I was preparing to write a review of Daniel Ellsberg’s new book, The Doomsday Machine, when a friend asked about it so searchingly that I began recording our talk on my cell phone and decided to submit, in lieu of an ordinary review, a (slightly edited) transcript:
My friend: Is Ellsberg still writing? I associate him with the world of Nixon and the Vietnam war, with the so-called Pentagon Papers.
CKC: Not only is he writing, in his mid-80s, but he brilliantly and readably tackles an issue even more crucial than decision-making in the U.S. intervention in Vietnam.
She: Which is what?
She: That’s the doomsday machine of his title?
CKC: Ellsberg says there was a de facto doomsday machine when he was close to the White House in the 1960s, and even more obviously when scientists in 1983 began predicting “nuclear winter” in the case of a major exchange.
She: But hasn't Ellsberg been out of the loop since blowing the whistle? That was when?
CKC: It was 1971 when the New York Times (and then other papers) began to print excerpts from the top secret history. Nixon’s attempt to stop them led to a Supreme Court case, which the press won.
She: But as I recall, the publication had the effect of cutting off Ellsberg’s security clearances, and almost sending him to prison for life.
CKC: It was only Nixon’s misbehavior that got Ellsberg off, the same kind of dirty tricks that led to Nixon’s resignation.
She: So what does Ellsberg have to contribute now?
CKC: Well, he’s releasing the gist of the other documents he copied at the same time as he released the Pentagon papers.
She: The gist? And if the story about nuclear weapons policy is so crucial, why didn't he release them long ago?
CKC: Well, in 1971 the Vietnam war was a hot topic, Ellsberg was moved by the bravery of an activist against that war, and he decided to start with the history of our involvement in in that war. It was sure to get attention.
She: Yeah, but now even the recent PBS documentary on the US war in Vietnam makes clear that our involvement was based on lies and on the calculation that we’d lose but it was politically dangerous to get out and let the North Vietnamese take over. As I recall, the documentary film even includes tape recordings of White House conversations to that effect.
CKC: That’s true. Ending the war in Vietnam would have been easy compared with what Ellsberg is now calling us to do. In Vietnam we hurt a lot of people, including U.S. soldiers; we spent a lot of money; we were forced out ignominiously. And in the meantime the war divided this country. In contrast to what Dean Rusk kept saying, the “dominoes” didn't fall.
She: Did Ellsberg succeed in stopping the war?
CKC: After the papers were revealed, the war continued for the length of a Presidential term, but the Ellsberg case may have provoked Nixon to commit impeachable offenses.
She: And now? What will be caused by his new book?
CKC: As I’ve said, The Doomsday Machine is about nuclear weapons policy. If we include the Eisenhower Presidency, this stand-off has gone on for about two-thirds of a century.
She: So what’s the problem? Hasn’t he nuclear age brought stability?
CKC: Actually, what it’s brought is close calls. Combatants could recover from past wars. Even a single full-scale nuclear exchange would be too many.
She: What are these “close calls”?
CKC: To take just a single example, the Cuban missile crisis of late 1962 included at least two near-disasters: a Soviet sub that almost fired a nuclear missile at a U.S. ship enforcing the blockade, and Soviet tactical nuclear weapons sent to repel a U.S. invasion of Cuba, an invasion to which Kennedy’s “executive committee” gave serious consideration, apparently in ignorance of the Soviet tactical nuclear weapons.
She: Ellsberg is arguing that the stability was fake?
CKC: He shows with specific and detailed examples, of which he had first-hand knowledge, that the longed-for stability was a mirage.
She: Okay, you have given two examples, from long ago in 1962, under unusual, circumstances.
CKC: Actually, there are other examples, such as the time in 1983 when the Soviet General-Secretary strongly suspected that the West was using a war game called Able Archer to hide actual preparations for a first strike on the USSR, which, if the supposed evidence got strong enough, was preparing to strike first in order to try to minimize the attack on its territory.
She: So the system is not only potentially catastrophic, but also unstable. How does The Doomsday Machine illustrate this?
CKC: The first half of the book is about Ellsberg’s direct involvement in nuclear planning mainly in the 1960s, and the second half is about the step-by-step change in the character of war, mainly during the 1940s.
She: “Change in the character of war”?
CKC: Yes, originally, say until the run-up to World War 2, the military was told to try to leave civilians out of it, to kill only troops of the enemy. But then the change started. First cities were bombed, , as shown in the shock of Picasso’s “Guernica.” Then cities were fire-bombed, as happened in Hamburg and Dresden, a phenomenon of the burning becoming so intense it sucked in high winds, which increased the fires Then the U.S. incinerated Japanese cities, including a big part of Tokyo.
She: Then the A-bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
CKC: And the steps were increasingly big: the H-bomb was not just an augmented A-bomb. The explosion could easily be one thousand times as big as the bomb that destroyed Nagasaki.
She: I understand this was a big change, from not bombing civilians to threatening to wreck a whole civilization.
CKC: That is what Ellsberg found when he got access to the actual U.S. plan to respond to preparations for a major attack. We would bomb our enemy with everything we had.
She: Fearful waiting to be followed by sending everything?
CKC: That was the plan. As the head of the Strategic Air Commend told Ellsberg, all he wanted from the civilian authorities was a go signal. He would then take over.
She: Okay, I understand that Ellsberg had broad access to nuclear war planning in the 1960s, but what can he contribute now?
CKC: Well, the papers on nuclear war planning that he copied at the same time as the Pentagon Papers were lost after being buried when landmarks were shifted by a tropical storm. The Doomsday Machine is thus based on three sources: on documents since declassified, in some cases as a result of Freedom of Information Act suits; second, on notes made by, documents written by, and memory searched by, Ellsberg…
She: And third?
