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Excerpt: "The military analyst turned whistleblower who leaked the Pentagon Papers looks at the existential threat of America’s nuclear capacities in his new memoir, 'The Doomsday Machine.'"

The leaker of the Pentagon Papers, Daniel Ellsberg. (photo: Reuters)
The leaker of the Pentagon Papers, Daniel Ellsberg. (photo: Reuters)


Daniel Ellsberg: Americans Have Escaped Self-Annihilation by Luck

By PBS NewsHour

27 December 17

 

he military analyst turned whistleblower who leaked the Pentagon Papers looks at the existential threat of America’s nuclear capacities in his new memoir, “The Doomsday Machine.” Very little has changed, says author Daniel Ellsberg, when it comes to what he calls the immoral and insane policies regarding nuclear weapons. William Brangham sits down with Ellsberg to discuss the looming danger.

Judy Woodruff:

Next, from the whistle-blower who released the Pentagon Papers about the Vietnam War, a new book about the dangers of America’s nuclear program.

William Brangham has that story from the NewsHour Bookshelf.

William Brangham:

It was 1971 when military analyst Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers to the press. They were a top-secret Defense Department study of U.S. military involvement in the Vietnam War.

Their controversial publication blew the lid off what one famous journalist called a bright shining lie. But few know that, in the decade before that, during some of the Cold War’s most dangerous hair-trigger moments, Daniel Ellsberg also spent years analyzing America’s nuclear weapons policy.

His new memoir chronicles that period. It’s called “The Doomsday Machine- Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner.” And in it, Ellsberg argues very little has changed about what he calls our immoral and insane policies regarding nuclear weapons.

Daniel Ellsberg welcome to the NewsHour.

Daniel Ellsberg:

Thank you.

William Brangham:

The title of your book comes from the famous Stanley Kubrick movie where a rogue U.S. military officer launches an attack on the Soviets, and as those weapons are flying, it’s suddenly revealed that the Soviets have built a doomsday machine, this enormous global booby-trap that, if they’re attacked, will kill every single thing on Earth.

Actor:

It is not a thing a sane man would do. The doomsday machine is designed to trigger itself automatically.

Actor:

But surely you can disarm it somehow.

Actor:

No, it is designed to explode if any attempt is ever made to un-trigger it.

Actor:

Automatically?

Actor:

Ah, it’s an obvious commie trick, Mr. President. We’re wasting valuable time. They’re getting ready to clobber us.

William Brangham:

At the time, it was somewhat considered a fantasy idea, but you argue in this book — and this is the title of your book — that that’s really what we have on our hands, is a doomsday machine.

Daniel Ellsberg:

Yes, and we had it then.

Kubrick got that idea from Herman Kahn, a colleague of mine and a friend of mine at the RAND Corporation, who put it forth as a hypothetical device for deterrence. But he said, that would kill too many people.

William Brangham:

Surely, no one would build a device like that.

Daniel Ellsberg:

Killing everyone. He said, no one would. No one had done it. And no one, he felt, would ever do it.

Well, he was mistaken. There was a doomsday machine at that time. We didn’t know actually until another 20 years about the phenomenon of nuclear winter, that the military targets we were going to hit in cities — and, actually, in those days, they planned to hit every city over 25,000 in the Soviet Union and in China. If we were in war with the Soviet Union, we would also hit China.

Those cities burning would have lofted in firestorms, not ordinary fires, but as in Hiroshima or Tokyo or Dresden, that would loft the smoke and soot by tens of millions of tons into the stratosphere, where it wouldn’t rain out.

It would be for over a decade, and it would lower the sun’s temperatures on the Earth, the sunshine, by about 70 percent.

William Brangham:

That’s an agricultural holocaust as well.

Daniel Ellsberg:

All the harvests would be killed for years, basically, and everyone, nearly everyone, would starve.

William Brangham:

In 1961, as a young consultant to the secretary of defense, Ellsberg remembers being shocked after seeing a top-secret document estimating how millions of people would be killed with a U.S. nuclear strike on the Soviets.

Daniel Ellsberg:

And when I held that piece of paper in my hand, the word in my mind was evil. Evil. This shouldn’t exist.

