I can’t imagine a more horrifying story than the true one Daniel Ellsberg unveils in The Doomsday Machine. In this well-documented history of nuclear weapons and American policies governing their use, the author demonstrates that the danger they pose is far greater than most people realize.
Ellsberg reaches backward in time to show how human beings have become inured to mass murder of civilians. He cites General Curtis LeMay’s enthusiastic torching of Japanese cities in March 1945, which killed far more people than the atomic bombs America dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki five months later. Even as those weapons were under development, scientists could offer no assurance that the first nuclear test at Alamogordo, New Mexico would not ignite Earth’s atmosphere and destroy the entire planet.
Since then, things have only worsened. In meticulous detail Ellsberg reveals information he gathered as a consultant and war planner for the RAND Corporation beginning in the late 1950s. He was shocked to learn that American first-strike strategies involved attacking both the Soviet Union and China – though the latter had no nuclear capability at that time – simply because both were Communist nations. Under this plan, both the President and the Secretary of Defense were cut out of the decision process. The attacks would have wiped out half the populations of both empires. Since then, military planners have formalized war plans that would, if enacted, destroy not only America’s nuclear foes but its allies and neutral nations.
While American citizens have always assumed that only their President has authority to launch a nuclear strike, that has never been the case. In fact, as late as the early 1960s commanders in far-flung outposts widely assumed that they possessed that power and were prepared to wield it under the right conditions. A disturbing conversation with a Pacific base commander convinced Ellsberg that even a local false alarm, accidental explosion, or communications failure could trigger an unauthorized strike.
Testimony from Kennedy Administration insiders shows how President Kennedy, during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, had to stand up not only to the Russians but his own military officers whose insistence on invading Cuba would have led to a nuclear Armageddon. Only Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s decision to back down at a critical moment prevented disaster. As we can see today, with Russia, China, and North Korea rattling their nuclear sabers, the danger of a worldwide holocaust is greater than ever. Both the United States and Russia have automated systems guaranteed to launch their weapons at each other in case of a preemptive strike by either side.
Ellsberg has been a controversial figure since 1971 when he publicized secret government policies about the Vietnam War in order to reveal how the American people had been deceived. Regardless of that, The Doomsday Machine is an important document proving how reckless we humans can be, and how dependent we are on God to keep us from destroying ourselves.