Daniel Ellsberg

Book Review

Daniel Ellsberg, The Doomsday Machine, Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner, New York: Bloomsbury, 2017, 420 Pages, $30.00 (hardcover).

In the Shadow of the Mushroom Cloud (or: Bigger than the Pentagon Papers)

Reviewed by Michael F. Duggan

Before many centuries more… science may have the existence of mankind in its power, and the human race commit suicide by blowing up the world.

-Henry Adams


As it turns out, Stanley Kubrick got it mostly right.

“We came out into the afternoon sunlight, dazed by the light and the film [Dr. Strangelove] both agreeing that what we had just seen was essentially  a documentary.  (We didn’t yet know—nor did SAC—that existing strategic operational plans, whether for first strike or retaliation, constituted a literal Doomsday Machine, as in the film.)”  Daniel Ellsberg, The Doomsday Machine, p. 65.

You should read this book, but not at bedtime.

As a nuclear strategist in the late 1950s and 1960s this was the story Daniel Ellsberg wanted to tell, but that fact that “Vietnam is where the bombs are falling right now [1969]” forced his hand and diverted his attention elsewhere.  The overarching theme of his recent book—the overwhelming feeling one comes away withis that it is almost literally a miracle or a fortuitous aberration of probability that the United States and Soviet Union did not blow up the world during the Cold War.  What is more is that the risk is still in place and that the threat of a nuclear war is greater than ever.  A moral of the book is that wholesale war against civilians characterized by strategic terror bombing and which reached its apex in the omnicidal possibilities of nuclear war is not only immoral and a dubious means of winning wars.  It is likely the grandest expression of the irrationality of war and of our aggressiveness as an animal.

In a sense, Ellsberg is a latter-day American Siegfried Sassoon—the true believer-turned-apostate in the name of humanity, the patriot with a greater commitment to the truth, the man who saw insanity and folly and chose sense and sanity.  Of course his name will always be associated with the Pentagon Papers that exposed the true motives of the war in Vietnam—a rivulet font that contributed to the deluge that eventually forced President Nixon from office.  He is arguably the prototype of the modern whistle-blower.  The present book tells an even bigger story and one that its author has waited a half-century to tell.

In fact Ellsberg came close to telling this story at the time, but the thousands of pages he copied on nuclear strategy were lost in an almost comical sequence of events including the intervention of a tropical storm, and which by his own admission, likely spared him decades of hard prison time.  He can now rely on his own memory corroborated by material declassified over the years without fear of breaking the law.  Although much of the material here was previously known by historians of the Cold War, it is still likely to shock when presented so starkly by a person so intimately connected with the topic.

Ellsberg begins by recalling that as a thirteen-year-old, he and his ninth grade friends immediately latched on to the inherently problematic, the unavoidable and insurmountable implications of the mere existence of super-weapons that could destroy entire cities in a single blow, and of nations armed with such technology.  These high school freshmen hit upon conclusions usually associated with physicists working on the Manhattan Project and epitomized with Robert Oppenheimer’s chilling paraphrase of the Bhagavad Gita: “I have become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

Ellsberg’s social studies instructor, Bradley Patterson, was teaching the concept of “cultural lag,” or the idea that technology runs ahead of the cultural, social, political ability to handle it—i.e. “to control it wisely, ethically, prudently.”  In the fall of 1944, the teacher had his students consider the idea of nuclear weapons (articles on the possibility of a Uranium 235 bomb had already appeared in the Saturday Evening Post and other magazines) as a kind of ultimate or paragon example of this concept.  The students were given a week to write an essay on the implications of such a weapon.

“As I remember, everybody in the class had arrived at much the same judgment.  It seemed pretty obvious: the existence of such a bomb would           be bad for humanity.  Mankind could not handle such a destructive force.  It could not be safely controlled.  The power would be “abused”—that is,     used dangerously, with terrible consequences… A bomb like that was just too powerful.”

The first part of this book, “The Bomb and I”, deals with the ins and outs, the subtleties, caveats, conundrums, hypotheticals and counter-hypotheticals of the game theory logic imposed by nuclear weapons on strategists during the Cold War.  It is a personal history of the implementation of nuclear strategy, unsettling breaches in the system, near accidents and potential for global thermonuclear catastrophe in the Manichean world of U.S.-Soviet relations.  It is Ellsberg’s own story as a wiz kid, a consultant for the Air Force’s RAND (Research ANd Development) Corporation—its in-house think tank.  As with the Pentagon Papers, Ellsberg’s purpose is to present what he saw versus the official line.

