Forty-six years after the release of the Pentagon Papers, Ellsberg reveals another set of documents on how nuclear war might have been waged in the 1950s and 60s.
Long before Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning and Wikileaks, there was Daniel Ellsberg. Forty-six years after the release of the Pentagon Papers, he is once again front and center in the issues we are talking about. Ken Burns controversially chose not to include Ellsberg in his look back at Vietnam. Steven Spielberg has made the Pentagon Papers the ultimate macguffin of his new film The Post, with Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep.
But Ellsberg, when he left Rand Corporation in 1971, took with him more than the Pentagon Papers. He carried out a whole additional set of documents on America’s nuclear policy and its command and control in the 1950s and 1960s.
The papers were the result of Ellsberg’s work as a military analyst at Rand. At that famous defense think-tank, his work focused on how presidents could better understand when and how to launch nuclear weapons using disciplines like decision theory and the study of ambiguity.
After leaving Rand, Ellsberg held the papers back, planning to release them when the war in Vietnam ended. Unfortunately, in a remarkable side story, the papers were hidden so well by Ellsberg’s brother that they were never found. Nonetheless, while the original papers were forever lost, using his notes and memories Ellsberg has virtually reconstructed this history, which he reveals in his new book The Doomsday Machine.
That’s the subject of this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, in which Jeff Schechtman talks with Daniel Ellsberg.
As the North Korean crisis once again elevates nuclear war to the realm of conceivability, Ellsberg explains how his early work in economic decision-making was applied to ideas like “launch on warning” and “use them before you lose them.” He also discusses the cold calculations that measured the utility of a “first strike” against how many hundreds of millions of civilian deaths could be considered “acceptable.”
Ellsberg shatters the myth that only the president can launch nuclear weapons. He offers chilling insights, showing how President Dwight Eisenhower set the stage for the delegation and even the sub-delegation of the power to launch nuclear weapons. This policy continued for decades and probably still exists today.
For the title of his new book The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner (Bloomsbury USA, December 2017), Ellsberg borrowed the phrase “The Doomsday Machine” from Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 film Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.
In a sobering look back at the dawn of the nuclear age, Ellsberg offers both a clarion call for change and a reminder that what is past is prologue.
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|Welcome to Radio WhoWhatWhy. I’m Jeff Schechtman. Somebody asked me recently if I thought that this time we are living through will be as significant or as profoundly influential as the ‘60s. I don’t know the answer to that. What I do know is that there are recurring themes from that period that we seem to be relitigating and reliving. Race is certainly one, but our renewed discussion about Vietnam, and also the real threat of nuclear war, are the two most profound.
|My guest Daniel Ellsberg was at the center of these issues in the ‘60s and is still here to provide his wisdom and insights into the way that history may be repeating itself.
|It is no accident that both the Ken Burns documentary about Vietnam — which conspicuously did not include a conversation with Ellsberg — and the upcoming Steven Spielberg movie The Post have once again catapulted him to the front of our national dialogue.
|Most of us know Daniel Ellsberg for the Pentagon Papers, which he copied and leaked in 1971, and which played a significant role in shaping public opinion toward a withdrawal from Vietnam and ultimately the end of the war.
|What we might forget, or may not have known, is that Ellsberg was, at the time, one of the foremost war planners. A nuclear strategist and one of the leading thinkers of the time, about the role and actual use of nuclear weapons. Now, after all these years, he’s written about this in his new book, The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear Planner. It is my pleasure to welcome Daniel Ellsberg here to Radio WhoWhatWhy. Dan, thanks so for much for joining us.
|Well thank you for having me. It’s a pleasure.
|I want to begin by talking a little bit about how you came to RAND, because it was really your credentials and your work in this nuclear policy area and strategic thinking and the theories of the time that brought you to RAND.
