DOOMSDAY MACHINE author Daniel Ellsberg addresses a nuclear abolition rally, August, 2017. EON photo
Why the combination of Fear, Uncertainty, and Humanitarian Idealism may destroy most life on earth… unless We the People say ‘NO,’ and make it stick.
By James Heddle – EON. [ An earlier version of this article is on Counterpunch.org. ]
I want to say – and this is very important – in the end, we lucked out! It was luck that prevented nuclear war. Khrushchev was rational. Kennedy was rational. Castro was rational. [Holding up his thumb and forefinger slightly apart.] Rational individuals came that close to total devastation of their societies…and that danger exists today.
Former U.S. Sec. of Defense Robert McNamara – talking about the Cuban Missile Crisis – in ‘The Fog of War,” a documentary film by Errol Morris
“Today we still have over 20 thousand real world nuclear weapons. Enough to blow up everybody on the planet several times over. Those weapons pose the immediate problem of a danger of terrorism, the immediate problem of the possibility of nuclear war.… I believe we are on the brink of a new nuclear arms race. It breaks my heart. Today, the danger of a nuclear catastrophe is actually higher than it was during the cold war. Let me say that again…”
[read more=”Read more…” less=”Read less…”]
Former U.S. Sec. of Defense, William J. Perry, January, 2016
A nuclear war anywhere will disrupt—and possibly destroy—civilized life everywhere.
The Cuban Missile Crisis at 55 – James G. Blight and Janet M. Lang
There is such a thing as being too late…. We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent coannihilation… Now let us begin… let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world.
Martin Luther King, Jr. April 4, 1967
[ Editor’s’note: As this version goes to post, the Trump people have just issued a super-hawkish revised Nuclear Posture Review advocating ‘usable’ tactical nuclear weapons, and are considering a ‘tactical, Bloody Nose’ nuclear attack on North Korea.]
Present Threat Level: ‘High’
The current Silicon Valley meme is that Artificial Intelligence, or AI, may – someday – pose a danger to human existence. But plain old human intelligence already does pose that threat. And it has for some time. Some critic reportedly quipped that “NATO exists to deal with problems created by its own existence.” Whether or not you agree with that assessment of NATO, it’s hard to deny that this dictum accurately applies to the long much-celebrated geo-strategic system of so-called ‘nuclear deterrence.’
The creation of ‘command & control’ structures by nuclear weapons states – purportedly designed to reduce the threat of nuclear war – are more than likely to produce precisely the outcome they are allegedly created to prevent.
That’s the sobering wake-up call message of Daniel Ellsberg’s important new book THE DOOMSDAY MACHINE – Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner.
Still at it, after all these years
At eighty-six years of age, Ellsberg – perhaps the world’s most celebrated whistleblower for his Viet Nam era Pentagon Papers revelations – is still going strong, and now working urgently to share even more crucial information, long kept secret from the American public and the world.
He is a man who walks his talk. I last saw him on a hot day last August, lying on the tarmac with about a hundred other protestors at the gate of Livermore Laboratory, California’s nuclear weapons design shop, which bills itself as ‘The Smartest Place on Earth.’ Their bodies were outlined in chalk, commemorating the Atomic Shadows left by the vaporized victims of the US atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Virtually every weapon in the U.S. Doomsday Machine’s arsenal has been at least partially designed at Livermore, under the aegis of the University of California, Berkeley. For many years, a rally, march and ‘die-in’ [ video ] has been organized there every year on Hiroshima Day by a coalition of groups headed by TriValleyCARES and its Indefatigable Director, Marylia Kelly. Ellsberg has been a long-time rally speaker and protest participant. [ video ] On this occasion, he was lying there, chatting with his old friend Fr. Louis Vitale, as they waited to get arrested – the umpteenth time for both of them.
Daniel Ellsberg (center) waits to be arrested at the gate of Livermore Lab, Hiroshima Day protest, 2017. EON. photo
Evolution of a Nuclear War Planner – Into the ‘realm of madness’
It started in Detroit, Michigan, where his engineer father was a designer of the long, moving assembly lines then being initiated, first for motor cars, then – as WWII geared up – for war planes. As a high school student at the up-scale Cranbrook boarding school, he was one of the first of his generation to learn about the then new concept of ‘cultural lag.’ Introduced by sociologist William Ogburn, the term drew attention to the fact that technological innovations advance faster than the cultural, moral and political systems needed to manage them. It was a concept to be epitomized in spades in the coming Atomic Age.
Later, as a Harvard graduate economist with a focus on the then hot topics of ‘decision theory’ and ‘game theory,’ as well as a former Marine officer with combat experience in Viet Nam, Ellsberg, in his late twenties, was recognized by those who notice such things as having a great set of qualification for a war planner.
Moving from an Honors Fellowship at Harvard to a consultant job at the RAND corporation, in an office with an ocean view in Santa Monica, and colleagues like the famous (or infamous) Herman Kahn, was a natural transition.
This was in the early days of the now wide-spread practice of ‘contracting’ out government functions to private corporations. RAND was one of the first of such firms, the number of which is now legion.
The young Ellsberg’s quickly demonstrated abilities soon put him into circulation as a trusted private consultant in the highest circles of the Washington national security establishment with eventually some of the highest ‘clearances’ and a unique breadth of access to information known only to a few. What he discovered horrified him. With youthful idealism (and perhaps more than a dash of youthful hubris), he set out to change it.
This book tells the story of some of his impressive successes. But it’s also the story – as the sub-title ‘confessions’ indicates – of some of the ways he now believes his efforts may have inadvertently helped to make things worse.
“RAND analysts, of whom I was one,” he writes, “sought to bring about less insane planning for nuclear war. We failed.” As he now sees it, the institutional systems in which they were embedded, “still held us prisoners within the realm of madness.”
His purpose now is to contribute to wide public knowledge beyond the myths, deceptions and cover-ups, which we have long been fed.
“We need,” he says, “a new understanding of the real history of the nuclear age.”
Eventually moving from RAND to the Defense Department, Ellsberg once briefed presidents and high officials, and – were he to do so again today – he says the item at the top of his list would be what is, in effect, Washington’s historically consistent first-strike policy:
The basic elements of American readiness for nuclear war remain today what they were almost sixty years ago. Thousands of nuclear weapons remain on hair-trigger alert, aimed mainly at Russian military targets including command and control, many in or near cities. The declared official rationale for such a system has always been primarily the supposed need to deter – or if necessary respond to – an aggressive Russian nuclear first strike against the United States. That widely believed public rationale is a deliberate deception…
The required U.S. strategic capabilities have always been for a first-strike force: not, under any president, for a U.S. surprise attack, unprovoked or ‘a bolt out of the blue,’ but not, either, with an aim of striking ‘second’ under any circumstances, if that can be avoided by preemption. Though officially denied, preemptive ‘launch on warning (LOW) – either on tactical warning of an incoming attack or strategic warning that nuclear escalation is probably impending – has always been at the heart of our strategic alert. [Emphasis added.]
But it gets worse.
As an advisor to Kennedy, Ellsberg had the opportunity to query the Joint Chiefs of Staff (over the President’s signature) if they had done estimates of how many human beings would be killed if U.S. nuclear war plans were carried out against the then Sino-Soviet Bloc. He was stunned by the answers.
“The total death toll as calculated by the Joint Chiefs,” he was told, “from a U.S. first strike aimed at the Soviet Union, its Warsaw Pact satellites, and China, would be roughly six hundred million dead. A hundred Holocausts.
“From that day,” he writes, “I have had one overriding life purpose: to prevent the execution of any such plan.”
A Global Machine with no ‘Off’ Switch
As part of his unusual ‘go anywhere, ask anything, see everything’ mandate, Ellsberg was told of the existence of a plan that the military kept secret from the President, the Secretary of Defense and all other civilian authorities. It was called JSCAP ( pronounced J-SCAP) for Joint Strategic Capabilities Plan. Out of it had developed, by 1960, the Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP), the single strategic plan governing the entire U.S. nuclear arsenal including all Strategic Air Command (SAC) bombers, land-based ICBMs and all the Navy’s submarine based nuclear missiles.
