The Doomsday Machine, published in December by Bloomsbury, is Daniel Ellsberg’s account of the 1960s U.S. nuclear weapons program told from his experience as a consultant to the Pentagon and the White House. Ellsberg drafted Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s nuclear war plans. He later became the most famous whistleblower in American history. Here is an excerpt from his new book, printed by permission of Bloomsbury, which appeared first in Harper’s Magazine.
By Daniel Ellsberg
At the conclusion of his 1964 film, Dr. Strangelove, Stanley Kubrick introduced the concept of a “Doomsday Machine”—designed by the Soviet Union to deter nuclear attack against the country by automating the destruction of all human life as a response to such an attack. The movie’s Russian leader had installed the system before revealing it to the world, however, and it was now being triggered by a single nuclear explosion from an American B-52 sent off by a rogue commander without presidential authorization.
Kubrick had borrowed the name and the concept of the Doomsday machine from my former colleague Herman Kahn, a Rand physicist with whom he had discussed it. In his 1960 book On Thermonuclear War, Kahn wrote that he would be able to design such a device. It could be produced within ten years and would be relatively cheap—since it could be placed in one’s own country or in the ocean. It would not depend on sending warheads halfway around the world.
But, he said, the machine was obviously undesirable. It would be too difficult to control— too inflexible and automatic—and its failure “kills too many people”—everyone, in fact, an outcome that the philosopher John Somerville later termed “omnicide.” Kahn was sure in 1961 that no such system had been built, nor would it be, by either the United States or the Soviet Union.
The physicist Edward Teller, known as the “father of the H-bomb,” likewise denied that omnicide—a concept he derided—was remotely feasible. In answer to a question I posed to him in 1982,
he said emphatically that it was impossible that the thermonuclear weapons that he had co-invented would kill “more than a quarter of the earth’s population.”
At the time, I thought of this assurance, ironically, as a version of the glass being three quarters full. (Teller was, along with Kahn, Henry Kissinger, and the former Nazi missile designer Wernher von Braun, one of Kubrick’s inspirations for the character of Dr. Strangelove.) And Teller’s estimate was closely in line with what the Joints Chief of Staff, or JCS, actually planned to do in 1961, though a better estimate would have been closer to one-third to one-half of the world population.
But the JCS were mistaken in 1961, and so was Herman Kahn in 1960, and so was Teller in 1982. Just one year after Teller had underestimated the destructive powers of nuclear weapons, the first papers to describe the phenomenon of nuclear winter were published. Nuclear winter referred to the effects of smoke injected into the stratosphere by firestorms generated by H-bombs. Although the Doomsday machine wasn’t likely to kill every last human, its fallout, once triggered, would come close to deserve its name.
Like covert operations and assassination plots, nuclear war plans and threats are not publicly discussed by the small minority of officials and consultants who know anything about them. These officials keep silent to maintain high clearances, access, and the possibility of being consultants after they’ve left service. This discretion, coupled with systematic secrecy, lying, and obfuscation has created extremely deficient scholarly and journalistic understanding and almost total public and congressional ignorance.
As a result, most aspects of the US nuclear planning system that I knew half a century ago still exist today, as prone to catastrophe as ever but on a scale that vastly exceeds what was understood then. The present risks of the current nuclear era go far beyond the dangers of proliferation and non-state terrorism that have been the almost exclusive focus of public concern for the past generation and the past decade in particular. The arsenals and plans of Russia and the US are not only an insuperable obstacle to an effective global anti-proliferation campaign; they are themselves an existential danger to the human species.
The hidden reality I aim to expose is that for more than fifty years, all-out thermonuclear war—an irreversible, unprecedented, and almost unimaginable calamity for civilization and most life on earth—has been, like the disasters of Chernobyl, Katrina, the Gulf oil spill, and Fukushima Daiichi, and a catastrophe waiting to happen, on a scale infinitely greater than any of these. And that is still true today.
Here is what we now know: the United States and Russia each have an actual Doomsday Machine. It is not the same system that Herman Kahn envisioned (or Stanley Kubrick portrayed), with warheads buried deep and programmed to explode in their own territories, producing deadly global fallout. But a counterpart nevertheless exists for both countries: a system of men, machines, electronics, communications, institutions, plans, training, discipline, practices, and doctrine—which, under conditions of electronic warning, external conflict, or expectations of attack, would with unknowable but possibly high probability bring about the global destruction of civilization. These two systems still risk doomsday: both are on hair-trigger alert that makes their joint existence unstable. This is true even though the Cold War that rationalized their existence ended thirty years ago.
