Daniel Ellsberg and the Madness of Nuclear Weapons

W.J. Astore

Honoring the wisdom of an anti-war hero

I woke this morning to the sad news that Daniel Ellsberg has pancreatic cancer and has been given only a few months to live. Ellsberg has lived a long and heroic life; he famously leaked the Pentagon papers, risking lifelong imprisonment to put a stop to America’s calamitous and atrocious war against Vietnam.

Five years ago, I read Ellsberg’s book on his years as a nuclear war theorist for the U.S. government. I was so impressed (and so alarmed) that I immediately wrote my own review of it, which I’m reposting today in Ellsberg’s honor.

Ellsberg is one of the giants of recent American history. He has lived a life of great value. Perhaps the best way to honor him is to read him, listen to him, and act to put a stop to our collective nuclear madness.

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


(Originally posted 12/28/17)

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?

3 thoughts on “Daniel Ellsberg and the Madness of Nuclear Weapons

  1. Thank You, Bill… :


    by Daniel Ellsberg 030323

    “My wish for you, my friends, is that at the end of your days you will feel as much joy and gratitude as I do now.”

    Dear friends and supporters,

    I have difficult news to impart. On February 17, without much warning, I was diagnosed with inoperable pancreatic cancer on the basis of a CT scan and an MRI. (As is usual with pancreatic cancer – which has no early symptoms – it was found while looking for something else, relatively minor). I’m sorry to report to you that my doctors have given me three to six months to live. Of course, they emphasize that everyone’s case is individual; it might be more, or less.

    I have chosen not to do chemotherapy (which offers no promise) and I have assurance of great hospice care when needed. Please know: right now, I am not in any physical pain, and in fact, after my hip replacement surgery in late 2021, I feel better physically than I have in years! Moreover, my cardiologist has given me license to abandon my salt-free diet of the last six years. This has improved my quality of life dramatically: the pleasure of eating my former favorite foods! And my energy level is high. Since my diagnosis, I’ve done several interviews and webinars on Ukraine, nuclear weapons, and first amendment issues, and I have two more scheduled this week.

    As I just told my son Robert: he’s long known (as my editor) that I work better under a deadline. It turns out that I live better under a deadline!

    I feel lucky and grateful that I’ve had a wonderful life far beyond the proverbial three-score years and ten. (I’ll be ninety-two on April 7th.) I feel the very same way about having a few months more to enjoy life with my wife and family, and in which to continue to pursue the urgent goal of working with others to avert nuclear war in Ukraine or Taiwan (or anywhere else). When I copied the Pentagon Papers in 1969, I had every reason to think I would be spending the rest of my life behind bars. It was a fate I would gladly have accepted if it meant hastening the end of the Vietnam War, unlikely as that seemed (and was). Yet in the end, that action – in ways I could not have foreseen, due to Nixon’s illegal responses – did have an impact on shortening the war. In addition, thanks to Nixon’s crimes, I was spared the imprisonment I expected, and I was able to spend the last fifty years with Patricia and my family, and with you, my friends.

    What’s more, I was able to devote those years to doing everything I could think of to alert the world to the perils of nuclear war and wrongful interventions: lobbying, lecturing, writing and joining with others in acts of protest and nonviolent resistance.

    I wish I could report greater success for our efforts.

    Continued at https://original.antiwar.com/daniel-ellsberg/2023/03/02/living-on-a-deadline-in-the-nuclear-age-some-personal-news-from-daniel-ellsberg/

    Liked by 1 person

    by Caitlin Johnstone / Going Rogue 030323

    Going Rogue With Caitlin Johnstone

    “A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.” ~ Greek proverb

    The heroic whistleblower and peace activist Daniel Ellsberg is dying.

    In an open letter to his friends and supporters, Ellsberg announced that two weeks ago he learned that he has inoperable pancreatic cancer with a prognosis of three to six months. The letter is beautiful and inspiring, but it’s also as heart-rending as anything you’ll ever read, largely because within it Ellsberg makes it abundantly clear that he has extremely urgent concerns about the world he will soon be leaving behind.

    “As I write, ‘modernization’ of nuclear weapons is ongoing in all nine states that possess them (the US most of all),” Ellsberg writes. “Russia is making monstrous threats to initiate nuclear war to maintain its control over Crimea and the Donbas – like the dozens of equally illegitimate first-use threats that the US government has made in the past to maintain its military presence in South Korea, Taiwan, South Vietnam, and (with the complicity of every member state then in NATO ) West Berlin. The current risk of nuclear war, over Ukraine, is as great as the world has ever seen.”

