Nuclear brinkmanship and the doomsday scenario: the risk is much worse than you know

Scott Ludlam | The Monthly

“I remember what I thought when I first held the single sheet with the graph on it. I thought, This piece of paper should not exist. It should never have existed. Not in America. Not anywhere, ever. It depicted evil beyond any human project ever. There should be nothing on earth, nothing real, that it referred to.”

The sheet of paper in Daniel Ellsberg’s hands provided an answer to a question put by President John F. Kennedy to his Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1961. The president wanted to know: if the Pentagon’s plans for a nuclear first strike on the Soviet Union and China were carried out, how many people would die?

The graph estimates 275 million dead in the first hours, rising to 325 million people within six months. Add Soviet satellite states and “collateral” fallout deaths in neighbouring countries, and the number rises to 600 million people. “A hundred holocausts,” Ellsberg writes in the sombre prologue to his book The Doomsday Machine, published last December. He invites you to let that number sink in, in the same way it did for him in the spring of 1961.

Doomsday. Like the devices themselves, the language has a flavour of 1940s retro about it. A doomsday machine sounds like something a wartime Bond villain might have come up with in the pre-Connery era, bristling with antennae and flashing lights. It doesn’t sound, if we’re honest, all that scary.

This work isn’t scary in the conventional sense. It is quietly terrifying. No matter how bad you think the global nuclear weapons complex is, it is worse than you know. Much worse. Ellsberg knows this because he helped design it.

Assuming you’re still with me and didn’t just quickly turn the page, it’s worth persevering: Ellsberg is not trying to depress you for the sake of it, and he brings highly relevant expertise to the question of how we’re going to step back from the edge. Just … don’t try to read his book in one sitting.

The book is subtitled “Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner”. This is not the point of view of a theorist or a bystander, but the testimony of a sharp young patriot who was tasked with shaping the highest-level military doctrines and realised along the way what he was actually doing.

His sense of timing in publishing this book is exquisite. Long-simmering nuclear tensions on the Korean Peninsula again threaten to flare out of control. Casual threats of nuclear war are apparently back in fashion. And a remarkable turn of events in New York has given the world a new set of legal and diplomatic tools to defuse the crisis once and for all.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

If the name Daniel Ellsberg feels familiar, this is far from the first time he’s thrown himself into the public spotlight. In June 1971, The New York Times began running front-page bombshells: the Vietnam War was vastly greater in extent and brutality than the American public had been told; the United States was secretly and illegally bombing Cambodia and Laos; and four successive administrations had been flat-out lying about the conduct and purpose of the war. The source of the so-called Pentagon Papers leaks: Daniel Ellsberg, a young analyst in the employ of the consummate defence consultancy RAND Corporation. He and colleague Anthony Russo had spent a year photocopying a classified Department of Defense study on the war, one page at a time. They were facing a lifetime in jail after being indicted on charges of theft and espionage, but the case against them collapsed when the Nixon administration’s mobster-style intimidation of the truth-tellers came to the court’s attention.

Ellsberg’s name was made as the archetypal public-interest whistleblower. In the intervening decades he assumed a kind of elder-statesman-of-whistleblowing status, and now provides important moral and public support for those whose more recent disclosures have put them in harm’s way: Drake, Kiriakou, Manning, Assange, Snowden.

Unknown to nearly everyone, Ellsberg wasn’t just copying the Pentagon Papers. He was also quietly exfiltrating detailed evidence from RAND of how contending superpowers had quite deliberately entered into a high-technology suicide pact. It was intended to be a one-two punch: to run first with the Vietnam disclosures, and then to watch – most likely from the solitude of a jail cell – as the Doomsday disclosures brought nuclear policy to the epicentre of public attention.

It didn’t all go to plan: Ellsberg’s brother buried the cache of copied nuclear policy documents in a New York landfill, protected in a waterproof bag and marked out with an old stove. A heavy storm reconfigured the landscape and the documents were lost to history. Ellsberg was unexpectedly free, but facing the loss of the documents that he considered, on balance, far more important than the Pentagon Papers had been.

The Doomsday Machine is the story he first sought to disclose more than 40 years ago. Pieced together from notes, memory and subsequently declassified materials, this is a unique insider’s guide to the technology, psychology and doctrines of those engaged in planning for nuclear war.

