Hawaii Prepares for Nuclear War

Marcus Noland (PIIE)



Careful readers of this blog may recall that Hawaii is my second home. When I was back in the summer, I was surprised by the level of anxiety over the possibility of a North Korean nuclear attack. As I wrote at the time, much like in the movie “Jaws,” there was a split by those that felt compelled to prepare in the face an imminent threat and representatives of the tourism industry who preferred to whistle past the graveyard.

Plenty of residents have personal memories of the attack on Pearl Harbor, and I initially did not appreciate the unique degree of vulnerability felt locally, borne of history and geography. News outlets carried stories on an almost daily basis, describing everything from how the disaster warning system, oriented toward hurricanes and tsunamis, was being updated for a potential nuclear attack, to how the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency was coordinating with its counterparts in Guam and on the West Coast. (The first siren drill is slated for next month.) Missile defense has been a trending topic. At PACOM, Adm. Harris, more used to public diplomacy aimed at foreign countries, was called on to reassure locals. And when invited to address the Joint Commanders Conference of the Hawaii National Guard, before my presentation a young woman in combat fatigues introduced herself as “Maj. Gabbard.” That would be Tulsi Gabbard. She doubles as one of our representatives in the US Congress. In many ways, Hawaii’s a small town.

Yet, at the same time, life goes on, and tourism is the backbone of the state’s economy. So it was a shock to the system when Monday afternoon, the 50,000 students and 10,000 staff of the University of Hawaii system received an email with the subject line, “In the event of a nuclear attack.”

(The sound that you just heard was the folks at the Hawaii Tourism Authority collapsing from cardiac arrest.)

The message went on to briefly describe the siren system and instructions to shelter in place (which I had jocularly described as “grab your shades (that blast can be bright), find a place to shelter, preferably made of concrete, and bring with you enough provisions to hole up for two weeks or until you hear the all clear signal, whichever comes first”), with links to the CDC site on radiation sickness. In a show of leadership none too common these days, Daniel Meisenzahl of the University system’s communication office took full responsibility for the missive.

Mr. Meisenzahl may be being too hard on himself, describing the email as “a mistake on my part.” There is a theory that Kim Jong-un and the North Korean leadership may believe that an attack on Hawaii (or Guam) will be met less resolutely than an attack on the continental US proper. And although we may think it odd, Japanese leaders in the 1940s were under a similar misapprehension.

(In fact, this sort of confusion is not limited to foreigners. There’s a humor essay “10 stupid questions mainlanders ask Hawaiians.” The answers to the first three are “we speak English,” “live in houses,” and “use dollars.” So it was not surprising, but nevertheless disappointing, that when Judge Derrick K. Watson—the only native Hawaiian on the federal bench when confirmed in 2013—issued the initial stay on the Trump Administration’s travel ban, Attorney General Jeff Sessions pouted that “I really am amazed that a judge sitting on an island in the Pacific can issue an order that stops the president of the United States.” 

The AG is not alone in his confusion: on the website of his alma mater, the University of Alabama, one Crimson Tide fan wondered if “the language barrier” associated with his “transition to the States” had hampered freshman quarterback Tua Tagovailoa in his debut. Tagovailoa, a graduate of the St. Louis High School quarterback factory, which has a former NFL head coach as its athletics director, and has produced Marcus Mariota among others, had just gone 6 of 9 for 64 yards, one touchdown, and no interceptions, in mop up time in a 41-10 win over Fresno State.

Is there something in the water down in ‘Bama that makes one, how should I say this, geographically challenged?

But I digress.)

Were nuclear war to occur, it would be disastrous for the state, which is the most isolated location of human habitation and relies on non-locally produced food for 90 percent of its consumption. While the Sandwich Islands might not be such a bad spot to experience hunter-gatherer society (that’s what some of the Putin-supported secessionists are aiming for since the old monarchy had its “issues”) the islands could not support 1.4 million residents living off the land.  

The best hope is to avoid nuclear war all together, but if it were to occur, despite the fact that the state consists of islands, in the ocean, surrounded by the biggest water, one would hope that the President could remember that we are American citizens.

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