The Doomsday Machine
Confessions of a nuclear war planner
By Daniel Ellsberg
Published by Bloomsbury
RRP $39.99 in hardback • ISBN 9781608196708
Recently featured in the film, The Post, Daniel Ellsberg was a high level defence analyst who copied and leaked 7,000 pages of secret documents on the Vietnam War (the Pentagon Papers), revealing vital information about the war that had been kept from the American public.
What is not widely known is that he simultaneously copied 8,000 pages of even more highly classified material about nuclear war plans which he also intended to leak. What emerges now, years later, is an insider’s account of the most dangerous arms buildup in the history of civilization. But these are not just any arms; these are nuclear arms capable of the destruction of mankind.
He writes in detail about the Cuban missile crisis which in the end saw Khrushchev finally back down amid assurances that the US would not overthrow the Cuban government. He quotes Khrushchev on the resolution of the crisis. (Khrushchev expected the Chinese and Albanians to accuse him of weakness.) “What good would it have done me in the last hour of my life to know that though our great nation and the United States were in complete ruin, the national honor of the Soviet Union was intact”. As Ellsberg writes, “that last line …. Deserves to be studied by all those whose fingers hover over the trigger to a Doomsday Machine.”
Ellsberg has produced a compelling memoir of an insider’s account of what a nuclear strike really means, how precarious the chain of command is and just how urgent it is that nuclear disarmament be taken seriously if we are to avoid a catastrophic event from which not only will no winners emerge, no one will emerge.
In his final chapter he writes of his regret at not releasing the documentation about nuclear war planning that he had copied at the time of the Pentagon Papers, and then subsequently lost after clumsy attempts to hide the box containing the documents.
In fact he now urges current well-placed potential whistleblowers to come forward to raise public awareness of the awful threat the world faces.
For a more comprehensive review of this book, see the review by Graham Allison, the Douglas Dillon professor of government at the Harvard Kennedy School, published in The New York Times: