table” that Trump used, believe us, we’re sorry.