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?

It Should Never Be Done Again: Hiroshima, 70 Years Later

Hiroshima after the bomb
Hiroshima after the bomb

W.J. Astore

August 6, 1945.  Hiroshima.  A Japanese city roughly the size of Houston.  Incinerated by the first atomic bomb.  Three days later, Nagasaki.  Japanese surrender followed.  It seemed the bombs had been worth it, saving countless American (and Japanese) lives, seeing that a major invasion of the Japanese home islands was no longer needed.  But was the A-bomb truly decisive in convincing the Japanese to surrender?

President Truman’s decision to use atomic bombs against Japan is perhaps the most analyzed, and, in the United States, most controversial decision made during World War II.  The controversy usually creates more heat than light, with hardliners posed on mutually opposed sides.  The traditional interpretation is that Truman used the A-bombs to convince a recalcitrant Japanese Emperor that the war was truly lost.  A quick Japanese surrender appeared to justify Truman’s choice.  It also saved tens of thousands of Allied lives in the Pacific (while killing approximately 250K Japanese).  This thesis is best summed up in Paul Fussell’s famous essay, “Thank God for the Atomic Bomb.”

Even before Hiroshima, however, a small number of scientists argued that the A-bomb should not be used against Japan without a prior demonstration in a remote and uninhabited location.  Later, as the horrible nature of radiation casualties became clearer to the American people, and as the Soviet Union developed its own arsenal of atomic weapons, threatening the United States with nuclear Armageddon, Americans began to reexamine Truman’s decision in the context of the Cold War and the nuclear arms race.  Gar Alperovitz’s revisionist view that Truman was practicing “atomic diplomacy” won its share of advocates in the 1960s. (Alperovitz expanded upon this thesis in the 1990s.)  Other historians suggested that racism and motives of revenge played a significant role in shaping the U.S. decision.  This debate reached its boiling point in the early 1990s, as the Smithsonian’s attempt to create a “revisionist” display to mark the bomb’s 50th anniversary became a lightning rod in the “culture wars” between a Democratic administration and a resurgent Republican Congress.

Were the atomic bombs necessary to get the Japanese to surrender?  Would other, more humane, options have worked, such as a demonstration to the Japanese of the bomb’s power?  We’ll never know with certainty the answer to such questions.  Perhaps if the U.S. had been more explicit in their negotiations with Japan that “unconditional surrender” did not mean the end of Japan’s Emperor, the Japanese may have surrendered earlier, before the A-bomb was fully ready.  Then again, U.S. flexibility could have been interpreted by Japanese hardliners as a sign of American weakness or war fatigue.

Unwilling to risk appearing weak or weary, U.S. leaders dropped the A-bomb to shock the Japanese into surrendering. Together with Stalin’s entry into the war against Japan, these shocks were sufficient to convince the Japanese emperor “to bear the unbearable,” in this case total capitulation, a national disgrace.

A longer war in the Pacific — if only a matter of weeks — would indeed have meant higher casualties among the Allies, since the Japanese were prepared to mount large-scale Kamikaze attacks.  Certainly, the Allies were unwilling to risk losing men when they had a bomb available that promised results.  The mentality seems to have been: We developed it.  We have it.  Let’s use it.  Anything to get this war over with as quickly as possible.

That mentality was not humane, but it was human.  Truman had a weapon that promised decisiveness, so he used it.  The attack on Hiroshima  was basically business as usual, especially when you consider the earlier firebombing raids led by General Curtis LeMay.  Indeed, such “conventional” firebombing raids continued after Hiroshima and Nagasaki until the Japanese finally sent a clear signal of surrender.

Of course, an event as momentous, as horrific, as Hiroshima took on extra meaning after the war, given the nuclear arms race, the Cold War and a climate represented by the telling acronym of MAD (mutually assured destruction). U.S. decisionmakers like Truman were portrayed as callous, as racist, as war criminals.  Yet in the context of 1945, it’s difficult to see any other U.S. president making a different decision, especially given Japan’s apparent reluctance to surrender and their proven fanaticism at Iwo Jima, Okinawa and elsewhere.