In 1961, SAC alone had around seventeen hundred bombers, each carrying thermonuclear – i.e., hydrogen, bombs – many of them between five and twenty-five megatons in explosive power, or ‘yield.’
Each twenty-five megaton bomb – with 1,250 times the yield of the fission bomb that destroyed Nagasaki – was the equivalent of twenty-five million tons of TNT, or over twelve times the total bomb tonnage we dropped in World War II. Within the arsenal there were some five hundred bombs with an explosive power of twenty five megatons. Each of these warheads had more firepower than all the bombs and shells exploded in all the wars of human history. [His italics. ]
In the event of a so-called ‘general war’ with the Soviet Union, the SIOP called for the simultaneous launch of all those world-wide systems. The pre-determined targets, he learned, would not only include every major city in the Soviet Union and all its satellite allies, but all the cities in China and all its allies
Oh, and Then There’s Nuclear Winter
Two decades later, in 1983, it was discovered what none of them – Ellsberg, his RAND colleagues, the Joint Chiefs, the President, or his science advisors – had known about in the ‘60s: the phenomenon of ‘nuclear winter.’
In retrospect he realized,
It is the smoke, after all (not the fallout, which would remain mostly limited to the northern hemisphere), that would do it worldwide: smoke and soot lofted by the fierce firestorms in hundreds of burning cities into the stratosphere, where it would not rain out and would remain for a decade or more, enveloping the globe and blocking most sunlight, lowering annual global temperatures to the level of the last Ice Age, and killing all harvests worldwide, causing near-universal starvation within a year or two…. Which meant that a large nuclear war of the kind we prepared for then or later would kill nearly every human on earth (along with most other large species.)
But there was more.
The SIOP included no way to separate blanket attacks on both Russia and China once the ‘Go’ order has been given…and there was no desire to do so.
Ellsberg quotes a report from the memoir of colleague John Rubel about his experience at a 1960 briefing at SAC headquarters at Offutt Air Force Base near Omaha, Nebraska. It was attended by Defense Department officials, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and military commanders from around the world, and presided over by SAC Commander General Thomas Power. On a huge screen in the darkened command center, successive overlays portrayed the cumulative bombing of all the SIOP’s targets. In conclusion, a briefer reported that fallout alone would eventually kill half the population of China, in addition to those killed in the initial blasts.
A voice out of the gloom from somewhere behind me interrupted, saying, “May I ask a question?” General Power turned…in his front-row seat, stared into the darkness and said, “Yeah, what is it?” in a tone not likely to encourage the timid. “What if this isn’t China’s war?” the voice asked. “What if this is just a war with the Soviets? Can you change the plan?”
“Well, yeah,” said General Power resignedly, “we can, but I hope nobody thinks of it, because it would really screw up the plan.”
Ellsberg tells of leaving the Pentagon one afternoon with a colleague to do ‘operational research’ at a showing of the then just-released, now classic, Stanley Kubrick film ‘Dr. Strangelove.’ They were surprised at how accurately the film portrayed the impossibility of reversing the order, once the system has been triggered by a single, rogue commander.
Rewriting the War Plan
Ellsberg had set his sights on changing that plan, and, to some extent, he succeeded.
Under Kennedy and McNamara, he was assigned to redraft the general war section of the BSNP or Basic National Security Policy, civilian guidance for war planning.
In the late afternoon of April 7, 1961, he finished his first draft and realized it was his thirtieth birthday. “I remember thinking: for the rest of my life, I won’t have done anything more important than this.”
Among many other significant changes, the re-draft he wrote called for
- elimination of the SIOP as the single, automatic response
- elimination of the automatic inclusion of China and Soviet Satellite states
- creation of a command and control system for issuing reliable ‘stop’ or ‘recall’ orders.
A final version was sent to the Joint Chiefs on May 5, 1961. He reports,
“My” revised guidance became the basis for the operational war plans under Kennedy – reviewed by me for Deputy Secretary Gilpatric in 1962, 1963, and again in the Johnson administration in 1964. It has been reported by insiders and scholars to have been a critical influence on U.S. strategic war planning ever since.
