On the Brink

By Daniel BessnerJanuary 14, 2018

On the Brink

The Doomsday Machine by Daniel Ellsberg

SINCE DONALD TRUMP’S ELECTION, many have become used to the idea that this is an era of existential threats to the United States. While this fear is overblown to some degree, and the hyperventilating is becoming too commonplace, these instincts are correct in one real sense: as president, Trump has the authority to initiate a nuclear war that could eradicate the nation.

Fears over Trump’s nuclear brinkmanship ratcheted up last September, when in a speech delivered before the United Nations the president threatened “to totally destroy North Korea” if Kim Jong-un refused to disable his nuclear program. For the first time since the Cold War ended, the specter of nuclear annihilation began to haunt the American imagination.

Kim has tested a thermonuclear weapon that yielded 140 kilotons of explosive power. (To put this in perspective, the US bomb dropped over Hiroshima yielded 15 kilotons.) Were such a weapon sent to Seattle, where I live, an estimated 142,290 people would be killed and another 85,320 injured. In New York, those numbers would jump to 376,420 and 608,700, respectively, the equivalent of more than one hundred 9/11s. While awful, such immediate human costs are actually the least of our worries: what really keeps nuclear weapons experts up at night is what Carl Sagan dubbed “nuclear winter” — the devastating climactic effects that could result from multiple near-simultaneous nuclear detonations.

It is impossible to conceive of any political disagreement, cause, or ideology for which it would be worth destroying humanity. But how can we untangle the Gordian knot that is nuclear weapons’ existence? In his new book The Doomsday Machine, Daniel Ellsberg argues that the way to do so is to make people aware of the existential brink upon which human civilization is presently perched. To reveal the precarity of the nuclear peace that has lasted since 1945, Ellsberg draws upon his personal experiences working for the government in the 1950s and 1960s, when he advised decision-makers during several nuclear crises that brought the world to the edge of genocidal war.

Ellsberg is best known for leaking United States-Vietnam Relations, 1945-1967, a secret report that exposed that the executive branch had repeatedly lied to the public and Congress about US involvement in Vietnam. Along with the Watergate investigation and Richard Nixon’s subsequent resignation, the release of the “Pentagon Papers” inaugurated a decade of public distrust in the executive specifically and the government broadly. If Americans have any image of Ellsberg, it is of a side-burned, shaggy-haired intellectual angrily perorating against the US war in Vietnam.

But there was another Ellsberg: the former US Marine who spent years working for the RAND Corporation, an Air Force–funded think tank dedicated to national security. It is this Ellsberg who is the protagonist of The Doomsday Machine. The book is, in fact, a Bildungsroman, a tale of one intellectual’s disillusionment with the country in which he had placed so much trust. It reveals how the horrors of US nuclear war planning transformed a man of the establishment into a left-wing firebrand.

Similar to many intellectuals born in the 1930s, Ellsberg’s politics were forged in the crucible of the American confrontation with Nazism. Though he was too young to serve in World War II, Ellsberg’s political perspective was nevertheless shaped by the fear that a Nazi-esque power could once again rise to dominance. This anxiety compelled him to analogize Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union as existential threats to Western democracy.

As he explains in The Doomsday Machine, throughout the 1950s and 1960s Ellsberg was certain that Soviet communism, “like Nazism, had an insatiable appetite for expansion, which [the Soviets] were determined to satisfy by military aggression where necessary and feasible.” Because he embraced an existential understanding of international relations, Ellsberg believed it was his moral duty to place his considerable intellectual talents in the service of the American state.

At RAND, Ellsberg devoted himself to exploring the government’s command and control structure. As part of this effort, he visited various military outposts in the Pacific, where he learned a number of extremely frightening facts. Most dramatically, he discovered that President Dwight D. Eisenhower had given Admiral Harry D. Felt, the head of the Pacific Command, a letter that gave Felt “authority to execute his nuclear plans on his own initiative” under certain conditions (for example, if communications between Felt’s headquarters and Washington, DC, were interrupted during a nuclear exchange). In its starkest terms, this meant that high-ranking military officers could launch nuclear weapons without receiving an explicit presidential order.

This horrified Ellsberg, who feared that such delegation increased the likelihood that an overzealous field officer would force the United States to fight an otherwise avoidable nuclear war. In an era when the aggressive General Thomas S. Power controlled the United States’s strategic bomber force, this was not an unfounded worry.

Ellsberg’s terror grew when he learned that the war plans produced by the Joint Chiefs of Staff “implied that any conflict pitting U.S. forces against any more than several battalions of Soviet troops anywhere in the world […] would lead to instant U.S. [nuclear] attacks on every city and command center in the Soviet Union and China.” In other words, the Joint Chiefs’ strategy was based on the premise that a minor confrontation between the two superpowers should trigger nuclear war. This discovery disgusted Ellsberg and shook his faith in the policymaking elite.

In The Doomsday Machine, Ellsberg reveals that it was his disquiet about nuclear annihilation that motivated his whistleblowing. As it happens, he intended for the Pentagon Papers to be merely the opening salvo in a barrage of leaks, the centerpiece of which would be the files that detailed the United States’s nuclear war plans. Tragically, though, these latter documents were lost in August 1971, when Tropical Storm Doria destroyed their hiding place. One can only imagine what would have occurred had Ellsberg disclosed that the government was constantly on the verge of committing genocide. Perhaps there would have been a Church Committee for the nation’s nuclear posture. But this didn’t happen, and in our own era the United States wields a thermonuclear “Doomsday Machine” that could “with unknowable but possibly high probability bring about the global destruction of civilization and of nearly all human life on earth.”

Of course, most US leaders are not bloodthirsty, and Ellsberg recognizes that no president has “actually desired ever to order the execution of [nuclear] plans.” But he rightly concludes that no one, no matter how well intentioned, should have access to the awesome power of a Doomsday Machine.

But how to begin what is bound to be a long process of global disarmament? Understandably given his personal experience, Ellsberg thinks it should start with leaking. “[P]atriotic and courageous whistleblowers,” he argues, must illegally divulge US nuclear war plans. Ellsberg hopes such leaks will spur the public to pressure Congress to investigate, and reform, the US nuclear posture. If accomplished, “the prevailing establishment consensus,” which currently accepts the possibility of “total omnicide,” will have taken a real hit.

Ellsberg’s plan is a noble one that suffers from two defects. First, he doesn’t discuss how to change the minds of those whose livelihoods and identities are wrapped up in the United States maintaining its nuclear arsenal. These elites will be the ones dismantling the Doomsday Machine, and their buy-in is crucial to achieving a nuclear-free world. Second, he does not address how to change public opinion. Recent history suggests that leaks don’t always inspire people; to take one example, four and a half years after the Snowden revelations, the National Security Agency continues to collect Americans’ communications. Ideological transformation is possibly the most difficult thing to engender in democratic politics, and the process by which it occurs must be taken more seriously by critics like Ellsberg.

But these concerns don’t attenuate the importance of the tocsin Ellsberg sounds in The Doomsday Machine. Nuclear weapons are weapons with which no human — let alone an unstable one like Donald Trump — can be trusted. They simply must be eliminated. Frankly, our lives may depend on it.


Daniel Bessner is the Anne H. H. and Kenneth B. Pyle Assistant Professor in American Foreign Policy in the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington. He is author of Democracy in Exile: Hans Speier and the Rise of the Defense Intellectual.

LARB Contributor

Daniel Bessner is the Anne H. H. and Kenneth B. Pyle Assistant Professor in American Foreign Policy in the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington. He is author of Democracy in Exile: Hans Speier and the Rise of the Defense Intellectual.


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