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

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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?

Knowledge is Power, but Power is no Substitute for Knowledge

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W.J. Astore

Francis Bacon is famous for the aphorism, “Knowledge is power.”  Yet the reverse aphorism is not true.  The United States is the most powerful nation in the world, yet its knowledge base is notably weak in spite of all that power.  Of course, many factors contribute to this weakness.  Our public educational systems are underfunded and driven by meaningless standardized test results.  Our politicians pander to the lowest common denominator.  Our mainstream media is corporate-owned and in the business of providing info-tainment when they’re not stoking fear.  Our elites are in the business of keeping the American people divided, distracted, and downtrodden, conditions that do not favor critical thinking, which is precisely the point of their efforts.

All that is true.  But even when the U.S. actively seeks knowledge, we get little in return for our investment.  U.S. intelligence agencies (the CIA, NSA, DIA, and so on) aggregate an enormous amount of data, then try to convert this to knowledge, which is then used to inform action.  But these agencies end up drowning in minutiae.  Worse, competing agencies within a tangled bureaucracy (that truly deserves the label of “Byzantine”) end up spinning the data for their own benefit.  The result is not “knowledge” but disinformation and self-serving propaganda.

When our various intelligence agencies are not drowning in minutiae or choking on their own “spin,” they’re getting lost in the process of converting data to knowledge.  Indeed, so much attention is put on process, with so many agencies being involved in that process, that the end product – accurate and actionable knowledge – gets lost.  Yet, as long as the system keeps running, few involved seem to mind, even when the result is marginal — or disastrous.

Consider the Vietnam War.  Massive amounts of “intelligence” data took the place of knowledge.  Data like enemy body counts, truck counts, aircraft sorties, bomb tonnages, acres defoliated, number of villages pacified, and on and on.  Amassing this data took an enormous amount of time; attempting to interpret this data took more time; and reaching conclusions from the (often inaccurate and mostly irrelevant) data became an exercise in false optimism and self-delusion.  Somehow, all that data suggested to US officialdom that they were winning the war, a war in which US troops were allegedly making measurable and sustained progress.  But events proved such “knowledge” to be false.

Of course, there’s an acronym for this: GIGO, or garbage (data) in, garbage (knowledge) out.

In this case, real knowledge was represented by the wisdom of Marine Corps General (and Medal of Honor recipient) David M. Shoup, who said in 1966 that:

I don’t think the whole of Southeast Asia, as related to the present and future safety and freedom of the people of this country, is worth the life or limb of a single American [and] I believe that if we had and would keep our dirty bloody dollar-crooked fingers out of the business of these nations so full of depressed, exploited people, they will arrive at a solution of their own design and want, that they fight and work for. And if, unfortunately, their revolution must be of the violent type…at least what they get will be their own and not the American style, which they don’t want…crammed down their throat.

But few wanted to hear Shoup and his brand of hard-won knowledge, even if he’d been handpicked by President Kennedy to serve as the Commandant of the Marine Corps exactly because Shoup had a reputation for sound and independent thinking.

Consider as well our rebuilding efforts in Iraq after 2003.  As documented by Peter Van Buren in his book “We Meant Well,” those efforts were often inept and counterproductive.  Yet the bureaucracy engaged in those efforts was determined to spin them as successes.  They may even have come to believe their own spin.  When Van Buren had the clarity and audacity to say, We’re fooling no one with our Kabuki dance in Iraq except the American people we’re sworn to serve, he was dismissed and punished by the State Department.

Why?  Because you’re not supposed to share knowledge, real knowledge, with the American people.  Instead, you’re supposed to baffle them with BS.  But Van Buren was having none of that.  His tell-all book (you can read an excerpt here) captured the Potemkin village-like atmosphere of US rebuilding efforts in Iraq.  His accurate knowledge had real power, and for sharing it with the American people he was slapped down.

Tell the truth – share real knowledge with the American people – and you get punished.  Massage the data to create false “knowledge,” in these cases narratives of success, and you get a pat on the back and a promotion.  Small wonder that so many recent wars have gone so poorly for America.

What the United States desperately needs is insight.  Honesty.  A level of knowledge that reflects mastery.  But what we’re getting is manufactured information, or disinformation, or BS.  Lies, in plainspeak, like the lie that Iraq had in 2002 a large and active program in developing WMD that could be used against the United States.  (Remember how we were told we had to invade Iraq quickly before the “smoking gun” became a “mushroom cloud”?)

If knowledge is power, what is false knowledge?  False knowledge is a form of power as well, but a twisted one.  For when you mistake the facade you’re constructing as the real deal, when you manufacture your own myths and then forget they’re myths as you consume them, you may find yourself hopelessly confused, even as the very myths you created consume you.

So, a corollary to Francis Bacon: Knowledge is power, but as the United States has discovered in Vietnam, Iraq, and elsewhere, power is no substitute for knowledge.