A Secret Kept for Decades: Daniel Ellsberg and Nuclear Weapons

It turns out that Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg has more secrets to reveal from his days as a high ranking U.S. government official. This time the secrets aren’t about the Vietnam War — they’re about nuclear weapons, the threats that represent the very real possibility of massive human annihilation.

“Keeping secrets was my career,” Daniel Ellsberg says. “I didn’t lose the aptitude for that when I put out the Pentagon Papers.” This might come as a shock, considering that the former Defense Department analyst is best known for leaking classified information nearly half a century ago, thus bringing about a landmark legal precedent in favor of press freedom and, indirectly, hastening the end of both the Vietnam War and the Nixon administration. But for many years, even as Ellsberg beat prosecution, became a peace activist, and wrote an autobiography titled Secrets, he still had something remarkable left to disclose.

It turns out that Ellsberg also took many thousands of pages of documents pertaining to another subject: nuclear war. Ellsberg, a prominent thinker in the field of decision theory, had worked on the military’s “mutual assured destruction” strategy during the Cold War. Once a believer in deterrence, he now says he was a collaborator in an “insane plan” for “retaliatory genocide.” He wanted to tell the world decades ago; with nuclear threat looming again, he’s put the whole story into a new book, The Doomsday Machine.


Ellsberg believed that his bureaucratic opponents — mainly the military brass — were not thinking through the consequences of nuclear war. Then, in 1961, he was allowed to see a piece of information previously unknown even to Kennedy, the death count the military projected for theoretical strikes: some 600 million, not including any Americans killed in counterattacks. (That was still an underestimate.) Ellsberg writes of being gripped with a feeling of revulsion, realizing that the document “depicted evil beyond any human project ever.” The planners weren’t heedless — they intended to inflict maximal civilian casualties. “The shock was to realize that the Joint Chiefs knew,” Ellsberg tells me. “I was working for people who were crazier than I had thought. I had thought that they had inadvertently constructed a doomsday machine, without knowing it.”

The better Ellsberg came to understand the workings of the nuclear command-and-control system, the more danger he felt. He writes that the idea that authority to launch a nuclear war rested solely with the president was a myth, and that the nuclear “football” carried by a military attaché to the president is just “theater.” Working for the Defense Department, Ellsberg traveled throughout Asia, where he discovered there were many plausible scenarios in which officers might feel authorized to launch a nuclear attack in the absence of presidential orders. Safeguards were easy to circumvent. (For decades, purportedly, the eight-digit code to launch a Minuteman missile was set at 00000000.) Visiting an air base on Okinawa, Ellsberg touched a hydrogen bomb, and noted the “bodylike warmth” of a device capable of killing millions.

“It did give me a feeling — an eerie, an uncanny feeling, a feeling of dread to some extent,” Ellsberg says. “But not the feeling that this should not exist.” That came later.


One of the documents in his safe, as the FBI surely knew, was a classified nuclear study commissioned by Kissinger. “It’s the same old Dr. Strangelove stuff: 90 million dead, 120 million dead,” Ellsberg says. “But I was going to put that out, of course.” Ellsberg stashed that memo, along with all the other nuclear materials, in a box and gave the lot to his brother, Harry, who later wrapped them in plastic and buried them in the compost pile behind his home in Hastings-on-Hudson. Harry, who is now dead, told his brother that the FBI came poking around the compost pile. But he had already moved the box to another hiding spot, beneath a big iron stove in the garbage dump in Tarrytown.

Ellsberg intended to arrange for the nuclear papers to be leaked after his trial in Los Angeles, where he was sure he would be convicted. But then he was vindicated through a chain of events he calls a “miracle.” The Watergate investigation revealed the activities of Nixon’s plumbers, including the burglary of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office. The case against him was dismissed. Afterward, though, Harry gave him some bad news: A tropical storm had flooded the dump in 1971. The nuclear papers were lost.

“It was unbearable to me,” Ellsberg says. It is afternoon, and the softening light is filtering through redwoods out his office window. “That was a shadow over the next 40 years, thinking I fucked up, you know?” I ask whether it was possible that Harry, out of fear for himself or his brother, might have actually destroyed the documents. “No,” Ellsberg replies, firmly. “It was very clear that he was anguished by it. Later in his life, before he died, he said that had been something agonizing at him for all this time.”

The Doomsday Machine represents Ellsberg’s attempt to reconstruct, via his memories and now-declassified documents, the knowledge that was washed away. 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.”

Daniel Ellsberg also did an interview with Democracy Now… It really is a relevant issue to cover with nuclear catastrophe being totally possible. The Doomsday Clock is almost ominously standing at 2.5 minutes to midnight, which is the closest its been to midnight since thermonuclear weapons were detonated in 1953. Some respected analysts have even said that the risk of nuclear war today is higher than it was during the Cold War.