[Marxism] The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Dec 29 19:09:51 MST 2017

NY Review of Books, JANUARY 18, 2018 ISSUE
The Nuclear Worrier
by Thomas Powers

The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner
by Daniel Ellsberg
Bloomsbury, 420 pp. $30.00

Daniel Ellsberg in his youth and Daniel Ellsberg in his age are the same 
man—a born worrier quick to spot trouble, take alarm, and issue warning. 
He is best known for worrying about the American war in Vietnam, which 
time in the war zone convinced him was a crime, and for doing what he 
could to bring it to an end. In that case he copied and illegally 
released a huge collection of secret documents about the war, first 
published in June 1971 by The New York Times, which came to be known as 
the Pentagon Papers.

But Vietnam was not the first or the biggest thing that worried Ellsberg 
after he went to work in his late twenties as an analyst for the RAND 
Corporation in 1959. His first and biggest worry was the American effort 
to defend itself with nuclear weapons. When Ellsberg finally got a look 
at the plans for such a war he realized immediately that the Strategic 
Air Command had built a military instrument that not only could but in 
his view probably would break the back of human civilization.

It was Vietnam that got in the way of his plan to do something about the 
nuclear war plans. In his new memoir, The Doomsday Machine: Confessions 
of a Nuclear War Planner, the second about the big things that obsessed 
Ellsberg in his youth,1 he does not try to explain why he set aside 
worry about the bomb to tackle America’s hopeless war in Southeast Asia, 
then in its sixth year. The probable answer is that he had gone to see 
it. Arguing about nuclear weapons with other supersmart young analysts 
and Air Force colonels was dismaying but not horrifying in the way of 
war itself. In Vietnam hundreds of Americans and thousands of Vietnamese 
were dying every month, and sometimes every week, with no end in sight. 
The commitment of American policymakers to go on killing peasants rather 
than confess failure was the crime that Ellsberg felt impelled to expose 
and denounce.

But he never stopped worrying about nuclear weapons. He was far from 
alone, of course. The horror of the bombs dropped on the Japanese cities 
of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was immediately apparent to all who did not 
refuse to see. What separated Ellsberg from ordinary civilian worriers 
was his access to the actual war plans for doing it again. By the time 
he received his first clearances to know official secrets about types 
and numbers of weapons, the handful of first-generation bombs, assembled 
one by one by hand at Los Alamos, New Mexico, had been replaced by more 
and better devices. Fat Man, the fission bomb that destroyed Nagasaki, 
was blimplike in shape, weighed about 10,000 pounds, and exploded with 
the energy of 20,000 tons of TNT. By the late 1950s the first few 
fission bombs had been replaced by ever-expanding numbers (soon to be 
thousands) of thermonuclear fusion weapons, small enough to fit in the 
nose cone of a missile or under a jet fighter, and roughly a thousand 
times more powerful than Fat Man. RAND did many studies for the Pentagon 
on the best way to defend America with these superweapons, and the best 
way to fight a war with them.

Ellsberg’s initiation into the secrets did not happen in a day, and it 
took him awhile to realize that there were many levels of clearances, 
each more secret, more tightly held, and shared with fewer people than 
the last. Beyond Top Secret, the highest clearance known to exist by the 
general public, were the code-word clearances for what is now called 
“sensitive compartmented information.” These permitted an individual to 
know certain specific secrets, like the fact that the United States had 
developed tools—spy planes and reconnaissance satellites—to photograph 
the Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that could carry 
thermonuclear warheads. The number of Soviet missiles was not the one 
hundred argued by Air Force alarmists in the Pentagon or the fifty 
claimed in a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) in June 1961.

In September of that year Ellsberg learned that the United States would 
not find it hard to destroy the Soviet missile force. Only four ICBMs 
were ready to go and they were all at the missile-testing site in 
Plesetsk, about five hundred miles north of Moscow and a hundred miles 
south of the White Sea. The four missiles were liquid-fueled and took a 
long time to prepare for launch. They were standing up in the open and 
were close enough together to get all four with a single nearby hit. To 
know this you had to have code-word clearances for Talent and Keyhole, 
the systems of overhead reconnaissance that filmed the vulnerable Soviet 
missile force.

