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We are on the Titanic, going at full speed on a moonless night into iceberg waters. Have we hit the iceberg yet, and made it inevitable that we will go down? We don’t know. …. there’s no way to prove it. It is definitely not a waste for some of us to keep trying to explore to see if there’s a way out.

Daniel Ellsberg

In Stanley Kubrick’s iconic film Dr. Strangelove, the American president is informed that the Soviet Union has created a secret deterrence system which will automatically wipe out humanity upon detection of a single nuclear explosion in Russia. With US bombs heading towards the USSR and unable to be recalled, Dr Strangelove points out that “the whole point of this Doomsday Machine is lost if you keep it a secret – why didn’t you tell the world, eh?” The Soviet ambassador replies that it was to be announced at the Party Congress the following Monday: “The Premier loves surprises”.

Daniel Ellsberg – leaker of the Pentagon Papers which helped end the Vietnam War and Nixon presidency – claims in his new book The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner that Dr. Strangelove might as well be a documentary. After attending the film in Washington DC in 1964, he and a military colleague wondered how so many details of the nuclear systems they were constructing had managed to leak to the filmmakers.

The USSR did in fact develop a doomsday machine, Dead Hand, which probably remains active today.

If the system can’t contact military leaders, it checks for signs of a nuclear strike. Should its computers determine that an attack occurred, it would automatically launch all remaining Soviet weapons at targets across the northern hemisphere.

As in the film, the Soviet Union long kept Dead Hand completely secret, eliminating any strategic benefit, and rendering it a pointless menace to humanity.

You might think the United States would have a more sensible nuclear launch policy. You’d be wrong.

As Ellsberg explains based on first-hand experience as a nuclear war planner in the early stages of the Cold War, the notion that only the president is able to authorize the use of US nuclear weapons is a carefully cultivated myth.

The authority to launch nuclear weapons is delegated alarmingly far down the chain of command – significantly raising the chance that a lone wolf or communication breakdown could trigger a nuclear catastrophe.

The whole justification for this is to defend against a ‘decapitating attack’, where a first strike on Washington disables the ability of the US hierarchy to retaliate. In a moment of crisis, the Russians might view this as their best hope of survival.

Ostensibly, this delegation removes Russia’s temptation to attempt a decapitating attack – the US can retaliate even if its leadership is destroyed. This strategy only works, though, if you tell the enemy you’ve done it.

Instead, since the 50s this delegation has been one of the United States most closely guarded secrets, eliminating its strategic benefit, and rendering it another pointless menace to humanity.

Even setting aside the above, the size of the Russian and American nuclear arsenals today makes them doomsday machines of necessity. According to Ellsberg, if these arsenals are ever launched, whether accidentally or deliberately, they would wipe out almost all human life, and all large animals.

Strategically, the setup is stupid. Ethically, it is monstrous.

If the US or Russia sent its nuclear arsenal to destroy the other, would it even make sense to retaliate? Ellsberg argues that it doesn’t matter one way or another. The nuclear winter generated by the original attack would be enough to starve to death most people in the aggressor country within a year anyway. Retaliation would just slightly speed up their demise.

So – how was such a system built? Why does it remain to this day? And how might we shrink our nuclear arsenals to the point they don’t risk the destruction of civilization?

Daniel explores these questions eloquently and urgently in his book (that everyone should read), and this conversation is a gripping introduction. We cover:

  • Why full disarmament today would be a mistake
  • What are our greatest current risks from nuclear weapons?
  • What has changed most since Daniel was working in and around the government in the 50s and 60s?
  • How well are secrets kept in the government?
  • How much deception is involved within the military?
  • The capacity of groups to commit evil
  • How Hitler was more cautious than America about nuclear weapons
  • What was the risk of the first atomic bomb test?
  • The effect of Trump on nuclear security
  • What practical changes should we make? What would Daniel do if he were elected president?
  • Do we have a reliable estimate of the magnitude of a ‘nuclear winter’?
  • What would be the optimal number of nuclear weapons for the US and its allies to hold?
  • What should we make of China’s nuclear stance? What are the chances of war with China?
  • Would it ever be right to respond to a nuclear first strike?
  • Should we help Russia get better attack detection methods to make them less anxious?
  • How much power do lobbyists really have?
  • Has game theory had any influence over nuclear strategy?
  • Why Gorbachev allowed Russia’s covert biological warfare program to continue
  • Is it easier to help solve the problem from within the government or at outside orgs?
  • What gives Daniel hope for the future?

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The 80,000 Hours podcast is produced by Keiran Harris.


Our policy has actually been the threat of an insane action, an action that essentially we now know for the last 35 years has involved killing nearly everyone on earth by the smoke from the burning cities that are planned to be hit in our war plan. And that smoke, we now know on the nuclear winter calculations, would be lofted into the stratosphere, would spread around the world globally. I’m talking now about a war between the U.S. and Russia, where thousands of weapons would be involved. And a few hundred of those weapons on cities which are targeted would be enough to cause smoke that would reduce the sunlight reaching the earth’s surface by about 70%, killing all the harvests worldwide and for a period as a long as a decade.

