Robert Wiblin: Hi listeners, this is the 80,000 Hours Podcast, where each week we have an unusually in-depth conversation about the world’s most pressing problems and how you can use your career to solve them. I’m Rob Wiblin, Director of Research at 80,000 Hours.
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In today’s episode I speak with Daniel Ellsberg, who will be known to many listeners.
Daniel studied economics at Harvard before becoming a commissioned officer in the US Marine Corps.
He then went to work at the RAND Corporation — a nonprofit think tank working for the US government — concentrating on nuclear strategy and the command and control of nuclear weapons. In the early 60s he finished a PhD in economics at Harvard focused on decision-making under uncertainty and ambiguity, in which he discussed a problem now known as the Ellsberg Paradox.
From 1964 he worked at the Pentagon under Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, advising on American strategy in the Vietnam War and spent two years doing researching in South Vietnam itself.
He became progressively disaffected with the war, and after failing to find a way to affect the war inside the government, in 1971 he leaked thousands of pages of analysis of the US’ grim prospects in Vietnam to dozens of newspapers. Those documents subsequently became known as the Pentagon Papers and were an enormous scandal with a public tiring of the war.
They exposed the government’s poor decision-making and widespread lying to the public, and ended up being one of the most consequential leaks in US history.
Ellsberg was charged for revealing classified information and faced life in prison. In an attempt to discredit and blackmail him government agents broke into his psychiatrist’s office in order to steal his medical records, and his phone was tapped without a warrant. Ultimately he was freed on a mistrial due to this and other criminal behaviour on the part of prosecutors.
The ability to link this criminal activity directly to Nixon, along with the evidence from the break in at the Watergate Hotel, would end the Nixon presidency soon after.
He wrote his memoirs about Vietnam – Secrets – in 2002 and last year published The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner which is the main topic of our discussion today.
Robert Wiblin: So, thanks for coming on the podcast Daniel.
Daniel Ellsberg: Thank you. Good to be here.
Robert Wiblin: So while my intro was mostly about the Pentagon papers, today I want to focus mostly on the topic of your latest book, The Doomsday Machine : The Threat of Nuclear Apocalypse and How to Prevent It, as I think that that’s been less covered in previous interviews that you’ve done.
First, though, what are you working on these days, and why do you think it’s important?
Daniel Ellsberg: Well, the paperback edition of The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner is coming out by Bloomsbury a year after the hardback so it’ll be coming out in early December, December 5th, this year. And so I’m really preparing for that in part by planning to put things on the web that I thought were left out of the book that I’d like people to know, and also involved in archiving my files all together. I’m working with someone who is digitalizing in principle all my files, so you know for one person that’s very hard to do that. It’s sort of like shoveling the sea. But I am working on that and trying to keep up with current events and how the revelations in The Doomsday Machine apply to current events. So I continue to be hopeful to try to prevent nuclear war.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. Has there been much interest in the book from policy makers?
Daniel Ellsberg: Yeah. Actually, the publishers have been happily surprised. 17 publishers turned down the book before Bloomsbury took it on the grounds that they couldn’t’ sell it for commercial reasons. They said they respected me, but this was not a subject they could sell. Actually, although the first printing was only 19 thousand, they have now sold in about six months somewhat more than 40 thousand, which unfortunately doesn’t make it a bestseller yet. Not viral or anything. I wish it were. But it’s respectable for a book of that nature. It’s … respectable was not what I was aiming at in the sense that I really would like to change discussion and climate on this. It’s gotten very good reviews, actually, virtually all of them. Two rather lukewarm reviews, all the others very warm. I couldn’t ask, actually, for better reviews. I’ve been talking … doing quite a bit of speaking and interviewing in connection with it. So the book does do what one hopes, is to give you a platform for speaking about a subject that’s very important to me.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. Have you heard from anyone in the military or intelligence services?
Daniel Ellsberg: No. I didn’t expect to hear directly.
Robert Wiblin: They don’t take your calls.
Daniel Ellsberg: I’d love it if they were reading it. I would love nothing better to have it read. In fact, to show what I can aim at here, I have … was speaking just yesterday, it so happens, to a Marine general, I won’t identify who, is anxious to read it and I’m going to send that to him today. But the thought occurred to me that he’s in a position to send it to General Green, General Dunford is chairman of the Joint Chiefs, to General James Mattis, which is the Secretary of Defense, and to General Kelly who is the Chief of Staff, all of whom were junior officers under this very general. So if he orders them to read it-
Robert Wiblin: It’ll have a shot.
Daniel Ellsberg: … it’s actually conceivable. I already had some hope from the fact that Marines are in such prominent positions because Marines have had no real connection with nuclear weapons for a long time. Going way back into the early fifties, they had a ten-inch Howitzer shell, which actually they sent ten-inch Howitzer’s into Lebanon in the landing in 1958, and there was a question whether the shells had accompanied them or not, that never resolved. But the Marines were disposed of their nuclear weapons half a century ago, and as a result I think these people, although they’ve been to war colleges of course and have very broad responsibilities now, I suspect they are not as devoted to even the threat of nuclear weapons as the Air Force and Navy and even the Army used to be. The Army, too, has lost its nuclear weapons, like the Marines. But that’s encouraging to me. I think now … there’s never been a time when Marines were in such prominent policy positions. It’s sort of the fifth leg on the military. So, I think there actually is some promise there. I’m hoping.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. So, what do you think are the few most important points in the book that you’d really want people to remember?
Daniel Ellsberg: Well, that 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.
So the war plans of both U.S. and Russia have contemplated as sending not just hundreds but thousands of warheads at each other and hitting hundreds of cities. And something between 100 and 200 cities hit that way, by thermonuclear weapons, would cause this nuclear winter. The likelihood of a limited nuclear war between the U.S. and Russia is not quite zero, but it’s very small. Any armed conflict between U.S. and Russia, which has never occurred yet, would bear a high likelihood or a real risk of erupting and escalating into use or nuclear weapons by one or the other. Once that happened, the change of keeping it limited is very low. Each would worry that the other was about to escalate. And another major point in the book is that our planning on both sides has been aimed, delusionally for this entire period, at limiting damage to one’s own side by counterforce, by hitting the forces of the other side in addition to its cities and its urban industrial centers. In fact, most of the targets on both sides are of military targets, many of them near cities or in the cities actually.
But for over half a century, the idea that that would in effect protect the attacking side from close to annihilation or certainly the destruction of its society has been delusional. The likelihood is that the society would be entirely destroyed and I come back to the point that the threat of initiating such a war has been aimed at deterring the other side from various actions, aggressive actions of various kinds, and yet it is the threat of an insane action and to call it immoral is scarcely conveyed by any word at our disposal. Immoral … that can leak from anything.
Robert Wiblin: It’s like stealing a pack of gum.
Daniel Ellsberg: 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, or for that matter, eighty years ago. So we don’t have concepts to deal with it, ethical, legal, practical. We’ve been living with it and making the kinds of threats that have been used for millennia to intimidate and influence policies of other countries, but on a scale that was never before possible or contemplated.
So I’d say we’re in a situation then where such a war can actually occur. It has been prepared for, most extensively probably than any other human project in history. Go back to the original Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the first acts … the first nuclear war. 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 had dropped, the fission weapon which they dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, 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, or some of the best. There were a few comparable ones in Germany, but they didn’t focus on that problem. They didn’t think it was feasible in time.
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. Hydrogen weapon known as an H bomb uses a Nagasaki-type fission bomb as its trigger, its detonator, its percussion cap in effect. And the initial explosion of a weaponized kind of H bomb in 1954 had an explosive yield a thousand times that of the Nagasaki weapon. A thousand times. And that in turn was a thousand, or two thousand, or four thousand times the largest bombs of World War II, which ranged from blockbusters from five to twenty ton. The Nagasaki weapon had a yield of twenty thousand tons of TNT equivalent. So that was a thousand times, and then the weapon in 1954, the Castle Bravo test was 15 megatons, another thousand, a factor of a thousand.
So here we have something, then, that nothing in history … not the pyramids, not anything else, the Great Wall of China reflected perhaps more manpower somehow over time. But in terms of science and part of the GNP 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. It’s as if one were to hypothesize, somehow, a self-destructive impulse in civilization or in rationality or in humans. It would be very hard to disprove that. Let’s just say you can think of other hypotheses, and one does. I have. How you get there without having intended it 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, feasible mostly. Sometimes they make threats that are totally hollow and they can’t carry out.
A very important example of that was Khrushchev, the Soviet premiere in the late fifties, when he was threatening Britain and London and Paris with weapons that he didn’t have. He didn’t’ have the intermediate range missile weapons at that time. But within a few years, he did have them. And having … since his threats didn’t work, by the way, he decided he needed … his military decided they needed them to be more realistic, more credible, and that meant making them feasible. And of course, making them feasible opened the possibility that deliberately or not, they would be carried out by someone or other, if not the Prime Minister or Premiere or General Secretary, by someone else who had access to those weapons. It was true on the U.S. side, this is another revelation in the book, that in order to make it impossible to paralyze our response, our retaliation, by a single weapon on Washington on our command post, a few weapons on command post, the authority to initiate or to use the weapons, the U.S. weapons, had been delegated by President Eisenhower to a number of high-level commanders who had in turn delegated it for the same reason to their lower commanders.
If the lower ones were out of communication, which happened every day in those days for technical reasons, that was before we had the system of satellites, and Washington was out of communication with our headquarters in Oahu part of everyday. That’s not true now. It does depend on satellites, by the way, which both sides are working on anti-satellite weapons to clear the air, the space, of those connecting nodes so that really very early in a war, the weapons may well, or could even say probably, will be out of contact with central headquarters. And it will depend, then, on human responses and decisions what to do. And in an environment in which nuclear weapons are going off and war is on. So the idea of controlling that and limiting that to a small exchange is very low and it doesn’t take much to destroy this society.
So there’s a few of the things. Let’s see, the delegation, the reliance on incredibly evil actions which can in fact be triggered and have come close to being triggered a number of times in the past, in order to have certain political effects, and this is something not in the book, as much as it should be if at all. And that is in order for corporations to sell weapons to the government and to our allies, that may actually be a main purpose. In our political economy, the military budget involves profits, jobs, political donations, careers for retired officers. In and out, actually, people from the corporations and the governments. A great many short-run material benefits, in other words, from producing this doomsday machine. And that is true in Russia as well. Even before … even under Communism, their desire to match what the U.S. had led them to build a doomsday machine in the mid-sixties, perhaps 10 years after we did. And now, they have the same profit motives our corporations do. They have their equivalent to Boeing and Lockheed and Raytheon. And as Gorbachev said someone recently, “You have your profit motives and we do to.”
So, that alone is enough, actually, to ensure that these weapons get made. And when they’re made and deployed and used in “diplomacy”, that is threats, intimidation, the chance of their actually exploding is not zero as it should be. So we’ve been maintaining with the rational of deterrence and preventing war, which may have worked in a number of cases, actually prevented wars that might have occurred otherwise. But at the same time, maintaining the risk of the destruction of civilization and we’ve been consciously, deliberately, rationally maintaining that risk now for well over half a century.
Robert Wiblin: We’ll return to the political economy issue in a minute when we’re thinking about what can be done, but I’m curious to know, what do you think is the greatest risk we face? In terms of which countries do you think might end up shooting at one another, and do you think it would be deliberate or a mistake?
Daniel Ellsberg: I think the greatest individual risk is a false alarm of the kind we’ve had repeatedly in the past. Recently in a limited form in Hawaii, this very year, where someone put out an alert to the residents of Hawaii that an attack was on the way. Now, the residents of Hawaii were not in a position to respond or to do anything, really, effective. They sat in bathtubs, they went under manhole covers, none of which would have done much good. But similar false warnings have reached the highest levels. Very few actually up to the President, although in 1995 President Yeltsin of Russia, after the Cold War, was told that an attack was on the way and was contemplating responding to it with his so-called briefcase, with his computer, could have led to a full-scale response. But in most cases, the fact that it’s a false alarm, which took 38 minutes to discover in Hawaii by the way, is discovered by the elaborate national networks sooner than that, within a matter of minutes, often just before it was time to tell the President that it was up to him to respond.
And here’s the real danger. Not only do our warning systems on both sides bring out these false alarms, having, by the way, not just casually but having gone through several filtering systems that are designed to eliminate false alarms and to explain them otherwise and so forth, nevertheless a number of very serious false alarms have occurred. The biggest problem is that both Russia and the U.S. have large numbers of forces, ICBMs, Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles, that cannot survive an enemy attack on the U.S. or on Russian. They are fixed targets, vulnerable to the accurate large-yield weapons on the other side, and if you wait for that alarm to be confirmed by actual explosions, the weapons themselves will mostly be destroyed.
So each side has a very strong incentive and plan and readiness to launch its weapons before they are destroyed. That may be while the others are in the air, or space, or if there’s an indication that there will be an escalation shortly. The impulse to use them or lose them is very strong. Now, a realistic point of view that there is no advantage in using them over losing them because in both sides, there’s enough submarine missiles that cannot be targeted, that each can destroy the other even it’s lost all of its ICBMs, and its bombers for that matter. It so happens that the Russian subs are much more vulnerable than ours because for geographic reasons and various reasons, we’re able to track them from their ports or from certain entry points into the Atlantic or the Pacific in a way that they can’t track ours. And we have a hundred killer submarines that are dedicated to getting a number of their submarines. The Russians really don’t have a comparable capability. That doesn’t mean we have a high chance of getting all of them, and a single submarine, let alone two or three, would have the capability to destroy our society and bring about nuclear winter, by the way.
So if the word came to the President, as it almost did in 1979 in particular where our National Security Assistant Zbigniew Brzezinski had his arm reaching out to inform the President via red phone at three in the morning that an attack was on the way, the President would be told, “We launch our weapons or we lose them.” He would almost surely not be told, “And Mr. President, it doesn’t make any difference what you do.” That’s the reality. But as far as we know, no president has been fully briefed on the notion of nuclear winter. Gorbachev does give indication that he was well-informed on that subject. And Reagan, by the way, referred to it. He was not one for being briefed very much in detail on anything, any more than Trump, but he seems to have been aware of it.