[ For texts of related memos and drafts, see ellsberg.net/BNSP. ]
But, after all, it was still a nuclear war plan. He notes, “In years to come, the memory of this accomplishment did not bring me the same satisfaction it brought when I was thirty.”
Delegation or Decapitation? – That is the question
Given POTUS Trump’s growing reputation as a ‘malignant narcissist’ running rogue in the Oval Office, there has been much media and Congressional concern expressed of late about the presumption that just one man, – whether rational or crazed – is the only one with access to the ‘nuclear football,’ its launch codes and ‘having his finger on The Button.’
Harvard Professor Elaine Scary has written a fascinating, in depth, scholarly analysis of this notion in her impressive THERMONUCLEAR MONARCHY – Choosing Between Democracy and Doom.
But it turns out, according to another alarming revelation in Ellsberg’s book, that, from the very beginning of U.S. nuclear war planning, One-Finger-on-The-Button has by no means been the case.
According to Ellsberg, “… the hand authorized to pull the trigger on U.S. nuclear forces has never been exclusively that of the president, nor even his highest military officials.” [His emphasis.]
The operative policy, from Eisenhower and Kennedy on down, has been to delegate ‘Execute’ authority to subordinate commanders, – even, depending on circumstances, far down the chain of command – to avoid ‘decapitation’ – elimination of centralized authority.
“This delegation has been one of our highest national secrets,” writes Ellsberg. “The same was true for the Soviet Union, now Russia.”
And, one can assume, to this day, for all other nuclear weapons powers.
Daniel Ellsberg addreses an abolition rally. EON photo
Ellsberg writes from three complementary perspectives:
— as an ‘insider’ with top level security clearances working to discover and mitigate what he sees as ill-conceived, omnicidal policies;
— as an analyst/historian striving to understand how such a system has come into being;
— and as a whistleblowing reformer working to alert and mobilize an informed public to dis-assemble the very system he spent much of his professional life helping create.
His is a rich and complex narrative. Here are some of its key points.
Inside the Cuban Missile Crisis – ‘The most dangerous moment in recorded history’
Ellsberg, the insider, throws new light on the myths and misinformation surrounding this pivotal historical event. It’s too complex a story – as Ellsberg’s narrative shows in depth – to do more than summarize here. [ See: Ellsberg.net/Doomsday/cubanmissilecrisis for his files. ] It happened in 1962, but it’s take-home lesson is as current as today’s headlines.
The essence of it is this: none of the participants at the time had a full and accurate picture of what was really going on.
It wasn’t until decades later that the full facts came into focus. McNamara’s thumb and forefinger, held barely apart, tell the story. Global nuclear Armageddon had been avoided by “that much.”
In retrospect, it was a tragi-comedy of errors, projections, and miscalculations on all sides – a microcosm of the Doomsday Machine Dilemma.
Yet, the fate of the earth hung in the balance…just as it does in the several nuclear confrontations emerging today.
On Monday, October 22, 1962 President Kennedy went on national TV to announce the discovery that Soviet ballistic missiles were being shipped to Cuba, and that, in response, he was imposing a naval ‘quarantine’ around the island nation. He said that the launch of any missile from Cuba “against any nation in the Western Hemisphere” would trigger “a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.”
Watching Kennedy’s speech from his Malibu home, and knowing full well what “a full retaliatory response’ would mean, Ellsberg headed for Washington.
The global context was this:
In April, 1961, a CIA sponsored invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs had failed.
In August, 1961, the long-standing Berlin Crisis had ended with the partition of that German city between Soviet and Allied forces, and the erection of the Berlin Wall.
U.S. and Soviet forces were arrayed against each other across Europe, with American nuclear missiles stationed in Turkey.
The U.S. Joint Chiefs had long been itching to invade Cuba on any pretext. Remembering the Bay of Pigs, both Cuban President Castro and Soviet Premiere Khrushchev knew this and took the threat very seriously. Khrushchev had sent the missiles to prevent such an invasion. U.S. intelligence thought there were thirty-eight.
On arrival in DC, Ellsberg was tasked to “Write a memo on what thirty-eight missiles could do to our strike-back ability.” The conclusion was, given the balance of American and Soviet nuclear forces, not much. The Soviet Union would still be turned into a large smoking hole from the U.S. ‘full retaliatory response.’
