The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner

The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner

From the legendary whistle-blower who revealed the Pentagon Papers, an eyewitness exposé of the awful dangers of America’s hidden, fifty-year-long nuclear policy that continues to this day.When former presidential advisor Daniel Ellsberg famously took the top-secret Pentagon Papers, he also took with him a chilling cache of top secret documents related to America’s nuclear...

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Title:The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner
Author:Daniel Ellsberg
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The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner Reviews

  • Bill Rasche

    Remember Daniel Ellsberg from the Watergate era? His book will freak you right on out when you discover just how close we came to a nuclear holocaust more than 50 years ago. Spellbinding!

  • Mal Warwick

    In the closing scene of the classic 1964 film Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, Major T. J. "King" Kong straddles a nuclear bomb as it soars down onto the Soviet Union while the World War II hit song We'll Meet Again blares in the background. Major Kong is the commander of a B-52 bomber sent to attack the USSR by the deranged general Jack D. Ripper—and the protocol will not permit the President of the United States to recall the plane. When the bomb explodes,

    In the closing scene of the classic 1964 film Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, Major T. J. "King" Kong straddles a nuclear bomb as it soars down onto the Soviet Union while the World War II hit song We'll Meet Again blares in the background. Major Kong is the commander of a B-52 bomber sent to attack the USSR by the deranged general Jack D. Ripper—and the protocol will not permit the President of the United States to recall the plane. When the bomb explodes, it will trigger a Doomsday Machine installed by the Soviet military, dispersing a radioactive cloud of deadly Cobalt-Thorium G all across the earth and wiping out all human and animal life.

    The "nuclear football" is a sham

    Daniel Ellsberg, then a high-level consultant to the US military on nuclear war, viewed the film when it was newly released. He was profoundly shocked. He and a friend who worked with him thought Dr. Strangelove was "essentially a documentary." Somehow, the film's creator, Stanley Kubrick, had guessed one of the US government's most closely-held secrets. Despite all the media attention to the "nuclear football" containing the codes to unleash a nuclear war, and the government's insistence that only the President had access to those codes, it was indeed possible for a local commander to attack the Soviet Union with nuclear weapons. Beginning with President Eisenhower, an unknown number of military officers—certainly, more than a dozen; perhaps several dozen—have had their fingers on the nuclear button as well. Eisenhower had delegated that ability to his theater commanders, and they in turn had passed it down the line. Ellsberg even met an Air Force major commanding a small US airbase in Korea who could have started a nuclear war simply because he assumed the USSR had attacked American bases when atmospheric disturbance cut off communications.

    The Doomsday Machine is alive and well

    In fact, Ellsberg reveals, that level of delegation of control to military officers in the field has been the case throughout the sixty-year history of the nuclear standoff between the US and Russia. The potential still exists for a devastating nuclear exchange to be set off through miscommunication, miscalculation, or an unstable military commander. And Ellsberg makes the case in his shocking new memoir, The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner, that such an exchange would inevitably result in nuclear winter. This phenomenon, repeatedly confirmed by scientists, would extinguish virtually all complex life on Planet Earth by shutting off sunlight, causing harvests to fail, and subjecting billions of human beings and animals to "near-universal starvation within a year or two"—if they survive the fires and the fallout. Effectively, then, both nuclear superpowers had—and still have—the capability to end the human project with what amounts to a Doomsday Machine.

    Dan Ellsberg's dramatic second act

    Ellsberg has been studying nuclear war since the late 1950s, when he began a long career as a high-level government consultant to the military. Of course, he is far better known for his courage in releasing the Pentagon Papers in 1971, after several years of work on the Vietnam War. However, in The Doomsday Machine, he explains that he had collected a huge stockpile of official documents about nuclear war that he fully intended to release in the same manner once the reception for the Pentagon Papers had run its course.

