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The Carnegie Interview: Daniel Ellsberg

Reading The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner by Daniel Ellsberg is an intense experience, as you veer from awe over Ellsberg’s intellect and life and shock, dismay, and terror in light of the secrets he reveals about the nuclear arms buildup and how the nuclear arsenal is managed. When The Doomsday Machine was selected as a Carnegie Medal finalist, I was able to contact the legendary Pentagon Papers whistleblower, anti-nuclear activist, and author of perhaps the most important book for our future. An edited version of our conversation appeared on Booklist Online. Here is our exchange in its chillingly fascinating entirety.



DONNA SEAMAN: The Doomsday Machine is a phenomenal work of recollection as well as a galvanizing exposé. How did you summon such vivid detail about experiences you had decades ago?

DANIEL ELLSBERG: If you were asking me (at 86) the name of a movie I saw last week, or perhaps yesterday, or my account of a discussion last month, you wouldn’t be impressed by my short-term memory! But my long-term memory is still unusually good for events and discussions from 30 or 40 forty years ago. The fact is that up until the last couple of decades, I had a trick memory (short-term as well as long) for events, dates, who said what in a long-gone discussion. My memcons (memoranda of conversations) were much admired, even wondered at for their accuracy, in the Embassy in Saigon. But that is not what the dialogues and accounts in my book depend on, almost at all.

In August, 1971, just after I had been indicted, my lawyer Charles Nesson (then and now at Harvard Law School) sat me down with a tape recorder and asked me to recount, for the eyes of my senior lawyer, Leonard Boudin, and himself (only), “everything I had worked on secretly at RAND, the Pentagon, and the State Department,” so they would be forewarned of what might come up in my cross-examination and so that they would be educated in the workings of the secrecy system. The resulting 500 pages of transcript that resulted from five or six long days of dictating are the basis of the first twelve chapters of the book. All the details and dialogue in that first part of the book were recounted for Nesson only ten years or so after they occurred, at a time when you could bank on the accuracy of my memory. Moreover, I still have many notes and drafts from that earlier period, which were not all lost in Tropical Storm Doria in 1971.


You reveal many terrifying secrets about the risks scientists and the military took with the development and control of nuclear weapons. Can you highlight one key example?

Both the Soviet Union and (to my knowledge at the time) the U.S. were hoping to survive a nuclear exchange between themselves by launching—on receiving tactical (and possibly false) warning they were under attack themselves—a preemptive attack on the opponent’s command and control, “decapitating” the adversary’s capital and central command centers and hopefully paralyzing the enemy’s subsequent operations. These plans were doomed to fail. President Eisenhower and all his successors during the Cold War had secretly delegated authority to launch nuclear attacks on the Soviet Union (and China!) if communications were cut off from Washington and other command centers, indicating a Soviet decapitating attack. And after President Carter and his assistant Brzezinski had allowed it to be publicized that they were focusing on decapitating attacks of the Soviets in general war, the Soviets constructed a comparable “Dead Hand” system which assured retaliation if these plans were carried out. Or, as might have happened either in the US or Soviet Union, communications to the field were disrupted for some other reason: e.g., a terrorist warhead or an unauthorized attack—as in the Stanley Kubrick film, Dr. Strangelove (1964)—on Moscow or Washington.

Right now, plans have been publicized both by North Korea and the U.S. that, in case of war, the first priority for each would be a decapitating attack on the other’s command and control network and leaders. The U.S., especially, has encouraged publicity about preparations, in the event of armed conflict, both by the U.S. and by South Korea to assassinate Kim Jong-un and his subordinates, either with drones, F-135s, cruise missiles, or Special Forces (both U.S. and South Korean). From the example of the Soviet Dead Hand system (and the U.S. before that!) I would judge the likelihood to be near certainty that such a successful decapitation would not paralyze North Korean retaliation, any more than it could have paralyzed retaliation by the U.S. or Russians in a general war. But rather, it would ensure retaliation by prior planning, decisions, and preparations by Kim Jong-un, in the event he should be killed or put out of communication.

I’ve seen no sign that this Cold War history is reflected in our current planning or President Trump’s threats. Moreover, the chilling assurance by Senator Lindsay Graham (who claimed to be repeating what President Trump had said to him) that “the casualties” in the event of war with North Korea, “will be over there; they’re not going to die here,” is highly likely to prove false in the event. The RAND Corporation (my old base) did a study in 2006, the year the North Koreans first demonstrated a workable nuclear device in a test, that calculated the effects of such a device exploding in a West Coast harbor (they used Long Beach / Los Angeles, but it could be San Francisco or Seattle), Kim’s father having transported it to the U.S. in a container in a boat.

