The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner

The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner

From the legendary whistle-blower who revealed the Pentagon Papers, an eyewitness exposé of the awful dangers of America’s hidden, fifty-year-long nuclear policy that continues to this day.When former presidential advisor Daniel Ellsberg famously took the top-secret Pentagon Papers, he also took with him a chilling cache of top secret documents related to America’s nuclear...

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Title:The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner
Author:Daniel Ellsberg
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The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner Reviews

  • Peter Fedichev

    a great from a great character, timely for the upcoming movie

    a good story of how a bunch of super-smart and apparently good men could end up working diligently on creating an omnicide device

  • Bill Rasche

    Remember Daniel Ellsberg from the Watergate era? His book will freak you right on out when you discover just how close we came to a nuclear holocaust more than 50 years ago. Spellbinding!

  • Mike Maurer

    Here is a book that is exactly what we need at the end of a crazy year. Within its pages the author will pound into your head that there is no limited nuclear war. The plans all commit to total annihilation of the planet. Then add to that just how thin that thread is that is hanging over our heads, you’ll want to find a rock to hide under (but that won’t help in the end).

    The author is the guy who released the Pentagon Papers. He also copied thousands of pages about the nuclear war plans the US h

    Here is a book that is exactly what we need at the end of a crazy year. Within its pages the author will pound into your head that there is no limited nuclear war. The plans all commit to total annihilation of the planet. Then add to that just how thin that thread is that is hanging over our heads, you’ll want to find a rock to hide under (but that won’t help in the end).

    The author is the guy who released the Pentagon Papers. He also copied thousands of pages about the nuclear war plans the US had in place at the same time. He helped draft the plans and tried to steer the US away from being all in at the slightest provocation.

    The insights will throw you for a loop in how the world remains at the edge of the abyss. US doctrine has always been about a first strike capability, regardless what is said by politicians. The morality of destroying cities, even those of countries not directly involved, is some how justified in the heads in military planners. The chapters that walk through that mindset was shocking.

    I learned a bit more about the Cuban Missile Crisis. I already knew about the Soviet submarines that were armed with nuclear torpedos, with orders to use them if provoked. __October Fury_ is an excellent account of the crisis through the eyes of the Soviet submarines. What I didn’t know was the Soviet had hundreds of tactical nuclear weapons in Cuba to fight off an invasion by the US. Khrushchev backed down because he saw the end of the world. The use of short range tactical nuclear weapons would then cause a retaliation by the US in kind, which would then spiral out of control, ending all life on earth. Also, from a threat point of view, the missiles in Cuba were a non-event for the military planners. Submarines were more of a worry. But politically, the US couldn’t allow them to be there.

    Our nuclear weapons are not under the sole discretion of the president. There is a whole level of abstraction or delegation to the theater commanders that is unknown to the public. The military wants to launch without waiting for civilian command authority if they feel an imminent attack will destroy our capability. In the 1960’s, fighter planes with 1.1 megaton bombs were on the ready line. There wasn’t much for control, no locks. One accident on the ground during an exercise may convince enough pilots that they need to execute their mission. That is scary.

    There are two Doomsday Machines in existence. The Russian one is well documented in _The Dead Hand_ and referenced here. The US has one set up with the delegation of command authority and a lack of ability to recall forces once launched. All it takes is one mistake, one misinterpretation of an event and the world will end. That is the theme of the book. It is real and the military won’t back down and the civilians won’t do anything about it. Our elected leaders should all read this book to fully grasp the responsibility to keep nuclear weapons off the table in any conflict. The entire world will pay the price for such flamboyant ignorance.

  • Mal Warwick

    In the closing scene of the classic 1964 film Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, Major T. J. "King" Kong straddles a nuclear bomb as it soars down onto the Soviet Union while the World War II hit song We'll Meet Again blares in the background. Major Kong is the commander of a B-52 bomber sent to attack the USSR by the deranged general Jack D. Ripper—and the protocol will not permit the President of the United States to recall the plane. When the bomb explodes,

    In the closing scene of the classic 1964 film Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, Major T. J. "King" Kong straddles a nuclear bomb as it soars down onto the Soviet Union while the World War II hit song We'll Meet Again blares in the background. Major Kong is the commander of a B-52 bomber sent to attack the USSR by the deranged general Jack D. Ripper—and the protocol will not permit the President of the United States to recall the plane. When the bomb explodes, it will trigger a Doomsday Machine installed by the Soviet military, dispersing a radioactive cloud of deadly Cobalt-Thorium G all across the earth and wiping out all human and animal life.

    The "nuclear football" is a sham

    Daniel Ellsberg, then a high-level consultant to the US military on nuclear war, viewed the film when it was newly released. He was profoundly shocked. He and a friend who worked with him thought Dr. Strangelove was "essentially a documentary." Somehow, the film's creator, Stanley Kubrick, had guessed one of the US government's most closely-held secrets. Despite all the media attention to the "nuclear football" containing the codes to unleash a nuclear war, and the government's insistence that only the President had access to those codes, it was indeed possible for a local commander to attack the Soviet Union with nuclear weapons. Beginning with President Eisenhower, an unknown number of military officers—certainly, more than a dozen; perhaps several dozen—have had their fingers on the nuclear button as well. Eisenhower had delegated that ability to his theater commanders, and they in turn had passed it down the line. Ellsberg even met an Air Force major commanding a small US airbase in Korea who could have started a nuclear war simply because he assumed the USSR had attacked American bases when atmospheric disturbance cut off communications.

