Review of reviews: Books
Book of the week
The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner
by Daniel Ellsberg
For Daniel Ellsberg, the Pentagon Papers weren’t the half of it, said Glenn Altschuler in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. In his “chilling” new book about U.S. nuclear weapons policy, the whistleblower who in 1971 leaked classified documents about U.S. operations in Vietnam details how he was, at the time, planning to expose an even more explosive secret cache. Ever since the well-placed military analyst first gained access to the nation’s plans for nuclear war, he’d worried that they put the fate of the planet at risk, and in following years he copied thousands of documents that could prove it. That hoard, alas, was lost in a storm while Ellsberg was on the lam. Decades of others’ reporting have shaken loose many secrets, though, and that has enabled Ellsberg to finally issue the warning he always intended.
The first third of the new book is “arguably the best first-person account of what nuclear war planning was really like,” said Thomas Powers in The New York Review of Books. Hired by the RAND Corp. out of Harvard, Ellsberg used his think-tank perch to help the Pentagon shape its nuclear strike doctrines, and he worked closely with Herman Kahn, Curtis LeMay, and other key policymakers. But he gradually became unsettled by what he learned about command-and-control procedures. He discovered, for example, that even a small U.S.- Soviet skirmish could trigger the deployment of America’s entire nuclear arsenal. And it wasn’t just the president who had his finger on the button, said Fred Kaplan in Slate.com. A wide circle of officials were similarly empowered, and the same was true for the Soviets, which meant that only luck prevented two officers on a Soviet nuclear sub from firing their torpedoes during the Cuban missile crisis. Ellsberg reached a turning point when he saw a 1961 Joint Chiefs of Staff memo that casually noted that the death toll from a full-scale U.S. nuclear attack would probably reach 600 million. “From that day on,” he writes, “I have had one overriding life purpose: to prevent the execution of any such plan.”
Because the danger hasn’t passed, he offers some bold proposals, said Kevin Canfield in the San Francisco Chronicle. Yet it’s hard to imagine any president heeding Ellsberg’s call for the elimination of land-based missiles, much less agreeing to a “no-first-use” pledge. Ellsberg admits as much, but insists such measures are needed. “This is not a species to be trusted with nuclear weapons,” he writes. “And that doesn’t just apply to ‘crazy’ Third World leaders.”