DANIEL ELLSBERG was an analyst for the Rand Corporation when, in 1971, he leaked top-secret Defense Department documents about the Vietnam War to The New York Times and other media outlets. The publication of what became known as the Pentagon Papers demonstrated, according to the Times, that the government had “systematically lied, not only to the public but also to Congress” about U.S. actions in Vietnam and escalations of the war into Laos and Cambodia. Ellsberg’s release of the Pentagon Papers is a central focus of the Steven Spielberg film The Post, starring Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep, scheduled for wide release in early January.
In his new book The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner, Ellsberg returns to his whistleblower role as he reveals secret U.S. government plans for wide-scale nuclear war and decries Trump administration threats to rebuild U.S. nuclear-weapons stockpiles. Ellsberg and longtime Catholic peace activist James W. Douglass, author of numerous books, including Gandhi and the Unspeakable: His Final Experiment with Truth, talked this fall about nuclear weapons and the fate of the earth.
James Douglass: In 1961, the Joint Chiefs of Staff estimated that U.S. plans for a general nuclear war would result in as many as 600 million dead. When you, as a Pentagon consultant, saw the Joint Chiefs’ documents about the plan, what did you think?
Daniel Ellsberg: I thought that was the most evil plan that had ever existed. I knew it was not just a hypothetical plan for the future. It was for actual, alert forces that were used at that time, which was the year of the Berlin Crisis, a year before the Cuban Missile Crisis. We had a system of many parts, kept at the ready to kill more than a half-billion people. They would be willing to bring about the death of a third of the population of the world, because the total effect with Soviet retaliation would add several hundred million people. It’s been my life’s work ever since to lessen the probability that that will take place.
Were the Joint Chiefs accurate about the impact of nuclear weapons? What scientists discovered in 1983 was that the smoke from the burning cities that we planned to ignite with our weapons would be lofted high into the stratosphere, where it would stay. It wouldn’t get rained out. There it would block the sunlight. It would reduce the earth’s temperature to a point that, in the summer, would be below freezing. All harvests would be destroyed. Nearly everyone on earth would starve. If they’d had that war any time during most of the Cold War, surprise! A year later, almost everyone would be dead—from the smoke, which [the Joint Chiefs] hadn’t calculated.
Yet we are still maintaining a doomsday machine. So are the Russians. Two hair-trigger systems, ready for launch on warning, that could end life on earth. It’s absolutely unconscionable, immoral, and insane to be taking this risk. We’re the species that gambles with near-extinction. We’ve done it every day for the last 70 years.
How do you respond to the reassurance that “no nuclear weapons have been used since Hiroshima and Nagasaki”? In fact, the leaders of the nine nuclear states find them useful and have used them, the U.S. more than others. They have used them in the way you use a gun when you point it at someone in a confrontation, whether or not you pull the trigger. You’re obviously using the gun. Usually the intent is to get your way without pulling the trigger. That’s the way we’ve used our nuclear weapons dozens of times, mostly in secret from the American public, although obviously not in secret from those who’ve been threatened—North Vietnam by Nixon, the Chinese in Korea by Eisenhower.
We have a president right now who is clearly invoking that threat. When he talks about “fire and fury such as the world has never seen,” that suggests something even bigger than the two explosions on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
It’s a kind of madness. All the individuals concerned are smart, conscientious, patriotic, decent people with their families and pets. Nevertheless, they preside over a system that is insane and immoral.
You’re describing what sounds like the setup in a classic film, Stanley Kubrick’s dark satire Dr. Strangelove, which includes a “doomsday device.” Did Kubrick get it right? I watched that film as a matter of business, during the working day in 1964 when it came out, with my friend and boss, [former Rand president] Harry Rowen. We went to see it because we knew it was in our area, war planning, not knowing what to expect. When we came out, I said to Harry, “That film is a documentary.” He said, “Yes, absolutely.”
A doomsday machine existed in fact as early as 1950—through the smoke [that would follow a nuclear attack]. Not the blast or the fire or the fallout, but the smoke in the stratosphere would starve nearly everyone on Earth. That is still true. Yet we still retain more than 1,500 warheads on hair-trigger alert.
What must happen for humanity to survive? It will be a miracle if we get through another 70 years without setting these weapons off again on humans ... an explosion on a city. It will take a miracle for the transformation in the world to take place, a miracle for another 70 years. But fortunately, miracles are possible: The downing of the Berlin Wall. Mandela in South Africa. The ending of the Cold War. All those were totally unforeseeable by any human calculation that we know of. It’s a miracle that we’re here.
For us to avoid nuclear winter, this country has to change as much as the Soviet Union changed in 1989-90. Is that likely? No, it’s extremely unlikely. Is it impossible? No. Anybody who says it’s impossible hasn’t been around the last 40 years. Lots of people say it’s impossible to stop climate catastrophe. It’s extremely unlikely. But it’s not impossible. And it’s worth one’s life to try to improve the odds on that. If it’s 1 percent, it’s worth your life to improve that to 1.5 or 2 percent, in my opinion. I’m talking in secular terms here now. But that’s the way I see it.
It’s what Chelsea Manning said, what Ed Snowden said, and what I said: “Without a doubt, the public needs to know this. No one else is going to tell them. So I’ll have to tell them.”
You had to do whatever you could, nonviolently and truthfully, to bring it to an end, as in the Vietnam War. Without the draft resisters, the ones I actually met and saw, there would have been no revealing of the Pentagon Papers. That would not have happened without the example of people going to prison. It worked on me ... a chain reaction. I thought of what I was doing as a Gandhian action of truth-telling.
You’ve gone from the doomsday machine to Gandhi. When somebody asked Gandhi about the atom bomb, he said that the effect on the people who dropped it is yet to be seen. I would say, 72 years later, we can say what the effect was: Horrible! A horribly dangerous effect. The way it was framed. The way it was described, a year or two later especially: “We had to do it.” It has had a bad effect on the people who dropped it.
What we’re talking about now is transforming that, transcending that, and changing that point of view. If I have a hope for this book, it would be to contribute to a changing consciousness that would move us in a different direction. But it has to be a radical change. As my friend Joanna Macy said, “Hope is not just a feeling. Hope is a way of acting and a way of living.”
When we feel what’s happening is intolerable, an unconscionable risk, we humans do have the capability of taking on that responsibility, acting to change it. The hope has to be for the unforeseeable chain reaction, something we don’t even foresee is capable of doing that.
So, is it possible? Yes. The answer to Gandhi’s question is: The effect on the people who dropped it was bad. And it’s been bad ever since. But is it possible to change that? Yes. Gandhi showed the way—that it’s possible to get a chain reaction in the other direction. And that’s what we’re up to.