Opinion: The unheeded warnings of Daniel Ellsberg


Published: 07-03-2023 6:00 AM

Jonathan P. Baird lives in Wilmot.

Recently my old friend Rusty sent me a video clip from a speech President John F. Kennedy gave 60 years ago. Given at the commencement ceremony at American University on June 10, 1963, the speech became famously known as Kennedy’s peace speech. The speech is not like any that you would hear now from an American president, whether they were a Democrat or a Republican.

Kennedy made an impassioned plea for moving away from nuclear weapons and for reducing the threat of nuclear war. It was a speech opposed to militarized mindsets and it called for Americans to reassess their attitudes. Kennedy argued the commonalities between the U.S. and Russia and he emphasized how nuclear war has no winners.

I could not help but think about President Kennedy’s peace speech when I heard that Daniel Ellsberg had died. While Ellsberg is mostly remembered for his whistleblower role in publishing the Pentagon Papers, he also had an earlier career as a nuclear war planner. With a top security clearance, he wrote guidelines for nuclear war for Defense Secretary Robert McNamara during the Kennedy administration.

He came to have grave misgivings about both our nuclear strategy as well as America’s excessive and bipartisan militarism. He saw this playing out from the Vietnam era to our time. Both Democrats and Republicans have accepted absolutely massive military budgets with little pushback. Later in his life, Ellsberg offered up powerful warnings but his warnings have not been heeded.

Ellsberg first began to have doubts in his years of working on nuclear war planning. Upon inquiry, the Joint Chiefs of Staff estimated in 1961 that in a nuclear first strike by the United States, 600 million would die. That would include 365 million in Russia and China, 100 million in the East Bloc satellite countries, and another 100 million in Western Europe. The American war plan called for attacking every major city in Russia and China with a population over 25,000.

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Those numbers floored Ellsberg and shook his faith in the rationality of nuclear war planning. Because of the human toll, he came to see nuclear war planning as “the most evil planning that has ever existed in the history of humanity.” Although he had been a Cold War hawk and a national security expert, he turned against nuclear proliferation and also against conventional thinking about military strategy and spending.

He stopped believing in the likelihood of any winner in a nuclear war. Even in a U.S. first strike on Russia, if the U.S. knocked out all Russian Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), there would be no sure way to stop all the Russian submarine missiles and bombers. Both sides would be looking at mutually assured destruction. Nuclear winter would doom America just as it would doom Russia.

In his book, “The Doomsday Machine,” he wrote that the Joint Chiefs’ estimate of fatalities was a “fantastic underestimate.” The war planners deliberately omitted entirely from their estimates the destructive effect of fire. Firestorms caused by thermonuclear weapons were known to be predictably the largest producers of fatalities in a nuclear war. Also, smoke, leading to nuclear winter, was not yet recognized. In the 1960s there was not yet recognition of nuclear winter and the environmental effects of nuclear war.

Ellsberg knew that the death count from a full-scale nuclear exchange would be much higher than 600 million. In an interview he gave to Fresh Air on NPR in 2017 he said, “Scientific research had concluded that nuclear war would loft into the stratosphere many millions of tons of soot and black smoke from the burning cities. It wouldn’t be rained out in the stratosphere. It would go around the globe very quickly and reduce sunlight by as much as 70 percent, causing temperatures like that of the Little Ice Age, killing harvests worldwide and starving to death nearly everyone on earth. It probably wouldn’t cause extinction. We’re so adaptable. Maybe 1 percent of our current population of 7.4 billion could survive, but 98 or 99 percent would not.”

One practical step Ellsberg advocated was the elimination of ICBMs. Rather than spending $100 billion for a replacement of the Minuteman 3 missile, he argued land-based missiles like ICBMs are outdated and especially dangerous. Once launched they cannot be called back. In a crisis, the decision to launch can jam up a president who has maybe a 10-minute window to decide how to respond to a possible nuclear attack. The same timeframe does not exist for nuclear subs or planes. They can be called back.

Our technology is not that perfect. False alarms can lead to nuclear scrambling. On one occasion a flock of Canadian geese activated the Distant Early Warning Line. The birds were interpreted as a Soviet bomber attack. ICBMs leave too little room for any kind of reasoned launch or not launch decision.

Ellsberg says ICBMs should have been eliminated 50 years ago but companies like Northrup Grumman (that have the government ICBM contract) see huge profits in the production of the Sentinel, the Minuteman 3 replacement. The military-industrial complex thrives on an endless supply of new weapons systems.

At the end of “The Doomsday Machine,” along with eliminating ICBMs, Ellsberg lists some other proposals:

■A U.S. no-first use policy

■A probing investigative hearing on our war plan in the light of nuclear winter

■Forgoing delusions of preemptive damage-limiting by our first-strike forces

■Giving up the profits, jobs and alliance hegemony based on maintaining that pretense

■Otherwise dismantling the American Doomsday Machine

Ellsberg says both political parties oppose every one of these measures. Officials and elites in both parties “consciously support militarism, American hegemony, and arms production and sales.” There is a too casual and cavalier attitude about war. Fantasies of victory override any consideration of human tolls.

Right until the end of his life, Ellsberg critiqued the hawkishness that pushes for total victory whether it is in Ukraine or with China. Diplomacy is sidelined in favor of dreams of conquest. This is a very old and tragic human story. The anti-nuclear activist Helen Caldicott once wrote a book titled “Sleepwalking to Armageddon.” That title remains an apt description of our present reality.