Excerpt — December 6, 2017, 3:34 pm

Omnicide

“Here is what we now know: the United States and Russia each have an actual Doomsday Machine.”

From The Doomsday Machine, which was published this month by Bloomsbury. The book is an account of America’s nuclear program in the 1960s drawn from Ellsberg’s experience as a consultant to the Department of Defense and the White House, drafting Secretary Robert McNamara’s plans for nuclear war. Ellsberg is the author of Secrets, a book about his experiences leaking the Pentagon Papers.

At the conclusion of his 1964 film, Dr. Strangelove, Stanley Kubrick introduced the concept of a “Doomsday Machine”—designed by the Soviet Union to deter nuclear attack against the country by automating the destruction of all human life as a response to such an attack. The movie’s Russian leader had installed the system before revealing it to the world, however, and it was now being triggered by a single nuclear explosion from an American B-52 sent off by a rogue commander without presidential authorization.

Kubrick had borrowed the name and the concept of the Doomsday machine from my former colleague Herman Kahn, a Rand physicist with whom he had discussed it. In his 1960 book On Thermonuclear War, Kahn wrote that he would be able to design such a device. It could be produced within ten years and would be relatively cheap—since it could be placed in one’s own country or in the ocean. It would not depend on sending warheads halfway around the world.

But, he said, the machine was obviously undesirable. It would be too difficult to control— too inflexible and automatic—and its failure “kills too many people”—everyone, in fact, an outcome that the philosopher John Somerville later termed “omnicide.” Kahn was sure in 1961 that no such system had been built, nor would it be, by either the United States or the Soviet Union.

The physicist Edward Teller, known as the “father of the H-bomb,” likewise denied that omnicide—a concept he derided—was remotely feasible. In answer to a question I posed to him in 1982, he said emphatically that it was impossible that the thermonuclear weapons that he had co-invented would kill “more than a quarter of the earth’s population.”

At the time, I thought of this assurance, ironically, as a version of the glass being three quarters full. (Teller was, along with Kahn, Henry Kissinger, and the former Nazi missile designer Wernher von Braun, one of Kubrick’s inspirations for the character of Dr. Strangelove.) And Teller’s estimate was closely in line with what the Joints Chief of Staff, or JCS, actually planned to do in 1961, though a better estimate would have been closer to one-third to one-half of the world population.

But the JCS were mistaken in 1961, and so was Herman Kahn in 1960, and so was Teller in 1982. Just one year after Teller had underestimated the destructive powers of nuclear weapons, the first papers to describe the phenomenon of nuclear winter were published. Nuclear winter referred to the effects of smoke injected into the stratosphere by firestorms generated by H-bombs. Although the Doomsday machine wasn’t likely to kill every last human, its fallout, once triggered, would come close to deserve its name.

Like covert operations and assassination plots, nuclear war plans and threats are not publicly discussed by the small minority of officials and consultants who know anything about them. These officials keep silent to maintain high clearances, access, and the possibility of being consultants after they’ve left service. This discretion, coupled with systematic secrecy, lying, and obfuscation has created extremely deficient scholarly and journalistic understanding and almost total public and congressional ignorance.

As a result, most aspects of the US nuclear planning system that I knew half a century ago still exist today, as prone to catastrophe as ever but on a scale that vastly exceeds what was understood then. The present risks of the current nuclear era go far beyond the dangers of proliferation and non-state terrorism that have been the almost exclusive focus of public concern for the past generation and the past decade in particular. The arsenals and plans of Russia and the US are not only an insuperable obstacle to an effective global anti-proliferation campaign; they are themselves an existential danger to the human species.

The hidden reality I aim to expose is that for more than fifty years, all-out thermonuclear war—an irreversible, unprecedented, and almost unimaginable calamity for civilization and most life on earth—has been, like the disasters of Chernobyl, Katrina, the Gulf oil spill, and Fukushima Daiichi, and a catastrophe waiting to happen, on a scale infnitely greater than any of these. And that is still true today.

