Arguably no human on earth has given more thought over the past 65 years to the possibilities of nuclear war—intentional or accidental—than Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg. Since Ellsberg joined the RAND Corporation as an analyst in 1958, he has accumulated a vast wealth of knowledge and perspective on how superpowers use their nuclear muscle to impose their will on the world, and on how their political and military elites strategize about conflicts in the nuclear era.
In 1971, horrified by the trajectory of the Vietnam War, Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times. More recently, in 2017, he published a book, The Doomsday Machine, revealing secret US nuclear strategies—several of which, in the 1960s, Ellsberg himself was involved in crafting—and acts dating back to the dawn of the Cold War.
Last year, I interviewed Ellsberg, who lives in Berkeley, when he turned 90. On Monday, we resumed our conversation. Over the course of one and a half hours we discussed Ellsberg’s understanding of the war in Ukraine, the likelihood of hostilities between China and Taiwan as a spillover effect, the risk of nuclear bombs being unleashed, and the potentially cataclysmic impact the war could have on the ability of the global community to cooperate on anti-climate-change policies.
Ellsberg was adamant that this was a brutal and unjustified war of aggression launched by Putin. But he was incredulous at the notion, too often accepted as a given by commentators, that no superpower since the end of World War II has committed such heinous atrocities. “I’m 91,” he says. “So, I’m burdened by an awful lot of historical analogies in my lifetime, many of which I participated in: the buildup of nuclear weapons, and the Vietnam War, which were moral catastrophes. Putin is a bad guy, very clearly. His aggression is murderous and as illegitimate as the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.” He pauses. “Or the US invasion of Afghanistan or Iraq. Or Hitler’s invasion of Poland. Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam by the US—we haven’t reached that level remotely yet [in Ukraine.]”
Ellsberg specifically mentioned the use of phosphorous bombs, which burn through to the bone, by the United States and its allies in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and napalm used against civilians in Vietnam. Then, going back to World War II and the all-out effort to defeat fascism, he spoke of allied bombing raids that deliberately created firestorms in Dresden and Hamburg—killing tens of thousands of civilians in single nights in the two German cities—as well as a raid against Berlin, in February 1945, which failed to generate a firestorm but still killed roughly 25,000 people. He detailed the bombing of 64 cities in Japan before the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that cumulatively killed roughly 900,000 people—including up to 120,000 who died in Tokyo in a firestorm created by saturation bombing.
“The atom bomb didn’t change the policy of trying to kill as many people as possible; it just made it cheaper and more efficient,” Ellsberg argued.
As the US and the USSR built up their nuclear arsenals in the first four decades of the nuclear era, they developed launch-on-warning policies that could send ICBMs hurtling toward their targets in response not to bombs exploding but to satellite systems sending a warning signal that they had identified incoming missiles. The planet balanced on the edge of an abyss. As Ellsberg and others have documented, several times the world came within a whisker of an accidental nuclear war based on faulty readings from these warning systems.
Now, in 2022, with Europe once more witnessing a catastrophic land war, with Putin having put Russia’s nuclear forces on high alert, and with Ukrainian forces humbling Russia’s conventional army, Ellsberg is desperately concerned that things could spiral out of control, and the Great Powers could topple into the abyss.
He is furious at the shortsighted policies pushed by George W. Bush’s administration, and continued by the administrations that came after, to expand NATO east onto Russia’s flank. He quotes Cold War theorist George Kennan’s warning that such an expansion was “a fateful error,” the most historic blunder since the end of the Cold War, arguing that it made it almost certain that a humiliated Russia would turn toward nationalism and militarism. In dangling the prospect of NATO membership before Ukraine’s government, even if NATO didn’t actually want the country as a member, Washington was, Ellsberg came to feel, deliberately tempting Russia to intervene.
Ellsberg is worried that a reinvigorated NATO, and a military-industrial complex champing at the bit to sell ever more weapons—both to sustain Ukraine in resisting invasion, and, if it were to be successfully occupied, to make possible years of insurgency—in combination with a revanchist and paranoid Russia, could plunge the world into years of conflict.
“It can get a lot worse, and it almost certainly will get a lot worse,” he says, as he contemplates a war that is being broadcast by the minute into homes across the world, further inflaming public opinion in the west. “Committing these crimes on television has made it an irreversible split between the US and Russia.”
Ellsberg argues that a critical mass of ordinary Americans are paying attention to, and being morally outraged by, the “demolition” of a democratic, mainly white, and mainly Christian country in a way that past wars didn’t—particularly those launched by the US against non-white, non-Christian, non-democratic countries over recent decades. The loss of life and destruction of infrastructure in say, Iraq, a country long dictatorially ruled by Saddam Hussein, didn’t register emotionally with many Americans the way that today’s war in Ukraine has. “You’ve got this split in the world now that we’ve been moving toward for decades. And that means global collaboration on climate change, and reducing nuclear weapons, looks to me out of possibility. Without huge collaboration with the US and China and India and Russia, climate catastrophes are going to happen.”
More immediately, Ellsberg fears that the taboo against using nuclear weapons in a regional war is on the verge of being breached. If that happens, he says, it could easily precipitate a Mad Max era of “small nuclear wars,” with dozens of countries rapidly acquiring nuclear capabilities in a desperate effort to fend off atomic bullies in their geographical vicinity. “An era of proliferation may be underway already.”
“As the world has correctly perceived, this has the seeds of a regional nuclear war and all-out war between the US and Russia,” Ellsberg said.
In Putin’s threats of nuclear attack against those who would intervene to defend Ukraine, Ellsberg sees echoes of Nixon’s self-proclaimed “madman strategy,” in which he periodically let the Vietnamese know that he was actively considering exploding nuclear weapons on their country if they didn’t back down. So, too, he sees echoes of Eisenhower’s declared willingness to launch a nuclear war against the Chinese during the early days of Mao’s rule; and the Strategic Air Command’s determination, documented in Ellsberg’s book, that, in the event of a US-Soviet nuclear conflict, in addition to targeting all major Soviet cities, US forces would also be ordered to launch nuclear attacks on all major Chinese population centers.
The nonagenarian, who has dedicated decades of his life to warning of the dangers of nuclear warfare, believes that the war in Ukraine could also lead to a series of events that culminates in a Chinese-US conflict. Here’s how it goes, he explains: China has always said that if Taiwan, which it regards as a breakaway province, formally declares independence, it would invade. To avoid provoking a conflict, the United States has never officially recognized Taiwan’s sovereignty. Now, however, looking at how Russia has treated Ukraine, there’s a growing drumbeat in Taiwan to declare independence and at the same time to obtain security guarantees from Western powers to protect its sovereignty; and there’s a growing cadre of US political figures willing to treat Taiwan as a sovereign power and issue those guarantees.
“Both the Taiwanese and Chinese have to be drawing lessons from Ukraine, hour by hour,” says Ellsberg. “Putin thinks of Ukraine as part of Russia, and Ukraine as having illegitimately seceded. From his point of view he’s conducting a civil war; he’s Lincoln, who doesn’t want to accept secession. Every leader of China since Mao has said ‘one China,’ and ‘Taiwan is a province of China. And Taiwan is acting as if it wants to secede, and we will not accept it.’” In such a context, he says recognizing Taiwan would be “insane. I can’t see anyone would see a silver lining to that, except people who want to sell more weapons to Taiwan.”
Ellsberg has spent decades shouting from the rooftops to get humanity to change its course when it comes to existential threats from nuclear weaponry and climate change. Now, with Ukraine ablaze, he is deeply pessimistic. “Eliminate ICBMs? That ship has sailed—and it has sailed into iceberg waters at full speed at night, just like the Titanic. On climate, I think we’ve hit the iceberg. I think that this invasion, which was never certain and never necessary, and could have been averted, has shut the door on averting the traps we have set for our species.”
Listen to the full audio of our interview with Daniel Ellsberg above.