'The Doomsday Machine' review: Brink of annihilation

A detailed account of the U.S. military’s Cold War nuclear doctrine is a must-read in these turbulent times in global N-politics

Published - April 21, 2018 07:14 pm IST

The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner
Daniel Ellsberg
Bloomsbury India

The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner Daniel Ellsberg Bloomsbury India ₹699

If Daniel Ellsberg is the “father of American whistle-blowing” then surely Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning are the next generation of courageous dissenters who took on the might of the U.S. government to bring dark secrets of its covert actions into the sunlight. Given the hoary tradition of secret-spilling under this expanding “family” of whistle-blowers, one might have hoped that Ellsberg’s latest book, The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner would be a second gut-punch from the man behind the infamous Pentagon Papers saga of the early 1970s.

Holding up a mirror

While the book makes for a compelling, if horrifying read, on how close to the brink of global annihilation U.S. nuclear war planners brought all of humanity, a great sigh of disappointment must have gone out when readers discovered that the papers that Ellsberg surreptitiously copied out of his “Top Secret safe” at his RAND Corporation office were put in a green garbage bag which was subsequently lost in a trash dump owing to a summer hurricane.

Notwithstanding the absence of original leaked material, The Doomsday Machine , named after the eponymous device in Stanley Kubrik’s 1964 satirical film Dr. Strangelove , stands out as a must-read in these turbulent times in global nuclear politics, when the President of a superpower nation has threatened, on social media, the leader of a so-called “rogue” regime with his “bigger and more powerful” nuclear button.

Ellsberg’s painstakingly detailed account of the U.S. military’s Cold War nuclear doctrine essentially shows the world the apocalyptic, even insane, vision of all-out nuclear war that appeared to grip nuclear planners of that era, a paradigm that was clearly driven by unhinged fears of the Soviet Union’s strike capabilities. As Ellsberg says, “The basic elements of American readiness for nuclear war remain today what they were almost sixty years ago: Thousands of nuclear weapons remain on hair-trigger alert, aimed mainly at Russian military targets including command and control, many in or near cities.”

The sheer aggressiveness of the posture of U.S. strategic nuclear forces derived from its commitment to a first-use policy, which then built in a second layer of damage limitation in response to a presumed nuclear retaliation from the Soviet Union.

Revealing insights

The remarkable insights that Ellsberg provides into U.S. nuclear planners’ most secretive war strategies are revealing; yet the most powerful narrative of the book comes from Ellsberg’s own struggle of conscience as he worked within this military apparatus. He started out initially as a decision-theory specialist working with RAND Corporation on defence-related subjects, but then as an analyst with deep exposure to the darkest secrets of the nuclear war planners he quickly got overwhelmed by the barbarity of what they were proposing.

Radioactive fallout

A telling conversation comes early on in the narrative when, during a briefing at an Air Force base in Omaha, Nebraska with senior commanders and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Ellsberg was told about the likely death toll from the plan to drop, in the event of war, 40 megatons of nuclear bombs on Moscow alone: “The curve of deaths, rising as time went by, levelled off at about 100 million, showing that more than half the population of the Soviet Union would be killed from radioactive fallout alone…”

In the backdrop of the horror of such nuclear war scenarios, Ellsberg has imbued Doomsday Machine with his collected thoughts on nuclear contingencies and that makes for a fascinating peep into the mind of war planners. It also shows where deviant behaviour and actions can undermine the very core of the American presidential system of government.

Hidden away

As Ellsberg shuttles between the shores of Japan, faraway military bases in South Korea and then back again to his idyllic life as a RAND analyst in sunny California and to the inner corridors the Pentagon and White House, he discovers that the Joint Chiefs’ primary war plan, the Joint Strategic Capabilities Plan, was kept hidden away from the civilian leadership of the government, even from the Secretary of Defence.

Similarly, he feared the consequences of the President giving pre-authorisation to field commanders to “launch on warning” — that is when there was an indication of risk of an incoming attack — and wait to “execute” or fire off a nuclear-tipped missile — for what would happen if there was a mere communication failure to the fighter pilots, as there routinely was owing to atmospheric interference? Could a nuclear holocaust be unleashed unwittingly?

At the end of the day this book asks a terrifying question: if this was the precarious, high-sensitivity climate in which nuclear war preparations were made and deployed, could it have been pure luck that a false alarm hasn’t started off a nuclear war to date, and how long could we hope that this luck will last?

The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner ; Daniel Ellsberg, Bloomsbury India, ₹699.

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