Daniel Ellsberg's 'Doomday Machine': Eyewitness to nuclear insanity

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Daniel Ellsberg, author of "The Doomsday Machine."

Doomsday Machine
Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner
By Daniel Ellsberg
Bloomsbury. 420 pp. $30


Reviewed by Garrett M. Graff


Daniel Ellsberg - best known for the revelation of the Pentagon Papers - opens his new book with an exciting premise: When he copied that groundbreaking Vietnam-era study, which upended the Nixon administration and transformed Ellsberg into the first celebrity whistleblower, he also copied thousands of other documents from the 1950s and 1960s concerning the nation's nuclear war plans. He intended to release them, a secret he kept "from the time of my copying until now."

But then he reveals that the papers were put in a green garbage bag and buried for safekeeping by his brother, Harry, at a marked location in a trash dump. A summer hurricane destroyed the marker, and the papers have been lost forever.

Thus, instead of a new, groundbreaking leak, Ellsberg offers what amounts to a travelogue of what he calls the "Doomsday Machine," the systematized procedures, protocols, and strategies that guided how the country's nuclear weapons would be fired if Armageddon arrived - most of which remain in place to this day. For historians, not much here is new or revelatory, but casual readers will probably be shocked by just how boneheaded and illogical much of the Cold War's grand strategy really was. Yet Ellsberg's book, perhaps the most personal memoir yet from a Cold Warrior, fills an important void by providing firsthand testimony about the nuclear insanity that gripped a generation of policymakers.

It's a miracle nuclear weapons have not been used since World War II. The world has stumbled much closer, more times, than we know. Ellsberg recounts more than 25 times U.S. presidents have threatened a "first strike" attack on countries from the Soviet Union to Vietnam to Iraq - a list, by the way, that doesn't include the current president's January Twitter taunt that he has a bigger nuclear button than North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Chillingly, Ellsberg explains, "The basic elements of American readiness for nuclear war remain today what they were almost sixty years ago," with thousands of unnecessary weapons on hair-trigger alert. The Doomsday Machine, as it is, remains a daily threat to all of us. The question we face is: How much longer will our luck hold?


Garret M. Graff is author of "Raven Rock: The Story of the U.S. Government's Secret Plan to Save Itself - While the Rest of Us Die." This review first appeared in the Washington Post.