Book Review:
Frightening revelations about
U.S. nuclear war plans

The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner

Daniel Ellsberg, 2018

I've just finished reading Daniel Ellsberg's terrifying, mind boggling book, The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner. Until I began reading The Doomsday Machine,  I was unaware that Ellsberg was a nuclear war planner for Rand and the Defense Department for many years, that he had clearances beyond Top Secret and access to to the nation's nuclear war plan and the job of investigating the status of U.S. nuclear forces in the Pacific in the 1950's.  Ellsberg claims in his book that he rewrote the (one and only) U.S. nuclear war plan for the Kennedy administration, and that his plan was adopted pretty much as he wrote it.


The Doomsday Machine is full of astonishing revelations:


  • Contrary to repeated assertions, both the authorization and capacity to initiate a nuclear attack has been widely delegated to military leaders, including the head of the Strategic Air Command, and other key leaders such as the Commander of military forces in the Pacific, under certain conditions such as disrupted communication or the possible destruction of civilian leadership. Ellsberg's view is that it would be dangerous to centralize control of use of nuclear weapons in one person's hands because, to do so, would allow an adversary to knock out the U.S. response to a nuclear attack that killed top civilian leaders. The Soviet Union similarly delegated authority to initiate use of nuclear weapons for the same reason, though war planners in both the Carter and Reagen administrations speculate publicly about plans to attack the Soviet's command and control functions which they ( falsely) believed were centralized. In the 1980's the Soviets went one step further and created a system that can automatically launch nuclear missiles without anyone's approval when certain conditions are satisfied, for example, indication of the destruction of Moscow. False beliefs, delusions ( e.g., the missile gap of the late 1950's) and outright lies have characterized nuclear war planning from the 1950's. 

  • U.S. military leaders to the best of their ability hid the nation's ( one and only) plan for a nuclear war from civilian leaders, including the Secretary of Defense and the President, during the 1950's and 60's. The Joint Chief of Staff's (JCS) rationale for keeping the details of the nation's war plan a secret from political leaders was that they lacked "a need to know". In the view of the JSC in the early 1960's,  political leaders could decide or not ( under most circumstances) whether to use nuclear weapons but decisions how to use them were best left to military leaders. 

  • In the 1950's and 60's, the U.S. had only one nuclear war plan, and that plan envisaged the immediate use of all the nation's available thermonuclear weapons if attacked, or if ordered to engage in a first strike nuclear attack. The JSC's war plan was to to drop hydrogen bombs a thousand times more powerful than the bombs dropped on Japan on every Russian city with a population of 25,000 or more, and to drop multiple bombs ( 8-9 in the 1950's and 60's, possibly many more in later years) on Moscow. The nation's war plan also called for attacks on every Chinese city of any size regardless of China's role in the events leading to war, on the grounds that it would be dangerous and foolish to refrain from attacking a major Communist country with a nuclear arsenal in case of war with the Soviet Union.  According to Ellsberg, U.S. military planners were adamant that in case of nuclear war China had to be destroyed at the same time the Soviet Union was destroyed, and were dismayed to discover that some political leaders questioned this assumption.  

  • U. S. military estimates of likely deaths worldwide resulting from an all out nuclear exchange in the 1960's was 300 million at the low end to 500-600 million deaths in the first few weeks and months following the initial exchange of nuclear weapons. However, these estimates did not factor in the likelihood of nuclear winter resulting from the smoke from burning cities blocking the sun for a decade or more, a likely outcome not well understood until the 1980's. In Ellsberg's view, a nuclear war in which several hundred thermonuclear weapons are used on population centers would result in the death of most and possibly all of the world's human population. This is the Doomsday Machine, and it is not clear that nuclear war planners have changed their plans in the light of this scientific theory, which remains speculative. Nevertheless, there is a strong possibility that a nuclear war that involved Russia, China and the U.S. would end human life on this planet and at the very least would kill more than a billion people. 

  • In 1986, the Soviet Union had more than 40,000 nuclear weapons, including some bombs a million times more powerful than the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, while the U.S. had about 25,000 nuclear weapons. There were close calls in the late 1970's and 1980's, due (in part) to the belief of Soviet leaders that the U.S. was planning to initiate a first strike on the Soviet Union, and also due to malfunctioning radar systems both in the U.S. and Soviet Union that indicated on at least two occasions that the other side had already launched its nuclear arsenal.

  •  U.S. political leaders seriously discussed use of nuclear weapons at the time of the Korean War, in the late 1950's when China shelled Queymo and Matsu, during the Berlin crisis and Cuban missile crisis, and during the Vietnam War (by Nixon). Nixon proposed using nuclear weapons on North Vietnam, but was talked out of the idea by advisers.

  • Of the many scary stories in this book, the scariest concern events during the Cuban missile crisis. Unbeknownst to U.S. intelligence agencies at the time, the Soviets had 42,000 troops in Cuba in the fall of 1962.  These forces had 100 tactical nuclear weapons, with the authority to use them in case of U.S. invasion of Cuba. U.S. military leaders were eager to begin the invasion, and they were difficult to restrain after Cuban forces shot down a U.S. surveillance plane. Russian military forces were similarly provoked by the supposedly accidental incursion of a U-2 plane into Soviet airspace during the crisis.  In addition, Soviet submarines in the Atlantic and Caribbean were equipped with nuclear torpedoes, and had the authority to use them if attacked. In a story (which I hope is false) that Ellsberg gleaned from Russian sources ( published), two Soviet commanders on a sub with nuclear torpedoes decided to use their nuclear weapons ( which would have destroyed the sub and all U.S. ships in the area) when they were being attacked by U.S. Navy ships using "practice" depth charges and grenades. Fortunately,  there was a Soviet political officer aboard the submarine who would not agree to use of the torpedoes without Moscow's approval.  Most Soviet subs in the Caribbean did not have a political officer on board whose agreement to use nuclear weapons was required. It's possible that the world was saved, and all of us have had long lives, because of the actions of one Soviet political officer in late October, 1962 !

  • To underline the craziness of the nuclear era, consider this story: physicists who worked on the Manhattan project understood there was a small chance that a test of the atomic bomb would detonate the atmosphere and destroy all life on earth. One physicist, Hans Bethe, set the odds of detonating the atmosphere at 3 in one million; however, on the eve of the first atomic bomb test, Enrico Fermi, a famous experimental physicist and "the man who knew everything" according to the title of a recent biography, set the odds of destroying the world at 1 in 10. The physicist who had the power to abort the test until the last second seriously considered doing so for this reason. James Conant, who worked on the Manhattan project and was later President of Harvard, initially believed that the test had detonated the atmosphere after seeing the effects created by the explosion. Yet these supposedly sane and brilliant scientists went ahead with the test.  

  • Ellsberg believes on the basis of his research and contacts that the U.S. war plan or plans remain much the same as they were in the 1950's and 60's. However, there is no way he can know this for sure. Ellsberg advocates for Congressional hearings to discover if nuclear war plans continue to risk creation of a nuclear winter and thus mass suicide, i.e. Omnicide to use his term.  Of course, there is not a chance such hearings will ever occur in the U.S. absent the intentional or accidental explosion of a nuclear weapon or weapons on or close to population centers, an event that risks global catastrophe. 


Ellsberg comments that "We humans almost universally have a false image of our species. We think that monstrous wicked policies must be conceived and directed and carried out by monsters, wicked or evil people, or highly aberrant, "disturbed" people. People not like "us". That is mistaken. Those who have created a continuing nuclear threat to the existence of humanity have been normal, ordinary politicians, analysts and military strategists." Ellsberg eloquently articulates what most sensible people have to be thinking after reading his book, assuming the reader believes most of what Ellsberg has to say about the nuclear war planning he was a part of for many years: 


Yet what seems beyond question is that any social system (not just ours) that has created and maintained a Doomsday Machine, and has put a trigger to it, including first use of nuclear weapons in the hands of one human being, anyone not just this man, still worse in the hands of an unknown number of persons -- is in its core aspects mad. ... We are in the grip of institutional madness. 


There is nothing new about that in human affairs. Among the aphorisms in Beyond Good and Evil, Fredrick Nietzsche wrote, "Madness in individuals is something rare, but in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule."    


I've been pondering the question of how a species can be smart enough to create nuclear energy and dumb enough -- 

not to mention morally blinkered enough -- to plan with serious intent the use of weapons of war that could destroy the species. If anyone reading this summary has a good answer to this question, please let me know.

© Dee Wilson