Summarizing in his introduction, Ellsberg states eight realities of American nuclear strategy that set the theme of the book.  These are:

  1. “The basic elements of American readiness for nuclear war remain today what they were almost sixty years ago: Thousands of nuclear weapons remain on hair-trigger alert, aimed mainly at Russian targets” and that “the declared official rational” is to deter “an aggressive Russian first strike” is a “deliberate deception.”  According to Ellsberg, “[d]eterring a surprise nuclear attack has never been the only or even the primary purpose of our plans and preparations.”  Rather, “[t]he nature, scale, and posture of our strategic nuclear forces has always been shaped around the requirements of quite different purposes: to attempt to limit the damage to the United States from Soviet or Russian retaliation to a U.S. first strike against the USSR or Russia.  This capability is, in particular, intended to strengthen the credibility of U.S. threats to initiate limited nuclear attacks, or escalate them—U.S. threats of ‘first use’—to prevail in regional, initially non-nuclear conflicts involving Soviet or Russian forces or their allies.”
  2. “The required U.S. strategic capabilities have always been for a first-strike force,” neither a surprise attack nor one “with an aim of striking ‘second’ under any circumstances, if that could ne avoided by preemption.”  In other worlds, [t]hough officially denied, preemptive ‘launch on warning’ (LOW)—either on tactical warning of an incoming attack or a strategic warning that nuclear escalation is probably impending—has always been at the heart of our strategic alert.”
  3. Contrary to popular belief, nuclear weapons have been used “dozens of times in ‘crises’ since their actual combat use over Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  This has been done “mostly in secret from the American people (though not from adversaries).  They have used them in the precise way that a gun is used when it is pointed at someone in a confrontation, whether or not the trigger is pulled. To get one’s way without pulling the trigger is a major purpose for owning a gun.”
  4. “Posing as it does the threat of nuclear attack by the United States to every state that might potentially be in conflict with us (like North Korea), this persistent rejection by the United States of a no-first-use commitment has always precluded an effective nonproliferation campaign. “
  5. “With respect to deliberate, authorized U.S. strategic attacks, the system has always been designed to be triggered by a far wider range of events than the public has ever imagined.  Moreover, the hand authorized to pull the trigger on nuclear forces has never been exclusively limited to the president, nor even his highest military officials.”  “Dead hand” systems of delegation of nuclear launch authority probably exist in the systems of all nuclear powers, most likely including North Korea.
  6. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, “events spiraled out of control, coming within a handbreadth of triggering our plans for general nuclear war”  (and we should bear in mind that this was a crisis presided over by two rational leaders looking for a way out of the standoff).
  7. “The strategic nuclear system is more prone to false alarms, accidents, and unauthorized launches than the public (and even most high officials) as ever been aware.”  Ellsberg notes that false alarms did in fact occur in 1970, 1980, 1983, and 1995.
  8. “Potentially catastrophic dangers such as these have been systematically concealed from the public.”  Not even the Joint Chiefs of Staff realized until 1983 that the nuclear winter that followed a general nuclear war between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. would probably kill every person on the planet.

He concludes the introduction by observing that “[i]n sum, most aspects of U.S. nuclear planning and force readiness that became known to me half a century ago still exist today as prone to catastrophe as ever but on a scale, as known to environmental scientists, looming vastly larger than was understood then” and more economically, “[t]ragically, I believe that nothing has fundamentally changed.”

It is hard to know where to begin with this book (the eight points above should give the reader a fair, generalized sample to chew on).  It is fascinating history, and, like a hero of fiction, the young Ellsberg, always seems to be in the center of things.  Following Harvard and a three-year hitch as a Marine Corps infantry officer, he is thrown in as a consultant with a brilliant generation of wiz kinds at RAND.  From there he recounts episodes including an eye-opening interview a squadron leader of nuclear-armed aircraft on the front lines of the Cold War, hearing a confession of alleged pre-appointed nuclear authority by an Air Force theater commander, and discussions with other high-level generals including the cigar-chomping Curtis LeMay himself.  He writes a speech intended for President Kennedy that meets with McNamara’s approval but which is given by Deputy Secretary of Defense, Roswell Gilpatrick instead.  He warns the haughty incoming National Security Adviser, McGeorge Bundy about the numerous lapses in the system, including the usurpation of the chain of command and undermining of civilian control.

