THE DOOMSDAY MACHINE: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner
Bloomsbury, 2017, 420 pages
Review by Phil Shannon
One of the first reactions of Daniel Ellsberg to his revelatory acquaintance with US nuclear war planning in the 1960s was for the private sector consultant to the White House and Department of Defence to decline to join the superannuation scheme of his company, the RAND corporation. Ellsberg had gloomily concluded that he would not last the distance to collect on any retirement pension because he believed that US atomic war strategy made nuclear Armageddon more likely, and frighteningly near.
Ellsberg’s other response, however, was to redouble his vow to oppose nuclear weapons, initially as a civilian alarm-raiser within the US administration, then by leaking the government’s nuclear war secrets in what would have been a precursor to his historic exposé of the US war in Vietnam (the Pentagon Papers).
In The Doomsday Machine, Ellsberg writes that it was the stark projections of a nuclear war’s body count - “the extermination of over half a billion people” from blast, heat, fire and radioactive fallout, and then, globally, from the crop-failure and starvation resulting from the sun-smothering, stratospheric soot and smoke of a decades-long ‘nuclear winter’ - that flicked him from technocrat-with-a-conscience to law-defying activist.
After failed attempts to rouse Presidents and Defence Secretaries, it was with “a different level of civilian authority in mind” that Ellsberg took direct action. When he photocopied the Top Secret Pentagon Papers held in his office safe, Ellsberg also Xeroxed its other contents – eight thousand highly classified documents on US nuclear war planning.
As public release of the Vietnam secrets took real-time priority, Ellsberg stashed the nuclear war material in a garbage bag buried in his brother’s backyard compost heap. Barely one step ahead of the FBI who came poking around after their suspected Vietnam leaker, he relocated the bag to the local rubbish tip where it met disaster from the rain and wind of tropical storm Doria in 1971.
Ellsberg’s document retrieval team desperately searched for the lost bag but did not find it before the contents of the trash site were used as landfill and concreted over for the construction of an apartment complex. Now, however, digging through his memory and subsequent research, Ellsberg, for the first time, tells what he knew and the nuclear myths that continue to need busting.
‘Nuclear deterrence’ has kept the peace for seventy years? Myth. Only extraordinary good luck has kept the weapons, locked-and-loaded during geo-political crises and always at the launch mercy of “false alarms, accidents and unauthorised launches”, in their silos. Deterrence, the alleged principle behind the balance of terror that has supposedly prevented nuclear war for seven decades, is “a deliberate deception”.
The ability to inflict retaliatory atomic carnage was never the defining, ‘defensive’ feature of nuclear weapons. Their whole point is to be the nuclear muscle behind offensive military and political aggression. The Bomb allows a nuclear-armed state, like a fist-happy footballer ‘getting in first with the retaliation’, to land the first blow. Why allow an enemy the first shot, especially when even one thermo-nuclear H-bomb (a thousand times more powerful than the Hiroshima-type A-bomb, which itself packed half the total firepower of all the bombs used in the second world war) would result in the mass frying and irradiation of untold civilians.
US nuclear war strategy was, from the start, designed for ‘first-use’, to take out all the nuclear weapons of the then-Soviet and Chinese foes, either in a pre-emptive attack or in an escalation of a regional Cold War conflict. The “planned slaughter” of billions of people is in-built into such a system.
Nuclear weapons have never been used since Hiroshima? Not so. Every single President from Truman to Trump has made direct threats, risky bluffs or entertained thoughts of raining atomic fire and fury on an adversary. All have kept nuclear weapons’ use as an option ‘on the table’ to force a geo-political adversary to back down, exactly as a gun pointed at the head is used as a persuader. Ellsberg cites two dozen post-war occasions of such ‘atomic diplomacy’ by Washington, from Korea to Cuba, from Berlin to Vietnam, from Iran to Pyongyang. The use of nuclear weapons is ‘unthinkable’? Think again.
