But what if the sensors malfunctioned? Could sane, responsible leaders bet the planet on weapons that could be activated by an accident, misperception or mistake? Of course not, Kahn explained, but the “mutually assured destruction” capabilities that emerged as a consequence of the United States-Soviet competition were becoming functionally equivalent to a doomsday machine.
Ellsberg, best known for his role in leaking the Pentagon Papers, sounds an impassioned alarm about nuclear dangers and reminds us that the risks Kahn vivified still exist. Despite an 80 percent reduction since the Cold War, American and Russian nuclear arsenals still number in the thousands. Many remain on “hair trigger” alert, posing serious risks of an accidental launch. If all were used in a full-scale war, especially given the possibility of “nuclear winter,” life on Earth could be extinguished. There have been repeated close calls and near accidents, including as recently as 2007 when an American B-52, mistakenly armed with six nuclear-tipped cruise missiles, flew across the United States. In sum, while the doomsday machine has not yet exploded, we may be living on borrowed time.
For those who have not read other recent books on nuclear dangers, Ellsberg provides valuable reminders of stubborn realities. By employing personal stories from his time in the 1950s and 1960s working alongside Kahn and other “wizards of Armageddon” at the RAND Corporation and as a consultant at the Pentagon, he makes hard-to-believe truths more credible.
The book opens with Ellsberg’s reaction to seeing for the first time the casualty graphs in America’s top-secret nuclear war plan. The number of people killed from a first strike by the United States would amount to what he memorably calls “a hundred holocausts” (600 million people). Ellsberg describes the Kennedy administration’s efforts to create more flexible options in the case of war with the Soviets. With Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, Kennedy famously put into effect the “no cities” strategy, in which the United States would focus on military targets early in a conflict, moving away from Eisenhower’s massive retaliation approach that targeted all major Soviet (and Chinese) cities.
Ellsberg goes on to outline frightening elements of the American command-and-control system that he observed. Some, like the lack of safety locks (known as Permissive Action Links) on nuclear weapons, have since been corrected. Others, including the ability to launch nuclear weapons after an adversary’s first strike killed the president, remain a necessary evil. Ellsberg devotes two chapters to the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, the closest mankind has yet come to nuclear war. Though his account retraces well-worn trails, he advances the debate with his analysis of the role that Castro’s independent decision to fire at United States reconnaissance planes may have played in encouraging a worried Khrushchev to respond to Kennedy’s ultimatum.
“The Doomsday Machine” concludes with a passionate call for nuclear risk-reduction measures, including taking the weapons off hair-trigger alert and declaring a policy of “no-first-use.” Though recognizing that nuclear abolition is a distant hope, he argues for urgency in pursuing this goal, because the alternative amounts to fatalistic acceptance of an inevitable nuclear holocaust — a posture that is, in his words, “dizzyingly insane and immoral.” Since President Barack Obama shared that view, one wishes Ellsberg had stopped to wrestle with the obstacles that account for the gap between Obama’s promise and the results he achieved.
One can understand a desire to try to market this book as “Pentagon Papers 2.0.” But for readers of the nuclear classics, including works by Kahn, Thomas C. Schelling, Bernard Brodie and their successors, the attempt to repackage familiar insights as revelations is unpersuasive, as Ellsberg’s citations of long-declassified documents show. Similarly, Ellsberg’s account of having stolen, in addition to the Pentagon Papers, a voluminous cache of highly classified documents about America’s nuclear programs that were destroyed by a tropical storm before he could leak them raises more questions than it answers. For one: Why did it take him more than 45 years to share this story?
To make the central message of his book more persuasive, Ellsberg could have cited the alarm sounded by the “Four Horsemen of the Nuclear Apocalypse” — Henry Kissinger, Sam Nunn, William Perry and George Shultz. In 2007, these four leading Cold Warriors, who served at the highest levels of government under Republican and Democratic presidents, endorsed the goal of “a world free of nuclear weapons” and outlined an agenda to achieve that goal. The argument is developed further in Perry’s sparkling 2015 memoir, “My Journey at the Nuclear Brink.” Readers will also be surprised that “The Doomsday Machine” lacks a chapter on new nuclear dangers. Atop that list is North Korea, now on the verge of perfecting the ability to carry out a nuclear strike against the United States. President Trump has threatened to attack to prevent this from happening — an attack that would most likely mean a second Korean War that could go nuclear.
These limitations aside, Ellsberg’s effort to make vivid the genuine madness of the “doomsday machine,” and the foolishness of betting our survival on mutually assured destruction, is both commendable and important. And his inability to describe a feasible way to eliminate nuclear dangers does not distinguish him from scores of others who have also been trying to rethink the unthinkable. Especially for young readers, by making earlier generations’ failures clear, “The Doomsday Machine” challenges them to rise to a grand and urgent opportunity.