With academic and military credentials, Ellsberg had a Selig-like knack for being at the right place at the right time.  He was well-qualified to be both a detective of chinks in the system and the deliverer of often shocking messages, but to no avail.  The lesson seems to be that even the planners of nuclear strategy were just as much captive to the self-direct logic of what was seen as a bipolar world as the unsuspecting rest of the nation, and just as helpless to do anything about it.  Although nuclear war is averted by human agency during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the larger game continues and seems mostly immune from the efforts of people who see the madness.

Although the book is well structured—and it is better to read it for oneself rather than have a reviewer recount it chapter by chapter—one comes away with a myriad of troubling facts and imagery, of things generally unknown at the time (and still unknown by most Americans): drummed-up fictions like the missile gap and bogus theatrical props like the nuclear “football”.  One is initially shocked and then overwhelmed and eventually numbed by a sequence of revelations like the inevitability of pre-approved delegation of nuclear launch authority, the daily breakdown of communications between Washington and bases in the Pacific, how commanders and even pilots circumvented launch codes, how the Chiefs of Staff got around civilian control authority, and how civilian authorities were kept in the dark about nuclear war plans.

One is taken aback at the lack of clarity in the minds of the men who would actually be flying nuclear-armed aircraft and under what circumstances might they launch an unauthorized attack (e.g. if the last plane in a squadron crashed on takeoff, thus detonating a thermonuclear weapon on its own base, would the pilot of an aircraft that had already taken off assume that the base had been attacked by the Soviets or Chinese and proceed with an attack in what was intended only to be a drill?).  It is all a stark reminder of how closely we came to blowing up everything and how a Guns of August sequence of events with greater-than Missiles of October technology is still a very real possibility (his retelling of the now well-known story of how close a Soviet submarine under depth charge attack from a U.S. ship on the blockade line came to launching a nuclear weapon during the Cuban Missile Crisis is particularly harrowing).

Having grown up in a military family during the Cold War, I learned of the nuclear standoff of super powers at the tender age of eight or nine.  I was of a generation, the more sensitive members of whom could imagine the contrails of ICBMs imposed on clear nighttime skies.  While I was working on my doctorate in history, I had read John Lewis Gaddis’s masterful Strategies of Containment, and had come away thinking that both sides had unnecessarily ratcheted-up tensions (first with Nitze’s NSC-68 and later with the “New Look” of the Eisenhower years), that the Cold War was an unnecessarily dangerous and “costly political rivalry.”1  I did not know that, just in surviving the period, the world had in fact won a lengthy sequence of lotteries.

On the one hand, American triumphalists and boosters of their nation’s “victory” in the Cold War (now completely squandered) point to the zero-sum, game theory logic of deterrence, of Mutual Assured Destruction, and how it apparently worked.  The idea, seemingly oxymoronic, is generally attributed to  Bernard Brodie and the view that in order to prevent nuclear war, a nation must “be prepared to resort to atomic war” and to make it too terrible to be a viable option.2  Making nuclear war mutually suicidal seems to have accomplished this to date.  But on the other hand, being in a Mexican standoff with the most destructive weapons ever conceived is hardly an admirable position in which to find oneself, and it is a state of affairs that only has to fail once.  Add to this the fact that human beings are naturally aggressive animals, that unhinged leaders come to power from time-to-time, the role of accidents in history, hair-trigger strategies of first strike, and an ever-increasing nuclear club, and the rational reader of Ellsberg’s book can be excused for wanting to get off of the planet.3

Part II. History of Bombing Civilians

The second part of the book, “The Road to Doomsday” is a history of strategic bombing as the natural predecessor to nuclear war.  This part is obviously less personal but gives an impressive outline about how we got to where we are in terms of not batting an eye at accepting civilian deaths as “collateral damage” and seeing non-combatants as legitimate targets in war.  In some respects, this topic is a later chapter, a continuation of the more general history of the growth of modern total warfare since Napoleon and certainly since the American Civil War.  Even so, it is remarkable to compare the unconcealed disgust of commentators like Theodore Roosevelt at the intentional targeting of a (mostly) civilian liner like the Lusitania in 1915, with the causal acceptance of bombing of entire cities in the Second World War by American political leaders and their constituents.

Indeed, as a child in the 1970s reading of the air campaigns of the Second World War, there was no greater symbol of heroism for me than the gorgeous lines and the all-business armament configuration of the B-17 Flying Fortress (the far more effective and severely aerodynamic B-29 never achieved the same appeal), and the brave men who flew them.  To this day, the sight of a B-17 arouses the child in me, although I am certain that German who were children in 1943 or 1944 in Hamburg, Munich, or Dresden, do not share my affection for this plane.