Throughout the next thirteen tension-filled days, Ellsberg and most of those around him believed that Khrushchev knew he was way out-gunned and would ultimately ‘blink,’ ‘back down’ and remove the missiles. On October 27, 1962, he did.
It was the day afterward that Ellsberg discovered that Defense Secretary McNamara and others around Kennedy had put the chance of Armageddon happening much higher, like maybe 1 in 10. Later, McNamara revealed, “the Saturday before the Sunday in which Khrushchev announced withdrawal of the missiles… and a U-2 [U.S. spy plane ] was shot down…I remember leaving the White House at the end of that Saturday. It was a beautiful fall day. And thinking that might well be the last sunset I saw. You couldn’t tell what was going to follow.”
Ellsberg was appalled. “One in ten?! Nuclear war…And we were doing what we were doing?!”
‘What they had been doing’ included:
- the blockade itself, at the risk of armed conflict with Soviet warships;
- forcing Soviet submarines to surface with depth grenades
- a large-scale airborne bomber alert with significant risk of accidents involving nuclear weapons;
- continuing reconnaissance, even after several spy planes were fired on over Cuba and one shot down on Saturday; and
- full preparations(“if they were wholly a bluff,” he says, “they fooled us”) for invasion and airstrike
He thought, “Who were these people I was working for? Were they all insane?
Subsequent research by Ellsberg and others has now revealed that the real situation was much worse than any U.S. officials knew at the time.
In fact, there had been 162 Soviet missiles already in Cuba, not 38. Some of them were tactical, short-range nuclear missiles to be aimed at invading U.S. forces and the U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay. Soviet submarines being bombarded with U.S. grenades were – unknown to Washington – equipped with nuclear torpedoes.
Neither Kennedy nor Khrushchev had any intention of triggering a nuclear war. They were both bluffing, hoping to get a better deal. No invasion of Cuba was planned. But none of their subordinates knew that. Castro, believing a U.S. invasion to be inevitable and that Cuba would be made to ‘disappear,’ had written to Khrushchev urging a full Soviet nuclear response on the U.S. once the expected invasion was underway.
Finally, when Khrushchev and Kennedy both realized that their brinksmanship was spiraling out of their control, they worked urgently together to defuse it. Contrary to popular myth, neither country ‘won’ or ‘lost.’
Global nuclear destruction had been averted by just ‘that much.’
A tiny country, previously attacked by the United States, believes another attack is imminent and contemplates ‘the nuclear suicide option.’ Sound familiar?
The Fire Every Time – Incinerating Civilians
Ellsberg, the historian, traces the growth of the omnicidal nuclear mindset from British and American bombing strategy evolved in WW II.
When the war began on September 1, 1939, with Hitler’s invasion of Poland, President Roosevelt issued an appeal to all of the states involved, to avoid the ‘human barbarism’ of targeting civilians, who he described as “innocent human beings who have no responsibility for, and who are not even remotely participating in, the hostilities that have now broken out….”
With then recent historical atrocities in mind, no doubt like the one immortalized in Picasso’s famous painting ‘Guernica,’ he went on,
I am therefore directing this urgent appeal to every Government which may be engaged in hostilities publicly to affirm its determination that its armed forces shall in no event, and under no circumstances, undertake the bombardment from the air of civilian populations or of unfortified cities, upon the understanding that these same rules of warfare will be scrupulously observed by all of their opponents. I request an immediate reply.
Britain, then Germany, quickly agreed. In fact, none of the countries involved saw this an unusual request, for Roosevelt was simply affirming what was then considered an accepted international norm of warfare: avoid harming non-combatants.
By war’s end, this supposed norm, violated first by Britain, then the U.S., had not only been abandoned, but completely reversed.
Militarists had come to regard war from the air as the one sure path to victory, and civilian officials had come to see cities – that is, civilians – as legitimate targets.
But that was not all.
It had been discovered that – given the right atmospheric and wind conditions – saturation bombing of a city could create ‘firestorms ’ – in effect altering local weather as what would come to be called a ‘force multiplier’ – incinerating entire urban populations and destroying all existing structures.
