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Daniel Ellsberg On A Life Dedicated To Preventing Nuclear Attack That Would Result In Near-Extinction Of Humans

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Daniel Ellsberg is best known as the whistleblower who released the Pentagon Papers, which exposed what United States government officials really knew and thought about the Vietnam War. But he also worked as a nuclear war planner when he was a RAND Corporation researcher and consultant for the Defense Department.

In a recently published book, “Doomsday Machine: Confessions Of a Nuclear War Planner,” Ellsberg recounts his journey as he discovered how close a nuclear strike by the United States government or a war between the U.S. and Soviet government could bring the Earth’s population to near-extinction.

From the late 1950s to the 1960s, he uncovered several traits of U.S. nuclear war plans that would produce quite devastating results for humanity. He attempted to persuade U.S. officials to address them and achieved rather mixed results.

On the “Unauthorized Disclosure” weekly podcast, Ellsberg highlights how he came to learn the military’s estimate for how many hundreds of millions of people would die if a nuclear attack was launched. He describes how there was no way to call back pilots if an execute order was given. He shares how his father refused to be part of the production of the H-bomb and talks about how he had classified documents on nuclear matters, which he planned to release until they were tragically lost.

To listen to the interview, click on the above player or go here.


Below is a partially edited transcript of the interview with Daniel Ellsberg.

KEVIN GOSZTOLA: In this book, you reveal to the public that you had classified documents on nuclear planning and other related matters. Would you talk about what happened to those documents?

DANIEL ELLSBERG: I didn’t speak of those documents at the very time that the [Pentagon] Papers were in the fight with the Supreme Court or right after about the Pentagon Papers because I wanted to focus attention at the time on the bombing that was happening, which continued throughout my trial in ‘73. It finally cut-off in mid-’73 thanks to Watergate, largely. But that was the war that I wanted to interfere with at that point, even though I thought the nuclear material was fundamentally more significant.

The plan was derailed when the documents that I copied on the nuclear affairs were lost because of a hurricane. It scattered the trash dump in which my brother had buried the documents. So, to my great disappoint, I had to give up by the end of the war, or even a little before that, the prospect of putting out these other documents. And without the documents, it really made it impossible to publish. Publishers didn’t think that the subject itself was of sufficient interest, and I don’t know if it would have made all the difference or what the effect would’ve been if I’d released them earlier at that point.

I must say they’re getting a lot of attention now. As much as I could hope for a book on this subject. But I think that’s largely due to Donald J. Trump, who has worried people that he might actually put these plans into practice.

GOSZTOLA: Let me call attention to what I think is the most stunning part of your work here. It comes when you’re talking about the chart, the estimate that was put before you in spring of 1961. You were asking about what would happen, how many people would be killed in the Soviet Union and China if these weapons were deployed. What was it like to see such a staggering figure?

ELLSBERG: The first question that I asked the Joint Chiefs [of Staff]—that is, I drafted a question that was sent to the Joint Chiefs by the president—was if your plans were carried out as planned with the targets you planned and they weren’t disrupted in some way by Soviet preemption or a hurricane or whatever, how many people would die in the U.S.S.R. and China. And I asked that in that limited way, not asking for total casualties at first, because I thought they really didn’t have an answer and that would be the most embarrassing one for them to admit really. That they didn’t have an answer even to how many people we would kill in Russia, or the U.S.S.R., or China.

I was wrong about that. The chart in my book, which I reproduce from memory—a very simple chart. I’m sure I have it right. [The chart] indicated that they expected to kill with our own first strike some 325 million people in the U.S.S.R. and China. Since they had an answer to that so quickly, they clearly had a model to go on, and I asked for how many would be killed altogether. And that figure added up to 600 million, a hundred Holocausts as I saw it.

So with that frame in mind, it was an appalling shocking figure that they would actually give to the President of the United States without any hesitation, without any apology, without any anguishing. This is the result of what we would do, a hundred Holocausts.

It gave me a new perspective on our military, but actually, I felt more broadly on the human species. Because I’ve never had any reason to suspect that our military planners were more monstrous or callous than others, really. I expected the same was true with Russia but also other states as well. So what does it mean for a species that is prepared to consider inflicting casualties on that level so far beyond the last 2000 years, despite the monstrosities that occur even in those wars?

That figure actually is shocking, I’m glad to hear you say, but in particular, because I don’t think you’ve ever seen another official figure on what the casualties of our war plans would be. In fact, it occurred to me after that was published that probably the government would regard that very chart as still classified. Because they never really have put out—There have been speculations as to how devastating a war would be.

This, of course, is not an official release. It’s a release by the best memory in conference of a former official, me. At the time, I was a consultant. Later, I was a high civil servant in the Defense Department and the State Department. Although, I think that Herb York has talked about hundreds of millions, which gives the same notion.

There’s simply been no official release of this, and I’m sure at this time that any estimates of the casualties or deaths from our larger “options” that would lots of cities in this Soviet Union, or now Russia, would be much the same.

Final thing is, at that time when I saw that, it was still 20 years away from scientists having calculated that the smoke from burning cities would in fact reach into the stratosphere, stay there because it wouldn’t be rained out in the stratosphere, move around the globe, and reduce sunlight by as much as 70 percent, lowering temperatures on the Earth’s surface to those of a previous ice age, and kill the harvest and much of the vegetation, which would lead to the starvation of most humans.

Far beyond 600 million. That would’ve been close to a fifth of the population. No, it would’ve been close to five-fifths at that very time, and the same would be true now that we have 7.4 billion. It would be over 7 billion dead from a large nuclear war between the U.S. and Russia.

GOSZTOLA: At the time, as you’re going through this work, what were you able to discover or learn as to whether any officials were concerned that these estimates showed a nuclear strike could leave hundreds of millions dead? Did it change or shift as time progressed?

ELLSBERG: I think that President [John F.] Kennedy, and I know Secretary of Defense [Robert] McNamara from talking to him directly, were indeed appalled by these kinds of result. Secretary McNamara, in particular on the basis of guidance for the Joint Chiefs that I drafted for myself at the time, wanted to move targeting away from cities, not to include China automatically. It was a self-evident change because at the time the only plans for an attack on Russia involved hitting China at the same time, whether they’d been involved in initiation of the war at all.

In theory, then there were options that withheld attacks on China and withheld attacks on Moscow, which was tremendous heresy in the Pentagon not to hit Moscow in the first attacks. Except that would have clearly made the war unendable with no one like the Japanese Emperor at the end of World War II to call for surrender or for a ceasefire and no way really to stop the war and no way to really limit it in the way.

All of these things were put in as possibilities, new choices for the president to make. As time went on, it appeared that the Air Force paid almost no attention in Strategic Air Command to such changes. I think they may have paid lip service to the possibility of it, but as General Lee Butler reported later. He was the last commander of Strategic Air Command. He reported later—it was in his memoirs—that the planners and the operators could not imagine that the president would fail to hit Moscow, fail to hit the targeted cities, and for that matter, fail to launch on warning, which the strategic forces is at most an option or a hypothesis but not the most they counted on.

The reality has been really that the operators have always assumed that on the receipt of warning that an attack was imminent or on the way we would not wait for enemy warheads to explode amidst our missiles, reducing him, but would get our missiles in the air on the way to targets.

None of the changes I suggested in the planning actually had any affect, as far as I know, on the way that a war would have been conducted. […] Every administration, people would notice that the current plan seemed insane, insanely destructive leading virtually to extinction. We’ve known that since the nuclear winter findings in 1983. That was late in the game, almost 40 years into the nuclear era that we discovered what smoke from burning cities would actually do.

That was still 35 years ago, and as far as anybody knows, there’s been no reflection of that in the planning. We continue to threaten and prepare for attacks between the nuclear superpowers that would lead to near extinction.

GOSZTOLA: And another rather stunning section for me is what you choose to mostly open your book with. The first aspect of our nuclear plans that you delve into is how there was no officially authorized way for the president or the Joint Chiefs of Staffs or anyone else to stop planes that received an execute order to deploy nuclear weapons. Would you talk about your journey in finding out this was the reality?

ELLSBERG: That was another part of what later came out as “Dr. Strangelove,” the movie, in 1964. It was basically a documentary. It showed what actually could happen.

In that movie, a rogue general sends off planes and the president has no way to call them back. Actually, in the movie, they couldn’t live with that entirely. They finally figure out that there was a coded way if only they could discover to code. In reality, there was no call back or stop order. Once the planes and the later missiles, were on their way—even though it might take many hours to get to Russia—nothing that happened in between their takeoff and their dropping their weapons could actually change their operations. There was no way to tell them either that the enemy had surrendered or that there had been a terrible mistake at the beginning that led to their launch, a false alarm or a change of mind by the president.

I think by the way that this latter possibility was the nightmare of the military planners, that a civilian president could in the midst of these hours of planes traveling toward burning cities in the Soviet Union, might change his mind, or some day her mind, and bring them back or try to bargain with the other side. And that was something that they didn’t think was feasible or desirable. So they didn’t build in any kind of stop order.

I’m not aware that that’s ever really changed. It may have. Indeed, a lot of aspects of this system are so secret that they really play no part in deterring the other side. I thought you were going to mention, and perhaps you were about to mention, that another aspect of the book is my discovery that the president has delegated authority to send weapons, to initiate nuclear war, not only to high-level theater commanders but knew that they had in turn delegated that to lower commanders, down to fairly low levels. All for pretty much the same reason—they didn’t want the enemy, specifically the Soviets, [inaudible] to be able to retaliate by hitting our command and control center or Washington in particular.

That’s a pretty powerful reason, but paradoxically, although you would think you would want the Soviets to know that they couldn’t paralyze our ability, that was a great secret, I think, lest the American public be alarmed by the fact it was delegated. And so, as far as is known, the Soviets were never made aware really that they couldn’t “decapitate” our system effectively.

We gave up that aspect of deterrence. By the same token, when the Soviets did the same thing for the same reason by responding to talk of decapitation of Moscow in the Carter Administration and later in the Reagan Administration, they instituted what they called a Dead Hand system that assured that if Moscow was destroyed there would be authorization at lower levels to retaliate. That was their biggest secret. They didn’t tell us that so that we continued with plans for decapitation without reflecting on the fact that they would have no effect in sparing us from the enemy retaliation.

I’m pretty sure that the same applies with North Korea right now. With all the attention that we give publicly in reports and releases that Kim Jong Un is subject to plans of ours for decapitation or assassination in various ways by drones or cruise missiles or special forces or any kind of attack, I’m pretty sure that they’ve responded the same way the Russian planners and American planners did by assuring that if he’s killed and his regime is destroyed there will be retaliation. And probably not only against South Korea and Japan, but they probably have figured out ways to inflict casualties in the U.S. They don’t need an ICBM missile for that. They only need a boat to bring warheads over here to ports in San Francisco or Los Angeles.

RAND did a report on the effect of such an attack twelve years ago in 2006, when the North Koreans first tested a nuclear weapon. That was a dozen years ago. Has President Trump been informed that he may lose a city or two in this country? I don’t know, actually. I’m pretty sure that his military people do know that, but you wouldn’t know it from hearing the talk about how an attack on North Korea might be kept limited. I think the chance of a limited war with North Korea approaches zero.

GOSZTOLA: Now what really resonated with me in your book is how influential Stanley Kubrick’s film has on you. When this film played in theatres and the public got to see the story unfold, satire as it may be, there’s really no discussion out in the open politically about nuclear weapons and their true impact. So as I understand it, you being able to go in and watch this film—it was like seeing things that you were dealing with at the top secret level brought out in the open for the public to confront. Isn’t that right?