    "From the fall of 1969 to leaving the RAND Corporation in August 1970," Ellsberg writes, "I copied everything in the Top Secret safe in my office—of which the seven thousand pages of the Pentagon Papers were only a fraction . . . perhaps fifteen thousand pages in all." (For many years, Ellsberg had "classified access several levels above Top Secret.") Sadly, all but the Pentagon Papers were lost in an abortive effort to hide them. But much of that lost material has since been declassified. Now, based on his own extensive notes, research on the issue over six decades, and declassified files from the 1950s and 60s, Ellsberg is belatedly fulfilling his promise to bring the enduring nuclear threat to the forefront.

    Startling revelations in The Doomsday Machine

    The Doomsday Machine is full of deeply disturbing revelations. The book sometimes reads like a thriller, as Ellsberg describes his mounting horror and revulsion over the discoveries he made over the years. Here are just a few of the most shocking:

    The United States is poised to deliver a preemptive nuclear first strike. "Deterring a surprise Soviet nuclear attack—or responding to such an attack—has never been the only or even the primary purpose of our nuclear plans and preparations . . . Though officially denied, preemptive 'launch on warning' (LOW) . . . has always been at the heart of our strategic alert."

    The United States is far from alone in delegating nuclear war-making capability to field officers. "How many fingers are on Pakistani nuclear buttons? Probably not even the president of Pakistan knows reliably."

    "The strategic nuclear system is more prone to false alarms, accidents, and unauthorized launches than the public (and even most high officials) has ever been aware."

    For decades after the Sino-Soviet split in the late 1950s, US nuclear weapons were targeted at thousands of cities in both Russia and China—and our country's nuclear war doctrine held that every weapon in the arsenal would be released all at once in the event of war . . . on both countries.

    If you're old enough, or read enough history, you might remember the "missile gap" that played a part in elevating John F. Kennedy to the White House. Of course, there was no gap, as was revealed not far into Kennedy's short stay there. But Ellsberg reveals that the actual number of Soviet nuclear weapons at the time was not hundreds but . . .  four. The US then had forty. (Today, there are nearly 15,000 nuclear warheads stockpiled around the world; the US and Russia account for 93 percent of them.)

    If you were an adult during the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, as I was, you're surely aware that the world came extremely close to nuclear armageddon. Ellsberg reveals, however, that the chances of war were even greater than was known for many years after the fact. Four nuclear-armed Soviet submarines were in the Caribbean—and one came perilously close to detonating a nuclear torpedo that would have destroyed US Navy ships in the vicinity. Only the chance intervention of a single man on that submarine prevented that catastrophe, which would unquestionably have caused the US military to unleash a first strike on the USSR and China. And that event took place two days after the world believed the crisis had been resolved by agreement between Kennedy and Khrushchev.

    In Part Two of The Doomsday Machine, Ellsberg probes the origins of the notion that attacking cities was acceptable. It's a fascinating account of the history of airpower, from the use of planes for reconnaissance in World War I to strategic bombing in World War II. Though less dramatic than his earlier revelations about nuclear war, Ellsberg's explanation of how the US and Britain came to justify the firebombing of Tokyo and Dresden is deeply distressing. This experience laid the foundation for the use of the atomic bomb over Hiroshima and Nagasaki—and makes clear how "there was no moral agonizing at all among Truman's civilian or military advisors about the prospect of using the atom bomb on a city." Yet "seven of the eight officers of five-star rank in the U.S. Armed Forces in 1945 believed the bomb was not necessary to avert [an] invasion" of Japan.

    We still live under the nuclear hammer. "Two systems still risk doomsday," Ellsberg concludes. "Both are still on hair-trigger alert that makes their joint existence unstable."

  • Michael Frank

    Every adult needs to read this book and put pressure on Congress to reduce our On Alert Nuclear status. .. below is a quote from Kruschev a few years after the Cuban missle crisis.

    “When I asked the military advisors if they could assure me that holding fast would not result in the death of five hundred million human beings, they looked at me as though I was out of my mind, or what was worse, a traitor. The biggest tragedy, as they saw it, was n

    Every adult needs to read this book and put pressure on Congress to reduce our On Alert Nuclear status. .. below is a quote from Kruschev a few years after the Cuban missle crisis.