|It was my interest in a field, a theoretical field of economics called decision theory. How people would or should make decisions in the face of great uncertainty when they didn’t really know for sure the consequences of their actions. And RAND was doing a lot of study of … I discovered that they were looking at the possibility, the uncertain possibility, of a Soviet surprise attack on the United States. All the people in the Economics Division that I joined at RAND were working night and day really, at trying to avert a Soviet surprise attack from what was supposed to be, in terms of top secret estimates, an overwhelming number of Soviet missiles compared to what we had. And one that could practically devastate our ability to retaliate, and thus we would lose deterrents and an attack might occur.
|Because of my interest in decision theory, I focused on a particular problem, which is how would the President decide when it was time to get planes off the ground, or even missiles, which can’t be returned once they’re launched. In the face of warning of an attack from our very expensive radar systems and what came to be satellite reconnaissance systems and infrared, which might indicate that an attack was coming but would not do so with certainty, they were subject to false alarms. Even a flock of geese at one point, believe it or not, or radar bouncing off the moon more strongly than anyone had expected [could be] indicating that an attack was coming with high certainty at a time when no attack was coming.
|So how, in the face of the fact that the President wouldn’t know for sure whether we were under attack, might he decide that he had to get his missiles or planes off the ground and use them before we lost them. That is still here actually. That problem still exists with our land-based missiles, our vulnerable intercontinental ballistic missiles, ICBMs, because again, it’s a use them or lose them situation. The Russians, like ourselves, can target such missiles and hit them with high accuracy and deprive the adversary of that capability for retaliation. So there still is a launch-on-warning readiness, actually, which could trigger an all-out nuclear war in a situation where it was really based on false electronic warning. It’s a dangerous situation and always has been.
|The other part of it, it seems just as dangerous that you write about, is not only the uncertainty in terms of the decisions themselves, but the ambiguity with respect to the Command and Control within the system.
|Well who, in other words, could launch these weapons? Is it only the President? The public has always been led to believe, and is being led to believe right now, quite falsely, that only the President can launch those weapons with the authority to do it. Now, it’s worrying the public to think about that because they’re looking at the man with his, metaphorically, his finger on the button here, as being somewhat unbalanced, the present President. So the idea that Donald J. Trump can launch those forces is something that’s worrying people a lot and rightly so, actually. But where they’re mistaken is to think that only the President can launch them. That’s never been true because, if that were true, an adversary like the Russians or even a terrorist of some sort could paralyze our entire nuclear capability simply with one explosion on Washington. Or strictly speaking, even one bullet, as hit Ronald Reagan and put the question of command in some question there for a while with Secretary of State Hague asserting, “Don’t worry, I’m in command.” And he wasn’t, actually.
|But who was? And the answer is, that when it comes to an ability to launch the weapons, and even to do it in the belief that you’re authorized to do it because Washington may have been hit, that ability is rather widely diffused. How widely? I don’t know right now. And the President did not know in the Cold War years because he delegated, starting with Eisenhower, that authority to a number of high-level theater commanders, as in the Pacific or Strategic Air Command. But they, in turn, delegated that power for the same reason. That they might be hit. Communications might be out and we had to have, in their eyes, an ability to attack in face of that.
|So, the system has always been looser and more diffuse in terms of control than the public has ever imagined.
|You mentioned in the book that, in fact, Kennedy and his people were quite surprised at how widespread the control was from Eisenhower.
|They were. In fact, I reported that as a result of my work for Commander in Chief Pacific CINCPAC, Admiral Harry Felt in the Pacific. And I had found that to be true and I reported it to McGeorge Bundy, the Assistant to President Kennedy, for National Security. And he was very shocked to realize this. But, somewhat to my surprise, Kennedy chose to continue that delegation rather than to appear to reverse the decision of the great commander, his predecessor, Eisenhower. And did not even do anything to stop the sub-delegation, the further delegation that had so worried me.
|That remained true for his successors. For Johnson, even though it was a major issue in the campaign of 1964. His opponent, a Reserve Air Force General, Goldwater, was really reflecting the attitudes of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and of the Air force when he called publicly for this delegation to occur. For commanders in Europe even to be able to use what he called their tactical weapons without worrying about any authorization. Whether communications were in or not.
