Doomsday ex Machina: Daniel Ellsberg and the Nuclear Gang

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

You hide in your mansion
While the young people’s blood
Flows out of their bodies
And is buried in the mud

You’ve thrown the worst fear
That can ever be hurled
Fear to bring children
Into the world

– Bob Dylan, “Masters of War” (1963)

October 15, 1969.

That’s the day the world might have ended, had Madman Richard Nixon had his druthers.

In his recent book, The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner, Daniel Ellsberg paints a doom and boom picture of the future, unless we immediately engage in negotiations with other nuclear armed nations to strengthen the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and begin the dismantling of the Doomsday Machine that is programmed to destroy as much life as possible on the planet once global nuclear war begins — a perilously close possibility under the current postures and protocols of nuclear-armed governments. (Even as late as last week, NATO rejected a UN call for the elimination of these omnicidal weapons.)

In the above example, Richard Nixon was inspired by Dwight D. Eisenhower’s strong arming tactics in securing an armistice in Korea. Citing Nixon Chief of Staff Bob Haldeman, Ellsberg writes,

Nixon “saw a parallel in the action President Eisenhower had taken to end another war. When Eisenhower arrived in the White House, the Korean War was stalemated. Eisenhower ended the impasse in a hurry. He secretly got word to the Chinese that he would drop nuclear bombs on North Korea unless a truce was signed immediately. In a few weeks, the Chinese called for a truce and the Korean War ended.”

Like Ike, Nixon knew that there was no point in bluffing; your future credibility was on the line. Diminished credibility, if you’re a super power, could be a dangerous thing.

Nixon was set to nuke the North Vietnamese on October 15, 1969: he was certain that the North Vietnamese were not ready to cave, and he was going to hit them with tactical nukes to make them kow-tow and to flash his terrible swift sword at the supporting Soviets. But a miracle happened:

What had prevented Nixon’s test of the madman theory from being carried out in 1969 was neither any leak of his threats and plans nor any North Vietnamese compliance with them. It was, as Nixon recounted in his memoirs, the fact that two million Americans took part on October 15 in the “Moratorium” (a general strike by another name), a nationwide weekday work- and school-stoppage protesting the war…The North Vietnamese
would not believe that he could continue such attacks in the face of this unprecedented popular resistance.

Nixon was livid, but. he was just beginning his presidency and there would be other opportunities to nuke the North Vietnamese.

In fact, just three years later, on April 25, 1972, an election year, Nixon was back looking to escalate in Vietnam, rather than seeking Peace with Honor. Ellsberg cites this conversation between Nixon and Kissinger on the White House tapes:

PRESIDENT: I still think we ought to take the dikes out now. Will that drown people?

HENRY KISSINGER: About two hundred thousand people.

PRESIDENT [reflective, matter-of-fact]: No, no, no … I’d rather use the nuclear bomb. Have you got that, Henry?

KISSINGER [like the president, low-key]: That, I think would just be too much.

PRESIDENT [in a tone of surprise]: The nuclear bomb, does that bother you? I just want you to think big, Henry, for Christsakes.

He longed to deliver “a ‘savage, brutal blow’ that would bring the ‘little fourth-rate country’ North Vietnam to its ‘breaking point.’”

TDM is chock full of revelations, surprises, and awe-inspiring anecdotes. Ellsberg explains that as inflammatory as the Pentagon Papers proved to be, as he distributed copies to newspapers across the country, while on the lam, and citizens came to the understanding that even the top generals prosecuting the war in Nam had already concluded that it could not be won and the draft and carnage were for nothing, his “other Pentagon Papers,” copied at the same time, regarding nukes and the two Doomsday Machines (the USA and Russia each have one), were even more important. Nixon was terrified that Ellsberg had secret documents that laid bare Nixon’s first strike nuclear intentions in Vietnam.

Ellsberg went to great lengths to hide the Doomsday material. He was already facing a 115 year sentence if he got convicted for the PP leak, but he felt the nuke papers could finish him off. He writes,

Later, when the papers were published in 1971, Henry Kissinger’s fear that I did know about Nixon’s nuclear threats and plans, and might have documents to back it up, was sufficient reason for him to regard me as “the most dangerous man in America,” who “must be stopped at all costs.”

Ellsberg gave the trove to his brother, who buried it in a landfill, only to have a hurricane come along and rearrange the dump so randomly that his marker was lost and the bag of top secret documents could no longer be found. That was the only reason the Doomsday material wasn’t released around the same time as the Papers. Amazingly enough, he had to reconstruct his data from FOIA requests years later.

The Doomsday Machine is dense and rich material, but very accessible, Ellsberg goes out of his way to be layperson friendly, telling us he’s aware that dry academic texts go unread — no matter how important — because of the language barrier. He’s kind of like Dante’s Vergil that way — a guide to an underworld of secrets and madness. As his subtitle implies, he was a war planner, an egghead from the RAND Corporation (RAND = Research and Development), who was contracted by the Pentagon to spec out options through war games, statistical analysis, and historical research that led to war doctrines and postures and, as we’ll see, critical speeches that provoked crises.

The Doomsday Machine covers a lot of ground, from 1945 to the present, but three main themes stood out for me: one, the delegation of authority regarding the use of the nuclear option in battle, and the precariousness of its control, given what Ellsberg describes as the US refusal to rule out a first strike posture (indeed, he argues that the US intention is the opposite); second, he describes in riveting detail the many miraculous near-miss nuclear arms incidents since 1945 that might have about brought Doomsday, including an incredible re-examination of the Cuban Missile Crisis, with shocking new revelations, including his admission that he himself may have caused the Crisis; and, third, there is his urgent quest to dismantle the Doomsday Machines while there is still time.

Ellsberg points out that the public has been lead to believe over the decades — by “unnamed high-ranking government officials,” the MSM, and Hollywood — that the President, as Commander-in-Chief, is in charge of the “football” and is the go-to guy for the orders to nuke the enemy. Under this conceit, as long as we have a rational, stable chief, then we are unlikely to engage in the kinds of self-destructive sword swaggering that could lead to nuclear holocaust. We saw this question raised in 2016 during the presidential debates with Hillary Clinton, channeling either Condoleeza Rice and the mushroom cloud or the pussygate cloud, asked viewers if Donald Trump was someone Americans wanted to see with his finger on the nuclear option (we now know the answer). But also one could ask the same of Hillary, given her well-known war hawk proclivities.

But in his chapter, Delegation: How Many Fingers on the Button?, Ellsberg discusses the totemic symbolism involved:

In a truly symbolic gesture that television cameras often capture during the inauguration of a new president, the aide carrying the football visibly shifts his gaze from the departing president to the new one at the moment of his swearing in. That shift signifies not only that the new president has acquired the full authority of his office but also that the existence of a civilian commander in chief of the nuclear forces of the United States—with, supposedly, exclusive control of these almost godlike powers of destruction—must not be and has not been interrupted for a single moment.

I admit I’ve never seen this exchange Ellsberg describes, but he goes on to insinuate that as with our Exceptionalism, the Hail to the Chief bullshit, is part of our delusional, habituated thinking that gets us into pickles time after time.

He details all the presidents from Truman onward and the nuclear mischief they got up to, and even provides a handy reference list of the 25 nuclear crises presidents have got themselves up to from GW Bush to Donald Trump (yes, including, especially Jimmy Carter). It’s a sobering list you’ll want to have a drink after reading. So, if rationality and stability are meant to be safeguards of our doctrines and postures, we are in a world of trouble, and, to use a phrase that Ellsberg keeps repeating in the book, we have been saved “only by a miracle” many times. But it only gets worse (another expression Ellsberg uses throughout the book).

It turns out that we can’t have a situation where the “football” carrying president (can you believe that clumsy-footed Ford was a gridiron standout?) is decapitated and no one is authorized to order a nuclear strike against the enemy. We (and the Russkies) can’t have that: each side must be able to retaliate if struck first by a fusillade of nuclear tipped arrows. So submarine commanders and field generals with nukes at their disposal can, under some circumstances, strike with vengeance. The delegated authority to strike is so widespread on each side (Russians and Americans, and Ellsberg thinks it’s true of the other nuclear states too) that, again, the chances of an “accident” are raised exponentially.

He recalls when he learned of the extent of the delegation of authority during Ike’s years, specifically in 1959 when he visited the cruiser St. Paul, the flagship of the Seventh Fleet, and talked with the commander, Vice Admiral Frederick N. Kivette and others. He wanted to know more about how the delegation worked. He writes,

So I ventured to raise the issue I’d been told about in great secrecy. I asked Admiral Kivette if he had heard of a letter from President Eisenhower to Admiral Felt delegating authority over nuclear operations if communications were out. He said, yes, he knew that Admiral Felt held such a letter.

But knowing and knowing are two different things. Trust derived from rank can be catastrophic (recall Captain Queeg and the strawberries aboard the Caine.)

Ellsberg notes that such delegation “contravened and superseded the guidance I’d read in Top Secret war planning,” and further notes, disturbingly,

I still didn’t feel certain that the alleged letters from President Eisenhower actually existed; no one had offered to show them to me, or even claimed to have seen one himself.

He notes that such information could easily be hidden in a Byzantine system of top secret tiers that provide access in one case, and lack of access to another, related, matter. The implicit authority given to tactical nuclear warriors may or may not have existed, but as one commander told him “it wouldn’t matter once the firing started.” Today, such delegation is widespread across the tactical nuclear forces of Europe.

Ultimately, the retaliatory systems of the super powers, a chain reaction of human impulses and computer-enhanced logic that could lead to “omnicide,” known by the Russians and the US as The Doomsday Machine, is the bottom line delegated authority. Ellsberg describes going with a colleague to see Dr. Strangelove in 1964, in which the term Doomsday Machine is used for the first time — in itself derived from a RAND study:

We came out into the afternoon sunlight, dazed by the light and the film, both agreeing that what we had just seen was, essentially, a documentary. (We didn’t yet know—nor did SAC—that existing strategic operational plans, whether for first strike or retaliation, constituted a literal Doomsday Machine, as in the film.)

It reminds me of the times Jon Stewart used to say that you knew we were in confusing times when people were turning to Comedy Central to get the real, reliable news.

In a book full of shockers, none is more jaw-dropping than Ellsberg’s mea culpa regarding the Cuban Missile Crisis. He spends two chapters explaining the lead-up to the Crisis and its much-hairier-than-we-know subplots. It begins with the Berlin Crisis of 1961. Soviet First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev wanted the Americans out of East Germany. The Soviets, frustrated with the “brain drain” of the professional class from East Germany into Ally-protected, totally surrounded West Berlin, began harassing and hindering US troops. It all led to the construction of the Berlin Wall and a near war when US and Soviet tanks faced off with hair-trigger tension at Checkpoint Charlie on October 27.

In the lead-up to the tension at Checkpoint Charlie, Roswell Gilpatric, Assistant Deputy Secretary of Defense, gave a speech (written by Ellsberg) to the Business Council on October 21, 1961 that for the first time implied that the US might engage the conventional forces of Soviets with nukes. Said Soviet Defense Minister Rodion Malinovsky the next day,

A realistic assessment of the picture would lead one to believe that what the imperialists are planning is a surprise nuclear attack on the U.S.S.R. and the socialist countries.

Ellsberg adds, the Soviets “had never been threatening nuclear first use, over Berlin or anywhere else. We were.” Further, Gilpatric’s speech contained a humiliating revelation to the world — the Soviets had a teeny-weeny number of ICBMs — 4! — and the Americans knew where they were (Plesetsk). It meant that tactical nukes from NATO could take out those ICBMs, leaving the Russians impotent to strike at the continental USA. Ouch.

Ellsberg writes that Khrushchev’s response was immediate. He shook off the humiliation, and, “Khrushchev’s first reaction was to go ahead with a thirty-megaton nuclear test explosion two days after the speech, soon followed by a fiftyeight-megaton explosion, the largest ever.” Ellsberg, who’d apparently yet to break good, gave another “humiliating” proxied speech a few months later. At a commencement speech at the University of Michigan in July 1962, Secretary of Defense Robert NcNamara, announced the new US intention of striking Soviet Command-and-Control centers (aka, decapitation) rather than cities. Khrushchev took this news the wrong way. He had postured that threatening cities and their citizens was a more effective deterrent to war.

Things were heating up and getting busy behind the scenes. Ellsberg writes,

Ten days later, Khrushchev attacked100 the Ann Arbor speech publicly asseeking “to legalize nuclear warfare and thereby the death of millions and millions of people.” He also said it was deceptive to the American people because bases in the United States were in or near large cities. “It will be first of all the civilian population that will fall victim to the weapons of mass annihilation.”

By the time of this speech Khrushchev was already sending medium range nuclear missiles to Cuba. In addition, Ellsberg reveals that Soviet soldiers were in possession of tactical nukes and permission to use them on any American invasion force.