For a work set mainly in the 1950s and ’60s, it is a remarkably contemporary take-down of nuclear myths and deceptions.

First to go: the idea that the president of the United States is the only one with the authority to launch its nuclear weapons. For the concept of nuclear deterrence to hold even basic credibility, a nuclear-armed state would need to be able to retaliate even in the event of a “decapitation” strike that wipes out its senior leadership. Ellsberg discovered that in 1959 President Dwight D. Eisenhower had granted wide approvals to military commanders to strike if they thought it necessary.

And so the white-knuckle ride began. Working his way across the western Pacific’s archipelago of US bases with high-level RAND security clearances, Ellsberg identified a variety of plausible scenarios in which widely dispersed commanders – down to individual bomber pilots – could choose to initiate a nuclear war.

Next to go: the whole concept of deterrence that has saturated defence policies and public debates from the 1940s all the way to Australia’s most recent Defence White Paper in 2016. Ellsberg writes:

Deterring a surprise Soviet nuclear attack – or responding to such an attack – has never been the only or even the primary purpose of our nuclear plans and preparations. The nature, scale, and posture of our strategic nuclear forces has always been shaped by the requirements of quite different purposes: to attempt to limit the damage to the United States from Soviet or Russian retaliation to a US first strikeagainst the USSR or Russia … The required US strategic capabilities have always been for a first-strike force.

“First strike”, in this context, means something quite different to “first use”, in the same way that ending your adversary’s civilisation is different to just dropping a single bomb. But with the concept of deterrence subordinated for the moment – we’ll come back to it – Ellsberg introduces the other reason for building and maintaining these weapons, at the same time disposing of the myth that nuclear weapons haven’t been used since the close of the Second World War. They have been widely tested to ruinous effect in our skies, our oceans and on lands from Kazakhstan to Maralinga. They have also been used almost routinely in a high-stakes game of ballistic bluff. Ellsberg lists 25 occasions since 1945 in which the US government has either secretly or openly threatened to escalate a conventional conflict or diplomatic stand-off with first use of nuclear weapons, from the Soviet Union’s Berlin blockade to the Korean War to Libya’s underground chemical weapons facility. Others have been watching and learning. According to Ellsberg:

[Nuclear weapons] have been used in the precise way that a gun is used when you point it at someone’s head in a direct confrontation, whether or not the trigger is pulled. For a certain type of gun owner, getting their way in such situations without having to pull the trigger is the best use of the gun. It is why they have it, why they keep it loaded and ready to hand.

Here, then, are two quite separate doctrines laid bare.

The first is to threaten an adversary with a first strike so devastating that their ability to retaliate is wiped out, and to deter said adversary from a first strike by guaranteeing the survival of enough retaliatory weapons to lay that country to waste. US and Russian stockpiles and doctrines emphatically retain this objective, right up until the present day.

The second is to bring credible threats of first use of nuclear weapons into conventional conflicts and skirmishes, over and over again, as a means of getting your way. Ellsberg’s recounting of the number of times senior US officials all the way up to the president have threatened or argued for pre-emptive “tactical” nuclear strikes will make your hair stand on end. This is not just a story of Cold War near-misses, either, given the present situation on the Korean Peninsula. Pause then, and take a breath. Because wildly irresponsible threats to escalate conventional conflicts into new Hiroshimas are not even the central story here. A handful of nuclear weapons on each side – say, the number believed deployed by North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un – would be enough to serve that purpose. Something vastly worse is at play.

At some point in his research for RAND, Ellsberg noticed a weird glitch in the casualty figures modelled by US planners in the event of a nuclear first strike on the Soviet Union:

I had seen successive estimates for Soviet casualties in general war that in the early years of [the 1950s] seemed surprisingly “low” for the nuclear era: a few million deaths, then ten million, then up to thirteen million or so by 1955. But then from that year to the next, 1956, there was a sudden tenfold jump in the estimates … to a hundred and fifty million Soviet dead. By 1961 … the JCS [ Joint Chiefs of Staff ] forecast was for more than two hundred million in the Soviet bloc alone.

The numbers kept rising. Years after he held the “single sheet with the graph on it”, he discovered that even the figure of six hundred million deaths was a hopeless underestimate: the war planners had neglected to model the effects of fire, which will kill hundreds of millions more.

The casualty estimates, rising to more than one third of the earth’s population by the early 1960s, were not mounting because of some new doctrine or strategic necessity, but simply through the widespread introduction of a new kind of nuclear weapon: the hydrogen bomb. “Our popular image of nuclear war – from the familiar pictures of the devastation of Nagasaki and Hiroshima – is grotesquely misleading,” writes Ellsberg. “Those pictures show us only what happens to humans and buildings when they are hit by what is now just the detonating cap for a modern nuclear weapon.”

We need not rely on pictures alone. The Japanese have a word for the survivors of the atomic strikes: hibakusha. One of them, Mr Nobuo Miyake, was riding a streetcar towards the centre of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, when the sky flashed a brilliant white. Thinking there had been an electrical short on the tram, he had the presence of mind to throw himself off it just as everything went completely black. Somehow, he survived. He spoke of how he met an army of flayed ghosts, holding their hands out in front of them with sheets of skin falling away, fleeing the firestorm consuming the city. He didn’t know it, but 80,000 people were dead; at least another 100,000 would die of injuries and radiation sickness as the consequences unfolded over coming years.

Three days later, there was another white flash, over the south-western city of Nagasaki. Seventy thousand people were killed instantly; for tens of thousands of others, the long misery of cancer and radiation sickness had just begun.

Two bombs: one with a core of uranium, one with a core of plutonium. More than a quarter of a million dead, nearly all of them civilians.

Strategically, this did not come out of nowhere. Although the technology is new, the modern practice of airborne civilian massacres has a lineage dating back to Imperial Japan’s attacks on Shanghai in 1932, and the more infamous bombing of the Spanish town of Guernica in 1937. In some of the most disturbing passages of the book, Ellsberg traces the stepwise erosion of the taboo against targeting civilians in wartime. US president Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1939 declaration that all belligerents should strictly avoid targeting civilians was met with immediate assent by the governments of the UK, France and Nazi Germany. This compact had slipped by 1940 with the German Luftwaffe’s nightmarish bombardment of London; from there, it was only a matter of time until all pretence of “precision bombing” against military targets had evaporated. By 1943, British and US air forces had begun experimenting with incendiary weapons, with the intention of creating self-sustaining “firestorms” to burn entire cities alive. Even as the atomic scientists raced to complete their “super-weapon”, US general Curtis LeMay had perfected the art of firebombing Japanese cities with huge fleets of aircraft carrying a mix of napalm, phosphorous, magnesium and high explosives. On one such raid on Tokyo in March 1945, LeMay’s pilots incinerated more than 100,000 people.

The miserable truth is that from the perspective of people conducting this kind of war the key benefit of nuclear weapons was continuity: now requiring only a single aircraft, the task of murdering immense numbers of civilians became dramatically more efficient. Conduct such as this unquestionably violates the laws of war painstakingly assembled over preceding centuries, but by 1945 the practice had become entirely normalised.

Unknown to most – even to insiders like Ellsberg – by 1945 the nuclear genie had only just begun to uncurl.

In 1952, the US government tested the world’s first hydrogen bomb in the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean. This two-stage weapon used a 1940s-era fission bomb as a “detonating cap” to blast a core of hydrogen isotopes into a state where they fuse together – a process that otherwise only occurs within stars. The destructive yield of such a weapon is almost unfathomable: hundreds and then thousands of times more powerful than the devices that lit up over Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

By the late 1960s, the five “permanent” members of the United Nations Security Council had all tested and deployed such devices; soon, thousands of them crouched in land-based missile silos, were slung under the wings of long-range bombers, or awaited launch from fleets of nearly undetectable ballistic missile submarines. The Cold War arms race between the US and the Soviet Union provided the highest magnitude of lunatic overkill. Ellsberg quotes colleague John H. Rubel: “I recall that the plan called for a total of forty megatons – megatons – on Moscow, about four thousand times more than the bomb over Hiroshima.”

Remember, the overarching ambition here is to create a survivable first-strike capability – to be able to so completely overwhelm the “enemy” that nothing survives to offer retaliation. And to be able to prove to your adversary that in the event they initiate such a strike you can inflict unacceptable damage on them even as your own country is being annihilated.

The flaw in the logic is almost excruciatingly evident to all but the most dedicated nuclear war planner. To make such threats credible, these weapons have to operate on a hair-trigger: at the first sign of an incoming strike, it is strongly in the interest of the party believing it is under attack to launch a massive counterstrike.

Ellsberg describes how these doctrines evolved during the Cold War into darkly surreal near-misses in which civilisation hung by a thread. The Cuban missile crisis, fading from popular consciousness despite occasional Hollywood reboots, is only one of the better-known examples. It slowly dawned on Ellsberg during the course of his research that the logical train-smash would arise when two such entities levelled equivalent threats against each other. Both the US and Soviet Union – and presumably other nuclear weapons states – felt compelled to design counterstrike measures whereby a nuclear war once begun becomes impossible to stop. The US relied on elaborate dispersal of authority: on suspecting that war had begun, theatre forces had wide delegation to launch everything available, even lacking an authorisation from the president or his immediate subordinates. The Soviets built something different: “Dead Hand” infrastructure that, under certain attack criteria, would launch automated “command missiles”, which in turn would broadcast codes to launch everything in their flight paths that was still operable.

In the 1980s, researchers made use of contemporary supercomputers to model what a nuclear conflagration would do to the climate. As whole nations vanished under firestorms ignited by hydrogen bombs, billions of tonnes of smoke and ash would be blown into the upper atmosphere, far above the altitude at which familiar weather patterns operate to rain out the pollution and clear the air. This vast radioactive pall would block the sun for a decade or more, dropping the temperature worldwide, destroying global food production and setting off a cascade of ecosystem collapse. A dystopian new phrase briefly entered the lexicon: nuclear winter.

It won’t matter whose side you were on, whether you were pro or anti nuclear, whether you were inside the blast radius or living obliviously on the other side of the world. This is how it ends, on the day the viciously flawed theory of “deterrence” fails for the first and only time. The briefest flash of incineration, a decade of gloomy collapse, and long centuries of radioactive silence.

This, then, is the doomsday machine. Not simply the existence of fission weapons or unspeakably destructive hydrogen bombs, but the whole network rigged together: thousands of them on hair-trigger alert, command and control equipment built in the 1970s and ’80s, millions of lines of antique code sitting on reels of magnetic tape or shuffled around on floppy discs even now. An architecture tended by fallible and deeply institutionalised human beings, some of them with bigger buttons than others. A weapons arsenal premised on the fact that it can never be used, threatened with use every day since 1945, and now costing roughly $100 billion a year globally to maintain and upgrade.

Our governments built this. With our taxes. Dictatorships, communist republics and democracies alike. And now they need to be forced to unbuild it before, one day, it gets used. The difficult journey to tame the nuclear genie starts with our collective commitment to stop our governments rubbing the damn lamp.

Ellsberg quotes Rubel again, as one of the few insiders he met who shared his growing revulsion at the nature of their endeavour:

I thought of the Wannsee Conference in January 1942, when an assemblage of German bureaucrats swiftly agreed on a program to exterminate every last Jew they could find … I felt as if I were witnessing a comparable descent into the deep heart of darkness, a twilight underworld governed by disciplined, meticulous and energetically mindless groupthink aimed at wiping out half the people living on nearly one third of the earth’s surface.

Today, at the highest levels, the doomsday machine is renewing itself. Nuclear weapons states have essentially cast aside the 40-year charade that they intend to honour their disarmament obligations under the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT). This legal instrument has come to serve chiefly for enforcement of a kind of global nuclear apartheid where a tiny handful of states maintain the capacity to commit unthinkable destruction while the great majority of the world’s governments forswear against ever adopting the technology. As a mechanism for preventing the spread of these weapons to dozens of countries, it has been an important platform and a reasonable success. As for its other objective, binding the nuclear weapons states to uphold their commitment to disarm, it has been a total failure.

