Pentagon Papers Leaker Daniel Ellsberg Now Aims to Shed Light on Nuclear War

Veritas Awards
LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 02: Activist Daniel Ellsberg attends the L.A. Press Club's Veritas Awards on February 2, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. -- Getty Images

Daniel Ellsberg's latest book is a disturbing analysis about how close we have been -- and still are -- to a nuclear holocaust.

Ellsberg, the whistleblower behind the provocative Pentagon Papers in 1971 which became the basis for the Steven Spielberg film "The Post," is an expert on decision theory and warfare strategy. Yet positive reviews for "The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner" are tricky for him to assess.

"Some people read the book and tell me they enjoyed it, which is a little hard for me to relate to entirely," Ellsberg said last month from his home in Berkeley, Calif. "How can one enjoy a book like that?"

America's concerns of a nuclear holocaust faded when the Cold War ended in 1991, but Ellsberg's book delivers an impassioned reminder of how close to the brink of extinction we remain.

President Trump has declared that North Korea better watch out or suffer "fire and fury like the world has never seen." He reportedly wants a military parade, an event generally intended to flex military muscle. Just last month, an erroneous missile alert in Hawaii showed how precarious our situation is.

Ellsberg describes a nuclear apparatus that hasn't changed much for 70 years, is prone to an accidental launch, is susceptible to a false alarm and can be accessed by a widely delegated group well below the president. He feathers into his account direct information from his days as a RAND Corporation analyst and Pentagon consultant.

Ellsberg's leak of the Pentagon Papers helped turn public opinion against the Vietnam War. Richard Nixon's national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, called Ellsberg "the most dangerous man in America," a quote that inspired the title of an Oscar-nominated 2009 documentary about Ellsberg.

The Buffalo News spoke with Ellsberg about his book and how concerned we should be about nuclear annihilation or, at best in his evaluation, nuclear winter.

Q: In a recent interview you described the general philosophy for deploying nuclear arms this way: "Nuclear weapons are to be met or even preempted with nuclear weapons, that striking first is better than striking second, and striking second is better than not striking at all. It's crazy, but we've shown that kind of craziness for 70 years." With as much as we've learned and all the technology we've developed, why hasn't nuclear strategy evolved?

A: Well, OK. That's a good question I haven't thought about in those terms. I'll do my best with it here. There was an anti-nuclear movement in the '50s and to some extent the '60s called the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy. I was just thinking of an answer in terms of your question. What would be a "sane" nuclear policy? Is there such a thing? Clearly, what we were doing and what we are doing still doesn't fit that. It's the threat of an insane action of essentially blowing up human civilization. To rely on the mere threat of that, itself, seems insanely reckless.

So what would be a more sane policy, and why hasn't it evolved? There always was an alternative, which was shown by the Chinese, that's a model of something closer to a sane policy. Of facing Russia and the U.S., the Chinese figured that a handful of weapons would be sufficient. For decades, they had no more than a dozen or two dozen that could reach the United States in comparison to the 10,000 we had that could reach Russia or China. In other words, they thought it wasn't necessary to threaten a Doomsday Machine or threaten to blow up the world. A minimal potential threat capability will give them the deterrence they needed. I would say that's a justifiable policy.

Our policy, by comparison, survives only because of military industrial complex needs, including profit, jobs, service roles, retirement roles for generals and admirals, campaign donations. In other words, there are lots of reasons to continue this stuff, but not good reasons when it comes to justifying a Doomsday Machine. I think it's that kind of inertia -- and it's not just inattention; it's continuing benefit to domestic factors and our role as a superpower in the NATO Alliance -- for this continuation. There's no great opposition to it."

Q: What's the purpose of stockpiling far more nuclear weapons than Earths that can be destroyed?

A: We look capable of actually launching some of these weapons, if challenged, by the very fact that we act crazy in building them. Somebody that would spend many, many billions of dollars building these things looks irrational enough actually to launch them.

