Link at the end of this review to a series of interviews with Daniel Ellsberg in which he discuses The Doomsday Machine in detail.
At a certain age it’s natural to think back over all the close calls, the life or death moments that seemed trivial at the time but could have gone either way, and to reflect on what a miracle it is we’re here on earth. A fall from the jungle gym when your head barely missed that sharp rock, the night your stomach was pumped just before alcohol poisoning set in, when loose gravel crunched underfoot and you felt off-balance taking a selfie on the lip of the Grand Canyon. For most Americans these moments involve an automobile. That time you got behind the wheel after a halfdozen too many, or the night you drove on the thin red line across two states, determined to make it home from college before dawn. But because you kept snapping awake instead of dozing off for good, because we made it and because we’re sentient beings blessed with the power of self-reflection, we can hopefully learn, after all these dumbass mistakes, to make safer decisions in the future.
How many never lived to realize the danger?
Daniel Ellsberg is best known for leaking some 7,000 pages of classified files known collectively as the Pentagon Papers, to which he had access as a government contractor with the RAND Corporation. In the opening pages of The Doomsday Machine, though, we learn the Pentagon Papers comprised only about half of the documents Ellsberg copied. The rest dealt with the U.S. strategic plan for a nuclear war with Russia, and while Ellsberg’s focus at the time was on maximizing the Pentagon Papers’ impact on the Vietnam War, he intended to release all of the copied documents in his possession. Tragically for us, in the process of hiding them (and himself) from the federal government, his copies of the remaining documents were lost in a landfill and never recovered. Many if not most have since been declassified, and Ellsberg has spent decades reconstructing his work so as to inform the American public of the dangers inherent in our nuclear arsenal.
Take for example the fact of nuclear winter. Not until 1983 had anyone thought to consider the atmospheric effects of the fires caused by nuclear bombs. That is, whole cities would burn, and the smoke from these fires would be drawn up into the upper atmosphere where it would remain for decades, blocking out the sun and sending Earth into an ice age and destroying crop yields. Global famine and near-extinction would result. So while our Cold War strategy was based on the principle of Mutually-Assured Destruction (MAD), we now know that even a first-strike nuclear attack on a handful of cities — no retaliation needed — is enough to cause nuclear winter. Estimates place the loss of life in the range of 98% of the total human population, and nearly all animals larger than a squirrel.
Let that sink in.
Near extinction in the first few years following a nuclear first-strike attack, and over the course of all but the final six years of the Cold War we had no idea. Our strategy — unbeknownst to either the public or the President or the war planners themselves — was one of Self-Assured Destruction, it was a suicide bomb.
Ellsberg’s background is in what we now call Game Theory, which of late has been co-opted by pseudo-intellectual bros on social media but as a discipline it is the study of how people make decisions based on incomplete information. So his focus at the RAND Corporation was on command and control, as well as factors affecting the decision-making process for launching nuclear weapons. Consider but one terrifying example: Kadena Air Base on Okinawa.
The pilots regularly conducted readiness drills, as you’d expect. At random times they practiced scrambling to their jets, simulating a launch-on-warning order. In the case of an actual launch-on-warning, which is not an attack but a kind of escalation in readiness, bombers are to fly to a rendezvous point where they wait for an authenticated execute order — this is where the “nuclear codes” come in, more on them later. In the absence of an authenticated execute order the planes are supposed to return to base, and this is known as positive control: the absence of further orders is not enough for the pilots to fly to their targets and drop their bombs, they must receive a further, positive order to do so.
But the pilots practiced only up to the point of starting their jet engines on the tarmac. They never taxied or took off or flew to any rendezvous point, so Ellsberg walks us through the psychological stresses the pilots would be under if they were ever to receive a launch-on-warning command and the likelihood they would assume this command was “the real thing.” Because these pilots at Kadena had never been in the air with nuclear bombs before, it would be entirely outside the scope of their routine training, and if they never received further orders how would they interpret the silence? In the absence of further information, how would they decide what to do?
You might think it’s fairly straightforward: if they don’t receive another order, they return to their base. Yet at the time our communication technology was such that atmospheric conditions interfered with radio signals on a regular basis. Kadena Air Base and bases around the world were daily cut off from communication with their command structure, sometimes multiple times a day. Was it possible that the pilots might fear they’d missed the execute order, and so go on to drop their bombs anyway? What if the silence meant that Washington D.C. had already been attacked and destroyed by Soviet missiles? How would they know?
