When Daniel Ellsberg visited Los Angeles in mid-December, promoting his important new book The Doomsday Machine, his central message was that the threat of nuclear holocaust was more looming than generally believed. The American people have been lulled to sleep, distracted by endless media and political spectacles, while busy warmakers keep refining their insane nuclear blueprints that, once actualized, could incinerate several hundred million people in a matter of hours, if not minutes. More than 70 years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Pentagon elites still theorize and fantasize about the unthinkable, their demented plans far removed from the realm of political debate or even public awareness.
Could it be that President Trump’s nuclear brinkmanship over North Korea – his bellicose promise to annihilate an entire country – not to mention his escalating threats against Iran, has pushed the U.S. (and the world) closer to something like a Doomsday moment? Have we reached the point where living on the edge of nuclear catastrophe has become thoroughly normalized? Could Ellsberg’s warnings be more prescient than even he might be prepared to believe?
Exactly one month after Ellsberg’s talk, on a quiet Saturday morning, the state of Hawaii awoke to the most startling text message: “Ballistic Missile Threat Inbound to Hawaii. Seek Immediate Shelter. This is Not a Drill.” At that moment, I happened to be in Honolulu for a film conference with my girlfriend, when tranquil life on the islands instantly turned chaotic. People scattered frenetically, mostly without logic or purpose or hope. Where to go? If this turned out to be one of Kim Jong Un’s powerful ICBMs, it could be over in 20 minutes. Repair to a shelter? None exist. Go to the basement? Sure suicide. Find a car or taxi and head for the hills? No time.
Facing what seemed certain obliteration, people dropped into manholes or scurried for whatever “cover” might be visible. Some huddled in closets, praying and looking for some kind of miracle. For us, trying to make sense of the unfathomable, the response was utter psychological numbness, paralysis – a dysfunctional yet comprehensible state of mind in the face of nuclear oblivion. A North Korean warhead could, of course, be shot down by U.S. missile-defense operations located in Kauai, but we know that likelihood would be much less than 50-50. The warhead could fall harmlessly into the Pacific Ocean, but that appeared even less probable. Frozen in place, we gave those outcomes no thought whatsoever; the end seemed inescapable.
As everyone knows, the great missile threat announced by the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency turned out to be false, supposedly the result of “human error”. It took state officials an inexplicable 38 minutes to inform a terrorized public that they would be spared. No Armageddon. In the aftermath, of course, conspiracy theories abounded – the most common being that in Hawaii, bluest of blue states, the Democratic establishment wanted to dramatize the stupidity of Trump’s wild-west foreign policy. Others were convinced the system had simply been hacked. Few, however, went along with the narrative of “human error” considering the elaborate fail-safe mechanisms that surely must have been in place.
Back to Dan Ellsberg: best known for his historic role in release of the Pentagon Papers (reprised in the movie The Post), Ellsberg has for many years focused more urgently on matters related to nuclear politics. In The Doomsday Machine he writes: “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 of century had created”. His research has been enriched by a vast assemblage of nuclear-related documents spanning several decades. When it comes to prospects for nuclear war, he is convinced that the situation has steadily worsened across the postwar years. Reflecting on the present, we have the sad example of Trump’s well-known query put to a national-security advisor: “If we have them [nukes], why can’t we use them”?
Ellsberg contends that basic elements of U.S. readiness for a nuclear option are today more salient than at any time during the Cold War. Hundreds of warheads on hair-trigger alert, most aimed at Russia, remain globally deployed on land and in the sea and air. Everything is still governed by the notorious first-use doctrine upheld by every president since World War II. The Pentagon now has elaborate (first-use) plans to “decapitate” Russian command-and-control networks en route to presumably more annihilationist objectives. The same is clearly true for China, North Korea, and Iran.
At the same time, general U.S. nuclear strategy is explicitly designed to undercut any genuine nonproliferation agenda. Washington has positioned missile-defense (NMD) operations near Russian borders, globalized its military deployments in a manner guaranteed to provoke heightened reaction (not only from Russia, but from China, North Korea, and Iran), retained a dangerous Launch on Warning (LOW) system, and embarked (under President Obama) on a trillion-dollar modernization program in violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The U.S. also scandalously provides cover for three outlaw nuclear nations – Israel, Pakistan, and India.
Just as troubling, Ellsberg argues, is that “this strategic nuclear system is more prone to false alarms, accidents, and unauthorized launches than the public (and even most high officials) have ever been aware”, enormous risks that have been “systematically concealed from the American public”. He warns that even an accidental launch that could precipitate a wider nuclear exchange might kill up to 600 million people. Public discussion of these nightmarish possibilities has long been taboo in American politics and media.
It is naturally tempting to link the calamity of nuclear politics to bad presidents – for example, to Trump’s special brand of narcissistic, paranoid leadership — or to the neocons. But that would be mistaken. Ellsberg writes that roughly the same nuclear madness has pervaded American politics throughout the long postwar imperial presidency, a mark of liberals and conservatives alike. It was, after all, a Democrat (Truman) who dropped atomic bombs on Japan, and it was another Democrat (Kennedy) who brought the world close to nuclear annihilation at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Does anyone reading this believe that Hillary Clinton would have been any less militaristic than Trump?
Ellsberg’s exhaustive investigation into that sector of the warfare state he calls the Doomsday Machine provides a terrifying look at the darkest side of American power. The very notion that U.S. war managers could rationally plan, with mechanical and precise calculation, military operations in the service of unspeakable mass murder, can only be viewed as barbaric, Strangelovian in the extreme, Ellsberg commenting: “No policies in human history have more deserved to be recognized as immoral. Or insane.” From the Manhattan Project to the present, we have what amounts to a protracted “chronicle of human madness”.
The Doomsday Machine is built, managed, and legitimated by a narrow ruling stratum immersed in what C. Wright Mills appropriately referred to as “the higher immorality”. Wrote Mills in his classic The Power Elite: “ The higher immorality is a systematic feature of the American elite”, adding: “Within the corporate worlds of business, warmaking, and politics, the private conscience is attenuated and the higher immorality institutionalized.” Written in 1956, that pretty much sums up American politics in a brief sentence.
Back to Hawaii: With Doomsday no longer on the immediate horizon, Governor David Ige called the false alarm a “terrifying day when our worst nightmares appeared to become a reality.” FCC Chair Ajit Pai said the state of Hawaii “did not have reasonable safeguards or process controls in place to prevent a false alert.” Later, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen urged Americans not to lose faith in their government. For the warfare apparatus, meanwhile, it was business-as-usual.
One carryover from the Hawaii events is that Armageddon could easily have happened there – or most anywhere on the planet – and those unfortunate souls targeted would have been completely defenseless against it.