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Assured Destruction

It turned out that the nuclear war plan—and there was just one plan, with no room for flexibility—called for the rapid firing of America’s entire arsenal of nuclear weapons in response to any armed conflict, even a small conventional skirmish, with the Soviet Union. And once the orders came down, the bombs would rain down not just on the USSR but also on Communist China, even if the Chinese weren’t involved in the war. ...
At the time, Ellsberg knew many of these people who drew up the war plans and would have executed an order to kill many millions, as the plans required. “They were not evil in any ordinary, or extraordinary, sense,” he writes. They, like Ellsberg and his fellow whiz kids who tried to tame the bomb with the lasso of rational analysis, were “in the grip of institutionalized madness.” ...
Because ballistic missiles can zoom from blastoff to target in 30 minutes, the decision to launch must be left in the hands of a president. Because a president might be killed in a sneak attack, authority to launch the weapons must be delegated to subordinates. The most powerful and most accurate nuclear weapons—the land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles—are also the most vulnerable, so it’s tempting in a crisis to launch the ICBMs pre-emptively or to launch them on warning of an attack (“use them or lose them”), even though there has been a history of false warnings. All of these propositions are logical—and all of them contain a whiff of what Ellsberg calls “criminal insanity.” ...
By Ellsberg’s count (from his own observations and his reading of the literature), U.S. presidents have threatened to use nuclear weapons at least 25 times since the end of World War II....

- Fred Kaplan, Dr. Strangelove Was a Documentary, Slate, Dec. 4, 2017


Though recognizing that nuclear abolition is a distant hope, he argues for urgency in pursuing this goal, because the alternative amounts to fatalistic acceptance of an inevitable nuclear holocaust — a posture that is, in his words, “dizzyingly insane and immoral.” ...
Though recognizing that nuclear abolition is a distant hope, he argues for urgency in pursuing this goal, because the alternative amounts to fatalistic acceptance of an inevitable nuclear holocaust — a posture that is, in his words, “dizzyingly insane and immoral.”
- GRAHAM ALLISON, Is Nuclear War Inevitable?, NYT, DEC. 28, 2017


Over eggs, Ellsberg and I talk about a lecture he once gave to Henry Kissinger’s class, back when Kissinger was teaching at Harvard, entitled “The Political Uses of Madness.” In it, he proposed a version of what has come to be known as the “madman theory” — the idea that unnerving behavior can be used as a tool of diplomacy, making an adversary less likely to risk pursuing a hard-line position, for fear of an unbalanced response. Trump’s advisers sometimes say that this is what the president is up to when he lobs puerile insults at Kim Jong-un, or uses Twitter to tell his own secretary of State that he’s “wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man.” Of course, the madman theory only works if neither party is actually a madman. “Trump has made people more worried,” Ellsberg says. But in his view, having an erratic president only highlights the inherent instability of the system of deterrence. “What is real craziness?” he says. “Everything we’re doing here is crazy, but it’s a consensual craziness.”

In his book, Ellsberg gives a first-person account of what he reckons was humanity’s closest brush with annihilation. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, in October 1962, he was called into emergency duty at the Pentagon. (He crashed some nights on a leather couch belonging to Paul Nitze, a top Defense Department official.) At the time, Ellsberg thought there was little chance that the confrontation would go nuclear. What he didn’t realize until many years later is that the Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev was more reckless than he presumed, and had actually given his commanders in Cuba the authority to use nuclear weapons at the first sign of an American invasion. “He wasn’t an insane person,” Ellsberg says. “He just did insane things from time to time.” ...
The book examines many close brushes with nuclear war. He says that at least twice during the Cold War — once aboard a Soviet submarine during the Cuban Missile Crisis, once inside an air defense bunker outside Moscow in 1983 — a single individual came close to triggering a nuclear war because of a false alarm. “There is a chance that somebody will be a circuit breaker,” Ellsberg says. “What I conclude is that we’re lucky, very lucky.”

Ellsberg doesn’t think that luck will hold forever, though.... ...
Ellsberg says that the world’s survival, so far, has been “something like a miracle.” He’s a pessimist, but he believes in surprises. ... “For me to be doing what I’m doing doesn’t take a whole lot of hope,” he says as evening falls. “A little uncertainty here is enough to keep me going.”
- Andrew Rice, Daniel Ellsberg Is Still Thinking About the Papers He Didn’t Get to Leak, New York Magazine, November 28, 2017



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