When a Nuclear War Planner Confesses

Daniel Ellsberg’s new book is The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner. I’ve known the author for years, I’m prouder than ever to say. We have done speaking events and media interviews together. We’ve been arrested together protesting wars. We’ve publicly debated electoral politics. We’ve privately debated the justness of World War II. (Dan approves of U.S. entry into World War II, and it seems into the war on Korea as well, though he has nothing but condemnation for the bombing of civilians that made up so much of what the U.S. did in those wars.) I’ve valued his opinion and he has rather inexplicably asked for mine on all sorts of questions. But this book has just taught me a great deal I had not known about Daniel Ellsberg and about the world.

While Ellsberg confesses to having held dangerous and delusional beliefs that he no longer holds, to having worked within an institution plotting genocide, to having taken well-meaning steps as an insider that backfired, and to having written words he did not agree with, we also learn from this book that he did effectively and significantly move the U.S. government in the direction of less reckless and horrific policies long before dropping out and becoming a whistleblower. And when he did blow the whistle, he had a much bigger plan for it than anyone has been aware.

Ellsberg didn’t copy and remove 7,000 pages of what became the Pentagon Papers. He copied and removed some 15,000 pages. The other pages were focused on policies of nuclear war. He planned to make them a later series of news stories, after shining a light first on the war on Vietnam. The pages were lost, and this never happened, and I wonder what impact it might have had on the cause of abolishing nuclear bombs. I also wonder why this book has been so long in coming, not that Ellsberg hasn’t filled the intervening years with invaluable work. In any case, we now have a book that draws on Ellsberg’s memory, documents made public over the decades, advancing scientific understanding, the work of other whistleblowers and researchers, the confessions of other nuclear war planners, and the additional developments of the past generation or so.

I hope this book is very widely read, and that one of the lessons taken from it is the need for the human species to develop some humility. Here we read an up-close account from within the White House and Pentagon of a group of people making plans for nuclear wars based on a completely false conception of what nuclear bombs would do (leaving the results of fire and smoke out of casualty calculations, and lacking the very idea of nuclear winter), and based on completely fabricated accounts of what the Soviet Union was doing (believing it was thinking offense when it was thinking defense, believing it had 1,000 intercontinental ballistic missiles when it had four), and based on wildly flawed understandings of what others in the U.S. government itself were doing (with levels of secrecy denying both true and false information to the public and much of the government). This is an account of extravagant disregard for human life, outdoing that of the creators and testers of the atomic bomb, who placed bets on whether it would ignite the atmosphere and burn up the earth. Ellsberg’s colleagues were so driven by bureaucratic rivalries and ideological hatreds that they’d favor or oppose more land-based missiles if it benefited the Air Force or hurt the Navy, and they’d plan for any combat with Russia to immediately require the nuclear destruction of every city in Russia and China (and in Europe via Soviet medium-range missiles and bombers and from the close-in fallout from U.S. nuclear strikes on Soviet bloc territory). Combine this portrait of our dear leaders with the number of near-misses through misunderstanding and accident that we’ve learned of over the years, and the remarkable thing is not that a fascistic fool sits in the White House today threatening fire and fury, with Congressional committee hearings publicly pretending nothing can be done to prevent a Trump-induced apocalypse. The remarkable thing is that humanity is still here.

“Madness in individuals is something rare; 
but in groups, parties, nations, and epochs, it is the rule.” –Friedrich Nietzsche, quoted by Daniel Ellsberg.

A memo written for only President Kennedy to see answered the question of how many people might die in Russia and China in a U.S. nuclear attack. Ellsberg had asked the question and was permitted to read the answer. Although it was an answer ignorant of the nuclear winter effect that would likely kill all of humanity, and although the top cause of death, fire, was also omitted, the report said that about 1/3 of humanity would die. That was the plan for immediate execution following the commencement of war with Russia. The justification for such insanity has always been self-deceptive, and intentionally deceptive of the public.