One such event, was the firebombing of the German city of Dresden, later portrayed by an American prisoner of war survivor, Kurt Vonnegut in his novel, Slaughterhouse Five. But there were many others. More than half a million German civilians were killed. Creating intentional urban firestorms had become the principle objective of aerial warfare, under the rationale that ‘terror bombing’ would destroy moral and end hostilities sooner, thus ‘saving lives’ in the long run.
With the German defeat, U.S. attention shifted to Japan and ‘scientific’ firebombing of cities was honed to a fine art under General Curtis LeMay. Using his new approach, reports Ellsberg, “It would be possible, LeMay thought, ‘to knock out all of Japan’s major industrial cities during the next ten nights.’ And he set out to burn the next most populous seventeen cities in succession. After that, the next fifty.”
Creating firestorms, like the one that destroyed Tokyo, with ‘conventional’ explosives required many planes. With atomic weapons like those used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, you could do the job with just one bomber per city. But, aside from subsequent deaths caused by exposure to radioactive fallout, the deadly results were basically the same.
Later, LeMay would boast, “we scorched and boiled and baked to death more people in Tokyo on that night of March 9-10 than went up in vapor at Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.”
Firebombing and mass murder from the air – with or without nukes – had become the American way of war.
In the early 1950s, in the Korean war, LeMay recalled in a 1988 interview, “We went over there and fought the war and eventually burned down every town in North Korea….”
The legendary Gen. Douglas MacArthur – no stranger to mass slaughter – testified in a 1951 Congressional hearing, “The war in Korea has already almost destroyed that nation of 20,000,000 people. I have never seen such devastation. I have seen, I guess, as much blood and disaster as any living man, and it just curdled my stomach, the last time I was there. After I looked at that wreckage and those thousands of women and children and everything, I vomited.”
Taking Bets on Atmospheric Ignition
The high risk attitude of what might be called – with a nod to C. Wright Mills – ‘crackpot nuclearism,’ was born in the New Mexico desert with the July 16, 1945 Trinity Test, the world first atomic bomb. It has dominated nuclear policy ever since.
Some of the Manhattan Project scientists were doing calculations aimed at predicting whether or not the planned test would ignite the planet’s entire atmosphere thus ending life on earth. There were arguments and conflicting conclusions. Nobody was quite sure either way.
On the eve of the test, Enrico Fermi offered to take bets on if atmospheric ignition would occur. “I am now in a position,” he said, “to make book on one of two contingencies: 1) that the explosion will burn New Mexico; 2) that it will ignite the whole world.”
The odds Fermi offered are not recorded, nor if anyone took his bet. The consensus apparently was that both outcomes were unlikely…but possible. The test went ahead anyway.
The Threat of Use is Use – a Terrorist Threat
The gun in the hand of the robber aimed at the victim’s head – whether or not the trigger is pulled – is being ‘used.’ The same is true of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
One often hears that The Bomb was only ‘used’ twice, by President Truman on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But, as Ellsberg documents, every president since – right down to the current occupant of the Oval Office – has used the Doomsday Machine in the same way the robber uses the gun, as a credible threat to impose his will.
Even one tactical nuclear weapon attacking a heavily populated area could kill hundreds of thousands of non-combatants. “Thus,” Ellsberg concludes, “virtually any threat of first use of a nuclear weapon is a terrorist threat. Any nation making such threats is a terrorist nation. That means the United States and all its allies, including Israel, along with Russia, Pakistan, and North Korea.”
Dissent as a Family Trait
Ellsberg discloses many institutional secrets discovered in the course of his career. But there is a personal one he saves until almost last. As noted above, his father had been a distinguished engineer and factory designer involved in the war effort. During the whistleblower days, when Kissinger had labeled him ‘the most dangerous man in America,’ Ellsberg says he had little contact with his father. Much later the two had a conversation in which the son learned that the father, too, had not only had many of the same top security clearances, and had worked on building the A-bomb, but had also been a dissenter.
