By MICHAEL G. LIVINGSTON
A review of “The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a nuclear war planner,” by Daniel Ellsberg. (New York: Bloomsbury USA) 2017.
“[A]ny social system (not just ours) that has created and maintained a Doomsday Machine and has put a trigger to it, including first use of nuclear weapons, in the hands of one human being—anyone, not just this man, [i.e. Trump] still worse in the hands of an unknown number of persons—is in core aspects mad. Ours is such a system. We are in the grip of institutionalized madness” (p. 332).
Since the late 1980s, most Americans have forgotten about the dangers of nuclear war, in spite of the fact that those dangers have increased greatly. Either Americans haven’t noticed or they don’t care. Now the popular success of “Oppenheimer” (see Workers’ Voice/La voz de los trabajadores, Aug. 12, 2023, “Igniting the atmosphere: A review of ‘Oppenheimer’”) has reintroduced the question of nuclear weapons to the public.
Daniel Ellsberg, who died on July 16, 2023, at the age of 92, always noticed and cared. Famous as the whistleblower who leaked the “Pentagon Papers” during the Vietnam War, he has written a disturbing and detailed history of what he calls the “Doomsday Machine,” the policies and institutions dedicated to nuclear war. Part memoir, part history, he shows how unstable this machine is, how it developed, and how deeply entrenched it is in the U.S. military-industrial complex.
Ellsberg grew up during World War II. After graduating from Harvard University and attending Cambridge University on a fellowship, he enlisted in the Marines as an officer. After his three-year tour he returned to Harvard in 1957 for graduate study, where he studied economic theory, specifically decision-making under conditions of uncertainty. In the summer of 1958, he was a consultant to the RAND Corporation, a think tank with contracts from the U.S. Air Force and Pentagon. And by 1959 Ellsberg had a full-time position at RAND, a Ph.D. in decision-making theory, and was working for the military on top-secret nuclear war planning. As a planner, Ellsberg moved back and forth in jobs, sometimes working for RAND and sometimes working for the Pentagon or White House. RAND was at the center of the military-industrial complex and the heart of the militarization of American science.
Ellsberg’s awaking to the madness and evil of the Doomsday Machine took time. An important turning point occurred in the spring of 1961. Just after his 30th birthday, Ellsberg was handed a one-page memo stamped “Top Secret—Sensitive” and “For the President’s Eyes Only” from the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The memo contained a graph that estimated the number of deaths caused by a U.S. pre-emptive nuclear strike on the USSR and China: 275 million deaths immediately and 325 deaths after six months. The graph excluded deaths in Eastern Europe (where the U.S. planned to attack Soviet bases) and Western Europe from nuclear fallout. The total estimated deaths from a U.S. attack: 600 million people.
Ellsberg writes: “I remember what I thought when I first held this single sheet with the graph on it. I thought, this piece of paper should not exist. It should never have existed. Not in America. Not anywhere ever. It depicted evil beyond any human project ever. There should be nothing on earth, nothing real, that it referred to” (p. 3).
Ellsberg spent the next 10 years trying to fix the madness. In the process he discovered how easily nuclear weapons can get lost, how many individuals have “their finger on the button,” i.e., can launch nuclear weapons on their own authority, how the so-called missile gap was a lie, how weak the safeguards were (and are) to prevent accidental nuclear war, and how other countries also built Doomsday Machines in response to the U.S. arsenal. Reading his memoir sent shivers down my spine.
Another major turning point for Ellsberg was the Cuban Missile Crisis. Ellsberg was intimately involved in Washington with the U.S. response. His description of the crisis, using his personal experience and scholarship from both the U.S. and the former USSR, shows that the world came within a millimeter of nuclear war between the two superpowers, in spite of the efforts of both Kennedy and Khrushchev to wind down the conflict through negotiations. A U.S. attack on Soviet subs almost provoked a Soviet nuclear attack, but for the decision of a single Soviet commander who voted not to launch the attack.
In the fall of 1969 Ellsberg started copying all the documents in his top-secret safe. Most of these documents related to nuclear war. Some related to the Vietnam War. The documents on nuclear war were hidden and tragically lost. The several thousand pages related to Vietnam were published and became known as the “Pentagon Papers.” Ellsberg had had enough.
The second part of Ellsberg’s book traces the historical development of the Doomsday Machine. It began before the detonation of the atomic bombs on Japan. The birth of the Doomsday Machine starts with the mass bombing of civilians, first by the Japanese in Shanghai in 1932 and 1937, and second by the Nazi allies of Franco in Guernica (Spain) by the Nazi allies of the fascist Francisco Franco in 1937. By the time the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, both the Allied powers as well as the Axis powers believed in the value of “strategic” bombing—i.e., bombing of civilians, factories, roads, and ports far from any battlefield, as in Tokyo, Dresden, Hamburg, etc. Needless to say, the bombings were a direct violation of all international law regarding war as developed over the centuries. As subsequent scholars have shown, the bombing was not just immoral; it was ineffective as a means of ending or winning the war. And yet the military embraced this doctrine and used it to justify nuclear war.