Here’s the scenario: the fallout would remain mostly limited to the northern hemisphere but the smoke and soot genereated by fierce firestorms in hundreds of burning cities would be lofted into the stratosphere, where it would not rain out and would remain for a decade or more, enveloping the globe in smoke and blocking out sunlight, lowering temperatures to the level of the last Ice Age, and killing all harvests worldwide, causing near-universal starvation within a year or two.
U.S. plans for thermonuclear war in the early sixties, if carried out in the Berlin or Cuban missile crises, would have killed many times more than the six hundred million people predicted by the JCS. They would have starved to death nearly everyone then living: at that time three billion people. The numbers of warheads in the possession of the U.S. and Russia have since declined. Yet according to the most recent scientific calculations, even a fraction of the existing arsenals would be enough to cause nuclear winter today.
Do We Still Need Them? Did We Ever?
Does the United States still need a Doomsday Machine? Does Russia? Did they ever? Does its existence serve any national or international interest to a degree that would justify the danger to human life?
I do not ask the questions rhetorically. They deserve sober, reflective consideration. The answers seem obvious, but as far as I know they have never been addressed. There follows another question: Does any nation on earth have a right to possess such a power? A right to threaten—by its simple possession of that power— the continued existence of all other nations and their people, their cities, and civilization as a whole? Why is anything other than zero risk remotely acceptable?
We did not set out intentionally to acquire a doomsday capability. The existence of one such machine does not create a tangible incentive for an enemy to have one. In fact, having two on alert against one another is far more dangerous than if only one existed. If the two existing machines were stripped of their doomsday potential, there would be no strategic rationale to reconstruct it, any more than there was a conscious intention in the first place.
The good news is that dismantling the Doomsday Machine in one country or both would be relatively simple in concept and in physical operation (though politically and bureaucratically incredibly difficult). It could be accomplished within a year. But it would mean—and here’s where institutional resistance would be strong—giving up certain illusions about our nuclear forces. It would mean scrapping our strategic nuclear war plans and discarding most of the forces deployed to carry them out.
However low the probability might currently be of the United States or Russia carrying out its strategic contingency plans against the other and causing nuclear winter, it never will be zero, so long as Doomsday Machines of the present type exist. Just how high does the risk have to be to make it intolerable? What risk of nuclear winter is “acceptable” as the price of maintaining our current strategic forces?
Since the end of the Cold War, the greatest likelihood is that a preemptive atttack will be triggered by an electronic false alarm (which has repeatedly occurred) or an accidental detonation (which was a real risk in a number of previous accidents).
The danger that either a false alarm or a terrorist attack on Washington or Moscow would lead to a preemptive attack derives almost entirely from the existence in both countries of land-based missile forces, each vulnerable to attack by the other and therefore kept on a high state of alert, ready to launch within minutes of warning.
The easiest and fastest way to reduce that risk—and indeed, the overall danger of nuclear war—is to dismantle entirely (not merely
“dealert”) the Minuteman III missile force, the U.S. land-based leg of the nuclear “triad.” This shift would not totally eliminate the dangers of nuclear war, but it would abolish the threat of nuclear winter.
This dismantlement of the Doomsday Machines is not intended as an adequate longterm substitute for more ambitious, necessary goals, including total universal abolition of nuclear weapons. We cannot accept the conclusion that abolition must be ruled out “for the foreseeable future” or put off for generations. There will not be a human future without it.
The nuclear weapon states must acknowledge the reality that they have been denying and that non-nuclear weapon states have been proclaiming for almost fifty years: effective nonproliferation is unavoidably linked to nuclear disarmament. Either all nations forgo the right to possess nuclear weapons indefinitely and to threaten others with them under any circumstances, or every nation will claim that right, and actual possession and use will become widespread.
What is often missing in the typical discussion of nuclear policies is the recognition that what is being discussed is dizzyingly insane. It is insane in its almost-incalculable destructiveness and deliberate murderousness, its disproportionality of risked and planned destructiveness for its secretly pursued aims (damage limitation to the United States and allies, “victory” in two-sided nuclear war), its criminality (to a degree that explodes visions of law, justice, crime), its lack of wisdom or compassion, its sinfulness and evil.
And yet part of what must be grasped—what makes it both understandable, once grasped, and at the same time mysterious and resistant to our ordinary understanding—is that the creation, maintenance, and political use of these monstrous machines has been directed and accomplished by ordinary people, neither better nor worse than the rest of us.
Is it really possible that normal, ordinary politicians, analysts, and military strategists have created and accepted dangers of the sort I am describing? Every impulse is to say “No! It can’t be that bad! And if it ever was, it can’t be true now, in our own country.”
That impulse is mistaken. After all, we Americans have seen human-caused catastrophes in recent years reflecting governmental or corporate recklessness that is far more conscious and deliberate. Above all, the invasion of Iraq and the occupation of Afghanistan, but also the failure to prepare for or respond to Hurricane Katrina, the Gulf oil spill, and the 2008 financial crisis: the savings-and-loan scandal, Internet and housing bubbles, criminal fraud, and the meltdown of the banking and investment system.
Perhaps reflection on these political, social, and moral failures—and the disastrous decision- making of Donald Trump—will lend credibility to my basic theme, otherwise hard to absorb: that these same heedless, shortsighted, reckless, and dishonest decisions have characterized our government’s nuclear policies, risking a catastrophe incomparably greater than all others.
Our mortal predicament did not begin with the election of Donald J. Trump, and it will not end with his departure. The obstacles to achieving these necessary changes are posed not so much by the American public—though in recent years it has shown dismaying manipulability— but by officials and elites in both parties and by major institutions that consciously support militarism, American hegemony, and arms production and sales.
No policies in human history have more deserved to be recognized as immoral. The story of how this calamitous predicament came about and how and why it has persisted for over half a century is a chronicle of human madness. Whether Americans, Russians, and the rest of the world can rise to the challenge of reversing these policies and eliminating the danger of near-term extinction caused by their own inventions and proclivities remains to be seen. I choose to act as if that is still possible.
Key part of that Nuclear Ban site:
None of the nuclear weapon states or their allies have signed so far.
I can’t imagine any of them ever will except for special cases like South Africa. As for the chances of ALL of them signing this in good faith, flip a coin five times. If it lands on the edge each time, that’s just about the odds.
If you want to be involved in the push to dismantle all nuclear weapons by convincing individuals, institutions, businesses, cities, towns, states and eventually national governments to be compliant with the United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, here’s how to get started:
For those who have not read Ellsberg’s “Doomsday machine” I strongly recommend that you do. As someone who remembers the Cuban missile crises I had no idea then how bad it really was, and it was very scary as it was. For younger people keep in mind that the threat Daniel describes then is very much with us today.
I fear that some may try to dismiss Ellsberg’s latest alarm over the issue of nuclear winter. Just google ‘nuclear winter wiki’ and you will see that there is some debate over that hypothesis. Without nuclear winter an exchange of nuclear weapons between the US and Russia will result in ‘only’ the deaths of 25% of the people on earth. Ellsberg is trying to point out that if the nuclear winter hypothesis is accurate than we might see more than 90% of the human population exterminated. What is clear from the wiki summary is that this more extreme mortality number is based on estimates from computer models. I have noticed that Ellsberg is considered a bit of an alarmist because he thinks that the lower estimate of 25% mortality might be too low but that it could be approaching 100%. Now that is a scientific debate worth having.
I went to the Nuclear Winter Wiki and left it quite unimpressed. The experience reinforced my belief “Wiki” is a good place to start a search, not to end one. As a much better alternative, I suggest you look at this piece:
“Refuting Nuclear Winter Denial”
The Wiki sneered at NW because of the failure of the Kuwait oil fires of 1991 to have any substantial effect. I’d suggest if that same amount of oil had been vaporized, then tossed into the upper atmosphere by a nuclear blast where it condensed back into carbon particles, there would have been a hell of an effect. In 2001 all US commercial airplanes were grounded for a number of days. In that time the temperature over the US changed enought to notice.
Obviously airplane contrails are formed at very high altitudes. Our ancestors experienced a “volcanic winter” from the eruption of Tambora. Millions of people around the world starved to death from that single event. Here in the US times were hard in some places, but we were still a lightly populated nation. They called it “The Year Without A Summer”.
Ellsberg speaks of “the inventions” as the issue, as if ICBMs fire themselves. At this point talk of disarmament, is a diversion from what needs to be done. The current precipice upon which we find humanity is political and must be solved politically now, That begins by a pullback by the President from his current flight forward and rush to war based on a video of dubious origin. He must be forced to act in a rational manner, despite the warhawks from both parties demanding extreme military action, in the way that JFK, working with Kruschev, did in 1962. The WH comment line is 202.456.1111.
