The Doomsday Machine 

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5 stars
An uncontrollable machine of global annihilation must be dismantled

Before Ed Snowden and Chelsea Manning, there was Daniel Ellsberg, a military analyst who leaked the Pentagon Papers to 19 newspapers in order to inform the American public about the true nature of the Vietnam war. Ellsberg became a committed anti-war activist, but early in his career he was a devoted Cold Warrior. As a strategic analyst for the RAND Corporation, he reviewed and helped shape America’s policy for thermonuclear warfare.

The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner are Ellsberg’s recollections of this work, combined with a summary of what’s become known about the highly secretive nuclear war plans of the United States and the Soviet Union since then—and how those plans fared in reality during times of crisis. He argues that we have created a Strangelovian doomsday machine which remains on hair-trigger alert, and that the primary goal of nuclear policy at this point should be to dismantle that machine.

Ellsberg documents how close humanity came to self-destruction during the Cold War, and also shows convincingly how the threat of first use remains a key element of US foreign policy, with enemies old and new. This barbaric idea—that it is perfectly reasonable to threaten first use of nuclear warfare as an “option on the table”—must surely die before true progress toward global nuclear disarmament can be made.

How and why did rational people who loved their families and wanted peace for their children participate in planning for global annihilation? Ellsberg provides a brief history lesson on how war planners during World War II embraced with increasing enthusiasm the idea of “strategic bombing”, a euphemism for murdering and maiming large numbers of civilians—men, women and children—in order to “demoralize” an enemy, culminating in the firebombing of Tokyo.


“My Child” by Miyamoto Kenzo, a survivor of the firebombing of Tokyo (Credit: Miyamoto Kenzo. Fair use.)

“It was an ocean of fire. My mother held my hand as we entered the chaotic stream of refugees and headed for the Arakawa embankment. This painting is of something I saw on the way and have never been able to forget. A pregnant woman was standing there like a ghost; at her feet was a child of perhaps three or four years. The child wasn’t moving at all. The way they were lit up by the flames around them—it was a sight I saw at twelve that was so horrifying I’ll never be able to forget it.” — Miyamoto Kenzo, who was 12 at the time of the Tokyo raid. (Source)


This mass murder was rationalized in simple terms: it was said to shorten the war and minimize American casualties. In this context, the idea of using atom bombs was seen as mainly a step up in efficiency, not a fundamental shift in policy. And individuals like Curtis LeMay, who led the firebombing campaign—far from facing charges—would be put in charge of key military and civilian functions as America built up its nuclear arsenal.

The Verdict

Ellsberg’s book is lucid, personal and informative, and his warnings are timely in an America led by a self-described madman who threatens nuclear annihilation of North Korea one day, then brokers theatrical peace talks the next. Some readers will be put off by the heavy use of military acronyms—they’re enumerated in a bare-bones glossary, but often get in the way while reading. There are no photographs, tables or illustrations, but Ellsberg cites his sources extensively, many of which are online.

Countless books have been written about the folly of nuclear weapons, and about the imminent threat to human existence that they continue to pose. Some are more emotionally persuasive than The Doomsday Machine, others provide more complete historical context. Certainly Ellsberg’s level of access during his time as a military analyst gives him an unusual and compelling vantage point. But what this book does exceptionally well is to demonstrate that the dangers of nuclear warfare are not contingent on monstrous individuals being in charge.

Even with better leaders than the ones we have today, these weapons should not exist because they cannot be controlled. With the leaders we have, eliminating them is a moral emergency.

Disclosure: I work for Freedom of the Press Foundation, where Ellsberg is a Board member.