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.