ELLSBERG: Yes and no. It was obvious that was being presented as a satire, even a comedy. It is very funny actually. So a lot of people, even a whole book has been written on the theme that this shows you can’t really have a nuclear war because it had to have all these coincidences, sending off planes with no stop order. That couldn’t really happen after all. Or, having a doomsday machine that you didn’t tell the enemy about—that’s really impossible. Actually, that exactly was the reality.

I don’t think people thought it could be as realistic as it actually was. It is worth seeing that movie, but I don’t think it’s ever evoked the kind of determination to change the system. It’s thought of as, well, that’s an imaginary thing. What the difference is I would hope that my book would at least encourage people to ask the question in Congress: What is the exact situation today? Is it possible? What is the situation on delegation, for example? How many fingers are really on the button?

There’s all this concern. There is no actual button. It’s done by phone basically or nowadays computers. But how many people can actually with authorization under various circumstances launch those weapons? It is more than the president. People are worrying about Trump under the impression that the mood of Trump is at issue because he is the only one that can do this. That’s not the case.

You have to worry about other people around the world who have the ability and not only Americans. How many fingers are really on the buttons of India and Pakistan weapons, as well as Russia? I’ve already said they have a “Dead Hand” system.

The problem now is asking the questions of the Republican Congress will get no feedback. It’s into a black hole. Nothing will come out of that. I do hope that there will be discussion raised here that will go on to a period, when we have at least of house in Congress in Democratic hands that would be open to investigating this. And I have to say that Democrats in the past have shown no inclination to do that either.

So it’s a slender hope, but since there’s so much at stake, that’s what I have to live with—that degree of hope that there will be investigation in this country and others. It’s conceivable. Well, not so much so. In Russia, I was seeing that’s not purely rubber stump, but eh, it is pretty much rubber stamp too. The hope for this real change in the system is small, but it’s not zero and that’s enough to keep me working at it.

GOSZTOLA: As you seemed to insinuate earlier, what I feel is one of the most critical aspects of your book is its relevance to the current moment. Unfortunately. You wouldn’t like to write and think that what you detail sixty or seventy years ago is still exceptionally relevant, especially given the subject matter. But we’ve had the Nuclear Posture Review released that the Trump administration will likely incorporate.

I want you to address something you detail in the book, which is the idea that we don’t use nuclear weapons, the myth that we don’t use nuclear weapons. You talk about in great detail how most presidential administrations in the last decades have used nuclear weapons because they threaten to use them.

ELLSBERG: That’s right. We’ve used them repeatedly, several dozen times in crises (not all of them were known to be crises in the minds of the public). We used them in the way that you use a gun when you point it at somebody in a confrontation. Whether you pull the trigger or not, you’ve used the weapon, and if you can get your way without pulling the trigger, that’s the best way for most people of using the weapon. In that sense, that’s why you have [nuclear weapons] and that’s why you build more of them.

We’ve used them much more often than the public is aware, and I give a number of instances. But in that context, President Trump—It’s not just a question of whether he might use them. He is using our nuclear weapons right now, when he raises the prospect of possibly a nuclear war or a non-nuclear attack that would escalate to nuclear war with North Korea. And he’s looking ahead actually to changes in the treaty with Iran, which could lead to a war as seemed possible under President George W. Bush and [Vice President Dick] Cheney.

For that matter, Kim Jong Un is using his weapons by threatening retaliation for any attack. That’s why he has them, and in fact, I would say that’s why he’s not going to give up the weapons that he does have. The idea that we won’t even negotiate until he agrees beforehand that there will be de-nuclearization—He will give up the 10-20 weapons that the Federation of American Scientists estimates that he does have now. Some people feel he has enough material for as many as 60. But the FAS thinks 10-20.

He’s not going to give those up. He would be crazy to do that, and that’s not the way he is crazy. In fact, the deterrence, in other words, he feels the use that he’s getting out of those weapons is indispensable. At the same time, he’s trying to acquire a threat not just of a boat but of an instant retaliation with ICBMs and that very effort does expose him to greater risk, even though he has a deterrence capability of 10-20 fission weapons, atomic weapons of the kind that destroyed Nagasaki. That would seem to deter most people, but it is dismaying to realize that it doesn’t necessarily deter President Trump. He’s still talking in those terms, and seems to be encouraged to do that by General [H.R.] McMaster. His national security assistant talks in these same terms.