    Ellsberg writes of the “scientific near-consensus” that a nuclear war between the US and Russia would cause a nuclear winter that ends most life on earth, and mourns the fact that this understanding has had no bearing on the behavior of the world’s major nuclear powers.

    “There’s tons more to say about Ukraine and nuclear policy, of course, and you’ll be hearing from me as long as I’m here,” he writes.

    But Ellsberg will not be here long. And I personally find this to be a very dear loss, for reasons that go much further than the death of one man.

    At 91 years of age it is entirely unreasonable of me to resent the exit of Daniel Ellsberg from this stage at this time; the man was no spring chicken, and he’s done more good with one lifetime than thousands of us lesser souls combined. And yet still I find myself objecting: “Why now? Damn it, why now?”

    Right when the threat of nuclear war is, as Ellsberg says, “as great as the world has ever seen,” we lose what is probably the most famous and influential voice dedicated to opposing the madness of governments stockpiling Armageddon weapons and brandishing them at each other in ways that imperil us all. Right at the moment when a powerful anti-war movement is more urgently needed than at any point in human history, we lose one of the greatest peace activists that has ever lived.

    And Ellsberg is just the latest voice we’ve lost on this front right when we needed them the most. Stephen Cohen, the renowned scholar and expert on US-Russia relations, died of cancer in 2020 after spending his final years warning urgently about the dangerous escalations the west was waging against Moscow. Consortium News founder Robert Parry died in 2018, also of cancer, and also after spending years warning of the dangerous waters that western brinkmanship with Russia was dragging the world into.

    (Fuck cancer, by the way.)

    And with each new loss I find the same objection coming up: “Why now? Damn it, why now?”

    And of course when I settle down and get real honest with myself, I know that the source of my argument with reality is not an objection to the fact that everyone has their time and that sometimes elderly men get cancer. No, when I am really honest with myself, I know that the real source of my objection is that I know these losses mean an increase in my own responsibility. Because every time we lose a giant in the fight against imperial omnicide, that means the rest of us need to step up and fight that much harder.

    Ultimately my argument isn’t with mortality, or with cancer, or with Daniel Ellsberg, Stephen Cohen or Bob Parry. My argument, when I am really honest with myself, is with my own fear of going on fighting this battle without those titans at my side.

    But that’s reality. The loss of our anti-war heroes does not afford us the luxury of collapsing in grief and defeat, because it means those of us who remain here have all got to step up, and step into some very big shoes. The loss of the Ellsbergs, Cohens and Parrys of this world means nothing other than the need for more Ellsbergs, Cohens and Parrys. And there’s no one who can step into those giant shoes but us.

    Thank you for your service, Daniel Ellsberg. You are a beautiful and courageous soul who has lived a beautiful and courageous life. May your remaining days be your best and brightest. Go in peace knowing that we will carry on the fight.

    Source: https://caitlinjohnstone.substack.com/p/were-losing-our-anti-war-heroes-right


  3. Not as great, perhaps, as Daniel Ellsberg in my personal pantheon of truth-telling heroes, but a good and witty lady whose leaving of life left me feeling sad but thankful that I had gotten to read many of her fine journalistic efforts. So, take this little homage as meant for you, as well, Dan . . .

    Requiem for Molly
    (A tribute to the late Molly Ivins, who gave us the inimitable nickname “Shrub” for our nation’s execrable 43rd chief executive, George W. Bush.)

    Thursday, February 01, 2007

    Sayonara, Molly Ivins,
    And a thank-you for “the Shrub”:
    A nickname for a little Bush
    That you used like a club
    To bash his vain pretensions and
    His tendencies to flub

    George set his expectations low
    While you set yours up high
    You lived to tell the awful truth
    While he lived life to lie
    Why do the bad ones live so long
    While good ones shortly die?

    And now you’ve left us lonely
    For a warm and laughing voice:
    A wit to skewer madmen bent
    On giving us no choice
    About the justice we would have
    And in which we rejoice

    I don’t believe in after-lifes
    But you lived this one well
    You did your part to see that Shrub
    Made less of life a Hell
    And left your mark upon us all
    As time will surely tell

    I have no other offering
    Or flowers for your grave
    But only these few words in praise
    Of one who wrote to save:
    That your life’s labors will, we know,
    Our road to freedom pave

    Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright © 2007

    Liked by 1 person

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