cover image The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner

The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner

Daniel Ellsberg. Bloomsbury, $30 (416p) ISBN 978-1-60819-670-8

Ellsberg (Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers) mixes autobiography and history as he details the horrifying realities of America’s nuclear-weapons apparatus, with an aim to inspire future “courageous whistleblowers.” As a Harvard postgraduate fellow, Ellsberg’s work on decision theory attracted the RAND Corp.’s attention. In 1959 he joined a study of the communication of the “execute” message to launch nuclear strikes, coming to focus on how to ensure that no subordinate decided to attack without clear authorization. To Ellsberg’s amazement, the military’s vaunted “fail-safe” system didn’t work. He also learned that America’s pledge never to attack first is fiction; the U.S. would have struck if convinced that the U.S.S.R. was about to attack. He describes how a single, exquisitely detailed plan would have directed thousands of bombs onto Eastern Bloc targets, as well as China, even if China was not involved in a planned attack. America’s sole deterrence of the Soviet Union was to threaten Armageddon. Ellsberg recounts with precision both public and top secret arguments over American nuclear-war policy during the three decades after WWII. Despite modest improvements since, little has fundamentally changed. Ellsberg’s brilliant and unnerving account makes a convincing case for disarmament and shows that the mere existence of nuclear weapons is a serious threat to humanity. Agent: Andy Ross, Andy Ross Literary. (Dec.)