|That led to a great concern about Goldwater. In fact, that was the first instance in which a lot of psychiatrists gave their opinion in groups that Goldwater was unstable and was not… partly because of his readiness to use nuclear weapons and for other reasons. And that led to the Goldwater rule that psychiatrists should not publicly diagnose figures they had not personally interviewed or observed. And that Goldwater rule is being violated right now by a lot of psychologists and psychiatrists because they’re worried about Donald Trump and they feel the President has to be warned. But, as I say, the public has to be warned. But, going back to that, it was also continued by Nixon and by his successors throughout the Cold War.
|And, undoubtedly, although I don’t know directly, but undoubtedly there is a great deal of delegation and violation of rules, such as two-man rules that assure that no decision will be made about nuclear weapons without the participation of at least two people. Well that rule applied back in the late ‘50s and the early ‘60s and was violated everywhere. Everywhere, I found, it was possible for one person to do that. And I suspect that’s true today. But Congress should find out whether it’s true and they never have.
|I want to go back and talk a little bit about some of the papers about all of this that you were able to copy and took with you out of RAND, that were sort of a subset of the Pentagon Papers that you chose not to release at the time. And talk a little bit about the story about what happened to those papers.
|My notes and studies that I had in my top secret safe in my office at RAND which I was authorized to have, had to do with all the work I’d done on nuclear command and control and nuclear war planning. And I had concluded that all of this should be out. It was historical by that time and wasn’t about current plans or current procedures except to the extent that those failures of procedure and violations still applied. That’s always been true.
|But that’s why I wanted to get it out. To assure people that they really should press Congress to investigate this with subpoenas and with whistleblowers and to get a grip on a system that was largely out of control. And the same was true in Vietnam. But I did expect to put the material on Vietnam, the Pentagon Papers, a historical study, out first because that’s where the bombs were falling at that time and I wanted to help. I encouraged the public to shorten that process.
|And I expected to put the other material out after I had faced trial, as I did on The Pentagon Papers. That was, subjected me, to a possible 115 years in prison. But assuming that I would be able to delegate, authorize, others where I had stored these other papers, to put them out even if I were in prison. That I thought I would do that afterwards. After The Pentagon Papers had had their effect on the war, whatever that was. In fact, though, I gave them to my brother who, ultimately, not to go through the whole story, buried them in a trash dump in Tarrytown, New York, and inside a box in a garbage bag. And all the copies were in that same box.
|And, unfortunately, a tropical storm, Doria, a small hurricane, hit the area at that point, disbursed all the land where this stuff was buried, including the markers he’d put to indicate where it was. And he was never able to find it despite a year and a half or more of efforts on weekends to recover that box. So, to my great anguish, by the time the trial ended because of White House crimes against me, actually, which eventually faced Nixon with impeachment and with his resignation and that made the war endable. At that point, I really turned my attention to whether it really was unrecoverable and it turned out to be, yes, it was just impossible to get those documents.
|So, what we have here is the substance of that material based on notes that were not lost and my memory at the time. I wrote a great deal of memos at the time and transcripts for my lawyers, in fact, of all this other material. And that’s reflected in my current book.
|Talk a little bit about the strategy at the time. And you talked about it a moment ago. About this effort to deter the Soviet Union and the serious conversations that used to take place as they did in the movie Doctor Strangelove, from which the title of this book comes, about, literally talking about first strike and 400 million people being killed, et cetera.
|The plan at that time, and really ever since. The predominant shape of the planning for our use of nuclear weapons was to initiate their use, not as the public supposed or was told, to retaliate to an attack on our own weapons or on our own country. As of 1961, which was several years after I started on the problem, it turned out that there was essentially no chance of a Soviet surprise attack. They didn’t have the weapons for it. Instead of hundreds or even a thousand ICBMs, they turned out, in 1961, to have four with no capability. They had not bought a capability to attack the United States. So that wasn’t the problem.
|But meanwhile, all this time, our Strategic Air Command had been oriented toward an attack on the Soviet Union, not out of the blue, not a Pearl Harbor attack, not a preventive war, in other words. But an attack that would arise out of a local conflict in Europe, as in Berlin, or an uprising in the satellites in which NATO intervened in some way, which quickly escalated by US initiative, to an attack to disarm the Soviet Union and essentially destroy their society.