As a practical matter, it is not clear that wholesale strategic bombing is an effective basis for strategy.  Theorists and planners between the wars, like Giulio Douhet, believed that if total war could be brought on the cities and heartlands of an enemy nation, wars could be brought to a quick and decisive conclusion.

As regards Germany, this does not appear to have been the case as aircraft and tank production continued to increase until the final month or two of the war.  In fact, strategic bombing may have only been successful in Europe against oil production and transportation.  In Japan bombing had turned most of the major cities to ashes, and yet American war planners still feared such fierce resistance by the civilian population that they felt justified in dropping two atomic bombs.  Even here it is not clear whether or not the bombs were the decisive factor in ending the war in the Pacific or whether it was the simultaneous intervention of the USSR in that theater, or both.4  It would seem that Japan was mostly defeated on the great island-dotted battlefield of the South Pacific.

Douhet’s dream of aerial war breaking the will of an enemy people does not have a record of the decisiveness that he sought.  One of the most severe bombings campaigns in history did not break the will North Vietnamese, nor did a similarly impressive campaign over North Korea force a surrender.  Bombing does change people, and the behavior of the North Koreans since 1953 and the genocide in Cambodia during the 1970s are likely attributable in large measure to the strategic bombing campaigns launched against them.

In 1946, George Kennan suggested that the world revert back to the limited Jominian wars5—the “cabinet wars” of the eighteenth-century that followed in the wake of the total wars of seventeenth-century Europe.  His idea was that the purpose of war should be to minimize and not maximize casualties, that “[v]iolence… could not be an objective.”6  Nuclear weapons and the logic of Bernard Brodie to make war too horrible to be tolerated in fact makes it obsolete as a practical matter, and the possibility of a war being launched by accident or miscalculation made it additionally intolerable.  And yet as the Flexible Response to Mutual Assured Destruction has demonstrated time and time again in the many regional wars since the early 1960s, limited military options to keep war alive only make it more likely, if less suicidal.

It would seem that at best humans may be forever damned to a condition in which the possibility of complete destruction by total Clausewitzian war with nuclear weapons and subsequent fallout and nuclear winter, or else to embrace an updated version of Flexible Response—limited war that would “keep the game (and the human race) alive” but which makes conflict so easy that it become all but inevitable.7  The result of this return to limited war seems to be a never-ending, mostly unnecessary series of the “semi-war” that James Forrestal, and more recently, Andrew Bacevich, warned of.8

It seems that the latter is already well upon us and will be until it becomes financially unsustainable.  As with total warfare, limited war has also reached new technical heights with drone technology, allowing for the campaigns of remote video game-like strikes of a character arguably intermediate between war and assassination, while the great majority of our people are as oblivious to it as they were to the fact that they were nearly incinerated on a number of occasions during the Cold war and might still be.  In other words, we now have the worst of both worlds: an ongoing state of never-ending limited wars while the nuclear omnipresence remains and could conceivably be triggered by a limited war, a misunderstanding, accident, or deteriorating relations with our old Cold War foes9 .


Regimes come and go, but The Bomb remains.  The club of nuclear states continues to grow (South Africa being the only nation to have relinquished its nuclear weapons), and now includes nations who dislike and distrust each other perhaps even more than the U.S. and U.S.S.R. during the Cold War.  If cautious, rational, and realistic leaders like John Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev came within a wild card of blowing up the world in October 1962, what are the odds of intentional or accidental nuclear launches in an age with more fingers on more buttons, the virtually unlimited potential of computer hacking, and leaders of widely varying degrees of stability?

It is an open question of whether an accidental or intentional nuclear war is a greater threat to the world than global climate change and the intimately tied issues of human overpopulation and loss of habitat/biodiversity.  The latter is already unfolding and potentially catastrophic climatological changes are already literally in the air and locked-in place.  How fast and how severe these changes will manifest is the great unknowable.  Possibilities between a gradual societal collapse due to environmental catastrophe and nuclear war followed by a nuclear war gives a potential full range of apocalypse from T,S, Eliot’s “bang” to “a whimper,” and Robert Frost’s “fire” to “ice”.10

Regardless, and as with Vietnam in the 1960s, climate change is actually happening while nuclear war remain only a possibility contingent on human folly, stupidity, and irrationality.  As the smartest man who ever lived observed “[t]he unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking, and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe,” or in more picturesque terms “I don’t know how World War III will be fought, but Would War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”11

Technology may be lost, at least for a time, but an idea cannot be intentionally destroyed or un-conceived.  A weapon may not be un-invented.  If you live long enough, you will see rival nations and even existential enemies become close allies (a 1970s wisecrack observed that if the U.S. had lost WWII, we would now all be driving German and Japanese cars).  It is clear that The Bomb is a truer and more permanent enemy than any temporal regime.  No conflict is worth destroying the planet over.  Heavy-handed nuclear strategies in a time of declining U.S. economic and military power and an increasing number of nations with nuclear weapons and the rise of China as Eurasian hegemon will likely make the future even more dangerous than the past.  Another negative effect resulting from the end of the Cold War is a sense of complacency that the threat of nuclear war is over.12  Nothing could be farther from the truth.

It is a singular coincidence that the great physicist, Hugh Everett III was a contemporary of Ellesberg’s and was also a nuclear planner (although he did not work for RAND and is not mentioned in the book).  Everett’s “many worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics suggests the possibility of many parallel universes, each one splitting off as the result probabilistic events.  If his model is correct, one can only wonder how many parallel tracks include worlds that were destroyed by nuclear war.  To date this one has been lucky, but my experience in life has been that luck does not hold out in human events, not over the long run.  Cue Vera Lynn?

In my opinion, this is a book that Americans should read, including young people when they are able to handle the gravity of the subject.  Ellsberg writes in a strong, unpretentious style, but his book is best read closely and carefully from to beginning to end.  It does not skim well.

One should consider reading this book in conjunction with Andrew Bacevich’s history of the Cold War and the rise of the national security deep state, Washington Rules, Stephen F. Cohen’s Soviet Fates, and John Lewis Gaddis’s more conventional history of Cold War strategy, Strategies of Containment. 


  1. Kennan, “Republicans won the Cold War?”, At a Century’s Ending; Reflections, 1982-1995, New York: W.W. Norton & Company 186, 1996.
  2. John Lewis Gaddis, George F. Kennan, an American Life, 233-234, 614. See also Bernard Brodie, ed., The Absolute Weapon, Atomic Power and World Order, 1946, as well as his later Strategy in the Missile Age, Princeton University Press, 1959.
  3. See Edward O. Wilson, “Aggression,” On Human Nature, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 99-120, 1978.
  4. As regards the origins of modern total warfare, see Stig Forster and Jorg Nagler’s On the Road to Total War, and David Bell’s The First Total War.  As with the Japanese 80 years later, it has been argued that many Southerners would have willingly continued to fight even after the “hard war” campaigns of Grant, Sheridan, and Sherman that prefigure the total wars of the twentieth-century.  See generally Jay Wink, April 1865, the Month that Saved America, New York: HarperCollins, Inc., 2001.
  5. Gaddis, George F. Kennan. 234-235.
  6. Gaddis, George F. Kennan,235.
  7. In a sense, nuclear war—although obviously a form of total warfare—is actually antithetical to Clausewitz.  War is policy “by other means” in Clausewitz’s formulation, but the complete mutual destruction of nuclear war would preclude the achievement of all policy goals.  See John Keegan, A History of Warfare, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993, 381.
  8. Andrew J. Bacevich, Washington Rules, New York: Henry Holt and Company, 27-28, 57-58, 2010.
  9. On the reviving of Cold War tensions with Russia, see Stephen F. Cohen, Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives: from Stalinism to the New Cold War, New York: Columbia Press, 2009, 2011.  On the rise of China and the decline of the United States, see Alfred W. McCoy, In the Shadows of the American Century, Chicago, IL: Haymarket Book, 2017.
  10. T.S. Eliot, “The Hollow Men, V,” Collected Poems 1909-1962, 92.  Robert Frost, “Fire and Ice,: The Poems of Robert Frost, 232.
  11. Ralph E. Lapp, “The Einstein Letter that Started it All,” The New  York Times Magazine, August 2, 54, 1984.
  12. Such major players of the Cold War as George Kennan, and Robert McNamara became supporters of the antinuclear movement during the 1980s.  The end of the Cold War took much of the wind out of the sails of this effort.  See generally, George F. Kennan, The Nuclear Delusion, New York, Random House, 1983.  See also Robert S. McNamara, “The Nuclear Risks of the 1960s and their Lesson for the Twenty-first Century” In Retrospect, New York: Random House, 337-346, 1995.