    “When I asked the military advisors if they could assure me that holding fast would not result in the death of five hundred million human beings, they looked at me as though I was out of my mind, or what was worse, a traitor. The biggest tragedy, as they saw it, was not that our country might be devastated and everything lost, but that the Chinese or the Albanians might accuse us of appeasement or weakness. So I said to myself, “To hell with these maniacs. If I can get the United States to assure me that it will not attempt to overthrow the Cuban government, I will remove the missiles.” That is what happened, and now I am reviled by the Chinese and the Albanians.… They say I was afraid to stand up to a paper tiger. It is all such nonsense. What good would it have done me in the last hour of my life to know that though our great nation and the United States were in complete ruins, the national honor of the Soviet Union was intact? “

    That last line, indeed the whole quote, deserves to be studied by all those whose fingers hover over the trigger to a Doomsday Machine.

  • Erin Carrington

    This book is a rollercoaster. And by rollercoaster, I mean only the part where you're slowly click-clacking your way further and further up toward impending doom. And, while you're making your way up there the person next to you leans over and tells you that your best friend killed your cat because she's actually a homicidal lunatic.

    But, really, this book is phenomenal as a historical record, a dire warning to humanity, and a call to action. My only hesitation in recommending it to others is th

    This book is a rollercoaster. And by rollercoaster, I mean only the part where you're slowly click-clacking your way further and further up toward impending doom. And, while you're making your way up there the person next to you leans over and tells you that your best friend killed your cat because she's actually a homicidal lunatic.

    But, really, this book is phenomenal as a historical record, a dire warning to humanity, and a call to action. My only hesitation in recommending it to others is the guilt I'll feel for scaring the shit out of the people I care about.

  • Bob H

    This is a frightening story of the US nuclear war policy from the 1950s on, by someone who was a witness (at RAND) and a participant. Daniel Ellsberg was privy to the secret war planning at that time, which apparently is still largely in place. The film "Dr. Strangelove" turns out to be uncomfortably close to true live, he says.

    We find out that:

    - there really was a doomsday machine, of sorts: in the US, a single plan for nuclear war, triggered by any use of nuclear weapons, tactical or strategic

    This is a frightening story of the US nuclear war policy from the 1950s on, by someone who was a witness (at RAND) and a participant. Daniel Ellsberg was privy to the secret war planning at that time, which apparently is still largely in place. The film "Dr. Strangelove" turns out to be uncomfortably close to true live, he says.

    We find out that:

    - there really was a doomsday machine, of sorts: in the US, a single plan for nuclear war, triggered by any use of nuclear weapons, tactical or strategic -- and one that automatically, massively targeted not only the Soviet Union but China as well, whether or not China was a party to the war. In Russia, the "Perimeter" program would trigger a nuclear salvo in much the same way as the "Dr. Strangelove" device.

    - that the US presidents had delegated authority to launch nuclear weapons to lower commanders. Ellsberg tells of visiting a remote airstrip in Korea where 12 F-100 jets, each armed with a 1.2 megaton H-bomb, whose commanding officer, a major, could launch a strike if he deemed it necessary. This was not the only such field commander who had such weaponry, we learn.

    - that the US did maintain a nuclear-weapons cache just offshore in Japan, ready to land and load on waiting bombers, in violation of agreements with Japan.

    - that the US did have a first-strike and first-use policy, at least unofficially.

    - that, on Oct. 27, 1962, the height of the Missile Crisis, the two sides came very close, on three different incidents, to launching all-out war.

    - that the US had a massive superiority in strategic weapons, overkill, which would have not only destroyed the Communist powers but, through fallout, our European allies as well. Further, the US underestimated the amount of heat and smoke that firestorms would have put into the atmosphere, possibly extinguishing most life on earth, so it was not just "Dr. Strangelove" but "On The Beach" as scenarios.

    There's more. Let's just say it's gripping reading, especially now that the same doomsday framework is still in place, and the danger, in North Korea and elsewhere, is still real. All that's different are the national leaders and the new instabilities they bring.

