The Doomsday Machine: The Madness of America’s Nuclear Weapons


W.J. Astore

I just finished Daniel Ellsberg’s new book, The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner.  Talk about hair-raising!  Ellsberg, of course, is famous for leaking the Pentagon papers, which helped to end the Vietnam war and the presidency of Richard Nixon as well.  But before Ellsberg worked as a senior adviser on the Vietnam war, he helped to formulate U.S. nuclear policy in the late 1950s and early 1960s.  His book is a shattering portrayal of the genocidal nature of U.S. nuclear planning during the Cold War — and that threat of worldwide genocide (or omnicide, a word Ellsberg uses to describe the death of nearly everything from a nuclear exchange that would generate disastrous cooling due to nuclear winter) persists to this day.

Rather than writing a traditional book review, I want to list some memorable facts and lessons I took from the book, lessons that should lead us to question the very sanity of America’s leaders.  To wit:

  1. U.S. nuclear war plans circa 1960 envisioned a simultaneous attack on the USSR and China that would generate 600 million deaths after six months.  As Ellsberg notes, that is 100 Holocausts.  This plan was to be used even if China hadn’t directly attacked the U.S., i.e. the USSR and China were lumped together as communist bad guys who had to be eliminated together in a general nuclear war.  Only one U.S. general present at the briefing objected to this idea: David M. Shoup, a Marine general and Medal of Honor winner, who also later objected to the Vietnam War.
  2. The U.S. military consistently overestimated the Soviet nuclear threat, envisioning missile and bomber gaps that didn’t exist.  In the nuclear arms race, the U.S. was often racing itself in the fielding of more and more nuclear weapons.
  3. General Curtis LeMay, the famous commander of Strategic Air Command (SAC) and later AF Chief of Staff, said that once war started, politicians like the president had no role to play in decision-making.
  4. When the atomic bomb was first tested in 1945, there were fears among the scientists involved that the atmosphere could be ignited, ending all life on earth.  The chance was considered remote (perhaps 3 in a million), so the scientists pressed ahead.
  5. The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 came much closer to nuclear war than most people recognize.  Soviet submarines in the area, attacked by mock U.S. depth charges, were prepared to launch nuclear torpedoes against U.S. ships.  Fidel Castro’s air defenses were also preparing to shoot down American planes, which may have ended in U.S. air attacks and an invasion in which Soviet troops on Cuba may have used nuclear weapons to defend themselves.
  6. The U.S. military was (and probably still is) extremely reluctant to reveal nuclear secrets to senior American civilian leaders, including even the President himself.  Ellsberg, possessing the highest security clearances and acting with presidential authority, had to pry answers from military officers who refused to provide detailed and complete information.
  7. The U.S. has always refused, and continues to refuse, to pledge to a “no first use” policy for nuclear weapons.
  8. The U.S. remains the only country to have used nuclear weapons (Hiroshima and Nagasaki).  Yet, as Ellsberg notes, the U.S. uses nuclear weapons all the time — by threatening their use, as President Eisenhower did during the Korean War, as President Nixon did during the Vietnam War, and as President Trump is doing today, promising “fire and fury” against North Korea.  The U.S. uses nuclear weapons like a loaded gun — holding it to an enemy’s head and threatening to pull the trigger, Ellsberg notes.  In short, there’s nothing exceptional about Trump and his nuclear threats.  All U.S. presidents have refused to take nuclear attacks “off the table” of options for U.S. action.
  9. Interservice rivalry has always been a driver of U.S. nuclear force structure and strategy.  The Navy (with its nuclear submarine programs, Polaris followed by Trident) and especially the Air Force (with its ICBMs and bombers) jealously guard their nuclear forces and the prestige/power/budgetary authority they convey.
  10. President Eisenhower’s emphasis on massive retaliation (as represented by SAC and its war plan, the SIOP) was a way for him to limit the power of the military-industrial complex (MIC).  But once Ike was gone, so too was the idea of using the nuclear deterrent as a way of restricting U.S. expenditures on conventional weaponry and U.S. adventurism in foreign wars, e.g. Vietnam.  (It should be said that Ike’s exercise at limiting the MIC in America held the world as a nuclear hostage.)
  11. Ellsberg shows convincingly that control over U.S. nuclear weapons was decentralized and delegated to much lower levels than most Americans know.  It’s not the case that only the president can launch a nuclear war.  Especially in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Ellsberg shows how it was possible that field-grade officers (majors and colonels) could have made decisions in the heat of battle to release nuclear weapons without direct orders from the president.
  12. Most Americans, Ellsberg notes, still don’t understand the huge quantitative and qualitative differences between atomic bombs and hydrogen (thermonuclear) weapons.  Hydrogen bombs are measured in megatons in equivalent TNT yield; atomic bombs are in kilotons.  In short, hydrogen bombs are a thousand times more destructive than atomic ones.  And this is just their explosive yield.  Radioactive fallout and massive fires are even bigger threats to life on earth.
  13. Most Americans still don’t understand that even a smallish nuclear exchange involving a few dozen hydrogen bombs could very well lead to nuclear winter and the deaths of billions of people on the earth (due to the widespread death of crops and resulting famine and disease).
  14. Despite the genocidal threat of nuclear weapons, the U.S. is persisting in plans to modernize its arsenal over the next 30 years at a cost of $1 trillion.