Here is what we now know: the United States and Russia each have an actual Doomsday Machine. It is not the same system that Herman Kahn envisioned (or Stanley Kubrick portrayed), with warheads buried deep and programmed to explode in their own territories, producing deadly global fallout. But a counterpart nevertheless exists for both countries: a system of men, machines, electronics, communications, institutions, plans, training, discipline, practices, and doctrine—which, under conditions of electronic warning, external conflict, or expectations of attack, would with unknowable but possibly high probability bring about the global destruction of civilization. These two systems still risk doomsday: both are on hair-trigger alert that makes their joint existence unstable. This is true even though the Cold War that rationalized their existence ended thirty years ago.

Here’s the scenario: the fallout would remain mostly limited to the northern hemisphere but the smoke and soot genereated by fierce firestorms in hundreds of burning cities would be lofted into the stratosphere, where it would not rain out and would remain for a decade or more, enveloping the globe in smoke and blocking out sunlight, lowering temperatures to the level of the last Ice Age, and killing all harvests worldwide, causing near-universal starvation within a year or two.

U.S. plans for thermonuclear war in the early sixties, if carried out in the Berlin or Cuban missile crises, would have killed many times more than the six hundred million people predicted by the JCS. They would have starved to death nearly everyone then living: at that time three billion people. The numbers of warheads in the possession of the U.S. and Russia have since declined. Yet according to the most recent scientific calculations, even a fraction of the existing arsenals would be enough to cause nuclear winter today.

Does the United States still need a Doomsday Machine? Does Russia? Did they ever? Does its existence serve any national or international interest to a degree that would justify the danger to human life?

I do not ask the questions rhetorically. They deserve sober, reflective consideration. The answers seem obvious, but as far as I know they have never been addressed. There follows another question: Does any nation on earth have a right to possess such a power? A right to threaten—by its simple possession of that power— the continued existence of all other nations and their people, their cities, and civilization as a whole? Why is anything other than zero risk remotely acceptable?

We did not set out intentionally to acquire a doomsday capability. The existence of one such machine does not create a tangible incentive for an enemy to have one. In fact, having two on alert against one another is far more dangerous than if only one existed. If the two existing machines were stripped of their doomsday potential, there would be no strategic rationale to reconstruct it, any more than there was a conscious intention in the first place.

The good news is that dismantling the Doomsday Machine in one country or both would be relatively simple in concept and in physical operation (though politically and bureaucratically incredibly difficult). It could be accomplished within a year. But it would mean—and here’s where institutional resistance would be strong—giving up certain illusions about our nuclear forces. It would mean scrapping our strategic nuclear war plans and discarding most of the forces deployed to carry them out.

However low the probability might currently be of the United States or Russia carrying out its strategic contingency plans against the other and causing nuclear winter, it never will be zero, so long as Doomsday Machines of the present type exist. Just how high does the risk have to be to make it intolerable? What risk of nuclear winter is “acceptable” as the price of maintaining our current strategic forces?

Since the end of the Cold War, the greatest likelihood is that a preemptive atttack will be triggered by an electronic false alarm (which has repeatedly occurred) or an accidental detonation (which was a real risk in a number of previous accidents).

The danger that either a false alarm or a terrorist attack on Washington or Moscow would lead to a preemptive attack derives almost entirely from the existence in both countries of land-based missile forces, each vulnerable to attack by the other and therefore kept on a high state of alert, ready to launch within minutes of warning.

The easiest and fastest way to reduce that risk—and indeed, the overall danger of nuclear war—is to dismantle entirely (not merely “dealert”) the Minuteman III missile force, the U.S. land-based leg of the nuclear “triad.” This shift would not totally eliminate the dangers of nuclear war, but it would abolish the threat of nuclear winter.

