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‘Doomsday Machine’ author Daniel Ellsberg says Americans have escaped self-annihilation by luck

The military analyst turned whistleblower who leaked the Pentagon Papers looks at the existential threat of America’s nuclear capacities in his new memoir, “The Doomsday Machine.” Very little has changed, says author Daniel Ellsberg, when it comes to what he calls the immoral and insane policies regarding nuclear weapons. William Brangham sits down with Ellsberg to discuss the looming danger.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Next, from the whistle-blower who released the Pentagon Papers about the Vietnam War, a new book about the dangers of America’s nuclear program.

    William Brangham has that story from the NewsHour Bookshelf.

  • William Brangham:

    It was 1971 when military analyst Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers to the press. They were a top-secret Defense Department study of U.S. military involvement in the Vietnam War.

    Their controversial publication blew the lid off what one famous journalist called a bright shining lie. But few know that, in the decade before that, during some of the Cold War’s most dangerous hair-trigger moments, Daniel Ellsberg also spent years analyzing America’s nuclear weapons policy.

    His new memoir chronicles that period. It’s called “The Doomsday Machine- Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner.” And in it, Ellsberg argues very little has changed about what he calls our immoral and insane policies regarding nuclear weapons.

    Daniel Ellsberg welcome to the NewsHour.

  • Daniel Ellsberg:

    Thank you.

  • William Brangham:

    The title of your book comes from the famous Stanley Kubrick movie where a rogue U.S. military officer launches an attack on the Soviets, and as those weapons are flying, it’s suddenly revealed that the Soviets have built a doomsday machine, this enormous global booby-trap that, if they’re attacked, will kill every single thing on Earth.

  • Actor:

    It is not a thing a sane man would do. The doomsday machine is designed to trigger itself automatically.

  • Actor:

     But surely you can disarm it somehow.

  • Actor:

    No, it is designed to explode if any attempt is ever made to un-trigger it.

  • Actor:

    Automatically?

  • Actor:

    Ah, it’s an obvious commie trick, Mr. President. We’re wasting valuable time. They’re getting ready to clobber us.

  • William Brangham:

    At the time, it was somewhat considered a fantasy idea, but you argue in this book — and this is the title of your book — that that’s really what we have on our hands, is a doomsday machine.

  • Daniel Ellsberg:

    Yes, and we had it then.

    Kubrick got that idea from Herman Kahn, a colleague of mine and a friend of mine at the RAND Corporation, who put it forth as a hypothetical device for deterrence. But he said, that would kill too many people.

  • William Brangham:

    Surely, no one would build a device like that.

  • Daniel Ellsberg:

    Killing everyone. He said, no one would. No one had done it. And no one, he felt, would ever do it.

    Well, he was mistaken. There was a doomsday machine at that time. We didn’t know actually until another 20 years about the phenomenon of nuclear winter, that the military targets we were going to hit in cities — and, actually, in those days, they planned to hit every city over 25,000 in the Soviet Union and in China. If we were in war with the Soviet Union, we would also hit China.

    Those cities burning would have lofted in firestorms, not ordinary fires, but as in Hiroshima or Tokyo or Dresden, that would loft the smoke and soot by tens of millions of tons into the stratosphere, where it wouldn’t rain out.

    It would be for over a decade, and it would lower the sun’s temperatures on the Earth, the sunshine, by about 70 percent.

  • William Brangham:

    That’s an agricultural holocaust as well.

  • Daniel Ellsberg:

    All the harvests would be killed for years, basically, and everyone, nearly everyone, would starve.

  • William Brangham:

    In 1961, as a young consultant to the secretary of defense, Ellsberg remembers being shocked after seeing a top-secret document estimating how millions of people would be killed with a U.S. nuclear strike on the Soviets.

  • Daniel Ellsberg:

    And when I held that piece of paper in my hand, the word in my mind was evil. Evil. This shouldn’t exist.

    This was the operational plan annually for the Joint Chiefs of Staff that had been approved by General Eisenhower. And I thought, there shouldn’t be anything in the world that corresponds to this.

    But there has been then and ever since.

  • William Brangham:

    Your book documents many of the mishaps and mistakes and near misses that many Americans may not be aware of in the last 40 years of our nuclear era. But yet somehow we have escaped annihilating ourselves. Why is that?

  • Daniel Ellsberg:

     Luck.

    Will it work for another 70 years? I’m not confident of that. At this very moment, for example, we are making nuclear threats against a nuclear weapon state, a state with nuclear weapons.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • William Brangham:

    You’re referring to President Trump saying we will rain fire and fury on the North Koreans.

  • Daniel Ellsberg:

    North Korea. That’s right.

    Now, fire and fury could include napalm, white phosphorous, a lot of high explosives, which they have experienced before, by the way, in the 1950s. They have been through. And it’s not something they want again.

    But that could quickly escalate. They didn’t have nuclear weapons then. There has been no imminent threat of any attack, really, or a nuclear attack on a nuclear weapons state since the Cuban Missile Crisis. That was half-a-century ago.

    I was part of that. And I have concluded, after 40 years of research, that neither Kennedy nor Khrushchev intended at all to carry out their threats of armed conflict. I believe they both believed in their own minds they were bluffing and that they would back off if necessary.

    And yet events got away from them. I think we came within a hand’s breadth of blowing up the world. So, this problem didn’t start with Donald Trump, and it won’t really end with it. The system that puts everything on the decisions of one man, it’s crazy.

  • William Brangham:

    In addition to his book, Ellsberg is back in the public eye again because of this. Steven Spielberg’s new movie details The Washington Post’s decision to publish parts of the Pentagon Papers, the ones Ellsberg leaked, and which the Nixon administration tried to stop.

    The legal fight went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The movie is called “The Post,” and it’s in theaters this month.

    I’m just curious why you think the story of the Pentagon Papers is still resonant today.

  • Daniel Ellsberg:

    We have had a war going on against the media, and it didn’t start with Donald Trump.

    Barack Obama prosecuted three times as many people for leaking as all previous presidents put together. I was the first to face such a prosecution. That’s why my name is coming up now, I think, more.

    There were two after me before Obama, and then nine or 10, depending how you count some of them, under Obama. I believe that Donald Trump has shown every sign that he will continue that, though he hasn’t yet. He’s actually berated his attorney general for not coming up with indictments for leaks right now.

    I have no doubt that Attorney General Sessions will meet his demands.

  • William Brangham:

    The book is called “The Doomsday Machine- Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner.”

    Daniel Ellsberg, thank you so much.

  • Daniel Ellsberg:

    Thank you for having me.

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