The pilots with whom Ellsberg spoke agreed with his assessment, that “the first time, or even the first few times, that alert pilots found themselves circling in a rendezvous area with bombs aboard waiting for an Execute or a Return message, they would be strongly inclined to expect the worst, simply because it was the first time they had gotten that far.”
And what did the officers think? One Major at a base in Kunsan, South Korea told him: “‘If they didn’t get any Execute message? Oh, I think they’d come back.’ Pause. ‘Most of them.’”
Which brings us back to the launch codes.
The Nuclear Football that accompanies the President at all times is pure theater, and what we think of as the nuclear launch codes have nothing whatsoever to do with launching the weapons themselves. (The actual numeric code by the way, the key to the digital safety mechanism on all of our siloed intercontinental ballistic missiles, is 00000000.) The authentication code is an 8-digit number, which is meant to verify that an execute order is coming from the proper authority. These pilots from Kadena, and everywhere else, have an envelope with them in the cockpit and printed on the outside of this envelope is a series of 4-digit numbers. If the first four digits of the execute order match any of these numbers, they open the envelope to see if the second half of the execute order matches any of the 4-digit numeric series on the sheet of paper inside the envelope.
Stated simply, every nuclear bomber and every nuclear-missile submarine and every missile silo in our nuclear arsenal of over 4,000 warheads possesses the full, authentic nuclear launch codes. And all of them are accessible with a letter opener.
Ellsberg’s legitimate concern is that one of the pilots at the rendezvous point, believing that nuclear war has already started, could open the envelope and transmit an authentic execute order to the rest of the bombers in his group. But reading this passage of The Doomsday Machine, what struck me was the reason the pilots at Kadena never practiced taking off:
“Each of the alert planes, single-person F-100s, was carrying a Mark 28 thermonuclear weapon outside the plane, beneath the undercarriage. These weapons, we were told, were designed to be carried inside a plane for greater safety. But there was no room in these fighter-bombers.”
“…there was a danger that if they were dropped or involved in a crash or a fire or an explosion and one or two sections of the high explosive detonated, it would mean not only the dispersal of radioactive contamination from the plutonium trigger over a large area but also a possible partial or total nuclear explosion.”
The weapons and the weapon-mounts on these planes were so unsafe that they could not be moved for fear that an accident would destroy their own airbase. Terrifying enough to consider in isolation, but this is only one airbase with 10 planes. Imagine a defense industry and a military that does such a thing, that takes a weapon designed to go inside the bomb bay of an airplane and instead mounts it on the outside. Imagine the institution that resolves this critical safety flaw not by engineering a better weapon mount but instead by not practicing taxiing or taking off, and yet expects pilots to do so safely the very first time they are given an order to launch — likely the most stressful situation of their lives. It was not only possible, but plausible that under such stress and confusion an accident on the ground would cause a nuclear explosion, all but ensuring that any surviving pilots would assume that war had begun.
This is the same military that in 2007 accidentally flew a B-52 bomber armed with six nuclear missiles across the country and left it on an unsecured tarmac for over a day. The same military that in 1961 dropped two nuclear bombs on North Carolina when a B-52 broke apart in mid-air, that came close to destroying Arkansas with a Titan II missile and a socket wrench in 1980, and the terrifying list goes on.
Even more troubling to Ellsberg is the delegation of authority to launch a nuclear attack. Most Americans believe only the President can authorize the use of nuclear weapons, because this is what we’re led to believe through the rhetoric of “finger on the button” and the show of the soldier with the briefcase and so on. But if you think about it for a minute, of course the President is not the only one who can authorize a nuclear strike. What happens if Washington D.C., or wherever the President happens to be, is the first target hit in a surprise attack? How would we possibly counter-attack? Who would give the order?
Ellsberg thus spent much of his career investigating the delegation of nuclear launch authority throughout the military chain of command, and he spends a great deal of the book detailing his findings. In the interest of space, I will say here only that just about everyone in the military with access to nuclear weapons believes they themselves have the authority to launch them, right down to the commander of those 10 bombers that aren’t allowed to move during practice at Kadena Air Base on Okinawa, who explicitly told Ellsberg that if he felt his base were under threat of imminent attack he would launch his nuclear forces under his own authority. And moreover, he believed he was morally obligated and justified under the rules of military engagement to do so.