So Ellsberg reckons he made Khrushchev mental with these new threats he wrote for the Kennedy administration and K wanted some payback. By October, the Kennedy administration discovered that Khrushchev didn’t need ICBMs to take out Americans, when satellite photos showed that the Soviets had placed nuclear missiles in Cuba. This time it was Jack Kennedy caught with his pants down. (Oh wait.) Many films, books, and college courses have been produced over the years to account for what happened during the 13 days in October, known as the Cuban Missile Crisis, but Ellsberg’s account is the best by far. Aside from all the close-up shots of the conferring Kennedys (Robert and Jack) angst-filled and chewing their fingernails, and getting photo-snapped looking meaningfully out windows, Ellsberg provides details that ratchet up the tension to the breaking point. I was going mental myself; my plush carpet looks like one of those mysterious crop circles.

Aside from the aforementioned tactical nukes awaiting an invasion that Kennedy didn’t know about, Ellsberg details how ultimatums and warnings to the Soviets were complicated by Cuban soldiers kept firing at American aircraft (they shot down a U2 and hit another low-flying plane), and the Soviets were helpless to stop them; only the fact that they were newbies on the guns kept us all in this world. The Pentagon was ready to go. The Cubans didn’t see themselves as puppets of the Soviets, much to their surprise. The Americans were on DEFCON-2, one step below all-out war.

But the craziest stuff happened on the four Soviet diesel-powered submarines circling Cuba. The subs each had a nuke. They weren’t built for warm water; cooling equipment malfunctioned and temperatures reached 140 degrees Fahrenheit; the men moved around in their underwear, they were dehydrating and dropping like “dominoes”; they needed to surface for air but feared being be-bopped by US naval vessels enforcing the blockade.

On the B-59 sub, the men reached a derangement level, with the heat, and no air, and Americans dropping practice depth charges. Ellsberg cites Vadim Orlov, chief of the special signals intelligence, who describes the scene:

…Americans,,, surrounded us and started to tighten the circle, practicing attacks and dropping depth charges. They exploded right next to the hull. It felt like you were sitting in a metal barrel, which somebody is constantly blasting with a sledgehammer.…

They finally decided they’d had enough and got ready to nuke the Americans, but on that sub, on that day, instead of needing just two officers willing to launch the missile — that sub had three, one of whom, Alexandrovich Arkhipov refused to launch. Instead, they surfaced.

We generally know what happened after that: Khrushchev caved again and had to leave Cuba and take his toys with him. More humiliation before the Politburo. Khrushchev had been prepared to ixnay with just a promise from Kennedy not to invade Cuba, but the latter waited too long and K upped the ante again to include the US removal of nuclear missiles from Turkey, which were aimed at Moscow. US military commanders were livid at the concessions, writes Ellsberg:

For military commanders who had regarded the failure of the crisis to lead to invasion as an intense disappointment, this last revelation was one more proof of Kennedy’s weakness and “appeasement.”

We’ll leave this episode there.

There’s another near Cuban Missile-like crisis that Ellsberg mentions that took place on the Iranian border in August 1980, just a couple of months prior to the presidential election. Ellsberg describes the still highly secretive event:

…the possible imminent use of tactical nuclear weapons if a secret Soviet buildup on the Iranian border led to a Soviet invasion of Iran, followed by the expression of explicit, secret nuclear warnings to the Soviet Union (a hidden episode…[that Carter] press secretary Jody Powell was quoted as describing it as “the most serious nuclear crisis since the Cuban missile crisis”).

Again, the US has shown that it is willing to go up against a conventional force it cannot defeat by introducing first strike nukes. (Carter even championed the people-hating neutron bomb.)

Ellsberg closes out The Doomsday Machine by calling for a dismantling of the omnicidal system that he convincingly argues will eventually destroy us, especially as we leave decisions on their use on the battlefield up to commanders, in a line of delegation that is not clear or fully predictable. He offers up a list of proposed changes:

+ a U.S. no-first-use policy

+ probing investigative hearings on our war plans in the light of nuclear winter

+ eliminating our ICBMs

+ forgoing delusions of preemptive damage-limiting by our first-strike forces

+ giving up the profits, jobs, and alliance hegemony based on maintaining that pretense

+ otherwise dismantling the American Doomsday Machine

These, along with more whistleblowing, grassroots movement and education are required.

Along with Fail Safe, another film that graphically reminds us of the stakes of a nuclear holocaust, The Day After and Threads are also compelling depictions that may inspire political activism. Ellsberg also maintains a website where documents referenced in The Doomsday Machine are available on Ellsberg’s website.  The Doomsday Machine is highly recommended reading.

John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelancer based in Australia.  He is a former reporter for The New Bedford Standard-Times.