The Nuclear Worrier via The New York Review of Books

The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner

by Daniel Ellsberg
Bloomsbury, 420 pp. $30.00
But he never stopped worrying about nuclear weapons. He was far from alone, of course. The horror of the bombs dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was immediately apparent to all who did not refuse to see. What separated Ellsberg from ordinary civilian worriers was his access to the actual war plans for doing it again. By the time he received his first clearances to know official secrets about types and numbers of weapons, the handful of first-generation bombs, assembled one by one by hand at Los Alamos, New Mexico, had been replaced by more and better devices. Fat Man, the fission bomb that destroyed Nagasaki, was blimplike in shape, weighed about 10,000 pounds, and exploded with the energy of 20,000 tons of TNT. By the late 1950s the first few fission bombs had been replaced by ever-expanding numbers (soon to be thousands) of thermonuclear fusion weapons, small enough to fit in the nose cone of a missile or under a jet fighter, and roughly a thousand times more powerful than Fat Man. RAND did many studies for the Pentagon on the best way to defend America with these superweapons, and the best way to fight a war with them.

There is a widespread belief, Ellsberg writes, that “everything leaks; it all comes out in the New York Times.” That, he says, “is emphatically not true.” Even analysts at the heart of the secret world are not cleared for many categories of secret information and are not cleared to know that they are not cleared. While Ellsberg was being initiated into these secrets he did not know that his own father had once enjoyed an early version of a code-word clearance, a “Q” clearance that protected the secret work on fusion weapons in the years after World War II. Ellsberg’s father told him this in 1978, when he also confessed that he had resigned in 1949 from a bomb-related engineering job—“the best job he’d ever had,” Ellsberg writes—because he wanted no part in building anything a thousand times more powerful than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.

Ellsberg was astonished. Why had he never known about this? “Oh, I couldn’t tell any of this to my family,” answered the senior Ellsberg. “You weren’t cleared.”


The Doomsday Machine addresses three subjects. The first is the history of Ellsberg’s work at RAND on nuclear war planning just before and during the Kennedy administration, when he discovered what Air Force General Curtis LeMay, commander of the Strategic Air Command, had planned and prepared by 1960 to do to the Sino-Soviet bloc in the event of war. The second is how city-destroying attacks became the air strategy of choice during World War II, with the effect of gradually resigning airmen to the efficiency of nuclear weapons, one of which could do what it had taken three hundred B-29 bombers over Japan to do using conventional bombs. The third is how to end the dependence of so many nations on nuclear weapons before a spark creates a conflagration that incinerates the world.


The first SIOP in December 1960 planned an overwhelming knockout blow. Moscow alone was targeted with at least eighty nuclear weapons, and every Russian city with a population greater than 25,000 would be hit by at least one. China would get the same, for no particular reason. Ellsberg was surprised to discover that the planners had not been afraid to add up the probable number of dead. Over the first six months following the initial strike they estimated that about half the population of Russia and China would die of radiation effects alone—a total of about 380 million people. Three things about this plan convinced Ellsberg to do what he could to stop it: its magnitude, its all-or-nothing character, and the fact that General LeMay had reserved to himself the power to decide when to order the attack.


This point is the crux of The Doomsday Machine, what Ellsberg contributes to our understanding of the danger we continue to face: the knowledge that decent men of courage and intelligence with a personal horror of war were prepared to run a one-in-ten chance of killing hundreds of millions of people—to avoid what? “I’ll be quite frank,” the secretary of defense told President Kennedy at a meeting of the Executive Committee early in the crisis. “I don’t think there is a military problem…. This is a domestic political problem.”

Read more at The Nuclear Worrier

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