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Review of Daniel Ellsberg’s “The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner”

It’s not every day that an insider tells us how preparations for nuclear war have been proceeding. So, when one does, it’s worth sitting up and taking notice.

Although Daniel Ellsberg is best-known for his 1971 role in delivering the Pentagon Papers (the Top Secret Defense Department study of U.S. involvement in Vietnam) to the American people, he spent much of his 13-year career as a military analyst at the highest levels of the U.S. national security apparatus grappling with issues of nuclear war.

Ellsberg’s tasks for the Rand Corporation and the Defense Department included studying how to deter, avert, control, limit, or terminate a nuclear Armageddon between the United States and the Soviet Union, providing McGeorge Bundy (President Kennedy’s national security advisor) with an early briefing on existing nuclear planning, and writing the Kennedy administration’s Top Secret guidance for the U.S. operational plan for general nuclear war. In addition, he was the only person to serve on two of the working groups reporting to the executive committee of the U.S. National Security Council during the Cuban missile crisis. In 1963, he was the sole researcher in a government study of past U.S. nuclear crises, with a classified access several levels above Top Secret. As he writes in this book: “These functions gave me an unusual knowledge . . . of the nature of the plans and operations of the nuclear forces and the dangers these posed.”

This background informed Ellsberg’s decision to copy and release much more than the Pentagon Papers. Horrified by what he had learned about the readiness of the United States and the Soviet Union to exterminate a substantial portion of the human race, he copied everything in his government files with the intention of exposing it to public scrutiny and discussion. He released the Vietnam material first, for war was already ravaging that land. But he always regarded his nuclear records as more important, for they revealed how fragile the survival of world civilization had become. Ironically, however, the nuclear material, hidden by Ellsberg’s brother in a compost pile and, later, in the hillside adjoining a garbage dump, was buried or swept away in a tropical hurricane.

Consequently, bringing the full range of his nuclear revelations to public attention took Ellsberg considerably longer than he anticipated. Over the following decades, while giving lectures and participating in numerous antinuclear conferences and demonstrations, he laboriously reconstructed his missing files from memory, located documents through Freedom of Information Act requests, and drew upon newly declassified government records. He also spoke with national security officials and read extensively on nuclear issues. Nevertheless, despite Ellsberg’s extraordinary knowledge of nuclear war planning and the overriding importance of confronting the issue of human survival in the nuclear age, 17 publishers rejected The Doomsday Machine before it was finally accepted for publication.

The result, though, is a book commensurate with Ellsberg’s courage and unwavering determination―eloquent, honest, and packed with fascinating revelations.

Perhaps the most startling of the revelations is that the leaders of the nuclear powers have delegated authority to initiate nuclear war to military commanders and even to their military subordinates. After Ellsberg discovered the adoption of this alarming policy by the Eisenhower administration, he reported it to the Kennedy White House, only to find that Kennedy continued it, as did Presidents Johnson, Nixon, Carter, and―as he notes―“almost certainly . . . every subsequent president to this day.” Indeed, General Curtis LeMay, the U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff, argued that, when it came to launching a nuclear war, U.S. presidents should be left out of the picture entirely. “After all,” LeMay remarked gruffly to Ellsberg and a White House official, “who is more qualified to make that decision: some politician . . . or a man who has been preparing all his adult life to make it?” According to Ellsberg, “it is virtually certain” that this same secret delegation of authority to military officers “exists in every nuclear state.” 

The reason for the remarkable looseness of command in launching a nuclear holocaust is that the leaders of nuclear-armed nations fear a “decapitating” nuclear strike that, by snuffing out their centralized command and control systems, will prevent them from ordering a retaliatory nuclear assault. Therefore, they gravitate toward diversifying their opportunities for waging nuclear war. In the Soviet Union and, later, Russia, the authorities went so far as to establish a “Dead Hand” system in which machines have the authority to launch a full-scale nuclear war in response to an American attack on their central command and control system.