But that wouldn’t be necessary, killing all the harvests for about a year or even less would exhaust our food supplies, which globally are about 60 days, and nearly everyone would starve to death except for a small fraction, perhaps 1% a little more or less, of humans would survive, in Australia or New Zealand, southern hemisphere is somewhat less affected, eating fish and mollusks. And that could be a sizable number of people. One percent is 70 million people, but 99% gone and virtually all the larger animals other than humans. They’re not as adaptable as we are, and they can’t move thousands of miles and wear clothes, light fires, have houses. They would go extinct altogether, as they did when an asteroid hit the earth 67 or 65 million years ago and created a very similar effect, blotting out the sunlight by the dust that was sent up.

Even the word evil seems just overwhelmed by what we’re talking about, which is the destruction of most large life and most humans on earth, something that was simply not possible a hundred years ago …

…we’re in a situation then where such a war can actually occur. It has been prepared for, more extensively probably than any other human project in history. Go back to the original Hiroshima and Nagasaki that involved a combination of the two most elaborate, highly developed, scientific applications the world had ever seen. A B-29 bomber was incredibly complex, highly advanced flying machine, and of course the atomic weapon which represented the product of years of work of the richest nation concentrating on the subject with the best scientific minds in the world working on it.

So here you had the two most highly developed scientific objects, the B-29 and the atomic bomb, connected. Well, that fission bomb is now the trigger for a thermonuclear weapon, an H bomb or a fusion weapon. …

So here we have something, then, that nothing in history … not the pyramids, not anything else, … in terms of science and GDP and everything else, this will have been enormously well-prepared for. Reflectively, rationally, scientifically, economically, and yet the result will have been the destruction of civilization altogether. …

No president of either country has ever intended or determined or decided to wipe out life on earth. But they have all been willing to threaten it, and to prepare for it. And the threats actually do create the risk of this happening because to make them credible and effective, not effective altruism, but effective intimidation – they prepared for it. They made it possible and feasible.

Brezhnev was sure that when Nixon signed the convention against biological warfare, that he would continue a covert program on a large scale, and so they had to have one too. Now, what’s the use of doing that if you don’t use it deterrently, if you don’t make it public? How can it be a deterrent? It can’t, but then how could they say, “We’re assuming you’re breaking this, so we’re breaking it too?”

You couldn’t prove that Nixon was doing it, and, amazingly enough, Nixon wasn’t doing it, as far as we can tell. They did preserve some smallpox at CIA, and some anthrax, and this and that, but only a refrigerator-full, sort of. The Russians maintained hundreds of thousands of gallons and pounds of anthrax and botulinus and improved forms, against vaccines.

Now, that’s as close to insanity and evil as you can get to. As one disarmer said when he looked at the huge vat that remained for anthrax, he said, “I’m looking at pure evil.” Well, fair, enough, it would seem so. Who continued that? It was done under Brezhnev, kept very secret, as far as we know, was not revealed, it is Strangelovian, and kept secret, not for a deterrent, continued under Gorbachev.

How could Gorbachev possibly continue this insane, evil program? He told Larry Brilliant, who had been instrumental in eliminating smallpox from the world, when Brilliant asked him … and I have a memoir by Brilliant on this. He talked to Gorbachev, and he said, “How could you have done this? We were eliminating smallpox. You were providing huge amounts of smallpox here.”

Gorbachev got very disturbed, anxious, uneasy, anguished, and said he knew, he was most ashamed of that of anything he’d ever been involved in. He said, “The military came to me, and said, ‘If you don’t continue this, you cannot stay in office. We will overthrow you.'” And he looked at all the things he was doing, reducing nuclear weapons, Glasnost, opening up the society and all that, and rather than give all that up, he continued this insane program, which is very human, very normal.

When you look at human character, it’s hard to be confident humans will survive. To me, it’s crazy to be confident, I have to say. To think that it’s highly likely we will survive nuclear weapons, climate change, artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, biological warfare… to be confident like that is to be either totally ignorant of the nature of humanity – which most people are – or to be crazy.

So, thinking it’s likely we’ll survive? I can’t believe that. I think it’s unlikely, very unlikely.

But not impossible. My age and experience doesn’t permit me to be confident that there’s no way out here. Because humans are adaptable, and things do change, and the changes I’ve mentioned are possible.

We are on the Titanic, going at full speed on a moonless night into iceberg waters. Have we hit the iceberg yet, and made it inevitable that we will all go down together? We don’t know. It may turn out that, a while ago, we went past the no-return point. But we don’t know that, there’s no way to prove it.

As I say in The Doomsday Machine: “I act as if we have a chance to find our way out of this. I don’t know what that path is yet, but that doesn’t tell me there is no way.”

So, I urge others, I encourage them.

And if they give up hope, or even devote themselves entirely to pleasure, like a life on the Titanic drinking champagne after hitting the iceberg… I can’t say that’s crazy. But I don’t join in that.

And should someone stop trying to save the world as a whole, and instead just works to ease the suffering of other people – I think that’s very reasonable, very good.

I just think that it’s definitely not wasted for some of us to keep trying to explore and see if there’s a way out of the precarious situation in which humanity finds itself.

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About the show

The 80,000 Hours Podcast features unusually in-depth conversations about the world's most pressing problems and how you can use your career to solve them. We invite guests pursuing a wide range of career paths — from academics and activists to entrepreneurs and policymakers — to analyse the case for and against working on different issues and which approaches are best for solving them.

The 80,000 Hours Podcast is produced and edited by Keiran Harris. Get in touch with feedback or guest suggestions by emailing [email protected].

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