There is a widespread belief, Ellsberg writes, that “everything leaks; 
it all comes out in the New York Times.” That, he says, “is emphatically 
not true.” Even analysts at the heart of the secret world are not 
cleared for many categories of secret information and are not cleared to 
know that they are not cleared. While Ellsberg was being initiated into 
these secrets he did not know that his own father had once enjoyed an 
early version of a code-word clearance, a “Q” clearance that protected 
the secret work on fusion weapons in the years after World War II. 
Ellsberg’s father told him this in 1978, when he also confessed that he 
had resigned in 1949 from a bomb-related engineering job—“the best job 
he’d ever had,” Ellsberg writes—because he wanted no part in building 
anything a thousand times more powerful than the bomb that destroyed 

Ellsberg was astonished. Why had he never known about this? “Oh, I 
couldn’t tell any of this to my family,” answered the senior Ellsberg. 
“You weren’t cleared.”

The Doomsday Machine addresses three subjects. The first is the history 
of Ellsberg’s work at RAND on nuclear war planning just before and 
during the Kennedy administration, when he discovered what Air Force 
General Curtis LeMay, commander of the Strategic Air Command, had 
planned and prepared by 1960 to do to the Sino-Soviet bloc in the event 
of war. The second is how city-destroying attacks became the air 
strategy of choice during World War II, with the effect of gradually 
resigning airmen to the efficiency of nuclear weapons, one of which 
could do what it had taken three hundred B-29 bombers over Japan to do 
using conventional bombs. The third is how to end the dependence of so 
many nations on nuclear weapons before a spark creates a conflagration 
that incinerates the world.

Ellsberg writes briskly in the service of opinions formed by long and 
sober study. What he means is never in doubt and it is always 
interesting. But even so it is the first and longest section of his new 
book that makes the greatest contribution. Many able historians of 
planning for nuclear war—Gregg Herken and Fred Kaplan thirty years ago, 
Ron Rosenbaum and Eric Schlosser more recently2—have set the scene for 
Ellsberg’s narrative, but he adds numerous revealing stories of 
important figures at the time while providing what is probably the best 
first-person account of what nuclear war planning was actually like. It 
was intellectually exciting, but at the same time it fed a sense of 
dread. Catastrophe did not require a monster running things, just a 
moment of head-to-head dispute about something hard to give up, a couple 
of wrong guesses, or a run of bad luck. Nuclear weapons, as Ellsberg 
describes them, are like the pistol in the bedside drawer of a man 
subject to wild mood swings—too close to hand in moments of fear or despair.

Ellsberg loved the intellectual energy of RAND, where men like the 
“enormously fat” Herman Kahn, author of On Thermonuclear War and 
Thinking About the Unthinkable, never softened their opinions. When 
Ellsberg at his very first group discussion in the summer of 1958 
hazarded a thought, Kahn shot back, “You’re absolutely wrong.” Ellsberg 
didn’t mind; he welcomed the “gloves-off” debate. But thinking it all 
over in the sixty years since, he has concluded that if security were 
really their goal, they were all wrong just about all of the time. The 
problem was not so much the terrible power of nuclear weapons, but what 
the Air Force planned to do with them.

The principal author of the Strategic Air Command’s 1960 plan was LeMay, 
the cigar-chomping former commander of the American bomber fleet that 
had aimed to destroy Japan’s will to fight in 1945, one burned city at a 
time. LeMay’s strategy for preserving the peace was to threaten war so 
terrible that no Soviet leader would ever risk it. How terrible? An 
answer was given to Ellsberg by a RAND friend, the physicist Sam Cohen, 
who had been one of the youngest of the bomb-makers who worked on Fat 
Man, and Little Boy, which destroyed Hiroshima. Later Cohen invented the 
neutron bomb, which he believed might help save us from big bombs 
because it would make little ones safer to use. Ellsberg thought Cohen 
was dead wrong on that point but they were friends anyway.

Cohen told Ellsberg that in the early 1950s he had been part of a 
planning group sent by General Bernie Schriever to ask General LeMay 
about nuclear force requirements, starting with the question of how big 
was the biggest bomb he wanted. LeMay’s answer: “One bomb, for Russia.” 
He meant one bomb for all of Russia. There were two problems with 
LeMay’s approach—it ignored the fact that war often comes unwanted and 
unexpectedly, and it offered no clear guidance for knowing when the 
moment for the one bomb had arrived.

The sudden and utter destruction of the Soviet Union was the goal of 
LeMay’s strategic thinking. The SAC’s actual plan never included one 
bomb big enough to destroy all of Russia, but it promised the same 
result with many, many bombs. When Ellsberg started to work at RAND the 
immensely complicated and seldom-changed American plan for nuclear war 
was spelled out in Annex C of a document called the Joint Strategic 
Capabilities Plan (JSCP, pronounced Jay-SCAP). Annex C was very closely 
held by planners and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, so closely that not even 
the secretary of defense or civilians in his office were ever shown or 
informed about the plan or told even the name of the document by order 
of the Joint Chiefs.