CKC: On other public sources as followed and analyzed by an expert in the field.
She: Still, it’s been a long time since his direct involvement. There have been treaties, developments in weaponry, nuclear proliferation (especially in Asia).
CKC: Yes, but as Ellsberg shows, many of the dilemmas remain, as they would in any nuclear system. For example, how do you convince the enemy that he will face retaliation even if he manages to “decapitate” the top leadership of the other sid? One answer is delegation, but to the extent that you delegate you increase the chance of accidental or even unauthorized war.
She: What about rules?
CKC: What about chaos? How can you be sure that communication will not be interrupted?
She: Well, is there any other approach?
CKC: It has emerged that the USSR had a system called “Perimeter,” or in the other side’s slang, “Dead Hand.” This automated system of sensors and computers could initiate retaliation. If Moscow were destroyed, if human leadership was unreachable, the system would itself launch rockets.
She: I remember that in that movie, “Dr. Strangelove,” a Soviet doomsday device was kept secret, which wouldn't increase deterrence.
CKC: No, but it might make Soviet leaders less eager about pre-empting a strike that they suspected was coming.
She: I see that nuclear weapons policy gets really intricate.
CKC: Ye, but the basics are quite simple. To take the initial big revelation of Ellsberg’s book: despite all you heard about “massive retaliation,” Ellsberg writes that the secret US policy has always been to “launch on warning,” to go first, not to wait until Soviet missiles had destroyed many of the U.S. missiles.
She: So he’s saying that the two super-powers were on a hair-trigger, day and night, for many decades.
CKC: Yes, and while humans have mostly had the luxury of learning from experience, we can no longer afford that method, at least with regard to nuclear weapons. They constitute an unintentional doomsday machine.
She: Didn't even Ronald Reagan agree with Mikhail Gorbachev that nuclear war must never be fought because no country could possibly win?
CKC: Yes, at Geneva in 1985. The number of nuclear weapons has been reduced from an absurd level to a merely intensely dangerous level, and meanwhile they have spread, mainly in the Asian area including North Korea, China, India, and Pakistan.
She: So what does Ellsberg recommend”
CKC: His last chapter is called “ Dismantling the Doomsday Machine.” As a first step it’s less ambitious than the nuclear abolition argument made, for example, by Jonathan Schell in The Fate of the Earth and The Abolition.
Sho: Less ambitious but more realistic?
CKC: Ellsberg describes reducing the number of nuclear weapons to a low level as physically easy, but “incredibly difficult’ politically and bureaucratically. And yet he regards the present situation as nothing shirt of insane.
She: Why exactly?
CKC: Because a full-scale nuclear exchange, at the present levels, would cause doomsday.
She: So the iconic whistleblower is reduced to reducing the number of nuclear weapons so their use would not cause nuclear winter.
CKC: As a difficult first step, yes, but he argues that proliferation will not end until the countries with huge stockpiles make a serious commitment to get rid of their nuclear weapons.
She: What about terrorists?
CKC: Terrorists might set off at least a technically crude bomb in a U.S. city. What troubles Ellsberg, along with the destruction and suffering in that city, is the possibility that the one explosion would set off a full-scale nuclear exchange
She: Okay, I’ll read the book, or at least dip into it. What else could be more important?
CKC: The same month that The Doomsday Machine is published, Steven Spielberg is releasing a movie based on the decision, by Kate Graham, then owner of the Washington Post, to publish excerpts from…
She: Don't tell me: from the Pentagon Papers.
CKC: Yes, the release in 1971 of that top secret history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam may again overshadow, in 2017, what was contained in Ellsberg’s other papers.
She: Or the movie might call attention to the value of the warnings conveyed by Ellsberg, whether about Vietnam or about nuclear war.
CKC: The machinery of nuclear war is largely invisible, like a high and increasing level of carbon dioxide in the air. An exchange of missiles would happen quickly, but the long period in which we’ve avoided a nuclear exchange may continue to lull us, the way the effects of climate change would play out over a long time in the future.
She: Another similarity: the military-industrial complex has a large economic interest in “modernizing” our arsenal, just as purveyors of fossil fuels have an interest in denying climate change. Plus which, how do we get the agreement of the other side?
CKC: Ellsberg points out that one of the major nuclear powers can safely reduce its stockpile, even get rid of its land-based missiles. It reminds me of the Soviet who observed, as the Cold War was ending, that they were depriving the U.S. of an enemy. As Ellsberg notes, we’d be depriving the other side of a target set.
She: Okay, you’ve convinced me to engage with this stuff.
CKC: That’s Ellsberg’s goal, to help start a snowball rolling down the hill, a snowball pushed by many hands. (end of the dialogue)
The painting at the head of this article appears here by permission of Shoshanah Dubiner. The artist’s website is cybermuse.com
A personal note: my own writing in this area includes:
“Wall of Shame” (the Berlin wall thrown up in 1961),
“A Nuclear Secret” (a perilous aspect of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, as revealed later by a Soviet source),
“It Wasn’t the Troops Who Lacked Courage” (the U.S. intervention in Vietnam),
Remembering My Lai’s Lessons ” (1968),
“What We Can Learn from the End of the Cold War (the “Able Archer” episode in 1983, not long before Gorbachev was elected as leader),
“When the Nuclear Arms Race became a Thing” (the Reykjavik summit of 1986 between Gorbachev and Reagan),
“Thinking Big,” and
“The Normalization of Mega-risk” (nuclear war policy).
Of these eight articles, six were originally published by Huffington Post; two, by OpEdNews.