Guest post: A review of ‘The Doomsday Machine’ by Daniel Ellsberg

This article by Bob Gardiner was originally published in the Baptist Peace Fellowship Spring Newsletter 2018. For more information about the Baptist Peace Fellowship, go to

A few weeks ago, we were treated to the unedifying spectacle of the president of the USA boasting that his nuclear button was bigger than that of the president of North Korea. As it happens, I recently received the gift of Daniel Ellsberg’s recent brilliant book, The Doomsday Machine. This deals compellingly with the history of American nuclear policies: in particular the first strike and first use policies, the size of its nuclear arsenal and the devastating consequences of its use. There is some good news. Russia and the USA have reduced their stockpiles to about 4000 warheads each: in 1985 they had between them about 70,000.

Ellsberg worked for the RAND corporation which is a federal think-tank overseeing and advising government defence policy. His main role within it in the late 1950s and 1960s was to assess the way in which a decision might be made to launch a nuclear response or pre-emptive attack. Right from the outset he was concerned that there would always be “ambiguity” about how that decision which, by its very nature, would have to be speedy, could be reached. He gives many examples of times when there were alerts that almost triggered an unnecessary response: on one occasion it was triggered by a flock of geese mistaken for missiles, on another by the bouncing of signals off the moon! On one occasion the computer programme seemed 99.9% certain that a Soviet missile attack on the USA had been launched. Fortunately Khrushchev was at the UN at the time and that prevented a response as someone commented that the Russians would be unlikely to launch missiles while their leader was in New York. What worried Ellsberg was that so much hung on a snap decision taken in the heat of the moment not only by the president but by the military personnel who necessarily would be advising him. There was also the risk of someone going off piste and launching an attack without the full authorization having been completed. The chances were that in the confusion and limited time restraints of a nuclear launch at least one pilot would take matters into his own hands and drop his load even though their mission had only been generated by a false alarm. During his time as Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara (1961-68) tried to stiffen the electronic code procedures to reduce the chances of this happening by preventing any firing of Minuteman missiles (which were launched by officers in bombproof capsules buried in silos deep in the ground) without receipt of a coded message from the highest authority. This, however, was circumvented by the Strategic Air Command which fixed all the codes for all units at 00000000! When, decades later he heard about this McNamara said, “I am shocked, absolutely shocked and outraged. Who the hell authorized that?” Apparently, the Strategic High Command had deliberately set all the digits to zero so that everyone would know the codes to save time in the need for a speedy launch. They were much less concerned about the risk of inadvertent launch. This overwhelming emphasis on speed was because the policy was to destroy enemy weapons before they were launched and to get American weapons launched before they could potentially be destroyed. Delays were anathema. Crazily, all the bombers were supposed to reach their targets simultaneously, taking no account of wind direction, or the fact that orders arrived at different bases with lapses of up to 4 hours. Moreover, there was no officially authorized way for a president or anyone else to stop planes in the air once they had received an execute order from proceeding to the target and dropping their bombs, even though many hours may have elapsed between that order being given and the targets reached, during which time the scenario might have significantly changed. Ellsberg says the reason he was given for this was that “the Soviets might discover the stop code and misdirect the whole force back to base”. All this is eerily reminiscent of Kubrick’s film Dr. Strangelove where the president is unable to turn back an attack launched by the mad base commander General Jack D Ripper.

Nuclear warheads over timeSince the construction of NATO in 1949, it had been axiomatic that the main trigger for a US nuclear strike would be if the Soviet Union launched a massive attack using conventional forces on Europe. But the terms of what would trigger a response were wider than that: “general war”, which was defined as any conflict with the Soviet Union. This was muddied by the later use of the phrase, Sino-Soviet Bloc. It did not seem to occur to the American government that the Soviet Union and China were not necessarily a bloc! A renewed conflict in Korea (where only a fragile cease-fire was still maintained) would almost certainly qualify. This, perhaps, explains why the North Koreans have been so determined to develop a nuclear deterrent of their own. The Americans believed that no conventional war could remain limited for long and therefore it would be best, as Carwyn James once said (in the totally different context of rugby), “to get our retaliation in first”, and go to an all-out nuclear first strike. This policy was strengthened by the fact that it was much cheaper than trying to match Soviet conventional forces. The Americans believed that the Soviet forces had 175 divisions: this was a gross exaggeration but they did have 20 divisions stationed in East Germany. So the decision was reached, in the last years of Eisenhower’s presidency, to develop a massive strike force of nuclear weapons, as can be seen in the graph. By 1961 there were 1700 bombers carrying thermonuclear bombs, of which 500 were of 25 megatons. Each 25 megaton bomb was 1,250 times more destructive than the bomb which destroyed Nagasaki. Indeed one such bomb was equivalent to 12 times the total bomb tonnage the US airforce had dropped over the whole time of the 2nd World War. Each of these warheads had more firepower than all the bombs and shells that had ever been exploded in the whole of human history. There was at least one warhead aimed for every city in the Soviet Union that had more than 25,000 population. Cities in China were also targeted. Even by modest estimates it was predicted that Chinese casualties might be in the region of 300,000,000, even if China’s actions had not precipitated the attack. The Marines commander, David M Schoup, objected to this policy, “All I can say is that any plan that murders 300,000,000 Chinese when it might not even be their war is not a good plan. That is not the American way.” (p103). Ellsberg commented: this was the plan and I made it my passion to change it.

Eisenhower, who, having suffered a stroke, knew the dangers of an incapacitated president, had written letters of authority in 1957 to his theatre commanders specifying circumstances in which they had the power to launch a nuclear strike. Kennedy was unhappy with this but the chief of staff he appointed, Curtis LeMay, was clear that the decision should be primarily taken by the generals rather than the president. “Command and control! What’s that? It’s telling a fighting man what to do, that’s what it is. And that’s a job for a professional soldier. They talk about the president exercising command and control. What is a president? A politician. What does a politician know about war? Who needs a president if there is a war? Nobody. All we need him for is to tell us there is a war. We are professional soldiers. We’ll take care of the rest.”

Ellsberg, on his 30th birthday in 1961, managed to change the plans for nuclear war to mitigate some of these dangers: China was no longer to be automatically included in a war with the USSR. Cities were no longer to be the primary targets. The whole nuclear arsenal was not necessarily to be launched immediately. Conventional forces would be used if possible instead of a knee-jerk nuclear response. There was to be a tightening of procedures to prevent accidental or attack made on the initiative of someone down the command chain, limiting decision making to the president or as high an authoritative person as possible. Despite attempts by the chiefs of staff to prevent Kennedy getting the full documents, he insisted on reading them and the changes were accepted. Unlike the present president, Kennedy was “a great reader”. Ellsberg claims that those changes to the original plan have remained in force ever since. However, despite these improvements, the threat to humanity of virtual annihilation remained.

The Berlin crisis of 1961 and the Cuban missile crisis brought immediate relevance to these policy discussions. McNamara privately admitted that even if the USSR invaded West Berlin the Americans would not launch a nuclear attack. The consequences would be too severe. The Joint Chiefs of Staff tried to reassure Kennedy that “if the worst came to the worst” and America had to go to war with the USSR over Berlin it would probably result in less than 10,000,000 deaths in the USA. No advice given to Kennedy took into account the likely casualties for Europe, which on the most conservative estimates was 100,000,000 dead. Even given the American gross exaggeration of Soviet nuclear warheads at that time, these figures were almost certainly an underestimate. Ellsberg admits that he drafted a speech for Kennedy (actually delivered by Roswell Gilpatric, Deputy Defense Secretary) threatening Khrushchev with the words, “The fact is that this nation has a nuclear retaliatory force of such lethal power that any enemy move which brought it into play would be an act of self-destruction on its part”. Khrushchev later maintained that it was this threat that forced him to relent to the pressure of his military advisors and accelerate soviet nuclear capacity. He also shrewdly pointed out that the public admission of the change in policy, made by McNamara at Ann Arbor, from attacking cities to primarily attacking military installations, was merely an attempt to make nuclear war seem less unacceptable to the American electorate and world opinion, thus making it more justifiable and therefore more, rather than less, likely to happen. As a result of their perceived humiliation in Berlin (the building of the wall was in effect an admission of the successful existence of West Berlin) the Russians set out to imitate the American policy in every detail. As the graph shows they succeeded. So we now live with 2 doomsday machines. By the end of the cold war in the late 1980s the Russians had 40,000 nuclear warheads, almost twice as many as the USA. When asked at that time what would be necessary as a deterrent, Herbert York, a nuclear physicist who had worked on the development of the A-bomb known as the Manhattan Project, said, “somewhere in the range of 1,10 or a hundred warheads, closer to 1 than 100.” The size of the button simply meant you could destroy the earth several times over.

Ellsberg points out that the installation of medium range ballistic missiles on Cuba did not really change the war threat significantly. Washington could already have been reached by missiles launched from submarines. However, it did show that the numbers of soviet warheads was being significantly increased. In the Caribbean the military arithmetic was reversed from that of Berlin, the previous year. Here the USA had massive conventional arms superiority, despite the catastrophic failure of the Bay of Pigs attack in 1961. It would have to be Khrushchev who would have to respond with a nuclear attack. McNamara summed up the issue to Kennedy with typical perception and brevity: “I’ll be quite frank. I don’t think there is a military problem. This is a domestic political problem.” The quarantine (Kennedy deliberately avoided the word blockade and so make USA look less in breach of international law than Russia had been in Berlin in 1948), was the minimum Kennedy could do to satisfy the hawks in Congress, his armed forces and the media. The oil on which Cuba was dependent would only last 6 weeks without new shipments. However, if the government was really worried about the missiles, 6 weeks was far too long. The missiles would be operational in days not weeks and the quarantine might give the Russians the excuse to use them. Ellsberg claims that he persuaded the White House to issue an ultimatum for the missiles to be decommissioned. Bobby Kennedy announced a deadline of 48 hours the next morning. Later that day Khrushchev sent a 6 part telegram to Kennedy pointing out the unacceptability of nuclear war and promising to dismantle the missiles if Kennedy promised never again to invade Cuba. However, the following morning a further communication from Khrushchev demanded the compensatory dismantling of US missiles in Turkey. Most of the defence advisors in Washington, including Ellsberg, thought Kennedy should ignore this new condition. But Kennedy was leaning towards accepting it. Then it was discovered that a US U2 spy plane had been shot down over Cuba by a soviet missile. It later transpired that this had been ordered by Castro in obstinate defiance of Khrushchev’s orders. Kennedy had assured the military chiefs that any shooting down of an American plane would be retaliated with a devastating attack on the missile bases. Yet the president did not order one. Meanwhile the Turks were consulted about the future of the US bases. They were adamant that they should remain. De Gaulle was already arguing that the USA could not be depended upon to defend Europe. The result, as Ellsberg saw it, would be the collapse of NATO, which may have been Khrushchev’s motive behind the whole Cuban missile programme.

A cartoon from the Washington Post of November 1st. 1962 in which Kennedy and Khrushchev are seen desperately trying to close the Pandora’s box they have foolishly opened. The cartoonist seems to be implying that now that the box has been opened it won’t ever be properly shut again.

Fortunately for the world on Sunday October 28th Khrushchev climbed down and announced the withdrawal of missiles from Cuba. The world breathed a sigh of relief. Later McNamara confided something of his state of mind on Saturday 27th. “I remember leaving the White House. It was a beautiful fall day and thinking that it might well be the last sunset I saw.” It is now clear that Castro’s shooting down of an American plane convinced Khrushchev that it was too dangerous to site missiles on Cuba since he would not be able to control what an unreliable Castro would do with them and that was too dangerous a risk for him, for the Soviet Union and above all the world. That was why he gave the order to dismantle them. Even more frightening is the revelation that there were 42,000 Soviet troops on Cuba armed with over 100 tactical nuclear weapons. These troops were instructed to act, “on the orders of local commanders against an invasion fleet even without instructions from Moscow.” This was not known until 1992. As McNamara said when he heard this for the first time, “We don’t need to speculate what would have happened. It would have been an absolute disaster for the world. No-one should believe that a US force could have been attacked by tactical nuclear warheads without responding with nuclear warheads. And where would it have ended? In utter disaster.” That danger occurred to Khrushchev, too, which is why he ordered the disarming of Cuba well within the time limit of the deadlines.

Ellsberg graphically illustrates the supreme danger the world faced in those days with further revelations about the blockade. Unknown to the Americans, the Soviets were deploying submarines armed with nuclear missiles in the vicinity. These submarines had been designed for use in the Arctic and did not function so well in the warm Caribbean waters. On 30th October (2 days after we had all thought the danger had passed) the US warships discovered them and tried to warn them off with depth charges but these were interpreted as attacks. The submarine crews felt very vulnerable and were suffering from heat exhaustion and high CO2 levels. The captain of one of them said, “Maybe the war has already started up there while we are doing somersaults here…..we’re going to blast them now. We will all die but we will sink them all… so will not disgrace our navy.” But he did not fire the nuclear torpedo. He was able to rein in his wrath and made the decision to surface. The reason for this was that a senior naval officer, Arkhipova, was on board and he argued strongly against firing the missile because it had not been directly ordered by Moscow. Ellsberg comments had the missile been fired, “the aircraft carrier, USS Randolph and probably the rest of the surrounding fleet would have been destroyed or if not drenched in a bath of radio-active water which would have incapacitated the crew within minutes and killed them soon after”. One shudders to think of the consequences of that. Arkhipova’s widow proudly commented in 2012 that her husband had been the “man that saved the world”.

