Home > Uncategorized > Daniel Ellsberg, the Doomsday Machine, and Thinking the Unthinkable – posted 1/15/2018 and published in the Concord Monitor on 1/24/2018

Daniel Ellsberg, the Doomsday Machine, and Thinking the Unthinkable – posted 1/15/2018 and published in the Concord Monitor on 1/24/2018

Daniel Ellsberg is best known as the guy who leaked the Pentagon Papers. In 1971, as a high government official, he photocopied thousands of pages of secret documents which showed successive administrations had lied to the public about the war in Vietnam. He shared the information with the New York Times and the Washington Post, becoming one of the most famous whistleblowers ever.

Unknown until recently was the fact that Ellsberg also photocopied thousands of pages about nuclear war planning. Ellsberg had had a long career at the highest levels of government before the Vietnam War. In his earlier incarnation, Ellsberg, a former Marine and protege of Henry Kissinger, worked as a Pentagon and White House consultant, drafting plans for nuclear war.

Ellsberg had passed the nuclear war planning documents onto his brother Harry for safe-keeping. Things were too hot for Ellsberg to keep the documents after the Pentagon Papers story broke. For taking the Pentagon Papers, the government charged Ellsberg under the Espionage Act of 1917. He faced a maximum prison sentence of 115 years.

Ellsberg’s brother first buried the papers in a cardboard box inside a green garbage bag in his compost pile. Worried that the FBI would come looking (which they did), Harry Ellsberg moved the papers to a hidden spot in his town trash dump in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York.

That summer, a near-hurricane, tropical storm Doria, hit Hastings-on-Hudson and caused the slope where the papers were buried to collapse down and over a roadway. Although much effort went into finding the papers, they were never found.

For 45 years, Ellsberg remained silent about the secret nuclear documents but now he has published a new book, The Doomsday Machine, which recounts his personal history around nuclear war planning as well as the evolution of his thinking.

The book is a revelation and it raises so many essential questions which have been very inadequately discussed about nuclear war, realistic appraisal of its consequences, and nuclear winter. Ellsberg places his discussion inside a history of the law of war since the early 20th century.

The book is appropriately named after the classic 1964 movie, Dr. Strangelove. In the movie, an unhinged Air Force General, Jack D. Ripper, orders a nuclear first strike attack on the Soviet Union. The president contacts the Russian premier and finds out that they have created a doomsday device which will detonate automatically if there is any nuclear strike within the USSR.

The doomsday device cannot be disconnected or untriggered if there is an attack on the Russian homeland. The Russians advise that their device would result in a radioactive shroud which would wipe out all human and animal life and make the surface of the earth uninhabitable for 93 years.

The movie was so dead-on that Ellsberg saw it as a documentary.

A turning point for Ellsberg came in 1961, He had drafted a question for President Kennedy to ask the Joint Chiefs of Staff:

“If your plans for general (nuclear) war are carried out as planned, how many people will be killed in the Soviet Union and China?”

The answer came back in the form of a graph. The lowest number was 275 million. Within six months, after the nuclear attack, the number was 325 million.

Ellsberg drafted a follow-up question for the Joint Chiefs over the President’s signature. He asked for a total breakdown of global deaths from our attacks, including all countries that would be affected by fallout. The total death count was 600 million.

This was Ellsberg’s response:

“I remember what I thought when I first held the single sheet with the graph on it. I thought, this piece of paper should not exist. It should never have existed. Not in America. Not anywhere, ever. It depicted evil beyond any human project ever…From that day on, I have had one overriding life purpose: to prevent the execution of any such plan.”

Ellsberg’s revulsion propelled him into a later career as an anti-nuclear weapons activist. He came to believe the military had not thought through the consequences of nuclear war, minimizing and rationalizing the acute harm to the whole planet. Or, as he put it, they were in the grip of institutionalized madness.

The late, great sociologist, C. Wright Mills, would have called it “crackpot realism”.

In the Doomsday Machine, Ellsberg revisits episodes from the Cold War. As a bureaucratic in-fighter, he played a critical role in getting the Kennedy Administration to limit nuclear war plans. At the time, the military targetted every city in both the USSR and China with a population over 25,000 with at least one nuclear weapon.

Ellsberg argued that destruction of China should not be automatic if a war was only with the Soviet Union. The military wanted to attack China even if they had no role in a conflict. Some of our military leaders like Air Force General Curtis LeMay acted exactly like characters from Dr, Strangelove. Ellsberg did get the Kennedy Administration to exclude automatic attack on China in the event of armed conflict with the Soviet Union.

In the Cuban Missile Crisis, Ellsberg shows how close we came to an all-out nuclear war. It was far closer than the public knew. The world barely escaped an almost unimagineable cataclysm.

Ellsberg busts mythologies like the president with his nuclear football being the only one who can launch a nuclear war. The military has many contingencies in the event communications are cut off. He shows there has been a much more widespread delegation of authority to launch. The picture is not reassuring.

Among the dangers, Ellsberg worries that a nuclear weapons launch could be triggered by a false alarm, a terrorist action, initiative by unauthorized individuals or a rash miscalculation in a military escalation scenario.

Ellsberg ends the book with a chapter on dismantling the doomsday machine. He recognizes the enormous institutional resistance to such an idea but he makes an extremely compelling argument for how it could be done. He specifies achievable reforms. He thinks it is astonishing that people will put up with more than a non-zero chance of a nuclear holocaust.

Possibly the most unsettling aspect of the Trump presidency has been the threat escalation with North Korea, a nuclear weapons state. Trump has been far too casual about the risks inherent in a nuclear war. He should not be talking about totally destroying any country or playing nuclear chicken. That is the height of irresponsibility.

The idea that a nuclear war would be limited and would not cause absolutely unacceptable consequences is folly and insane. The blowback from multiple nuclear explosions could cause a catastrophic nuclear winter where the living would envy the dead.

Have current American nuclear war planners arrived at a figure of how many millions dead would be acceptable to them? The public has a right to know the answer to that question.

Ellsberg has performed his greatest public service yet with the publication of this book.

Advertisements
Categories: Uncategorized
  1. No comments yet.
  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: