Featured Post

New book available! David Kaiser, A Life in History

Mount Greylock Books LLC has published my autobiography as an historian,  A Life in History.   Long-time readers who want to find out how th...

Thursday, February 08, 2018

Nuclear weapons

   During the last two weeks, I read a remarkable book, The Doomsday Machine, Daniel Ellsberg's chronicle of his long involvement with US nuclear strategy in the 1950s and 1960s and beyond.  Born in 1931, Ellsberg was a child prodigy as a pianist, but as he explained in a documentary about him (and not in this book), he gave up the piano after his mother was killed in a car accident involving his whole family. He went to Harvard in the early 1950s, became an officer in the Marine Corps after the Korean War, and went to work for the Rand Corporation in Santa Monica, working under contract to the Air Force on problems relating to the use of nuclear weapons.  It took him only a few years to begin to have serious doubts about American nuclear strategy, and in the Kennedy year he suddenly found himself within striking distance of the highest levels of the government  Regular readers know that I retain a great deal of respect for the politicians and statesmen of that era, whom I still regard as more responsible and intelligent than those of this one, but one cannot read this book without feeling that we were lucky indeed to survive that era.

I am not going to try to summarize the book, but I will try to present what struck me as its most important findings.  Its principal contribution is to show how the military ran rings around civilian authority, including successive Presidents of the United States, regarding the production and deployment of nuclear weapons.  In the years immediately following our victory in the Second World War, as I found in a short article I wrote more than fifteen years ago, both civilian and military authorities accepted the idea that should war with the Soviet Union occur, we would use atomic weapons to try to secure a complete victory.  That strategy, as Ellsberg shows very effectively in a later chapter of the book, grew naturally out of what the British and American air forces had done during the Second World War, when first the British and then the Americans had adopted the strategy of setting whole cities on fire to try to persuade their opponents to surrender.  (Although he doesn't spend much time on the results, the strategy was a failure in Europe, and only the A-bombs made it a success in Asia.)  But General Curtis Lemay, who had run the firebombing campaign against Japanese cities and who became the head of the Strategic Air Command and then Chief of Staff of teh Air Force in the 1950s and 1960s, naturally regarded atomic weapons as simply an easier way to carry out the strategy he had already used against powerful enemy nations, and civilians did not dissent.

The question of strategy became much more urgent in 1949, when the Soviets exploded an atomic bomb of their own, and we found out that they had been privy to the idea of an H-bomb or "superbomb" thanks to their spy Klaus Fuchs, who worked at Los Alamos.  I did not know that not only J. Robert Oppenheimer, who had run the Manhattan project, but also most of our top nuclear scientists, had opposed the immediate development of the H-bomb after the Soviet explosion, both for technical reasons and because many did not regard such an enormously powerful weapon--a thousand times more powerful than the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs--as a usable weapon of war.  I did know that George F. Kennan of the State Department--who was a friend of Oppenheimer's--had written one of his most brilliant papers opposing the H-bomb development himself, on the grounds that nuclear weapons could never serve a positive military purpose, and were therefore useless to a power like the United States. Neither Kennan nor the scientists, however, got anywhere, and development went ahead.

Ellsberg reveals that by the late 1950s, our plans for fighting the Soviet Union with hydrogen bombs were so closely held that no civilian, including the Secretary of Defense and President Eisenhower, had ever seen them.  They were referred to as the Joint Strategic Capabilities Plan, a name chosen to conceal that they laid out the operational plan for war against the Communist bloc, not just a nuclear order of battle.  And those plans, Ellsberg discovered when he got authority to ask some questions about them, called for the obliteration of the USSR, the satellite states of Eastern Europe, and Communist China.  He interviewed the major commanders in the Pacific and discovered to his horror that there was no plan for fighting the Soviet Union without fighting Communist China.  When he asked a leading Admiral about this, the admiral replied, in effect, that only an irrational President would think of fighting one of the major Communist powers without leaving the other alone.  This raised, for me, another big question, however, which Ellsberg did not directly address.

I learned a lot about military planning for was with Communist China while researching
American Tragedy and more information has come out since then.  Whether such a war broke out over the Taiwan straits (as it threatened to do in 1954 and 1958) or over Southeast Asia (as it seemed likely to do over Laos in 1960-1), our military assumed that it would rapidly escalate to all-out war involving nuclear weapons, beginning with attempts to take out the Chinese Air Force.  But Ellsberg's stories raise the question of whether, at that moment, the military would have wanted to make an all-out attack on the USSR as well.  The answer might easily be yes.  I feel quite sure, incidentally, that Lyndon Johnson understood what the consequences of Chinese intervention in the Vietnam War would be, and that that was why he was so determined not to provoke the Chinese to intervene in the conflict.

Ellsberg was even more interested in issues of command and control.  He eventually was told that the President had authorized subordinate commanders far from Washington to undertake nuclear war in certain circumstances, for instance, if war appeared to have broken out and communications with Washington had broken down.  Ellsberg doesn't seem to know, or perhaps he has forgotten, that 20 years ago, in 1998, the National Security Archive published a remarkable series of documents showing exactly how President Eisenhower had in fact delegated that authority--documents he did not get to see at the time.  I remember circulating the announcement of that publication to my War College colleagues under the subject heading, "The Real Wing Attack Plan R," a reference to Dr. Strangelove. As Ellsberg also makes clear, this was only one of several plot lines in that film that he found uncomfortably close to reality when it came out.  He had also discovered that the military had never trained pilots in returning to base from their fail safe points after being ordered into the air in a crisis, and he became convinced that many would not return, certainly if they did not for any one of a number of reasons receive an order to do so, but would proceed to their targets.

Any war with the USSR, it was assumed, would lead to an all-out pre-emptive attack on its presumed nuclear capabilities, its industrial plant, and therefore, its people, together with simultaneous attacks in Eastern Europe and China.  The Air Force estimated that the attack would kill more than two hundred million people.  When the Kennedy Administration came into office, Ellsberg was spending a good deal of time in Washington, and he got to brief McGeorge Bundy, the President's National Security Adviser, on what our war plans looked like.  It was around that time that satellite reconaissance discovered that the USSR did not have between 500 and 1000 workable ICBMs, as the Air Force had insisted, but rather somewhere between two [2] and four [4] that were operational.  It turned out, Ellsberg discovered, that both Secretary of Defense McNamara and President Kennedy had strong personal reservations against initiating the use of nuclear weapons under any circumstances.  They proved that during the Cuban missile crisis, when JFK in particular was determined to avoid war precisely because it was so likely to become nuclear war.  (It was as it happened even more likely than he knew: we now know that the Soviet troops in Cuba would have used tactical nuclear weapons at once if a US invasion had taken place.)  But no President--not Kennedy, not Johnson, or Nixon or Ford or Carter or Reagan or Bush I--had the nerve to order the Chiefs to rewrite their plans for nuclear war along more reasonable lines.  That, to me, is a very frightening piece of historical data.

One reason that some Presidents did not cut back on nuclear options was that they believed nuclear threats had brought benefit to the United States.  Both President Eisenhower and John Foster Dulles insisted that the Chinese Communists had agreed to make peace in 1953 because of threats to use nuclear weapons against them, and Ellsberg seems to believe that such threats took place.  He doesn't seem to have read an excellent article from the 1990s by the historian Roger Dingeman that showed that there is really no evidence either that there was such an explicit threat or that it led to the breakthrough in negotiations, which came shortly after the death of Stalin.  Ellsberg also writes that an international peace activist whom he knows heard from Xuan Thuy, one of the Vietnamese Communist negotiators in Paris, that Henry Kissinger, by 1972, had threatened the North Vietnamese 13 times with the use of nuclear weapons.  This raises very interesting questions. I have read Kissinger's own verbatim accounts of those conversations and I am quite sure that those accounts do not include such an explicit threat.  Nor did such a threat ever come up in Kissinger's taped reports to Nixon when he returned from Paris. That does not prove, however, that the story is false--we would have to see the North Vietnamese records of those conversations to be sure.

It turns out, by the way, that Ellsberg was an important source for David Halberstam's 1972 book, The Best and the Brightest, which was written at the same time that Ellsberg was arranging for the leak of the Pentagon Papers and then preparing his defense.  Two stories from Halberstam--of a leading McNamara aide (who turns out to have been Adam Yarmolinsky) reporting that neither McNamara nor JFK would ever begin the use of nukes, and another one about the number of Minuteman missiles that the Administration wanted to build--reappear almost verbatim, but with more specific attribution, in The Doomsday Machine.

In his concluding chapters, Ellsberg laments that US and Russian arsenals are still large enough to trigger a nuclear winter and end human life on earth, and that they are once again increasing.  To eliminate the threat of worldwide nuclear catastrophe, he would like to ban land-based missiles.  (As things now stand, the US government claims the right to deny Iran and North Korea such missiles, but without, of course, renouncing our own.)  He wants a Congressional/scientific investigation of nuclear winter, to cripple the miltary-industrial complex; and dismantle the Russian and American and Chinese and other doomsday machines, their nuclear arsenals.  These are the kinds of proposals tht got a serious hearing at least in intellectual and some political circles 40 years ago, in the wake of Vietnam, but they have little resoance today.  Ellsberg knows that neither the current Congress and Administration or another Democratic Congress is likely to pursue such policies, but he takes comfort from the fall of Communism, which proved the possibility of unimaginable, revolutionary change.   I cannot share his optimism.

Despite all the horrifying data in this book, the fact remains that Eisenhower and Kennedy and Khrushchev and Brezhnev and Nixon and Mao and all the rest avoided a nuclear exchange throughout the period of the Cold War.  That was, I continue to believe, an era of relatively enlightened statesmanship, driven on both sides by high ideals. Yet we no longer live in such an age.  The men and women who were even teenagers or young adults at the time of Hiroshima--like Ellsberg--managed to keep the genie in the bottle. Now however they are almost gone, and future generations will discover whether more nuclear war did in fact become inevitable at the moment that the first bombs went off.




Energyflow said...

In effect then the security apparatus determines our entire foreign policy. WAPO and Amazon loses money so bezos gets 200 million for clloud computing from Pentagon and lets russophobic propaganda dominate WAPO which is then repeated verbatim nationwide. Raytheon, Boeing, northop, all pay campaigns of politicians, fund think tanks produce weapons in every cngressional district, garnering war votes. Enemies must be produced by politicians to justify this trillion per year cost while infrastructure crumbles, jobs are exported, prisons are filled beyond Stalin's wildest dreams. That the war party could be dethroned without seeing America looking like germany in summer of 1945 is impossible. Unless the dollar is dethroned as reserve currency by bitcoin or gold. Dollar is petrocurrency. Bitcoin is electricity currency. This is ridiiculous but from both ends petroleum(dollar base), basis of USA power for 100 years is being dissipated over time. Nuclear war is unlikely as suicidal but continued subversion of all governments, peoples on earth by war hungry weapons merchants and human rights missionaries going hand in hand to their graves is certain. The next economic crisis will bring universalbasic income or negative interest rates with 0% unemployment rate and 50% labor market participation rates and a boom in extreme low wage service jobs part time, 1 hour counts as employed for those 50%. Reality is not what it seems. Of course Russia or perhaps aliens are really to blame for all our ills. This fits in a fanatical religious sect which commits mass suicide whennkts predictions miss on reality. In effect this is America. Mass suicide over time. End of rant.

Bozon said...

Great, very wide ranging essay. Thank you for writing it.

I don't want to talk about the nuclear weapons issue so much, although I have had a book on the shelf that also points out the gross exaggeration of Soviet nuclear weapons you also mention, but rather remark on the parallels between modern whistle blowers like Snowden and the older ones like Ellsberg, and on the role of the media.

Ellsberg ratted out mainly Democratic Presidents, Johnson and Kennedy, over Vietnam, and grand strategy generally, in the Pentagon Papers, but it then got swept up, after his conviction, in Watergate scandal, a Presidential campaign break in by the same actors.

I am not a friend of the media, in either episode. They have always been in it only for themselves, either for the money and power, or for their ideological agenda, which come, in this conutry, to the same thing.

Media figures and pundits are not whistleblowers, regardless of what you see in such institutions as Ridenhour Prizes, etc.The media pundits themselves know this better than anyone.

Whistleblowers are a symptom of other structural problems, not heroes.

All the best

Bozon said...

For the past several days, Russian pageviews far outnumber others.
This is the weekly pageview number:





United States


South Korea















I wonder if you have had this kind of experience? Russians have viewed my blog a lot, but this is unprecedented.

All the best

David Kaiser said...

Bozon--from time to time there is an explosion of hits from Russia. Bots are surely responsible.

Michael A Humphreys said...

I seem to recall from the official Reagan biography, "Dutch: a Memoir", that Reagan had heard that LBJ experienced a tremendous relief upon leaving office, because he had been terrified he would trigger a nuclear war. In Dutch, Reagan is quoted expressing some scorn for LBJ's fear, and I thought too that Presidents would not be so weighed down by that dreadful risk.

Thanks to this blog post, I much better understand LBJ.

Bozon said...

Thanks very much.