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Hands Up If You Think You Can Win a Nuclear War – A Book Review

January 27, 2018

Whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg issues a plea for nuclear sanity

Hands up all those who believe that a nuclear war is winnable and that you will survive to tell your grandchildren about it. If we trust whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg’s new book The Doomsday Machine (Bloomsbury, 2017), the answer is no there would be no winner and it “would kill nearly every human on earth.” If that isn’t scary enough, he adds that a thermonuclear war such as was planned in the early 1960s “would have caused nuclear winter that would have starved to death nearly everyone then living: at that time three billion.” The situation has worsened today.

Ellsberg is, of course, the courageous soul who gave the Pentagon Papers to the The Washington Post back in the early 1970s. The documents revealed that every president from Eisenhower to Nixon lied repeatedly to the public about the Vietnam War. The result was a prolonging of the conflict at a cost of thousands more American lives and millions of Vietnamese. As we have learned, presidents lie through their teeth for the best or worst of reasons. Generals lie. Members of Congress lie. It seems that pretty much everybody down the line of authority who might have been issued a “top security clearance” is a liar.

The Ken Burns/Lynn Novick documentary on the war (released in September 2017) confirms this fact and most recently the Steven Spielberg film The Post (released in January 2017) double confirms it. It goes without saying that we are now suffering through the biggest liar of them all, the current resident of the White House, and he’s unapologetic about it. Some suggest that his mental state is such that he may even believe his own lies. We live in a culture of mendacity and it didn’t start with Donald Trump. He’s just the latest and most stumblingly obvious version of it.

The fact that Trump and the Republican Party now have total control of the machinery of government, including the nuclear button (Mine is bigger and better than yours), makes Ellsberg’s book timely and frightening. They have their finger on enough nuclear blast power to blow apart the world and Ellsberg is warning us that if they use it there won’t be a tomorrow.

Doomsday is a plea for sanity in which he takes pains to explain his efforts to alert the presidency – Eisenhower, Kennedy, then Johnson – that the top U.S. military brass had a “general war” plan. This is not what it sounds like. General war means nuclear war. The military, with much help from nuclear war planners like Ellsberg, was mapping, not a conventional war, but all-out nuclear war with the Soviet Union. The generals included the nuclear bombing of China, not because it had nuclear weapons (it did not at that time), but because it was communist.

He outlines measures to avoid such catastrophe, but notes that to date both the Republican and Democratic parties “oppose every one of these measures.” In fact, many party members are unaware of the consequences of nuclear war or the current risk. An accident, a mad politician, a malfunction, a rogue terrorist group, any of these things could send us into a situation like the one depicted in the 1964 film Failsafe, a fictional account of what might happen in the event of an accidental thermonuclear first strike.

Ellsberg provides many examples to illustrate the craziness of such plans and the numerous errors in basic calculation. For example, there is no safe “first-strike” capability, as the generals maintain. If either the U.S. or Russia start sending missiles, nuclear winter will be the inevitable result. The notion that the world could sustain a “limited nuclear war” should also be off the table.

Two chapters return us to the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. As many of us recall, the Americans had become aware that the Soviets were establishing nuclear missile silos on the Caribbean Island about 150 kms off Florida. As the two super-powers moved closer to a showdown, either Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev or President John F. Kennedy had to back down. To avoid cataclysmic nuclear annihilation, one of them had to holster his nukes. Reading the Ellsberg book took me back to that time when, as a teenager, I experienced the terrifying possibility that the world was over, that we were at the end of history.

Sixty years later, the Ellsberg book confirms all the insider details and, while much has been revealed since the early 1960s, it is still chilling to realize that nothing much has changed. Remembering my hometown’s role in the building of nuclear arms, I recently thought how horrifying it would be if someone released a nuclear missile. How easy it would be, based on what I read in The Doomsday Machine, to have that happen.

Such an event could be an accident, as Ellsberg shows. Many authorities below the U.S. Commander-in-Chief have, or at least had, access to the nuclear codes that could launch missiles aimed at Russia and China. There is no reason to think the current Republican leadership would remove those codes. Or it could be a madman like the ones in the 1964 movie Dr. Strangelove: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. In it filmmaker Stanley Kubrick was giving us a warning two years after Cuba: here’s what could happen if a maniacal idiot were to have control of the nuclear button.

For a few minutes this January, we seemed to have arrived at that point when there were reports of a nuclear missile being launched on Hawaii (New York Times, January 13) exactly as Ellsberg warned was possible. Within the hour we learned that it was a false alarm, but the Ellsberg scenario about a rogue general taking the world’s future into his or her hands was all too real. A few days later, the New York Times reported that the “Pentagon Suggests Countering Devastating Cyberattacks With Nuclear Arms” (January 16).

Ellsberg’s book is a call to action. In an age of liars, he is a truth teller. When he tells us that there would be no victors in a nuclear fight, we need to believe him and not the generals and the politicians. Astonishing as it may seem, nuclear war is still possible. If it happens no one will get out alive.

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