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Slash the Pentagon Budget in Half & Abolish ICBMs: Dan Ellsberg on How to Avoid Nuclear Armageddon

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As tension rises between the United States and Russia over Ukraine, we speak with Daniel Ellsberg, the famed Pentagon Papers whistleblower, who worked for years during the Cold War on nuclear war strategy within the U.S. national security establishment. He says the threat of a catastrophic nuclear war is intolerable, with intercontinental ballistic missiles posing the highest risk. “The defense budget should be cut more than in half rather than being increased right now, but starting with the most dangerous weapons, the ICBMs,” says Ellsberg, who also calls for the U.S. to commit to a no-first-use policy on nuclear arms.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

As we continue with Dan Ellsberg, we turn to another issue, the growing threat of nuclear war. Beginning in the late ’50s, before he became known for leaking the Pentagon Papers, Daniel Ellsberg worked as a government consultant, where he drafted plans for nuclear war. He writes about this in his 2017 book, The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner. He is featured in a new short animated video produced by RootsAction about the threat of nuclear annihilation.

DANIEL ELLSBERG: Since the end of the Cold War, people have been focused on the possibility of a terrorist nuclear attack or an accident or some rogue nation using nuclear weapons. They are not focused and worried about the possibility of an all-out nuclear war between the U.S. and Russia. With the end of the Cold War, people really haven’t thought about that very much.

Those who do follow it, they know it would be catastrophic, that the chance of an all-out war, the use of most of our missiles, strategic bombers, on both sides, is possible. It is not zero possibility, and it’s not near-zero possibility. We have 400 missiles on 10-minute alert. From getting an authenticated command to the time that the missiles are actually launched from their silos, it’s a matter of minutes. Those missiles, of course, cannot be recalled. In about 30 minutes, they would land at their targets, largely in Russia and China.

Since the mid-’60s, the Russians, the Soviets, acquired sub-launched missiles which our ICBMs could not target and which assured that, whether we went first or second, the Soviets had the ability to demolish our society, just as we had the ability to demolish theirs. From that time on, the vulnerability of the ICBMs made them extremely dangerous for us to possess, and should have eliminated them half a century ago. What makes any conflict enormously more dangerous than it has to be, even now, after half a century of ideology and deception and irresponsible behavior, is the ICBMs, which increase the danger that any armed conflict between major nuclear states can escalate to all-out war.

AMY GOODMAN: The voice of Daniel Ellsberg in a video made for RootsAction by Judith Ehrlich, who directed the film The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers. Dan Ellsberg is still with us. Dan, as tension rises between the United States and Russia over Ukraine, can you talk about not only the growing threat of nuclear war, but how we can work against that?

DANIEL ELLSBERG: There was pressure a few years ago in Congress. Even Adam Smith, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, proposed abolishing ICBMs, which would actually, if we did that, even unilaterally — and perhaps that’s the only way it could be done — we would be safer, the world would be safer, from that possibility of escalation which exists right now.

When Biden says that this is the most dangerous moment since the Cuban Missile Crisis — which I was involved in in 1962 at a high staff level — he’s absolutely right. And that is, above all, because of the existence, on both sides — which is even worse than having one side with these hair-trigger ICBMs. Putin talks about using, implying a small tactical use of small nuclear weapons — almost sure to escalate. And the reason that has the possibility of destroying most human life on Earth by nuclear winter, smoke from the cities in the stratosphere, killing all harvests, is because, from the moment a single small nuclear weapon, a few hundred kilotons only, smaller than Hiroshima — from the moment that was used, each side will be asking of its own ICBM commanders, “Are they coming? Should they be — might they be coming shortly, not in day? But as this escalates, should we wait, or should we go first?” That’s because of the existence of these totally redundant hair-trigger weapons.

So, the first thing could be done is to get the Armed Services Committee back from their having fatalistically said, “OK, go again. Northrop Grumman needs the money. There’s thousands of jobs involved in this.” There’s a channel, a revolving door between Northrop and Lockheed and Raytheon and General Dynamics and the Defense Department, back and forth, even at the highest levels. So, General Austin comes from Raytheon, for example, after he retired; before him, people from Boeing. So, they have a great investment in continuing things as they are, building these weapons — 

AMY GOODMAN: We have 30 seconds, Dan Ellsberg.

DANIEL ELLSBERG: — at [inaudible]. OK.

AMY GOODMAN: How do you reverse course?

DANIEL ELLSBERG: OK. The defense budget should be cut more than in half rather than being increased right now, but starting with the most dangerous weapons, the ICBMs, enacting a no-first-use case, which we should be using against Putin right now and saying that his first-use threats, like ours in the past, are outrageous and illegal.

Let me say, in connection with my past talk here, Amy, I said I would plead not guilty if I were charged with possessing these classified documents from Chelsea Manning for the last 12 years. If I were charged with having participated in my nuclear war planning phase for years in the construction of the doomsday machine here, and the provocation of a doomsday machine later in the Soviet Union, I would not plead not guilty. I would plead guilty to having participated in a crime against humanity. And the same is true if I were to be tried — fat chance, but if I were to be tried, along with my colleagues, I presume, of a crime against humanity and aggressive war in Vietnam. Again, I could not plead not guilty to that.

That’s the difference. One of those, these last ones, threaten all life on Earth. The secrecy system, which I am trying to expose, propose here, is part of that system, that threatens not only our democracy but, by protecting these outrageous, criminal, immoral plans, is part of a crime that is not at all without victims. It would make victims of nearly every human on Earth.

AMY GOODMAN: Dan Ellsberg, we want to thank you so much for being with us, Pentagon Papers whistleblower, author of The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner, and also the book Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers.

Coming up, after 41 years in prison, most of it on death row, Mumia Abu-Jamal faces what could be his last chance this Friday for a new trial. We’ll speak with a state judge in Arkansas who’s calling on the Philadelphia judge to hear new evidence that could exonerate Abu-Jamal to lead to his release. Stay with us.

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