The crazies in DC are pushing the rational players in Moscow to play their crazy game – whether they like it or not. This is a very dangerous situation that puts everyone on Earth at risk of extinction. The American Empire doesn’t have a single rational card to play, so they are threatening to kick over the table, and precipitate a nuclear melee. The thought of surrendering the Empire’s dream of total world domination is inconceivable to them, and they are willing to destroy the world to avoid that. In their warped minds they believe that they can somehow “win” even if a full exchange of nuclear weapons occurs. Russia’s role in this confrontation is crucial and agonizingly difficult. I trust Vladimir Putin to make the best possible decisions in this tragic situation; the fate of the world is now in his hands.
Thanks to CN for bringing us this excerpt from Daniel Ellsberg.
But with Ellsberg showing so much love to Stanley Kubrick for “Dr. Strangelove”, I need to point out the screenplay was also very much the work of the great Terry Southern.
It’s a good exercise to watch Dr. Strangelove back-to-back with Fail Safe. Both were produced contemporaneously in 1964 and, allegedly, independently. Fail Safe was on YouTube lately, and Dr. S is easy to find. The latter leaves you laughing, and the former ends in a more realistic scenario, where the world ends with a disconnected telephone.
It is supremely ironic that we have to go to movies to find some measure of truth in these insane times. Of course the vast majority of movies are only a magnification of our cultural failure.
With the current hysterical war mongering atmosphere in Washington against Russia and North Korea, this article is more prescient than ever before. Wasn’t it Einstein who said that
mankind’s technical advancement has far outstripped our emotional development, which is still that of an angry 5 year old boy? That definitely sounds about right. We humans are not able to get along with each other, to have proper international cooperation and peaceful relations, which are necessary to carry out the dismantling of these nuclear weapons that is so urgently needed to save life on Earth from total nuclear obliteration.
Without any doubt, it is the US government and military that is blocking any prospects for global disarmament of all the world’s nuclear weapons. I am sure that if USA took the lead and proposed to all of the world’s nuclear armed states that all states much destroy their nuclear weapons, then every country would cooperate and go along with it. The problem is that the USA wants a unipolar world it controls and totally dominates, whereas China, Russia and many other countries want a multipolar world of economic cooperation.
It would take a massive global grass roots movement to bring about this sea change, something on a scale and intensity never seen before. Let’s make it happen!
We sure need that sea change, but at this late day what we need even more is a miracle. The ironic truth is that we who are more enlightened about the crisis facing mankind, are also those who understand our helplessness in the face of this juggernaut of madness. I understand the desperate hope against hope of many among us, in the face of the implacable tragedy unfolding this very day, but my commitment to the truth is too deep to join their number. If the unvarnished truth will not save us, then I believe we are doomed by the worst among us.
”The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”
William Butler Yeats – ”The Second Coming.”
If it looks like a dooms day machine, talks like a dooms day machine sounds like a dooms day machine then it is a dooms day machine because its John Bolton Esq. This maniac would be the perfect casting for a remake of the Dr Strangelove film and the nut jobs in the deep state are the perfect supporting actors. I’m in my twilight years but the way things are going I’m beginning to think I might not actually die of old age !!
Yes, there’s still a chance you and I won’t be around to enjoy the post-nuclear war time when “the living will envy the dead.” Mortality has it’s advantages, eh John?
Nuclear power plants pose a threat to human life and well-being, let alone nuclear weapons, and yet, even after TMI, Chernobyl and Fukushima, we still treat the sub-atomic world as our plaything. Even when we had a Carl Sagan to warn us of the dangers, people didn’t listen and treated him the way the science deniers today mindlessly berate climatologists who provide hard fact on atmospheric composition or petroleum engineers who would explain the ramifications of fracking or the concept of peak oil on a finite planet. Humans prefer to live in a happy fantasy rather than a precarious reality, and they will embrace whoever delivers the pablum to them.
People don’t realise it but “Murphy’s Law” is NOT a gag. It is simply a way of stating that this world is one where the future is determined by probabilities, not wishful thinking. Just keeping those warheads around ensures that some day some of them will be detonated due to one reason or another. Keeping them pointed at each other on a hair trigger massively increases those chances and the severity of the consequences.
Excellent points, Realist.
It was a mistake for Mr. Ellsberg to write this essay because it is simply the wrong format for the size of the topic he is tackling. Google Books has his book already, and permits a preview. What I saw there was a much more detailed and realistic look at the situation. Mind you, I haven’t read the book, but the parts I checked were better.
In this piece the focus is entirely on the Russia — US duo of nuclear nations. Britain, France, India, China, Pakistan, North Korea, and Israel are left out entirely. In the book Ellsberg mentions that a rather small nuclear war between India and Pakistan would starve an awful lot of us to death. That’s why this snippit is so unbelievable:
No, No, and No!
In March of 2017 Jonathan Marshall posted an essay here titled “Dreams of ‘Winning’ Nuclear War on Russia”. It seems the US has developed and installed a “super fuse” for our sub-launced ballistic missiles which Military Planners believe could destroy each and every Russian land installation with a small fraction of our warhead inventory. Those hundreds of ground bursts against the ICBM silos plus the attacks on the radars and shipyards and every other conceivable installation are going to cause a “nuclear winter”, and without the slightest involvement of the US land-based missiles.
The only way the quote makes a speck of sense is if a person assumes the Russians were planning a nuclear attack on the US. In the past they sure did make some moves in that direction, but 2018 Russia is a totally different place than the old USSR, and far weaker as well.
Back to those “super fuses” – I suspect they’re a factor in the extraordinary belligerent attitude being shown by the US. I fear the warmongers could substitute it into the British Imperial jingo rhyme:
We have got
And they have not.”
I’m afraid they believe they can frighten the Russians into backing down. Trump is an arrogant and ignorant fool, and he is being led around by a crowd of suck-ups Israel-Firsters he has surrounded himself with. Not only that, but he’s an old man under tremendous pressure from other directions. He might “Pull A Samson” quite willingly under the circumstances.
If the Russians haven’t quite got their own ducks in a row yet, they may be forced to sacrifice Syria. In my opinion that would mean a virtual certainty of an even worse crisis in a couple of years. On the other hand, Russia hasn’t necessarily disclosed all of its own weaponry. Nor any of their alternate strategies – not that I know of. Some of their options are really, really bad for the US. Something mentioned in the book is the Russian Dead Hand system. Although it is quite impossible for Russia to survive a nuclear strike by the US, they’re making damned sure the US won’t either.
“UK Tabloids in a Frenzy Over Russia’s ‘Dreaded Dead Hand Doomsday Device'”
Back in 1975 John Harrison wrote a space opera novel titled “The Centauri Device”. It was set in a future where there was a huge interstellar war going on between “IWG, a Jewish pro-capitalist faction who are at odds with the other side, the USAR, a group of Arab socialists”. This situation had developed on account of the two groups being the only survivors of a nuclear war on Earth between the US and Russia.
I know Israel has dreams of a Whole Earth Empire, but are some of them crazy enough to think they could engineer such a favorable outcome by starting a nuclear war? Answer: yes. Are some of them arrogant/stupid enough to believe they could pull something like this off? Answer: I hope not.
You seem to forget, Zachary, that Russia has constantly moving nuclear war heads both on land and at sea. The magic fuse you refer to would have to keep up with this ever changing target. There is also the possibility that the Russians might get wind of this (obviously already have) and place a few nukes in space and they most certainly are able to do this. If the US thinks it really can wipe out all Russia’s nukes in one go, then they really are living Dr Strangelove fantasy land.
Russia and other nuclear-armed nations do not have a first-strike policy like the US does.
Other nuclear nations have agreed not to first strike. Not the US.
I don’t understand everything in your comment, Zachary Smith, but I too fail to see – contrary to what Ellsberg writes here – how dismantling the land-based ICBMs would decouple the risk of nuclear war from the danger of nuclear winter.
That said, I certainly support abolishing the land-based missiles – and I would add the bomber “leg” of the triad, as well, leaving only the ballistic missile submarines – as a way of reducing the likelihood of nuclear war.
Ellsberg still thinks in terms of right and wrong. This is totally irrelevant to most national governments, especially ours. The US government isn’t even amoral, it is satanic, and there is no easy fix for that. But first we need to recognize that we can’t solve the nuclear problem until we solve the satanic government problem.
So true, which is why the powers that be go so hard to push the idea of individualism against the concept of community as well as controlling peoples thinking with a non stop barrage in our media of lies, distorted realities and juvenile trivia. Either their evil insanity will put an end to us or unattended runaway climate change will do so. Humanity is a flawed and soon to be failed species
A.I. will save us from ourselves… probably by killing us.
WELL SAID, Paul Easton! If governments — especially ours — had worked as hard and spent as much money for a peaceful country and a peaceful world, this would be for the most part a safe place to live. Destroying life on earth is beyond insane, and it has to be pure evil at work. There is no other explanation to destroying our once beautiful earth and all its inhabitants.
Note to ed: “The Doomsday Machine” was published late last year, not this month.
Thank you, Dr. Ellsberg.
The Doomsday Plane is aloft :