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Living in a Kubrick Film

By: 
R. Burke

Those of us familiar with the 1964 Stanley Kubrick movie Dr. Strangelove or: How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb know the story. An Air Force general looses his mind and orders a nuclear strike against the U.S.S.R. in order to preserve the “purity of essence of our bodily fluids” threatened by fluoridation. The movie begins with a disclaimer: “it is the stated position of the U.S. Air Force that their safeguards would prevent the occurrence of such events as are depicted in this film.” In Daniel Ellsberg’s newest book The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner we are told the hideous truth: that not only could a situation like this happen, but that the Doomsday Machine revealed at the end of the movie actually does exist!

It is somehow disconcerting to find that the reality one has been living in all one’s life is really a Stanley Kubrick film. Above all this one, that deals with the potentially catastrophic issue of nuclear war. What about those reassuring disclaimers that the film opens with?

Unfortunately Daniel Ellsberg provides evidence and testimony that this is indeed the case. To begin with, the U.S. government knew nothing at the time about nuclear winter. This is the aftereffect of a nuclear war, caused by the smoke from the massive fires that would be started by a nuclear exchange that targeted big cities. These would rise into the upper atmosphere where they would blanket out the sun’s rays for years. Agriculture would halt, and millions would starve. The prospect of the extinction of all or most of the human race, along with many other species, would be immanent. This is, in effect, the Doomsday Machine that the Soviet ambassador at the end of the film announces to his horrified Pentagon audience.

Worse than that, Ellsberg claims, the premise of the movie, that a single commanding officer could actually order a nuclear strike, is all too frighteningly true. It turns out that Ellsberg, during his time as a RAND corporation for the Pentagon in the late1950’s, was involved in assessing current nuclear war plans and finding ways to improve them. He was doing so, he assures us, with the intention of improving safeguards against entering into a nuclear exchange. In the process of investigating the actual operational procedures for initiating a nuclear strike, he discovered that the command structure allowed for delegation of authority to lower level commanding officers! This grows out of the logic of nuclear war. Since a strike upon the US and its military bases abroad could be followed by a disruption of communications, or the destruction of higher level authorities, base commanders, for example, can launch nuclear strikes on their own initiative in order to maintain the credibility of deterrence. This means that if a loss of communications, a daily occurrence in some parts of the world at that time Ellsberg was writing of, occurs during a period of heightened tensions a base commander could conclude that the US had been attacked, that a counterstrike was necessary, and order one. It is a known fact that the electromagnetic pulse (EMP) from a nuclear explosion can and does disable electronics, and thus communications.

Worse than that, Ellsberg found that at the time, bombs carried on the underside of aircraft often came loose, with the possibility of setting off a nuclear explosion. This means that a pilot leaving his base could look back, see a mushroom cloud, and not know that it was due to a nuclear bomb accidentally falling off of one of his fellow USAF flights. With the confusion and lack of communications, the pilot could conclude that his own base had been attacked, and that he had no choice but to proceed to his target and drop his bombs.

One would think that procedures would be in place that would allow nuclear bombers to be recalled in case of accidental or mistaken launch. Ellsberg found that while procedures for issuing orders for nuclear strikes did exist, there were no recall protocols! Again this follows from the logic of nuclear war. Since an enemy could broadcast false recall orders to deter planes in flight from attacking their targets, the Air Force had simply decided not to issue recalls. This meant that a group of bombers, launched accidentally, would have no choice but to initiate a nuclear war!

During the Eisenhower administration, Ellsberg found that the Strategic Air Command of the Air Force had adopted the Single Integrated Operations Plan (SIOP) that essentially required launching everything available when given the go for a nuclear strike. On top of that, conflict with the U.S.S.R. would inevitably also trigger strikes against China, reflecting the cold war paranoia that at the time saw communist states as a monolithic bloc. Targets also included cities, and civilian command and control centers, meaning that if a nuclear war started there might not be anyone left in authority to call off further conflict.

One of the things that Ellsberg makes clear is that the very logic of nuclear war requires maintaining a credible deterrence. This means that delegation of authority for using nuclear weapons is inescapable. He documents how the Soviets also came to the same conclusions and provided authority to their lower level commanders to do so. This was in response precisely to the fear of an attack that would decapitate the leadership and leave lower levels of authority unable to counterattack. With the development of ICBMs, having a faster travel time to their targets, this logic only gets stronger.