|A first strike, then, as I say, not a preventive war, but either an escalation of a conflict that was non-nuclear to start with, or preemption. As some people put it, striking second first. Meaning, in the belief that an attack either was imminent from a defector of some kind or some kind of intelligence they had over there, or, what I said earlier, the indications from our warning systems that an attack was underway, but no word had yet reached their targets in our country.
|We would get our weapons off the ground and go over there and attack what ICBMs they might still have in their silos and hadn’t gotten out, or their submarine ports, their Command and Control or whatnot. In other words what was called a preemptive attack, which again would be first. It would be our launching, irreversibly, weapons before any weapons had actually exploded in this country.
|And, the next question you raised was, “But what would the consequences of that be?” What the Joint Chiefs contemplated in early ’61 was that our own first-strike arising, let’s say, over Berlin, a new Berlin blockade in ’61 was just threatened. But the consequence would be killing 600 million people. A hundred holocausts as I saw it ending in horror when I saw their estimate. And that was clearly a great underestimate because it didn’t even allow for fire as a calculation. They felt that that was too hard to predict where the winds would be and how flammable the materials would be. So they didn’t put that into their consequences. And that was the major effect of thermonuclear weapons, so the casualties would have been well beyond that and added to that would be the Russian retaliation, which would certainly annihilate Europe, whatever it would have been against the U.S.
|So we’re talking about a deliberate plan on our part to kill several hundred million people in the U.S.S.R. and China alone. But then another hundred million in what we call the satellite countries, the so-called captive nations in East Europe that are now part of NATO. And that wouldn’t exist had a war occurred. And about a hundred million in our allies, NATO, Western Europe, due to fallout from the radioactivity and the fallout from our attacks elsewhere to the East. So our allies would be annihilated essentially by our own attacks, without even a single warhead landing over there.
|It was the most insane and immoral plan that had ever been conceived, I would say, in the history of our species. And, at the same time … It allowed, by the way, for no reserves, no control once the gold button was pushed. No stop order. No ability to call anybody back whether or not the President wanted to limit the war or the other side surrendered. There was no way to get a surrender. Either Moscow and the other command centers would be struck at the very outset. Moreover, under any conflict with Russian troops anywhere, whether it was in Yugoslavia, or Iran, or Berlin, would lead to our hitting every city in China, as well as every city in Russia. When I say it was an insane and insanely destructive plan, that’s what I’m describing.
|And this was before even the idea of nuclear winter was understood, which would have killed hundreds of millions more.
|Exactly. So, it was another 20 years or more. In 1983, when scientists, including Carl Sagan and others, Brian Toon, Turco, a number of others, calculated that the effects of these attacks in especially the fire they would cause, would loft smoke in very high updrafts caused by firestorms, which, in turn, were caused by the nuclear weapons. It would loft this smoke into the stratosphere where it wouldn’t rain out and where it would quickly go around the earth. And we’re talking now about more than a hundred million tons of smoke and soot from these burning cities. That would block sunlight to the extent of about 70% of the sunlight worldwide, killing all the harvests and much of the vegetation and the animals that depend on vegetation, including us.
|So, they would all starve within a matter of months or a year. Not right away. But there’s about 60 days of food supplies in the world for the world population, a lot of it concentrated in a few countries including our own. So we’d last a little longer in terms of months, in terms of eating, before we starved. And the effect, in other words, was, that whether you went first or second, the effect would be the same essentially. Our own attacks or the Russian’s own attacks. When they acquired a similar capability in the mid-‘60s, they, too, got what could be called a doomsday machine. A system that would destroy nearly all humanity and make extinct, by the way, totally, nearly every other large animal, larger than a squirrel, let’s say.
|The earth would be denuded of most complex life, animal life, and the vegetation and that is true to this day. Russia and the US, despite having reduced their forces by some 80% or more, still have on-alert, on a readiness posture, a hair-trigger alert, capable of being triggered by an expectation of the other side attacking, or the false alarm of a sort that has occurred a number of times. A false alarm most recently that we know of in Russia, actually, after the Cold War where Yeltsin was actually poised over his apparatus, his button, being urged to push it by people in response to what was actually a weather rocket from Norway that had been mistaken for a rocket heading for Moscow.