Kim Jong-un has lots of fission, Nagasaki-type warheads now, and lots of boats. He doesn’t need a fusion weapon (not yet tested) or an ICBM to cause tens to hundreds of thousands of deaths in the U.S. homeland in retaliation for his own death in an attack on North Korea. A boat or ship (it could be a U.S. ship or other national flag, to which a container has been transferred) won’t arrive in 30 minutes, like an ICBM, but it needn’t take 30 days. And Kim may well conclude, listening to President Trump, that his enormous, unquestionable ability to massacre people in South Korea and Japan does not, after all, provide him with sufficient deterrence against an attack by the present U.S. administration, since the casualties would all be, from the point of view of Senator Graham and allegedly President Trump, “over there.” I think that accounts for Kim’s risky, even reckless, pursuit of an ICBM that can carry an H-bomb warhead. He has concluded that nothing other than a prospect of prompt American deaths in America (not just in South Korea, where over 20,000 American military and over 200,000 American civilians are already at immediate risk of North Korean retaliation to an attack) will suffice to deter this U.S. president from calamitous armed conflict with the North.

Daniel Ellsberg

That judgment and behavior, too, echoes history in my book. Sergei Khrushchev concluded in 1961-62, according to American statements by the Kennedy administration (some of which I have to acknowledge drafting), that his unquestionable ability to annihilate our allies in West Europe by medium-range missiles and aircraft in event of armed conflict, as over West Berlin, did not provide him adequate deterrence, at a time when he had only four vulnerable ICBMs with which to threaten our homeland. (Indeed, as I discuss, official secret U.S. calculations of the “results” of a U.S.-Soviet nuclear “exchange” in that era rarely if ever even mentioned or calculated or took any account of the allied casualties “over there” outside the Soviet Bloc, only of deaths in the Soviet and U.S. homelands.) So Khrushchev felt he had to take the risk of secretly moving dozens of his medium-range missiles to within range of cities in the U.S., by installing them in Cuba. Kennedy’s reaction, threatening attack on those missiles, may have been a bluff in his own eyes (I conjecture that it was); but as I describe, his actions and deployments in making that threat credible came close to triggering a war that would have caused, to his own surprise, global nuclear winter and the end of civilization.

As I recount, if it were not for the prudent action of one individual at a critical moment—Vasily Arkhipov, like that of another Soviet officer, Stanislav Petrov in a secret crisis in 1983—we would not be here. Progress, half a century later, found in discussions of the situation (though not from the White House) do show awareness and concern that millions of South Koreans and Japanese are likely to die in days if Trump’s warnings are carried out (e.g., after a new missile or H-bomb test by North Korea, in the absence of any negotiations aimed at averting these). Is Trump bluffing, having sent three carrier divisions together in the vicinity of Korea for the first time in a decade, and sending command-busting F-135’s to the area? I don’t know. Would such a prospect, contrary to Senator Graham, deter him? I don’t know.

One difference from armed conflict with Russia, in 1962 or 1983 or now (over Ukraine or the Baltics): U.S. armed conflict with North Korea, even nuclear, cannot cause nuclear winter and the end of civilization unless it escalated to war with China or Russia, which is unlikely, though not impossible. (North Korea is currently the only one of the nine nuclear weapons states that does not have enough weapons to cause a nuclear winter or nuclear famine starving billions.) But U.S.–North Korean armed conflict, even if it remained non-nuclear (which is unlikely), would almost certainly mean more deaths in a day or a week than has ever been experienced in that period in the history of humanity. Yes, threats, plans, and deployments that contemplate such results, even if, luckily, they are never carried out, are why I originally planned to title my book A Chronicle of Madness.


What role do you hope The Doomsday Machine will play in public discourse about the true dangers of nuclear weapons?

How might I hope The Doomsday Machine might contribute to averting such an outcome in the current crisis? Having allowed myself above to discuss this very crisis at greater length than you suggested (I got carried away reflecting on the example), I can answer this more briefly.

Assuming, and hoping desperately, that neither Kim Jong-un (by new testing) nor President Trump (by reacting or preempting as he has threatened) have led to a disastrous war before this book’s publication on December 5: I would wish for the history recounted in this book to inform their own advisors, and the world’s leaders, of the stakes actually at risk in their current threats, plans, and preparations for a war that would be insanely murderous, and which would lead, I believe, to irreversible new nuclear arms races that would lower the already low chances for human survival. And on the basis of such awareness, I can hope—from my own experience, as described in this memoir—that some individuals in their regimes, or their neighbors or allies, will be encouraged to do what I wish I had done as an insider in 1961-62, or 1964-65, or 1969-71: at whatever cost to themselves, to do everything they can, nonviolently and truthfully, to expose to others, and to reduce the risks of impending catastrophe. To such people in North and South Korea and in the U.S. (executive, military, Congress, media) I would say: Don’t do what I did. Don’t wait to tell the truth to the public and legislatures, with documents, until you’ve lost your access or (as in my case) the documents themselves. Don’t wait until the “smoking gun” about your own country’s reckless nuclear threats and policies is a mushroom cloud.

About the Author:

Donna Seaman is adult books editor at Booklist. Her radio interviews are collected in Writers on the Air: Conversations about Books (2005). Follow her on Twitter at @Booklist_Donna.

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