Ellsberg’s principal source material is from the United States, but it is clear that successive US administrations are not the only ones known to threaten apocalypse. As recently as March, President Vladimir Putin threatened “global catastrophe” in the event of an attack on Russia. Sometimes these declarations are for domestic effect as much as any perceived international impact: witness the grotesque spectacle of British prime minister Theresa May in mid 2017, castigating Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn for his unwillingness to unleash the weapons aboard Trident ballistic missile submarines.

The mask came right off with the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States of America in late 2016. Ellsberg documents how nearly every president since Harry S. Truman has threatened someone with a nuclear first strike, and for each of these threats to be credible they had to be believable. But surely no one has taken to the task of radioactive brinkmanship with quite the same freakish enthusiasm as Trump. It is an edgy way to bring the reality of nuclear weapons back into public consciousness, but at least it’s no longer possible to pretend that these weapons were dismantled along with the Berlin Wall. There is a real and present danger here, embodied in the stream-of-consciousness pathologies of a commander-in-chief hopelessly out of his depth, surrounded by a seedy cast of hustlers and military hardliners.

And so, as the nuclear weapons states drift ever further from any pretence of disarmament, a cruel new dynamic has taken hold. Surrounded by US military bases and seeking to avoid the fate of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi, North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un has accelerated the pace of his father’s nuclear weapons program to the effect that his regime is now capable – in theory – of mounting a homemade hydrogen bomb on the tip of a ballistic missile. He does so using the same justifications pursued by every prior nuclear weapons state: this is how we keep our homeland secure and deter our enemies. The only positive consequence of his reckless forced entry into the nuclear weapons club is that it spotlights the seething hypocrisy of those already there.

“The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking,” Albert Einstein wrote in 1946, “and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.”

Well away from the institutional “banality of evil” within the nuclear weapons complex, different modes of thinking have sustained a global disarmament movement over seven long decades. Through dogged and often thankless work within electoral politics and United Nations frameworks, as well as independent research, community organising and direct action, a movement led principally by powerful women has survived, evolved, grown and adapted. Even through the lonely post–Cold War years when it seemed nobody was listening, the foundational commitment of bomb survivors, from Japan and nuclear test sites around the world, was that these devices must be dismantled before they are used again. This has given spirit and structure to a movement that is now coming into its fourth generation. In mid 2017, seemingly out of nowhere, and with the backing of the global medical community, it attacked the problem hard, from a new and highly prospective direction.

Here, then, is a new mode of thinking.

In Conference Room One, deep within UN headquarters in New York on July 7, 2017, nearly two thirds of the world’s governments came together to vote the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons into existence. The text is now agreed, and following ratification by 50 governments it will pass into international law, attaining the same standing as existing bans on chemical and biological weapons, landmines and cluster bombs.

All the nuclear weapons states boycotted negotiations, and the treaty came into being despite elaborate attempts by Australian diplomats to sabotage the initial meetings. With no one left in the room trying to wreck it, this will be the enduring strength of the law: free of attempts to water down and compromise the text, the document actually provides a binding framework to do exactly what it sets out to do. The process gave civil society groups such as the Red Cross and the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) unprecedented access to the negotiations – the same groups that had set the compass needle in the direction of just such a binding instrument five years earlier.

The ban is not the same thing as abolition: the treaty is a 10-page document, something you could read on your afternoon coffee break. It doesn’t eliminate a single bomb, a fact pointed out by the US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, in a snarly press statement co-signed by the representatives of France and the UK. “Accession to the ban treaty is incompatible with the policy of nuclear deterrence,” they quite correctly said. Every word betrays the hideous logic of the nuclear weapons states, amounting, in essence, to a threat to return to the deadening paralysis of the NPT … or else.

One line within their statement leaps off the page: “This treaty offers no solution to the grave threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear program.”

The statement is so remarkable in its wrongness that it deserves a proper rebuttal, or, rather, a proposal.

Mr Akira Kawasaki serves on the executive committee of the Tokyo-based non-government organisation Peace Boat, which for 35 years has chartered a passenger ship to serve as a globally travelling peace university. The organisation has also provided crucial neutral space for dialogue between civil society organisations, particularly women’s organisations, on both sides of the Korean Demilitarized Zone. Kawasaki is also a member of ICAN’s international steering group, and thus brings a unique perspective to bear on the question of how the ban treaty could work to defuse a real-world nuclear flashpoint.

