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Review: Ellsberg's 'Doomsday Machine' an all too timely history of U.S. nuclear weapons

Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once called U.S. Defense Department analyst Daniel Ellsberg "the most dangerous man in America."

Kissinger said that he "must be stopped at all costs" when Ellsberg, in June 1971, leaked a massive, incriminating study of the Vietnam War to the New York Times and then to the Washington Post. (The current Steven Spielberg film The Post, starring Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, is about the controversial publication of those documents.)

Covering the period from World War II to 1968, the 7,000-page compilation of top secret documents called the Pentagon Papers revealed a litany of past presidential failures and deceptions. It also implicated the president at that time, Richard M. Nixon.

But before he compiled and distributed to the world those controversial papers, Ellsberg — a former Marine infantry commander, an expert on crisis decisionmaking at the RAND Corporation and a consultant on nuclear weapons at the Pentagon and White House — kept notes on all the disturbing realities behind America's nuclear organization.

In his new book, The Doomsday Machine, Ellsberg, also author of Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers (2003), reveals those nuclear secrets from his career in the 1950s-70s to the present. "I wanted to reveal to Congress, to my fellow citizens, and to the world the peril that U.S. nuclear policies over the last quarter century had created," he writes in the introduction.

One of the nuclear myths that Ellsberg dispels in Doomsday is the idea that the president is the sole authority who can order a nuclear attack. As he stated in his research back in the 1950s, "President Eisenhower had secretly delegated authority to initiate nuclear attacks to his theater commanders under various circumstances." And they could, in turn, with the president's permission, delegate the decision to more subordinate commanders. "So … has every subsequent president to this day," writes Ellsberg.

To emphasize the reality of this situation, Ellsberg cites a trip he took in 1959-60 for a "problems of nuclear command and control" study for Adm. Harry D. Felt, commander in chief of Pacific Command. Traveling to a small, remote U.S. airbase in South Korea, Kunsan, where alert planes carried thermonuclear weapons, Ellsberg surprisingly discovered that the major in charge there would not even wait for an authorized order to send his planes into battle if he felt his base was threatened. "That's right … I'm the commander," he said without hesitation, and "I would send them off."

The point that the author would like us to keep in mind is that, even though this interview took place about 60 years ago, the situation and threat, the complexities of our nuclear organization that the author calls the Doomsday Machine, are still with us in the present. So much for the "fail-safe" system, he repeatedly reminds us.

Another old nuclear myth Ellsberg punctures is the idea of the United States waiting for a "first strike" against us before firing missiles at an enemy. At the end of the Eisenhower presidency, in December 1960, Ellsberg was working with the Defense Department. He was allowed to read, in a basement room at the Pentagon, the Joint Strategic Capabilities Plan for armed conflict with the Soviet Union.

What really struck him was what the plan called for: If the United States was attacked by the Soviet Union, not only would we retaliate against the U.S.S.R, but against China, too. Someone sitting behind Ellsberg at a Joint Chiefs of Staff meeting raised the point, "Can you change the plan? Why attack China?" Gen. Thomas Power, a Strategic Air Command officer, replied, "Well, yeah … but … it would really screw up the plan."

Ellsberg relates that he first became obsessed with nuclear war during John F. Kennedy's presidency when, in the spring of 1961, he was handed a top secret document marked "For the President's Eyes Only." It was a graph, a projection, showing the estimated number of deaths in the Soviet Union and China from a U.S.-based nuclear attack. From the initial blast to six months later, 325 million would be killed, then another 300 million from the ensuing fallout all over Europe — approximately 600 million people dead.

"I remember what I thought when I first held" that graph, wrote the distraught 30-year-old Ellsberg. "This piece of paper should not exist. It should never have existed. Not in America . It depicted evil beyond any human project ever."

Highly revealing about the nuclear politics of the past 60 years and about the author himself, The Doomsday Machine is a heartfelt and necessary document. It is not just history, however. Given our nation's current relationship with North Korea, it has acute relevance today.

The Doomsday Machine: Confessions

of a Nuclear War Planner

By Daniel Ellsberg

Bloomsbury,

420 pages, $30

Review: Ellsberg's 'Doomsday Machine' an all too timely history of U.S. nuclear weapons 01/12/18 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 10, 2018 6:09pm]
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