Daniel Ellsberg and his colleague Harry Rowen slipped away from work at the Pentagon one afternoon in 1964 to see Stanley Kubrick’s madcap Cold War satire Dr. Strangelove, which begins with an American general ordering an unauthorized nuclear attack against Russia and ends in Armageddon. They emerged from the theater in a daze, agreeing, in Ellsberg’s words, that what they had just seen “was, essentially, a documentary.”
Ellsberg worked for the RAND Corporation, a think tank that advises the U.S. Air Force, and for the Defense Department, in positions with high-level clearances that afforded him access to classified military intelligence unknown to almost anyone else in the world. He went on, in 1971, to leak the top-secret Pentagon Papers, which detailed decades of American involvement in Vietnam, in an attempt to hasten the end of the Vietnam War. (That story is told in Steven Spielberg’s recent film The Post.) In his new book, The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner, the famous whistleblower reveals information that is even more unnerving, in this case about the jaw-dropping recklessness and deception inherent in our government’s nuclear program.
Ellsberg is now eighty-six, and his firsthand experience with government nuclear policy dates back nearly to the dawn of the nuclear era; he believes, however, based on available evidence, that little has changed in the ensuing decades. What shocked him most then, and what continues to vex him today, concerns the hidden purpose of our nuclear program and the widespread delegation of authority to initiate a nuclear strike.
It’s commonly believed that the purpose of our nuclear weapons program is to deter a nuclear first strike on the United States. Ellsberg argues that this is a fiction that our nuclear forces exist “to limit the damage to the United States from Soviet or Russian retaliation to a U.S. first strike against the USSR or Russia.” He explains, “This capability is, in particular, intended to strengthen the credibility of U.S. threats to initiate limited nuclear attacks, or escalate them — U.S. threats of ‘first use’ — to prevail in regional, initially non-nuclear conflicts involving Soviet or Russian forces or their allies.” Ellsberg lists twenty-five instances in which presidents from Harry Truman to Bill Clinton, usually in secret, threatened the use of tactical nuclear weapons in the midst of a non-nuclear conflict, including Nixon’s threats against the North Vietnamese and George H. W. Bush’s against Iraq. Barack Obama is the only president to have considered a “no first-use policy” regarding nuclear weapons, but he ultimately declined to adopt one. “Few Americans are aware of the extent to which the United States and NATO first-use doctrine has long isolated the United States and its close allies morally and politically from world opinion,” Ellsberg writes.
As for who has the power to launch a strike: during presidential elections, Americans are routinely asked to consider which candidate they would prefer have his or her finger on “the button.” Working for RAND during the Eisenhower administration, Ellsberg was astonished to learn that a number of lower commanders had been given the power to launch nuclear missiles; the common belief that only the president has access to a unique set of authorization codes is, Ellsberg claims, political theater. It would have to be, he reasons — if only the highest-ranking government official could launch nuclear weapons, then an adversary would need only pull off a “decapitating attack” on Washington in order to escape retaliation. It’s nerve-racking to think of blustery Donald Trump, not known for impulse control, having the ability to precipitate a nuclear conflict. (He has, Ellsberg drily notes, applied Nixon’s “madman theory” with “more plausibility than some of his predecessors.”) It’s equally unsettling to consider the unauthorized actions that could result from this widespread delegation, which, Ellsberg says, is precisely why it’s been hidden from the public.
The Doomsday Machine, as its subtitle suggests, has a confessional tone, as Ellsberg chronicles his involvement, as a onetime committed Cold Warrior, in drafting nuclear war plans during the administration of John F. Kennedy. (The book also includes a condensed but enlightening history of modern warfare, tracing the shattering of the longstanding international norm of not targeting civilians.) In 1961 the Joint Chiefs of Staff drafted a top-secret memo for Kennedy, estimating that a general nuclear war would result in 600 million deaths. Ellsberg, one of the few people to see the memo, was struck that there was “no shame, apology, or evasion” in the answer, no acknowledgement that the discussion was deranged. “That expected outcome exposed a dizzying irrationality, madness, insanity, at the heart and soul of our nuclear planning and apparatus,” he writes. It was then that his commitment began to waver.
What we have since learned about nuclear winter, the climatic effects that scientists expect would follow a nuclear war, makes clear that the numbers were extreme underestimates, that in fact a general nuclear war would likely bring about the destruction of human civilization. The United States and Russia both have the capability to bring about this destruction, with systems that are “still on hair-trigger alert” and are “susceptible to being triggered on a false alarm, a terrorist action, unauthorized launch, or a desperate decision to escalate,” Ellsberg writes. He asks a question whose answer ought to be simple: “Does the existence of such a capability serve any national or international interest whatsoever to a degree that would justify its obvious danger to human life?” How much risk are we willing to tolerate, and for what purpose?
At the end of this alarming, galvanizing, and brilliantly written book, Ellsberg calls on “patriotic and courageous whistleblowers” to go public about nuclear dangers and urges readers to become more informed and engaged in order to pressure the government for change. He knows that the genie can’t be put back in the bottle, but he makes a strong argument that the purpose of nuclear weapons should be deterrence alone, a goal that the U.S. could meet with a “radically lowered” number of weapons. “This shift would not totally eliminate the dangers of nuclear war, but it would abolish the threat of nuclear winter,” he writes.
I lost track of how many times Ellsberg used the word insane as he described the existential threat under which we all knowingly live. The Doomsday Machine went to print before the president began threatening “fire and fury” against North Korea and before, as has been reported, he expressed a desire for a nearly tenfold increase in America’s nuclear arsenal. I expect that Ellsberg, and most anyone who reads this important book, would use the same word to describe these recent, worrying developments: insane.
Image of the Presidential Emergency Satchel (“Nuclear football”) from the Smithsonian Institution via Wikipedia.