This was the operational plan annually for the Joint Chiefs of Staff that had been approved by General Eisenhower. And I thought, there shouldn’t be anything in the world that corresponds to this.

But there has been then and ever since.

William Brangham:

Your book documents many of the mishaps and mistakes and near misses that many Americans may not be aware of in the last 40 years of our nuclear era. But yet somehow we have escaped annihilating ourselves. Why is that?

Daniel Ellsberg:

Luck.

Will it work for another 70 years? I’m not confident of that. At this very moment, for example, we are making nuclear threats against a nuclear weapon state, a state with nuclear weapons.

William Brangham:

You’re referring to President Trump saying we will rain fire and fury on the North Koreans.

Daniel Ellsberg:

North Korea. That’s right.

Now, fire and fury could include napalm, white phosphorous, a lot of high explosives, which they have experienced before, by the way, in the 1950s. They have been through. And it’s not something they want again.

But that could quickly escalate. They didn’t have nuclear weapons then. There has been no imminent threat of any attack, really, or a nuclear attack on a nuclear weapons state since the Cuban Missile Crisis. That was half-a-century ago.

I was part of that. And I have concluded, after 40 years of research, that neither Kennedy nor Khrushchev intended at all to carry out their threats of armed conflict. I believe they both believed in their own minds they were bluffing and that they would back off if necessary.

And yet events got away from them. I think we came within a hand’s breadth of blowing up the world. So, this problem didn’t start with Donald Trump, and it won’t really end with it. The system that puts everything on the decisions of one man, it’s crazy.

William Brangham:

In addition to his book, Ellsberg is back in the public eye again because of this. Steven Spielberg’s new movie details The Washington Post’s decision to publish parts of the Pentagon Papers, the ones Ellsberg leaked, and which the Nixon administration tried to stop.

The legal fight went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The movie is called “The Post,” and it’s in theaters this month.

I’m just curious why you think the story of the Pentagon Papers is still resonant today.

Daniel Ellsberg:

We have had a war going on against the media, and it didn’t start with Donald Trump.

Barack Obama prosecuted three times as many people for leaking as all previous presidents put together. I was the first to face such a prosecution. That’s why my name is coming up now, I think, more.

There were two after me before Obama, and then nine or 10, depending how you count some of them, under Obama. I believe that Donald Trump has shown every sign that he will continue that, though he hasn’t yet. He’s actually berated his attorney general for not coming up with indictments for leaks right now.

I have no doubt that Attorney General Sessions will meet his demands.

William Brangham:

The book is called “The Doomsday Machine- Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner.”

Daniel Ellsberg, thank you so much.

Daniel Ellsberg:

Thank you for having me.


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+22 # chrisconno 2017-12-27 19:12
Are the generals all crazy? How could any sane person come up with a plan to kill the planet as a means to an intelligent end? END should clue them in that their plan is idiocy and not deterrence. Unless they mean deter all life.
 
 
+13 # economagic 2017-12-27 21:25
Surely you're familiar with the MAD principle--Mutu al Assured Destruction--th at supposedly prevented just that outcome between the mid-1960s and the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991?

Shakespeare's line, "What fools these mortals be," hardly does it justice.
 
 
+11 # Texas Aggie 2017-12-27 21:48
It's the bite off your nose to spite your face syndrome that is endemic in the right wing. They will take any punishment as long as someone they hate gets punished, too.
 
 
+9 # economagic 2017-12-28 10:36
Good point. When I moved to the Olde Southe about 15 years ago I noticed a phenomenon that certainly is not limited to the South but is easier to ignore elsewhere. A certain segment of society (or I should say an "uncertain " segment, as I can't name characteristics other than this one) would rather see a dozen deserving people deprived of what is rightfully theirs than to allow one poor sap to receive a penny's worth of anything s/he has not earned--in the jaundiced eye of the observer.
 
 
+3 # John S. Browne 2017-12-29 11:00
#

And it's not just "conservatives" . Most "Americans" believe, that most of the needy are "scamming" and are "illegally" obtaining the assistance they need. Until they themselves suffer homelessness, etc., if even then, they will not understand that the needy deserve any and all assistance that is available, and that, rather than being done away with as is happening now, more such assistance should be provided to them. There but for the grace of God go them; and, in most cases, they are one paycheck away from ending up on the street(s) themselves; but most of them still will not recognize the necessity of all the relief for the impoverished, and then some, and will unrighteously judge its availability and/or those who receive it. That's all that Godless people can do, is unrighteously judge (John 7:24):

"...Judge not according to (outward) appearance(s), but judge (NOTHING BUT) righteous judgment(s)..." ! (Id.)