On the one hand, we’ve had what President Nixon called a madman theory in 1969. We’ve had that right along. To threaten nuclear weapons has always been to threaten a mad action. Now, is it mad to threaten? Well, considering that what we’re doing is preparing to carry out those threats, readying ourselves, deploying those weapons, and alerting them and creating a real possibility that those threats will be carried out, that is mad, I would say. That’s an unjustifiable and unconscionable risk to be taking, and that’s been true of every president. What Trump has done is bring to people’s attention by appearing to be even madder than most and capable of carrying out these threats more than most. That that’s in public mind is good, and we can thank Trump for that if he doesn’t take us to war. If he does, it will be a very high price to pay for raising the issue.

GOSZTOLA: One other section I want to talk about before we wrap up the interview is this part where you go into detail about the several scientists who were involved in working on the development of atomic or nuclear weapons and their reservations. You ask if any of the officials involved in the development of these weapons ever resigned or asked any questions.

You reveal that your father, in fact, had an opportunity to help build the H-bomb but he resigned. Can you talk about what your father decided to walk away from?

ELLSBERG: My father was not a scientist. He was a structural engineer. He worked in factories for building war planes during the war, Second World War. After which, he actually was chief structural engineer on expanding the plants at Hanford, Washington. They were building materials for the buildup of A-bombs.

But he was asked to work in the plants that give materials for H-bombs, and as he said to his deputy when he decided not to do that, he said they have A-bombs. Now they’re building H-bombs, which he knew as he told me would be a thousand times more powerful than the A-bombs that triggered it. He said they’ll go right through the alphabet til they have Z-bombs they said.

We did get N-bombs, neutron bombs. They haven’t quite gone through the alphabet, but the new Nuclear Posture Review talks about a new set of weapons that would be lower yield, easier to use, and would just as the A-bomb, a Nagasaki-type bomb is the trigger or detonating cap for an H-bomb, these lower yield weapons would be the detonator for nuclear war. And the thought that the war would remain limited to low-yield weapons in conflict with a nuclear power, whether it’s Russia, China, or North Korea, or India and Pakistan. The idea that the war would remain limited is a dangerous, dangerous pipe dream and just an incentive to get the war started.

It may be that a war could be relatively limited if one of the sides had no nuclear weapons, as in the case of many of our threats in the past—for example, against North Vietnam. Or, even with North Korea, they’d be limited by the number of weapons the North Koreans actually have and would not cause the near extinction a big nuclear war would have.

My fear is if there was such a limited war—Which may occur if we don’t stop it, we the people, if Congress doesn’t do the unlikely thing of actually preventing the president from carrying out such threats—I think it could start an era of small nuclear wars between countries that don’t have very many. Millions and millions of people would die in the course of this, and the chance of dismantling the large doomsday machines. We’d be in not just a cold war but a series of little hot limited nuclear wars with great proliferation.

The chance of dismantling these doomsday machines would have pretty much vanished. But eventually, and conceivably not too far now, a false alarm like the kind that has occurred in the past, occurring between two countries that had doomsday machines on alert, specifically the U.S. and Russia—Such a false alarm could end most human life on Earth. That could’ve happened in the past.

It’s almost miraculous, I would say, that it hasn’t, given the near close calls that we’ve had. I think that the chance that will happen in the future unless we change course is very, very high. So no matter how unlikely it is that we will change course, that’s what my life is devoted to and that is what I hope this book will contribute to.

GOSZTOLA: I think it’s important. I suppose just given what you said there we should mention the Cuban Missile Crisis and the fact that you talk about what you knew and what you later learned through your research on how close we were to those weapons actually being set off. The concern is that many, many people who live in the United States have no awareness at all of how close the world has ever come to destruction.

