Daniel Ellsberg, a longtime friend of The Nation, is best known for leaking the Pentagon Papers, a trove of government documents that revealed how Democratic and Republican administrations alike had lied about the Vietnam War. But Ellsberg’s greatest concern has long been the United States’ nuclear arsenal and its secret plans for launching a first strike—a policy that, he says, remains in place today and threatens virtually all life on Earth. He spoke with us about his new book, The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner.
Mark Hertsgaard: You open the book describing a memo that you read in the White House in 1961. President Kennedy had asked the Joint Chiefs of Staff how many people would be killed overseas if US plans for a nuclear attack were carried out. The answer, you write, was “600 million dead. A hundred Holocausts.” You assert that launching a first strike has remained US policy ever since. Most Americans don’t know that, but do even most decision-makers in
Daniel Ellsberg: It’s important to distinguish between first use and first strike. “First use” means initiating nuclear war at some level; “first strike” refers to an attempt to disarm a highly armed nuclear state. In the case of Russia, a first strike would attempt to annihilate Russia’s major cities and its power to make war. Today, I don’t assume that any given policy-maker knows that first strike remains US policy.
MH: Has the Defense Department or other government agency denied your book’s claims that first strike is US policy?
DE: No. [Editor’s Note: The Nation asked the Defense Department whether first strike has been and remains US policy; the DoD press office did not reply.]
MH: Do the Russians also follow a nuclear first-strike policy?
DE: The Russians have the same predilection that we do to strike first. This very nearly led to disaster in 1983. [Soviet leader Yuri] Andropov was convinced that the US was heading toward a first strike, because he saw [US President Ronald] Reagan initiate a huge buildup of the US arsenal and make comments about the bombing beginning in five minutes.
A Soviet defector later revealed that Andropov had initiated a massive counter-intelligence operation, code named Ryan, to find out exactly when the US would strike. Why? Because Andropov meant to pre-empt the US by striking first himself. If that had happened, none of us would be here.