Ellsberg’s discussion of the reasons for the development and maintenance of the massive U.S. nuclear weapons system is less startling, though no less disturbing. “Thedeclared official rationale for such a system,” he observes, “has always been primarily the supposed need to deter―or if necessary respond to―an aggressive Russian nuclear first strike against the United States.” But that’s “a deliberate deception,” he contends, for that “has never been . . . the primary purpose of our nuclear plans and preparations.” Instead, they represent an “attempt to limit the damage to the United States from Soviet or Russian retaliation to a U.S. first strikeagainst the USSR or Russia.” In particular, this nuclear capability is “intended to strengthen the credibility of U.S. threats to initiate limited nuclear attacks, or escalate them . . . to prevail in regional, initially non-nuclear conflicts.”

Ellsberg reports that, “contrary to the cliché that `no nuclear weapons have been used since Hiroshima and Nagasaki,’ U.S. presidents have usedour nuclear weapons dozens of times in `crises,’ mostly in secret from the American public (though not from adversaries).” U.S. officials have employed them as threats, just as “a gun is used when it is pointed at someone in a confrontation”―to “get one’s way.” Thus, for example, the Nixon administration threatened the government of North Vietnam with a nuclear attack on 13 occasions. Ellsberg also outlines 24 other U.S. government threats, from Presidents Truman through Clinton, to initiate nuclear war against a variety of countries.

Naturally, to bolster these threats, the U.S. government has insisted upon not only the massive nuclear arsenal needed for a “first strike” (a nuclear attack on an enemy’s nuclear facilities to prevent retaliation), but the right to “first use” of nuclear weapons (the initiation of nuclear war). Ellsberg notes that no major party presidential candidate or president “has ever come close to adopting and proclaiming a no-first-use policy.” Asked about a nuclear attack upon Iran in 2006, President George W. Bush stated emphatically: “All options are on the table.” During the 2007-2008 Democratic presidential primary campaign, Barack Obama temporarily went off message and, asked by a reporter whether there was any circumstance in which he’d use nuclear weapons in Afghanistan or Pakistan to defeat al-Qaeda, replied: “That’s not on the table.” Naturally, his rival, Hillary Clinton, seized on this brief departure from the holy writ of U.S. national security policy to chide him, remarking: “I don’t believe any president should make any blanket statements with respect to the use or non-use of nuclear weapons.” Similarly, during the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump, pressed by an interviewer about his willingness to launch a U.S. nuclear attack in the Middle East, declared that he “would never take any of my cards off the table.”

One of the most chilling aspects of this book is Ellsberg’s revelation of how close the world has been―and remains―to nuclear annihilation. Nuclear war, he argues, is “a catastrophe waiting to happen,” and he provides many examples of how nations have been sliding toward it thanks to the growing acceptability of targeting civilian populations, the delegation of launching authority to military officers, the ruthlessness of military officers and other national security officials, false alarms, and unexpected events. During the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, he remarks, the United States and the Soviet Union came within “a hairsbreadth” of ending world civilization, despite the fact that Khrushchev and Kennedy “were determined to avoid armed conflict.”

How did this paradoxical situation develop? As Ellsberg explains, the risk of a nuclear war between the superpowers grew exponentially during the missile crisis thanks to the fact that a Soviet missile crew, acting on its own authority, destroyed a U.S. U-2 flight over Cuba and that Castro’s armed forces, already firing on low-flying U.S. reconnaissance planes, were getting closer to hitting them. Also, although the U.S. government didn’t know it, there were 42,000 Soviet troops in Cuba, armed (among other things) with over 100 tactical nuclear weapons, and the Soviet government had agreed to delegate authority to local military commanders to use them to repel a U.S. invasion. The situation was clearly spinning out of control. Khrushchev later recalled: “A smell of scorching hung in the air.”

