In The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner, shortlisted for the Carnegie nonfiction medal, renowned whistle-blower Daniel Ellsberg dramatically and alarmingly reveals the mad precariousness of our nuclear arsenal.
SEAMAN: The Doomsday Machine is a phenomenal work of recollection as well as a galvanizing exposé. How did you summon up such vivid detail about experiences you had decades ago?
ELLSBERG: In August 1971, just after I had been indicted for releasing the Pentagon Papers, my lawyer, Charles Nesson, sat me down with a tape recorder and asked me to recount “everything I had worked on secretly at RAND, the Pentagon, and State Department.” The resulting 500-page transcript is the basis of the first 12 chapters of the book.
SEAMAN: You reveal many terrifying secrets about the risks scientists and the military took with the development and control of nuclear weapons. Can you highlight one key example?
ELLSBERG: Here is one that applies to a crisis evolving as I write. Both the Soviet Union and (to my knowledge at the time) the U.S. were hoping to survive a nuclear exchange between themselves by launching, upon receiving tactical (and possibly false) warning that they were under attack, a preemptive attack on the opponent’s command and control, “decapitating” the adversary’s capital and central command centers. These plans were doomed to fail. President Eisenhower and all his successors during the Cold War had secretly delegated authority to launch nuclear attacks on the Soviet Union (and China!) if communications were cut off from Washington and other command centers. The Soviets constructed a comparable “Dead Hand” system that ensured retaliation if these plans were carried out. Now plans have been publicized both by North Korea and the U.S. that, in case of war, the first priority for each would be a decapitating attack. I would judge the likelihood to be near certainty that such a successful decapitation would not paralyze North Korean retaliation but rather ensure retaliation.
SEAMAN: What role do you hope The Doomsday Machine will play in public discourse about the dangerous realities of nuclear weapons?
ELLSBERG: Assuming, and hoping desperately, that neither actions by Kim Jong-un (by new testing) nor President Trump (by reacting or preempting as he has threatened) have led to a disastrous war before this book’s publication, on December 5, I would wish for the history I’ve recounted to inform their advisors, and the world, of the stakes actually at risk in their current threats, plans, and preparations for a war that would be insanely murderous and that would lead, I believe, to irreversible new nuclear arms races that would lower the already low chances for human survival. And on the basis of such awareness, I hope, from my own experience as described in this memoir, that some individuals will be encouraged to do what I wish I had done as an insider in the 1960s: at whatever cost to themselves, to do everything they can, nonviolently and truthfully, to expose to others, and to reduce, the risks of impending catastrophe. To such people in North and South Korea and in the U.S., I say: Don’t do what I did. Don’t wait to tell the truth to the public and legislatures until you’ve lost your access or (as in my case) the documents themselves. Don’t wait until the “smoking gun” about your own country’s reckless nuclear threats and policies is a mushroom cloud.
Donna Seaman is Adult Books Editor for Booklist, a recipient of the Studs Terkel Humanities Service Award, a member of the Content Leadership Team for the American Writers Museum, and a frequent presenter at literary events and programs. Seaman’s new book is Identity Unknown: Rediscovering Seven American Women Artists.