By Daniel Ellsberg
Editor’s note: This is the first installment of Daniel Ellsberg’s personal memoir of the nuclear era, “The American Doomsday Machine.” The online book will recount highlights of his six years of research and consulting for the Departments of Defense and State and the White House on issues of nuclear command and control, nuclear war planning and nuclear crises. It further draws on 34 subsequent years of research and activism largely on nuclear policy, which followed the intervening 11 years of his preoccupation with the Vietnam War. Subsequent installments also will appear on Truthdig. The author is a senior fellow of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.
One day in the spring of 1961, soon after my 30th birthday, I was shown how our world would end. Not the Earth, not—so far as I knew then—all humanity or life, but the destruction of most cities and people in the Northern Hemisphere.
What I was handed, in a White House office, was a single sheet of paper with some numbers and lines on it. It was headed “Top Secret—Sensitive”; under that, “For the President’s Eyes Only.”
The “Eyes Only” designation meant that, in principle, it was to be seen and read only by the person to whom it was explicitly addressed, in this case the president. In practice this usually meant that it would be seen by one or more secretaries and assistants as well: a handful of people, sometimes somewhat more, instead of the scores to hundreds who would normally see copies of a “Top Secret—Sensitive” document.
Later, working in the Pentagon as the special assistant to the assistant secretary of defense, I often found myself reading copies of cables and memos marked “Eyes Only” for someone, though I was not that addressee, nor for that matter was my boss. And already by the time I read this one, as a consultant to the Office of the Secretary of Defense, it was routine for me to read “Top Secret” documents. But I had never before seen one marked “For the President’s Eyes Only,” and I never did again.
The question to the JCS was: “If your plans for general [nuclear] war are carried out as planned, how many people will be killed in the Soviet Union and China?”
Their answer was in the form of a graph (see representation below). The vertical axis was the number of deaths, in millions. The horizontal axis was time, indicated in months. The graph was a straight line, starting at time zero on the horizontal—on the vertical axis, the number of immediate deaths expected within hours of our attack—and slanting upward to a maximum at six months, an arbitrary cutoff for the deaths that would accumulate over time from initial injuries and from fallout radiation.
The lowest number, at the left of the graph, was 275 million deaths. The number at the right-hand side, at six months, was 325 million.
That same morning, with Komer’s approval, I drafted another question to be sent to the Joint Chiefs over the president’s signature, asking for a total breakdown of global deaths from our own attacks, to include not only the whole Sino-Soviet bloc but all other countries that would be affected by fallout. Again their answer was prompt. Komer showed it to me about a week later, this time in the form of a table with explanatory footnotes.
In sum, 100 million more deaths, roughly, were predicted in East Europe. There might be an additional 100 million from fallout in West Europe, depending on which way the wind blew (a matter, largely, of the season). Regardless of season, still another 100 million deaths, at least, were predicted from fallout in the mostly neutral countries adjacent to the Soviet bloc or China: Finland, Austria, Afghanistan, India, Japan and others. Finland, for example, would be wiped out by fallout from U.S. ground-burst explosions on the Soviet submarine pens at Leningrad. (The total number of “casualties”—injured as well as killed—had not been requested and was not estimated; nor were casualties from any Soviet retaliatory strikes.)
The total death toll as calculated by the Joint Chiefs, from a U.S. first strike aimed primarily at the Soviet Union and China, would be roughly 600 million dead. A hundred Holocausts.
I remember what I thought when I held the single sheet with the graph on it. I thought, this piece of paper should not exist. It should never have existed. Not in America. Not anywhere, ever. It depicted evil beyond any human project that had ever existed. There should be nothing on Earth, nothing real, that it referred to.
But I knew what it dealt with was all too real. I had seen some of the smaller bombs myself, H-bombs with an explosive yield of 1.1 megatons each—equivalent to 1.1 million tons of high explosive, each bomb half the total explosive power of all the bombs of World War II combined. I saw them slung under single-pilot F-100 fighter-bombers on alert at Kadena Air Base on Okinawa, ready to take off on 10 minutes’ notice. On one occasion I had laid my hand on one of these, not yet loaded on a plane. On a cool day, the smooth metallic surface of the bomb was warm from the radiation within: a bodylike warmth.I was in Okinawa in the fall of 1959 as part of a task force organized by the Office of Naval Research, which was there to study and improve nuclear command and control for the commander in chief of the Pacific Command (CINCPAC), Adm. Harry D. Felt. I was on loan from the RAND Corp., which I had joined as a full-time employee in June 1959 after a previous summer there as a consultant. This particular study took us to every command post in the Pacific that year and the next—from Oahu to Guam, Tokyo, Taiwan and the command ship of the Seventh Fleet—with license from Adm. Felt to “talk to anyone, see anything” in the field of nuclear command and control.
At Kadena, the pilots weren’t in the planes on alert or in the hut on the alert strip; they were allowed to be elsewhere, at the post exchange or in their quarters, because each was accompanied at all times by his individual jeep and driver to return him in minutes to the strip when an alert was sounded. They practiced the alert at least once a day. The officer in charge told our research group that we could choose the time for that day’s rehearsal. When our leader said “OK, now,” the klaxons sounded all over the area and jeeps appeared almost instantly on all the roads leading to the strip, rushing around curves, pilots leaping out as they reached the strip and scrambling into the cockpits, still tightening their helmets and gear. Engines started in 10 planes, almost simultaneously. Ten minutes.
