The Insanity of the Nuclear Enterprise

By Michael Drohan

Daniel Ellsberg, the author of The Doomsday Machine:Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner, is best known for his release of the Pentagon Papers in 1972, which revealed many of the unsavory aspects of the Vietnam War. What is less well known, however, is that before his role in releasing these papers, he was a nuclear planner with the RAND Corporation, a research and development corporation which did mainly classified research for the Air Force.

In 1961 Ellsberg drafted the top secret guidance issued by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara to the Joint Chiefs of Staff(JCS) for the operational plans for general nuclear war. So it is not an idle claim that Ellsberg was indeed a nuclear planner and insider. Furthermore, together with the Pentagon Papers he also illegally copied nuclear planning documents, spirited them out of the Rand HQ and had them buried for safety. Unfortunately these documents were lost during the turmoil that followed the publication of the Pentagon Papers. This book, The Doomsday Machine, is a kind of stand in and summary of these documents.

The book’s title comes from Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 film “Dr. Strangelove.” In the film, the Soviet Ambassador, while in the Joint Chiefs of Staff war room, reveals the details of the machine. Essentially, if the Soviet Command structure was attacked, an automatic trigger would go into effect, and the Soviet arsenal of nuclear weapons would be released, unleashing Armageddon on the world. Most people believed that the Doomsday Machine was a kind of cruel joke and that no such machine existed. Ellsberg reveals that the idea of the Doomsday Machine came to Kubrick from his 1961 conversations with Herman Kahn, one of the chief nuclear planners at the RAND Corporation.

Ellsberg reveals in the book that the idea of the Doomsday Machine was not just a theoretical concept but that it actually existed. In the former Soviet Union, it was called PERIMETER or “Dead Hand.” If Moscow was hit and knocked out, he asserts, then automatically an ICBM would be launched that would give a beep signal to ICBMS it passed over, and Soviet rockets would launch automatically, bypassing ground officers.  It also existed in the US, according to Ellsberg, in the form of pre-targeted bombers on alert in the Strategic Air Command(SAC) and Polaris submarine launched missiles.

Ellsberg comes across not just as an expert on nuclear matters but on war more generally. In the book he gives a concise history of how nations have come from the idea of a just war to the idea of omnicide and contemplation of the wiping out of almost all life on this planet through nuclear induced “nuclear winter,” which would make life impossible. The just war theory clearly differentiated between combatants and non-combatants and condemned any attacks on civilians, aka non-combatants. He traces the break with just war theory back to the Georgia campaign of General Sherman during the Civil War. Part of his campaign consisted of the burning of the city of Atlanta. The invention and use of air power in World War One put a gaping hole through the just war theory. With planes, the opposing parties went over the trenches to bomb the civilian infrastructure behind them and eliminated the distinction.

At the outset of World War Two on September 1, 1939, Franklin Delano Roosevelt made a blistering attack “on the maiming and killing of thousands of defenseless men, women and children in war.” He called it a “form of human barbarism.” He was referring to the bombing of Guernica in Spain by German and Spanish fascists. But by war’s end the US and Britain were fully part of the barbarism in the bombing of Tokyo, Dresden and Hamburg, to name a few. In considerable detail, Ellsberg traces this trajectory to barbarism, where all boundaries and distinctions were eliminated. The final straw was the nuclear bombing of entire cities, both Nagasaki and Hiroshima, a crime beyond words and comprehension.

The insanity, however, did not stop with Nagasaki and Hiroshima but only intensified in the development of ever more lethal killing machines by the US, the former Soviet Union and now some nine nuclear states. Ellsberg describes in the book many of the projects proposed by the Pentagon which call into question the military’s sanity. One of those proposals was Project Retro which proposed that the rotation of the earth could be stopped by blasting horizontally a battery of 1000 first stage Atlas engines in the opposite direction to that of the earth’s rotation. This blast would occur were the Soviet Union to attack the US and it would confuse their targeting. Ellsberg suggests the project could be labeled criminally insane.

The book ends with an exploration of how to dismantle the Doomsday Machine. He appeals to those in the doomsday apparatus with a conscience to become whistleblowers, as he did with the Vietnam War. While doing so, he acknowledges his own complicity with the criminal enterprise of nuclear war planning.

Michael Drohan is a member of the Editorial Collective and a member of the Board of the Thomas Merton Center.

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