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Daniel Ellsberg’s nuclear Doomsday Machine – still with us today

March 31, 2018

If you were spooked by the video of Russia’s new and “unstoppable” intercontinental ballistic missile rising out of its silo like a venomous sea-snake, don’t read on.

Most of us, most of the time, manage to put to the back of our minds the knowledge that our lives could end in an instant through any number of events that are beyond our control, and beyond the ability of humanity to prevent: earthquakes, volcanoes, asteroid strikes, hurricanes or tornadoes.

We have been equally sanguine about the prospect that a full-scale war between the two largest nuclear powers, the US and Russia, could end humanity and much of the rest of life on the planet. Even a conflict between “lesser” nuclear powers – India and Pakistan for example – would, according to one estimate, cause the death of a substantial proportion of the human race – two billion people.

I now have five big books in my library that deal with different aspects of the story of how we got to here. All intersect to some extent in warning of the ever-present threat of nuclear conflict, but each deals with the subject from a different perspective.

Hiroshima Nagasaki, by Paul Ham, deals with the development of the atomic bomb, events leading up to its use against Japan, and the aftermath of the bombings, both for the victims and for post-war politics.

Eric Schlosser, in Command and Control, describes the complexities of the systems that are supposed to prevent an accidental war, starting with the crude measures that were in place after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He also provides a catalogue of terrifying near-misses that could easily have triggered a catastrophic nuclear exchange.

In The Dead Hand, David E Hoffman tells of the efforts of Reagan and Gorbachev to reduce the nuclear arsenals of the US and the Soviet Union, and of the efforts of their successors to limit proliferation after the collapse of the latter. The Dead Hand refers to the process and technology in place to ensure that if the leadership of the nation attacked was decapitated in a nuclear strike, a devastating counter-attack would take place with no means of stopping it.

Armageddon and Paranoia, by Sir Rodric Braithwaite, a retired British diplomat, focuses on the politicians, soldiers and scientists involved in the arms race. He provides much valuable insight into the Soviet/Russian participation. And as you would expect, he is strong on the political thinking on all sides that underpinned the Cold War.

My latest tome is The Doomsday Machine, by Daniel Ellsberg, who differs from the others in that he was once an insider at the heart of the American military establishment. As a consultant with the RAND Corporation and subsequently an advisor to US Department of Defense, he personally influenced policy decisions relating to US nuclear war planning.

He’s the same Daniel Ellsberg who leaked the Pentagon Papers, which revealed the lies that successive governments told their public about the progress of the Vietnam War.

Before 1969, when his career as a political activist began with the Pentagon Papers, he spent more than a decade during which he was privy to most of the government’s most sensitive defence secrets. His involvement in nuclear war planning included studies of the command and control structures in place throughout the 1950s and early 1960s.

The Doomsday Machine takes its name from a phrase first coined by Herman Kahn, a leading physicist at RAND, and subsequently adopted by Stanley Kubrick in Dr Strangelove, his movie about a nuclear war started by a rogue air base commander. When they watched the movie, Ellsberg and a colleague agreed that what they had just seen was “essentially a documentary”.

In the movie, the Doomsday Machine was a device that launched an automatic and irrevocable retaliation against a nuclear attack, thus precipitating global catastrophe. Although Ellsberg was not aware of it at the time, it turned out that both the US and the USSR effectively possessed such a device. Later research indicated that the climatic effect of thousands of nuclear detonations, known as the nuclear winter, would do the job.

Through his recollections, backed up by his own notes from his time at RAND and the Defense Department, and citing declassified material, Ellsberg chronicles the development and practical consequences of US planning for nuclear war which originated with the area bombing strategy in World War 2.

Rather than provide a precis of the book, I’ve selected a few highlights that have broadened my knowledge of the story:

In 1945, scientists working on the first atomic bomb took bets on whether the explosion would ignite the atmosphere and thereby incinerate the planet.

In the 1960s, the US violated its treaty with Japan by keeping nuclear weapons on Japanese territory.

Hydrogen bombs are warm to the touch, as Ellsberg discovered in a close encounter on an air-base.

The nuclear football is a fraud. Since Eisenhower’s presidency the authority to launch a nuclear attack as been delegated, on some occasions to the level of local commander. Ellsberg believes that this is still the case today.

Until the early Sixties, the US war plan anticipated and all-or-nothing attack involving thousands of nuclear warheads. In 1961, the US Airforce estimated that the number of casualties from such an attack would be 350 million people within six months. That estimate was upgraded in the early Eighties to all humanity, thanks to the theoretical nuclear winter caused by a thousand firestorms throwing ash into the stratosphere.

Local air base and missile site commanders regularly circumvented procedures designed to prevent the unauthorised nuclear attacks. Methods included using multiple zero launch codes and obviating the requirement for two officers to verify the attack command.

Presidents have repeatedly claimed that nuclear weapons have never been used since Nagasaki. They are wrong. On twenty-four occasions since 1945, US officials have implicitly or explicitly threatened the use of nuclear weapons. Potential targets have included North Korea, China, Vietnam, Russia, Iraq, Iran and Libya. As Ellsberg points out, you use a gun if you point it at someone’s head, even if you don’t pull the trigger.

The US war plan in the 1950s did not just involve the destruction of Russia, which was seen as the primary enemy. Other Iron Curtain countries were targeted. China, which at the time was not a nuclear power, would also have been obliterated, despite the fact that in the early 60s it was at loggerheads with Russia. In the event of all-out war in Europe, the US accepted that most of their allies in western Europe would be wiped out, even if they were not involved in the conflict.

An Air Force officer in the 1960s seriously proposed firing a thousand rocket engines in the opposite direction to the earth’s rotation. In the event of a Soviet attack, he believed, this would be sufficient to temporarily halt the rotation and cause the incoming missiles to miss their targets. No matter that such an event would cause hurricanes and tsunamis beyond the imagination of the most extreme disaster movie script writers.

Most significant of all, Ellsberg contends that the purpose of America’s nuclear arsenal has never been, as successive American administrations have contended, to act as a deterrent against attacks, but to serve as a means of limiting the damage of retaliation against a US first strike against the Soviet Union or Russia.

He concludes by urging nuclear nations to disable their Doomsday Machines. This he claims, can be achieved by dismantling the hair-trigger systems that launch missile attacks on receipt of an automated warning that the other side has launched their missiles. By doing this, the possibility of errors and unauthorised attacks can be minimised. He’s realistic enough to know that the chances of total disarmament are minimal, but dismantling the systems that trigger “launch on warning” would at least be a major step along the way.

As he rightly points out, a decision that might wipe out humanity would be the act of insanity, but he acknowledges that the war plans that would result in such destruction were designed by sane and rational people, himself included.

At the time of writing, Donald Trump’s administration is embarked on an upgrade of America’s nuclear arsenal. Vladimir Putin’s is brandishing his new and “invincible” missile. And Kim Jong Il is believed to have restarted his plutonium plant, in spite of a meeting with Donald Trump in two months time in which the elimination of Kim’s weapons is supposed to be on the agenda.

With so many nations possessing nuclear weapons, and the likelihood that each, to a greater or lesser extent, has delegated authority to unleash them, it seems only a matter of time before someone is insane enough to launch the first weapon. Whether that launch triggers a massive exchange sufficient to end all life on the planet, or merely a significant portion thereof, remains to be seen.

Although Ellsberg appears to be a firm believer in the most apocalyptic nuclear winter theory, he doesn’t acknowledge that there is no current scientific consensus on the extent of the phenomenon. Some believe that the effect of smoke particles in the stratosphere will be relatively short-lived and unlikely to extinguish human life on the planet. I for one would prefer to look at the worst case, and have no desire to find whose assessment is correct.

But at a time when the world seems less stable than for half a century, he must be right in his assertion that nuclear war remains a clear and present danger.

One final thought. The UN Secretary General was quoted in yesterday’s New York Times as saying that climate change is “the most systemic threat to humankind”. Whatever he means by systemic, I would judge that nuclear war is the greater threat.

As far climate change is concerned, an event that potentially reduces the average temperature of the planet by up to 20C for a couple of decades, thereby causing crop failure and mass starvation that wipes out those who survive the conflagration, would be one way of removing human input in the process altogether.

Left to the birds, the bees and the cockroaches, the planet would no doubt return to its natural cycles without the presence of any beings sentient enough to bemoan their contribution.


From → History, Politics, UK, USA

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