  • AC

    Extremely interesting, often illuminating, disturbing book, marred only by a certain naïveté expressed by Ellsberg’s concluding optimism, such as it is.

  • Peter Mcloughlin

    Part memoir of Ellsberg worked in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations in the sixties and an anti-nuclear piece from someone who knows how it plays out at a policy level and understands the stakes namely the survival of humans as species. The author lays out in great detail his work planning for nuclear war and a general outline of our capabilities, command and control systems, who authorizes the use of nuclear weapons and the times we came close to unleashing them to our final ruin. I get th

    Part memoir of Ellsberg worked in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations in the sixties and an anti-nuclear piece from someone who knows how it plays out at a policy level and understands the stakes namely the survival of humans as species. The author lays out in great detail his work planning for nuclear war and a general outline of our capabilities, command and control systems, who authorizes the use of nuclear weapons and the times we came close to unleashing them to our final ruin. I get the feeling he has written this book in the wake of Trump's election. I understand his fear. What was dire before Trump has become much more so since. God help us.

  • Vheissu

    This book will interest general readers as well as subject matter experts, including students of bureaucratic politics.

    The title derives from the classic film, Dr. Strangelove. Ellsberg demonstrates that Stanley Kubrick got some things right and some things wrong in his movie, although in both respects things in the late 1950s and early 1960s were much, much worse than the disaster depicted on screen. One of the things Kubrick got right was the problem of a "doomsday shroud." In reality, it wasn

    This book will interest general readers as well as subject matter experts, including students of bureaucratic politics.

    The title derives from the classic film, Dr. Strangelove. Ellsberg demonstrates that Stanley Kubrick got some things right and some things wrong in his movie, although in both respects things in the late 1950s and early 1960s were much, much worse than the disaster depicted on screen. One of the things Kubrick got right was the problem of a "doomsday shroud." In reality, it wasn't "cobalt thorium G" that would destroy "all plant and animal life" on the planet for ninety-three years; instead, it would be "nuclear winter," something that was not understood or accounted for (or ignored) in Air Force projections at the time, but is understood today as accomplishing pretty much the same thing. A nuclear exchange involving as few as 100 megatons in ground burst weapons would quickly destroy planetary vegetation and everything that depends upon it (e.g., human beings). Today's stockpiles of hydrogen bombs are well in excess of 10,000 megatons.

    One of the things Kubrick got wrong, perhaps intentionally for dramatic purposes, was a "recall code." In fact, there was no recall code, only a "Go Code." The Air Force resisted the idea of a recall code because, they argued, it might confuse airmen and be exploited by the enemy. In fact, Ellsberg recalls, Strategic Air Command didn't believe politicians had the guts for nuclear warfare and might get cold feet. So, if an aircraft was 12 hours away from its target and the enemy capitulated in the meantime, the bomber would continue to its target and drop its weapons anyway (!).

    The book is essentially two books. The second part of the book reviews the history of strategic bombing, starting with World War I. This story is familiar to anybody who has studied the matter. Before 1945, strategic bombing was intended to destroy cities (and the civilians who lived in them); after 1945, the intention was to kill nations, even at the risk of destroying allies and neutrals (1 million dead in NATO countries; see below).

    The first part of the book, and the more interesting of the two, recounts Ellsberg's personal history as a civilian consultant for RAND. Ellsberg reports that he had higher security clearances than almost anybody else in the Santa Monica think-tank, higher clearances, indeed, than almost any civilian official in the U.S. government, including secretaries of defense and, in a least some cases, presidents of the United States (i.e., Kennedy and Johnson). Navigating the worlds of military, consultancy, and civilian authority, knowing things that others didn't and understanding better than anybody else the insanity of U.S. strategic policy at the time, Ellsberg paints a brilliant picture of bureaucratic politics that transcends the narrow focus of his responsibilities. Students of policy-making will find a lot of good material to mine here.

  • Bettie☯

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