Meanwhile, U.S. warships cornered a Soviet submarine in the Caribbean and attempted to force it to surface by bombarding it with depth charges. The submarine’s top officers, considering themselves under attack, were cut off from outside communications and unsure whether a U.S.-Soviet war had already begun. Moreover, the submarine’s ventilator system had broken down, temperatures in the vessel ranged from 113 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit, and crew members began collapsing from the extreme heat and carbon dioxide buildup. Increasingly desperate, the Soviet officers wondered whether they should fight back by firing their nuclear torpedo at the U.S. warships. After a four-hour assault on the submarine―which one Soviet officer later said “felt like you were sitting in a metal barrel, which somebody is blasting with a sledgehammer”―the exhausted Soviet submarine commander “became furious” and ordered the nuclear torpedo readied for battle. Justifying the order, another emotional officer cried out: “We’re going to blast them now! We will die, but we will sink them all―we will not disgrace our Navy!” But, as another officer recalled, the submarine’s commander “was able to rein in his wrath” and, after consultation with top officers on board, made the decision to bring the vessel peacefully to the surface. As a result, an almost certain escalation into a full-scale nuclear war was averted―but only narrowly.

And what would the results of a full-scale nuclear war have been at that time? In 1961, Ellsberg discovered that the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff estimated that 600 million Russians and Chinese would die from a U.S. first strike. In addition, another 100 million or so would die in the East European satellite countries, plus (thanks to the radioactive fallout) up to another 100 million people in the surrounding neutral countries and up to another 100 million in America’s West European NATO allies. Also, of course, there would be a great many millions of additional people killed by the Soviet Union’s nuclear response. Furthermore, as Ellsberg notes, this was a “fantastic underestimate,” for it was based on fatalities from nuclear blast and fallout, and did not include deaths by fire.

Today, of course, the destruction from a full-scale nuclear war would be far greater. The shift in nuclear arsenals from atomic bombs to H-Bombs (weapons that can be made a thousand times as powerful as the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima) has certainly upped the ante. Moreover scientists have discovered and confirmed the phenomenon of “nuclear winter,” in which the soot and smoke from a large number of nuclear explosions would be lofted into the upper stratosphere. This, in turn, would create global darkness and cold that would destroy the world’s agriculture, thereby leading to massive starvation and the death of nearly every human left alive on earth, along with that of most other large species.

Ellsberg’s conclusion is stark, but follows logically from this evidence. “Any social system,” he writes, “that has created and maintained a Doomsday Machine and has put a trigger to it, including first use of nuclear weapons, in the hands of one human being―. . . still worse in the hands of an unknown number of persons―is in core aspects mad. Ours is such a system. We are in the grip of institutionalized madness.”

Although Ellsberg is pessimistic about the prospects of human survival, he is not without remnants of hope or recommendations for action. “The U.S. government,” he writes, “pressed by a popular movement and preferably backed by binding congressional legislation,” should proclaim “that there is no `nuclear first-use option’ on the bargaining table in our dealings with . . . any nation.” Indeed, first use of nuclear weapons is “not a legitimate `option’ for the United States, Russia, or for any other country under any circumstances.” Other “necessary goals” include reducing the role of the world’s nuclear weapons to deterrence while securing, as rapidly as possible, the “total universal abolition of nuclear weapons.”

His top priority, though, is the dismantling of the Doomsday Machines of the United States and Russia through drastic reductions in their nuclear arsenals. As he reminds us: “No cause, no principle, no considerations of honor or obligation or prestige or maintaining leadership in current alliances―still less, no concern for remaining in office or maintaining a particular power structure, or sustaining jobs, profits, votes―can justify maintaining any risk whatever of causing the near extinction of human and other animal life on this planet.” Omnicide―whether threatened, prepared, or carried out―”cannot be regarded as anything less than criminal, immoral, evil.”

Whether the people of the world will take this message to heart remains uncertain. It’s tempting to ignore it for, like the evidence of human-instigated climate disruption, it necessitates a significant change in behavior. And it’s sometimes easier to continue a bad habit―even when it leads to harmful consequences―than to face up to the necessity for change.

But, as Ellsberg’s brilliantly-written, deeply insightful, and powerful book should convince us, continued preparations for nuclear war seriously threaten the survival of most life on earth. Also, in fact, millions of people in nations around the globe have already spoken out against government plans for nuclear annihilation, demanding, instead, nuclear disarmament. Perhaps, ultimately, humanity will have the wisdom and strength to prevail.