“The declared official rationale for such a system,” Ellsberg writes, “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. Deterring a surprise Soviet nuclear attack—or responding to such an attack—has never been the only or even the primary purpose of our nuclear plans and preparations. The nature, scale, and posture of our strategic nuclear forces has always been shaped by the requirements of quite different purposes: to attempt to limit the damage to the United States from Soviet or Russian retaliation to a U.S. first strike against the USSR or Russia. 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.”

But the United States never threatened nuclear war until Trump came along!

You believe that?

“U.S. presidents,” Ellsberg tells us, “have used our nuclear weapons dozens of times in ‘crises,’ mostly in secret from the American public (though not from adversaries). They have used them in the precise way that a gun is used when it is pointed at someone in a confrontation.”

U.S. presidents who have made specific public or secret nuclear threats to other nations, that we know of, and as detailed by Ellsberg, have included Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Donald Trump, while others, including Barack Obama, have frequently said things like “All options are on the table” in relation to Iran or another country.

Well, at least the nuclear button is in the hands of the president alone, and he can only use it with the cooperation of the soldier who carries the “football,” and only with the compliance of various commanders within the U.S. military.

Are you serious?

Not only did Congress just hear from a lineup of witnesses who each said that there might be no way to stop Trump or any other president from launching a nuclear war (given that impeachment and prosecution should not be mentioned in relation to anything so trivial as apocalypse prevention). But also it has never been the case that only the president could order the use of nukes. And the “football” is a theatrical prop. The audience is the U.S. public. Elaine Scarry’s Thermonuclear Monarchy describes how imperial presidential power has flown from the belief in the president’s exclusive nuclear button. But it is a false belief.

Ellsberg recounts how various levels of commanders have been given the power to launch nukes, how the whole concept of mutually assured destruction through retaliation depends on the ability of the United States to launch its doomsday machine even if the president is incapacitated, and how some in the military consider presidents incapacitated by their very nature even when alive and well and believe it therefore to be military commanders’ prerogative to bring on the end. The same was and probably still is true in Russia, and probably is true in the growing number of nuclear nations. Here’s Ellsberg: “Nor could the president then or now—by exclusive possession of the codes necessary to launch or detonate any nuclear weapons (no such exclusive codes have ever been held by any president)—physically or otherwise reliably prevent the Joint Chiefs of Staff or any theater military commander (or, as I’ve described, command post duty officer) from issuing such authenticated orders.” When Ellsberg managed to inform Kennedy of the authority Eisenhower had delegated to use nuclear weapons, Kennedy refused to reverse the policy. Trump, by the way, has reportedly been even more eager than Obama was to delegate authority to murder by missile from drone, as well as to expand the production and threat of use of nuclear weapons.

Ellsberg recounts his efforts to make civilian officials, the secretary of “defense” and the president, aware of top nuclear war plans kept secret and lied about by the military. This was his first form of whistleblowing: telling the president what the military was up to. He also touches on the resistance of some in the military to some of President Kennedy’s decisions, and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s fear that Kennedy might face a coup. But when it came to nuclear policy, the coup was in place before Kennedy got to the White House. Commanders of distant bases that often lost communications understood (understand?) themselves to have the power to order all of their planes, carrying nuclear weapons, to take off simultaneously on the same runway in the name of speed, and at risk of disaster should one plane change speed. These planes were to all head off to Russian and Chinese cities, without any coherent plan of survival for each of the other planes crisscrossing the area. What Dr. Strangelove may have gotten wrong was just not including enough of the Keystone Cops.

Kennedy declined to centralize nuclear authority, and when Ellsberg informed Secretary of “Defense” Robert McNamara of U.S. nukes being illegally kept in Japan, McNamara refused to take them out. But Ellsberg did manage to revise U.S. nuclear war policy away from exclusively planning to attack all cities and in the direction of considering the approach of targeting away from cities and seeking to halt a nuclear war that had begun, which would require maintaining command and control on both sides, which would allow such command and control to exist. Writes Ellsberg: “‘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.”

