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

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
Washington?

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.

MH: You write that a US first strike would trigger Russian retaliation and result in a “nuclear winter.” What is that?

DE: In a nuclear war between the superpowers, hundreds of nuclear weapons would explode. The resulting firestorms from burning buildings, roads, and so forth would generate a massive amount of smoke. That smoke would be carried into the stratosphere, circle the globe, and eventually block an estimated 70 percent of the sunlight from reaching Earth. This darkening-and-cooling effect would be a nuclear winter. The smoke would kill harvests, causing food supplies to run out within months. By the end of the year, the attacker would die, along with almost everyone else.

That’s why I think it’s fair to call this a “doomsday machine.” It’s not just suicidal. It’s not just genocidal. It’s omnicidal, because it would kill virtually all human beings on the planet, as well as the large animals and species of vegetation.

MH: You write that Barack Obama was the only president who considered ending this first-strike policy.

DE: Yes, Obama urged consideration of that in the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review. And again in 2016, he raised the possibility of getting rid of ICBMs [intercontinental ballistic missiles], which are a first-strike weapon, and declaring a no-first-use policy—which are the first two things I’d suggest doing to dismantle this doomsday situation. But the military-industrial complex essentially said no, and Obama reversed course. He wanted to get the [New] Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty approved by the Senate, and to do that he had to commit to a massive $1.2 trillion modernization of the US arsenal.

MH: So the military-industrial complex exercises veto power over US nuclear policy?

DE: These are delusional pursuits, but they are very profitable delusions for Boeing and Northrop Grumman and other weapons-makers. The doomsday machine has to be kept on high alert for the sake of profits, but also for the jobs and the votes they bring.

MH: What should the peace movement be doing now?

DE: We’ve got to find new tactics and strategies; the older ones are not working. One essential is to change public awareness. This threat is seen as not so urgent, maybe because we’ve gone 70 years without blowing up. But people don’t know about the many times we’ve had near misses.

I also wonder if China could be a leader on this issue. China has a much smaller arsenal than the US and Russia—about 300 weapons—and a no-first-use policy. They know they have no way to disarm the US and Russian arsenals, and they choose not to pursue such delusions. Could China lead a global effort to say that the current situation is insane, and let’s move in a new direction?