As far as we know, the latest results from the last decade have not been briefed. People like Alan Robuck and Brian Toon have tried to … have asked to brief the high levels on this, have never been taken up on it. And are not really aware that it doesn’t make any difference what he does. On the contrary, the weapons have been sold both by Boeing and Lockheed and by the Air Force and the Navy, on the grounds that they can destroy Russian ICBMs, which seems like a worthwhile thing to do in a war. Whatever happens, isn’t it better to have eliminated their ICBMs? Seems plausible. The answer is no, it won’t make any difference. It simply won’t make any difference.
Say, well, why not then get rid of our ICBMs? What are they good for? Well, they’re not good for saving lives in the U.S. in any circumstance whatever. They’re not good for any political purposes, but they’re very good to make for profits, jobs, and to reassure our allies that we’re working hard on this problem and we remain their protector in what amounts to a protection racket. We have built up the threat from the Russians ever since about 1947, and since then, in the interest as presenting ourselves as their only protector against an overwhelming threat. And very much like the Mafia’s protection rackets in Chicago or elsewhere, give us this money, let us control your business or you’ll regret it. And there the threat is in principle … I mean in practice, or we’ll blow you up ourselves, but the implication is or our rivals will hurt you and we’ll protect your from that if you give us your tribute. That’s basically our relation with NATO, ever since.
So there are interests in maintaining and building this doomsday machine. They are domestic, political, and the reliance interests in doing it. What there are not are any ability to influence our events and our benefit or save lives in any circumstance whatsoever if they were actually launched. So, I repeat what I said earlier. No President has actually wanted to launch those weapons, but they have all wanted to be able to threaten them. Or in some cases, I think, in their own minds, they were reluctant about that. They wanted to keep their jobs, which depended upon their not being charged with weakness or appeasement or with withdrawing from this competition, and have the donations of Boeing and Grumman and the others go to their rivals. So we act as if they believe that it was worth being able to make those threats. And in fact, probably, in various circumstances, the threats have had some effect that can be regarded as useful, have had a deterrent effect. I can be specific in a moment about that. But at best, that has been at the cost of maintaining the possibility of destroying most life on earth.
Robert Wiblin: What do you think has most changed about the situation since you working on nuclear security issues for Rand and the Pentagon in the fifties and sixties?
Daniel Ellsberg: Well, I and my colleagues were all suffering from a delusion given to us by Air Force intelligence, which in turn, was very biased in their estimates by a desire to face a very strong enemy which had took the Air Force to hold off and increase the Air Force budget that forces promotions at bases, everything else. So Air Force intelligence was telling us that they were moving towards … the Russians were moving toward hundreds and ultimately thousands of ICBMs, against which we had no real defense, and never had have and never will have. There never will be an anti-ballistic missile system that actually protects us from a large scale attack by Russian ICBMs, accompanied by decoys and other evasive measures.
So given that circumstance, they said only deterrents can do it, and they also posited and I believe this that … how old was I? 27, and my colleagues believed that we faced an enemy that was essentially Hitler with nuclear weapons, a Nazi-like regime in Russia armed now with nuclear weapons. And that was plausible to a degree, because Stalin was in fact as ruthless as Hitler and probably killed more communists than Hitler did in Stalin’s purges and in famines in the Ukraine and elsewhere. So he was totally ruthless, brutal, murderous, and also was in occupation of East Europe. The realistic thought that that occupation, which was very costly to the Russians, was primarily defensive against resurgent Germany was never in our discussion. I don’t remember every hearing such a thought, that it was anything but a precursor to their taking over all of Europe as Hitler had tried to do. They’re in East Europe, they want West Europe beyond Germany, and only we can keep them from having it. So it seemed very dire circumstances.
In retrospect, I think that was always a delusion, that Stalin always was aware that that would be effectively a suicidal … in the nuclear era, a suicidal attempt by him and had no practical inclination to do it and was concerned about a German resurgence in fact, as he said, though we tend to dismiss that as just propaganda, very foolishly. Here you have a situation where Russia has been devastated twice in a century by Germany, and the idea that they were sincere in saying that they worried about that happening again in Germany, not right away but in … Stalin, and later Khrushchev, used to say fifteen years or twenty years, long ago. Simply, we didn’t take into account at all. So their buildup, their weapons seemed to us purely offensive and aggressive. And moreover, they were ahead of us in ICBM technology. They fired their … launched their first ICBM in 1957, in, I think it was August or September. We weren’t able to do it. We couldn’t get one off the ground until months later, and of course they put up Sputnik which showed that they had the accuracy to hit our cities at least.
So in those circumstances, there was a third factor. Very strangely, in retrospect somehow, but my colleagues like my very admired, respected mentor Albert Wohlstetter had ran, my mentor, took the attitude that the Russians could not be deterred from attacking and gaining world domination by any damage less than they had suffered in World War II, which was at least twenty million dead. Now it’s usually put something like 27 million. And the idea was they saw themselves, Wohlstetter said, as having gotten through that very well. Here they were, ten years later, doing very well in the world. So they knew they could stand that. World domination would be worth that, he thought. So we had to assure that under any circumstances, we could kill more than 27 million people. And again, that went along with his Nazi … his implication that they were Nazi-like, genocide prone country.
Again, in retrospect, that was totally unrealistic in terms of Russian attitudes. When I first went to Russia in the mid-eighties just before Glasnost, or just in the early stages of Glasnost, I became aware that the Russians I met simply vibrated with horror at what they had gone, being as they said, fought over twice in World War II. First with the Germans moving east across their country, and then in a fighting withdrawal, moving west again, both times, in effect devastating them. And the idea that they were prepared to do that again, couldn’t have been further from the truth. After all, in our country, we never had anything comparable to that, except the Civil War which was limited geographically, to a limited band of the country, unlike theirs, and far beyond our … past our memory in the North. The South, to this day, clearly retains the idea that they lost a noble cause, to preserve their way of life, namely slavery. It’s something for blacks, very comparable to the totalitarian regimes.
So we had this idea then, that it was very hard to achieve deterrence and that you had to think in terms of massacre as a possibility because nothing else would deter them. That had no particular relation to reality. But what we believed … or what I believed. At the highest levels of the Air Force, it’s now clear, they did understand from our reconnaissance programs, various ones before the U-2 high flying plane and then later planes like the SR-71, but in particular satellites, had revealed to the highest levels of command that the Russians had almost no ICBMs at all. But that was not passed on to us at Rand, and actually the commander of SAC, Strategic Air Command, when I visited them in Omaha in August of 1961, was estimating that the Russians had a thousand ICBMs. We had 40. But they had four. We learned that a month later.
So we had 40 to their 4, plus we had many intermediate range missiles within range of them, both Polaris and land-based, and several thousand planes in range of Russia, whereas they had something like 192 which were not at all planned for attacks on the U.S. They didn’t have the air refueling capability. We imagined they did, as we did. So they had essentially nothing against the U.S. Even so, we knew that they could destroy Europe, their neighbors, with intermediate range missiles, or short range, and planes and bomber which we couldn’t destroy in a first strike because they were mobile, there were too many of them, too many bases and we couldn’t find them.
So had we attacked, the U.S. in ’60 or ’61, say over the Berlin crisis, the U.S. might not have suffered a single casualty, which might be the case if we attacked North Korea now, for example. Would that we mean we’d win the war? Well, from one point of view, yes. We’d have devastated them, suffered perhaps no casualties, or if they had some submarines at sea that we didn’t find, we might have lost a city or several cities even, which would be more casualties than we’d suffered since the Civil War, but compared to them that would be victory. Unless you counted what they did to our allies, who would have been annihilated.
So our threats of NATO always involved the total devastation of our allies, of NATO, and absolutely inescapably … it’s not clear to me to this day how conscious the NATO allies were of this, or why they allowed it. Well, again, you can say it’s the difference between actually having it happen and threatening. They could hope that our threats would keep it from happening, and that in effect, it did work, or at least there was no war. It might have been necessary. I would say not, but it could have been. But were they really thinking of the possibility we would not succeed and that they would be totally annihilated?
Now, there are those anti-nuclear people of whom I’m one who believe that there’s no effective point to it all where deterrents worked. I don’t agree to that. I would say that West Berlin remained capitalist and remained aligned to the West inside East Europe 250 miles I think it was within East Germany surrounded by Soviet division. I would say that that remained on our side only because of the threat of blowing the world up. There was no other way of keeping Russians from simply walking in and taking it over. And they wanted it. They didn’t want that example of capitalist freedom against their East German oppression. They didn’t want that as a route for people escaping from East Germany. They would have liked to have it all that time, but they couldn’t. Not because they were certain we would blow the world up at great cost, but because we might. And that was not foolish. We might. That was our plan. We had no other real plan. And we might not have carried it out. The President might have decided to let Berlin go or he might not, and that was enough to keep the Russians out.
So, there you have an effect of some benefit to West Berliners for example, but at the cost of preparing to blow the world up and the possibility that that would happen.
Robert Wiblin: So, for the benefit of the audience I’ve been interested in going through some of the lessons that I took away from the book, which I think are likely to be particularly interesting to them and maybe you can comment. One of them is that secrets seemed to be really kept so there might be a lot that we don’t know. That it was possible to keep information confidential at least about nuclear stuff most of the time.
Daniel Ellsberg: Yes. Very much so. The very fact that our NATO commitment involved a continuous first use threat. A threat of initiating nuclear war was not in the awareness of most Americans from beginning to end of the Cold War. They really, a majority actually of Americans, said in poll that they did not think it was protecting West Europe from an invasion would justify initiating nuclear war, but they were not aware that that was the very basis of our commitment and always has been and still is to this day. Now, West Germany or Germany now is not in any tangible danger from Russia at this point of invasion.
One could say, however, that Poland and the Baltic states can’t say that as definitively as West Germany, and yet we remain committed in the case let’s say of even a covert invasion of Lithuania to initiate nuclear war if necessary. It might not be necessary, in fact, it shouldn’t be. Our non-nuclear capability against Russia, any kind of Russian aggression is enormous. We spend 12 with U.S. included, 12 times the defense budget of Russia and without the U.S., Europe alone and NATO spends four times as much as Russia all together, so the idea that Russia could take even its neighboring countries against a determined European defense is not sound. Yes, they could muster a larger ground force against the Baltics, let’s say than NATO could, but in terms of air power, our ability to isolate that battlefield with air power and destroy them to any desired degree with non-nuclear force is very overwhelming.
Nevertheless, Poland and the Baltics prefer to have that additional threat of blowing the world up if it happens. It’s understandable that they want that. You could also say at this point it isn’t understandable, you know? Is it really necessary. Is it really moral to rely on a threat of exterminating the Northern Hemisphere or all of it. Well, we have for half a century, so it’s not less moral than their other members of NATO, but it’s not necessary and I think we should not be threatening under any circumstances whatever to initiate nuclear war under any circumstances, whatever the desires of our any allies might be for that threat or for that assurance. Our alliances should not and need not from any real point of view be based on such a threat and a preparation, but that’s where we are, so we’ll come to this later no doubt. But if you were to ask what I think should be changed in the world, one of the very things of the top of that list would be to forego the threat of insanity of initiating nuclear war.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, we’ll get to that. The next section is on what policies we think should change and what could be done to make this better. But another lesson that I took away from the book is the extraordinary extent to which the military misleads I think their civilian control and indeed like other parts of the military. For example, they would withhold information from the President. For example, the number of weapons they had in the late 40s, how likely they were to be used, like how they were being delegated. They also LeMay and I think others schemed to be able to use nuclear weapons even without Kennedy’s approval, because they worried that Kennedy wouldn’t be willing to use them. So, they’re not necessarily, at least at that time, were not as well controlled by civilians as perhaps was thought. And also it seemed like they would mislead other parts of the service. Like the Air Force would mislead the Army and the Navy in order to increase its funding. There’s a lot of territorialism, and they would often just promote projects that really didn’t have much of a defense function simply in order to boost their budgets and payroll.
Daniel Ellsberg: That’s true of all the services by the way, I would say. In this area the Air Force had the main responsibility for nuclear war, so very interested in making it seem realistic that a nuclear war might occur and hiding the fact that it wasn’t to this day so far as anyone knows, the Defense Department and the services have not conducted realistic studies of what would happen in terms of nuclear winter. In terms of the smoke that would kill harvests from air attacks. It’s not something they want to know. And if they did, their instinct to keep that result secret would be extremely great and their ability to keep it secret has been shown to be very great. For example, the Pentagon papers, which I revealed in 1971 show that over a matter of 30 years really of the services all together the Defense Department and the White House did manage to conceal from the public the threats they were making in Vietnam or their own estimates of what the effects would be of carrying out those threats and how unlikely it was that those threats would bring victory or would end the war. And when it came to a determination to escalate the war in 64 and 65, they kept very secret for many years their plans to do that.
Just as 30 years later or so George W. Bush administration kept entirely secret from the public their plans to invade Iraq for over a year. And right now the public knows very little about the degree of our involvement for example in Yemen. Our air support in terms of refueling and loading and target information to the Saudis in carrying out massacres in Yemen. Major war crimes that are happening every day are not in the consciousness of the American people at all. The fact that this power had been delegated and remains delegated in certain circumstances if communications are eliminated for example on our nuclear weapons. That’s not in American awareness. That’s been kept very secret.
And in terms of lying to the President, people in the system who have been in it and have studied it ever since like Bruce Blair, who was a Minuteman Launch Control Officer, have shown that the belief in the Air Force in particular, that its weapons must be launched in the event of warning, launched on warning, rather than be destroyed, is so strong that if a President ordered otherwise at a time when the Air Force was convinced that there was an attack on the way, it’s very questionable whether the President would be obeyed. They certainly don’t bring that to his attention or her attention if we ever have a female. What is a fact is that the President has no physical capability to prevent those weapons from being launched. He or she does not possess a code which is necessary to launching those weapons.
The so-called codes that are in the President’s football, the briefcase, the computer, that accompanies him at all time are simply to authenticate, to identify that person as an ability to give the order, but if his or her desire was to stop or not to respond, that intention would not limit the people who control the weapons from launching the weapons. There are locks on them which prevent the lowest levels of operation from launching the weapons on their own initiative without a code of some kind. But how high does that combination reside? Certainly not in Washington where it could be destroyed by a single bomb. It’s more widely distributed than that. Very possibly very widely distributed and so it’s quite likely really that if a President decided ‘I don’t care, they are about to attack us, but I’m not going to join them in this, and simply bring nuclear winter that much sooner.’ It’s very unlikely that he would be obeyed – or let’s just say it’s not certain. It’s enough to say that. And the fact that that is the case is something that is not brought to the attention of the President.
Robert Wiblin: Another overarching lesson that I took away was just how people in collective groups are just capable of insane brutality and they’re making extraordinary decisions. Maybe doing terrible things without even necessarily making a decision. So for example, when the hydrogen bombs were invented, it was just kind of assumed that all of the bombs would be upgraded to be hydrogen bombs, which would increase the effective deaths by ten or a hundred fold, well ultimately I guess by a thousand fold once we knew about nuclear winter. And there was never kind of a conscious decision that is necessarily from a military point of view to kill a hundred times as many people as was the previous plan, but that just kind of happened because the technology became available. Similarly just progressively over time during World War II and after we became inured to the idea of destroying cities. This was actually the idea of just bombing cities and killing lots of civilians was previously forbidden and even the Nazis kind of typically refused to bomb cities en masse and they apologized –
Daniel Ellsberg: When you say the Nazis, Hitler didn’t want to start to set an exchange against cities and he ordered that it had to be on his authority only and so forth, but that doesn’t, you know. It gets away. In fact, very early in the war there were a number of cases where bombing occurred that was neither known to the higher command or intended by them. For example, the bombing of Britain actually started when … British cities I mean to say, when some German bombers bombed London, suburbs of London by accident thinking they were over a different area. Not realizing they were hitting London. Hilter having forbidden them to bomb London unless it evoked retaliation. So, the British took that as a deliberate bombing of London and immediately reciprocated with some long distance raids against Berlin and Hitler said day after day if you keep doing this you’re gonna get it back basically. Churchill did keep doing it in part because as a Commander, he preferred that they use their force against London than against factories or against airfields elsewhere. And it did evoke them. Eventually it ended in the Blitz against London at a time when the British … when attacks on the airfields might have been far more effective, but it wasn’t. But anyway there’s a number of examples like that. And these accidental attacks, various kinds, have escalated in the past and could do so again it the future.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. Another example where Hitler comes in is that when we detonated the first bomb during the testing in 1944 or 45 –
Daniel Ellsberg: 45.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. They weren’t actually certain that this wouldn’t ignite the atmosphere and lead to the destruction of all life.
Daniel Ellsberg: That’s right. It’s something we go into in some length in the book, because I find it so emblematic of the situation we’re in today. The fact is that the scientists who exploded that bomb, the first so-called Trinity Test in July of 1945 knew they were gambling. They thought it was unlikely, but possible that that would ignite the atmosphere and the nitrogen in the atmosphere and the hydrogen in the water and destroy all life on earth. All life. Even microscopic. In a fraction of a second. And indeed the most distinguished experimental physicist of them all, Enrico Fermi, while knowing that their calculations indicated that that was extremely unlikely, also knew that those calculations aren’t that reliable.
Robert Wiblin: It assumed that their model was correct. That they hadn’t missed anything out.
Daniel Ellsberg: Yeah. That assumed that the model is correct, but he understood that as an experimental physicist that there was a good possibility that they had overlooked some major interaction, some effect of some kind. And he thought the probability of that was ten percent. Now, that’s not small at all, and yet he went ahead with it. In fact, the very first bomb that I described earlier there was a test explosion in 1952 of a hydrogen device, but it was not a droppable bomb. It involved liquid tritium and a very huge apparatus, many tons, stories high. It wasn’t a real bomb.
But the first droppable bomb with dry lithium deuteride in 1954 was three times the yield that they had calculated as its largest possibility. Now, the zone of danger from which shipping was to be excluded near the atoll, was based on this worst case they thought estimate of I think something like five megatons, five million tons of TNT equivalent. In fact, it was 15 million tons and that resulted in fallout not only on many islanders in the Marshall Islands, but on the crew of the Lucky Dragon Five, Maru fishing boat of Japan, which came back into Tokyo with one sailor dead from radiation the others all injured by it and a boatload of tuna that had been iradiated, which went into the market, and when they realized that had to cut off the sales of all the available tuna at that point. And that in a way evoked the modern anti-nuclear movement and the anti-testing movement all together.
This was in 1954, but how did that happen? Well, the initial reaction of American officials was, well, it must have been inside the danger zone that had been forbidden, but it wasn’t. It was a hundred miles away. And how did that happen? Well, there was in fact an interaction that they had not foreseen. The fuel for the hydrogen reaction, the fusion reaction, lithium deuteride, involved a compound of lithium 6 and lithium 7 and one of those, I think it was, I forget, but lithium 7 was believed not to contribute to the explosive yield. It was just there because it was too hard to separate. And in fact, under the conditions, on the fission explosion of the trigger, it did interact. It did provide neutrons and it tripled the yield of the explosion.
Now, that was exactly the kind of effect that Fermi had feared just nine years earlier when the Trinity Test went off. That’s something that they had thought was impossible. Might not be impossible and might occur. And yet, it went ahead. He didn’t say, “There’s a ten percent chance here of blowing …” he did offer odds actually of the chance that the state of New Mexico would be incinerated. And different odds, presumably somewhat lower that all life on earth would be burned. And we don’t have a record of who, if anybody, took him up on that or exactly what the odds were that he offered. But we do have this quote that he said that day that he thought there was a ten percent chance.
Did Truman know that there was ten percent chance? As close to certain as we can be, not. There’s no evidence that anyone at the high levels in Washington was told that there was a real chance, however small. And that was not small of course, ten percent. But even if it was three in a million or two in a million, as some thought, nevertheless, a chance. Remember and a point in the war when victory was assured. The Germans had already surrendered. The Japanese were known at the high level to be negotiating for surrender, terms of surrender and were certain of being defeated at that point by blockade or otherwise with or without an invasion. So, the reason for taking even a one in a million chance of this happening was not justifiable I would have to say. Certainly was problematic to say the least.
The idea of taking a ten percent chance is hair raising and granted, as far as we know, no one else thought the chance was that high, but this was the best experimental physicist in the world, Enrico Fermi, who thought that. And at the other extreme, [inaudible 00:49:26] who got a Nobel Prize for this kind of process later, thought there was no chance. There was no chance. But he was alone in thinking that. Almost nobody else believed that with his confidence. So, this is the chance that was taken.
What I’m saying is our leaders and our scientists had been taking gambles like that ever since without telling us and it was 30 years before, well, let’s see, 40 years, 1945 to 1983, almost 40 years, before people realized that the smoke which had been ignored as a factor, a miscalculation, would have this effect. Sort of like ignoring lithium 6, you know, or something for the whole period. But that was 35 years ago and we’ve lived ever since with the knowledge that to say the least, there is a possibility that our war plans would destroy life on earth. But does that keep people from preparing it, or threatening it? No. It doesn’t.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. Just mentioned Hitler there ’cause apparently this concern about igniting the atmosphere was one reason that Hitler didn’t want to pursue an atomic bomb, which curiously didn’t stop us though.
Daniel Ellsberg: When Speer told him about it Speer says Hitler was not delighted with the idea that his might be the cause of destroying life on earth. He didn’t like that idea. And he went on to say someday he said, the scientist will in his egotism and their pride and everything else, be setting the possibility of setting the earth on fire. He said someday. He said it won’t be in my lifetime, he said. Well, it wasn’t exactly in his lifetime. He died the first week of May 1945, but two months later they were making that experiment.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, another example of just the crazy things that people can do in groups is that the joint chiefs of staff during the Cuban Missile Crisis apparently were just extremely keen to go to war in Cuba even knowing that there was a decent chance that this could escalate to all out nuclear war. And similarly Castro from what I’ve read was absolutely willing to go to an all out nuclear war and he was asked in some later interview like what do you think would have happened in that case, and he said, “Well, everyone would have died in Cuba.”
Daniel Ellsberg: Yes, but socialism would prevail.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, he was so ideological and I guess to some extent so were the joint chiefs of staff. They’re willing to see their societies totally destroyed for this.
Daniel Ellsberg: No, the joint chiefs I think were not afraid is for reasons I’ve told earlier that the U.S. would be destroyed. They weren’t worried about that and if worse came to worse, they knew that Europe would be destroyed, but as Lindsey Graham said, Senator Lindsey Graham about a war with North Korea, he said there would be terrible causalities but they would all be over there.
Robert Wiblin: They don’t get vote.
Daniel Ellsberg: They would not be Americans. Now, that is not reliable, because all it takes to kill Americans for Kim Jong-un is a boat with a nuclear device in it. We know he has material for up to 60 such devices. We don’t know how many he’s made into warheads, but he doesn’t need a warhead that can get through the atmosphere without being destroyed after a missile ride. All he needs is a device like the Trinity, ones that we know he’s tested on a boat. He doesn’t need an ICBM. He need to send a boat over with such device. It doesn’t even need to have a crew it can be artificial intelligence. Simple drone into a harbor like San Francisco or Los Angeles or for that matter a container that could be sent anywhere in the country. A container with a device in it that could be triggered by a drone or remote device. So, he could be wrong, you know? Nobody’s perfect. Sorry about that. It wasn’t all over there.
But what he’s saying is he’s falsely assuring us that it would all be over there, and that would be acceptable to protect us from the risk or the treat of being destroyed ourselves, our cities by an ICBM, it would be worth sacrificing South Korea or Japan, large parts of Japan. Well, that sounds insane, and it is. But of a very ordinary kind of insanity. It’s basically what we have contemplated with Europe for the entire lifetime of NATO.
Robert Wiblin: So, in the book you discuss nuclear winter a lot and you’re very confident that if hundreds of thermonuclear devices were detonated that our world would be very likely –
Daniel Ellsberg: Cities.
Robert Wiblin: Cities, yeah, would be very likely to suffer a nuclear winter. I’ve spoken to some smart people who are somewhat skeptical about that or at least think that it’s an open question how likely a nuclear winter is and whether basically the particulates would get high enough in the atmosphere to stay up there for a long time and block out the sun. Do you have any view on kind of the current state of science –
Daniel Ellsberg: First, I don’t have a personal view. I’m not a scientist. I was an economist.
Robert Wiblin: Same.
Daniel Ellsberg: Not really a scientist. So, I have to pick who on rely on here. You just made me aware that there is one peer reviewed study that raises questions about the likelihood that a small war between India and Pakistan using only fission devices would have the effect that Alan Robock and Brian Toon and others have reported in peer reviewed articles by the way, would result from a war between India and Pakistan involving only a hundred fission devices, 50 on each side. Now, they’re not limited to 15 kilotons, which they had assumed. They have boosting devices now, which would be at least 50 kilotons, which would make a difference. But they still don’t have thermonuclear devices that we know of even though Kim Jong-un has claimed that he tests an H-bomb. It takes more than one provisional test in any case to have a reliable H-bomb.
Now, if the calculations that Toon and Robock made in 2007 of such a result that it would not cause nuclear winter or a global diminution of sunlight by 70% but diminution by about 7%, which would not kill everybody on earth by starvation, but would shorten harvests and kill enough harvests as to starve the least nourished two billion people on this planet. Between one and two billion people. Or about a third of the earth’s population, not all of it. And this new article by Los Alamos questions that the effect would be that great or that prolonged, and it remains to be seen how challenging this result is since it’s based on a classified computer model, which they so far have been unwilling to share. So that the chance of replicating that by people who aren’t paid by the government to design nuclear weapons and sell them is negligible at this point. You can’t replicate it. You can’t check it, but he wants to do that and of course, of course, that’s the way science proceeds whether that would have much effect on … there are other questions about whether that’s on the basis of their calculations. Were they looking at the right kinds of targets all together, they were applicable to the India Pakistan War, and so forth.
So, that remains to be seen. There has been no other peer reviewed article actually questioning their results. This is the first from Los Alamos, the design laboratory. And it still doesn’t address the question of the larger war between the U.S. and Russia with thermonuclear weapons causing nuclear winter. I am told by the way, by somebody I do trust very much, a scientist who works for the government that there is very little uncertainty about what would happen if as much smoke as Robock and Toon and Turco and others imagine, does get into the stratosphere. That will cause nuclear winter. But that there is still some uncertainty as to just how much will get up there. That’s the question raised by this new study by the way. And that needs more research no question. I mean you can’t have too much in a way. The fact is the Defense Department, which alone has the classified data on the actual targets, the actual yield, the height of yield, all the things that affect the amount of firestorm. All of that is classified.
And there are outfits like the National Academy of Sciences that have done classified studies on such matters and could have access to all that. I would say I have no higher aim than to encourage Congress to appropriate the money for such studies. Very small amount of money by the way, and no one has done that. The don’t want to know on that what the effect will be, ’cause it cannot improve the sales of ICBMs or drones or new testing or whatever. It’s something they don’t want to know. They have no need to know, and they don’t want to know it. The rest of us in the world, every country in the world, has a stake in that information, because they are all threatened by this occurrence. But they can’t do the studies themselves without knowing the plans and the targets. They could only do analogous studies or hypothetical studies of the kind that have been done already with very ominous results.
