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“The Doomsday Machine”: Confessions of Daniel Ellsberg, Former Nuclear War Planner

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As we remember Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, who died in June, we look at how he was also a lifelong anti-nuclear activist, stemming from his time working as a nuclear planner for the U.S. government. In December 2017, he joined us to discuss his memoir, The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner. “This was an actual war plan for how we would use the existing weapons,” he noted, “many of which I had seen already that time.”

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

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

Today we remember Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, who died June 16th at the age of 92, just months after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. In December 2017, Dan Ellsberg joined us to talk about his book The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner. The book is based in part on his role drafting the nuclear war plans for Defense Secretary Robert McNamara in 1961 while John F. Kennedy was president.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you made copies of top-secret reports for plans about nuclear war years before you copied the Pentagon Papers —

DANIEL ELLSBERG: That’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: — and released them to the press?

DANIEL ELLSBERG: Essentially, my notes, and sometimes verbatim excerpts, not the entire plans themselves, but on plans that were then unknown to the president, to begin with, to President Kennedy. I briefed his aide, McGeorge Bundy, in his first month in office on the nature of the plans and some of the other problems, like the delegation of authority to theater commanders for nuclear war by President Eisenhower, which was fairly shocking to McGeorge Bundy, even though Kennedy chose to renew that delegation, as other presidents have.

But I was given the job of improving the Eisenhower plans, which was not a very high bar, actually, at that time, because they were, on their face, the worst plans in the history of warfare. A number of people who saw them, but very few civilians ever got a look at them. In fact, the joint chiefs couldn’t really get the targets out of General LeMay at the Strategic Air Command.

And there was a good reason for that: They were insane. They called for first-strike plans, which was by order of President Eisenhower. He didn’t want any plan for limited war of any kind with the Soviet Union, under any circumstances, because that would enable the Army to ask for enormous numbers of divisions or even tactical nuclear weapons to deal with the Soviets. So he required that the only plan for fighting Soviets, under any circumstances, such as an encounter in the Berlin corridor, the access to West Berlin, or over Iran, which was already a flashpoint at that point, or Yugoslavia, if they had gone in — however the war started — with an uprising in East Germany, for example — however it got started, Eisenhower’s directed plan was for all-out war, in a first initiation of nuclear war, assuming the Soviets had not used nuclear weapons.

And that plan called, in our first strike, for hitting every city — actually, every town over 25,000 — in the USSR and every city in China. A war with Russia would inevitably involve immediate attacks on every city in China. In the course of doing this — pardon me — there were no reserves. Everything was to be thrown as soon as it was available — it was a vast trucking operation of thermonuclear weapons — over to the USSR, but not only the USSR. The captive nations, the East Europe satellites in the Warsaw Pact, were to be hit in their air defenses, which were all near cities, their transport points, their communications of any kind. So they were to be annihilated, as well.

I couldn’t believe, when I saw these, that the joint chiefs actually had ever calculated how many people they would actually kill in this course. In fact, colonels who were friends of mine in the Air Staff told me they had never seen an actual figure for the total casualties. We had exact figures of the number of targets and how many planes would be needed and every sort of thing, many calculations. But not victims.

So, I drafted a question, which the aide to McGeorge Bundy, Bob Komer, sent to the joint chiefs in the name of the president. And the question was: In the event of your carrying out your general nuclear war plans, which were first-strike plans, how many will die? First I asked, in the USSR and China alone, in the thought that, by the way, they’d be embarrassed to discover — to say, “We have to have more time. We’ve never really calculated that.” I was wrong. And my friends were wrong in the Air Force. They came back with an answer very quickly: 325 million people in the USSR and China alone.

Well, then I asked, “All right, how many altogether?” And a few days later, 100 million in East Europe, the captive nations, another 100 million in West Europe, our allies, from our own strikes, by fallout, depending on which way the wind blew, and, however the wind blew, a third 100 million in adjoining countries, neutral countries, like Austria and Finland, or Afghanistan then, Japan, northern India and so forth — a total of 600 million people. That was a time, by the way, when the population of the world was 3 billion. And that was an underestimate of their casualties — a hundred Holocausts.

It was very clear that they hadn’t included — I hadn’t asked, actually, what would Russian retaliation be against us and against West Europe. They were thought, at that time — wrongly — to have hundreds of weapons against the U.S. But they did have hundreds of weapons against West Europe, no question. West Europe would go, under any circumstances. If we were defending West Europe — Germany, for example — we were planning to destroy the continent in order to save it.

Six hundred million, that was a hundred Holocausts. And when I held the piece of paper in my hand that had that figure, that they had sent out unembarrassedly, you know, proudly, to the president — “Here’s what we will do” — I thought, “This is the most evil plan that has ever existed. It’s insane.” The weapons, the machinery that will carry this out, this was no hypothetical plan, like Herman Kahn might have conceived at the doomsday machine that he thought up at the RAND Corporation as my colleague. This was an actual war plan for how we would use the existing weapons, many of which I had seen already that time.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Dan Ellsberg, the colossal carnage that they were envisioning as a result of this first-strike use was doubly — made doubly worse, as you reveal, by the fact that the image that we have that the president is the one who holds the switch or has his hand on the button is not true, that many people have the capacity to initiate a nuclear war. If you could you talk about that, as well?

DANIEL ELLSBERG: To start with, even if it were only the president, no one man — really, no one nation — should have the ability — the ability even — to threaten or to carry out a hundred Holocausts at his will. That machinery should never have existed. And it does exist right now, and every president has had that power, and this president does have that power.

But the recent discussions of that, which emphasize his sole authority to do that, don’t take account of the fact that he has authority to delegate. And he has delegated. Every president has delegated. I don’t know the details of what President Trump has done or since the Cold War. Every president in the Cold War, right through Carter and Reagan, had delegated, in fact, to theater commanders in case communications were cut off. That means that the idea that the president is the only one with sole power to issue an order that will be recognized as an authentic authorized order is totally false.

How many fingers are on buttons? Probably no president has ever really known the details of that. I knew, in '61, for example, that Admiral Harry D. Felt in CINCPAC, commander-in-chief of Pacific, for whom I worked as a researcher, had delegated that to 7th Fleet, down to various commanders, and they, in turn, had delegated down to people. So when you say, “How many altogether feel authorized?” if their communications are cut off — and that happened part of every day in the Pacific when I was there — communications got better, but the delegations never changed. There's — we’ve never allowed it to be possible that an enemy could paralyze our retaliation by hitting our president or our command and control.

And neither did the Russians. When President Carter and then President Reagan advertised the fact that their plans emphasized decapitation, hitting Moscow, above all, which the French and British always planned to do, by the way, with their smaller forces — and when that became clear, the Russians instituted what they called a dead hand, a perimeter system, in Russian, which assured that if Moscow was destroyed, other commanders would have the power and would be told to launch their strikes.

There was even a plan to do that automatically by computer, as a number of our military always recommended, to make the whole thing computerized, as in the doomsday machine of Herman Kahn and Stanley Kubrick. But, generally, they allow for lower-level majors, colonels to decide, “The time has come. We’ve lost our commanders. The time has come to go.” That’s almost certainly true in North Korea right now.

AMY GOODMAN: Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, speaking on Democracy Now! in December 2017 about his book The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner.

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