Daniel Ellsberg’s Doomsday Papers

Bob Bates —


Daniel Ellsberg is universally known as the “man behind the Pentagon Papers.” However, with the publication of his new book, The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner, Ellsberg’s legacy of inestimable importance in the course of history takes a quantum leap.

Ellsberg, with a degree in economics from Harvard College, also studied at Cambridge University and did post-graduate work at Harvard. He served three years as a Marine officer and was then hired by the RAND corporation in 1958. RAND specialized in contract work with the US Air Force, especially dealing with issues of war plans analysis of the use of nuclear weapons. Ellsberg’s duties immediately immersed him in Cold War issues, specifically the nuclear buildups, weapons deployments, and war plans of the United States and the Soviet Union


Skip forward a decade: Ellsberg had been requested to take a RAND transfer in 1961 to work as a Department of Defense analyst and aide to the Secretary, with duties to advise the president, and by 1968 had arrived at the point where he committed himself to whistleblowing at the highest level—the copying and release of what became known as the Pentagon Papers. If you are unfamiliar with the significance of the Pentagon Papers, or even if you are, I recommend Steven Spielberg’s new film The Post, as well as the Academy Award nominated The Most Dangerous Man in America, which was released in 2009.

What you might not have known until The Doomsday Machine, however, is that from the fall of 1969 to summer of 1970 (when he left RAND), is that Ellsberg made copies of everything in his Top Secret office safe, plus other safes for files classified Secret or Confidential (also see his website ellsberg.net). This amounted to about 7000 pages of Pentagon Papers and as many pages or more of US nuclear-related material of the highest secrecy. By then, he was so shocked and outraged at the routine cavalier attitude toward consequences of nuclear exchanges, should there be a hot war, that he became determined to publicly expose all this information for the good of global humankind.

In the introduction to his book, Ellsberg states, “The hidden reality I aim to expose is that for over 50 years, all-out thermonuclear war—an irreversible, unprecedented, and almost unimaginable calamity for civilization and most of life on earth—has been … a catastrophe waiting to happen, on a scale infinitely greater” than any heretofore historical event or series of events. This threat remains “still true today.”

Once initiated, the almost inevitable chain of events of multiple nuclear weapons strikes will yield the unimaginable “Doomsday” scenario as reality around the world, mainly in the Northern Hemisphere. It was this ominous foreboding that prompted Stanley Kubrick to make his 1964 film Dr. Strangelove, in which just one penetrating nuclear bomb or missile by the US would automatically trigger the Soviet Union’s Doomsday Machine—the ultimate deterrent to initiation of a nuclear first strike, because it would automatically set off hundreds of Soviet nukes, thereby destroying civilization in a suicidal frenzy at once and in its aftermath.

Ellsberg’s mission is to show how the evolved-and-updated non-fictional Doomsday Machine exists today, collectively among nuclear-armed nations. He hopes to inform, educate, and cause our world to work toward restoring sanity by expeditiously implementing denuclearization, and thereby ensuring no purposeful or accidental triggering of the Doomsday chain.


In actuality, Ellsberg wanted to release the nuclear papers before the Pentagon Papers. So why didn’t he? After lengthy discussions with trusted friends, he determined that the timely end to the Vietnam War, because of the current and continuing unnecessary devastation and loss of life, should take immediate precedence—as he was assuming the American public and conscientious leaders would confront those running the war through deception, resulting in a halt to the conflict. It took time, but eventually the role the Pentagon Papers played did achieve such an outcome.

In 1969 Ellsberg had given his nuclear papers to his brother Harry for safekeeping, but during the heat and intrigue of the publishing of the Pentagon Papers, Harry sensed a government knock on his door might jeopardize their secureness. Consequently he put the box of papers in a big trash bag, first burying it in his backyard compost pile, then in a hillside bluff at the local dump. However, nature—in the form of summer of 1971 near-hurricane force tropical storm Doria—intervened, collapsing the bluff and burying the papers in tons of mud, debris, and garbage. The papers were lost forever.

Daniel Ellsberg had done his Harvard post-graduate work on the subjects, dynamics, and processes of decision-making under conditions of uncertainty or ambiguity. At RAND starting in 1958 he now applied this to “the command and control of nuclear retaliatory forces by senior military officers and especially by the president.” Writes Ellsberg, “I found myself immersed in what seemed the most urgent concrete problem of uncertainty and decision-making that humanity had ever faced: averting a nuclear exchange between the Soviet Union and the United States.” RAND staff had become obsessed with assuring that somehow the US could survive an attack and retaliate, thus establishing a credible deterrent to a first-strike Soviet warplan. At that point, says Ellsberg, “A successful Soviet nuclear attack on the US would be catastrophic, not only for America” but well beyond. “[We felt] we were in the most literal sense working to save the world.”

He continues, “The implication—never questioned by anyone at RAND while I was there—was that adequate deterrence for the US demanded a survivable, assured capability for a second-strike that would kill more than the twenty million Soviet citizens who had died in WWII … [effectively] a retaliatory genocide, though none of us ever thought of it in those terms for a moment … I had come to believe … that this was the best, indeed the only, way of increasing the chance that there would be no large nuclear war in the near future. I couldn’t imagine a more important way to serve humanity.”

At this time the American comprehensive Cold War “command and control” system was one of (1) alert, (2) launch (i.e., nuclear armed planes going airborne), and (3) holding (awaiting a “Go” authorization or, not receiving any, returning to base). But, despite presumably an ensured system of untamperable coded orders, flaws were inherent. Any one of these flaws potentially—through a number of possible scenarios—would have allowed pilots to continue on to their Soviet targets and “expend” their nuclear bombs and/or missiles. In short, the touted “Fail Safe” procedure built into the system in the event of an alert did not assure complete cancellation of the alert and return to base.

The system was particularly vulnerable to being either circumvented or disobeyed by a pilot, or pilot pairs, who, independently of orders to maintain a holding pattern during a false or mistaken alert, became convinced that a real enemy attack was underway and it was therefore imperative to proceed to target to either “save” our nation or salvage homeland losses with a devastating retaliation. Incredibly, as Ellsberg was to discover, for years there was no way to directly order a plane to return to base. Even presidential orders for halting the alert would have been impotent.

Ellsberg further notes that during most practice tactical “alert missions,” rarely did planes go airborne because of involved risks of an accidental detonation of nuclear-armed missiles. Not only would such an accident be catastrophic in its destruction, but might be perceived by strategic bombers already aloft, or by detection of the burst by other airbases in the region, as evidence of a successful enemy strike, thus the convincing need to immediately carry through with a retaliation attack.

Concerning an alert for airborne strategic bombers in the Pacific zones or at Omaha’s globally operative Strategic Air Command (SAC), Ellsberg discovered, from months of interviews with personnel, that great risks existed. It was virtually standard practice for retaliatory “authorization to strike” to be passed down through the chain of command from top Generals and Admirals to subordinate officers and even down to squadron pilots. Each officer in charge could not risk, in the event of a real attack, that he or his forces could be wiped out, so there had to be a before-the-fact contingency plan providing for options of authorization down the chain of command. Survival and potential victory depended upon this. In the whole defensive posture of credible deterrence, time was of the essence. In circumstances of either a real or perceived enemy nuclear attack, no one could be sure just how much time cushion existed—either to confirm beyond all doubt that Soviet missiles were incoming or that it was a false alarm and no threat existed. This was exactly what Ellsberg specialized in: decision-making under conditions of uncertainty or informational or interpretive ambiguity.


So how did America’s defensive posture become, by almost any rational perspective, in effect an offensive stance capable of initiating nuclear annihilation? It started in 1957 when President Eisenhower sent letters to the North American Aerospace Defense Command, SAC, and the Pacific and European Commands, all of which were in command and control of nuclear weapons. Eisenhower’s letters specified “circumstances under which they were authorized to use nuclear weapons without immediate presidential authorization.” These authorization letters were not revealed to anyone aside from those specified military commanders until summer of 1961 when copies were found in an Eisenhower notebook he had not removed from the White House along with his personal papers when he left office. These authorizations circumvented the National Security Act of 1958, reserving authorization to the Secretary of Defense, as second in command, should the president be incapacitated; no correcting action had been taken during the Eisenhower administration.

This seems clearly purposeful, because as early as 1953 Eisenhower’s judgment was that “no war between any significant forces of the US and Soviet Union could remain limited,” for military and economic reasons, so should significant conflict arise, therefore the US would “immediately go to an all-out nuclear first strike rather than allow the Soviets to do so.” The predominant role, as formulated by military upper echelons and in its details actually withheld from the executive branch, was to be played by the SAC, complemented by Navy aircraft carriers and submarines—all equipped with some form of nuclear delivery: bombs, missiles, torpedoes. This “general war” would target thousands of sites in both the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellite states and China—a Sino-Soviet bloc overall target. This master plan carried the Top Secret name of Joint Strategic Capabilities Plan (JSCP), even secret from the president and Secretary of Defense in that they “did not know of the nature or even the existence of the JSCP.” Pentagon brass carefully guarded its secret existence as a means of purposely excluding any civilians at government policy or implementation positions from input.

This JSCP war plan became code-named SIOP (Single Integrated Operational Plan). The 1960 SIOP estimated that, with successive waves of US strategic bombers, tactical fighter bombers, and a handful of guided missiles then newly operational would cause massive destruction and kill, either by blast, consequential firestorms, or radiation fallout, at least a hundred million people in the Soviet Union and 300 million in China—half or more of their total populations at that time—plus likely another 100 million in Eastern Europe and Scandinavia. Each of these nuclear weapons carried from 100 to 1250 times the destructive force of the atomic bombs dropped on Japan in 1945.

When Ellsberg was surreptitiously permitted, by a military friend of high rank, to see copies of the JSCP and SIOP in early 1961, in his advisory capacity to the Department of Defense (DOD) he informed top presidential advisers of these secret plans. At the next National Security Council (NSC) staff meeting, he was given clearance to “go anywhere, ask anything, see anything” bearing on the Kennedy White House’s concerns to become fully informed about US war plans and projected consequences. The upshot of Ellsberg’s investigations forced the hand of the Pentagon to acknowledge that they did have Top Secret war plans being withheld from DOD and the executive branch. As a direct result, the NSC tabbed the civilian Ellsberg to draft a new Basic National Security Policy (BNSP) for the Department of Defense to establish the operative “civilian authority statement on the objectives and guidelines for all war planning within the DOD.”

Because of the existence of massive numbers of US nuclear weapons delivery systems—and presumably similar Soviet strength—writes Ellsberg, “Thus, there was an incalculably vast premium for deterring, preventing, and avoiding a general nuclear war under any circumstances.” Ellsberg’s 12-page war plan broadly and specifically replaced the existing plan inherited from the Eisenhower administration. It became officially accepted as the new US war policy and guidelines in mid-1961. Precautions, flexibilities, and actions were implemented to at best avoid and at worst limit nuclear war between the US and USSR.

If the old JSCP-SIOP had come to pass, in actuality the thermonuclear blasts and attendant firestorms spreading 2-5 times beyond the blast radius, plus massive radioactive fallout would have killed probably close to a billion people, fully a third of the population of the world at that time. And, this does not consider the smoke and soot propelled into the Earth’s upper atmosphere, which would spread and encircle the globe in a blanket, blocking out most sunlight for untold years, producing “nuclear winter” and effectively eliminating plant growth and harvest, thus yielding mass famine and starvation deaths—inevitably, Doomsday. At the time, this was not known, as studies showing nuclear winter did not appear until the 1980s. In 1986 the US had over 23,000 nuclear warheads and the USSR about 40,000. Ellsberg posed the question in 1961, again a quarter of a century later, and now, still grimly asking, “How many are enough to deter anyone from a first strike?”


Since the 1970s Ellsberg has been reconstructing the contents of his lost Top Secret nuclear papers. Using personal notes from past access to raw data, declassified documents, interviews, and published materials, he has written The Doomsday Machine, completed during the mid-first year of the Trump administration. He is, to say the least, particularly concerned and disturbed by the rhetoric coming out of the White House and North Korea. (Just this past January 25, The Washington Post reported that the latest edition of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, which keeps a “Doomsday Clock” status of nuclear annihilation, has moved up its big hand to two minutes to midnight in what they term a “grim assessment.” Citing the Bulletin, The Post reports, “In fact the Doomsday Clock is as close to midnight today as it was in 1953, when Cold War fears reached their highest levels. … To call the world situation dire is to understate the danger—and its immediacy.”)