Two chapters of the book deal with Ellsberg’s experiences in the Cuban Missile Crisis. The first, ‘My Cuban Missile Crisis’ document Ellsberg’s experience at the Pentagon. Here he admits that the crisis was political rather than military. Soviet missiles in Cuba would make Kennedy look weak and would be used against him in upcoming elections. Ellsberg also recognizes that the US had missiles in Turkey, along the border with the Soviet Union. Much of this chapter involves the political brinksmanship, the diplomatic games that were played while the stakes were the possibility of nuclear war. For example, when the question of trading the missiles in Turkey for the ones in Cuba was proposed as a face saving way for Krushchev to back down it was announced that the Turkish government now saw those missiles as ‘their’ missiles, and that removing them would be seen as an insult to Turkish national pride!

A second chapter: “Cuba: The Real Story,” points out what had been unknown to military planners at the time. In addition to the intermediate range missiles, the Soviets had armed the Cubans with tactical nuclear weapons meant to deter any attacks on the island. This was something that many of the hawks in the Pentagon and Kennedy administration were pushing for, and it would have inevitably led to a nuclear war.

Beyond that, Soviet submarines had been equipped with nuclear-armed torpedoes. This was at the time that the U.S. Navy was engaged in actions meant to harass these very submarines. This included the dropping of depth charges with the intention of making them surface. The world did not know at the time just how close it came to a nuclear exchange. Only the great restraint shown by certain Soviet submarine commanders in choosing not to use their ‘special weapons’ allowed the 1960’s to have unfolded the way they did, rather than being the decade a world ended.

Ellsberg admits that his intentions to make fighting a nuclear war came to naught. He later came to understand that strikes on the nuclear sites of the U.S.S.R or the U.S. would have been impossible to carry out without the civilian population being harmed. This includes the possibility of governments being destroyed before a truce can be negotiated. The safeguards that were enacted, as per his advice, attempting to place restraints on delegation of authority authority to launch nuclear strikes, did not remove the underlying logic of deterrence that necessitated the delegation in the first place. Nor did they change the first strike policy followed by the U.S. up to now. This situation remains in place today. The possibility of nuclear winter, first brought to popular awareness in the 1980’s, also remains. The Doomsday Machine continues to exist and menace our civilization.

The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planneris a book that has become even more relevant today. At this moment a new arms race has begun. Nuclear weapons are being ‘modernized,’ smaller yield weapons are now in development. As Ellsberg points out in the book, the existence of such weapons increases the likelihood that they will be used. This in turn increases the possibility of conflicts escalating into full-fledged nuclear war. Nuclear weapons proliferated, and their numbers have increased since Ellsberg worked for the Pentagon. Currently the Trump administration has torn up nuclear treaties with Iran and Russia, including the 1987 INF treaty signed by Regan and Gorbachev. As commentators such as George Katsiaficas have pointed out that treaty had been adopted in part due to Western political establishments being concerned about the growing popularity of the anti-nuclear movement. 

Throughout the book Ellsberg maintains a guarded optimism about dismantling the Doomsday Machine, preferring to act “as if” this goal can be attained. This is arguably the right way to proceed, as giving into despair has historically undermined the effectiveness of the world-left, as Immanuel Wallerstein has pointed out. Movements arguing that “another world is possible” are not well-served by miserablism. If there are some faults about the book it is in its lack of a larger picture of the role nuclear weapons play for the military-industrial complex, and the role it in turn plays in maintaining the capitalist world-system. He does not investigate the degree in which attempts to eliminate nuclear weapons would rely upon a larger movement to advance socialism. Ultimately issues such as dealing with climate change, cutting military spending, ending economic inequality and meeting unmet social needs are all interconnected; the alternatives to them are also interconnected. Also Ellsberg leaves unaddressed the degree to which finally ridding the world of nuclear weapons would necessitate a world federalist government, as advocated by figures such as Lewis Mumford and Bertrand Russell. 

At this moment a new arms race has begun. Nuclear weapons are being modernized in both the U.S. and Russia; smaller yield weapons are now in development. As Ellsberg points out in reference to the neutron bomb, the existence of such weapons increases the likelihood that they will be used. This in turn increases the possibility of conflicts escalating into full-fledged nuclear war. Nuclear weapons proliferated, and their numbers have increased since Ellsberg worked for the Pentagon. Currently the Trump administration has torn up nuclear treaties with Iran and Russia, including the 1987 INF treaty signed by Regan and Gorbachev. Beyond this is the possibility of nuclear conflicts becoming more likely due to climate change. There is great danger in fights over resources; water for example, in which nuclear-armed opponents might trigger a greater disaster. Even an exchange between India and Pakistan could prove catastrophic for the rest of the world. The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planneris a book that has become even more relevant today, especially for those of us who reject being extras in a real-life enactment of Dr. Strangelove.

The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner

By Daniel Ellsberg

ISBN: 978-1-60819-670-8

Bloomsbury Publishing, New York, 2017

420 pages

$30.00

Richard Burke is an activist, artist, writer, and retired teacher living in St. Louis.