But at least there is no such thing as an omnicidal Doomsday Machine which is only the stuff of fiction? Untrue. The US nuclear arsenal, says Ellsberg, is a ‘Doomsday Machine’ (Russia has its own equivalent, too), a system that is pre-programmed to ‘use them or lose them’, to fire all its missiles at once.
A RAND colleague had once described such a Doomsday plan as a parody of ‘mutually assured destruction’, the nuclear deterrence strategy at the time. Stanley Kubrick, gave the concept a darkly satirical run in Dr. Strangelove, his 1964 movie in which a lunatic general, using his delegated authority, initiates a nuclear attack against the Soviet Union, triggering the Soviet’s Doomsday Machine to unleash all its H-bombs in response and wiping out all life on Earth in a giant nuclear conflagration. When Ellsberg saw the film, he remarked ‘That was a documentary!’.
The bomb is safely under Presidential veto control? An illusion. On hair-trigger alert, the bombs await only a presidential order to launch, or the command of the President’s many authorised delegates (top military officers) or, “reverberating downward in a widening circle” of launch authority, their numerous subordinates (field commanders, ship captains, even individual bomber pilots), on their own, possibly ill-informed, initiative.
Vote Democrat in the hope that wiser heads and warmer hearts will prevail in the White House? Delusory. Barak Obama, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate, presided, for eight years, over thousands of nuclear weapons and authorised $1 trillion to ‘modernise’ the US nuclear arsenal. The ‘liberal icon’, Hillary Clinton, was as orthodox a nuclear hawk as one could fear to find. The fiery ‘socialist’, Bernie Sanders, was a budget-conscious nuclear downsizer but no abolitionist. In these rancorous anti-Trump times, however, it has only been these Democrats’ nemesis, the bombastic Trump, who has worn any heat on the issue whilst the smooth Obama, the sensible Hillary and the radical Sanders were given a free pass.
As Ellsberg notes, it isn’t Trump who is mad but the nuclear weapons system itself. Proliferation to rogue or unstable nations is less of a threat, says Ellsberg, than the existing nuclear weapons inventory of the nine nuclear-armed states, primarily the US and Russia, poised to launch at a moment’s notice - the bombs are a “catastrophe waiting to happen”. Ellsberg finds that, with all its buttressing myths discarded, there is “a dizzying irrationality, madness, insanity at the heart and soul of our nuclear planning”.
Ever since Hiroshima, which had appalled the young Ellsberg, he had abhorred nuclear weapons, even when he was swept up in a lot of anti-communist Cold War malarkey about fictional missile gaps and “cold-blooded Bolshevik leaders”, even when he served as a Commie-fighting officer in the US Marines, even when he was a leading Harvard scholar of deterrence theory as a ‘necessary evil’.
And even when Ellsberg, in the economics (not nuclear) arm of RAND, had to pitch in with RAND’s “military intellectuals” on immediate, and inevitably nuclear, Cold War crises, he tried, fruitlessly, to tame the bomb. He drafted guidance for the Pentagon recommending alternatives to the Doomsday plan, including ‘limited’ nuclear war by attacking ‘just’ Russia and ‘sparing’ China, or attacking ‘just’ military, not civilian, targets. It wasn’t much of an improvement, he now concedes, but “you should have seen the plan it was replacing!”.
Ellsberg learnt that all the original nuclear war principles and the Cold War fictions the US government and military lived by were political theatre and lies. Such fundamental dishonesty and policy gibberish are still current - “the basic elements of American readiness for nuclear war remain today what they were almost sixty years ago,” concludes Ellsberg.
Ellsberg laments that public discussion of US nuclear war strategy is taboo but, despite the sometimes hard going technical matter and his frequently bewildering wanderings through the bureaucratic maze, Ellsberg’s book, and his courageous example of truth-telling, can only help to transgress the politically-induced complacency and acquiescence that surrounds nuclear weapons and their threat of planetary ruin. Ban the Bomb!