Ellsberg, an insider for the past 60 years, is passionately outspoken in his concerns. He writes of current nuclear threats, that the systems which virtually assure adversaries’ mutual annihilation, along with nuclear winter (lasting for probably a decade or more), would result in global famine and mass starvation deaths worldwide. He says the term for this goes beyond the sanity of mutual suicide; it becomes the ultimate obscenity to life on earth—global “omnicide.” Further complicating any stability in this grim picture, China, Israel, Pakistan, India, France, and Britain all have sufficient stockpiles capable of initiating multiple nuclear strikes. Add in the growing sufficiency of North Korea, made more concerning by its aggressive stance and rhetoric, and the megadeath toxic stew is bubbling. Further, should a rogue entity detonate even one nuclear device in a terror operation, it is not at all clear or predictable how any of the nuclear-armed nations would react. How would they determine if it was not an initiation of strategic or all-out nuclear war by a suspected other? Ellsberg documents that certainly in the past, and likely now, something like this—at least in military thinking—would precipitate immediate retaliation. He notes that the way the deadly nuclear game has been played for 65 years is based on an unyielding perception that we “cannot survive, much less ‘win’ unless ‘we’ immediately respond,” simply because with incoming missiles there is no tolerable cushion of time for precautions.

Ellsberg finds it incredulous that for six decades no “unfortunate” accidental nuclear weapons triggering has occurred. His urgent bottom line is that, if the world is to survive nuclear insanity, the circumstances that have existed and have hardly become more tranquil since the early 1950s must be comprehensively addressed with top urgency to first pull back the clock and then, expeditiously, genuinely work toward dismantling the Doomsday apparatus.

Ellsberg observes, “What seems to me beyond question is that any social system (not only ours) that has created an maintained a Doomsday Machine and has put a trigger to it, including first-use of nuclear weapons … is in core aspects mad. Ours is such a system. We are in the grip of institutionalized madness … we are not a species to be trusted with nuclear weapons.” It is essential that we, as a human species, “retain a grasp of what might be called a moral reality, a human perspective that transcends insiders’ obsession with agency, service, party, or national advantage.” To ignore or rationalize this transcendent commitment to life is to fail our higher human capacity for transformational change.

Ellsberg continues, “Here is what we now know: the US and Russia each have an actual Doomsday Machine … a very expensive system of men, machines, electronics, communications, institutions, plans, training, disciplines, practices, and doctrine—which under conditions of electronic warning, external conflict, or expectations of attack would with unknowable but possibly high probability bring about the global destruction of civilization and of nearly all human life on Earth.”

“These two systems still risk Doomsday: both are still on hair-trigger alert that makes their joint existence unstable. They are susceptible to being triggered on a false alarm, a terrorist action, unauthorized launch, or a desperate decision to escalate. … This is true even though the Cold War that rationalized their existence and hair-trigger status—and their supposed necessity to international security—ended thirty years ago.”

Since he overcame his “nuclear naivete” upon shedding his participation in Cold War dynamics and got side-tracked with the Vietnam War and the Pentagon Papers, Daniel Ellsberg wishes to do now what he wanted to do half a century ago: issue an impassioned plea for citizens around the world to call for and demand a restoration of sanity from their leaders. He acknowledges that you “cannot eradicate the knowledge of how to make nuclear weapons delivery systems. But you can dismantle a Doomsday Machine. And that, at minimum, is what we must hasten to do.” For 65 years the “military-industrial-legislative complexes,” as Ellsberg sees the operative structure, have ruled. “If the two existing Doomsday Machines were dismantled … there would never be any strategic rationale for any one to reconstruct that capability.” He believes that dismantling physically “would be relatively simple, easily within a year,” but “incredibly difficult” politically and bureaucratically. Ellsberg asserts, “However low the probability might be of the US or Russia carrying out its current strategic contingency plans against the other, with the effect of causing nuclear winter and near human extinction, it will never be zero, so long as Doomsday Machines of the present type exist.” The real question each of us must ask is “Why is any risk other than zero remotely acceptable?

Daniel Ellsberg openly recognizes that “None of the necessary changes … for ultimate delegitimization of nuclear weapons and nuclear threats … can occur without an informed public, suitably alarmed by a situation that properly evokes horror, fear, revulsion, and incredulity accompanied by the determination of the highest order of urgency to eliminate it.” As the positive course of history teaches us, “forces for sustaining an unjust and dangerous status quo are not all-powerful.” If the Doomsday Machine scenarios are not changed now, when will it be too late?

One thought on “Daniel Ellsberg’s Doomsday Papers

  1. Ran across this quotation this morning. It’s from seven decades ago, but still applicable today. WWII General Omar Bradley said this in his Armistice Day address (now Veterans Day) in 1948: “We have grasped the mystery of the atom and rejected the Sermon on the Mount . . . Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants. We know more about war than we know about peace, more about killing than we know about living.”


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