Q: Nuclear warfare used to be what Americans were afraid of most, and nuclear weapons still are being made. Then why don't we talk about it nearly as much?

A: People have thought that with the end of the Cold War the rationale for these weapons disappeared. But the weapons remain. I would say American and Russian and NATO societies remain in a state of denial of simply inattention and failure to look at the problem like the way the Republican Party is able to deny climate change. It's absurd. It's dangerous. It's leading to catastrophe, but they refuse to accept that there's man-made climate change.

Well, at least there's a controversy about that. But there's no controversy about the nuclears. They don't even come into campaign disputes between major parties and major candidates because both sides benefit from contributions from Lockheed, Grumman, Northrop (Grumann) with no real opposition. We continue, as Einstein put it, to drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.

Q: Regarding the nuclear football myth, you claim the ominous briefcase that accompanies the president is grand theater, that several people have been delegated with the authority to order nukes anyway.

A: If that briefcase were destroyed by a grenade, let's say, by a terrorist weapon or a weapon unleashed on Washington that destroyed multiple briefcases, that would not paralyze our nuclear response at all. At all. There would be a massive nuclear response here, an authorized one. It's not as if those briefcases contain codes that would otherwise lock up the weapons. The ability to launch those weapons would be virtually unimpaired.

Q: You write in great detail about the systemic flaw to having too many underlings authorized to launch nukes. So when it comes to limiting nuclear-launch authority to one person ...

A: They would never do that. They can't because that would mean a single bullet or a single weapon would paralyze a response, and no nuclear state has been willing to do that.

Q: Understood. In finding the balance between too many people and the president alone or the president's delegated few having authority, I was going to ask: To what degree does it matter who the president is?

A: It doesn't make all the difference, but it does matter because the president can launch the weapons, and nobody can constitutionally countermand him. So, of course, that makes a difference.

In different situations, no president yet has pulled the trigger, but we easily could get somebody who would. Trump presents himself as such a person. We don't know if his threats are true or not, but to look that way is already dangerous because it could scare the other side into pre-empting. But the problem did not start with Trump, and it hopefully will not end with Trump.

Q: How close have we come to retaliating to a false alarm and triggering mass destruction?

A: It may well have been 1980, when there was a training tape by mistake put into our operational system that implied a coordinated, well-planned Soviet attack was under way. That was at 3 in the morning, and Zbigniew Brzezinski, the assistant for national security, was one minute away from telling President Carter that, at that point, he thought 2,200 missiles were on their way. Initially it was 202. He didn't bother to wake up his wife, who was lying next to him, so he could go tell the president.

In 1983, a message almost got to the leaders of Russia before it was found to be a false alarm but was short-circuited by a single lieutenant colonel named Stanislav Petrov. In that case, Petrov, and others in other cases, prevented the world from blowing up. But minutes later or a different person in that job and we wouldn't be here.

Q: What would've happened had Brzezinski told Carter that Soviet missiles were on the way?

A: What I've always wondered in that 1980 case was, "What in the world good would it have done to tell President Carter 2,000 or 200 missiles were on the way?" There was nothing Carter could do that would limit damage to the U.S. There was no possibility that striking second would do any better than striking first. He didn't need to tell Carter except that his job required it. Carter likely would have launched more missiles, and that would have ended life here.

We have a system here that is totally for threat. If it has any benefits at all, it's from capability and threat, but not at all from actually using them in an attack. There's no way a nuclear war can benefit anybody, the people who attack or who are attacked. Yet we act as if that were not the case.

Q: You've stated the U.S. at least 25 times has made an effective threat of a first strike ...

A: At least 25 occasions in which the president has engaged in a serious discussion of the possible use of nuclear weapons. Not in all of those cases did they actually convey that to the adversary. Even when they did, like Eisenhower in '53, it's unclear if it had any effect. But far from this being unthinkable, it not only has been thought about, it has been discussed at the highest levels more than a couple of dozen times.

