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Countdown to Doomsday: Daniel Ellsberg and the Nuclear Papers

Photo by August Muench | CC BY 2.0

Just as the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has moved the Doomsday Clock closer than it has ever been to our species extinction point reports show that the U.S. warfare state is moving its latest high-tech rendition of tactical nuclear weapons, the B-61 “Gravity Bomb,” to airbases on the island of Guam. Is this an attempt to intimidate North Korea? Or is it a stage in a crackpot plan to destroy NK’s ability to carry out what that state has stated categorically is its defensive strategy against just such an attack?

Every sane individual I know understands that as long as nuclear weapons exist someday, and that day looms sooner every day, they will be used. The sponsors of the Bulletin, the Union of Concerned Scientists, was established after World War II and the atomic incinerations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, by some of the very scientists and technicians who had made the bomb possible and who then understood the nature of the monstrous evil they had unleashed. Though Albert Einstein was not one of those scientists his theoretical physics had abetted the basic formula for fission and the Bomb and, believing that Nazi Germany was working on a bomb too, he urged President Franklin Roosevelt to undertake the Manhattan Project. He came sorrowfully to regret this action and spoke regularly about his opposition to war and the nuclear age. “If only I had known,” he declared, “I should have become a watchmaker.”

The renowned physicist also focused attention on the existential quandary unique to the human species when he said “Mankind invented the atomic bomb but no mouse would ever construct a mousetrap.” Has there ever been another species that actively enabled the instruments of  its own extermination? At this stage of human evolution pervasive blind,  virulent nationalisms and tribalism predominate, industrial economies  depend upon mass production for war that distorts social requirements and creates mass social inequalities and ways of life that force large populations to live in constant insecurity and anxiety. Sophisticated propaganda systems distort reality and delude peoples that the “enemy” is to blame.

Since the end of World War II the “American Century” has been touted as the construction of a global “liberal order” that enhances the escalation and prosperity of all yet it has become an epoch of endless war, mass death, and technological “advances” that make weapons ever more destructive while escalating the depletion of the planet’s resources, widespread pollution and contamination of land and seas, and the intensification of climate emergencies. As the manufactured crisis with North Korea unfolds the permanent warfare state deliberately incites a new Cold War, betraying the promise made to Mikail Gorbachev as the Soviet Union imploded that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s military might would not move “one inch” closer to former Soviet territories. In both countries the innovation and preparation of nuclear weapons escalates. Recent actions by Washington in Syria portend more violence and suffering and more tensions with Russia. We are at a crossroads. Continue on this path and annihilation impends.

As Round Two of global war subsided in 1945 American managers confronted the problems of an emergent peace. What was to be done with millions of trained soldiers returning to the states? Many of them had been unemployed or depended on poorly paid jobs at public expense during the long depression that preceded and amplified the probability of war. A return to that dismal state was unthinkable. Much of Big Business and Finance had opposed public spending and borrowing for the sake of social welfare but massive government spending for corporate subsidy was another matter. Government expenditures for armaments had spiked the profits of industrial giants. Indeed, many corporations that now comprise the Fortune 500 owe their very existence to the Second World War and, emphatically, the many wars since. Pondering the post-war the chief of war production, “Electric Charlie Wilson” of the duly enriched General Electric Corporation declared that what the United States needed was a “permanent war economy.”

He wasn’t alone in such formulations. President Franklin Roosevelt and Vice-President Henry Wallace especially, hoped and believed that a peaceful cooperation with the Soviets could be achieved in the post-war world. The nascent Cold Warriors had other ideas. Roosevelt’s health was rapidly failing and his  death was anticipated and with the aid of troglodyte race-baiting southern senators those men who wished the U.S. to be the sole arbiter of the global future assured the replacement of Wallace with Harry Truman who was easily maneuvered into the embryonic warfare state. After all he had declared as a senator before the U.S. entered the war that if the Soviets appeared to be winning the war the U.S. should aid Germany, or vice versa, so that both would eventually destroy themselves and leave the world open to the U.S. agenda.