#
 
 
-30 # John S. Browne 2017-12-27 20:08
#

Typical Godless way of looking at it. No, we didn't avoid annihilation by "luck", we avoided it by the Grace of God. He is ultimately in control, and He's not going to let us annihilate ourselves, He's going to do the annihilating of the vast majority of people, those who don't truly, fully and completely repent, return to Him, and who aren't transformed by Him and in-filled with His Holy Spirit, the Spirit of their Lord and Maker, He who created them, the Word(s) of God, Jesus the Christ.

If it hadn't been for God's All-Powerful Grace, and His preventing us from annihilating ourselves, we WOULD HAVE annihilated ourselves by now, probably long before now.

#
 
 
+13 # ericlipps 2017-12-28 10:56
Quoting John S. Browne:
#

Typical Godless way of looking at it. No, we didn't avoid annihilation by "luck", we avoided it by the Grace of God. He is ultimately in control, and He's not going to let us annihilate ourselves, He's going to do the annihilating of the vast majority of people, those who don't truly, fully and completely repent, return to Him, and who aren't transformed by Him and in-filled with His Holy Spirit, the Spirit of their Lord and Maker, He who created them, the Word(s) of God, Jesus the Christ.

If it hadn't been for God's All-Powerful Grace, and His preventing us from annihilating ourselves, we WOULD HAVE annihilated ourselves by now, probably long before now.

#

Then why did God, in his All-Powerful Grace, allow us to acquire the tools to do ourselves in?

And what does it mean for free will, which God supposedly gave us, if God is rigging the game to close off certain choices?
 
 
+3 # dsfingers 2017-12-29 00:20
It wasn't god and it wasn't only luck in most cases, it was a leader who understood the game and understood gamesmanship who had the power to hold off the military (who's job it is to use a weapon once it's been created.) This is, in fact, why it sits in the hands of one person.See: http://www.dancarlin.com/hardcore-history-59-the-destroyer-of-worlds/ This time, I fear, we chose poorly.
 
 
-9 # John S. Browne 2017-12-29 10:47
#

You answered your own question, servant of Satan. Free will. That is why God allowed us to acquire those tools. Of course you Godless blamers and/or doubters of God don't understand His Perfect Wisdom in not allowing certain things to take place, for our best good in the long run, and seek to find "fault" in it just as Evil leads you around by the nose to do. He's NOT "rigging the game", He's leading things to work out for the best good of the entire universe in the long run, to the point where all evil ('whatever is not of faith is evil'---Romans 14:23) will be entirely done away with.

#
 
 
+2 # Caliban 2017-12-29 23:27
When you don't have a clue why anything happens, blame it on God for good or ill. Works for John S, right?
 
 
+13 # elizabethblock 2017-12-27 20:17
I remember - years ago - seeing a photo of Dan Ellsberg, and I thought, There's a happy man. Still is, with the happiness that comes of doing right by your conscience.
 
 
+4 # tedrey 2017-12-27 20:52
A plea by one man who has had a finger on "the button." Well worth reading and considering.

https://mail.google.com/mail/u/0/#search/World+without+war/1606f161b1bcd008
 
 
+10 # elkingo 2017-12-28 01:51
How can anything Ellsberg says be denied? We have long been accepting of this completely insane absurdity which could end the planet at any moment. Where is our consciousness of reality, an evil reality only heightened by the new federal regime?
 
 
+10 # futhark 2017-12-28 02:16
Thanks to Daniel Ellsberg for pointing out the disastrous consequences of nuclear war on food production. This is frequently overlooked. My father constructed a very durable steel reinforce concrete fallout shelter in the back yard of our home in 1962 and stocked it with canned goods, but I don't think people of that era gave much thought about how survivors of nuclear war would manage to feed themselves in the long run.

I hope someone raises the issue with Mr. Trump before his Twitter thumb finds its way to pushing the button that would unleash a nuclear holocaust.
 

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