|So, the world’s survival, and not the world’s survival, but humanity’s survival — the earth will go on but without us — is actually poised on this hair-trigger possibility that, inexcusably, has persisted for the last 30 years after the Cold, even after the Cold War, and really, was never justified ever. It’s been … This existence of doomsday machines was never justifiable, but combinations of inertia and industry, military industrial complex priorities in terms of building weapons, profits, jobs, employment, on both sides now. Remember that Russia is now a capitalist country and has much the same incentives to build these weapons as our corporations do, like Lockheed and others. And that has kept these systems still in operation, threatening us all.
|And it’s interesting that some of the conversations that we hear today with respect to North Korea are not that dissimilar from the conversations that you talk about that went on during Berlin. The Joint Chiefs talked to Kennedy about, “We’ll only kill 10 million people over there.”
|Yeah, well, yes, that’s a macabre aspect which is being repeated in effect. When I said in ’61 that the Russians, the Soviets had only four ICBMs that could reach the United States, they also had some submarines with some cruise missiles that could reach the United States and even nuclear torpedoes. But, the Joint Chiefs, I believe, did know that reality more than they admitted. They were claiming, in order to get more weapons themselves, especially the Air Force, that the Russians had a lot more than they did.
|But I think they knew the reality and, as a result, they were assuring President Kennedy that in an all-out nuclear war over Berlin, which was Berlin Crisis that year, the United States would lose no more than 10 million. Well, that was enough to inhibit quite a bit our then-President, Kennedy, much more than it did them apparently. But what they were saying though was the casualties will be over there. The bulk of them. Actually there might not have been any casualties at all in this country if the ICBMs, theirs, would be destroyed very easily. There might not be any submarines capable of doing it, which would be the main danger. But Europe would be destroyed by our own attacks and, again, by their attacks directly. A little sooner than the fall-out would reach them, their medium-range missiles and short-range aircraft and whatnot would annihilate our allies.
|Now, we’re hearing from Senator Lindsey Graham, an assurance, that if we get to war with North Korea, which could happen anytime shortly, the casualties would be “over there”. That’s a direct quote. The casualties, “thousands” he said, and actually hundreds of thousands to millions would be a better estimate, “will be all over there,” he said, “and you know, sad as that is, the President has to think about Americans,” and so forth.
|Macabre observations and not even reliable. Because, to get back to what I was saying earlier, we can’t be paralyzed, nor can the Russians be paralyzed, in our retaliatory capability by one or more bombs on our Command and Control, on our leaders, on our command centers. That will not paralyze our retaliation. Even though we each plan to do it to the other for not obvious reasons of rationality, but, you know, got to do something in the war so that’s what they do.
|Almost certainly North Korea has made comparable provisions in case plans are carried out as were just described by Rex Tillerson, actually, just this last week our Secretary of State, for Special Forces teams or drones, or cruise missiles assassinating the central leaders of the North Korean system. What if the assumption that Kim has not made the kind of provisions we’ve made to assure that there will be major retaliation in case he’s killed or put out of action … Almost surely he has done that. And it would not necessarily be all over there either. He doesn’t have ICMBs and we’re trying to prevent that. It would be much better to do it by negotiation than by an attack. But, he doesn’t need an ICBM to make casualties in the United States. He has warheads. North Korea is a nuclear state now, unlike most of the other occasions when the US presidents have made nuclear threats. This is the first time since the Cuban Missile Crisis when our President has made direct threats of attack against a nuclear weapons state as Korea is.