So, that’s something that I would like to see happen. It won’t happen under a Republican Congress, it seems clear. And it’s never happened under a Democratic Congress, but Democratic Congress coming out of 2018 this year elections, seems to be necessary though, far from sufficient in learning what we need to learn about this. And then it would take pressure on that Democratic Congress. Really they’d have to be more concerned Democrats than we’ve ever seen before to confront these very powerful corporations. They get donations from them. The people on the armed services committee and others and they would have to confront, they aren’t in any rush to confront Exxon on climate or Brown and Williamson on tobacco. That’s the way the system works.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, at some point I really need to speak to one of these researchers to help me get to the bottom of this question of nuclear winter.
Daniel Ellsberg: On this paper.
Robert Wiblin: Maybe Robock potentially I could talk to. I could get up to date on what’s the state of the research there. There’s one good thing about Trump. I think it’s that it has made people more worried about our nuclear security.
Daniel Ellsberg: Yes.
Robert Wiblin: And I guess you could imagine that Democrats in Congress might be interested in studying this.
Daniel Ellsberg: His policies up to now with the exception of the fact that he’s very critical of NATO, that’s new. But his nuclear policies are really very much in line with ones we’ve had all along. There’s no big turning point there. And the idea of spending 1.7 trillion dollars in modernizing the Doomsday Machine we got under Obama. Not because he wanted it, but because it was the only way he could get Senator Kyl and others to vote for New Start. Negotiations was to promise this big build up. I would question whether that was a good deal to make at all. Of course, he could’ve gone back on it or Hillary could have, but she has shown no indication and she wanted to deny the military industrial complex anything it wanted. As a woman she is under question about her strength and her militarism. And she’s shown every indication, her political career has been based for years now on being known as the person who would support the military in any of their requests for intervention or for force build up.
So, if anything Trump was a better prospect for changing this, but he hasn’t shown any indication of doing it. It would have to be done with Russia to a large extent. His friendship with Putin, whatever the basis of it is, would be promising in that respect. That together they could go down. He even spoke about that a few times during the campaign and even since. But Putin hasn’t shown any indication of a desire to go down. And he has the same incentives that an American President does. He has his corporations that are supporting him, his oligarchical friends, and to call Russia an oligarchy is well-founded and not more so than the U.S. I would say.
Robert Wiblin: Just before we move on from the book, what do you think are the other best sources that people who want to pursue a career in nuclear security should read. I guess Eric Schlosser’s “Command and Control” often comes up as a good read. Is there anything else that you’d recommend?
Daniel Ellsberg: Well, by the way Schlosser’s book is so good that when I read it I thought, “Gee. Well, now I don’t have to write mine.” You know, it’s all out there. And then when I reread it some more, I said, “No, I have a number, a few points to make that he doesn’t.” He did get some things that almost nobody else had. The delegation issue for example is in there. I alone was the person talking about that for decades. And he has a number of, he’s much more on the accident problem and the false alarm problem than I have. In my book I just referred to his to a large extent and to Bruce Blair and Scott Sagan and a few others. So, that’s an excellent book to read.
Helen Caldicott, a former head of the Physicians for Social Responsibility here, the American part of the group that got the Nobel Prize in the 90s for nuclear war, the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, Helen Caldicott edited in Australia a book called “Sleepwalking to Armageddon”, which is very, very good last year on where we are right now. More up to date than mine is. In fact, it came out just after mine had been printed or I would have referred to it more.
Those are two good ones. But I would put my book as one definitely worth reading in that trio. So, on the question there are of course many others going back in history. Fred Kaplan’s the “Wizards of Armageddon” is very good. On the Cuban Missile Crisis, I think it’s called “One Minute to Midnight” or something a very good one on the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Robert Wiblin: So let’s move on and talk about what specific policies you think will be useful.
And perhaps like practical and feasible for the U.S. government and other governments to potentially implement.
Daniel Ellsberg: Yeah.
Robert Wiblin: So I guess if you were elected President tomorrow, what would be your ideal approach for the U.S.?
Daniel Ellsberg: Remember if I … If we were to imagine my being elected or anyone like me at a younger age, we’d have to assume a change in our political economy, you know a significant case. It wouldn’t be other things being equal, other things being equal I wouldn’t be President. But … And a lot would’ve had to change from my point of view for the better.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah.
Daniel Ellsberg: That’d be a big change. But if we look at things that are imaginable politically, without massive changes in our political economy, changes in the distribution of income and the power of corporations and so forth, but are still imaginable, let me take things that really do involve enormous risks let’s say to most of the corporations in this country. And the rich people. Other than those who profit immediately from the arms race.
In other words, it’s almost hard to explain how things that profit only Boeing and Lockheed and Drummond, who are powerful but hardly majority of our corporate wealth and profits, how do they manage to get away with policies that threaten everybody?
Robert Wiblin: And even just that require a huge tax bill that other rich people would oppose, right? In general you’d think that other corporations-
Daniel Ellsberg: Yeah.
Robert Wiblin: … or rich people, they don’t wanna pay the taxes that fund all of this enormous infrastructure at the cost of a trillion dollars.
Daniel Ellsberg: Right. Well that effects … You know is it unimaginable that really billionaires should decide that for the benefit of society, you know, that there should be more progressive taxation? The answer is that Warren Buffet, among others, has said right along he should be taxed more and the others should be taxed more. So it’s not unimaginable, it’s just that they have not succeeded in winning on this. But it doesn’t seem unimaginable that they would.
What then would I go for things that do seem to involve disproportionate danger and risk, disproportionate to any benefits to the society as a whole. And in particular to the most powerful people in society. All right let me just start at the top of the list.
I said earlier, launch on warning is an absolutely unconscionable basis for our defense policies. There’s no way you can make it called necessary. We should eliminate the ICBMs. And there has been actually major proposals for that by influential people in the Defense Department for many decades. They just always lose in the end. Without it ever having become a matter of public discussion until we learn later. Even I, stay very much in touch with this sort of thing, have been frequently surprised to discover how seriously such good proposals were taken some decades earlier. We learn much later, specifically the President.
President Barack Obama favored getting rid of the ICBMs and also a very closely related question of rejecting first use of nuclear weapons under any circumstances. People get this wrong so often. Let me spell this out a little bit. First use, the phrase first use refers to any initiation nuclear weapons, including tactical weapon, short ranged, relatively low yield weapons. As in short ranged artillery or missiles in a limited war of some kind. But any kind of first use.
First strike refers to initiating or launching long range strategic weapons, essentially against the homeland of our major opponent, the Russians or vice versa, before enemy or enemies warheads have arrived on our soil. It might be after they have been launched, but before they’ve arrived. Or escalating from a limited conflict to an attack against the homeland of the other super power.
And so there’s two basic ways that a first strike could occur. One is what I just said, an escalation of a limited non-nuclear or nuclear, limited nuclear war. For example a war between the U.S. and North Korea that we decided had to be escalated to an attack on China as well or against Russia, or your first strike. Having perhaps already taken first use of limited tactical weapons by the U.S. or by North Korea, but escalating that to a homeland strike against Russia or perhaps China would be a first strike.
The other way would be in anticipation of an imminent or ongoing strike by the opponent, preemptive. Getting it off as some said, striking second first. Getting our weapons off the ground before they’re attacked by the other side. Imminently about to be attacked.
Now when I say launch on warning, that refers to this latter preemption where there has been some indication, either strategic, perhaps a covert agent or a set of events, a limited war that we think will probably escalate. Or by a warning from our radar or our electronic warning on satellites or infrared warning, that enemy warheads are on the way. Such as has happened a number of times. And launching our weapons before that warning has been confirmed by actual explosions. And remember even or two explosions might not really confirm that a larger attack was under way. It might have been a terrorist or a third party of some kind. Or a rogue, or a non authorized action.
So until you’ve really had a rather large number of weapons, a dozen, half a dozen, 20, hundreds, whatever, that indicate a concerted full scale attack, any launch before that is a launch on warning. That should never occur. In the past it was, even until now, it’s been imagined because it’s a good way to sell vehicles that launching them first gives us a chance of limiting damage to ourselves. But since by launching we cannot attack their submarines. If anything we attack their submarines by anti-attack submarines that are in the water already and then go after them.
It’s not a real launch on warning. It’s our planes, which can be recalled. Or our missiles getting off a launchpad before they’re attacked, that is launch on warning. That should be eliminated. It should’ve been eliminated 50 years ago or more. Along with that the weapons that must be launched before they’re attacked, our ICBMs should be eliminated. They do nothing for us other than make us look big and crazy. And that’s not without its effect, looking big and crazy makes the other people cautious up the point that it makes them decide they have to strike first. But it can have a beneficial effect.
But not in a way that can’t be achieved otherwise or that is necessary. And it is a way that involves a continuous risk of blowing up the world. Which is shorthand for actually … Nothing we do will blow up the world, literally, or even kill all life. After all, most biomass in the Earth is microscopic and much, or most of that, will survive even a nuclear winter or nuclear war. But larger animals will all go. Except us. And we’ll mostly go. Nearly all.
So that is not justifiable. So get rid of the launch on warning. Get rid of the weapons that are for launch on warning, ICBMs. And now a third step I would take which is unilaterally we would improve the world’s security, and our own, if we did either of those things, and/or, also, divested ourselves of that large part of our submarine force which threatens their land based missiles. If I can spend just a moment on the asymmetry here.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah.
Daniel Ellsberg: The Russians rely on their ICBMs in a way we don’t. Because they don’t rely on their submarines as we do. Their submarines have more of tendency to bump into each other or to fall to the bottom of the ocean. They’ve had a number of serious accidents. But more importantly than that, their subject to an American anti-submarine warfare which will not get all of their submarines, but which will get a number of them. They’re not willing to rely entirely on their submarines and so they do rely on their ICBMs. It’s hard for me to imagine they’re getting rid of all of their ICBMs in that circumstance. Just as it’s hard for me to imagine North Korea, Kim Jong-Un, getting rid of all of his nuclear weapons. I don’t expect that to happen. He depends on that for his deterrents and his survival and Russia feels they depend on having some ICBMs.
We don’t require those ICBMs. We don’t benefit from them in anyway, other than the one I described, which is not by the way just imaginary, conjectural. To look crazy enough to buy these useless things does make us look crazy to launch.
Robert Wiblin: To use them.
Daniel Ellsberg: And that can be a deterrent.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah.
Daniel Ellsberg: But at this I say at the risk of destruction of everything. So we should get rid of those. No first use policy on our part, even unilaterally, all the better for Russia. All of these things are even better, much better, if Russia imitates them, which is not guaranteed. But they are good for us even if they don’t imitate them and certainly our ability to press them in various ways. And shame them. Or educate them or whatever, to get rid of their first use policy and their launch on warning, depends necessarily on our getting rid of it. Although it’s not guaranteed by it.
So those would be three major things I would do. I would thus reduce the number of our warheads first by the ICBMs, but also sub launched missiles, warheads. Not to zero, however.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. So in light of that, should we want a ban on all nuclear weapons, or should we just be looking to reduce the number?
Daniel Ellsberg: Now we get to an important issue. 122 nations have signed now, although I forget how many, but maybe 20 more, have actually ratified a treaty to ban nuclear weapons. And to make illegal any possession of any nuclear weapons. The Pope speaking, not legally but morally, has said now, in contrast to his predecessors, that any possession of nuclear weapons is morally condemnable. Now similar to the ban idea. Unfortunately, and predictably, all of those 122 nations are nations that do no possess nuclear weapons. And they are not allied to nations that protect them with the threat of nuclear weapons. So not one member of NATO has signed such a treaty. Nor has any member of the nine nuclear weapon states. Actually one member of NATO did take part in the negotiations, only one. [crosstalk 01:24:40]
Robert Wiblin: Netherlands, is that who it was? Yeah.
Daniel Ellsberg: Yeah, the Netherlands. But they were … They took part because they were ordered to do so by their Parliament. They wouldn’t have done it on their executive branch. But they were ordered by the executive branch to vote against it. So, I don’t foresee that approach by itself expanding very much. In part, because like the Pope, it is legally or morally condemning the position of any nuclear weapons and most of the people in the nuclear weapons states and their allies don’t agree with that as a moral norm or as a prudent action.
Nor do I, actually at this point. Given that other countries, including opponents, have nuclear weapons. It’s hard for me to say … I can’t see that is is morally condemnatory, for example, for China to have any nuclear weapons since it’s had serious adversary relations with both the U.S. and Russia, the Soviet Union in the past.
Robert Wiblin: And India for that matter, yeah.
Daniel Ellsberg: And India. You could say likewise for India. Or that it’s morally condemnatory to have some nuclear weapons rather than leaving a major adversary with a monopoly. It’s not only that most people will not agree, I will be among those who will not agree, that it’s morally obligatory for us to unilaterally divest ourselves of all nuclear weapons while Russia retains some, leaving them with a monopoly. It’s not only … It’s not that I would expect Russia to attack with those weapons necessarily, or very quickly, but it is very plausible that it would encourage them to take aggressive actions of various kinds. Old actions, reckless actions that they wouldn’t take otherwise, that might very well lead to conflict. And if not to immediate nuclear war by one side or the other, to a build up.
So it seems to me that whereas I do think that a world without nuclear weapons would be a very much safer place. And that is a desirable aim and should even be a practical aim, if not in our lifetime, in our children’s or our grandchildren’s lifetime. But by the same token in the nuclear era in which we live, I would say that war, major way, should be abolished, in effect should not be an instrument of policy. Should not be tolerated or legitimated and prepared for. But that implies a considerable change in our world order, in our system of resolving conflicts.
And rather than say well in other words that’s like changing the gravitational constant, or some currently unthinkable thing, that should be thinkable. We should be aiming at that. And they go together. I find it hard to believe that there will be sufficient trust and verification and enforcement for countries who now rely on nuclear weapons entirely to rid themselves of them, so long as they do face a real risk of attack. Or of invasion. Or occupation.
