When a Phrase Drops like a Bomb


This passage is from a “breaking news” update from the Huffington Post:

The Trump administration intends to continue diplomatic efforts with North Korea “until the first bomb drops,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on Sunday.

Tillerson said that President Trump “has also made clear to me that he wants this solved diplomatically. He’s not seeking to go to war.”

The second sentence does provide a fuller context for understanding the first sentence and mitigates any alarm that it might cause.

But the first sentence, taken by itself, is worth considering for its rhetorical effect, even apart from its actual political intent and implications. At some level, statesmanship is word craft, and it seems to me that this sentence is very carelessly phrased given the issue that it addresses.

If one states that diplomatic efforts will continue until the first bomb drops, is that ultimately reassuring or alarming? On the one hand, the sentence structure literally emphasizes diplomacy ahead of military action. On the other hand, the final element of a sentence is very often the most emphatic. So, in this case, the last and most emphatic image that someone reading this sentence is left with is that of bombs dropping.

Now, someone could point out that the sentence that I have been analyzing is only partly a quotation–that it is largely paraphrase and that the Huffington Post is a progressive news source that is likely to frame anything said by anyone in the Trump administration in as dubious, if not sinister, a way as possible. This sort of assertion would fit with the torrent of accusations about the distortions and fabrications—the “fake news”—being disseminated by media outlets ideologically hostile to the Trump administration.

But such an assertion does not hold up in this case: that is, the paraphrase is true to the full, actual quotation: “’Trump “has made it clear to me to continue my diplomatic efforts. As I have told others, those diplomatic efforts will continue until the first bomb drops.’”

In fact, in the actual quotation, the second sentence that I quoted from the news report comes ahead of the first, arguably placing even more emphasis on the phrase “until the first bomb drops.”

Some will argue, of course, that this emphasis is intentional–that it is another forceful warning to North Korea. But Tillerson is presumably addressing the North Korean leadership more directly, even if through Chinese intermediaries. So, the primary audience is unarguably the American public.

And so we are back to the first question: Is it more alarming or reassuring that the current administration is willing to threaten military action so openly and readily? If the answer is that it may be reassuring to Trump’s political supporters, his base, but alarming to most other Americans, then what one is saying is that diplomacy with hostile nations is being subordinated to domestic political messaging. And that is very alarming when the hostile nation possesses not only nuclear weapons but large conventional armaments that can cause major destruction in the major cities of two key U.S. allies before we can effectively intercede.


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