|Now, he can put any number of those warheads that he has, somewhere between 20 and 60. He can put them on a boat and it won’t get here in 30 minutes like an ICBM, but it won’t take 30 days to get a container on a boat or a ship. Perhaps radio-controlled boat, certainly radio-controlled warhead, into a harbor in a West Coast like San Francisco or Los Angeles, or conceivably in a container inside the country, and cause, not nuclear winter, but more casualties than the world has seen ever in a week, or a day. Even without getting into the United States, North Koreans have an ability to cause millions of casualties, deaths, in South Korea and Japan right away. And we’ve, admittedly, no capability of destroying all that capability in a surprise attack or sustained attack. In fact, to get all of them, our military leaders have said, will take a ground invasion of North Korea again, like over 50 years ago. And that would be a long process.
|So the idea, the threat of going to war with North Korea over its nuclear program, is a threat of a mad action. It’s not one that will exterminate all humanity, but it will exterminate hundreds of thousands to millions of people. You know a scale of only one to a thousand of a war with Russia, but, as I say, more rapidly annihilating people than we’ve ever seen in human history.
|Finally, what is your sense if anything that has changed in terms of military planning and how military planners and nuclear war planners today look at this, as opposed to the way they did in the ‘50s and ‘60s.
|Well, I have to say right away that, obviously, I don’t have the direct knowledge of this that I did have in the ‘60s. And I don’t know whether any outsider to the Executive Branch does. I’m virtually sure that Congress does not. They never have in the past. And what I am saying is that this entire history of terrible decision-making guarded by secrecy, which has preserved, basically, insane plans, plans for blowing up the world over an issue, whether it’s important, like as Berlin was relatively important, or West Germany, or not so important, the fact remains that it’s never been justified to be deploying and threatening with these doomsday machines.
|Well that’s gone on under the veil of secrecy, unchallenged by Congress, which is, as far as I know, and I knew it during that earlier period, was never even to get any detailed briefing, even in classified hearings, on the targets or the plans, the readiness, the Command and Control.
|By the way there was just a Command and Control hearing for the first time since 1976, I think. One in which I was peripherally involved. And, after the hearing, first one, this is the second hearing on Command and Control which, like the first one, got almost no information about the actual situation. It’s all secret. Congress couldn’t get it. How many can control? Who controls? How would it work and so forth. I am saying then that a need that has persisted for all these years, is for… not that Congress deserves all that trust, but it’s at least a separate look at the system and could do an actual investigation of this.
|And you know, as I say this, the chance of getting this out of the current Congress, the Republican Congress from a Republican President, is pretty close to nil. To me that puts a good deal of emphasis on the need to change this Congress. And it’s not enough just to get Democrats in. They didn’t look into this either. It’ll have to be democrats of a different breed than we’ve seen in the past, along with some Republicans. And they have to be pressed by the public.
|So, I’m hoping that this book will contribute to a concern about this that the subject deserves. A concern like the climate problem, which has led to a lot of discussion and concern and not much action so far, I have to admit. But I think it’s a first step. We have to recognize that there’s not just one existential threat to civilization. That’s climate. There are two, at least, and the nuclear one has always been there.
|And what’s so harrowing about this, particularly what one comes away with after reading The Doomsday Machine is that, given the nature of all of this, that nothing has happened so far.
|Well, as I said, they’ve changed the numbers of weapons, but the numbers were so extraordinarily excessive in the past that you could reduce them by a great amount and not really change the basic problem at all. And that’s what has happened. We still have on hair-trigger, as I say, far more than enough weapons on both sides. And we’re both renewing them, as are other countries renewing and rebuilding their much smaller systems. US and Russia each plan to spend something like a trillion dollars over the next three years rebuilding their doomsday machines. Systems that shouldn’t exist at all. And we would be safer if we got rid of our vulnerable ICBMs, for example, and most of our sub-launched missiles. The Russians would be safer if they did that unilaterally. But, we shouldn’t wait for them to do it. This should’ve happened long ago and it should happen now.
|It is likely? No. It’s unlikely to happen. We’re unlikely to survive this. But it’s possible. It is possible and that’s the possibility that I’m hoping to enlarge.
|Daniel Ellsberg. The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner. Daniel, I thank you so much for spending time with us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy.
|Well, thank you. Very good questions. Thank you.
|Thank you. Thank you. And thank you for listening and for joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman.
|If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to WhoWhatWhy.org/donate.
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