Ellsberg’s account of the Cuban Missile Crisis alone is reason to get this book. While Ellsberg believed U.S. actual dominance (in contrast to myths about a “missile gap”) meant there would be no Soviet attack, Kennedy was telling people to hide underground. Ellsberg wanted Kennedy to privately tell Khrushchev to stop bluffing. Ellsberg wrote part of a speech for Deputy Secretary of Defense Roswell Gilpatric that escalated rather than reduced tensions, possibly because Ellsberg was not thinking in terms of the Soviet Union acting defensively, of Khrushchev as bluffing in terms of second-use capability. Ellsberg thinks his blunder helped lead to the USSR putting missiles in Cuba. Then Ellsberg wrote a speech for McNamara, following instructions, even though he believed it would be disastrous, and it was.

Ellsberg opposed taking U.S. missiles out of Turkey (and believes it had no impact on the resolution of the crisis). In his account, both Kennedy and Khrushchev would have accepted any deal rather than nuclear war, yet pushed for a better outcome until they were right at the edge of the cliff. A low-ranking Cuban shot down a U.S. plane, and the U.S. was unable to imagine it wasn’t the work of Fidel Castro under strict orders direct from Khrushchev. Meanwhile Khrushchev also believed it was the work of Castro. And Khrushchev knew that the Soviet Union has put 100 nuclear weapons in Cuba with local commanders authorized to use them against an invasion. Khrushchev also understood that as soon as they were used, the United States might launch its nuclear assault on Russia. Khrushchev rushed to declare that the missiles would leave Cuba. By Ellsberg’s account, he did this before any deal regarding Turkey. While everyone who nudged this crisis in the right direction may have helped save the world, including Vassily Arkhipov who refused to launch a nuclear torpedo from a Soviet submarine, the real hero of Ellsberg’s tale is, in the end, I think, Nikita Khrushchev, who chose predictable insults and shame over annihilation. He was not a man eager to accept insults. But, of course, even those insults that he ended up accepting never included being called “Little Rocket Man.”

The second part of Ellsberg’s book includes an insightful history of the development of aerial bombing and of the acceptance of slaughtering civilians as being something other than the murder it was widely considered to be prior to World War II. (In 2016, I would note, a presidential debate moderator asked candidates if they would be willing to bomb hundreds and thousands of children as part of their basic duties.) Ellsberg first gives us the usual story that first Germany bombed London, and only a year later did the British bomb civilians in Germany. But then he describes British bombing, earlier, in May 1940, as revenge for the German bombing of Rotterdam. I think he could have gone back to the April 12 bombing of a German train station, the April 22 bombing of Oslo, and the April 25 bombing of the town of Heide, all of which resulted in German threats of revenge. (See Human Smoke by Nicholson Baker.) Of course, Germany had already bombed civilians in Spain and Poland, as had Britain in Iraq, India, and South Africa, and as had both sides on a smaller scale in the first world war. Ellsberg recounts the escalation of the blame game prior to the blitz on London:

“Hitler was saying, ‘We will pay back a hundredfold if you continue this. If you do not stop this bombing, we will hit London.’ Churchill kept up the attacks, and two weeks after that first attack, on September 7, the Blitz commenced—the first deliberate attacks on London. This was presented by Hitler as his response to British attacks on Berlin. The British attacks, in turn, were presented as a response to what was believed to be a deliberate German attack on London.”

World War II, by Ellsberg’s account — and how could it be disputed? — was, in my words, aerial genocide by multiple parties. An ethics accepting of that has been with us ever since. A first step toward opening the gates of this asylum, recommended by Ellsberg, would be to establish a policy of no-first use. Help do that here.

2 Replies to “When a Nuclear War Planner Confesses”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *