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Books | The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear Planner

A book by Daniel Ellsberg. (Bloomsbury, 2017)

We are very lucky in this state

The Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility (WPSR) began a campaign last year to abolish all nuclear weapons globally and prevent nuclear war. They initiated this campaign as President Obama authorized a trillion dollar program to rebuild the US nuclear weapons arsenal. That program is now in the hands of President Trump.

I hope many of you who read this review will contact Lilly Adams, co-chair of WPSR’s “Nuclear Weapons Abolition Task Force” and help them implement their well thought out strategic plan. ( (206) 547-2630. Without the presence of this campaign and task force, which is why I think we are lucky, I doubt I would write this review.

Ellsburg will speak in Seattle

On January 9th in Seattle, the WPSR’s campaign is co-hosting Daniel Ellsberg. His new book, The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner, is a frightening, but probably necessary read. If you can’t read it, ask me for my five pages of notes. (

We all probably believe that nuclear weapons could kill “a lot” of people, but that those in charge have them locked down tight. Neither is true, according to Ellsberg.

Not “a lot of people,” but actually Omnicide

A nuclear exchange between the US and Russia would lead to “Omnicide” as a result of the now scientifically verified nuclear winter. The smoke and soot lofted by fierce firestorms from burning cities would block most sunlight and remain for a decade, lowering temperatures to the level of the last Ice Age, killing all harvests and causing near-universal starvation within a year or two. Ellsberg calls this “an existential danger to the human species.”

Not “locked down” but on hair-trigger alert

Nor are these thermonuclear H-Bombs locked down tight. Ellsberg spent years as a RAND corporation employee with security clearances above Top Secret working for the Air Force and Defense Department. These are some of his conclusions: Our nuclear weapons are on hair-trigger alert for a First Strike capability. The public rationale of deterrence is a “deliberate deception.”

Continually threatening
“first strike”

The authorization to pull the trigger has never been exclusively that of the president nor even his highest military officials due to our system of delegation. This hair trigger alert system is subject to false alarms, accidents and unauthorized launches due to a commander’s inherent right to protect his forces, poor communication, non-observance of safe guards, “Go Orders” taking precedent over “Return Orders,” an ethic to complete one’s mission and the distrust of civilian commanders. In addition, for the past 72 years, we have 25 times threatened—and continue to threaten—“first use” of our tactical nuclear weapons, leading to more proliferation.

The road to Doomsday began in WWII

The capability and system delegation of both US and Russian nuclear arsenals headed by ICBMs equals two Doomsday Machines. Ellsberg says the road to doomsday began with the shift to strategic bombing of civilian populations in WWII—from precision bombing to firebombing. Like Hamburg where the firestorm with winds of 150 mph reached temperatures of 1500 degrees Fahrenheit and killed 45,000, or the firebombing of Tokyo when 334 bombers carrying incendiaries created a firestorm reaching temperatures of 1800 degrees Fahrenheit making the canals boil. After WWII, General Curtis LeMay, head of the Strategic Air Command, designed a “massive retaliation” war plan which by 1960 targeted every city in the Soviet Union and China.

Ellsberg calls for dismantling all the ICBMS, Tridents and strategic bombers whose use would lead to a nuclear winter and nuclear famine, but wants to keep submarine launched ballistic missiles as a deterrence force. He says this dismantling will require a new level of pressure on Congress, as well as courageous whistle-blowers who can bring greater public awareness of the threat.

Let us pursue Eros over Thanatos

I wish we were just up against the “normal, ordinary politicians, analysts and military strategists” who created this “nuclear threat to the existence of humanity,” as Ellsberg says. But we are up against an entire political economy, little evidenced in this book, that is bent on profiting from both the exporting of fossil fuels and nuclear weapons. Fighting those forces, as we well know here in Washington state, requires not only on the ground organizing, but the creation of new institutions that will promote, as Erich Fromm noted, Eros over Thanatos.

Dan Leahy lives on Olympia’s Westside and has a 4-year old granddaughter named Elsa Rae Georgiou.


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