That was still the case when the Kennedy administration arrived in 1961. 
None of them had ever heard of the JSCP, Annex C, or its recent 
successor, the Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP, pronounced 
Sy-OP). The reasons for this secrecy had to do with service rivalries, 
technical complexities in executing the plan, and the personality of 
LeMay, who had made up his mind that he would know and decide when a 
nuclear attack on Russia was necessary, and what ought to be on the 
target list. Freedom from meddling was what LeMay wanted, and the Joint 
Chiefs had helped him to get and keep it.

Ellsberg began to pierce the veil of secrecy while working on a study of 
war preparations in the Pacific. The plan he discovered was basically 
the Strategic Air Command’s plan, which was essentially LeMay’s. Herman 
Kahn’s term for it was “wargasm.” As drawn up by LeMay’s team the first 
SIOP called for nuclear strikes on just about every city in Russia and 
in China. Why China, too, if the war was with Russia? The answer, 
stripped to plain language, had nothing to do with politics: one plan 
was all the planners could handle at a time.

The first SIOP in December 1960 planned an overwhelming knockout blow. 
Moscow alone was targeted with at least eighty nuclear weapons, and 
every Russian city with a population greater than 25,000 would be hit by 
at least one. China would get the same, for no particular reason. 
Ellsberg was surprised to discover that the planners had not been afraid 
to add up the probable number of dead. Over the first six months 
following the initial strike they estimated that about half the 
population of Russia and China would die of radiation effects alone—a 
total of about 380 million people. Three things about this plan 
convinced Ellsberg to do what he could to stop it: its magnitude, its 
all-or-nothing character, and the fact that General LeMay had reserved 
to himself the power to decide when to order the attack.

Some readers may draw up at this point and wonder whether these horrors 
were really true. The answer is that they were, as the reader may learn 
from the stout books by Kaplan, Herken, Rosenbaum, and Schlosser. 
Ellsberg was not the only analyst absorbed in this struggle, but he was 
in the thick of it. The heart of his plan, he writes, was “moving a few 
pieces of paper from one level of authority to a higher one”—that is, 
from the level of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, where everybody agreed that 
the LeMay approach was fine, up to the level of the president and the 
secretary of defense, who had been kept out of the loop for fifteen 
years. Ellsberg believed that Kennedy and Secretary of Defense Robert 
McNamara would be horrified by the details and would insist on changing 
the plan, and he was right.

The story of that effort is the meat of the first half of his book. What 
was at stake was succinctly captured without exaggeration in the title 
of another book published twenty years later, when things had reached a 
still more desperate state, by the writer Jonathan Schell—The Fate of 
the Earth.

“I got China off the automatic target list” was the very first thing 
Daniel Ellsberg told me in March 1986 when we met at a conference of 
antinuke groups in San Francisco. That was not the absolute worst moment 
of East–West nuclear tension, but it was close. In 1986 the Russians and 
the Americans had thousands of weapons targeted on each other, firing 
procedures on both sides were on hair-trigger status, and neither side 
really knew how to stop an “exchange” once it began. On more than one 
occasion in those years (and since), war was brought suddenly close by 
improbable things like radar bouncing off a flock of geese or the rising 
moon, which both mimicked a missile attack.

When I met Ellsberg he had already been thinking about these dangers for 
twenty-five years. From the conference our conversation moved to his 
house in the Berkeley Hills, where he talked nonstop about nuclear war 
planning until the sky turned light. Two days later he did the same 
again. When I started to read The Doomsday Machine I was struck 
immediately by the sense that I had heard his stories before and hunted 
up my old notes. Page after page might have come almost verbatim from 
his new book.

Ellsberg’s compulsion to share what he knew was rare in my experience. I 
had encountered something like it only once before, in 1984 with 
Ellsberg’s friend Sam Cohen. Both men had quit worrying about the rules 
of secrecy but for different reasons. Cohen was compelled to break his 
silence by the stupidity of American war plans, which offended his 
intelligence. He wanted to stop people from talking nonsense. Ellsberg 
was driven instead by moral horror; what we planned to do struck him as 
just inexcusably wrong. In 1986 he was on fire to warn the world. I was 
writing often about nuclear weapons at that time and Ellsberg devoted 
eight or ten hours to making sure I knew the worst. There was nothing 
scattershot or erratic about his message; it poured out in crisp 
paragraphs with dates and full names and a clear narrative structure. 
Ellsberg told me that he was trying to put it all into a book but 
something was blocking him; with a ready listener like me he could talk 
forever, but as soon as he sat down in front of a typewriter, the words 

Eventually (it took thirty years) he cleared the jam by dividing his 
story and writing two books, Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the 
Pentagon Papers and now at last, in his eighty-seventh year, The 
Doomsday Machine. Everything that alarmed and horrified him back in 1986 
is in the new book, but something important has been added. During the 
intervening years while Ellsberg struggled, he read widely, talked to 
people, went back over everything in his own mind, and took his story a 
big step further. What changed was his slow realization of how close we 
came in October 1962, and why he had failed to see it at the time.

The first day of the Cuban Missile Crisis caught Ellsberg by surprise, 
just as it did almost everybody else. What alarmed him most was 
President Kennedy’s threat to respond to any launch of a missile from 
Cuba on any country in North or South America with “a full retaliatory 
response on the Soviet Union.” Ellsberg knew what was in the SIOP. “I 
wondered if the speechwriter had any idea what he was saying,” he 
writes. Scores of millions would die in a day, hundreds of millions 
within six months or a year. Ellsberg called up his friend Harry Rowen 
in the Pentagon, flew to Washington the next day from California, and 
joined the analysts and officials trying to think their way through the 
challenge raised by Nikita Khrushchev’s secret move to base thirty-eight 
Soviet missiles in Cuba. What follows is Ellsberg’s rich personal 
account of the crisis, including many new details, to join the others 
already published.

The big new thing in Ellsberg’s book, the important contribution he 
makes to our thinking on the danger that never goes away, began with a 
conversation with Rowen about odds: What had been the real chance that 
we would go to war in 1962? In the first few days of the crisis Ellsberg 
had convinced himself that the chance was really quite small. 
Khrushchev, in Ellsberg’s view, was in a box—if push came to shove in 
the Caribbean he couldn’t win, and if he chose to fight anyway Russia 
would be reduced to a vestigial state.

Ellsberg had been arguing about this with Rowen and Herman Kahn and many 
others for two years, and the logic was clear—you can’t use nuclear 
weapons if your victim can come back at you, which the United States was 
prepared to do to the Soviet Union in overwhelming fashion. Khrushchev 
was facing something like a desperation move in chess; he could push 
that last piece out there but the American response would be check and 
mate. So Khrushchev had to back down, in Ellsberg’s view. Rowen thought 
the same thing, and so did the Joint Chiefs and Paul Nitze, one of the 
principals on the Executive Committee making the decisions. “At 
thirty-one,” Ellsberg writes, “I was overconfident that a leader who was 
outgunned would back down under threat.”

In fact, that’s the way it worked out. Khrushchev backed down. When 
things were still tense Rowen had remarked that he thought the Executive 
Committee, which included the president and his top advisers, had been 
putting the chance of war too high—maybe even ten times too high—not one 
in a thousand (Rowen’s estimate) but one in a hundred. Then a day after 
the crisis ended Rowen told Ellsberg he had been way off. Nitze had 
confided to Rowen that he had been guessing the chance of war at “one in 
ten,” and he was the optimist on the committee—other members thought the 
chance was even higher than that.

Ellsberg’s first reaction was “puzzlement.” Nitze knew the facts and he 
understood the logic of nuclear confrontation. War couldn’t possibly 
make sense in Khrushchev’s position. But then Ellsberg’s eyes opened to 
the thing that has obsessed him ever since: the Executive Committee had 
chosen a course of action that they believed risked a one in ten chance 
of a nuclear war that would kill hundreds of millions of people.

This point is the crux of The Doomsday Machine, what Ellsberg 
contributes to our understanding of the danger we continue to face: the 
knowledge that decent men of courage and intelligence with a personal 
horror of war were prepared to run a one-in-ten chance of killing 
hundreds of millions of people—to avoid what? “I’ll be quite frank,” the 
secretary of defense told President Kennedy at a meeting of the 
Executive Committee early in the crisis. “I don’t think there is a 
military problem…. This is a domestic political problem.”

What McNamara meant was that Soviet missiles in Cuba might look bad but 
did not really change the military balance—might look so bad, he did not 
have to say, that Kennedy might even lose the next election. The meaning 
of that fact has grown in Ellsberg’s mind over the decades since 1962. 
What hope in the long term could there be if presidents or other 
national leaders were willing to run a one-in-ten chance of killing 
hundreds of millions of people just to help win the next election?

That defied all the logic that Ellsberg and the rest of the RAND 
analysts had been counting on to protect the fate of the earth. Over the 
last fifty years new information has emphasized the real gravity of the 
confrontation between the US and the USSR. The problem wasn’t in the 
logic, but in the mammoth military organizations that began to stir at 
the outset of the crisis. Unplanned events began to happen that could 
have triggered catastrophe, like the shooting down of an American 
reconnaissance plane over Cuba. When that happened a furious Robert 
Kennedy called in the Soviet ambassador, Anatoly Dobrynin, and 
threatened to attack Cuba right away if they tried it again. Bobby 
thought Khrushchev had ordered the shootdown to crank up the pressure, 
but he was wrong; it was Castro and the Cubans who did it on their own.

Another thing Bobby and the Executive Committee didn’t know was how the 
Soviets in Cuba would respond to the attack the US planned if the 
missiles weren’t moved. They didn’t know that the Soviets had a military 
force of 42,000 men in Cuba, not the 7,000 estimated by American 
intelligence. Nor did they know that the Soviet force had been supplied 
with more than a hundred tactical nuclear weapons. And they did not know 
that local Soviet commanders in Cuba had authority to use those weapons 
to halt an invasion. Some commander of a Cuban antiaircraft unit might 
have shot at another American reconnaissance plane; the US might have 
gone ahead with its planned invasion; and a Soviet commander might have 
used a tactical nuclear weapon to attack American ships drawing close. 
“And where would it have ended?” asked McNamara when he learned for the 
first time in 1992 that Russian soldiers had been cleared to use nuclear 
weapons. “In utter disaster.”

But it was not only Soviet ground troops that had nuclear weapons. 
Soviet submarines in the Caribbean were also armed with “a special 
weapon”—nuclear torpedoes. On two occasions Soviet submarine commanders 
believed they were under attack by American surface ships that were 
trying to force them to surface. The Americans were “signaling” the 
submarines by bombarding them with “practice” depth charges, not real 
depth charges, but the Soviet sub commanders did not know these were 
practice explosives. They believed the Americans were attacking in 
earnest, their subs were running out of air, and on the second occasion 
the commander felt he had only two choices—surface and surrender or use 
the special weapon, and he did not dismiss the second possibility out of 
hand. The consequences of that are almost unimaginable, but not quite.

Ellsberg has a great deal else to say about nuclear weapons in The 
Doomsday Machine, but he avoids the easy and the obvious, which means 
there are few mentions of the overheated posturing of Kim Jong-un and 
Donald J. Trump, who before his inauguration tweeted that “the United 
States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until 
such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.” During a 
meeting last summer of national security officials, he reportedly called 
for a tenfold increase in the number of American nuclear weapons. It is 
not fear of the wrong finger on the red button that makes Ellsberg 
tremble, but the weapons themselves.

Rousing the comfortable is never easy, but Ellsberg is a vigorous writer 
with a gift for dramatic tension and the unfolding of events as they 
cascade toward disaster. His story wakes old concerns. We worried about 
nukes for decades, but then the Soviet Union collapsed and the cold war 
ended. Now we have grown used to thinking that the danger is fainter, 
not the planet-busting wargasm once planned by General LeMay when both 
nations were armed and wired to shoot off everything in a day. Ellsberg 
says the danger persists as long as the weapons are there. The great 
achievement of his new book is to make clear what was hidden fifty years 
ago—that Khrushchev’s decision to move missiles into Cuba, and Kennedy’s 
decision to stop him, threatened a war that neither man wanted. The 
crystal logic prized by analysts, the faith in reason that allowed us to 
think the unthinkable, evaporated under the pressure of events. We came 
this close.

This is not a young man’s argument, assured and confident. It is an old 
man’s warning, the fruit of long reflection and tinged with sorrow, as 
clear as he can make it: these weapons are too dangerous to have because 
they are too dangerous to use.

The first was Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers 
(Viking, 2002). ↩

See Fred Kaplan, The Wizards of Armageddon (Simon and Schuster, 1983); 
Gregg Herken, Counsels of War (Knopf, 1985); Ron Rosenbaum, How the End 
Begins (Simon and Schuster, 2011); and Eric Schlosser, Command and 
Control (Penguin, 2013). ↩

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