At the top of his career, the elder Ellsberg had been engaged to design a plant that would produce material for an H-bomb, the hydrogen bomb. It was to be a thousand times more powerful than the A-bombs used on Japan. In fact, the A-bomb is now simply used as the detonation trigger for the H-bomb.
“That was it for me,” his father recalled at the age of 89. “I went back to my office and I said to my deputy, ‘These guys are crazy.’”
“There was another thing about it I couldn’t stand,” his father continued. “Building these things generated a lot of radioactive waste…. That stuff was deadly for ever.”
Ellsberg recalls there were tears in his father’s eyes as he went on huskily, “I couldn’t stand the thought that I was working on a project that was poisoning parts of my country for forever, that might make parts of it uninhabitable for thousands of years.”
His father – unlike the many others engaged to make the H-bomb – resigned rather than participating in the project.
Asked what had made him feel so strongly, his father responded, “You did.”
Turns out that back in 1946 the young Ellsberg had come home crying, carrying a copy of John Hersey’s just-published book Hiroshima, a report on the horrors of atomic warfare. Recalled his father, “You said, ‘Dad, you’ve got to read this. It’s the worst thing I’ve ever read.’ So I read it, and you were right.”
Non-Violent Co-existence or Violent Co-annihilation – That Is Still the Question
Being a nuclear war planner and risk analyst means developing the capacity of imagining the unthinkable. It’s a great skill set to have. Especially if, like Ellsberg (and others), you have awakened to the omnicidal danger of the doomsday machine you have participated in creating.
Now, when many despairing pessimists are concluding that the Doomsday Machine Syndrome has taken on an autonomous life of its own, and that it’s political, economic, and military institutionalization on a global level has made deconstructing it ‘realistically unthinkable,’ Ellsberg’s informed conviction that deconstruction IS not only possible, but doable within a year’s time, is invigorating to the soul. Human ingenuity has created multiple doomsday machines; human ingenuity can take them down.
Steve Bannon, Trump’s erstwhile ‘brain,’ infamously described the prime agenda item of the Trump/GOP wrecking crew as ‘deconstruction of the administrative state.’ In fact, they’re doing it as we watch. Proving precisely that, what humans have put together, humans can pull asunder.
Ellsberg’s bold, ‘unthinkable,’ essentially revolutionary agenda is nothing less than the deconstruction of the Doomsday Machine itself.
According to his vision, Truman’s proverbial ‘buck’ both stops and starts here, in America, the birthplace of the Doomsday Machinery, the only country to have not only actually dropped The Bomb, but to have ‘used’ The Bomb for the last seventy-plus years, in over two dozen credible international threats (which he documents), as a gun to the heads of other nations of the world.
He addresses the common argument that ‘You can’t uninvent nuclear weapons.’
That has been a widespread and effective argument against a total unilateral abolition over the past seventy years. True, you can’t eradicate the knowledge of how to make nuclear weapons and delivery systems. But you can dismantle a Doomsday Machine. And that, at minimum, is what we must hasten to do. There is no need or justification for us to wait for the Russians to do it to theirs first or in step with us, though that global imperative applies just well to them.
Here’s his Six-Step Program:
- A U.S, no-first-use policy
- Probing investigative hearings on our war plans in the light of nuclear winter
- Eliminating our ICBMs
- Forgoing the delusion of preemptive damage-limiting by our first-strike forces
- Giving up the profits, jobs, and alliance hegemony based on maintaining that pretense
- Otherwise dismantling the American Doomsday Machine.
Being a realist, he observes that, “Both parties as currently constituted oppose every one of these measures.” Further, he admits, “the news is equally bad when it comes to the prospects of reversing American energy policy in time and on a scale to avert catastrophic climate change.” He concludes,
The steps I have indicated are only a beginning toward the ultimate delegitimation of nuclear weapons and nuclear threats. But none of the necessary changes can occur without an informed public, suitably alarmed by a situation that properly evokes horror, fear, revulsion, and incredulity, accompanied, hopefully by the determination of the highest order and urgency to eliminate it.
