The Current

Trump is leading us into nuclear war, says Daniel Ellsberg (and he should know, he used to plan them)

We're living in the shadow of a Doomsday Machine, says famous whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg. From the Cuban Missile crisis to President Trump and North Korea, his career in nuclear development puts him in a unique position to dissect the current crisis.
Daniel Ellsberg is the author of The Doomsday Machine. (Jock McDonald/Bloomsbury)

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A "Doomsday Machine" has loomed over humanity for decades, according to the man who once helped U.S. presidents plan for nuclear war.

In his new book, The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner, Daniel Ellsberg details how a nuclear strike during the Cold War would have clouded the earth's atmosphere and killed hundreds of millions.

Far more people still have access to launch codes than the public realize, he said, and it is only through luck that we avoided nuclear winter.

Not only does that threat still exist, but for the first time since the Cuban missile crisis, "an American president is threatening imminent attack on a nuclear-weapons state," he said. "On a state that can retaliate with nuclear weapons."

"I think there's a very significant chance — I would say better than even — that this president does mean to launch some kind of an attack on North Korea," he said, "that will lead to a response that will then cause a two-sided nuclear war."

"It would kill millions of people in the first day or week, which would be more violence than the human species has ever seen in a day or week."

"I think nothing at this moment is of higher importance than there not be a war with North Korea."

U.S. President Truman announces that the first atomic bomb has been dropped on a "military base" called Hiroshima.

The whistleblower's dilemma

Ellsberg, 86, was the whistleblower who revealed the Pentagon Papers, the secret history of the Vietnam War that eventually led to the Watergate scandal and the fall of President Richard Nixon.

The aftermath of the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, at the end ofthe Second World War. The occupants of the burned-out bus were all killed. (Getty Images)

What is lesser known is that he had a second batch of top-secret documents — about nuclear weapons and nuclear war — but couldn't decide which set to release first.

What it came down to, he said, were the bombs falling on Vietnam. He wanted to try to "point people to the fact that we're still being lied into continuing the war."

Afterwards, he planned to release the second batch to warn the American public "about the dangers of the nuclear area, and specifically of our own nuclear policies."

He gave the nuclear documents to his brother.

DANIEL ELLSBERG: Unfortunately, having given them to my brother for safekeeping, he had stored them in a trash dump, buried under a visible marker. And the marker -- which was a green stove -- was rolled away by a hurricane, Tropical Storm Doria, and the papers themselves were lost. We spent about a year and a half trying to find them among boxes and garbage bags and whatnot. Never did find them. So I was left with the knowledge, which I present pretty much in this book but not the actual documents.

ANNA MARIA TREMONTI: It's extraordinary. You had thousands of pages that exposed nuclear secrets and nuclear strategy, and it disappeared in a landfill in a hurricane


ANNA MARIA TREMONTI: There's a condo on site now, is there not?

DANIEL ELLSBERG: In the end, having even hired a bulldozer to try to uncover these boxes, and found lots of green garbage bags... but not one with top secret documents in it. He then told me eventually when I said: 'There must be a way to get these somehow,' he said: 'Well they've now used material from that dump. They've moved it to be foundation for a condominium. And in fact there's been concrete poured over it in the basement. So we'd have to use dynamite to get at it.'

And that didn't seem very promising.

Ellsberg faced 115 years in prison over the Pentagon Papers, but losing the nuclear documents helped him keep his liberty, he said. Nixon would have been better able to push for charges over a breach in nuclear secrets, but without them, the events of the Watergate scandal meant that all charges against Ellsberg were dropped.

U.S. President Richard Nixon with his family on the day of his resignation, Aug. 9, 1974. The papers released by Daniel Ellsberg led to the scandal which ended his presidency.

'Having found the bomb, we have used it'

Ellsberg was a teenager when President Truman announced the bombing of Hiroshima, but a school project the previous year had exposed him to weapons of mass destruction.

His class had been asked to consider the global consequences if bombs of such magnitude were achieved.

"At that time, even without thinking whether it would be a German or an American bomb, it seemed almost self-evident that this was not a good possession for humanity."

"In fact the way I've said it for years: this is not a species to trust with nuclear weapons."

"And that was not a hard conclusion to reach for 13-year-olds."

President Truman's announcement, August 6, 1945

When he saw headlines announcing the first bombing, he recognized it immediately and feel a deep dread. He remembers some people shared his anxiety, but that it evaporated in relief once the bombing of Nagasaki ended the war.

The Doomsday Machine (and how many people control it)

There are a lot more people who can launch a nuclear missile than the public realize, said Ellsberg.

DANIEL ELLSBERG: People like to think that our weapons are all locked up, up to a very high level, and that only a combination from the president can unlock them. That has never been true and is certainly not true now. There are locks on low-level weapons to keep the actual plane crew or the missile crew from launching them. There didn't used to be those locks at all, when I was working on this, now there are.

But the combination to those locks is not held at the very highest levels, to assure that there's no way of paralyzing the response. And we know that's true in Russia now, after the U.S.S.R. collapsed and there was Glasnost and some unveiling of what their systems had been. We learned that they had what they called "a Dead Hand system" — that if the Central Command was destroyed, lower-level commands could launch those weapons. I'm sure that's true in North Korea as well.

The world was living in the shadow of a Doomsday Machine during the 1950s, 60s and 70s, he said, but people were not aware of it.

A nuclear strike on the U.S.S.R. at that time would blow smoke into the stratosphere, where it would envelope the world.

"It would reduce sunlight by some 70 per cent, and kill all the harvests," he said.

"The effect would be nuclear famine, would be nuclear winter in the sense of ice age temperatures and conditions year-round."

"Within months or a year, near-extinction would occur — except for a relatively small number of people eating fish and mollusks in the southern hemisphere, perhaps in Australia."

Daniel Ellsberg at a press conference in the 1970s. (Getty Images)

'One hundred Holocausts'

Ellsberg asked for a calculation of the death toll of such a strike.

The answer that came back: 600 million.

He described it as "a hundred Holocausts."

"A hundred times the extermination of six million Jews."

"This was projected by our own plans, and that included a hundred million of our own allies in West Europe who'd be killed not by our warheads directly… but by the radioactive fallout from our attacks on East Europe."

"We were prepared to kill off a hundred million of our closest allies — very like Lindsey Graham's comment very recently about a possible North Korea war, which he is very prepared to see in conversation with his friend Donald Trump."

"And he says they agree the casualties would be 'over there.' There would be thousands, he said, but they wouldn't be American casualties, they would be over there and therefore they would be possible to accept for an American president."

An anti-Vietnam War protest in London, April 1968. (Getty Images)

'A portable Auschwitz'

In his State of the Union address this week, President Trump said the world had not reached the "magical moment" when global disarmament was possible.

"You shouldn't have to wait for a magic moment to divest yourself… of a Doomsday Machine," said Ellsberg.

The idea of parity — that the U.S. must have the same quality or number of missiles as other nuclear powers — is a major stumbling block to disarmament, he said.

DANIEL ELLSBERG: The call is 'oh, we have to have what they have.' That's like saying we have to have an Auschwitz, because Germany has an Auschwitz.

And really, if that seems like too prejudicial an analogy, we have to recall that every thermonuclear warhead is a portable Auschwitz.

About a million people died in Auschwitz, maybe 1.2 million.

One of our major thermonuclear warheads will kill a million people, if it's dropped near a million people. Or more, if it's dropped near more.

These are portable Auschwitzes.

Listen to an an extended version of our on-air interview near the top of this page, where you can also share this article across email, Facebook, Twitter and other platforms.

This segment was produced by The Current's Howard Goldenthal.