Daniel Ellsberg Warns of ‘No Survivors' if U.S. Goes to War With ‘Criminally Insane’ Nuclear Weapons

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An atomic bomb was donated at a Nevada test site 75 miles northwest of Las Vegas in 1951. It was understood that about 1,500 soldiers were on the ground at a safe distance from the blast. Popperfoto/Getty

Daniel Ellsberg is best known as the defense analyst who leaked the Pentagon Papers and exposed Defense Department lies about American involvement in the Vietnam War. But in 1971, when he took those top secret documents out of his office safe at the Rand Corp., he also took a cache of materials related to his job as one architect of America’s mutually assured destruction nuclear strategy, or MAD.

He hid the top-secret nuclear papers in plastic bags on his brother’s farm in upstate New York, intending to reveal them after the furor over the Pentagon Papers died down. But Tropical Storm Doria in 1971 eroded the hiding place, and he never saw his papers again.

Now a hale and vigorous 87, he is stumping the country giving talks about his latest book, The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner. It recounts his participation in what he calls America’s “criminally insane” nuclear program. Newsweek caught up with him in Washington, D.C., where he was addressing a gathering of progressive lobbyists on the day President Donald Trump decided to bomb Syria, a country where five nuclear-armed nations have been involved during its civil war. Ellsberg, who wants the United States to abandon its willingness to use nuclear weapons offensively (the so-called first-use policy), said the weapons system he and his compatriots invented in the Dr. Strangelove years remains as hair-trigger as ever, and that a mere technical glitch or political clash with Russia could end with major American cities reduced to smoking ash with just 30 minutes’ notice.

This topic is terrifying and your book is so depressing. Why should people read it when, obviously, everyone would prefer to be in the dark?
When people say they enjoy my talk, I have to look askance of them, like, Are you some kind of weirdo? But as in Vietnam, if they know the obstacles and the challenges, it gives them a chance to make change—low as that chance may be. Without the information, you have no sense of the inertia of the system or what the obstacles are. The information gives you an understanding of why it has changed so little over the last half-century and where possibly the points of leverage might be.

PER_Ellsberg_03_71359811 Ellsberg, who released the Pentagon Papers in 1971, rallies with anti-war activists during a march to the White House in 2006 in Washington, D.C. Brendan Smialowski/Getty

If, as you say, the nuclear weapons system is “criminally insane,” how did you, as one of the original planners, morally justify it then and are people still thinking the way you did?
Clearly they are. I’m not pointing fingers and saying you must be some sort of monster to have been participating in this. What I have learned is that very ordinary people are capable of participating in and promoting monstrous actions all the time. It doesn’t take unusually evil people to do terrible things. In the case of building up a doomsday machine, the purpose was to deter an enemy that was supposedly far ahead of us. We were told to see the USSR as Hitler with nuclear weapons.

You talk about what happens to people who enter the system on one side and come out on the other. Late in his second term, President Obama—who received a Nobel Prize for his anti-nuclear position and who spoke at Hiroshima, calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons—agreed to spend more than a trillion dollars to upgrade them. How much of that transformational process has to do with supporting the industry that developed around nukes?
I now see that this system was a massive subsidy to the aerospace industry, to prop it up. It was not that [aerospace companies] were doing what the Pentagon needed; it was that the Pentagon was rationalizing what Boeing and Raytheon and Lockheed needed in the way of sales to the government. That has warped everything. The profits and the jobs and the votes have evolved. [Members of Congress acted] in favor of what their constituents and the corporations needed, [as well as] what their careers needed. And they didn’t see a conflict of interest there because they could not imagine a conflict of interest between the U.S. and Lockheed. That’s blatantly true now.

You describe the predicted effects of nuclear war to be the extinction of all species and almost all humanity. If that is the outcome, what is the definition of winning a nuclear war?
Remember, we won a nuclear war. But it was one-sided. No war has been fought between two nuclear states. Right now, they are thinking of winning a nuclear war with North Korea. I am sure [national security adviser John] Bolton is thinking that. Well, we would win. We’d still be here. But Korea—North and South—would be gone. [We may lose] San Francisco. Or Los Angeles. You could say one side would come out surviving. But for the U.S. and Russia, that would not be the case. There would be no survivors. With India and Pakistan, also, no survivors.

PER_Ellsberg_04_851752218 North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un delivers a statement in Pyongyang concerning a speech U.S. President Donald Trump made at the U.N. General Assembly, saying Trump is "mentally deranged" and that he will "pay dearly" for his threat to destroy North Korea. STR/AFP/KCNA/KNS/Getty

Who are the five people in the world you would most want to read this book?
The first name that comes to mind is [German Chancellor] Angela Merkel. I think she’s in a position to realize that she could exercise world leadership on this issue with great effect. We instituted first-use threats for Germany, and she could renounce that and say we do not want to be under anybody’s nuclear umbrella.

The next person, maybe even No. 1, is Xi [Jinping] in China. I would like to see China’s world leadership on this issue. Xi does eat chocolate cake with Trump. And they have had a relatively sane policy since 1964. They have had no pretense to be able to disarm another superpower or to attack first. The world would be enormously safer if all the superpowers did that.

After that, [British Labour Party leader] Jeremy Corbyn. He wants to denuclearize Britain. Corbyn would be reassured that he is right, and realize ‘these weapons are as insane as I’ve been saying.’

Finally, the Democrats. I would like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and the other progressive leaders to read it because they don’t have this problem in their minds.

PER_Ellsberg_01 Ellsberg's latest book is 'The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner' Photo by Jake Stangel

You didn’t mention President Trump. Any Republicans?
[Defense Secretary] James Mattis, absolutely. I have some real hopes there. Mattis is a Marine like me, and that means he has never had anything to do with nuclear weapons. I can imagine Mattis would allow a study to be made of the effects of nuclear winter. The Pentagon has never done such a study, asking what would our bombs do to the world. They don’t have any plan other than doomsday.