Magazine article Monthly Review

Notes from the Editors

Magazine article Monthly Review

Notes from the Editors

Article excerpt

In January 2018, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved its doomsday clock forward by thirty seconds, to two minutes to midnight, indicating that the world is now as close as it has ever been to doomsday-tying 1953, at the height of the Cold War-due to growing threats of both nuclear war and irreversible, catastrophic climate change.

In this context, Daniel Ellsberg's new book The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner (Bloomsbury, 2017)-the most important concrete warning with respect to nuclear war preparations to appear in decades-takes on added urgency. Ellsberg is best known for his role in leaking the Pentagon Papers, of which he was an author. But as a special assistant and then consultant to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, Ellsberg also played a central role in nuclear war planning. He was the principal author of what he calls in this book "the other Pentagon Papers"-a set of documents which were, in his view, of even greater significance, since they detailed U.S. preparations for nuclear war (6).

In 1971, Ellsberg had carefully separated these nuclear war papers from what were to be the Pentagon Papers, and decided, because of the urgency of the Vietnam War, to leak the latter first, followed by the former. But with the FBI after him, Ellsberg had his brother Harry hide the nuclear war papers in his backyard in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York. Harry then transferred them (just ahead of the FBI) to a pit dug at the edge of a municipal waste dump, where they could easily be recovered-but when a tropical storm hit the area, caving in parts of the dump, the papers were irretrievably lost.

Nevertheless, in the decades since, many of those nuclear war planning papers have been declassified, and Ellsberg himself retained numerous documents, which he has posted on his website, http://ellsberg.net. It was therefore possible for him finally to tell the story of "the other Pentagon Papers" and the doomsday machine, with sufficient corroboration to make it credible.

It is difficult to convey the extraordinary range of revelations and-more importantly-the careful, probing analysis that Ellsberg presents. A number of these, though, should be mentioned. The doomsday machine dramatized in Stanley Kubrick's 1964 film Dr. Strangelove, is, it turns out, substantially real. Due to the shift of nuclear war strategy toward "decapitation"-targeting and removing leaders-the feared general thermonuclear exchange has in effect been put on automatic. Any nuclear attack on Moscow or Washington would set off "doomsday machines," i.e., virtually automatic general thermonuclear exchanges, threatening the population of the entire earth-propelling so much smoke into the upper atmosphere from fires in a thousand or more cities as to create a nuclear freeze and famine, resulting in omnicide. Similar automatic doomsday machine plans have been adopted by all the other nuclear powers: Britain, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea.

But perhaps Ellsberg's most important argument of all is one he had already presented in his article "Call to Mutiny," in the September 1981 issue of Monthly Review (adapted from the foreword to the book Protest and Survive, edited by E. P. Thompson and Dan Smith, published by Monthly Review Press). That essay, in conjunction with his new book, gives a thoroughly documented analysis of how nuclear weapons have been used again and again-most often by the United States-as threats directed at various nation-states to achieve geopolitical ends. Each such use of nuclear weapons as a threat takes us closer to the precipice of all-out nuclear war. Ellsberg has all sorts of proposals for "dismantling the doomsday machine," including a call for the United States and all other nuclear powers to back off from their first-strike postures. He ends his book by quoting Martin Luther King, Jr.: "We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent coannihilation" (350). …

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