This dismantlement of the Doomsday Machines is not intended as an adequate longterm substitute for more ambitious, necessary goals, including total universal abolition of nuclear weapons. We cannot accept the conclusion that abolition must be ruled out “for the foreseeable future” or put off for generations. There will not be a human future without it.

The nuclear weapon states must acknowledge the reality that they have been denying and that non-nuclear weapon states have been proclaiming for almost fifty years: effective nonproliferation is unavoidably linked to nuclear disarmament. Either all nations forgo the right to possess nuclear weapons indefinitely and to threaten others with them under any circumstances, or every nation will claim that right, and actual possession and use will become widespread.

What is often missing in the typical discussion of nuclear policies is the recognition that what is being discussed is dizzyingly insane. It is insane in its almost-incalculable destructiveness and deliberate murderousness, its disproportionality of risked and planned destructiveness for its secretly pursued aims (damage limitation to the United States and allies, “victory” in two-sided nuclear war), its criminality (to a degree that explodes visions of law, justice, crime), its lack of wisdom or compassion, its sinfulness and evil.

And yet part of what must be grasped—what makes it both understandable, once grasped, and at the same time mysterious and resistant to our ordinary understanding—is that the creation, maintenance, and political use of these monstrous machines has been directed and accomplished by ordinary people, neither better nor worse than the rest of us.

Is it really possible that normal, ordinary politicians, analysts, and military strategists have created and accepted dangers of the sort I am describing? Every impulse is to say “No! It can’t be that bad! And if it ever was, it can’t be true now, in our own country.”

That impulse is mistaken. After all, we Americans have seen human-caused catastrophes in recent years reflecting governmental or corporate recklessness that is far more conscious and deliberate. Above all, the invasion of Iraq and the occupation of Afghanistan, but also the failure to prepare for or respond to Hurricane Katrina, the Gulf oil spill, and the 2008 financial crisis: the savings-and-loan scandal, Internet and housing bubbles, criminal fraud, and the meltdown of the banking and investment system.

Perhaps reflection on these political, social, and moral failures—and the disastrous decision- making of Donald Trump—will lend credibility to my basic theme, otherwise hard to absorb: that these same heedless, shortsighted, reckless, and dishonest decisions have characterized our government’s nuclear policies, risking a catastrophe incomparably greater than all others.

Our mortal predicament did not begin with the election of Donald J. Trump, and it will not end with his departure. The obstacles to achieving these necessary changes are posed not so much by the American public—though in recent years it has shown dismaying manipulability— but by officials and elites in both parties and by major institutions that consciously support militarism, American hegemony, and arms production and sales.

No policies in human history have more deserved to be recognized as immoral. The story of how this calamitous predicament came about and how and why it has persisted for over half a century is a chronicle of human madness. Whether Americans, Russians, and the rest of the world can rise to the challenge of reversing these policies and eliminating the danger of near-term extinction caused by their own inventions and proclivities remains to be seen. I choose to act as if that is still possible.

Share
Single Page

More from Daniel Ellsberg:

From the May 2017 issue

Paper Pushers

From the October 2006 issue

The next war

Get access to 168 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

October 2018

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
The Printed Word in Peril·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In February, at an event at the 92nd Street Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center in New York, while sharing the stage with my fellow British writer Martin Amis and discussing the impact of screen-based reading and bidirectional digital media on the Republic of Letters, I threw this query out to an audience that I estimate was about three hundred strong: “Have any of you been reading anything by Norman Mailer in the past year?” After a while, one hand went up, then another tentatively semi-elevated. Frankly I was surprised it was that many. Of course, there are good reasons why Mailer in particular should suffer posthumous obscurity with such alacrity: his brand of male essentialist braggadocio is arguably extraneous in the age of Trump, Weinstein, and fourth-wave feminism. Moreover, Mailer’s brilliance, such as it was, seemed, even at the time he wrote, to be sparks struck by a steely intellect against the tortuous rocks of a particular age, even though he labored tirelessly to the very end, principally as the booster of his own reputation.