We must remember that the employment of the world’s first atomic weapons were not militarily necessary, despite the catechistic dogma that insists so to this day. Japan was finished. Every city except six had been reduced to rubble and these were exempt from strategic bombing because they were on the list for the A-Bombs. Military leadership and some scientists wanted “virgin targets” in order to assess the strength of the bomb’s blast and radiation. Though the U.S. had insisted on “unconditional surrender” from Japan  the new cold warriors in Washington who precipitately replaced FDR’s political allies gave Tokyo the one condition it desired; namely, retention of the emperor. Japan was to be re-industrialized with an Asian version of the Marshall Plan for Europe, and its colony, Korea, as well as Vietnam, were to be western outposts on the Asian mainland able to confront Soviet and communist and/or nationalist threats to postwar American plans for the envisioned new geo-political order.

Soviet forces as ally of the United States, with American sanction, had entered the war against Japan late in August 1945 vengeful for Russian defeat in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05 and quickly overran Japanese forces in Manchuria and Korea. Poised to descend into northern Japan itself the Red Army would thus create similar problems for the U.S. as its co-occupation of Germany had posed months earlier.

The Atomic bombings rapidly brought Japanese surrender before the Soviets could occupy any of the Japanese main islands and were clear and grim notice that the U.S. could and would be as ruthless as any imperial power in history. The Soviets understood the message explicitly. Thus, despite the establishment of the United Nations, any hope of peaceful coexistence was dashed. The die was cast. The Cold War commenced virtually on the day the hot one ended and a few years later the nuclear arms race was on with few and failed attempts at breaking the lunatic mindset. Humanity has lived in the shadow of full-scale nuclear annihilation ever since.

Daniel Ellsberg, former Cold War true believer and nuclear war planner, incubating his fears and regrets for decades, finally got The Doomsday Machine into print. It is a grim account of the psychopathic “crackpot realism” of “mutual assured destruction” that has held humanity hostage for generations and there is no end in sight. On January 30 Donald Trump reiterated his and the warfare state’s commitment to upgrade and enhance the U.S.’s nuclear arsenal with emphasis on tactical weapons, the very type now being readied potentially for use against North Korea. When years ago Ellsberg saw Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, Dr. Strangelove: Or How I learned To Stop Worrying and Love he Bomb,  he remarked to a colleague that they had just seen a “documentary” not a fictive film, so accurately did the motion picture reflect how a rogue element could launch a nuclear strike and how the American nuclear juggernaut would proceed thereafter.

Anecdotes have circulated for years as well about technological glitches that have steered us within microns of Armageddon. The very anxieties and rhetoric that have surrounded nuclear crises for decades have also enhanced possibilities for calamitous mishaps. As former Secretary of Defense William Perry puts it “the risk of accidental nuclear war is not hypothetical — accidents have happened in the past, and humans will err again.”   Now just in the aftermath of the “accidental” warning of an imminent nuclear missile strike on Hawaii stories circulate about something called the Kanyon, reportedly a Russian super weapon capable of completely irradiating the entirety of both coasts with radioactive cobalt should nuclear war break out between the U.S. and Russia. Is all this malicious and methodical disinformation cooked up by either U.S. or Russian intelligence? Does it signal a return to the worst years of “duck and cover” in order to intimidate the population into acceptance of gargantuan new military budgets? Or are we ultimately setting the preconditions for species suicide?

Asserting that he sees at best a 4% chance that humanity will survive the 21st century Ellsberg still  clings to optimism by arguing for severe reductions in the number of nukes as a positive way to reduce stresses and anxieties but scientists maintain that even a relatively small number of thermonuclear discharges will be enough to induce nuclear winter.

We abolish nuclear weapons or they are sure to abolish us.

 

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Paul Atwood is the author of War and Empire: the American Way of Life.

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