By Alex Cox
Source: Lobster Magazine
Until recently I only knew Daniel Ellsberg as the whistleblower who made the
Pentagon Papers public, and for his peace campaigning over the years. I had
no idea that prior to releasing a trove of documents related to the American
War in Vietnam, Ellsberg had been employed by the US Air Force at the RAND
corporation, as a nuclear war planner.
He had originally intended to reveal his nuclear war materials at the same
time as the Pentagon Papers, even though he knew he might face life
imprisonment for doing so. A bizarre series of events, recounted in The
Doomsday Machine, put them beyond the reach of both the FBI and the author.
There is much in Ellsberg’s book that is bizarre, if not amusing, as he recounts
what he learned about the workings of the nuclear-military-political complex. It
is disconcerting reading.
Ellsberg reveals the officially stated policy – that only the President can
authorise nuclear weapons use – to be a fiction. Based on what he learned
reviewing nuclear armed bases for RAND, there is delegation in the use of
nukes at every level. Local base commanders had discretion – or considered
they had it – to launch their nuclear bombers rather than risk losing them. As
in the film Dr Strangelove, there were envelopes aboard each plane containing
secret nuclear go codes (Strategic Air Command [SAC]’s one-size-fits-all
nuclear launch code was 00000000), but there were no recall orders.
As Ellsburg relates, base commanders and bomber pilots had real
autonomy to use their nukes; yet there was no system in place to stop them,
in the event (for example) of an error of judgment, or a presidential change of
heart. His description of the plans to get nuclear-equipped planes airborne at
US bases in Japan is grimly absurd. Smaller bombers were meant to take off in
neat rows, with other rows of bombers following seconds afterwards. Ellsberg
soon saw the possibility that a single pilot error could cause a catastrophic pileup, and atomic explosions, on the runway. Pilots who made it out, and other
US bases, would see or hear of the explosions and assume that Russian bombs
had landed . . . .
Not that it mattered where the US forces thought the bombs came from.
One of Ellsberg’s assignments was to find areas for flexibility in nuclear
weapons use. When he started working for RAND, the US Air Force had one
plan – SIOP, the Single Integrated Operating Plan – which involved a massive,
concerted nuclear weapons salvo against Russia, China, East Germany, Poland,
Hungary, and the other ‘Iron Curtain’ states. President Kennedy and his
defence chief, Robert McNamara, wanted some other options on the table,
besides instantaneous total destruction of all foreign communists and their
neighbours. Ellsberg tried hard to separate US nuclear war plans against
Russia from US nuclear war plans for China, but it was tough going. The Joint
Chiefs preferred one massive nuclear strike (‘general war’ or ‘central war’) to a
All the while, Ellsberg writes, he was morally opposed to the bombing of
cities, with the inevitable unnecessary loss of human life. In a brief aside he
recounts his friendship with Sam Cohen – another RAND specialist who liked to
be thought of as the ‘father of the Neutron Bomb’. 1
SIOP also worried Ellsberg since it was a plan for a first strike: all-out first
use of thousands of nuclear warheads against the Soviet Union and its allies, at
a time when the Russians had merely a handful of working atomic bombs.
RAND and Pentagon estimates of damage from nuclear weapons use never
included fire or firestorms; nor the spread of radiation into allied states; nor
the likely consequences for the climate. The consequences of nuclear weapons
use therefore being vastly underestimated, thousands of additional weapons
were built. In presidential briefings, the Pentagon was confident of prevailing
with a first strike: ‘if worst came to worst . . . a preemptive attack on the
Soviet Union would result in less than ten million deaths in the U.S.’
We now know that even a ‘small’ nuclear war – between India and
Pakistan, say – could have climate impacts which would cause billions of
deaths. ‘General’ or ‘central’ wars would do for just about all of us. Ellsberg
was foiled when he proposed changing US targeting policy so that Moscow
would not be destroyed in a first strike: at a NATO meeting, he was told that
even if SAC agreed to spare Moscow, the French would not. Moscow remained
a prime target for French nukes – and presumably for British ones, as well.
Over time, Ellsberg writes, the Russians and the Americans built a
‘doomsday machine’ very like the one Terry Southern envisaged in his script
for Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove. To protect them against surprise attack,
American and Russian nuclear weapons are numerous, widely dispersed, on
hair-trigger alert. In case the civilian or military leadership is killed, or unable
to communicate, the duty to launch those weapons has been delegated to
pretty much anyone capable of doing so. If the computers say a nuclear first
strike is incoming, if seismographs report massive, blast-style earth tremors, if contact with the leadership breaks down . . . someone will still be there to
push the button/insert the key code/flip the switch.
Ellsberg considers the bombing of civilians – whatever the weapons used –
to be a terrorist atrocity, not an act of war. He calls the ongoing nuclear
standoff between NATO and Russia a ‘moral catastrophe’. If you’re interested in
how close our silly species has come to wreaking its own imminent demise,
this is a valuable and fascinating book by a committed activist and excellent
1 I knew Sam Cohen, too, and he considered his Bomb to be a moral weapon, as it killed
fewer people than the Hydrogen Bomb, and left most of the physical infrastructure intact and potentially usable . . . at least once radiation levels dropped. Sam was insane, of course, but most of the people Ellsberg encountered on board the nuclear weapons project appear to have been insane, in the same way.
Alex Cox is a film-maker and writer.
He blogs at <https://alexcoxfilms.wordpress.com>.