Daniel Ellsberg: Master of War, Champion of Peace

Photograph Source: Elvert Barnes – CC BY 2.0

The Speeches

Daniel Ellsberg reckoned that he almost got us all killed back in ‘62, twice shooting his mouth off through firebrand speeches that he wrote and gave to political orators to proxy vent his bravado. His research and analyses at the RAND Corporation in the years after WW2 had shown him that the US sported a 10-1 nuke advantage over the Soviets, and that we knew where their dinky little nukes were located (Plesetsk), and yet in the mounting tension in a post-war Berlin, the Soviets were blustering about superiority, scaring the bejeezus out of the Europeans, who wanted some gimme reassurance from the Yanks. DeGaulle’s Force de Frappe set up to deter the Soviets, the French not believing the Yanks’s promise to protect Europe. Ellsberg’s speeches changed that calculus.

Each speech served to humiliate Soviet First Secretary Nikita (his name translates to “unconquered” or “victor”) Khrushchev. The first speech, delivered by Deputy Secretary of Defense Roswell Gilpatrick at a Business Council gathering in Virginia on October 21, 1961, seemed, to the Soviets, to be calling their bluff on nuclear superiority and may have helped inflame the tensions over the newly constructed Berlin Wall, culminating in the famous stand-off at Checkpoint Charlie on October 22. Ellsberg, recalling his speech 50 years later in The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a War Planner, realized he may have sent a rorschachable message:

What else was I saying in my draft passages for the Gilpatric speech but that if the Soviets blocked our enlarged patrols along the Berlin corridors with some of their armored divisions in the neighborhood, they would have been taking an unacceptable risk of U.S. first use of nuclear weapons against those forces

Ellsberg expressed surprise at the Soviet response to this speech. Although it occurred to him that Khrushchev needed to save face. The day after Gilpatric’s speech, Khrushchev’s Minister of Defense Rodion Malinovsky told the Twenty-Second Congress of the Communist Party in Moscow:

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.

The response was scary in its implications. The speech introduced the idea of a first strike, first use concept into the fraught conversation between the superpowers.

Ellsberg’s second speech, at the 1962 University of Michigan at Ann Arbor commencement, was delivered by Secretary of State Robert McNamara. The Secretary urged a policy of deterrence whereby the US and Soviets agreed to nuke only military targets and to spare the cities and their populations. This seemed to favor the Americans. Khrushchev raged that “it was deceptive to the American people because bases in the United States were in or near large cities.” As far as the First Secretary was concerned, the speech was saying to him,“that McNamara was somehow trying to make nuclear war seem less bloody and therefore more acceptable,” and said Khrushchev, “To get the population used to the idea that nuclear war will take place.”

It’s interesting that, according to Ellsberg, both speeches were exactly the kind of language that JFK was intent on avoiding. Kennedy aide Carl Kaysen had warned him about language he’d prepared in a previous speech written for Kennedy that was meant to call Khrushchev’s bluff; its propositions included language that went against “Kennedy’s more conciliatory style.” JFK didn’t use Ellsberg’s speech. As for Gilpatrick’s speech, historian Michael Bechloss, said “The speech violated the President’s own rule against backing an enemy into a dangerous corner.” Ellsberg “confessed” in Doomsday that “in October 1961 I had done my part in greasing the skids toward the Cuban missile crisis.” The second speech, at Ann Arbor, had merely put out the growing fiery rhetoric between the Soviets and the Americans with gasoline, Ellsberg wrote:

By the time of the Ann Arbor speech in July, the Soviet medium-range ballistic missiles that were meant, among other aims, to counter American assertions of strategic superiority and warnings of possible U.S. first use or first strike over Berlin were already on their way to the Caribbean.

Nothing in the speech encouraged Khrushchev to turn the nuke-laden ships around. As Ellsberg points out in Doomsday, it wasn’t only the speeches but also the US pointing out in their bluff-calling the number of ICBMs the Russians had (4), where they were located (Plesetsk), and how “vulnerable” the missiles were to attack, while the US moved nukes into Italy and Turkey well within range of Moscow. Clearly, even with such an advantage, nobody thought to consider that Khrushchev might sneak some intermediate range missiles within range of Washington, DC.

Ellsberg seems to have started out as the real deal Master of War that Bob Dylan sneered at in his famous song, hiding behind walls, hiding behind desks, playing with the world as if it were a toy. Though he declares in Doomsday that he in no way wanted to see a nuclear war break out, Ellsberg “confesses” that it took half a century for him to realize that his earlier language could easily have been taken as an existential threat to the Soviets. He misread their read. He believed the Soviets were bluffing about the threat; the missiles sent to Cuba suggested otherwise. But Ellsberg’s story about what happened in the lead-up, and during the missile crisis, in Cuba, was more harrowing than anything most Americans have heard about. The zero sum event was far closer than reported. Consider: The Pentagon wanted to invade Cuba to force the Soviet intermediate missiles out, but, Ellsberg reveals in his book, nobody realized at the time that the Soviets had, “along with SAMs and ballistic missiles, they had been secretly equipped with over a hundred tactical nuclear weapons, warheads included.” And what’s more, Ellsberg reports in Doomsday, the Pentagon had every intention of nuking China, too, had they bombed the Soviets, even without Chinese provocation.


The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a War Planner is more than just a memoir of Ellsberg’s time as a RAND thinker during a tumultuous and fatal moment in history, it is a stocktaking of his moral character and lessons learned as an insider — even call him a Deep Stater. Ellsberg considered publishing the Nuclear Papers before the Pentagon Papers, [see pages 16-17] knowing that they were more important, but after a discussion with a friend (Randy Kehler) he went with PP first. He then gave his brother, Harry, the NP to hide, which he did, in a landfill, after which they got lost. Ellsberg had to reconstruct the documents of revelation through the later-established Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Though Ellsberg is rightly admired as a whistleblower for bring to the public’s attention details of reports from Vietnam and planning rooms that the war was losing effort, and lives were likely being lost for nothing, it was the Nuclear Papers that are far more revealing about the madness of the war hawks, some of whom swelled with omnipotence after the annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, and danger to the world they represent.

It’s not always clear what it was exactly that liked in Ellsberg during his tenure at RAND (and after), but what he presents in his Nuclear Papers is often astonishing and even, at times, terrifying. What he reveals to the reader, presented here in no particular order, is;

– Ike, though we like him now for his 1960 Farewell speech warning us about the MIC, was no angel. When Ellsberg tells us Ike practically threatened to nuke China if North Korea didn’t sign the still-current truce with the South “immediately.” Nixon would threaten the North Vietnamese similarly.

– Ellsberg revealed that under Ike any number of military personnel had been “delegated” and sub-delegated, down to field commanders, to launch nukes. Ellsberg continues, “So did Presidents Johnson, Nixon, and Carter. So, almost certainly, has every subsequent president to this day, even though in the past several decades there may have been at least nominal “devolution” to some civilian outside Washington. This delegation has been one of our highest national secrets.

– During testing of the H-bomb, while scientists worried about setting the world on fire by igniting its nitrogen in the atmosphere and oceans, Enrico Fermi offered bets on whether they’d survive the test blast. [Fermi] said, “He said, “I feel I am now in a position to make book [that is, to accept bets at fixed odds] on two contingencies: 1)that the explosion will burn New Mexico; 2) that it will ignite the whole world.”

– Ellsberg was astonished to discover that the Pentagon had a policy that required the nuking of China, in the event of a war with Russia, even if they weren’t declared belligerents. (One wonders if that policy is still in place.)

– Ellsberg snarked to a RAND colleague, as they came out of a cinema from watching Dr. Strangelove, that essentially they had just watched a documentary. (The film is also where Ellsberg derived the title of his book.)

– “There is no sign that the findings of the latest scientific peer-reviewed studies of climatic consequences of nuclear war over the past decade have penetrated the consciousness of U.S. officials or Russian officials or have influenced in any way their nuclear deployments or arms-control negotiations.”

– Ellsberg references a 1980 (Carter) “possible imminent use of tactical nuclear weapons if a secret Soviet buildup on the Iranian border led to a Soviet invasion of Iran,” a virtually unpublicized incident that Carter’s press secretary later described as “the most serious nuclear crisis since the Cuban missile crisis.”

It was the information contained in The Doomsday Machine and its raw documentation that had Nixon and Kissinger worried when the Pentagon Papers came out. Nixon and his abettor, Kissinger, were scheming on how best to nuke North Vietnam. Ellsberg writes,

If I had known then about Nixon’s imminent nuclear threats and plans and had any documents on these, I would have revealed them immediately, instead of the history in the Pentagon Papers, which ended in 1968 before Nixon came to office.

It’s been assumed many times over the years that when Ellsberg was referred to as “the most dangerous man in America…who must be stopped at all costs” (Sy Hersh, The Price of Power, p. 385), it was because of the release of the Pentagon Papers. In fact, Ellsberg says in Doomsday, the duo were frightened he’d reveal their nuclear threats. Ellsberg was genuinely frightened for his life. (With crazy man G. Gordon Liddy on the prowl, it was probably a legitimate fear.) Ellsberg goes on to write:

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.

(An amusing side note anecdote from Larry Sloman’s Steal This Dream: Abbie Hoffman and the Counterculture Revolution in America:

Levitating the Pentagon struck me as a great idea because removing deference from any of these institutions is very important, and this is of course the kind of thing that Abbie understood instinctively. So they have a press conference, and they’re talking about their plans, in a very straight and measured and re- served way. And when it gets to be Abbie’s turn to speak, he says, “We’re gonna raise the building six feet in the air.” I think that really changed the terms. In the Pentagon it became, “Can he really do that? Six feet!” [p.98])


Ellsberg was charged under the Espionage Act of 1917 along with other charges of theft and conspiracy, carrying a total maximum sentence of 115 years. Due to governmental misconduct and illegal evidence gathering the charges were later dropped. Some of the misconduct involved the secret plot to get Ellsberg. As he puts it, “it was the unlikely exposure of White House crimes against me—actions precisely intended to avert my revealing documents from the Nixon administration, beyond the period of the Pentagon Papers—that led to Nixon’s resignation facing impeachment, making the war endable nine months later.” Tricky Dick.

Ellsberg went on his post-RAND years to become a champion of whistleblowing, believing it to be the only way attention could be brought to bear by the MSM and Congress to see changes made in the system. He rallied for Katherine Gun, the GCHQ translator, whose revelations about the Iraq war-to-come called “the most important and courageous leak I have ever seen. No one else – including myself – has ever done what Gun did: tell secret truths at personal risk, before an imminent war, in time, possibly, to avert it.” Indeed, Gun’s whistleblowing opened a new dimension of the corruption of democracy in the US and the UK. It was really a story about the NSA calling on the GCHQ to find dirt on UN Security Council members who were reluctant to vote for the US invasion of Iraq. Gun spilled the beans of the NSA request and the plot was abandoned. The UN voted No, but the US went ahead with war anyway.

Ellsberg was a strong and vocal supporter of Ed Snowden and his revelations. The two had an excellent discussion about the degradation of democracy in a milieu of secrecy that led to citizens unable to make informed decisions about policies. On a Democracy Now episode the two came together to discuss the rationales behind their respective whistleblowing revelations. Ellsberg had revealed the secret machinations of war-planning for Vietnam and nuclear war, and how in each case the public was kept in the dark about the government’s “thinking.” Snowden demonstrated that the secrecy mandate had monsterized and become a menacing Orwellian system of overclassification and comprehensive global surveillance, especially among the Mighty Whitey 5 (US,UK, Australia, NZ, and Canada).

Ellsberg admired Assange’s courage for revealing the Pentagon’s war crimes. “Wikileaks among the most important revelations of criminal state behaviour in US history” blares a Morning Star headline. In a Newsweek piece, he declares, “I am Assange. Arrest me!” Assange is a champion of radical government transparency and secured individual privacy. This makes him a natural enemy of the state. But Ellsberg, who just passed away, won’t be there to support Assange in his ever more imminent extradition to the US to face the same empty charges under politically motivated and legislated Espionage Act of 1917.

We’ll miss Ellsberg. He might have started out as a Master of War whose grave Dylan might have pissed on in wrath, but he came around. “The Book I Never Gave Dan Ellsberg,” an excerpt of a piece on Sy Hersh’s Substack site praising his late friend does the best justice of Ellsberg’s value, and is a good place to leave it:

Dan wrote often and brilliantly about the dangers of nuclear weapons. He never despaired, even as the number of nuclear-armed nations grew and as the recent war between Russia and Ukraine, really a proxy war between Washington and Moscow, led to talk of possible nuclear intervention. His 2017 study of that madness, The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner, is required reading for those who worry about the bomb, as any rational person should.

Daniel Ellsberg 1931-2023. RIP.

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