Ellsberg sees this all as a form of collective madness, and it’s hard to disagree.  He quotes Nietzsche to the effect that madness in individuals is rare, but that it’s common among bureaucracies and nations.  The tremendous overkill inherent to U.S. nuclear weapons — its threat of worldwide destruction — is truly a form of madness.  For how do you protect a nation or uphold its ideals by launching a nuclear war that would kill nearly everyone on earth?  How does that make any sense?  How is that not mad?

Ellsberg ends his “confessions” with many sane proposals for downsizing nuclear arsenals across the world.  But is anyone in power listening?  Certainly not U.S. presidents like Trump or Obama, who both signed on to that trillion dollar modernization program for U.S. nuclear weapons.

Ellsberg shows us there have been many chair-bound paper-pushers in the U.S. government who’ve drawn up plans to murder hundreds of millions of people — to unleash doomsday — all in the name of protecting America.  He also shows how close they’ve come to doing just that, especially during the Cuban Missile Crisis, but during other crises as well.

Nuclear brinksmanship, threats of nuclear war, and similar uses of nuclear weapons to intimidate hold the potential for catastrophe.  Miscalculations, mishaps, mistakes, are more than possible in an atmosphere of mistrust, when words and actions can be misinterpreted.

Ellsberg’s recommendations for changes point the way to a better world, a world where the threat of nuclear doomsday could be much reduced, perhaps eliminated completely.  The question remains: Is anyone in power listening?

16 thoughts on “The Doomsday Machine: The Madness of America’s Nuclear Weapons

  1. Does anyone know, for certain, if Trump or any president can launch a pre-emptive nuclear first-strike on his or her own? I am not talking about reacting to a nuclear missile attack launched against the US. And, does Ellsberg mention the Market-Lieu bill that would prohibit any president from ordering a first-strike nuclear weapon? Thanks.


    1. In theory, U.S. presidents have this capability. In practice, to implement such an order would require the willing obedience of dozens, perhaps hundreds, of high-ranking government and military officials, as I understand it. Are such men (they’re almost all men) an adequate check against such a presidential order? I’d say no,

      I didn’t see a reference to the Markey-Lieu bill in Ellsberg’s book.


  2. One of my all time favorite movies was and is Doctor Strangelove. Strong indications are we living the movie. I saw picture on the internet with Trump’s head in place of Slim Pickens as he rode the bomb down to destruction.

    Carl Sagan years ago in his book Cosmos and the TV series by the same name, mentioned the difficulty our civilization may have for a future. Back when Cosmos was made the Soviet Union and USA stood toe to toe ready to use their nukes. I have read speculation that perhaps our civilization given the massive power of nuclear weapons that has proliferated around the world and stands poised ready for a finger to press the button will not survive.


  3. I believe two things are impossible:

    1) the elimination of nuclear weapons. Because they have proven so effective to date, no nuclear power would voluntarily give them up and there is no chance of forcing a nuclear power to give them up as it would induce their use.

    2) that there will never be at least one nuclear weapon detonated either on purpose or accidentally.

    Regarding #1, though proxy wars may continue, haven’t nukes prevented another world war? This seems like a good thing to date until one considers what would happen if a nuke was launched and went off either intentionally (less likely) or accidentally (more likely). Are all the nuclear powers in contact and ready to determine the cause of a single nuclear weapon going off before taking any action? There is no evidence of this that I know about and there is the famous dictum – use it or lose it that would suggest it would be hard to resist a full launch by more than one power even if none were responsible for the initial detonation.

    Is there any weapon developed that has never been used, no matter how horrible it may be? Poison gas, machine guns, incendiary bombs on civilian targets, etc. Perhaps the only good thing that can be said about Hiroshima is it showed how devastating a (very small) nuclear weapon can be, but that impact will be less as those who were alive when it happened depart this world.

    Silly humans! A species known for war as far back as history can take us believes it can now be said, “this far, and no further” even as thousands of nuclear weapons are on platforms ready to launch.

    One last point: a hair trigger.

    There is a nuclear power that has a national philosophy of victimhood and a motto, “never again”. This country, a warrior state that prides itself on steely defiance and pre-emption, sees enemies at every turn and is convinced it would be eagerly destroyed if any of those enemies, with populations many times greater than its own, had the chance. Since its founding in 1948, this country has never dropped the state of military alert. It is not hard to imagine the thought “if we are going down, we are taking everyone with us” being in more than a few minds there. And we all know well – you see what you look for.


    1. One thing that worries me is the “End Times” people — they seem to look forward to Armageddon (even a nuclear one) as the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy. Not all evangelicals believe this, but an outspoken bunch of them do.


  4. Wasn’t it Obama who wanted to “upgrade” our nuclear weapons? Now we have “fire and fury” Trump.
    When are we going to get to get a Commander In Chief that says, “Generals, why don’t you guys shuttup. Do the numbers. We can kill lots of people with half the arsenal we have on hand.”
    Neither Democrats or Republicans have ever seemed to mention it. And that means that once a President takes his office, it seems they become entranced by the military that surround them. And that means that, once in office, the military has done a damn good job of being the nuclear zombies that have been around since the ’50’s. Some general bites a President and, bang, we got another nuclear zombie president.
    Thanks for the review. I’m gonna get Ellsberg’s book.


  5. As an undergraduate way back in the late 1960s I took a course called Technology and National Security. One of the books we read was Herman Kahn’s “On Thermonuclear War”, a doomsday book if there ever was one. The book dispassionately talked about the megadeaths likely to result from various strategies under consideration, and how many megadeaths the United States could take and still be a functional society. I was a conservative knucklehead back then, but that book scared me to the bone. How can anyone rationally discuss megadeaths?


    1. I know. They keep it abstract, which puts me to mind of the saying, One death is a tragedy but a million is a statistic.


  6. Speaking of statistics the armor of the Dinosaurs didn’t help them in the Cataclysm that caused their extinction now believed to be Cometary in nature. Hopefully, our nuclear stockpiles will be used for that some future day steering a Meteor- N.E.O., or Comet strikes clear of our Earth in the millennia of our future!. The Tunguska Event with a tremendous explosion the equal to our Nuclear bombs was observed in Siberia on June 30th. 1908 estimated to have occurred 5 miles above Earth may one day be stopped by a Nuclear- tipped Missile.


  7. I read today where the Trumpet (AKA Agent Orange) has decided to poke another nuclear power in the eye – ‘Nothing but lies and deceit’: Trump launches Twitter attack on Pakistan.

    Per Agent Orange – “The United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years, and they have given us nothing but lies & deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools,” he wrote. “They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more!”
    If I recall right Afghanistan is a landlocked country. Last time I heard our war materials had to pass through Pakistan. Maybe we can use one of the other “Stans” that border Afghanistan???


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