The Doomsday Machine. Daniel Ellsberg.

Ellsberg, Daniel. The Doomsday Machine. Bloomsbury, New York 2017. NF;9/18

Ellsberg is now 87 and still going strong. There is no question that he is an anti-war and anti-nuclear extremist, but he is very well-informed and has been near enough to the top of the American military and political hierarchy that he’s taken seriously, not just by far left wing-nuts. This book credibly challenges the idea (mine at least) that for nearly 30 years since the end of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States there really isn’t much risk of a nuclear war.

In the late 1960s and until the 1980s there were 30,000 (US) to 40,000 (Soviet Union) nuclear bombs at the ready. Today the two countries have about 5000 each. This might seem to diminish the risk or the harm, but in reality it’s way more than enough to accomplish “omnicide”: the death of every living thing on earth through direct annihilation of most human beings and a subsequent nuclear winter which would be the end of everything alive on the planet, according to Ellsberg.

I didn’t know that Ellsberg was at the centre of Watergate which culminated in Richard Nixon’s impeachment. Ellsberg had published the Pentagon Papers pertaining to the Vietnam war (I just saw the movie Post on an airplane and filled in a few Hollywood-flavoured facts), which showed that the Johnson and later Nixon administrations had lied to Americans about a variety of important military realities. The Watergate break-in was Nixon’s inept attempt to access confidential psychological files on Ellsberg to discredit him. Ellsberg was charged as a criminal for publishing the Papers but was acquitted.

Ellsberg also worked for many years mostly in the 1960s for the American military and for the RAND Corporation, a think tank that advised them. He was involved in analysing nuclear military scenarios during the height of the Cold War. He directly supported political and military decision-making, and Doomsday Machine describes some of the nuclear-war close calls he participated in, including the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Unbeknownst to decision-makers, a Soviet nuclear-armed submarine believing it was under attack was prevented from sending a nuclear torpedo against American ships by the chance presence on the sub of a Russian political official who overruled the orders of the captain:

The fact is that on Saturday, October 27, 1962, a chain of events was in motion that might have come close to ending civilization. How close? A handbreadth. That is despite the fact, as I have come to believe, that both leaders, Khrushchev and Kennedy, were determined to avoid armed conflict—that both, in fact, were prepared to settle on the other’s terms, if necessary, rather than go to war. And yet they each hoped, by threatening war, to achieve a better bargain. For the sake of a better deal they both were willing to postpone by hours or days the settlement that each was willing to make. And meanwhile, during those hours, their subordinates (unaware that they were supporting a pure bluff in a game of bargaining) were taking military actions that could unleash an unstoppable train of events, ultimately pulling the trigger on a Doomsday Machine.

Another chilling situation described in detail was the first nuclear test, codenamed Trinity, the culmination of the Manhattan Project (which involved all the best brains in physics in, pretty much, the world) in July 1945 in New Mexico. Some time and a lot of calculation, much of it by hand, was spent by these extremely capable people trying to determine whether the bomb would trigger a chain reaction which would set the entire atmosphere and the oceans off in a worldwide explosion. This didn’t happen of course, but none of the principals of the project were completely sure that it wouldn’t. Yet they went ahead. Quite a moment, I imagine, when that trigger was pulled. The calculus appears to have been that an extremely small chance of destroying the world was justified because either America got the bomb first, or Germany would.

Central to Ellsberg’s argument about the danger of existing nuclear armaments and their command arrangements is the idea that those 10,000 bombs we are talking about are hydrogen bombs which are 1000 times more powerful than the atomic bomb that destroyed the city of Hiroshima. Even 100 such bombs could cause nuclear winter. Further, the generally accepted ideas that the United States would never make a first strike against (now) Russia, and that the American president is the only one who can order such a thing are simply false. The existence of peripheral commanders capable of launching a nuclear strike that could not be recalled makes a very unlikely but eventually probable event like a terrorist bomb, a mentally unstable individual somewhere in the command hierarchy, a “launch on warning” based on a mistake, and a variety of other such scenarios more worrisome. This could (in Ellsberg’s view eventually will) trigger a thermonuclear exchange that would kill everybody and everything.

Throughout the Cold War, American military leaders like Curtis LeMay advocated and built the existing system apparently believing there was no other way to maintain national supremacy than by “mutually assured destruction”, and that “decapitation” – the destruction of the head of state and top military officers – would disable retaliation. The existence of thousands of hydrogen bombs which are directly under the command of hundreds of peripheral military officers and aimed at cities guarantees, according to Daniel Ellsberg, the opposite. The main problem seems to be that advocates of maintaining or enlarging existing nuclear capability can’t accept that terrible things are nearly always unwanted and usually happen unexpectedly.

Of course I got scared again, almost as badly as I had been in late childhood in the 1960s, reading this book. Ellsberg’s solution is to get rid of these weapons, down to a level where while there may be a few “tactical” nukes available on both sides (and in the hands of several other countries of course) the possibility of monstrous destruction from thousands of hydrogen bombs would end because those bombs would be gone. What would the answer to what Ellsberg is seeing be? What do the planners and commanders of the US and Russian nuclear readiness have to say?

I don’t think pro-nuclear arguments are particularly sophisticated or complex. Number one, these weapons exist and won’t go away. Number two, the only way to prevent them ever being used is to guarantee complete annihilation by a second strike. The problem is that this argument presumes rational responses and excludes strange and unexpected events. As John Lanchester says in his book I.O.U. “as every grown-up in the world knows, unexpected things happen all the time”. It only has to happen once. Once it does, I’m afraid I have trouble believing that somewhere in the American and Soviet nuclear command structure there exists a way to stop once it got started.

In commenting on Margaret McMillan’s book Paris 1919 I worried about failure of trust in international affairs which I thought was unavoidable and similar to the so-called Prisoner’s Dilemma: “We’ll both come out better if we trust each other. But the hell of it is we don’t, because we can’t.” When we wonder why we can’t find convincing evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence, maybe intelligence is just intrinsically self-destructive.

Awful, isn’t it? I’m afraid Daniel Ellsberg might be right. 9.3/8.0.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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