You mentioned Castro earlier. Castro is the one major leader, you know a very small island, he’s been faced with imminent invasion by a nuclear power. Let me take that back, Saddam was faced with that of course and did experience it. So has Afghanistan by Russia. So what’s the difference? They did not, those countries did not have recourse to nuclear weapons themselves. But Castro had nuclear weapons on his territory. Which, by the way, did not have locks on them and which his people could’ve taken control of. Rather than say to Khrushchev, which would certainly look rational, “Do not use those nuclear weapons or we will be annihilated,” he could’ve said that. And he could’ve backed it up with non-nuclear force, taking over the weapons himself, but he wouldn’t have had to with Khrushchev. I think Khrushchev would’ve agreed to that, almost certainly.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, Khrushchev seems quite sane from the historical records.
Daniel Ellsberg: Yeah. Yeah. Now was it insane then for … What Khrushchev did do as the youngest leader around at that point, what he did do was say, “I assume you’ll use them. That’s fine. And, therefore, if it’s going to be a nuclear war, which it is, because we’re gonna use them, you should go first.” And he said that under the mistaken impression that Russia had a couple of hundred ICBMs when in fact it had about 10. Some say 40. But socialists would not have prevailed. The Northern … Eurasia would have been annihilated. And actually some American cities would’ve gone, starting with Oahu because Khrushchev had ordered a nuclear … sub with nuclear missiles offshore Hawaii in case a war erupted.
Now to what effect … What good would it have done in the world for Hawaii to be annihilated while Russia was being annihilated? Nothing. No good. But that was his plan, secretly. He ordered that secretly. And not for deterrents. He didn’t tell us that that would happen. He just did it. Nor did he tell us that he had nuclear warheads ashore.
Now this is to me inexplicable rationally. I can’t imagine what that was except as a simple bureaucratic trend in Russia to keep secrets. Even when you would be safer if you exposed that secret. The secret being that he had nuclear warheads in Cuba. When I look at that warhead, I believe, and I’ve never seen anyone else say this or raise it, and I didn’t get into it in my book for space reasons, the what if or the, you know, the hypotheticals that might’ve occurred. I wanted to but my son said, “Dad, this is not a book about Cuba. You don’t have space for this.” But I would’ve liked to say Khrushchev could’ve won that crisis at any point up until Saturday, October 27th, when he gave in by simply revealing he had nuclear weapons there, which he did.
In fact, if he didn’t he still could’ve said he did. But he did have them. And he could’ve shown them to our surveillance, not all of them, just one or two. Opened them up for inspection, send your U2 over, send a low level over, take a real good photograph. Send a ground observer over, let him look at this thing. See. We have nuclear weapons ashore, which was true. Which would mean to Kennedy an invasion was out of the question.
Now, when the Joint Chiefs contemplated the possibility that there were nuclear weapons ashore right at the end, their proposal was let’s put nuclear weapons with our troops. That was refused. That was insane. What the hell were nuclear weapons on their troops gonna do if our invasion fleet was about to be destroyed by their nuclear weapons? You know. Having them even on the ship wasn’t going to do anything for you. The ship was going to be vaporized if they had them. It does make the Joint Chiefs look insane and in important ways they were, but as I say, in a way that is institutionally endorsed. Normal insanity. Organizational insanity. I don’t have even that, as I say for Khrushchev except that they just were generally very secretive and didn’t notice that this was an occasion they should not be secretive.
To Castro, for him to say given that we’re about to be occupied, better that we all be annihilated and they’d go down with us. See. And that capitalism go down. Now he’s the only one really tested like that. Where he had an opportunity not to see nuclear war occur or to let it occur. And he let it occur rather than be occupied. Well that could be seen as saying well being occupied, let’s say by the Nazi’s, or in this case by the Americans, we don’t wanna be occupied.
Something very odd that I’ve never seen commented on was his armed forces were entirely organized for guerrilla warfare. They had some to power by guerrilla warfare only a few years earlier. They were now enormously greater than that. They had militia, they had the whole country organized. Much more than Vietnam did for example, for guerrilla warfare. So why was being annihilated preferable to-
Robert Wiblin: Being occupied probably temporarily.
Daniel Ellsberg: … guerrilla warfare? You know? They weren’t quite as well situated for it as Vietnam in a number of ways. They were an island, they could be surrounded. But on the other hand they had a 600 mile mountain chain, the Sierra Maestra. We would’ve had a hell of a time occupying Cuba as would have been recognized a few years later, after Vietnam. But this was ’62. So it wasn’t as clear to us what a threat guerrilla warfare was to us. But Castro should’ve known that. That’s how he won.
And amazingly enough, rather than be occupied, he made the choice that they should use the nuclear weapons at the cost of their annihilation. Well, this is I think you can’t single him out as a single psychotic leader. I think that was a test of what humans in power do, how crazy they can be when it comes to questions of war and peace. And life and death. You know there’s no way to make real sense out of almost any of the decision making that led to World War I. You could give their reasons, they had reasons in every case, each country, for actions that led to the destruction of their empire. But they weren’t good reasons. It was terrible.
And what I reveal in the Pentagon Papers was not just poor decision making, it was crazy decision making. But it was normal for humans. I forget how we got off this entirely, but …
Robert Wiblin: Well I was just thinking about, yeah, what is the most practical and useful thing that the U.S. could do to make the world safer? And [crosstalk 01:34:18]
Daniel Ellsberg: Yeah, to make it safer. So I have a number of things. Move against, there should be no armed conflict between the U.S. and Russia. That should be inconceivable now as it is not. We’re preparing for it. We’re deploying for it. We’re getting ready. It’s preparing to blow up the world in the sense in which I’ve described it for annihilating most large animals on the Earth. And that is scarcely necessary. It would be hard to imagine is was necessary even if you were confronting Hitler. That is reckless and ruthless. Not only ruthless, but recklessly expansionist. And we haven’t seen that. We haven’t seen a Hitler in great power, including atop the U.S. I think the reason there has not been a war in the 70 years since 1945, a result which was in fact hard to imagine for people in 1945, was that the phenomenon that was a reality then. Hitler, not with nuclear weapons, but up until that point might have nuclear weapons, but in ’45 the expansionism of Hitler was easy to project onto the Russians, or the Russians on to us.
They expected a first strike. Actually, no president was Hitler and no leader of Russia was Hitler. Not in terms of ruthlessness, but in terms of wild gambling expansionism. We haven’t seen that. If we had, we would not be here. In other words, if what people reasonably worried about in 1945 had occurred, had let’s say an Idi Amin or what should we say? Saddam I think was very aggressive. But had he been on top of the U.S. or Russia, we wouldn’t be here. The world would’ve blown up.
So it’s important that that not occur, and that there be other ways of confronting reckless leaders somehow, other than threatening to blow the world up. For example, we should not be reproducing Cold War, which we are at this point, where you don’t negotiate with Russia. When Trump speaks of negotiating with Russia some support that his followers, and many do not, and the Democrats … The latter are in my opinion not just wrong but crazy in this traditional widespread craziness. To say that we should not be collaborating with Russia, not cooperating because of Crimea let’s say. And to analogize Crimea to Hitler’s invasion of Poland, that’s a totally mistaken, misleading analogy for a lot of reasons. And a very dangerous one.
And I’m saying the idea that that shows that we can no more negotiate and cooperate with Putin than we could with Hitler in 1939, could not be more dangerous. So in the short run I would want to change that. Here’s an amazing irony. If you look at Trump – Donald Trump’s policy views – I would regard them as not just mistaken but as despicable in nearly every instance except one, which is that he wants to cooperate with Russia and not get into a war with Russia. Not over Syria, or Ukraine, or anywhere else. In my opinion whatever his motives – and I doubt that they’re very creditable, I think they probably have to do with being under subject to blackmail by Putin – they make him reasonable on this point.
Whatever his motives, he’s right on that point. That is the point I think that most motivates the opposition to him from the Democrats. What they regard as his most vulnerable point, is the one point I would say where his policy is right and realistic. And that is his not preparing for war with Russia. Because you’re preparing for a world omnicide basically when you do that, and not moving in a different direction. So why in the world are they attacking him on that point? Well partly because they think he’s politically vulnerable, and the Democrats can get back in power that way, and they might be right about that.
But by pressing that point they are making omnicide more likely. And why by they way are they going for the Cold War, that happened before Trump. That was under-
Robert Wiblin: Well both Bush and Obama.
Daniel Ellsberg: Obama, and was definitely backed by Hillary in terms of the arms buildup, why? Because only Russia provides a target system that can rationalize advanced weapons to get through their defenses. We need a long range standoff weapons, so our planes can get through an air defense system which only one country in the world has like Russia. Others have similar weapons but not in the same network. Our planes have problems getting into only one country in the world, Russia. So for that we need a long range standoff weapons for Boeing and Lockheed or whoever makes them. You can’t rationalized new Trident submarines against ISIS, or against Assad, you just can’t. Only Russia allows that incentive.
And likewise ICBMs, and so forth. So in other words to keep these assembly lines going, and to keep rotten Connecticut working on attack submarines for example, you have to have somebody with submarines to attack, and that’s Russian. So in order for these you might say military Keynesian motives and for profit motives basically we are reproducing the Doomsday Machine. And encouraging the same kinds of factions in Russia to reproduce their Dooms Day machine. And this is a human tendency of people in power, to maintain their power, and their wealth and everything else, which I don’t know how to change. I have to hope, and I do hope that we find a way to do it, but I don’t yet know what that is.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, so your preferred policy is that we get rid of land based ICBMs completely.
Daniel Ellsberg: And most of our SLBMs.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, okay so we go down to what?
Daniel Ellsberg: Bombers are little less dangerous because they can be recalled.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah okay, so we’d end up with what, a hundred? Something like what the UK has?
Daniel Ellsberg: I’ll get to that right away.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah.
Daniel Ellsberg: The reason I want to get rid of the SLBMs which nobody else talks about is I prefer the Russians not think that their ICBMs are in danger of being destroyed entirely, which our SLBMs can do. And we’ve just put on super fuses on our SLBMs to make them capable of destroying hardened ICBMs. And that does nothing for us at all, except that it does give the Russians an incentive to interpret alarms from their radar of the kind that occurred in 1983, they got a false warning from their satellite system. Their ICBMs were in danger. Was that possible? Yes, we had enough weapons to do that. We should make it clear that we did not threaten to launch a warning, and we do not threaten counter-force against Russia, because it’s hopeless, it’s infeasible. It is as infeasible as a highly effective anti-ballistic missile system.
Now that, the scientists are all lined up on saying that’s impossible, it’s infeasible. The truth is that our counter force efforts against Russian are just as unfeasible. They have too many and they have submarines, and you can’t get them. Unlike the ABM which may be fooled by decoys, and maybe not hit any warheads, the Anti-Ballistic Missile, our ICBMs can find and destroy their ICBMs. Not all of them probably but a lot of them, and not the mobile ones altogether. But they really can hit it. They could make by the way hundreds of decoys over there, that was discussed in connection with our MX system. We could build lots of holes and they wouldn’t know which hole it’s in, but it’s expensive and we didn’t do that, and they haven’t done it either.
So you say, “Okay, we really can destroy the ICBMs. Isn’t that worth doing?” And the answer no is not being made by any politicians, because what does it pay them to do that. No one gives them a campaign contribution for saying that Boeing is just wasting money. No you don’t say that about Boeing, because Boeing would then come back and say your bridge to nowhere is not needed, or your infrastructure project here is not needed. So Congressmen don’t oppose each other’s district profits,
Robert Wiblin: So what do you think of China’s current stance? It sounds like you’d like us to get close to where China is?
Daniel Ellsberg: [crosstalk 01:42:49] No, I’m saying I think China has a pursued a relatively sane even totally sane nuclear policy all along. At first we thought they only built a dozen or so ICBMs because they couldn’t afford more, that was plausible. But only for the first 10 years or so after ’64. Since the last 30 to 40 years it’s obvious they could build many more, they could have as many as we do but they don’t, they don’t feel a need for parity which they don’t have, which they don’t need, correctly. Their policy has been no first use, and open explicit encouragement of a ban. It’s now a questioned for reasons I don’t know entirely. Well I could see our Anti Ballistic Missiles might have some effect in reducing damage from a first strike against the small Chinese force, not against Russia, but against the Chinese.
So they have reason to think we might not be as deterred as we used to be against China. We seem to be preparing for a war against China. So they are now considering although so far haven’t adopted launch on warning for the first time, that will make the whole world less safe if they do that, and I hope they don’t. But they’re also considering building more survivable weapons, it means more weapons, more submarine weapons, more survival, more mobile weapons. With some bases that we don’t look as deferrable as we should, because we’re still threatening and we’re still preparing. So unfortunately they are building up. I presume that’s reason they did not sign on to the ban. Otherwise, I don’t why they wouldn’t, it’s totally compatible with their policy.
Their policy … It’s not compatible, I take it back a little. They have a minimum deterrent, so it’s not compatible with a full ban, immediate ban.
Robert Wiblin: I think they’ve said that in principle they would like a world nuclear weapons.
Daniel Ellsberg: In principle they want a world without nuclear weapon. Well …
Robert Wiblin: In principle, I guess, so would we it’s just more of a fantasy.
Daniel Ellsberg: [crosstalk 01:44:48] Well okay. Now of course a number of our presidents have said that. Obama got a Nobel Prize for it. Trump doesn’t say it but Reagan said it and Carter said it, but they each had a huge military buildup, so they said it. Now China has said it and has not had a huge military buildup. So they’re a lot more plausible that. No first use we favor elimination and a minimum deterrent. No pretense of damage limiting counterforce first strike capability. They do not pretend to believe in that or to be trying to get it unlike the US and Russia. So what I would like to see is China to press as a world leader on this. And I’ve asked whether that seems possible or not, unfortunately China experts tell me that China has such a strong tradition in the last century of saying we don’t intervene in another country, we don’t tell them what to do, we don’t intervene, non-intervention the sovereignty.
That it is against their whole-
Robert Wiblin: Philosophy.
Daniel Ellsberg: … inclination and vision to be telling other countries do as we do. I wish they did actually on that point, and I don’t know enough to say it’s impossible. But people who do know China more say that’s extremely unlikely.
Robert Wiblin: They’re probably right with that.
Daniel Ellsberg: Unfortunately, but I don’t hesitate to say as an American we should look at China, and we should pursue a policy like China’s. And that means endorse and even negotiate toward elimination of nuclear weapons in the longer one verification policy than everything else. But in the meantime while other countries have nuclear weapons, we should maintain a small capability to respond. A survivable capability to respond in a limited way, which is not by the way to say we should necessarily use that capability. In fact, I can only think of one circumstance I won’t go into, it’s just too complicated, where it might make sense to launch a nuclear weapon or more.
But in general except for a very small possibility, there’s almost no circumstance in which it would make sense for in my terms to respond to a nuclear attack with a nuclear weapon by the US. Any circumstance in which it would be necessary, desirable, optimal, anything but second use is as crazy as first use for the US.
Robert Wiblin: Is that because of course it can’t protect you because the missiles are already coming, and I guess two me it just makes us off because you just get a worse nuclear winter.
Daniel Ellsberg: [crosstalk 01:47:20] what good is it gonna be of? If you send them over there what targets could be hit that would be of any benefit? Whereas if you send them in targets near cities, or in the cities you’re just adding to the smoke. In the end the result will be the same a year later. But it will come a little faster, mass starvation will come a little faster if we burn cities in addition to our cities that are being burnt. But nevertheless a capability to do that should be taken very seriously by any adversary, because the likelihood that we will use that capability in revenge even if it doesn’t do any good for us is very high, because we’re human.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, it’s interesting. Okay so that’s your kind of medium or moderate disarmament policy.
Daniel Ellsberg: [crosstalk 01:48:06] how many weapons as they get down to, I would say by the way a handful of propositions here in my opinion these are normative statements. No country has the justification or good reason to have a doomsday machine first of all, which Russia and the US do, and the other countries are on the verge of it. All the countries except North Korea could cause starvation up to a third of the earth’s population, that’s eight countries can do that, none of them should have that capability. What is that capability? Well it’s something between 100 and 200 weapons, and eight of the countries… Let’s put this way, seven of the countries have at least 100. Israel probably has more, but is only estimated to have 80 or something, I think it probably has more than that because of the no news revelations many years ago.
North Korea doesn’t at this point. So it follows from that, no nuclear weapons state is justified in having as many weapons as it now has, not one of them can justify. India can’t justify having 100 nuclear weapons, no. To what effect. Or now we have Israel with it’s 80 and so forth. You can’t justify more than 100, let’s say. That isn’t to say you can justify a hundred, but you can’t justify more than that right? Fourth, no country can justify having as many weapons as the smallest nuclear state other than North Korea. And you can’t have as many weapons as Israel, certainly not as many as Pakistan or India or England or France or in that zone, as a first step toward ultimate elimination. But also toward a relatively stable situation.
I would say for the US and Russia to come down to the level of the other nuclear states, something between 80 and 120. Not striving for superiority which is meaningless except in conveying craziness, which has a diplomatic benefit under some circumstances, but one that comes at too high a cost, too a high a risk. So it means coming down to 100. Now what should they be? They should not be vulnerable weapons if possible. I am very unhappy that the Russians depend on ICBMs to the extent that they do, but at least if they could get down to 100 warheads, they would not be pretending to a disarming capability. They would not be encouraging the other to go, us to go launch on warning. Likewise, if we got down to 100 sub-launched weapons, and really how large?
Actually we can’t really justify having thermonuclear weapons, hundred kiloton weapons. The Trident 2, has two capabilities for a warhead. One is 475 kilotons. You don’t have a reason for that or a need for that under any circumstances including deterrence. What I’m saying is to deter a country rational enough to be deterred at all, does not require an ability to annihilate them or to destroy the world. But if you were to say, a capability of hitting 10 to 20 of their cities that’s very deterrent, and to not have that in the face of their capability, does not make the world safer necessarily. It might but I wouldn’t rely on and I wouldn’t try to convince people that it was the case.
In other words to be a little bit more technical about it, we’re talking about having very low yield sub-launched weapons because Russia has some. Actually you can burn cities with the fission weapons the Truman had in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They cause fire storms. That’s the trigger of our weapons, so you could disarm all of the thermonuclear, the secondaries, what are called secondaries that lithium deuteride, H-bomb, fusion fuel and so forth.
Disarm it, take it out or make it incapable. You don’t need boosted weapons, you don’t need 50 kilotons weapons which they all go for. That involves injections of tritium into the core do without that. As Herbert York put it, what does it take … Who was the first director of Livermore Laboratory, and then director of research and engineering and then in the Defense Department, and then a major arms control negotiator. He asked at Livermore the question, how many weapons does it take to deter an enemy that is capable of being deterred from a nuclear attack? And he said one or 10, or if you really stretch, a hundred. He got to that by saying 100 weapons give you the capability of one individual to destroy as many people as died in World War 2, 60 million in a day or two. It shouldn’t have more than that.
So he said the number you need for this purpose then is between one to 10 to 100, and closer to one than 100. That gets you down by the way to the area of North Korea pretty much. Now North Korea does not have adequate deterrence right now unfortunately, they’re facing a lot of threats, but that’s because they’re going for a bigger capability. They would be pretty safe I think if they gave up their ICBM and H-bomb test right now. The threat against Korea and Japan, which does not require that should be enough to keep even Trump … Even you know Trump … Trump’s excuse for hitting them anyway is that they’re trying to get a capability against the US. Let me make one point here, historic point that has been made to my knowledge only by Noam Chomsky in the past.
And he bases it on McGeorge Bundy’s comment in his book about nuclear war as follows. Bundy said, having addressed this question in 1952 when the first test was approaching, said it’s notable in reflection that there was no discussion of avoiding H-bombs altogether on the grounds that they would make ICBMs feasible. Now it was the H-bomb that did make the ICBM look feasible to us immediately. And the reason for that was that it was known that the early ICBMs would have a very large error probably, very inaccurate. Half of them would not land within perhaps seven to 10 miles of a city, which means even an A-bomb would not have much effect, even on a city landing seven or 10 miles away, but an H-bomb would. And so a small H-bomb you could put on a missile could destroy a city at least even if the missile was very inaccurate, which they knew the early missiles would be.
As soon as they developed a feasible H-bomb warhead, the Teller–Ulam device in early ’51, 1951. A guy at Rand actually … What his name Bruno Augenstein immediately said this makes an ICBM effective. Now why should that have been avoided, because only ICBMs threatened American society. When I was born in 1931 and until much later no American city was susceptible of being destroyed by an enemy.
Robert Wiblin: Ever.
Daniel Ellsberg: It hadn’t happened since 1812 when the British invaded from Canada and burned the White House. In the Civil War we burnt Atlanta and so forth but that was our own people at short range on the ground. American cities … I lived in Detroit the arsenal of democracy, we had air raid drills but they were just for show, like duck and cover in the ’50s, there was no danger of Detroit being destroyed. With long range bombers you could destroy a city with an A-bomb, but not more than a couple, we could have air defenses. You could keep A-bombs from getting through to us in large numbers, ICBMs you couldn’t. So ICBM would make American society … in large numbers would make an American society vulnerable to destruction, as it has been ever since the mid ’60s which is when there was, the Russians had a lot of ICBMs, so why not aim then at no ICBM. Why didn’t we aim at having no ICBMs and along with that no H-bomb warhead that could give you the ICBM okay?
The answer seems to have been that we were worried about all our bombers getting through their defenses, and so we wanted an ICBM that would get through their defenses. We already had thousands of planes that would get through but we’d lose a lot of them, so what? What possible purpose could it serve to have several thousand warheads there instead of a handful, or a couple dozen if we’re talking about deterrence? But our plans were based on getting through their differences, for that we wanted an ICBM, for that we allowed the Russians to get an ICBM. We could have prevented that very easily by a test ban, our radars were absolutely capable of verifying whether missile tests were taking place and how large they were. They were also capable of verifying H-bomb tests at that point because they’re so large. So if you wanted to stop those you just have a test ban, and there was some consideration of that, but it wasn’t pressed, and it wasn’t exposed to the public.
Fermi, Enrico Fermi that I was discussing earlier and Isidor Rabi said in 1949 we should not be the first to test this stuff, and we should try to achieve a test ban. But no we wanted it even at the cost of their getting it, and that meant we wanted an improved capability to destroy them when we already had 10 times over the capability to destroy them at the cost of our moving from being invulnerable to being vulnerable, and that was the choice that was made. And it was just a lot better for Boeing and Lockheed and Northrop Grumman and General Dynamics to go that way than not to have them, then they wouldn’t be selling the weapons. And by the way what I’ve learned just recently by books like … A guys named Kofsky wrote a book called Harry Truman And The War Scare of 1947.
Reveals that at the end of the war, Ford and GM who had made most of our bombers went back to making cars very profitably. But Boeing and Lockheed didn’t make products for the commercial market, only for commercial air except there wasn’t a big enough market to keep them from bankruptcy. They had suddenly lost their vast orders for military planes in mid 1945. The only way they could avoid bankruptcy was to sell a lot of planes to the government, military planes. But against who? Not Germany we were occupying Germany, not Japan we were occupying Japan. Who was our enemy that you needed a lot of planes against. Well Russia had been our ally during the war, but Russia had enough targets to justify, so they had to be an enemy and they had to be the enemy, and we went off from there.
I would say that having read that book and a few others I could say, I now see since my book was written nine months ago, that the Cold War was a marketing campaign for selling war planes to the government and to our allies. It was a marketing campaign for annual subsidies to the aerospace industry, and the electronics industry. And also the basis for a protection racket for Europe, that kept us as a major European power. Strictly speaking we’re not a European power. But we are in effect because we provide their protection against Russia the super enemy with nuclear weapons, and for that purpose it’s better for the Russians to have ICBM, and missiles, and H-bombs, as an enemy we can prepare against. It’s the preparations that are profitable. All wars have been very profitable for the arms manufacturers, nuclear war will not be, but preparation for it is very profitable, and therefore we have to be prepared.
Robert Wiblin: I’m curious to know what other policies might help other than disarmament. So one suggestion that I’ve had is that we should help the Russians get better detection equipment, so they can detect attacks earlier.
Daniel Ellsberg: That’s a terrible, a really terrible idea.
Robert Wiblin: Oh okay.
Daniel Ellsberg: It’s true that the world is less safe than it used to be because Russian air warning has gone down, they’ve lost the satellites, their equipment is eroded and so forth, they’re more prone to false alarm than they used to be. So are we less safe now than we were before? Yes in that sense. And we would be more safe if we improved their system. We’d be back up to where we were before which nearly blew the world up in 1983 and 1995 and others. They should not have a launch on warning system, nor should we. We probably can’t get them to give up their ICBMs, but we can give up the threat to their ICBMs. Our SLBMs, our submarine launched missiles are not under threat.
China by the way doesn’t threaten the counter force of either Russia or the US. Do they have adequate deterrence? Yes. Would they have better deterrence if they had a thousand warheads instead of 300? No. There is such a thing as having too many warheads which we do and the Russians do [crosstalk 02:01:36] the Chinese do not. They can’t really justify 300 either by the way, that’s more than they can really justify. Probably most of those are tactical weapons against Russia. But what will that do for them? A tactical war against Russia will preserve Beijing? No, I don’t think so, or in a war with India for that matter. So they have more than they need or should have too, but a lot less than in our case. So China has been wiser on this point and is worth imitating right now.
Robert Wiblin: So Russia has dead hand, this literal doomsday machine where if it detects a nuclear explosion in Russia, or at least if it did during the cold war, it would send out rockets that would launch all Soviet nuclear weapons at various targets across the Northern Hemisphere.
Daniel Ellsberg: Yeah, that’s crazy for them.
Robert Wiblin: Why is that crazy?
Daniel Ellsberg: Except in this respect. I don’t criticize their assuring that decapitation is easy or possible even. Decapitation will not protect us even against Kim Jong Un, but not against Russia. Of course they will have arranged for their weapons to reply, but that doesn’t mean we don’t plan for it. We plan for it. It’s crazy. It has always seemed … I go back to when I was working on the war plans in ’61, that was over half a century ago. It seemed to me crazy to leave the Russians which what we then believe were large numbers of ICBMs which came to be true a few years later, it wasn’t true then. To leave them decentralized without a Moscow to tell them to stop, or surrender, or end the war, just let them fire away. That looked to me crazy, but it’s what we planned. It was something you could do, it might work. Yeah I can’t prove it wouldn’t work. There’s what is it? One chance in a million that it might and so forth.
And we’ve known that they had arrangements to launch anyway, so what’s the one in a million?
Robert Wiblin: Well the funny thing is that, it seems like Russia’s Dead Hand system if we were more rational could make things more-
Daniel Ellsberg: We have it, we have it.
Robert Wiblin: Oh we have a same [crosstalk 02:03:30].
Daniel Ellsberg: Well it’s effectively the same. [crosstalk 02:03:30].
Robert Wiblin: So if Russia’s like literal doomsday machine seems like it would make the world more safe if we were more rational, because it would mean that we would never have any reason to attack them, because it would be absolutely guaranteed that..
Daniel Ellsberg: Well we don’t. But we can pretend we do. We can pretend we do and that is not without benefit. I have to keep saying it sells weapons, but there is another benefit. By pretending that we believe we might decapitate them, we make ourselves look crazy enough to launch a war if they provoke us. It also makes us crazy enough to launch a war when we don’t provoke us by a false warning, but we live with that.
Robert Wiblin: I’m curious to know, why is it that Russia kept Dead Hand secret? It’s like a paradox, that you create this machine you want everyone to know about, but you never tell them.
Daniel Ellsberg: The same as us. Our delegation of authority was one of our closest-held secrets, and effectively held secrets for decades, and to a large extent to this day. I put it out in my book, and people are startled by it, but, actually it was in Schlosser’s book, and there have been quite a few revelations in the national security archive, going back to the 1990s. So, that’s 20 years ago, so it’s been available to some extent. Why was it ever secret? The whole point of delegation is to prevent your being paralyzed by a decapitating attack-[crosstalk 02:17:23]
But, to not be paralyzed, to respond to the attack by attacking, only hastens nuclear winter. It doesn’t do anything for you. The only advantage to delegation is to deter decapitating attack, but you can only do that if you assure the Russians that we have delegated. On the other hand, if we keep that a huge secret and deny it all the time, and keep saying only the President can control this, the Russians unfortunately could conclude, maybe they’re telling the truth. Maybe only the President can do it, and thus be led to a decapitating attack. So, it was exactly the same in Russia as here. It’s crazy for Khrushchev to keep that a secret, and it was crazy in exactly the same way for us to keep it a secret.
Why, in either case? Because what is being kept secret looks dangerous. Now, granted, if you want a deterrent effect, you pretty much have to delegate. But that does raise the question, is this the best way we should be assuring our safety altogether, as opposed to cooperation, coordination, collective security, what Gorbachev was calling for, when he was in power? Collective security, let’s don’t increase our own security by reducing their security. The new way of thinking that Gorbachev, which is still called for … that he proposed, was, “We’re in this together, and you don’t increase your security by, in the traditional time-honored way, of decreasing their security, in a nuclear age.”
Increase our security together, by, for example, making nuclear winter impossible, which could be done, without eliminating nuclear weapons. You could still have deterrence, but if no country had more than, let’s say, 10 or 20 weapons, like North Korea, you couldn’t get nuclear winter. That would be good.
Now, if they were all vulnerable weapons, by encouraging preemption, encouraging, that could make the world even less safe than it is now. But if you had submarine-based weapons, for each nuclear weapons state, let’s say, a small number, with no pretense of targeting or disarming your opponent, we’ll need the capability to retaliate in kind, well, if you retained that, you would have eliminated nuclear winter and probably nuclear war. There would be no advantage to it. And then we couldn’t pretend to be protecting Europe. And they would be more on their own, economically.
Robert Wiblin: So are the other any other policies that you think would be good other than disarmament?
Daniel Ellsberg: Oh yeah and no I’m saying is not just as disarmament, much more important than that is to make very clear we do not threaten an armed conflict with Russians, there shouldn’t be any prospect of that. We should protect our allies by means other certainly than nuclear, initiating nuclear war. We should protect allies by means other than threatening to blow up a most life on earth. And the danger of a non-nuclear conflict between US and Russia, is such that let’s say they did invade a Baltic country, which is not impossible. First do we need a nuclear weapon against that? Even in military terms no. Our air power against their reinforcements in the Baltics. But we can’t match them probably man for man in Latvia or somewhere, but in terms of ability to cut off their forces by air power, we have a very great ability do that.
But second, in terms of their relations to the rest of the world, they’re not Albania or North Korea. Well North Korea is not at all cut off let’s say from China. But they’re not autonomous, and the effects the political effects of that should be enough to dissuade them from doing that. If they did do it, they should face economic other military … What they would get is an enormous arms buildup for good or bad, I would say bad, but that’s what they would get if they did that. We should be aiming at what Trump talks about. For his bad reasons I assume are causing him to differ with the insanity of the cold warriors in the Democratic Party and the Republican Party both, they’re for preparedness. A great profit on both parties, even Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren and as far as I know Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez don’t think at all about lowering the arms race they haven’t talked about it, because that’s like gratuitously going against the tobacco industry or Exxon on climate. Why stack the odds against you that way in our society.
Well, the idea of showing the dangers of a Cold War, and assess the urgency of collaboration on climate. Right now we have a collaboration on pumping CO2 into the atmosphere. Putin wants to use his Arctic oil reserves that’s why he liked Tillerson who was trying to make a huge deal for Exxon in burning oil and condemning us all to a climate holocaust, and that should change, there should be collaboration against climate change. Again China by the way has mixed, obviously a mixed policy of this. On the one hand they are leading the world I believe in renewable energy, and on the other hand they’re leading the world in coal fired plants.
Yes there are ways like your improving their air defense system. The world would be safer if we gave them several of our Trident submarines, but that isn’t going to happen. And you know that they’re more dependable-
Robert Wiblin: I don’t think I trust [crosstalk 02:07:23].
Daniel Ellsberg: … and they could … If we could give them Trident submarines and they would get rid of their ICBMs, the world would be a lot safer. But that a, isn’t going to happen for a lot of reasons. And B, there are better things to do than that.
Robert Wiblin: You talk mostly about the risk of war with Russia. I would think that in the 21st century there’s kind of a greater risk of war with China over Taiwan or some other thing. Do you have a view on that?
Daniel Ellsberg: By the way why should we get into a war with China over Taiwan? Taiwan has the capability to mount perfectly good non-nuclear defense against China, I would think they did, why not?
They’re richer than China on the whole, are they not, man for man? And there should not be a prospect of war with China. And look, how impossible is this? Look at the European Union. Most of the countries in that were at war with each other, not just once, but twice, in the last century. And now?
Robert Wiblin: It’s unthinkable.
Daniel Ellsberg: Pretty low. But, you say unthinkable? Well, I think that’s a little fast to say, but-
Robert Wiblin: Probably not France and Britain.
Daniel Ellsberg: Montenegro.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah.
Daniel Ellsberg: Turkey and Greece for example. Is that unthinkable?
Robert Wiblin: Western Europe at least.
Daniel Ellsberg: Yeah. So, we did manage to get beyond that, and without having even as much world government as they should have, as we see from the Greek case, and from the European currency case. They should have more of a federal government than they do, and the European Parliament should have greater powers than it does. But even so, they have enough to make that very unlikely, since 1991. There has been no reason that Russia should not be in that same relation with the reciprocal policy. I would say it was extremely unwise on the part of the GHW Bush, Clinton, George W Bush, to move instead toward neglecting Europe, Russia, humiliating it and not allowing it into things.
Secretary Defense William Perry, deputy under Carter, Secretary of Defense under Clinton, was strongly in favor of an alliance relation with Russia. Partners for Peace program, it was called. Strongly against the expansion of NATO, which, by the way, I think the best, first approximation reason for that expansion was selling arms to East Europe, to, quote, “bring them up to NATO standards,” at great profit to our arms-makers.
Why is Europe right now being … and this is not his finest hour now, we’re outside the realm of Trump’s sanity … is calling on them to increase their NATO expenditure to 3% or even 4% of their GNP. Why? Without doing that, they are, without the US, four times the budget of Russia already. Why should they increase that? For one reason. He just gave it last week, “We have very good arms for sale by …” And he named the firms. Boeing, Lockheed and Raytheon, or Northrop Grumman, I think he said.
And what could be more blatant than that? They should buy our arms, for our balance of payments, and our jobs, and our profits. That’s why they should expand. They have no other reason. Germany isn’t going to do it, as far as we know. There’s no reason in the world for them to do it. He’s calling on them, absolutely idiotic proposal, simply for our national benefit, profit.
Robert Wiblin: It sounds like a lot of your model of this is based around this idea that there’s corporate lobbying in favor of these policies, to make money. How confident are you that that is the explanation? Because I imagine that some listeners might be skeptical-
Daniel Ellsberg: No, it’s relatively new for me, frankly.
Robert Wiblin: Okay, yeah.
Daniel Ellsberg: And there’s been not nearly as much research on that as there should have been. I would like to know more about it. I just sent to Amazon for a book, it’s on the way, called Buying for Armageddon, that I’ve been told is good on this subject. I mentioned the one by [Kovski 02:11:24]. There is a very good article, Playboy.com, by a guy named, I think [Conroy 02:11:29], but the title is memorable, Lockheed Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. And it’s a play on the British action movie, Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, but it’s an extremely detailed, well-researched article on the role of Lockheed in putting its own officers into the government to promote these sales.
By the way, the current Deputy, John Bolton, as of the last month, is a former Boeing vice-president for strategic systems. So the ICBMs are said to be in no great danger of reduction by Defense One, an online defense journal that I see.
Robert Wiblin: If you spoke to the Generals, they would not say that they’re doing it to-
Daniel Ellsberg: No, no, and they go out to highly-paid jobs in defense industry, and to be commentators on MSNBC and Fox and others, when they go out. It’s a very deeply ingrained situation, our military industrial complex. So I would say a major need is for investigation of the influence of lobbies on this arms race, as on climate, which we’re beginning to learn, about Exxon and the climate problem. And there hasn’t been nearly as much research.
Granted, they are as secretive, if not more so, than the Defense Department, without the benefit of an Espionage Act, or an Official Secrets Act. They can’t threaten prosecution for revealing their company secrets. They can only threaten a civil suit for violation of non-disclosure agreements. But that is more than enough to keep their secrets very, very well. And so we don’t know nearly as much about the inner decision-making by any of the firms I’ve mentioned, or DuPont, or the other arms manufacturers, as we do about the Pentagon, and we don’t know nearly enough about that. So, the field for investigation of that by journalists and academics is very important.
Also, in theory, and to some extent in practice, if you go to work for [Kleinboroughs 02:13:34], you can work against the effects of these lobbyists, rather than base your job on conforming to them. There has been effective legislative reform of tobacco by investigations by various people, and by whistleblowers, by the way, from inside the industry. Merrell Williams and Jeffrey Wigand, I mentioned earlier, did just what I did, brought thousands of pages out for the help of Congress. And that has reduced the deaths from secondhand smoke in this country. It hasn’t reduced their profits generally, because they’ve increased their profits selling to Third-World people, and to the rest of the world. So I think their profits, if anything, are up, which is despicable.
Robert Wiblin: I think actually the number of cigarettes sold is at an all-time high.
Daniel Ellsberg: And, by the way, that was true before the Cold War ended, by the socialist countries of Communist China and Russia. I think China’s had a monopoly of cigarette sales. I don’t know where they are now.
Robert Wiblin: It’s a government monopoly still.
Daniel Ellsberg: Maybe you happen to know, but I don’t. What has happened to cigarette consumption in this country?
Robert Wiblin: It has gone down, in the US.
Daniel Ellsberg: Now, I understand it’s particularly gone down for young people.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, I’m not sure. We could look that up.
Daniel Ellsberg: I’d like to know that, and what has happened to profits for sales in this country. But I can believe they’ve gone down, but they have… increased abroad, which is despicable. As Lindsey Graham put it, the lives are over there. Selling cancer to people in the rest of the world is more acceptable than … once we learned that it’s over here. So, opposing lobbies, investigating them, revealing, being a whistleblower, going … making the secrecy system less sacred and legitimate and impenetrable, having a public interest defense for whistleblowers, I would … I’ll bet there could be legislative action that would restrict the effect of non-disclosure agreements, when it’s a question of criminal behavior or concealing results. That, of course, we find something new on that almost every day, something comes up, from asbestos to the airbags. Well, every week, there’s some new relation-
Robert Wiblin: Yes, some misconduct.
Daniel Ellsberg: … to people who have been behaving criminally. Oh, yeah, Purdue Pharmaceutical. An article in Time last week pointing out that a deal was made, where the Purdue funds … over who knew, admitted that they knew they were selling to non-prescription people. They know they were enormously contributing to the opioid epidemic, which is now the killer of young people. They knew that, and not one criminal prosecution. And now there are several civil suits against people, but that’s not enough to … These civil suits are just cost to business. There should be criminal prosecutions for this mass murder they are complicit in.
Robert Wiblin: In terms of what listeners can do concretely with their career, to try to make a difference here-
Daniel Ellsberg: Well, I don’t have much of an answer there, except to say they can do otherwise, and often better, outside the government, the executive branch.
20, 30 years ago I would have said that to know what the situation is by what might be done by it, one almost had to be on the inside however problematic that is, and to have clearance and to have access to it. I can now say that’s definitely not the only way to do it. I would say on the whole not the best. The chance of being compromised or co-opted in one’s intellectual attitudes and values on the inside is very great. It’s not that people can’t see and even recommend what would be very bitter policies from the inside, but the chance of having those implemented is negligible.
It’ll simply be overridden by the interests that go in the other direction. That’s been the experience. Now you can almost say the same from the outside because that hasn’t been very effective either. But there are some effects that would not have been achieved from the inside. The Test Ban Treaty and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which we still haven’t ratified, would never have been signed or come about without enormous pressure by scientists and others. By whole international movement in that case. Many, many people, millions, many millions on the outside.
Likewise we would have wasted perhaps a trillion dollars on ballistic missile defense without tremendous outside pressure, a lot of scientific … The whole field of ecology has grown up in the last few decades and led to several conferences on the violations on humanitarian law that would come about through any nuclear war. And more specifically not just on law, but on human survival. That has come almost entirely from the outside.
Here we have one peer reviewed article coming out from Los Alamos recently on nuclear winter, questioning it, fine, but they could do this study with their left hand any time. They could’ve done it any month, any time this year. This is the first one we’ve ever seen. And certainly not gonna be the last. So I mean the study on the subject. So it just doesn’t get done from the inside.
Now it’s true you do learn a lot on the inside that you’re not gonna get otherwise. I’ve asked myself whether it could make sense for someone to go in to the cleared area, to the community, get a clearance, do this stuff in order to learn and leak. And it’s hard to say that that would be wrong, but it’s a kind of deliberate spying in effect which I would find uncomfortable, even when I rationally look at it and say, “Well this is for the good of humanity.” But it does involve lying from the very beginning as to what your intentions are. And I don’t … can’t advise someone to do that. I can’t say that I would’ve ever been willing to do that, even though many lives would’ve been at stake.
