In the closing scene of the classic 1964 film Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, Major T. J. “King” Kong straddles a nuclear bomb as it soars down onto the Soviet Union while the World War II hit song We’ll Meet Again blares in the background. Major Kong is the commander of a B-52 bomber sent to attack the USSR by the deranged general Jack D. Ripper—and the protocol will not permit the President of the United States to recall the plane. When the bomb explodes, it will trigger a Doomsday Machine installed by the Soviet military, dispersing a radioactive cloud of deadly Cobalt-Thorium G all across the earth and wiping out all human and animal life.
The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner by Daniel Ellsberg (2017) 424 pages
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The “nuclear football” is a sham
Daniel Ellsberg, then a high-level consultant to the US military on nuclear war, viewed the film when it was newly released. He was profoundly shocked. He and a friend who worked with him thought Dr. Strangelove was “essentially a documentary.” Somehow, the film’s creator, Stanley Kubrick, had guessed one of the US government’s most closely-held secrets. Despite all the media attention to the “nuclear football” containing the codes to unleash a nuclear war, and the government’s insistence that only the President had access to those codes, it was indeed possible for a local commander to attack the Soviet Union with nuclear weapons. Beginning with President Eisenhower, an unknown number of military officers—certainly, more than a dozen; perhaps several dozen—have had their fingers on the nuclear button as well. Eisenhower had delegated that ability to his theater commanders, and they in turn had passed it down the line. Ellsberg even met an Air Force major commanding a small US airbase in Korea who could have started a nuclear war simply because he assumed the USSR had attacked American bases when atmospheric disturbance cut off communications.
The Doomsday Machine is alive and well
In fact, Ellsberg reveals, that level of delegation of control to military officers in the field has been the case throughout the sixty-year history of the nuclear standoff between the US and Russia. The potential still exists for a devastating nuclear exchange to be set off through miscommunication, miscalculation, or an unstable military commander. And Ellsberg makes the case in his shocking new memoir, The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner, that such an exchange would inevitably result in nuclear winter. This phenomenon, repeatedly confirmed by scientists, would extinguish virtually all complex life on Planet Earth by shutting off sunlight, causing harvests to fail, and subjecting billions of human beings and animals to “near-universal starvation within a year or two”—if they survive the fires and the fallout. Effectively, then, both nuclear superpowers had—and still have—the capability to end the human project with what amounts to a Doomsday Machine.
Dan Ellsberg’s dramatic second act
Ellsberg has been studying nuclear war since the late 1950s, when he began a long career as a high-level government consultant to the military. Of course, he is far better known for his courage in releasing the Pentagon Papers in 1971, after several years of work on the Vietnam War. However, in The Doomsday Machine, he explains that he had collected a huge stockpile of official documents about nuclear war that he fully intended to release in the same manner once the reception for the Pentagon Papers had run its course.
“From the fall of 1969 to leaving the RAND Corporation in August 1970,” Ellsberg writes, “I copied everything in the Top Secret safe in my office—of which the seven thousand pages of the Pentagon Papers were only a fraction . . . perhaps fifteen thousand pages in all.” (For many years, Ellsberg had “classified access several levels above Top Secret.”) Sadly, all but the Pentagon Papers were lost in an abortive effort to hide them. But much of that lost material has since been declassified. Now, based on his own extensive notes, research on the issue over six decades, and declassified files from the 1950s and 60s, Ellsberg is belatedly fulfilling his promise to bring the enduring nuclear threat to the forefront.
Startling revelations in The Doomsday Machine
The Doomsday Machine is full of deeply disturbing revelations. The book sometimes reads like a thriller, as Ellsberg describes his mounting horror and revulsion over the discoveries he made over the years. Here are just a few of the most shocking:
- The United States is poised to deliver a preemptive nuclear first strike. “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 . . . Though officially denied, preemptive ‘launch on warning’ (LOW) . . . has always been at the heart of our strategic alert.”
- The United States is far from alone in delegating nuclear war-making capability to field officers. “How many fingers are on Pakistani nuclear buttons? Probably not even the president of Pakistan knows reliably.”
- “The strategic nuclear system is more prone to false alarms, accidents, and unauthorized launches than the public (and even most high officials) has ever been aware.”
- For decades after the Sino-Soviet split in the late 1950s, US nuclear weapons were targeted at thousands of cities in both Russia and China—and our country’s nuclear war doctrine held that every weapon in the arsenal would be released all at once in the event of war . . . on both countries.
- If you’re old enough, or read enough history, you might remember the “missile gap” that played a part in elevating John F. Kennedy to the White House. Of course, there was no gap, as was revealed not far into Kennedy’s short stay there. But Ellsberg reveals that the actual number of Soviet nuclear weapons at the time was not hundreds but . . . four. The US then had forty. (Today, there are nearly 15,000 nuclear warheads stockpiled around the world; the US and Russia account for 93 percent of them.)
- If you were an adult during the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, as I was, you’re surely aware that the world came extremely close to nuclear armageddon. Ellsberg reveals, however, that the chances of war were even greater than was known for many years after the fact. Four nuclear-armed Soviet submarines were in the Caribbean—and one came perilously close to detonating a nuclear torpedo that would have destroyed US Navy ships in the vicinity. Only the chance intervention of a single man on that submarine prevented that catastrophe, which would unquestionably have caused the US military to unleash a first strike on the USSR and China. And that event took place two days after the world believed the crisis had been resolved by agreement between Kennedy and Khrushchev.
In Part Two of The Doomsday Machine, Ellsberg probes the origins of the notion that attacking cities was acceptable. It’s a fascinating account of the history of airpower, from the use of planes for reconnaissance in World War I to strategic bombing in World War II. Though less dramatic than his earlier revelations about nuclear war, Ellsberg’s explanation of how the US and Britain came to justify the firebombing of Tokyo and Dresden is deeply distressing. This experience laid the foundation for the use of the atomic bomb over Hiroshima and Nagasaki—and makes clear how “there was no moral agonizing at all among Truman’s civilian or military advisors about the prospect of using the atom bomb on a city.” Yet “seven of the eight officers of five-star rank in the U.S. Armed Forces in 1945 believed the bomb was not necessary to avert [an] invasion” of Japan.
We still live under the nuclear hammer. “Two systems still risk doomsday,” Ellsberg concludes. “Both are still on hair-trigger alert that makes their joint existence unstable.”
For further reading
This is one of the many good nonfiction books about national security reviewed here. It’s also one of 14 excellent memoirs reviewed here and of the many Good books by Berkeley authors reviewed on this site.
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