The White House as Madhouse
At the time Ellsberg worked at RAND, U.S. war planners had long been obsessed by belief in a series of ‘gaps:’ a ‘bomber gap;’ a ‘missile gap;’ a ‘deterrent gap.’ Kennedy himself had campaigned and been elected on the fiction of a ‘missile gap,’ with the Soviet Union being erroneously claimed to possess ‘strategic superiority.’
Ellsberg found that none of these supposed ‘gaps’ had actually existed. They were really claims cooked up by competing branches of the military aimed at securing a bigger share of the defense budget, and a more important role in the ‘Big Game.’ RAND’s whole program had been based on delusion.
He writes, “To recognize that was to face the conclusion that RAND had, in all good faith, been working obsessively and with a sense of frantic urgency on a wrong set of problems, an irrelevant pursuit in respect to national security.” Yet RAND’s program continued for years after the gap concepts had been debunked.
Donald (My-Button-is-Bigger-than-Your-Button) Trump is not only continuing the trillion dollar nuclear weapons upgrade begun under Obama, but calling for 10 times as many thermonuclear devices as are already in the US arsenal.
In 2017, American Special Forces boots were on the ground in 146 countries. A new study by the Costs of War Project maps 76 countries in which the U.S. is currently at war. That’s a lot of flash points, any one of which could potentially trigger a nuclear exchange.
One wonders what delusional ‘risk assessments’ are currently being used by today’s generation of war planners to rationalize this level of institutionalized insanity.
Toward A New Nuclear Consciousness and Abolition Movement
The five ‘original’ nuclear powers – the US, UK, France, Russia and China – have since been joined by Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea. So now there are nine known national Doomsday Machines – one for every nuclear weapons state – all on hair trigger alert for some future wargasm, maybe just around the corner.
And then there are the other – presently operating – DNA-destroying radioactive, electro-magnetic and chemical pollution doomsday machines, as well as the carbonization-of-the-atmosphere doomsday machine already causing catastrophic climate change…not to mention the on-going Sixth Great Extinction.
I chose to spend the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day immersed in Ellsberg’s book. It may not have been the most pleasant holiday season I’ve experienced, but it was definitely the most informative and enlightening.
It’s my bad habit, with a read I like, to underline sentences, star paragraphs, and dog-ear pages that seem especially important. I found myself doing that on almost every page.
Ellsberg’s website contains massive documentation supporting his book’s disclosures.
He is not alone among former nuclear war planners that have become nuclear abolitionists in their later years. Former U.S. Secretary of Defense William Perry, here and here
has joined former Secretaries of State George Schultz and Henry Kissinger and Senator Sam Nunn to write a groundbreaking Wall Street Journal op-ed series
on the issues. They have also co-founded the Nuclear Security Project.
Toward the end of their lives, both McNamara and Castro also became ardent nuclear abolitionists.
These are good signs. Crackpot nuclearism may yet be overcome.
The Doomsday Machine – my nominee for ‘the most important book of 2017’ – is at once an empowering, and a cautionary tale about the ‘power of one’ to catalyze change in a labyrinthine, entrenched, corporate/government bureaucracy … AND, about how the many paths to doomsday can be paved with good intentions.
Get it. Read it. And don’t mourn, organize and pass the word! Spread awareness of both the risks and the mitigating possibilities. Informed, concerted public action has made a huge difference throughout the Atomic Age, and it can again.
As the UN’s recent historic vote by more than 120 nations to ban the possession, use, or threatened use of nuclear weapons, and the Nobel Peace Prize award to ICAN make clear, the once powerful no nukes abolition movement is again resurgent.
Maybe, just maybe – as Reverend King was warning way back in 1967 – it’s still not too late…
These Jan. 14, 2018 weekend headlinies show the urgency:
His first Nuclear Posture Review: more nukes, more posturing. By Ashley Feinberg – Huffpost
Group Warns Implementation of Trump’s Plan Makes Nuclear War More Likely
Nuclear deterrence continues to dominate international relations. Yet there is no proof it ever worked, nor that it ever will
by David P Barash – Guardian
Jen Heyden – Daily Kos
James Heddle is a filmmaker and writer who co-directs EON – the Ecological Options Network with Mary Beth Brangan. Their forthcoming documentary SHUTDOWN: The California-Fukushima Connection is now in post-production. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org