On the other hand, I do … I would encourage anybody who goes in to the get the clearance to, in their mind, when they’ve signed nondisclosure agreements, which is what the security so-called oath is, it doesn’t involve an oath in nearly any case. So help me God I swear that I will not reveal and so forth, it’s a nondisclosure agreement as in corporations or unions. I understand that I can be fired and even prosecuted for revealing this information. Now I signed that many times, without being aware that no one ever had been prosecuted, before me. I was the first. So in a way it was true. I could’ve been prosecuted, I was prosecuted. But I was the first.
And the reason for that was that our First Amendment had always been understood to preclude a British type Official Secrets Act, which would criminalize any revelation of classified information, whatever the circumstances. We still don’t have an Official Secrets Act for that reason. Although it’s often been proposed in Congress or by the Executive, but Congress has never passed it because of our First Amendment which Britain doesn’t have. But they have been using the Espionage Act as if it were an Official Secrets Act. And it was intended against spying, that is working for a foreign government, in particular an enemy during wartime to give them information that is properly protected from them. And that was used often before me for against spies. I was the first to be tried under that for a non-espionage action for informing the American public.
And it’s written in a way that does not take into account your possible good motives or patriotic motives or any kind of motives, for giving this information to the public. After all, if you’re giving it to a foreign government, especially in terms of warfare, it’s hard to cut in the ice with a jury by telling them what your motives were, it’s hard to make that look acceptable, unpatriotic. Now if you’re giving it to the American public, you should be able to argue why you think you needed to have it and what the effects were and whether there was any harm or that there was any benefit. But currently, you can’t do that.
So something that should change is for Congress to pass what has been proposed, a Public Interest Defense, which would allow you to argue your motives before a jury. But that doesn’t exist now. So one would have to say now to make these revelations, whatever you thought was in the public interest would be a jeopardy of being convicted under the Espionage Act, should you ever do that? And I would say, yes, there are circumstances under which I think I was right to do it and others have been right to do it. Snowden I believe was right to do it. Chelsea Manning was right to do it. And even though conviction was certain for them.
And, under the existing law, with what intention should someone ever take that agreement not to reveal secrets? And I would say it should be with the private understanding of what should be explicit so long as keeping the secret does not unjustly condemn others to death. Or does not conceal criminality or unconstitutional behavior. In other words, secrecy should not protect unconstitutional or criminal behavior, enormously reckless, dangerous behavior. But it does. All the time. Now that’s the reality of it. But I think a person should be well aware that they should not feel bound by that. That an agreement to keep secrets should apply absolutely only under the circumstances when that does not involve protection of criminal behavior. Watergate for example.
But this applies all the time. I mean things like that are going on all time. Should the people in the tobacco industry have felt bound by their disclosure agreements? Well they were open to suit when they did violate and tell the public that, Congress, that in fact contrary to the sworn statements of the tobacco executives in Congress, those executives new that their product was carcinogenic and addictive and they were selling it to minors. But one person, two people I think have actually, one named Merrell Williams and the other Jeffery Wigand, did in fact violate their non-disclosure agreements and reveal this fact. And may have saved just countless lives as a result.
So it’s not on the government that’s involved here. Same thing, there’s the tobacco, same thing applies right now to climate. Clear now that Exxon has been lying for decades about what they knew as to the effects of the carbon dioxide they were releasing. And what have we been saying in this whole talk is that the effects on human survival have been knowable, whether they investigate them or not, for decades now, been deliberately kept from investigation by the government, and … It’s so funny what we’re discussing just today, even a study which purports to contradict the dangers here is based on classified data that can’t be examined by other scientists, including the scientists they’re criticizing, who as Alan Roebuck said to me today, “That’s not science. That’s not what we call the scientific method.”
So in other words, it is possible for people to save countless lives and preserve our Constitution, or help to preserve it, attempt to preserve it. Avoid wars. They have more power to that than most of them ever imagined if they’re willing to risk their careers and even their freedom and they’re associations and their way of life, by telling the truth. That the power of truth telling is very great. And not only by putting out the information, but by serving as an example to others that this is a patriotic and worthwhile, admirable even, thing to do at whatever risk. Not likely though, because the risk is great, personal risk. And there’s also the risk that you will be wrong, that will you have actually endangered people by doing this, yes, that’s a reality. But people who are in this position with this information generally are in as good a position to judge that reality as anyone else. Not always. And they could be wrong. And I could’ve been wrong.
But it’s very hard to find an example where people took that risk to their personal lives and had the effect of actually worsening dangers. In fact, no example comes to my mind right away and instead of this right away. That isn’t to say it couldn’t happen. But despite charges that Ed Snowden or Chelsea Manning had blood on their hands by their revelations, the government in years and years now of opportunity, has not given a single instance in which an individual was harmed by what they did, physically harmed. Having claimed … Whereas of course the secret keeping has resulted in wars that have killed hundreds of thousands of people. So that experience should be kept in mind.
Robert Wiblin: I know that many listeners are interested in pursuing careers in Congress or in the military or the intelligence services, so what would you say to them about your skepticism?
Daniel Ellsberg: What I said there was, if Congress could get back, and you could help it get back the powers it had as co-equal branch of government, which it has given up to a large extent, that would be for the good. The founders had it right, I think, and we’ve pretty much rejected that. But that model is there, that was their way of thinking, they was new in the world, and it was a good idea. We get back to a role for Congress, to an investigative role, which they’ve largely given up, to work for Congress in that respect, very good.
If you go in the executive branch, to be prepared to give it up, if called for, to be prepared to sacrifice yourself as a civilian, as people routinely do in the military services. That would be a change for the better, and to spread that word, to improve the chances for whistleblowing.
Inform yourself as to what the history of those institutions is, what the traditions of them really are. When Winston Churchill, as First Lord of the Admiralty, was saying that something he proposed was against the traditions of the service, he said, “Ha. Traditions of the Navy … rum, sodomy and the lash.” Yes, quite true, and empire.
So, I would say, spending a career as an anti-imperialist is better spent than working for the empire. But if you do go work for the empire, discover what the history is and become aware of what you’re involved in, that should not be happening. And then consider telling the truth about it, even at the cost of your own freedom, and your life, in the pursuit of saving many lives and preserving our Constitution.
We haven’t even talked about movements here, but that’s another huge subject. I’ve spent the last 40 years of my life trying to build a movement against nuclear weapons’ use. Use, and you risk … like the one against the Vietnam War, and with some success in the 80s, but not since. So, all that can be done. I continue to participate in civil disobedience there, to keep the idea alive, for when again it might be powerful.
Robert Wiblin: Are there any individuals or projects or organizations outside of government, working on nuclear safety, that you’re particularly enthusiastic about?
Daniel Ellsberg: Well, on safety, I imagine there are, but I’m not sure what to identify. On the dangers of nuclear weapons, very much so. Peace Action, the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. Peace Action used to be SANE, nuclear freeze campaign, which still exists. The Natural Resources Defense Foundation used to be very good on this, but they’ve moved away from it. Most people have given up nuclear research. I give a whole list in the end of my book, you’d have to look at it. I tried to remember. It’s 11 or 12 organizations that are on this.
There is a fairly big movement for this ban movement, the ICAN, that is very good for a lot of people in the world. I don’t see that becoming powerful in the nuclear weapons states. It hasn’t shown it, and in part because the idea of a ban is not even normatively compelling against maintaining some survivable minimal deterrent in those countries. But that’s not what any of the nuclear states actually have.
So, without saying that it’s illegal for them to have any nuclear weapons right now, it’s much easier, I would say, to make a compelling case that they should not have the number and types that they do have right now, and that that should change, even unilaterally, as soon as possible. And that’ll be hard to achieve, but I think less impossible than convincing people that we should unilaterally disarm ourselves of all nuclear weapons and leave Russia with the monopoly.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, I agree with that. How important is game theory? How important historically was game theory?
Daniel Ellsberg: Very simply, not at all. I’m not aware of its having had any influence on anything. If we’re talking about classical game theory, stemming out of von Neumann and Morgenstern and the work after that, including very intelligent, very brilliant work by a lot of other, mainly mathematicians, which as far as I know, has not had any effect on any defense capability, and never did have. The people I worked with that ran in the economics department, social sciences, even engineering, had no background in game theory of any kind.
I was the only one, in effect, and I was a critic of game theory, in my earlier publications. My honors thesis, actually, I wrote perhaps, as far as I know, the first critical account of zero-sum two-person game theory, so I was mainly a critic, but I knew the literature. And I was very influenced by Tom Schelling’s kind of work, which was not in that tradition at all. It was bargaining theory, very ingenious, very innovative, he got a Nobel Prize in the end. I wouldn’t say that his theorizing had any effect. He himself was a consultant and had some influence on … I could say a number of individuals, my boss, John McNaughton, and a few others, Henry Kissinger, even. But, as a personal … It wasn’t his theorizing that had the effect.
The idea that game theory had an influence is a mistake, on the whole, or that it should have had, I would say. It wasn’t suited for it. Tom Schelling’s kind of theorizing was relevant to what you could call two-person or n-person non-zero sum games, that notion. His theories of bargaining and threats were relevant, and in some cases could potentially have been very good on arms control, for example. But there they weren’t applied. Where they were applied, to some extent, was not very favorable. And, for example, in his later years, at the time he got the Nobel Prize, he was very optimistic about low risks of nuclear war. I think he was mistaken in that.
Robert Wiblin: I guess one last question is, it can be easy, I think, to be a bit demoralized, because this problem doesn’t seem easy to solve. The institutions that create this risk are somewhat resistant to reform. Look, what is it that gives you hope that it’s worth working on, I guess? What can help motivate people to-[crosstalk 02:28:42]
Daniel Ellsberg: A friend of mine said just the other day, “Hope is not a feeling, it’s a way of acting.”
Robert Wiblin: Yeah.
Daniel Ellsberg: I know that what looks impossible is something that should never be confident of, because good things that looked impossible, like the ending of the Berlin Wall, or the ending of the first Cold War, looked impossible, not just unlikely, in that period of time. And they did happen, thanks to Gorbachev and anti-nuclear movements, various things. And the idea that Mandela would come to power in north Africa without a violent revolution didn’t look unlikely, it looked impossible. And it did happen.
So, to say that we can’t get out of this, there is no good basis for that. We don’t know the future that well. I can say, as in those cases, I can’t see the way in which it will happen, but that’s what anyone would have said about the downing of the Berlin Wall. How was that going to come about? It’s not going to come about. But it did.
And, so to say that the stakes are very high for continuing to try to explore and to try to challenge the obstacles that we can see in the way of that happening, like the role of … and this is new for me, the role not just of the Air Force, but of the corporations and the budget process. How do you affect that? I don’t know, but I wouldn’t say it was impossible. It was done, as you say, in the case of the tobacco companies, domestically, and everything is at stake.
So, we’re talking now about properly-called existential crises now, and dangers that simply did not exist before. You could say, by the way, I’m just … Off the top of my head, a kind of epidemic that would destroy, was probably possible in some sense, but bringing it about, the genetic engineering that we’re working on right now, that was not possible then.
Robert Wiblin: Should we have been equally concerned about bioweapons during the cold war, as we were about nuclear weapons? Is there a good chance they could have also led to human extinction? And worried are you today about bioweapons compared to nuclear weapons?
Daniel Ellsberg: We now know, only recently, big book on this by Milton Leitenberg and others, on the Soviet biological warfare program and chemical warfare program. 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 that. Are you aware, of hundreds of thousands of gallons and pounds of anthrax and botulinus and improved forms, against vaccines.
Robert Wiblin: I didn’t know that.
Daniel Ellsberg: 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.
That’s not to excuse him. It was horrible, it was culpable, and yet, that was the choice he made, like Castro and the others. It’s what most Americans would have done, and kept it secret, okay? So, when you look at that kind of behavior by Gorbachev, I think the person most influential for good that I can think of, in the last century, my hero, so far. But nobody’s perfect, and not just imperfect, this was horribly imperfect, okay? But in a very natural way for humans to do in power.
When you look at that human characteristic, 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, a climate change, artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, biological warfare, to be confident like that is to be either totally ignorant, which is true of most people in that respect, to be unaware and ignorant. To be ignorant of the nature of humanity, which most people are, or to be crazy.
Or to be hired by … to be corrupt, and hired by people who make this stuff, and so decide. It’s like working for a tobacco company. Probably a lot of them manage to believe that it’s not carcinogenic. It’s hard to believe, isn’t it? But it’s not hard for me to believe that there are tobacco executives who think this is all a witch-hunt. They’ve convinced themselves. You can believe anything that your job depends on.
But, how about thinking it’s likely we’ll survive? I can’t believe that. I think it’s unlikely, very unlikely, but not impossible, and I don’t believe it’s impossible. I don’t have confidence, impossible. I don’t think that 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 ones I 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 this will go down? 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 book, “I propose, I do act as if we had a chance to find our way out of this. And I don’t know what it is yet, but that doesn’t tell me there is no way.” So, I urge others, I encourage them. And if they give up, or devote themselves entirely to pleasure, let’s say, and a life like being on the Titanic and drinking the champagne, after they’ve hit the iceberg, I can’t say that’s crazy, or even culpable, but I don’t join that. And, if they stop trying to save the world and just try to ease the pain of some other people, or help people in some way, I think that’s very reasonable, very good, and I just think that it is definitely not wasted, for some of us to keep trying to explore to see if there’s a way out of this.
Robert Wiblin: My guest today has been Daniel Ellsberg. Thanks for coming on the podcast, Daniel.
Daniel Ellsberg: Thank you for the opportunity.
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As I said at the top of the show I’ll now read a blog post we released recently, which seems relevant to nuclear security careers, for at least some listeners. If it doesn’t sound relevant to you feel, don’t feel any need to listen.
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