Daniel Ellsberg Reveals Secrets of America’s ‘Doomsday Machine’

When Daniel Ellsberg published his autobiography titled "Secrets" 15 years ago, he did not, in fact, tell all his secrets. The man who famously leaked the Pentagon Papers expediting the end of the Vietnam War and the downfall of President Richard Nixon had even more explosive documents he was prepared to expose.

Daniel Ellsberg is now ready to share those long held secrets and he does so in a new book titled, “The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner.”

Below, an excerpt from the book.


“Here is what we now know: the United States and Russia each have an actual Doomsday Machine.”

By Daniel Ellsberg

From The Doomsday Machine, published by Bloomsbury. The book is an account of America’s nuclear program in the 1960s drawn from Ellsberg’s experience as a consultant to the Department of Defense and the White House, drafting Secretary Robert McNamara’s plans for nuclear war. Ellsberg is the author of Secrets, a book about his experiences leaking the Pentagon Papers.

At the conclusion of his 1964 film, Dr. Strangelove, Stanley Kubrick introduced the concept of a “Doomsday Machine”—designed by the Soviet Union to deter nuclear attack against the country by automating the destruction of all human life as a response to such an attack. The movie’s Russian leader had installed the system before revealing it to the world, however, and it was now being triggered by a single nuclear explosion from an American B-52 sent off by a rogue commander without presidential authorization.

Kubrick had borrowed the name and the concept of the Doomsday machine from my former colleague Herman Kahn, a Rand physicist with whom he had discussed it. In his 1960 book On Thermonuclear War, Kahn wrote that he would be able to design such a device. It could be produced within ten years and would be relatively cheap—since it could be placed in one’s own country or in the ocean. It would not depend on sending warheads halfway around the world.

But, he said, the machine was obviously undesirable. It would be too difficult to control— too inflexible and automatic—and its failure “kills too many people”—everyone, in fact, an outcome that the philosopher John Somerville later termed “omnicide.” Kahn was sure in 1961 that no such system had been built, nor would it be, by either the United States or the Soviet Union.

The physicist Edward Teller, known as the “father of the H-bomb,” likewise denied that omnicide—a concept he derided—was remotely feasible. In answer to a question I posed to him in 1982, he said emphatically that it was impossible that the thermonuclear weapons that he had co-invented would kill “more than a quarter of the earth’s population.”

At the time, I thought of this assurance, ironically, as a version of the glass being three quarters full. (Teller was, along with Kahn, Henry Kissinger, and the former Nazi missile designer Wernher von Braun, one of Kubrick’s inspirations for the character of Dr. Strangelove.) And Teller’s estimate was closely in line with what the Joints Chief of Staff, or JCS, actually planned to do in 1961, though a better estimate would have been closer to one-third to one-half of the world population.

But the JCS were mistaken in 1961, and so was Herman Kahn in 1960, and so was Teller in 1982. Just one year after Teller had underestimated the destructive powers of nuclear weapons, the first papers to describe the phenomenon of nuclear winter were published. Nuclear winter referred to the effects of smoke injected into the stratosphere by firestorms generated by H-bombs. Although the Doomsday machine wasn’t likely to kill every last human, its fallout, once triggered, would come close to deserve its name.

Like covert operations and assassination plots, nuclear war plans and threats are not publicly discussed by the small minority of officials and consultants who know anything about them. These officials keep silent to maintain high clearances, access, and the possibility of being consultants after they’ve left service. This discretion, coupled with systematic secrecy, lying, and obfuscation has created extremely deficient scholarly and journalistic understanding and almost total public and congressional ignorance.

As a result, most aspects of the US nuclear planning system that I knew half a century ago still exist today, as prone to catastrophe as ever but on a scale that vastly exceeds what was understood then. The present risks of the current nuclear era go far beyond the dangers of proliferation and non-state terrorism that have been the almost exclusive focus of public concern for the past generation and the past decade in particular. The arsenals and plans of Russia and the US are not only an insuperable obstacle to an effective global anti-proliferation campaign; they are themselves an existential danger to the human species.

The hidden reality I aim to expose is that for more than fifty years, all-out thermonuclear war—an irreversible, unprecedented, and almost unimaginable calamity for civilization and most life on earth—has been, like the disasters of Chernobyl, Katrina, the Gulf oil spill, and Fukushima Daiichi, and a catastrophe waiting to happen, on a scale infnitely greater than any of these. And that is still true today.

Read an extended excerpt.

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