Currently, “acceptable” Western opinion on the Korean crisis hews to two broad camps.

First, senior voices within the US military establishment who believe that a “decapitation” strike against North Korea can be carried out with bearable consequences for US assets in the region.

And second, those who believe that “we” should accept the reality that North Korea is now a full member of the nuclear club, and just deal with it.

Both options are utterly objectionable, albeit for quite different reasons.

Kawasaki outlines a third option, working with the strengths of the ban treaty. The NPT is silent on the question of how to trust or verify the physical disarmament of an existing nuclear weapons state; the ban treaty is designed to do exactly that.

How does this work in practice? A combination of legal, political and diplomatic footwork: a grand bargain. Speaking from his office in Tokyo, Kawasaki spells it out:

“Of course the red line for us is that North Korea will commit completely to nuclear zero. And then the countries should ask it to join the ban treaty, and put them under the strict verification and safeguard measures for dismantlement of its nuclear arsenal.

“And then, what sort of bargaining should we make to be sure that they will happily join the ban treaty?

“So my proposal is that if [North Korea] joins the treaty then South Korea and Japan also [agree] to join the same treaty. In that way, South Korea and Japan can reaffirm very clearly, unambiguously, in legal terms, that we will not obtain nuclear weapons, or that we will not assist the US to use nuclear weapons on our behalf. That will eliminate the perceived nuclear threats by the US onto North Korea – because North Korea is very much afraid of that.”

Damn right it is. Operating out of its bases in South Korea and the southern Japanese archipelago of Okinawa, the US routinely threatens North Korea with exactly the kind of atomic decapitation that the regime’s nascent nuclear weapons program is designed to deter. A compliant US press corps has beamed consecutive threats of nuclear destruction from successive White House pulpits into Kim Jong-un’s stack of morning press clippings, just as they did to his father and grandfather.

The ban treaty is designed to unhook this horrific knot. The US would need to cease threatening to wipe North Korea off the map, South Korea and Japan would formally cede any role for US nuclear weapons in their defence policies and on their soil, and the three countries would sign the treaty on the same day. The North Korean program is small and its dismantlement would be simple to verify, compared with that of the sprawling weapons infrastructure of countries that have been at it for decades. North Korea would be a perfect candidate for the first nuclear weapons state through the door.

The other end of the bargain is just as significant. If South Korea and Japan were to remove nuclear weapons from their “security” alliance with the US, as New Zealand did in the 1980s, it would forever change the nature of disarmament diplomacy. It would remove the last shred of cover for Australian governments to remain under the so-called “nuclear umbrella” of the US. And it would clear the path for other nuclear-armed states to follow this lead, having been provided with a vivid example of how the absence of nuclear weapons can create genuine security.

Notice that even such an ambition – to convert a nuclear flashpoint into a nuclear weapons–free zone – does not dismantle the doomsday machine. Indeed, the ban treaty only rates one encouraging line in Ellsberg’s book, presumably owing to the date of publication. Nonetheless, it shows how citizen-led movements can outflank governments, seize the agenda and provide genuine leadership in de-escalating conflicts that governments on all sides have worked hard to curate, or at best lack the capacity and vision to relieve.

Ellsberg outlines a number of other confidence-building measures between the nuclear superpowers that could help restart the long-dormant disarmament agenda and at least see the withdrawal of thousands of hydrogen bombs from high alert.

He clearly sees his primary obligation, however, as providing the truth: to open a window into the dystopian world of the nuclear war planners as a first step to letting in fresh air and fresh ideas.

Australia marked its cards early, seeking to wreck the ban treaty process before it could get started. There is very little realistic hope that the Turnbull government will do anything to advance the agenda.

The simple reality is that we cannot wait for constrained, compromised and sometimes collusive political actors to take the initiative. ICAN has managed to sign up around two thirds of the Labor caucus, a substantial number of crossbenchers and all Australian Greens MPs to a pledge to sign the ban treaty.

The only thing that will convert this impressive collection of names into a prime ministerial signature on the ban treaty will be a concerted, collective campaign. So let’s get to work.

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