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So, you like scary stories? Something to keep you awake and afraid?  Here’s one for you: not thieves in the night or assault on the street, not a 500 point drop in the stock-market or being trapped in an elevator.

Just good old, plain and simple, nuclear Armageddon, throbbing and thrumming, not beneath floorboards but in the design and implementation of command and control systems of fifteen thousand  nuclear weapons, 4,400 armed and ready, in 14 countries around the world.

Try Daniel Ellsberg’s The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner, where he sets forth, — no italics, no underlining, no double exclamation marks– from personal experience and technical reportage– what the hell the world has been living with since 1933 when Leo Szilard saw the first signs of nuclear fission on a laboratory oscilloscope.

Best known until now for the revelation of the Pentagon Papers and the long rope of lies tied to the war in Vietnam, Ellsberg was, prior to that, a high level consultant for the Rand Corporation, his specialty being Command and Control Systems and game theory: specifically how were people likely to act in perceived emergency situations with incomplete or possibly faulty information.  He himself drafted top-secret nuclear war plans for Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara in 1961

The book in two parts might be considered two books, of linked but somewhat separate matters.  The first is about the footstep away the world has been from nuclear disaster, not simply due to the existence of thousands of  nuclear armed rockets but because of the very real possibility that accident or misunderstanding could be the cause of their being fired.  The second widens the lens to show that the agreements to use nuclear weapons, in reality over Japan, and as a matter of the highest planning for future wars, did not arise suddenly with the advance of scientific-technical ability. A long preparation of bombing civilians had already prepared the readiness.

The book serves another conjoined purpose.  One is as a confession and a mea culpa for his own slowness to recognize the full danger that he was privy to, of nuclear danger and, his unwitting contribution to the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Allied to that, his increasing sense that secrecy, designed to protect us, has been responsible for nearly killing us.  Only one man, as far as he has been able to find out, ever quit the U.S. H-Bomb program, though over 100 wrote a letter cautioning the President about its dangers.  That one man, Ellsberg discovered late in life, was his own father — moved by John Hersey’s famous Hiroshima, which his son had pressed him to read in 1947.”


From the earliest numbers he sets out – the 1961 estimates of death from a U.S. all-out nuclear attack on the Soviet Union and China –we are unsettled.   Perhaps we’ve read such numbers before.  Let’s read them again

  • 275 million deaths at the moment of impact were estimated;
  • By six months later another 50 million;
  • Add 100 million from fallout, depending on prevailing winds;
  • Another 100 million in neutral countries such as (all of Finland, Sweden, Austria…;
  • The total deaths,  estimated by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was 600 million; not casualties,  deaths.

This was 1961; the population of the entire United States was 180 million.

And, these estimates were made before the planners were aware of the phenomenon of “nuclear winter,” now know to almost certainly follow such attacks.

But wait.  There’s more!

Contrary to what most believe, that the enormous numbers of atomic weapons are to enable the U.S. to survive a hostile attack and attack back –thereby being a “deterrent”–  the actual reason is, written and confirmed many times, not simply to survive a first strike by an enemy, but to survive their counter-strike following a U.S. first strike … to have second strike ability which, in the theory, would be the deterrence needed.  They can’t get away with even responding to our first attack  — contrary to everything the American people have been told since Harry Truman was President

We have also been told since the time of Truman, that the only person who can initiate a nuclear strike is the President himself; that he has a button which he and only he can push. Not so.  Nuclear first-strike authority, from the presidency of Eisenhower, has been designated down to, for example, a Major at a forward base in South Korea, under circumstances as common as a communication failure between that base and Washington.   In fact, Ellsberg was once questioned by General Curtis LeMay why nuclear authority should be in the President’s hands at all — “an untested politician;” it would be more appropriately be in Air Force (LeMay’s) hands.

The United States continues to reject a pledge against First Strike Use. For all presidents, “I will take no cards off the table.”

All of this is revealed the Introduction alone.


The subsequent chapters give rich details of Ellsberg’s ten years with RAND, his time in the Kennedy White House and close collaboration with war-planners, in part trying to roll-back the “all or nothing” strategy for nuclear threat, held dear by the highest military authorities.  Why was China to be bombed if a missile was perceived to be in-coming from Moscow?

He discovered that contrary to explicit treaty guarantees, not only did U.S. navy ships regularly enter Japanese waters without off-loading nuclear weapons, but a nuclear loaded LST (The USS San Joaquin County) was stationed in Iwakuni, Japan, only 40 miles from Hiroshima.  When under-secretary of defense Paul Nitze persuaded Secretary of Defense McNamara to order the ship not to return to Japan from repairs in Okinawa, the resistance from the Navy, in the person of Admiral Arlegih Burke was swift and furious.  Kennedy backed off.  The nukes continued to be held in Japanese waters for several years.