Q: Your extended point on that has been eventually an implied threat or a bluff -- will be called. What do you expect the circumstances will be?

A: Our bluff has been called, and our president for various reasons hasn't carried out the threat. In 1969, Nixon conveyed very definite nuclear threats to North Vietnam and to its allies Russia and China, and it had no effect on them. But there were, more or less by coincidence, 2 million people, none of whom knew these threats had been made, including me, who were in the streets in October and November of 1969 during the Vietnam moratorium campaign. Nixon knew he couldn't carry out those threats then.

The threat to initiate nuclear war over Berlin did keep the Russians out of Berlin. I was part of that, and I write about it as one of my confessions. It was a success over a decade, but that success was at the risk of annihilating the human species, and it could have done otherwise. It was not necessary. It was definitely not justified.

Q: How significant is the fact Trump is the first president since the Cuban Missile Crisis to threaten another nuclear state, declaring North Korea invites "fire and fury like the world has never seen"?

A: It does suggest that he is peculiarly ignorant of or reckless about -- and possibly both, although his aides are not -- what nuclear threats can do. He wouldn't be the first president who thought he could intimidate an opponent into not responding at all. In fact, the Russians, the Chinese, the North Vietnamese have all thought the other guy will back off, and they've often been wrong. Trump might be making that mistake now. But I don't get the impression any of the generals are making that mistake.

I'm unaware of a single military aide who's encouraging of the idea of actually going to war with North Korea. (National security adviser) H.R. McMaster talks as though he is, but we don't yet know what he's saying in private. We don't know if these public statements are bluffs for political reasons or whatever. Military men know the consequences of millions of dead.

That said, will they resign instead of carrying out an order? Very unlikely for a military man to do that, with their training in subordination to a superior. If he orders it, then it'll get done. No one should say it's impossible that he will order that.

Q: In "Doomsday Machine," you outline six ways to de-escalate our nuclear approach. What is your level of optimism any of these six suggestions will be adopted?

A: These are not just ideas of mine. Every one of those issues -- such as getting rid of ICBMs, adopting a no-first-use policy, getting rid of any air-launched cruise missiles -- have been proposed by the highest levels of civilian and military authorities. To say that and know that we got nowhere with them is not encouraging

My ideas have very little future. Arguing with Lockheed Martin and Boeing and Raytheon and Grumman is like arguing against Exxon regarding climate. They all know better, but the profits are in favor of continuing these programs. It's very hard to change it, but it's not impossible. The tobacco companies were eventually overruled and after millions of deaths. We haven't yet reduced emissions enough, but no one says it's impossible we will.

It's unlikely we will change, close to impossible with the current Congress, and really not much better with a Democratic-led Congresses of the kind we've seen. But if Trump scares enough people that we've got to change course, and we get a Congress of a different sort than we've seen, then after 2018 we could have hearings on a need for these changes. And hearings will be hard to come out any other way. Any consideration of evidence or rationality says you can't justify these current programs.

Q: You've had 50 years to consider them. What plans do you have in place if the U.S. is under nuclear attack?

A: Oh, well, I live in San Francisco, which I think will be a target for early attack. There's no escape from it. In a war with North Korea, I think before long San Francisco would go and Long Beach would go from a boat with a nuclear weapon in a container. Inland, then the work is to try to change course, which is extremely unlikely.

India and Pakistan would resume testing in order to get thermonuclear weapons, and that would give them the ability to have a Doomsday Machine to kill not just a third of the Earth's population, which they can already do with their fission weapons, but three-thirds by starvation. Why would they want to do that? Well, because the U.S. and Russia would do it, and that's what big, grownup states want to do.

There won't be much for me and my wife to do. So my plan is to lie next to my wife with our lips entangled for as long as it took, and we would go together. If nothing arrived within a half hour, we say it was a false alarm and say we had a good half hour.

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