Daniel Ellsberg on the creation of nuclear doomsday machines, the institutional insanity that maintains them, and a practical plan for dismantling them.

By Robert Wiblin and Keiran Harris į Published September 24th, 2018


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And hereÕs the real danger. Not only do our warning systems on both sides bring out these false alarms, having, by the way, not just casually but having gone through several filtering systems that are designed to eliminate false alarms and to explain them otherwise and so forth, nevertheless a number of very serious false alarms have occurred. The biggest problem is that both Russia and the U.S. have large numbers of forces, ICBMs, Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles, that cannot survive an enemy attack on the U.S. or on Russian. They are fixed targets, vulnerable to the accurate large-yield weapons on the other side, and if you wait for that alarm to be confirmed by actual explosions, the weapons themselves will mostly be destroyed.

So each side has a very strong incentive and plan and readiness to launch its weapons before they are destroyed. That may be while the others are in the air, or space, or if thereÕs an indication that there will be an escalation shortly. The impulse to use them or lose them is very strong. Now, a realistic point of view that there is no advantage in using them over losing them because in both sides, thereÕs enough submarine missiles that cannot be targeted, that each can destroy the other even it's lost all of its ICBMs, and its bombers for that matter. It so happens that the Russian subs are much more vulnerable than ours because for geographic reasons and various reasons, we're able to track them from their ports or from certain entry points into the Atlantic or the Pacific in a way that they can't track ours. And we have a hundred killer submarines that are dedicated to getting a number of their submarines. The Russians really don't have a comparable capability. That doesn't mean we have a high chance of getting all of them, and a single submarine, let alone two or three, would have the capability to destroy our society and bring about nuclear winter, by the way.

So if the word came to the President, as it almost did in 1979 in particular where our National Security Assistant Zbigniew Brzezinski had his arm reaching out to inform the President via red phone at three in the morning that an attack was on the way, the President would be told, ā€œWe launch our weapons or we lose them.ā€ He would almost surely not be told, ā€œAnd Mr. President, it doesn't make any difference what you do.ā€ That's the reality. But as far as we know, no president has been fully briefed on the notion of nuclear winter. Gorbachev does give indication that he was well-informed on that subject. And Reagan, by the way, referred to it. He was not one for being briefed very much in detail on anything, any more than Trump, but he seems to have been aware of it.

As far as we know, the latest results from the last decade have not been briefed. People like Alan Robuck and Brian Toon have tried to ā€¦ have asked to brief the high levels on this, have never been taken up on it. And are not really aware that it doesn't make any difference what he does. On the contrary, the weapons have been sold both by Boeing and Lockheed and by the Air Force and the Navy, on the grounds that they can destroy Russian ICBMs, which seems like a worthwhile thing to do in a war. Whatever happens, isn't it better to have eliminated their ICBMs? Seems plausible. The answer is no, it won't make any difference. It simply won't make any difference.

Say, well, why not then get rid of our ICBMs? What are they good for? Well, they're not good for saving lives in the U.S. in any circumstance whatever. They're not good for any political purposes, but they're very good to make for profits, jobs, and to reassure our allies that we're working hard on this problem and we remain their protector in what amounts to a protection racket. We have built up the threat from the Russians ever since about 1947, and since then, in the interest as presenting ourselves as their only protector against an overwhelming threat. And very much like the Mafia's protection rackets in Chicago or elsewhere, give us this money, let us control your business or you'll regret it. And there the threat is in principle ā€¦ I mean in practice, or we'll blow you up ourselves, but the implication is or our rivals will hurt you and we'll protect your from that if you give us your tribute. That's basically our relation with NATO, ever since.

... Now China has said it [a world without nuclear weapons] and has not had a huge military buildup. So theyÕre a lot more plausible that 

They do not pretend to believe in that or to be trying to get it unlike the US and Russia. 

So what I would like to see is China to press as a world leader on this. And IÕve asked whether that seems possible or not, unfortunately China experts tell me that China has such a strong tradition in the last century of saying we donÕt intervene in another country, we donÕt tell them what to do, we donÕt intervene, non-intervention the sovereignty.

That it is against their whole inclination and vision to be telling other countries "do as we do". I wish they did actually on that point, and I donÕt know enough to say itÕs impossible. But people who do know China more say thatÕs extremely unlikely. ... but I donÕt hesitate to say as an American we should look at China, and we should pursue a policy like ChinaÕs. 

And that means endorse and even negotiate toward elimination of nuclear weapons in the longer run, verification policy, than everything else. 

But in the meantime while other countries have nuclear weapons, we should maintain a small capability to respond. A survivable capability to respond in a limited way, which is not by the way to say we should necessarily use that capability. In fact, I can only think of one circumstance I wonÕt go into, itÕs just too complicated, where it might make sense to launch a nuclear weapon or more.

But in general except for a very small possibility, 

...  a handful of propositions here.  In my opinion these are normative statements

  1. What IÕm saying is to deter a country rational enough to be deterred at all, does not require an ability to annihilate them or to destroy the world. 
  2. But if you were to say, a capability of hitting 10 to 20 of their cities thatÕs very deterrent, and to not have that in the face of their capability, does not make the world safer necessarily. It might but I wouldnÕt rely on and I wouldnÕt try to convince people that it was the case.
  3. No country has the justification or good reason to have a doomsday machine first of all, which Russia and the US do, and the other countries are on the verge of it. All the countries except North Korea could cause starvation up to a third of the earthÕs population, thatÕs eight countries can do that, none of them should have that capability. What is that capability? Well itÕs something between 100 and 200 weapons, and eight of the countries.
  4. I would say for the US and Russia to come down to the level of the other nuclear states, something between 80 and 120. Not striving for superiority which is meaningless except in conveying craziness, which has a diplomatic benefit under some circumstances, but one that comes at too high a cost, too a high a risk.

I would say for the US and Russia to come down to the level of the other nuclear states, something between 80 and 120, not striving for superiority which is meaningless except in conveying craziness, which has a diplomatic benefit under some circumstances, but one that comes at too high a cost, too a high a risk. So it means coming down to 100. 

Now what should they be? 

Actually we canÕt really justify having thermonuclear weapons, hundred kiloton weapons. The Trident 2, has two capabilities for a warhead. One is 475 kilotons. You donÕt have a reason for that or a need for that under any circumstances including deterrence. 

... [Herbert York] was the first director of Livermore Laboratory, and then director of research and engineering and then in the Defense Department, and then a major arms control negotiator. He asked at Livermore the question, how many weapons does it take to deter an enemy that is capable of being deterred from a nuclear attack? And he said one or 10, or if you really stretch, a hundred. He got to that by saying 100 weapons give you the capability of one individual to destroy as many people as died in World War 2, 60 million in a day or two. It shouldnÕt have more than that. So he said the number you need for this purpose then is between one to 10 to 100, and closer to one than 100.