So for all the legitimate fear around the mental stability of our current President, we should be equally concerned about the mental and emotional stability of thousands of other unknown individuals in the U.S. military.
While still the GOP nominee, during a 45-minute briefing with a foreign-policy advisor President Trump reportedly asked three times why, if we have nuclear weapons, we can’t use them. The question is not as dumb as it first sounds, especially if you reverse the terms: if we can’t use nuclear weapons, why do we have them? And this is the core problem that former-President and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Barrack Obama’s $1 Trillion nuclear arsenal modernization plan set out to solve, by developing smaller-yield, “more useable” warheads like neutron bombs.
In 1961, more than 20 years before the phenomenon of nuclear winter was understood or even imagined, Ellsberg requested an estimate of the total casualties from a US first-strike nuclear attack. He received a report in the form of a single-page graph, which he explains as follows:
“The total death toll as calculated by the Joint Chiefs, from a US first strike aimed at the Soviet Union, its Warsaw Pact satellites, and China, would be roughly six hundred million. Dead. A hundred Holocausts.”
A hundred Holocausts, roughly a fifth of the world’s population at the time. The obvious question is how any human being, anywhere, at any time could calculate that figure and not immediately dismantle the system responsible for it. And this is where The Doomsday Machine excels within the nuclear-exposé genre, in charting the evolution of aerial bombing and the escalation of acceptable casualties — particularly civilian casualties, in US war plans.
Raised on revisionist war propaganda like the 1990 film Memphis Belle, for most of my life I believed high-altitude bombing was a precise and necessary affair, aimed at military targets and factories involved in military production, and a vital component of the Allies’ victory. But nothing could be further from the truth. Flying at night, WWII bombers would be lucky to find the right city, let alone a target, and so daylight raids were preferred in spite of the heavy losses incurred from enemy fighter planes and anti-aircraft fire. Yet even during the day “the British measured their bombing accuracy in miles and the US in thousands of feet,” and thus aiming for specific factory buildings was out of the question. Whole neighborhoods had to be the target, and of course these were working-class neighborhoods because the buildings are packed together more densely where they are easier to hit and it is easier to start large fires. And this meant deliberately targeting civilian populations, which is a war crime. And while killing civilians did not help the Allies win the war, because they did win no one was ever tried for their crimes.
The atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were an extension of, not a break from, the US strategy of deliberately bombing civilian populations in both Germany and Japan, championed most fiercely by General Curtis LeMay, a true psychopath who later went on to serve as Chief of Staff of the US Air Force. We killed 600,000 in Germany, 900,000 in Japan. 100,000 of those Japanese were killed in a single night in Tokyo when LeMay succeeded in creating a firestorm, a phenomenon familiar to us in wildfire-prone California in which fires of such intensity create their own weather patterns, and was LeMay’s ultimate goal in strategic bombing.
In Tokyo, on the night of March 9th, 1945, bombing “had all the effects of the firestorms in Hamburg and Dresden, but winds acting as a bellows produced temperatures even more intense than in those conflagrations, eighteen hundred degrees Fahrenheit. People fleeing suffocation in the shelters took to the streets to escape and became blazing torches unable to move in the melting asphalt. Tokyo, like Venice, was covered with canals, to which mothers raced with their children to get away from the heat. The smaller canals began to boil, and families boiled to death by the thousands.”
In comparison, the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed 300,000 people, but the number that determined the course of US Cold War strategy was 26,000,000. Russia lost twenty-six million people in WWII — a 9/11 sized event every day for 24 consecutive years — and still emerged victorious on the Eastern Front, and thus US war planners treated this figure as a bare minimum requirement for Soviet casualties.
The lethal potential of our nuclear arsenal has surpassed that requirement more than 280 times over, killing not tens of millions but billions of people if it is ever used even on a small scale. The Doomsday Machine traces a part of the history of how we got here, but more importantly it reminds us that global nuclear annihilation is a continuous and ongoing close call, that we are on shaky ground at the edge of oblivion. It is a miracle that we are alive. And meanwhile we’re currently perpetuating the longest active war in US history — we cannot wait for the threat of imminent escalation to build a peace movement in this country. Anti-war, anti-nuclear, and anti-imperialist activism must be an everyday part of everything we do. Anything less, and we’re falling dead asleep at the wheel.
T.E. Winningham is a Lecturer in the Engineering Writing Program at the University of Southern California.
Link to interview: