Madness to Their Method

‘The Doomsday Machine’

Before he became famous (or infamous) for leaking the Pentagon Papers in 1971, Daniel Ellsberg spent more than a decade working in relative anonymity as a national-security analyst in the employ of the RAND Corporation. Here he provides an account of what he was doing before photocopying a horde of classified documents related to the Vietnam War for further distribution to the New York Times and Washington Post.

Created by the Air Force shortly after World War II, RAND existed to devise and refine what came to be called nuclear strategy. To work at RAND in its heyday was to be in the know—or more prosaically to hold security clearances above TOP SECRET—and to hobnob with the likes of nuclear-war strategists Herman Kahn and Albert Wohlstetter. This was back when others in the know, especially senior members of the national-security apparatus, looked upon Kahn and Wohlstetter as thinkers in the same league as Kant and Wittgenstein. 

To work at RAND, according to Ellsberg, was to join a “religious order,” which he likens to the Jesuits. In fact, however, the nuclear strategists of the 1950s and 1960s rank among the greatest intellectual scam artists of all time. Armageddon was their obsession and also their meal ticket. If the threat of World War III went away, so too would their cushy jobs. Yet as long as Washington relied on RAND for thinking about the unthinkable, government contracts flowed without interruption to its Santa Monica campus.

Expedience therefore required members of this “secular priesthood” to portray themselves as knowing “more about the dangers ahead” than anyone, more than “the generals in the Pentagon or [Strategic Air Command] or Congress or the public, or even the president.” RAND’s self-advertised and self-justifying purpose was nothing short of messianic. “We were rescuing the world,” Ellsberg recalls, not only from the Soviets, but even more so from the “lethargy and bureaucratic inertia” of officialdom. 

In The Doomsday Machine, Ellsberg offers a peek inside this secret world. The result is a book that is part memoir and part jeremiad. His memoir recounts the education he acquired while serving as a cog within that machine. His jeremiad denounces the “dizzying irrationality, madness, [and] insanity” that he encountered there. Taken as a whole, the result constitutes something akin to a conversion narrative, describing the transformation of gung-ho cold warrior into an impassioned dissident, albeit one retaining a touch of the old RAND messianism.

I have only once had an extended conversation with Ellsberg. He struck me on that occasion as entertaining a somewhat exalted opinion of his own importance. That tendency is on ample display here. The reader might come away from this account persuaded that during the administrations of Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy, Ellsberg was a key player. In fact, however, he never exercised any real authority and did not “make” policy, even if on occasion advising those who did. 

Still, given his involvement with nuclear strategy during the early stages of the Cold War, Ellsberg unquestionably qualifies as a credible witness. Whether observations drawn from that era retain validity today is less certain. 

The core of his critique, offered with specificity and in convincing detail, reduces to the following:

First, the strategy of deterrence—assertions that the massive U.S. nuclear arsenal exists solely to prevent an attack on the United States—“is a deliberate deception.” From the earliest days of the Cold War, the United States has actually positioned its nuclear forces to strike first. “Though officially denied,” preemptive attack, prompted by indications that an adversary might be preparing its own first strike, “has always been at the heart of our strategic alert.” 

Second, given that the primary aim is to ensure “that not a single nuclear warhead would land on U.S. territory after such an American first strike,” allowing any enemy retaliatory capability to survive constitutes strategic failure. U.S. targeting, therefore, emphasizes redundancy and overkill, with little concern for collateral effects and long-term consequences. This is a view to which senior Air Force officers are particularly prone, according to Ellsberg, who describes in detail the behind-the-scenes civil-military tussling over who actually “owns” the plan for World War III.

Third, the imperative of landing the first blow creates incentives to disperse authority for ordering a strike. “The hand authorized to pull the trigger on U.S. nuclear forces,” Ellsberg writes, “has never been exclusively that of the president.” The widely held belief that the commander-in-chief has sole authority to order a nuclear attack is “essentially a hoax.” As early as the 1950s, depending on circumstance, field commanders at different echelons have been empowered—or believed themselves empowered—to act autonomously. 

Fourth, despite concerted PR efforts to depict the entire U.S. nuclear apparatus as efficient, effective, and safe, the system “is more prone to false alarms, accidents, and unauthorized launches than the public (and even most high officials) has ever been aware.” His own rendering of the Cuban Missile Crisis sustains that view. In short, the scenario depicted in the film Dr. Strangelove, he suggests, is by no means implausible. In sum, Ellsberg believes that even today all-out nuclear war is “a catastrophe waiting to happen” (his italics).

The nuclear strategists of the 1950s and 1960s rank among the greatest intellectual scam artists of all time

In part 2 of The Doomsday Machine, Ellsberg shifts from his own personal experience to mount a blistering critique of the policies that as a RAND analyst he once helped to design and justify.  The Original Sin, in his interpretation, occurred when the United States abandoned Franklin Roosevelt’s conviction, expressed at the outset of World War II, that “in no event, and under no circumstances” should belligerents engage in “the bombardment from the air of civilian populations or of unfortified cities.” FDR condemned the bombing of cities as “human barbarism.”  Within a few years doing so became a mainstay of the U.S. war effort, eventually culminating in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Ellsberg argues, correctly in my view, that Americans have studiously avoided any serious reckoning with this aspect of their World War II experience. The failure is above all a moral one. Yet the policy implications that flow from that failure have proven to be enduring. They are today best captured in the ritual insistence of high U.S. officials that “all options are on the table” whenever they consider how to address some particular crisis. Indeed, an expressed willingness to exercise “all options”—tantamount to terrorism on an apocalyptic scale, in Ellsberg’s view—figures as a virtual prerequisite for entry into the upper ranks of American politics.  Try winning the Iowa caucuses or the New Hampshire primary after foreswearing any use of nukes. 

Yet as Richard Nixon might have put it, when the United States does it, it’s not terrorism. So we tell ourselves, even while wondering how it is that Donald Trump can, at a whim, unleash “fire and fury like the world has never seen,” with the Pentagon intent on expanding the options available to Trump and his successors by spending a trillion dollars to modernize the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Try opposing that program and then running for Congress.

“We are in the grip of institutionalized madness,” Ellsberg concludes. He just might be right.

The Doomsday Machine:
Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner

Daniel Ellsberg
Bloomsbury, $30, 432 pp.

Published in the January 5, 2018 issue: 

Andrew J. Bacevich, a frequent contributor, is professor emeritus of history and international relations at Boston University.

Also by this author
The End Was Coming

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