SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 218 May 2018

A cold war warrior repents

The Doomsday Machine: confessions of a nuclear war planner

By Daniel Ellsberg

Published by Bloomsbury Press, 2017, £21.90

Reviewed by Geoff Jones

Today, the names Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange are well known as whistleblowers, people who revealed secrets that governments did not want made public. Vilified by governments and harshly treated when caught, whatever their motives, they do us a service.

Daniel Ellsberg may not be such a familiar name today. From the early 1960s he worked as a researcher for the RAND Corporation, which carried out top secret studies for the US government. In1971 he released to the press the so-called Pentagon Papers detailing how in the previous ten years succeeding presidents had systematically lied to the people of the United States about the reasons for sending troops to die in Vietnam and about the scale of attacks on the neighbouring countries of Laos and Cambodia.

The story of the release of these papers, and their publication in the Washington Post, is told in the new film, The Post. Taking a principled stand, Ellsberg subsequently handed himself in to the US authorities and was duly charged with conspiracy, espionage, and theft of government property. However, the trial collapsed when it was discovered that some of the prosecution witnesses were involved in the Watergate conspiracy which forced president Richard Nixon’s resignation. Ellsberg walked free.

The documents on Vietnam, however, were only a small part of the secret reports that Ellsberg had removed from RAND. Most concerned US preparedness for nuclear war in the 1950s and 1960s. These had been securely hidden away so that the FBI could not lay its hands on them, but by a series of accidents they were lost irretrievably. Now Ellsberg, on the basis of declassified documents and records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, and from his own memory, has pieced together this story. It is chilling and frightening.

Ellsberg joined RAND as a self-confessed ‘cold war warrior’, believing that the US had a duty to defend itself against ‘communist aggression’ by any means necessary. But some of the things he saw and learned changed his mind. First was an exchange between then-president John F Kennedy and the joint military chiefs-of-staff. Kennedy asked: In a first strike, all-out attack on Soviet Russia and China, how many deaths would you expect? The answer came back at about 350 million. When the question was modified to allow for ‘collateral’ deaths in neutral or friendly countries, the answer was 600 million.

Ellsberg found this figure too horrible to contemplate. Later, he found that could even be a terrible underestimate. The dust thrown up into the upper atmosphere by such an attack could produce a ‘nuclear winter’ long enough to wipe out most life on the planet, a genuine doomsday machine. In his own words: "From that day on I have had one overriding life purpose: to prevent the execution of any such plan".

He also found other generally accepted ‘facts’ to be untrue. Most importantly, presidential control of missile launching. Listening to Donald Trump, people might believe that there is a red button on the president’s desk which, when pressed, would automatically launch US missiles. This is far from the case. In fact, the order has to travel down a chain of command to missile bases and submarines. There had to be a system to ensure that if an enemy struck first and wiped out the White House, officers of quite low rank would be able to take the initiative to fire.

Paradoxically, this also provides a safety mechanism. If the order came down to fire, the officer on the ground could say ‘No!’ Ellsberg gives several examples of this actually taking place, when faulty radar images suggested that the USA was under attack. From the other side of the fence, in 1983, Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov (who died last year) was duty officer at a Russian early warning system which reported that missiles had been launched from the US. Petrov judged it to be a false alarm and disobeyed standing orders to report it. Media obituaries described him as ‘the man who saved the world’.

Ellsberg gives fascinating insider views on crisis points in the cold war when the world came horrifically close to nuclear war. But all this is historical, dating back half a century. What lessons can we take away today when eight or nine states, some with unstable dictatorships in power, are armed with nuclear weapons?

First, the point stressed by Ellsberg, that an all-out nuclear exchange between ‘great powers’ would be catastrophic for life on the planet. Even a so-called ‘localised’ nuclear exchange – between India and Pakistan, or Israel and Iran – would have far-reaching consequences in neighbouring regions, leading to massive loss of life. Second, the launch of a nuclear attack is not in the hands of one man or woman.

What other lessons? Ellsberg admits, and The Post film implies, that the publication of the Pentagon papers had a relatively small effect on ending US involvement in Vietnam – the Washington Post and New York Times only reached a small proportion of the middle and upper classes. Far larger was the mass revulsion of workers, students and, significantly, army veterans.

Today, the internet makes such revelations accessible to huge sections of the population, especially youth. This is why the US state has treated Chelsea Manning far more harshly than Ellsberg, why the Chinese regime tries to restrict the internet, and why UK and US governments seek to censor social media in the name of ‘fighting extremism’. For socialists, who have no faith in government pronouncements, the publication of secret files can be a useful tool in building up a mass movement.

Ellsberg was forced by the hammer of facts to change from cold war warrior to nuclear disarmer. However, his suggestions for disarmament – relying on cooperation between governments – are weak and take no account of the dictates of global capitalism. Only mass movements from below of workers’ organisations linked internationally could force the dismantling of nuclear weapons and the capitalist system based on competing nation states that sustains them.

There are immediate demands which can be campaigned on in Britain. Most important is opposition to the updating of the Trident nuclear submarine fleet at the totally ludicrous cost of £30-£40 billion. The next Labour government should scrap the programme. This is strongly opposed by the GMB trade union because, at first sight, it might mean the loss of up to 15,000 jobs in the shipbuilding industries. But a socialist government could take over the shipyards involved and turn them into the production of more socially useful craft.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has correctly said that he could never be the person to press the nuclear button. In which case, why spend those billions? Ellsberg believes that governments would move towards disarmament – if only they had the full facts. Yet he also recognises that neither US governing party supports this aim. He fails to draw conclusions about the role of global capitalism.

Nuclear disarmament, which brought millions onto the streets in the 1950s and 1960s, may seem less relevant today compared with the other struggles socialists have to wage. But just as the battle against pollution and climate change – decried by some as ‘above class’ – is vital to the future of workers the world over, so is the battle for nuclear disarmament. Daniel Ellsberg’s book makes fascinating reading and can be strongly recommended, even if his conclusions are ones socialists would not consider either adequate or realistic.

Correction: This article amends the print edition which gave the book's price as £12.90 instead of £21.90. We apologise for any inconvenience caused.

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