Click here if you don’t see subscription options
Peter SteinfelsDecember 27, 2017

Is it really necessary to declare that a knowledgeable, detailed and passionate book about the odds-on danger of cataclysmically destroying all human life on earth is important? Daniel Ellsberg’s The Doomsday Machine demands to be widely read. Its claims should be examined by experts, corroborated, rebutted, taken up by Congressional committees (alas, unlikely) and generally forced into public consciousness.

The Doomsday Machineby Daniel Ellsberg

Bloomsbury, 432p $30

To those of us who campaigned against the Vietnam War as unjust and unwinnable, Daniel Ellsberg was a hero. In 1971 he risked years in jail by secretly copying and leaking a classified Defense Department study, eventually known as the Pentagon Papers, that exposed the glaring gap between the rhetoric and the reality of what Washington had long been doing in Vietnam. Ellsberg was a Pentagon insider. That is what made his whistleblowing possible. But few of us thought of him, to quote his subtitle, as “a nuclear war planner.”

It was not a career he chose but one that he eventually embraced. A brilliant Harvard graduate studying decision-making under conditions of uncertainty, he was invited to work at the RAND Corporation, the Air Force’s independent-minded think tank. There he discovered that under President Eisenhower the military had an operational plan for waging nuclear war that had been elaborately concealed from the Secretary of Defense and other civilian officials.

To those of us who campaigned against the Vietnam War as unjust and unwinnable, Daniel Ellsberg was a hero.

At the beginning of 1961, Ellsberg alerted the newly installed Kennedy administration to the plan, which posited an indiscriminate, inflexible, all-out attack on the U.S.S.R. and China. It targeted virtually all cities as well as military sites, using weapons a thousand times more destructive than that dropped on Hiroshima. Blast, heat and fallout would kill well over half a billion people, mostly civilians. Add in the wider firestorms, and the total would double. To Ellsberg, these figures were “pure evil.” From the day he saw them, he writes, “I have had an overriding life purpose: to prevent the execution of any such plan.”

Ellsberg had already been asked to help revise the plan. In April, just turning 30, he finished drafting a document that argued for flexible responses rather than all-out initial assault; for sparing many cities; for not automatically lumping China with the U.S.S.R.; for reinforcing safeguards against war-triggering accidents; and for maintaining communication with enemy leaders instead of targeting them, so that a conflict might be limited or halted. On paper at least, these revisions shaped U.S. war plans through multiple administrations.

Not that Ellsberg takes much satisfaction in that. In practice, he believes, those restraints have been largely ignored or undermined: “The basic elements of American readiness for nuclear war remain today what they were almost sixty years ago.”

As a memoir, The Doomsday Machine is engrossing and frightening. In particular, Ellsberg discovered a military mentality in deep denial about the concrete realities of nuclear warfare and distrustful of civilian leadership to the point of insubordination.

Ellsberg also traces the pre-nuclear-era breakdown of moral and military strictures against directly bombing or incinerating civilian population centers. He discusses the “doomsday machine” of the book’s title, a theoretical mechanism that would automatically destroy all human life if one nuclear superpower were to get the jump on another. In 1960 Herman Kahn, the bad boy of nuclear strategy, proposed this absurd form of ultimate deterrence.

“The basic elements of American readiness for nuclear war remain today what they were almost sixty years ago.”

We have in fact created such a doomsday machine, says Ellsberg. Any significant nuclear exchange would trigger a “nuclear winter,” a concept widely publicized by Carl Sagan and other scientists in the 1980s. Smoke propelled into the upper atmosphere would block sunlight for years, drop the earth’s temperature and devastate vegetation. Nearly all of humanity would starve.

To dismantle this doomsday machine, Ellsberg proposes unilaterally scrapping all land-based intercontinental missiles and strategic bombers, leaving a very limited number of mostly submarine-launched nuclear weapons. Such a minimal retaliatory force would be sufficient to deter any nuclear attack but too small to make Russia (or any other nuclear power) feel it had to preserve its missiles from destruction by preemptively launching them.

It is easy to anticipate objections to Ellsberg’s account. Will fellow “war planners” have different recollections of episodes he describes or point to developments in the nearly five decades after his government service? (Ellsberg notes that the number of warheads “on both sides” has declined by over 80 percent since the 1960s.)

Any significant nuclear exchange would trigger a “nuclear winter.”

Are the basics of deterrence lost, especially for the uninitiated, amid his compelling stories and focus on all-out war? Does he clarify or confuse by equating nuclear “first use” with explicit or even implicit threats? Presidents have “used” nuclear weapons multiple times, he writes, in the way that a gun to someone’s head is used to coerce behavior even if the trigger is never pulled. And what about the key place of nuclear winter in his argument? Should Ellsberg have at least acknowledged that the scientific basis of nuclear winter is disputed?

And what about allies? Commitments to allies in regions where Moscow or Beijing enjoy conventional military advantages have kept Washington from ruling out a resort to nuclear weapons. Yet this “extended deterrence” has always raised doubts about whether the United States really would risk its own cities for the defense, say, of Berlin or Brussels, Tokyo or Seoul. Ellsberg gives no more than passing attention to this puzzle.

Finally, would Ellsberg’s proposed minimal deterrent provide the stability that is the sine qua non of preventing nuclear war? How does it compare to alternatives? His sketch of it provides no specific numbers or targets or scenarios about how it would work.

With North Korea shattering our post-Cold War complacency about nuclear war, the need to engage Ellsberg’s case could not seem more obvious. What is true, what is false, what is unknown? But do we really want to undertake that inquiry? Aren’t we, especially as Catholics, confronted with a prior moral question?

It is a question to which Ellsberg himself is acutely sensitive. Throughout his “confessions,” he struggles to reconcile the scarcely imaginable monstrosity of nuclear war with the fact that those active in planning it were not monsters but in many cases driven to keep it from ever occurring. That is what made him a “nuclear war planner” in 1961, when he revised the existing war plan for Robert McNamara; that is what makes him one now, when he proposes a unilateral, vastly downsized nuclear deterrent. To the extent that we engage seriously with the questions he raises and commit ourselves to acting as citizens on the answers, aren’t we all nuclear war planners, too?

To be sure, there is another option: not to torment ourselves about those answers; not to get entangled in devilish calculations about weaponry, targets, consequences, stability, psychology, geopolitics; to just say no. That is the stance that Pope Francis appears to be pointing the Catholic Church toward. The whole framework of deterrence, he recently suggested, is irredeemably sunk in irrationality.

The Doomsday Machine can be read simply to confirm the pope’s view. Ellsberg often uses similar language. He strives to minimize the conflict between the case for a minimal nuclear deterrent and the abolition of deterrence altogether. That may explain his cursory description of his own proposal.

Perhaps a working alliance is possible between these contrasting approaches. Nonetheless, I suspect that reactions to The Doomsday Machine will boil down to those two moral—and psychological—options: Engage the debate, or just say no.

The latest from america

Books about World War II are ubiquitous in the nonfiction section, but "Hitler's American Gamble" is the rare recent work with a genuinely new contribution to make, not just to our understanding of the past but also to our understanding of the present.
Lauren Groff's new novel inverts Defoe’s "Robinson Crusoe" by casting a girl—and only briefly, much later on in the novel, the woman—as its heroine.
Joseph PeschelMay 16, 2024
In "All the Kingdoms of the World¸" Kevin Vallier engages with Catholic integralists, but he opens a bigger question: Is there such a thing as a Catholic politics?
An account of “what it meant to be a Roman emperor,” Mary Beard's new book is also a sustained exploration of tradition embodied by an individual ruler.