As Andrew Rotter notes in Hiroshima: The World’s Bomb (2008), World War II witnessed the weakening, if not erasure, of distinctions between combatants and non-combatants, notably during LeMay’s firebombing of Tokyo in March 1945 but in many other raids as well (Rotterdam and Coventry and Hamburg and Dresden, among so many others). In his book, Rotter supports the American belief that Japan would fight even more fanatically for their home islands than they did at Iwo Jima and Okinawa, two horrendous battles in 1945 that preceded the bomb. But he argues that Truman and Secretary of War Henry Stimson engaged in “self-deception” when they envisioned that the effects of the atomic bomb could be limited to “a purely military” target.

A quarter of a million Japanese died at Hiroshima and Nagasaki and in the years and decades following.  They died horrible deaths.  And their deaths serve as a warning to us all of the awful nature of war and the terrible destructiveness of nuclear weapons.

Hans Bethe worked on the bomb during the Manhattan Project.  A decent, humane, and thoughtful man, he nevertheless worked hard to create a weapon of mass destruction. His words of reflection have always stayed with me.  They come in Jon Else’s powerful documentary, “The Day After Trinity: J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Atomic Bomb.”

Here is what Bethe said (edited slightly):

The first reaction we [scientists] had [after Hiroshima] was one of fulfillment.  Now it has been done.  The second reaction was one of shock and awe: What have we done?  What have we done.  The third reaction was it should never be done again.

It should never be done again: Just typing those words here from memory sends chills up my spine.

Let us hope it is never done again.  Let us hope a nuclear weapon is never used again.  For that way madness lies.

What Is Terrorism?

My copy.  Not the sexiest cover, but a good primer nonetheless
My copy. Not the sexiest cover, but a good primer nonetheless

When I entered the Air Force in 1985, I grabbed a pamphlet by Brian M. Jenkins of Rand.  The title caught my eye: International Terrorism: The Other World War.  Back then, the country was focused on the Cold War against the Evil Empire of the Soviet Union.  Jenkins suggested there was another war we should be focusing on.

In his pamphlet, he provided a “working definition” of terrorism:

“Terrorism is the use of criminal violence to force a government to change its course of action.”

And: “Terrorism is a political crime.  It is always a crime…”

But Jenkins also knew that terrorism, as a word and concept, was contentious and politicized.  As he explained:

“Some governments are prone to label as terrorism all violent acts committed by their political opponents, while antigovernment extremists frequently claim to be the victims of governmental terror.  Use of the term thus implies a moral judgment.  If one group can successfully attach the label terrorist to its opponent, then it has indirectly persuaded others to adopt its moral and political point of view, or at least to reject the terrorists’ view.  Terrorism is what the bad guys do.  This drawing of boundaries between what is legitimate and what is illegitimate, between the right way to fight and the wrong way to fight, brings high political stakes to the task of definition.”

Jenkins correctly notes that the word “terrorism” implies both a political and moral (and legal) judgment.  By his working definition, to be a terrorist is to be a criminal.

Can nation-states be terrorists?  Interestingly, no.  Not if you accept the definitional imperative common to international relations.  Nation-states draw their identity (and authority) in part by and through their ability to monopolize the means of violence.  Because a state monopolizes or “controls” violence in a legally sanctioned international system, it cannot commit a criminal act of terror, however terrorizing that act might be.  (By this definition, dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and killing 200,000 people were not terrorist acts, even though the intent was to terrorize the Japanese into surrendering.) Put differently, a state can sponsor terrorism, but it cannot commit it.

It’s an unsatisfying definition to many.   As Glenn Greenwald, constitutional lawyer and journalist for the Guardian, has noted many times, terrorism as a concept is now so highly politicized, so narrowly defined and closely tied to evil acts committed by Muslim extremists, that the word itself has become polluted.  It’s more weapon than word, with an emotional impact that hits with the explosive power of a Hellfire missile.

Terrorism, in short, has become something of an Alice in Wonderland word.  As Humpty Dumpty put it, “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”  Such is the case with “terrorist” and “terrorism”: they’re often just epithets, ones we reserve for people and acts we find heinous.

Terrorism exists, of course.  But so too does politically-motivated manipulation of the English language, as George Orwell famously warned.  If terrorist = criminal = always them but never us (because we’re a nation, and a good-hearted one at that), we absolve ourselves of blame even as we shout, like the Queen of Hearts in Alice, “Off with their heads!” at the “terrorists.”

That shout may be satisfying, but it may also be all too easy — and all too biased.

W.J. Astore