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The Doomsday Machine Review - David Peutherer

The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner by Daniel Ellsberg, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2017 [2018 in UK]

From Dresden to Doomsday

In the early 1960s Ellsberg worked for the RAND Corporation on how to avert a nuclear exchange between the Soviet Union and the United States, was a consultant to the United States Department of Defense and the White House, and drafted Secretary Robert McNamara's plans for nuclear war. He had access to top secret documents, senior military personnnel and other senior officials. He now writes and lectures about the dangers of the nuclear era.

The Doomsday Machine is an enthralling read for anyone who is concerned about the danger of nuclear weapons, and wants to know how we got to where we are now. Ellsberg draws obvious parallels with the film Dr.Strangelove; the truth is his book is much more frightening than any film could be.


There are many insights, for example into the almost unimaginably horrific effects of the British and American bombing of Hamburg and Dresden, and how that bombing contributed to the way the rules of war were changed so that it became 'acceptable' to deliberately bomb civilian populations. The main theme however is the utter madness of nuclear war planning.


"Madness in individuals is something rare; but in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the norm." Friedrich Nietzsche.


In 1961 Ellsberg discovered that the U.S. plan for nuclear war was for a first-strike attack aimed simultaneously at every town and city with a population over 25,000 in the Soviet Union and China. He was shown the reply to a question the President of the United States had asked the Joint Chiefs of Staff - "If your plans for general [ nuclear] war are carried out as planned, how many people will be killed in the Soviet Union and China ?" Their reply was : deaths within hours 275 million, total deaths over an arbritary and as we now know far too short, cut-off of six months 325 million, The reply to a subsequent question  provided the information that total deaths including in Eastern and Western Europe and other countries adjacent to the Soviet Union and China could be 600 million. Just think about that. The people responsible for preparing the plan and who were prepared to carry it out, knew it could kill 600 million people !


But Ellsberg says that what no-one knew about in 1961 were the phenomina of nuclear winter and nuclear famine. "It is the smoke, not the fallout, that would do it worldwide: smoke and soot lofted by fierce firestorms in hundreds of burning cities into the stratosphere where it would remain undispersed for a decade or longer, enveloping the globe, blocking most sunlight, lowering temperatures to the level of the last ice age and killing all harvests worldwide, causing near-universal starvation within a year or two.." The U.S. plans in the early sixties could have killed many more than the 600 million predicted at the time.


"The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking, and thus we drift toward unparalleled catastrophe." Albert Einstein, 1946.


The number of warheads has declined, mainly because of the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, the one from which the U.S. has now withdrawn.  Yet the most recent scientific calculations, Ellsberg says, show that a first strike with even a fraction of these smaller but more powerful, arsenals would be more than enough to cause nuclear winter and kill almost all the humans on earth. President Gorbachev of the then USSR is reported to have said he was strongly influenced by Soviet studies of this phenomenon and that this underlay his desire to seek massive reductions and even the elimination of nuclear weapons in his discussions with President Reagan. No subsequent American or Russian leader seems to have shared his concern to the same extent.

Ellsberg of course isn't a lone voice in warning about the danger of nuclear winter. In 2013 a report by the International Physicians For The Prevention of Nuclear War [ "Nuclear Famine :Two Billion People at Risk"], concluded that even a limited, regional  nuclear war between India and Pakistan would cause climate disruption, lower temperatures and less precipitation resulting in widespread famine and disease. The number of people affected, as stated in the report, would be well over two billion. The calculation was based on the assumption that weapons with the same destructive power as those dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki would be used.  A nuclear war now could involve weapons which are many times more powerful.

Despite knowledge of nuclear winter nuclear countries are still increasing the power of their nuclear arsenals and still plan for nuclear war. New weapons, more powerful weapons, more risk of Armageddon ! Madness is indeed the norm.

According to Ellsberg the basic elements of American readiness for nuclear war remain today what they were almost sixty years ago. The U.S. Policy has always been for a first-strike preemptive launch either on tactical warning of an incoming attack or strategic warning that nuclear escalation is probably impending, and to limit damage to the united States from retaliation to a U.S. first strike. President Obama continued the first strike policy in 2010 and again in his last year in office; President Trump has not ruled it out. The first strike policy in Ellsberg's opinion has always precluded an effective non-proliferation campaign, nullifies the U.S's advice to most other states that they have no need to produce nuclear weapons, and  has in fact encouraged proliferation.

He also says that strategic nuclear systems have always been prone to false alarms, with particularly serious ones in 1979, 1980, 1983 and 1995. The chance that they could explode by mistake or unauthorised action [ Doctor Strangelove !] taking much of the world with it has always been an unconscionable risk imposed by the superpowers upon the the population of the world. And he says the risk is greater now.

The United States and Russia both have a 'Doomsday Machine', a "system of people, machines, electronics, communications, institutions, plans, training, disciplines, practices and doctrines which, under conditions of electronic warning, external conflict or expectations of attack, would with unknowable but possible high probability bring about the global destruction of civilisation and of nearly all human life on earth." Ellsberg says both are on hair-trigger alert and that this makes their joint existence unstable, and that they are susceptible to being triggered by a false alarm, a terrorist action, unauthorised launch or a desperate decision to escalate. He asks the question : " Does any nation on earth have a right to possess such a capability, a right to threaten... the continued existence of all other nations and their populations, their cities and civilisations ?" Surely the answer must be no.

The book also  reveals that it has never been just the American President who could, and can, authorise a nuclear attack. President Eisenhower had delegated authority to his theatre commanders in various circumstances, and they in turn had delegated it to subordinate commanders. Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon and Carter did not change this, and Ellsberg says "So, almost certainly has every subsequent president". Russia, it says, has a similar policy of delegation.and it is virtually certain that every nuclear state has one.

There are now nine countries with nuclear weapons. How many fingers are on their nuclear buttons? How many people, including terrorists who might launch a cyber-attack, could start nuclear Armageddon, deliberately or in error ? The answer is that no-one knows !

With no international disarmament talks taking place and countries increasing the power of their nuclear arsenals the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons offers our only hope of world wide nuclear disarmament. The campaign for it was led by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons [ICAN] with the support of civic society. Civic society brought it about and it is civic society which must demand of our politicians that it be implemented. SCND is a partner organisation of ICAN and is doing everything it can to support it. We all must.

Memos and other documents referred to by Ellsberg in the book can be found at www.ellsberg.net.

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