Daniel Ellsberg, in his role as a consultant to the Kennedy administration, helped craft a provocative speech that veered from President John Kennedy’s ambiguity on the standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Berlin crisis in 1961.
By exposing Soviet nuclear inferiority, and threatening a first strike on the Soviet Union, the speech — ultimately delivered by a deputy Pentagon secretary — spurred a humiliated Nikita Khrushchev to retaliate by installing nuclear weapons in Cuba. Ellsberg, a RAND Corp. consultant, had thus effectively paved the way to the Cuban missile crisis in 1962.
Everyone knows what happened next. The Cuban missile crisis risked the virtual annihilation of humanity if it ended with a general nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union.
But this story is mere prologue to what Ellsberg has to say in his book about our nuclear policies at the time, “The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner.”
Ellsberg will be in Petaluma on June 10 to discuss the book and his concerns about the ongoing risk of a nuclear war.
In his book, he details interviews with commanders in the field, members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and civilian oversight personnel in the Department of Defense. He exposes an abundance of hair-raising strategic and tactical plans that deliberately evaded the norms of the senior leadership’s “need to know.”
While some of this has been known to nuclear historians for some time, what adds to the compelling nature of Ellsberg’s findings is his visceral reaction when he learns, for example, of the “right” of Pacific field commanders to authorize a nuclear attack against an enemy threat in the absence of authority from the chain of command to do so.
Additionally — and Ellsberg believes this is the case with all nuclear states — in the event of a decapitating nuclear strike against a country’s political center (e.g. Moscow or D.C.), there emerged a counter maneuver to delegate launch authority throughout peripheral regions of the country. In other words, there are a great many more “fingers on the nuclear button” than the general public has been told.
Just as harrowing in its implications is Ellsberg’s concern that the days of Gen. Curtis Le May’s influence on segments of the military are not entirely over; that the former Strategic Air Command commander, who had a thorough distrust of the check-and-balance role of the executive branch in nuclear decision-making, has modern-day adherents.
Le May’s imprint on plans for a general nuclear war against the entire Sino-Soviet bloc successfully evaded the bureaucratic requirement for informing the “civilians” in the White House and Department of Defense. The reason? The president, secretary of defense and national security advisers were viewed as lacking expertise in the conduct of war — and worse: Their civilian oversight roles were seen as obstructionist.
This is very serious stuff that has long begged the question: Why on earth would the world’s nuclear states — mandated as they are for citizen protection — assume the high-stakes risk of not only inviting national suicide but leaving behind a virtually uninhabitable world?
Ellsberg will address that question among many others in a conversation with actor and author Peter Coyote at 4 p.m. June 10 at the Petaluma’s Veterans Memorial Building. For tickets and information, visit Literacyworks.org/events or copperfieldsbooks.com.