The doomsday machine was (and is) real

Daniel Ellsberg is famous for leaking The Pentagon Papers, a secret history of U.S. policy in Vietnam.   Now he has written a new book, The Doomsday Machine, which reveals the history of how close the United States came to all-out nuclear war.

The war policy of President Eisenhower was “massive retaliation.”   That meant the only U.S. response to Soviet or Chinese aggression would be all-out nuclear war.

Secretary of State John Foster Dulles went to the brink of war at least three times, Life magazine reported at the time.  There was even an argument during the Kennedy-Nixon debates as to whether nuclear war would be justified if the Chinese government took over the tiny coastal islands of Quemoy and Matsu.

That was known at the time.  What wasn’t known was that the authority to order a nuclear strike was delegated to military commanders in the field.   We the people thought the decision rested solely with the President.  That wasn’t so.

U.S. plans called for the complete destruction of every city in Russia and China.   Pentagon planners told Ellsberg that this would result in 325 million casualties in Russia and China, plus an additional 100 million in Communist-ruled countries in eastern Europe, 100 million in neutral countries and 100 million among western European allies.

As Ellsberg said, this is the equivalent of 100 Holocausts.  It doesn’t include the number who would die as a result of Soviet retaliation.

Evidently it was thought necessary to credibly threaten to destroy Europe in order to defend it.

Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s ideas about escalation during the Kennedy administration can be seen as an attempt to create an alternative to immediate massive retaliation.

But while, in a way, well-intended, McNamara’s ideas were illogical.  Once launching a nuclear war is an option, the logic of game theory says you should be the first and not the second to escalate to nuclear warfare.

Ellsberg said every Cold War President through Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan gave military theater commanders the authority to use nuclear weapons.   He doesn’t know the situation now.

One difference is that U.S. presidents now threaten nuclear attacks against countries without nuclear weapons—a crime against humanity in and of itself, even if you don’t consider the deaths of neutrals and allies.

The U.S. government should join with the Russian government to resume the process of gradual elimination of nuclear weapons that was begun in the Reagan-Gorbachev years.   In the meantime, Congress should enact a law to forbid a U.S. nuclear first strike without a formal declaration of war.

∞∞∞

I’ve not read Ellsberg’s book.   This post is based on my personal recollections of the 1950s and 1960s (I’ll be 81 next week) and the following two linked articles.

LINKS

Daniel Ellsberg Reveals He Was a Nuclear War Planner, Warns of Nuclear Winter and Global Starvation, transcript of an interview of Daniel Ellsberg on Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now! program.

Daniel Ellsberg: U.S. Military Planned First Strike on Every City in Russia and China…and Gave Low-Level Commanders the Authority to Push the Button on Washington’s Blog.

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2 Responses to “The doomsday machine was (and is) real”

  1. Edward Says:

    William Polk was also involved in nuclear weapons policy making and has also written a number of articles about just how dangerous the situation is:

    http://www.williampolk.com/articles.html

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  2. Edward Says:

    There is another side of this issue which hasn’t received much attention. Several years ago Russia changed its policy to make a nuclear response more automatic. Under these new rules, would some of the accidents in the past have triggered a nuclear war? We barely scraped through too many of these incidents.

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