Ellsberg points out that most of us have a serious misconception about nuclear weapons, a misconception shaped by our images of the mushroom clouds over Hiroshima or Nagasaki. Those photos come from atomic bomb blasts. The current weapons are hydrogen bombs. “Every one of our many thousands of H-bombs,” he writes, requires a Nagasaki-type A-bomb as its denotator” (p. 292). This makes each one of these devices “in practical effects … one of genocide” and “a danger to humanity as a whole” (p. 290), according to Enrico Fermi and I.I. Rabi, two of the physicists instrumental in the development of thermonuclear weapons.
Research carried out after the 1960s shows that the estimated deaths from even a limited nuclear war are often gross underestimates. This is because of what scientists call nuclear winter, a topic Ellsberg discusses throughout his book. The ash from a thermonuclear explosion blocks out the sun and can stay in the atmosphere for a year or more, causing a kind of years-long winter. This in turns kills many plants, and most animals and humans die from starvation. A so-called limited strike of 100 weapons, out of the 1500 that currently exist, would blacken the skies for a decade and kill all complex life on the planet.
The dangers of human extinction are exacerbated by what Ellsberg calls the “Strangelove Paradox.” For nuclear weapons to function as a deterrent, countries must distribute control over these weapons widely in the military and political hierarchy, including to regional commanders or low-level officers. This is to prevent decapitation of a political leadership that would make it impossible to retaliate. As it turns out, the idea that the president of the U.S. is the only person with access to “the button” is false. Thousands of people in every country that has nuclear weapons have the ability to launch an attack. The Strangelove Paradox makes it highly probable that a nuclear war will be started by mistake, by the actions of rogue commanders, or by a terrorist attack mistaken for an enemy assault. As Ellsberg noted earlier in his memoire, the movie “Dr. Strangelove” was in a very real sense not a parody, but a documentary.
Because of the myth of American exceptionalism, Americans often incorrectly assume that the U.S. would never strike first with thermonuclear weapons. Ignoring the fact that the U.S. used the A-bomb twice against Japan and is the only country to have ever used these weapons, we are self-righteous in our ignorance.
The U.S. also uses the threat of nuclear war like a bank robber uses a gun. “Every president from Truman to Clinton has felt compelled at some point in his time in office—usually in great secrecy—to threaten and/or discuss with the Joint Chiefs of Staff plans and preparations for possible imminent [Ellsberg’s italics] U.S. initiative of tactical or strategic nuclear warfare, in the midst of an ongoing non-nuclear conflict or crisis” (p.319). Ellsberg goes on to list 25 times that U.S. presidents have been tempted to strike first with nuclear weapons. While we do not know (because the U.S. keeps it secret) if Presidents Bush Jr., Obama, Trump, and Biden considered using nuclear weapons as a first strike, none of them renounced the use of such weapons. The madness and human evil continues to this day.
In 2021, Ellsberg released classified documents showing that the U.S. planned a nuclear first strike against China in 1958 if China threatened Taiwan militarily. We must assume that such plans still exist, given the history of first strike planning by the U.S., and that the threat of a U.S. nuclear attack on China is very real.
By the end of his memoir, Ellsberg has convincingly demonstrated the hidden reality “that for over fifty years, all-out thermonuclear war—an irreversible, unprecedented, and almost unimaginable calamity for civilization and most life on earth—has been … a catastrophe waiting to happen” (p. 20).
Marx observed in his “Theses on Feuerbach” that “the philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.” Ellsberg is no mere philosopher: he wants to save the world from nuclear death. His last chapter is an impassioned plea to dismantle the Doomsday Machine. Among the concrete steps he proposes: adoption of a no first-use policy by the U.S., investigative hearings on U.S. war planning in light of nuclear winter, elimination of all U.S. ICBMs, no modernization or replacement of our existing nuclear arsenal (as both Obama and Trump have sought), and giving up on the profits, jobs, and international hegemony based on our nuclear arsenal. All of these steps are important antiwar demands.
Marxists know that it is only through mass movements that people can dismantle the Doomsday Machine (see Workers’ Voice/La voz de los trabajadores, Sept. 8, 2023: “Why mass movements are necessary”). Ellsberg seemed to understand this also. He spent more than 50 years as a prominent activist and analyst in the cause of peace until his death this year. Now is the time for us to create a mass movement to dismantle the Doomsday Machine. As Ellsberg concludes, quoting Martin Luther King’s April 4, 1967, speech: “We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent coannihilation … Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world” (p. 350).
As Marxists, we also know that while building a mass antiwar movement is necessary, it is not sufficient to abolish the threat of war, nuclear or otherwise. Modern warfare’s threat to humanity is an intrinsic part of capitalism, an economic system based on profits before all. To truly end the threat of nuclear war, as well as wars waged with non-nuclear weapons, working people must seize power and create an eco-socialist economic system based on cooperation—and not on imperialist competition and capitalist exploitation. Dismantle the Doomsday Machine! End capitalism!