Ellsberg then examines how bombing cities and deliberately killing civilian populations became accepted tactics in warfare. Perhaps, surprisingly to some readers, he puts the blame for this firmly on the British and Americans, while acknowledging the precedent of Sherman’s march though Georgia in the American Civil War and Franco’s bombing of Guernica. He argues that Hitler’s bombing of London was in response to allied attacks on German cities, particularly Berlin in 1940. After the defeat at Dunkirk, Britain had little option but to resort to bombing and it was difficult to be so precise as to concentrate on strategic targets especially in night time raids. Whereas Hitler, Ellsberg argues, had always seen air-power’s primary role as being in support of land forces. Ellsberg also makes clear that the switch to incendiary bombing was deliberately to increase civilian casualties. Over 40,000 were killed by the firestorm bombing of Hamburg on 28th July 1943 known as Operation Gomorrah. This policy was perfected by Curtis LeMay (who later became Kennedy’s fierce chief of staff of air defense). Le May claimed his raid on Tokyo of March 12th 1945 had killed over 1,000,000 (although, in fact, this was a big exaggeration the true number was still probably greater than that killed at Hiroshima). He pointed out that the Japanese houses made of wood and cardboard were ideal for maximum casualties from magnesium bombing. “The purpose of our attack as to kill as many people as possible.” In this context the decisions to launch the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki looked to Truman like nothing different from what was already standard war practice. The arguments that the use of the atomic bombs precipitated the Japanese surrender, brought a speedy end to the war and therefore saved lives were exactly the same as those used by the British Bomber Harris to justify the raid on Dresden. “I do not personally regard the remaining cities of Germany as worth the bones of one Grenadier guard.”

There is strong evidence, however that the purpose of the atomic attack on Japan was directed less against that enemy than to terrify Stalin. Just 2 weeks after Japan’s surrender, Major General Norstad sent a memo to General Groves, director of the Manhattan project, identifying 40 Soviet cities as targets for future atomic attacks, though the number of bombs needed was many more than they possessed at that time. By 1948 it was estimated that 400 bombs like the ones used at Nagasaki were needed. At that time the arsenal was 50 bombs. Thus what had been seen initially as simply a more efficient way of continuing the wartime policy of firestorm bombing grew into something even more sinister and morally corrosive.

As early as 1942 Teller and Fermi were working on the development of a hydrogen bomb more lethal than the atomic bomb of the Manhattan project. Such were the dangers initially perceived to be inherent in this project that Arthur Compton, who was in charge of it, commented that it would be “better to accept the slavery of the Nazis than to run a chance of drawing the final curtain on mankind”. According to Speer, Hitler had a similar feeling: “Hitler was plainly not delighted with the possibility that the earth under his rule be transformed into a glowing star”. Ultimately the risk of global catastrophe through the ignition of the atmosphere was reduced to one so small that it was negligible and development of the weapon continued. In 1949, 2 proposals were put to the supreme command that no further development of the H-bomb should be continued: the one proposal by Oppenheimer and Conant, who had been key members of the development of the A-bomb based their argument that the extreme danger to mankind of such a weapon far outweighed any military advantage that could be gained from its development. The second proposal by Fermi recommended a withdrawal from the programme provided that the USSR also desisted from theirs. But it was even stronger in the terms of its description: “in its practical effect it is almost one of genocide. It cannot be justified on any ethical ground.” President Harry Truman ignored this advice from the major scientist working on the project. A vivid example of the difference in scale between the weapons now being developed and the ones used at Hiroshima can be seen in the fact that the A-bomb is now used as a detonator for thermonuclear warhead. In a personal note in the book Ellsberg shares that his father had been working for the company building the plutonium plant in Georgia, but had resigned in 1949 when he discovered that it was going to be used for the H-bomb.

Instead of the crises of 1961 & 1962 bringing about a rethink and withdrawal from dependence on nuclear warheads the opposite happened. There was a massive increase in warheads on both sides. Strangely American policy focused on eliminating the Soviet high command allegedly with the aim of successful negotiations being achieved after the attack. It didn’t seem to occur to anyone that with all the high command killed there would be no-one with whom to negotiate. Perhaps with knowledge of this the Soviets developed an automatic response system, known as the dead hand, so that the launch of weapons would continue even if there was nobody fit to issue the orders. It would be triggered by just one large explosion in Moscow. The Russians still have this system in place as was revealed in January 2017. It is extremely likely that a similar system exists in Washington. Ellsberg believes that similar dead hand devices exist in China, Britain, France, Pakistan, India, Israel and North Korea. That is wherever nuclear weapons are to be found. This, of course, makes the danger posed by terrorism even more potent.

Apparently, Nixon came quite close to using nuclear weapons during the Vietnam War. He said to his chief of staff Bob Haldeman: “I call it the Madman Theory, Bob. I want the North Vietnamese to believe I’ve reached the point where I might do anything to stop the war. We’ll just slip the word to them that we can’t restrain Nixon when he’s angry and he has his hand on the nuclear button and Ho Chi Minh himself will be in Paris in two days begging for peace.” These words sound very familiar to us from Trump’s tweets on North Korea. The tactic of mad unpredictability had, of course, been previously used by Hitler with spectacular success in the Rhineland and Sudetenland. What will be encouraging to readers of this newsletter is that it was the massive nationwide protests by 2,000,000 million Americans in October 1969 that made it clear to Nixon that he would be not able to launch a nuclear attack on North Vietnam without massive civil disobedience. However he continued to issue the threats and the protestors had no inkling of their success. In fact 13 threats of the use of nuclear weapons were made according to Le Duc Tho, North Vietnam’s negotiator in Paris in 1974. Ellsberg then lists 25 situations since 1945 in which the Americans have threatened an enemy with nuclear attack, the last being Clinton’s warnings to North Korea in 1995 and Libya in 1996. George Bush senior turned down Gorbachev’s attempt to get a non-first use agreement in October 1991. Subsequent attempts by other countries to get the USA to agree to this have always been refused, despite the UN resolution on December 1981 which states: “States and statesmen that resort first to nuclear weapons will be committing the gravest crime against humanity.” Britain and Israel were among the 19 nations opposing this resolution. Of recent politicians seeking senior office only Obama has forsworn the first use of nuclear weapons and then he quickly rowed back on that under further questioning and accusations of naivety by his opponent for the democratic nomination, Hilary Clinton. Ellsberg then states that as a result of this the USA and all its allies, including Israel along with Pakistan, Russia and North Korea qualify as “terrorist nations” in that they use the threat of nuclear weapons to terrorize the world. A major way forward would be to place the abandoning the policy of first use on the table to begin peace talks with Russia, Iran, China, North Korea and any other nation.

So both USA and Russia have what Ellsberg calls Doomsday Machines. “A very expensive system of people, machines, electronics, communications, institutions, plans, training, discipline, practices, and doctrine, which under conditions of electronic warning, external conflict, or expectations of attack, ……both are on hair-trigger alert that makes their joint existence unstable. They are susceptible to being triggered by false alarm, a terrorist action, unauthorized launch or a desperate decision to escalate. They would kill billions of people, perhaps ending complex life on earth.” Are these Doomsday Machines needed? The answer is of course no. But Ellsberg argues that dismantling them should be only the prelude to a total nuclear disarmament. The risk posed by nuclear war being started inadvertently is now greater than the threats which caused the weapons to be created in the first place. Even more grave is that it can now be clearly understood that any significant nuclear strike would have such devastating consequences for the planet that no ordinary cause of war (under the just war theory) could justify its use. The stated purpose of Ellsberg‘s book is therefore to encourage pressure on Congress and parliaments to grapple with the truth of the gravity of the risks the world is taking. Whistleblowers and those with the knowledge should convince our politicians to grasp the nettle and respond. He ends this important book with a powerful quotation from Martin Luther King: “ We must move past indecision to action….If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality and strength without sight. Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter but beautiful struggle for a new world.”

Ellsberg’s well-written, at times exciting, illuminating and thorough account was published by Bloomsbury in USA , 2017,
350pp + glossary, notes, acknowledgements and index of 70pp. £20.


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