ELLSBERG: Yes, I was saying to my wife, Patricia, the other day that if I knew only what the public knew, if I knew no more than what the public knows about past close calls and the preparations we’ve made and the instability of the situation, I wouldn’t be worried either, and most of them aren’t. I understand that. It’s a state of ignorance, or you could say a state of denial by a lot of people because they aren’t trying very hard to find out. That’s what I would hope to break through.

The Cuban Missile Crisis itself—I lived through as a consultant on high staff committees on that, and really the dangers of it only became evident years later, as we began to get more information, and only in recent decades when we got information about the Russian side. In that case, we were extremely close to a nuclear war, and nobody knew at the time that the war would have led to near extinction by nuclear winter because the concept wasn’t even available at that point. But we did know it would be a war that would kill probably up to a billion people out of the the three billion living then, even without knowing the effects of smoke and nuclear winter.

I believe that both leaders, John F. Kennedy and Premier Khrushchev, were determined not to allow an armed conflict to get started knowing the risk of escalation. Yet, despite their wishes, as I describe in the book, we came extremely close by the maneuvers and the decisions at lower levels to not only starting a non-nuclear conflict but actually starting very early with nuclear weapons that we didn’t even know were there.

We didn’t know [nuclear weapons] were on Soviet submarines. We didn’t know there were tactical nuclear weapons in Cuba because Khrushchev for inscrutable reasons—I really can’t imagine—chose not to tell us and thus not to deter us from planned actions. So the same could happen with North Korea.

There could be enormous surprises, including things in retrospect people would say, well, they should have told us that. Biological warfare, chemical warfare, that they had made ready. It’s quite possible. Ways of inflicting casualties in the U.S. It would only be imitating the past if Kim Jong Un had failed to tell us these provisions he had made for retaliation or for preemption out of which we would see more violence than the world has ever seen in a day or in a week.

GOSZTOLA: Most people who are listening to this interview may have taken interest in the fact that part of your story was featured in “The Post,” at least the part of your Pentagon Papers story. I wondered what it’s been like for you in the past month to see so many people in the mainstream introduced to your story. It even goes well beyond “The Most Dangerous Man In America” documentary.

What do you think—given Donald Trump is our president—it means that more people may be considering what someone could do if they had access to what you had and could reveal truth to people?

ELLSBERG: I do feel that this is an especially urgent time for whistleblowing. [Inaudible] specifically, for the internal estimates of the likely casualties, death, and destruction from a war with North Korea. I am sure there are official estimates that would be very deterrent, very appalling to our public. I think that it would be worth a person’s career, even life in prison, to consider acting like Chelsea Manning or Ed Snowden, to reveal that information to the Congress and to the public.

When I say Congress, this Republican Congress is not likely to do much with it. With the public, again, it’s not easy to say. They can press Congress. I would hope it would activate them even more to replace this Congress—and not only with Democrats of the kind we’ve seen in the past, who have not investigated adequately whether it was a Republican president or a Democrat president—But with Democrats who are prepared to oppose and resist this president but in numbers, and Democrats who far more concerned about this issue than we’ve seen in the past. I would love for the 390 women who are considering running for Congress now to be apprised of this issue and to realize that it is not just a men’s issue. That is very much a women’s issue, a children’s issue. It’s an issue for our species.

It’s possible that women running in large numbers will be more concerned about this aspect than we’ve seen from the men. There may be a gender aspect to it. Certainly, competitions in whose button is larger we’ve seen between Trump and Kim do not sound like representative women speaking. And the kinds of women who get power in a very patriarchal society tend to be quite macho themselves.

If we got a lot more women elected and working on this issue, along with the others that are more traditionally seen as women’s issues, I think we could see a real difference.

GOSZTOLA: Alright, Dan. I thank you for talking. I appreciate your time, and I wish you all the best.

ELLSBERG: Okay, thanks for the opportunity.

For more from Daniel Ellsberg, here is the page of memos and notes related to the “Doomsday Machine” posted on his website.

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."