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Daniel Ellsberg on Nuclear War

Dusty Sklar
February 25, 2018

by Dusty Sklar

Discussed in this essay: The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner, by Daniel Ellsberg. Bloomsbury, 2017, 424 pages.


WE ARE ALL NERVOUS about the current possibility of nuclear warfare, but Daniel Ellsberg has decided to do what he can to prevent it from happening. His recent book, The Doomsday Machine, reveals his own role in the past as a nuclear war planner. What was his role, exactly, and why did he take so long to reveal it?

In 1958, more than a decade before he leaked the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times (and four years before he earned his Ph.D. at Harvard), Ellsberg was working for the Rand Corporation as a consultant. He was a Cold Warrior, by his own account, and the most pressing issue confronting him at Rand was how to avoid nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the United States. The favored solution was to convince everyone that the ability of the United States to retaliate with nuclear weapons against a Soviet attack would help us survive, and Ellsberg saw this as a transcendent cause. He and his colleagues at RAND “believed they knew more about the dangers ahead, and what could be done about them, than did the generals in the Pentagon or SAC [Strategic Air Command], or Congress or the public, or even the president.” It was an “enlivening burden.” They considered that they were working to save the world.

In 1961, as a consultant to the Defense Department and the White House, Ellsberg was the one who drafted Robert McNamara’s plan for nuclear war. But as he got deeper into the actual details of nuclear warfare, Ellsberg’s attitude changed. Apparently, he learned, the president wasn’t the only one who could press the crucial button. President Eisenhower had given an order allowing -- if he were incapacitated for some reason -- a small group of four-star generals and admirals in the field far from Washington to launch a nuclear strike if they believed their troops were about to be destroyed, and they could issue the orders without involving the president. And if they should be killed, junior commanders on the ships in the middle of the ocean could act on their own.

Ellsberg began to worry. McNamara’s “whiz kids,” mostly from RAND, were, Ellsberg recalls, “in the grip of institutionalized madness.”


FROM THE FALL of 1969 until he left RAND in August 1970, Ellsberg copied everything in the “top secret” safe in his office, as well as from several safes designated “classified secret” or “confidential.”  Along with the 7,000 pages of the Pentagon Papers, he copied a large number of classified documents on nuclear planning, command and control of nuclear weapons, and studies of nuclear crises -- about 15,000 pages altogether.

He planned to release the material about the nuclear war plans as soon as the Pentagon Papers had whatever effect they would have on the Vietnam War. He believed the nuclear information to be more important than the Pentagon Papers, and that it might take a year or two before he could reveal the material.

Ellsberg gave the stash of documents to his brother, who put it in a large box in a trash bag under a large cast iron stove on a bluff in a trash dump, in order to keep it from the FBI, who had been rooting around his compost heap.

What was buried then remained secret for nearly half a century.

Ellsberg would have made these records public decades ago, but a hurricane came along and scattered it all. Now, with the aid of government declassification and online archives, he’s been able to reconstruct the horrendous details about the arms race.

No doubt he was motivated, at least in part, by what he sees happening in the world today. In a recent interview, he said:  “The image in my mind is, we are on the Titanic, racing at full speed on a dark night through iceberg-filled waters.”


Dusty Sklar is a contributing writer to our magazine and the author of Gods and Beasts: The Nazis and the Occult, as well as numerous stories and articles. She last appeared here with “Spy vs. Spy: Anti-Nazi Undercover Work in Los Angeles.

Dusty Sklar is a contributing writer to our magazine and the author of Gods and Beasts: The Nazis and the Occult, as well as numerous stories and articles.