It’s also true that, as J. G. Ballard sagely remarked, for a writer, death is always a career move, and for most of us the move is a demotion, as we’re simultaneously lowered into the grave and our works into the dustbin. But having noted all of the above, it remains the case that Mailer’s death coincided with another far greater extinction: that of the literary milieu in which he’d come to prominence and been sustained for decades. It’s a milieu that I hesitate to identify entirely with what’s understood by the ringing phrase “the Republic of Letters,” even though the overlap between the two was once great indeed; and I cannot be alone in wondering what will remain of the latter once the former, which not long ago seemed so very solid, has melted into air.

What I do feel isolated in—if not entirely alone in—is my determination, as a novelist, essayist, and journalist, not to rage against the dying of literature’s light, although it’s surprising how little of this there is, but merely to examine the great technological discontinuity of our era, as we pivot from the wave to the particle, the fractal to the fungible, and the mechanical to the computable. I first began consciously responding, as a literary practitioner, to the manifold impacts of ­BDDM in the early 2000s—although, being the age I am, I have been feeling its effects throughout my working life—and I first started to write and speak publicly about it around a decade ago. Initially I had the impression I was being heard out, if reluctantly, but as the years have passed, my attempts to limn the shape of this epochal transformation have been met increasingly with outrage, and even abuse, in particular from my fellow writers.

As for my attempts to express the impact of the screen on the page, on the actual pages of literary novels, I now understand that these were altogether irrelevant to the requirement of the age that everything be easier, faster, and slicker in order to compel the attention of screen viewers. It strikes me that we’re now suffering collectively from a “tyranny of the virtual,” since we find ourselves unable to look away from the screens that mediate not just print but, increasingly, reality itself.

Photograph (detail) by Ellen Cantor from her Prior Pleasures series © The artist. Courtesy dnj Gallery, Santa Monica, California
Article
Among Britain’s Anti-Semites·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

This is the story of how the institutions of British Jewry went to war with Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party. Corbyn is another feather in the wind of populism and a fragmentation of the old consensus and politesse. He was elected to the leadership by the party membership in 2015, and no one was more surprised than he. Between 1997 and 2010, Corbyn voted against his own party 428 times. He existed as an ideal, a rebuke to the Blairite leadership, and the only wise man on a ship of fools. His schtick is that of a weary, kindly, socialist Father Christmas, dragged from his vegetable patch to create a utopia almost against his will. But in 2015 the ideal became, reluctantly, flesh. Satirists mock him as Jesus Christ, and this is apt. But only just. He courts sainthood, and if you are very cynical you might say that, like Christ, he shows Jews what they should be. He once sat on the floor of a crowded train, though he was offered a first-class seat, possibly as a private act of penance to those who had, at one time or another, had no seat on a train.

When Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party, the British media, who are used to punching socialists, crawled over his record and found much to alarm the tiny Jewish community of 260,000. Corbyn called Hez­bollah “friends” and said Hamas, also his “friends,” were devoted “to long-term peace and social justice.” (He later said he regretted using that language.) He invited the Islamist leader Raed Salah, who has accused Jews of killing Christian children to drink their blood, to Parliament, and opposed his extradition. Corbyn is also a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and a former chair of Stop the War, at whose rallies they chant, “From the river to the sea / Palestine will be free.” (There is no rhyme for what will happen to the Jewish population in this paradise.) He was an early supporter of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and its global campaign to delegitimize Israel and, through the right of return for Palestinians, end its existence as a Jewish state. (His office now maintains that he does not support BDS. The official Labour Party position is for a two-state solution.) In the most recent general election, only 13 percent of British Jews intended to vote Labour.

Corbyn freed something. The scandals bloomed, swiftly. In 2016 Naz Shah, Labour MP for Bradford West, was suspended from the party for sharing a Facebook post that suggested Israel be relocated to the United States. She apologized publicly, was reinstated, and is now a shadow women and equalities minister. Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London and a political supporter of Corbyn, appeared on the radio to defend Shah and said, “When Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.” For this comment, Livingstone was suspended from the party.