    The Doomsday Machine is alive and well

    In fact, Ellsberg reveals, that level of delegation of control to military officers in the field has been the case throughout the sixty-year history of the nuclear standoff between the US and Russia. The potential still exists for a devastating nuclear exchange to be set off through miscommunication, miscalculation, or an unstable military commander. And Ellsberg makes the case in his shocking new memoir, The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner, that such an exchange would inevitably result in nuclear winter. This phenomenon, repeatedly confirmed by scientists, would extinguish virtually all complex life on Planet Earth by shutting off sunlight, causing harvests to fail, and subjecting billions of human beings and animals to "near-universal starvation within a year or two"—if they survive the fires and the fallout. Effectively, then, both nuclear superpowers had—and still have—the capability to end the human project with what amounts to a Doomsday Machine.

    Dan Ellsberg's dramatic second act

    Ellsberg has been studying nuclear war since the late 1950s, when he began a long career as a high-level government consultant to the military. Of course, he is far better known for his courage in releasing the Pentagon Papers in 1971, after several years of work on the Vietnam War. However, in The Doomsday Machine, he explains that he had collected a huge stockpile of official documents about nuclear war that he fully intended to release in the same manner once the reception for the Pentagon Papers had run its course.

    "From the fall of 1969 to leaving the RAND Corporation in August 1970," Ellsberg writes, "I copied everything in the Top Secret safe in my office—of which the seven thousand pages of the Pentagon Papers were only a fraction . . . perhaps fifteen thousand pages in all." (For many years, Ellsberg had "classified access several levels above Top Secret.") Sadly, all but the Pentagon Papers were lost in an abortive effort to hide them. But much of that lost material has since been declassified. Now, based on his own extensive notes, research on the issue over six decades, and declassified files from the 1950s and 60s, Ellsberg is belatedly fulfilling his promise to bring the enduring nuclear threat to the forefront.

    Startling revelations in The Doomsday Machine

    The Doomsday Machine is full of deeply disturbing revelations. The book sometimes reads like a thriller, as Ellsberg describes his mounting horror and revulsion over the discoveries he made over the years. Here are just a few of the most shocking:

    The United States is poised to deliver a preemptive nuclear first strike. "Deterring a surprise Soviet nuclear attack—or responding to such an attack—has never been the only or even the primary purpose of our nuclear plans and preparations . . . Though officially denied, preemptive 'launch on warning' (LOW) . . . has always been at the heart of our strategic alert."

    The United States is far from alone in delegating nuclear war-making capability to field officers. "How many fingers are on Pakistani nuclear buttons? Probably not even the president of Pakistan knows reliably."

    "The strategic nuclear system is more prone to false alarms, accidents, and unauthorized launches than the public (and even most high officials) has ever been aware."

    For decades after the Sino-Soviet split in the late 1950s, US nuclear weapons were targeted at thousands of cities in both Russia and China—and our country's nuclear war doctrine held that every weapon in the arsenal would be released all at once in the event of war . . . on both countries.

    If you're old enough, or read enough history, you might remember the "missile gap" that played a part in elevating John F. Kennedy to the White House. Of course, there was no gap, as was revealed not far into Kennedy's short stay there. But Ellsberg reveals that the actual number of Soviet nuclear weapons at the time was not hundreds but . . .  four. The US then had forty. (Today, there are nearly 15,000 nuclear warheads stockpiled around the world; the US and Russia account for 93 percent of them.)

    If you were an adult during the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, as I was, you're surely aware that the world came extremely close to nuclear armageddon. Ellsberg reveals, however, that the chances of war were even greater than was known for many years after the fact. Four nuclear-armed Soviet submarines were in the Caribbean—and one came perilously close to detonating a nuclear torpedo that would have destroyed US Navy ships in the vicinity. Only the chance intervention of a single man on that submarine prevented that catastrophe, which would unquestionably have caused the US military to unleash a first strike on the USSR and China. And that event took place two days after the world believed the crisis had been resolved by agreement between Kennedy and Khrushchev.

    In Part Two of The Doomsday Machine, Ellsberg probes the origins of the notion that attacking cities was acceptable. It's a fascinating account of the history of airpower, from the use of planes for reconnaissance in World War I to strategic bombing in World War II. Though less dramatic than his earlier revelations about nuclear war, Ellsberg's explanation of how the US and Britain came to justify the firebombing of Tokyo and Dresden is deeply distressing. This experience laid the foundation for the use of the atomic bomb over Hiroshima and Nagasaki—and makes clear how "there was no moral agonizing at all among Truman's civilian or military advisors about the prospect of using the atom bomb on a city." Yet "seven of the eight officers of five-star rank in the U.S. Armed Forces in 1945 believed the bomb was not necessary to avert [an] invasion" of Japan.

    We still live under the nuclear hammer. "Two systems still risk doomsday," Ellsberg concludes. "Both are still on hair-trigger alert that makes their joint existence unstable."

  • B. Factor

    A first-hand story of the USA's nuclear war strategy, including how and why it was developed, by one of the key players. Thrilling. It makes Dr. Strangeglove seem like a children's story. Reading this book makes my pulse beat faster. I can't remember the last time that a non-fiction book had that effect on me.

  • Neil

    It turns out that Ellsberg has more than just the Pentagon Papers to contribute to the quest for the truth about American conduct in war. Here he uses the information he was privy to as a top level planner of war strategy to write a memoir that is truly terrifying.

    Ellsberg demonstrates quite clearly that nuclear war planning has mostly been focused on a full out doomsday scenario, ignoring the risks of nuclear winter, too inflexible to stay limited to one country or a few bombs. Historically, i

    It turns out that Ellsberg has more than just the Pentagon Papers to contribute to the quest for the truth about American conduct in war. Here he uses the information he was privy to as a top level planner of war strategy to write a memoir that is truly terrifying.

    Ellsberg demonstrates quite clearly that nuclear war planning has mostly been focused on a full out doomsday scenario, ignoring the risks of nuclear winter, too inflexible to stay limited to one country or a few bombs. Historically, if Moscow (or anyone else) had launched even a single nuclear bomb on any major American target, the end of the world would probably have ensued. While he hasn't had the same access for many years now, Ellsberg seems to believe that not much has changed.

    He also puts the lie to other common conceptions, that America has kept nuclear bombs out of Japan, that only the president could launch a nuclear attack, that multiple people would have to work together to release a bomb, or that the Cuban Missile Crisis was controlled completely by the politicians.

    For me, this would have been a better book to read if Ellsberg would have put some of his own involvement a little more on the side, and perhaps been a little less repetitive, but people need to read, digest, and react to the book. It's important.

  • Jennifer Jank

    This is a genuinely terrifying read, and would be even if we didn't have a textbook example of Dunning-Kruger currently in the Oval Office. We have come far closer to nuclear war than we (the public) knew since the end of WWII. The movie Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Love the Bomb, is not as hilariously farfetched as one might think. The military-industrial-congressional (per Ellsberg) wants and helps drive countries to war, even though the myth of limiting damage from a nuclear war has b

    This is a genuinely terrifying read, and would be even if we didn't have a textbook example of Dunning-Kruger currently in the Oval Office. We have come far closer to nuclear war than we (the public) knew since the end of WWII. The movie Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Love the Bomb, is not as hilariously farfetched as one might think. The military-industrial-congressional (per Ellsberg) wants and helps drive countries to war, even though the myth of limiting damage from a nuclear war has been exploded, pardon the pun. The author makes an excellent case for dismantling each side's Doomsday Machine, given that the result would be the death of civilization as we know it.

  • AC

    Extremely interesting, often illuminating, disturbing book, marred only by a certain naïveté expressed by Ellsberg’s concluding optimism, such as it is.

  • Peter Mcloughlin

    Part memoir of Ellsberg worked in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations in the sixties and an anti-nuclear piece from someone who knows how it plays out at a policy level and understands the stakes namely the survival of humans as species. The author lays out in great detail his work planning for nuclear war and a general outline of our capabilities, command and control systems, who authorizes the use of nuclear weapons and the times we came close to unleashing them to our final ruin. I get th

    Part memoir of Ellsberg worked in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations in the sixties and an anti-nuclear piece from someone who knows how it plays out at a policy level and understands the stakes namely the survival of humans as species. The author lays out in great detail his work planning for nuclear war and a general outline of our capabilities, command and control systems, who authorizes the use of nuclear weapons and the times we came close to unleashing them to our final ruin. I get the feeling he has written this book in the wake of Trump's election. I understand his fear. What was dire before Trump has become much more so since. God help us.

  • Nicholas

    This is an outstanding book with few flaws. Ellsberg does an excellent job making nuclear theory and strategy accessible to uninformed readers without watering down the narrative.

    There are two flaws with this book. The first is that Ellsberg provides the reader little opportunity to come to their own conclusions regarding nuclear warfare. The reader may be likely to come to the same understanding of the folly of nuclear weapons as Ellsberg, but the book would have been more powerful if the reade

    This is an outstanding book with few flaws. Ellsberg does an excellent job making nuclear theory and strategy accessible to uninformed readers without watering down the narrative.

    There are two flaws with this book. The first is that Ellsberg provides the reader little opportunity to come to their own conclusions regarding nuclear warfare. The reader may be likely to come to the same understanding of the folly of nuclear weapons as Ellsberg, but the book would have been more powerful if the reader was allowed to come to this conclusion independently.

    The other flaw is that Ellsberg does not address some important nuclear dilemmas. For example, is it realistic for the US to draw down its nuclear arsenal if other countries still possess nuclear weapons? Are nuclear weapons an effective deterrent? What would the Cold War have looked like without this deterrent? These are interesting questions that could help us come to a better understanding of how to eliminate nuclear weapons.

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