As the accounts accumulate it is hard to know which what to fear more.  Here is just a small sample;

  • The General War plan by the Joint Chiefs of Staff was kept deliberately hidden from government civilians, including the Secretary of Defense and President Kennedy;
  • The General War Plan (JSCP) had no plan other than all out nuclear attack should the USSR attack more than a brigade sized formation. That all out attack included attacking China;
  • No other plans, for non-nuclear response, were drawn up as being
    • Too expensive — Eisenhower
    • Too complex and confusing — war planners;
  • Inter-service rivalry not only set up budgetary battles but drove strategic choices, regardless of actual, thought-out strategic planning, including deliberate over-statement of Soviet nuclear threat in order to draw dollars to those controlling the U.S. weapons, principally the Air Force.
    • For example, the estimated death-and-casualty projections did not include death by firestorm, known from Japan to be the biggest killer. Why? Because greater projected deaths would mean fewer missiles and warheads were needed, and affect military budget requests.
  • The missile crisis in Cuba was initiated by Khrushchev, to convince the Polit-Bureau that he was no weakling after a humiliating revelation by Kennedy that the U.S. knew the Soviets had only 4 ICBMs, not the much larger number being claimed;
  • There are no plans  for a call-back order for nuclear armed weapons, once beyond certain lines
  • Even where, in a distributed command and control system, two officers must simultaneously agree that a threat warranting a nuclear response exits, that control is suborned.  The officers are proud that if one is at a dental appointment the other knows how to unilaterally send nukes on their way

Ellsberg’s account of his prominent role in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, and how frighteningly close the world came to nuclear war, will be interesting to many readers.  Some will remember the Berlin Airlift (one of the first world-events that I, at five years old, was aware of,) and shudder to learn that if the Soviets had tried to enforce the blockade against the U.S. airlifts, the U.S. had only one response: go nuclear.

In some ways, part two of the book is even more interesting, and thoughtful.  A strong case is made that the willingness to accept, indeed hardly to mention,  the hundreds of millions of deaths predicted in nuclear war was not born with the bombs themselves.

Led by Great Britain, at the beginning of WWII,  the general agreement among nations, codified in 1938, that civilians were not a proper target for war, began to be ignored.  Before the war broke out, despite the agreement of all parties to FDR’s plea to ban bombing of civilians, both England and the US, but not Germany were designing and building long-range high-altitude bombers which were incapable of precision bombing. When German planes bombed central London instead of the intended factory target several miles away in August, 1940, the British sent retaliatory planes over Berlin.  The air-war was on.  Pushed by aggressive advocates for air power like British “Bomber” (sometimes, “Butcher”) Harris and American Billy Mitchell, the purposeful fire-bombing of Dresden, Hamburg and other German cities was undertaken; in the Pacific some 67 Japanese cities were saturation bombed, including the massive Tokyo firestorm in March, 1945.

We also are made privy to the decision-by-decision growth of the “Doomsday Machine. ”  This is not a single bomb, even an H-bomb, some 1,000 times as powerful as the two which have been dropped.  It is the entire apparatus of planning and underlying assumptions about human behavior.  One of the principal goals of a nuclear attack is to “decapitate” the command and control centers.  With whom would we then negotiate, asks Ellsberg reasonably.  Since both super powers recognize the problem of decapitation, both have dispersed and decentralized the authority to authorize, and actually pull the trigger, of nuclear war — thereby make less likely the effectiveness of MAD (Mutually assured Destruction) from acting as a deterrent.

As he says, the Kubrick film, “Dr Strangelove,” was less a science-fantasy than a documentary.

Importantly, he shows the untruth of the claim that nuclear weapons have only been used twice.  In fact they have been used often, just as a gun is said to be “used” in a robbery, or other act of compulsion.  He lists twenty-five times nuclear threats have been used to effect actions the U.S. desired — under every president up to the present.


For a book that sometimes reads a bit wonkishly, with technical and military acronyms — NATO, CincPac, and JCS not to mention LST, SIOP and JSCP it is refreshing to hear Ellsberg’s strongly felt and strongly voiced moral concerns. Clearly, his knowledge and the fear that comes with it, has been a burden not only to carry but to painfully re-create after the loss of source documents so many years ago. I hear a relief, even if only partial, of finally sharing what he knows, and of having completed a felt obligation to the rest of us — dearly loved, and completely unknown.

“The planned slaughter of hundreds of millions of Soviets and Chinese, twenty time the staggering deaths of Soviet citizens in World War II, along with an equal number of our allies and citizens of neutral countries, …  exposed a dizzying irrationality, madness, insanity at the heart and soul of our nuclear planning and apparatus”

Though not extremely hopeful, he does describe a number of things that can be done, and should be as fast as possible:

  • The U.S. should adopt and sign on to a no-first-use policy;
  • Land-based ICBMs should be eliminated;
  • The current U.S. arsenal should be pulled of its long-time, and still current hair-trigger

Above all, Ellsberg hopes that his book, and growing awareness will contribute to the growth of an insistent, knowledgeable and powerful citizen movement to bring a change in shallow beliefs and national policies.  He cites a source to say the President Richard Nixon, after pushing Henry Kissinger on the possibility of nuclear bombing of Hanoi, backed off — aware, and afraid, that two million citizens might take to the streets.

Please read this book.  Or listen to a very good reading by Stephen Cooper, at Audible.

For more on Ellsberg’s book and the nuclear experience and danger of our age see my posting here.