These were tactical fighter-bombers, with limited range. There were more than a thousand of them, armed with H-bombs, in range of Russia and China on strips like this or on aircraft carriers surrounding the Sino-Soviet bloc (as we still thought of it in 1961, though China and the Soviets had actually split apart a couple of years before that). Each of them could devastate a large city with one bomb. For a larger metropolitan area, it might take two. Yet the Strategic Air Command (SAC), which did not command these planes (they were under the control of theater commanders), regarded these tactical theater forces as so vulnerable, unreliable and insignificant as a factor in all-out nuclear war that SAC planners had not even included them in their calculations of the outcome of attacks in a general war until that year.
Before 1961, planners at SAC headquarters took into consideration only attacks by the heavy bombers, intermediate-range ballistic missiles and ICBMs commanded by SAC, along with Polaris submarine-launched missiles. In the bomb bays of the SAC planes were thermonuclear bombs much larger than those I saw in Okinawa. Many were from five to 20 megatons in yield. Each 20-megaton bomb—1,000 times the yield of the fission bomb that destroyed Nagasaki—was the equivalent of 20 million tons of TNT, or 10 times the total tonnage the U.S. dropped in World War II. Some 500 bombs in the arsenal each had the explosive power of 25 megatons. Each of these warheads had more power than all the bombs and shells exploded in all the wars of human history.
These intercontinental bombers and missiles had come to be stationed almost entirely in the continental U.S., though they might be deployed to forward bases outside it in a crisis. A small force of B-52s was constantly airborne. Many of the rest were on alert. I had seen a classified film of an incredible maneuver in which a column of B-58s—smaller than B-52s but still intercontinental heavy bombers—taxied down a runway and then took off simultaneously, rather than one at a time. The point—as at Kadena and elsewhere—was to get in the air and away from the field as fast as possible, on warning of an imminent attack, before an enemy missile might arrive. In the time it would normally have taken for a single plane to take off, a squadron of planes would be airborne, on its way to assigned targets.
In the film these heavy bombers, each as big as an airliner, sped up in tandem as they raced down the airstrip, one behind the other so close that if one had slackened its pace for an instant the plane behind, with its full fuel load and its multiple thermonuclear weapons, would have rammed into its tail. Then they lifted together, like a flock of birds startled by a gunshot. It was an astonishing sight; it was beautiful.The planned targets for the whole force included, along with military sites, every city in the Soviet Union and China.
On carriers, smaller, tactical bombers would be boosted on takeoff by a catapult, a kind of large slingshot. But since the general nuclear war plan, as I knew, called for takeoff around the world of as many U.S. planes and missiles as were ready at the time of the execute order—as near-simultaneously as possible—to attack targets that were all assigned in prior planning, the preparations contemplated one overall, inflexible global attack as if all the vehicles, with more than 3,000 warheads, were launched by a single catapult. A sling made for Goliath.
The rigidity of the single, coordinated plan—which by 1961 included tactical bombers—in what was termed the Single Integrated Operational Plan, or SIOP, meant that its underlying “strategy” amounted to nothing more than a vast trucking operation to transport thermonuclear warheads to Soviet and Chinese cities and military sites. The latter were the great majority of targets, since all the cities could be destroyed by a small fraction of the attacking vehicles.
One of the principal expected effects of this plan—partly intended, partly (in allied, neutral and “satellite” countries) unavoidable “collateral damage”—was summarized on the piece of paper I held that day in the spring of 1961: the extermination of over half a billion people.
(In fact, this was certainly a vast underestimate of the fatalities. Dr. Lynn Eden, a scholar at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, has revealed in “Whole World on Fire” (Cornell, 2004) the bizarre fact that the war planners of SAC and the Joint Chiefs have—throughout the nuclear era, to the present day—deliberately omitted entirely from their estimates of the destructive effects of U.S. or Russian nuclear attacks the effects of fire. They have done so on the grounds that these effects are harder to predict than the effects of blast or fallout on which their estimates of fatalities are exclusively based. Yet the firestorms caused by thermonuclear weapons are known to be predictably the largest producers of fatalities in a nuclear war! Given that for almost all strategic nuclear weapons the damage radius of firestorms would be two to five times the radius destroyed by blast, a more realistic estimate of the fatalities caused directly by the planned U.S. attacks would surely have been double the figure on the summary I held in my hand—a billion people or more.)
The declared intent of this planning deployment and rehearsal was to deter Soviet aggression. I knew by this time something that was rarely made clear to the American public, that what was to be deterred by all this was not only nuclear attacks by the Soviets but conventional, non-nuclear Soviet aggression, in Europe in particular. In both cases, the story went, it was all designed to prevent such Soviet attacks from ever taking place. This global machine had been constructed in hopes that it would never be set in motion: or, as it was often put, so that it would never be used. The official motto of SAC, on display at all its bases, was “Peace Is Our Profession.”