A protest against anti-Semitism in the Labour Party in Parliament Square, London, March 26, 2018 (detail) © Yui Mok/PA Images/Getty Images
Article
Nothing but Gifts·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

If necessity is the stern but respectable mother of invention, then perhaps desperation is the derelict father of subterfuge. That was certainly the case when I moved to Seattle in 1979.

Though I’d lived there twice during the previous five years, I wasn’t prepared for the economic boom I found upon this latest arrival. Not only had rent increased sharply in all but the most destitute neighborhoods, landlords now routinely demanded first, last, and a hefty security deposit, which meant I was short by about fifty percent. Over the first week or so, I watched with mounting anxiety as food, gas, and lodging expenses reduced the meager half I did have to a severely deficient third. To make matters even more nerve-racking, I was relocating with my nine-year-old son, Ezra. More than my well-being was at stake.

A veteran of cold, solitary starts in strange cities, I knew our best hope wasn’t the classifieds, and certainly not an agency, but the serendipity of the streets—handmade for rent signs, crowded bulletin boards in laundromats and corner grocery stores, passersby on the sidewalk; I had to exploit every opportunity that might present itself, no matter how oblique or improbable. In Eastlake, at the edge of Lake Union between downtown Seattle and the University District, I spied a shabby but vacant one-story house on the corner of a block that was obviously undergoing transition—overgrown lots and foundation remnants where other houses once stood—and that had at least one permanent feature most right-minded people would find forbidding: an elevated section of Interstate 5 just across the street, attended by the incessant roar of cars and trucks. The house needed a new roof, a couple of coats of paint, and, judging by what Ezra and I could detect during a furtive inspection, major repair work inside, including replacing damaged plaster-and-lath walls with sheetrock. All of this, from my standpoint, meant that I might have found a solution to my dilemma.

The next step was locating the owner, a roundabout process that eventually required a trip to the tax assessor’s office. I called the person listed on the rolls and made an appointment. Then came the moment of truth, or, more precisely, untruth, when dire circumstance begot strategic deception. I’d never renovated so much as a closet, but that didn’t stop me from declaring confidently that I possessed both the skills and the willingness to restore the entire place to a presentable—and, therefore, rentable—state in exchange for being able to live there for free, with the length of stay to be determined as work progressed. To my immense relief, the pretense was well received. Indeed, the owner also seemed relieved, if a bit surprised, that he’d have seemingly trustworthy tenants; homeless people who camped beneath the freeway, he explained, had repeatedly broken into the house and used it for all manner of depravity. Telling myself that inspired charlatanry is superior to mundane trespassing—especially this instance of charlatanry, which would yield some actual good—I accepted the keys from my new landlord.

Photograph (detail) © Larry Towell/Magnum Photos
Article
Checkpoint Nation·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Laura Sandoval threaded her way through idling taxis and men selling bottles of water toward the entrance of the Cordova International Bridge, which links Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, to El Paso, Texas. Earlier that day, a bright Saturday in December 2012, Sandoval had crossed over to Juárez to console a friend whose wife had recently died. She had brought him a few items he had requested—eye drops, the chimichangas from Allsup’s he liked—and now that her care package had been delivered, she was in a hurry to get back to the Texas side, where she’d left her car. She had a …
Checkpoint on I-35 near Encinal, Texas (detail) © Gabriella Demczuk

Number of toilet seats at the EU Parliament building in Brussels that a TV station had tested for cocaine:

46

Happiness creates a signature smell in human sweat that can induce happiness in those who smell it.

Trump struggles to pronounce “anonymous”; a Sackler stands to profit from a new drug to treat opioid addiction; housing development workers in the Bronx are accused of having orgies on the clock

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Happiness Is a Worn Gun

By

Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

Subscribe Today