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A New Year's Resolution Proposal: Put Disarmament on the Agenda for Immediate Attention
A New Year's Resolution Proposal: Put Disarmament on the Agenda for Immediate Attention

The following blog is taken from a talk given by Guy Quinlan to the Harvard Club of New York City in September 2018 on the book by Daniel Ellsberg, The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner, and is reprinted with his kind permission. Please refer to this original document for citations of works cited.

The “Castle Romeo” nuclear test of a hydrogen bomb in the atmosphere over Bikini Atoll, Marshal Islands.

The “Castle Romeo” nuclear test of a hydrogen bomb in the atmosphere over Bikini Atoll, Marshal Islands.

Ellsberg’s thesis is that the survival of the human species is in imminent and increasing danger, and that the defense policies of the United States and other nuclear powers are increasing that danger – a subject worthy of some serious attention. Despite good reviews…, the book created very little stir. Perhaps, after all, that should not have been surprising. Although Ellsberg’s book adds a great deal of useful historical background, the crucial facts have been publicly known for years. Similar warnings have been issued before, by former Presidents, cabinet officers, and high ranking military commanders. And yet, the subject is not high on the public agenda. A former Secretary of Defense said recently: “The danger of a nuclear calamity is greater now than during the Cold War, yet most people seem blissfully unaware of it.”

The title of Ellsberg’s book, The Doomsday Machine, is a term coined in the 1950s by nuclear war planners, referring to a hypothetical device which could destroy all human life on Earth. As Ellsberg notes, such a device seemed to be only hypothetical then, as far as people knew at the time. The term “doomsday machine” was introduced into wider use in 1964 by the film “Dr. Strangelove”, Stanley Kubrick’s sardonic comedy about nuclear war with the subtitle “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.” Today it almost seems that most people have learned, if not to love the bomb, at least to accept it as a permanent feature of modern life, something we can live with into the indefinite future. But, as Ellsberg’s book shows in grim detail, that is not a tenable option.

The book opens with an epigraph from the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche: “Madness in individuals is something rare; but in groups, parties, nations and epochs it is the rule.” Ellsberg frequently uses the vocabulary of madness in describing the accumulation of nuclear arsenals sufficient to extinguish human life on the planet. After recounting incidents in which the world came within minutes of accidental nuclear war, he declares that keeping nuclear missiles on hair trigger alert is “criminally insane.” And yet here too there is a paradox: this insane situation is the product of decades of careful analysis by presumably sane and intelligent people.

While Ellsberg took an active part in planning nuclear strategy under two Administrations, he changed dramatically. Perhaps the most critical factor in moving Ellsberg to the conviction that the nuclear enterprise was irrational and immoral was his growing revulsion at the casualness with which nuclear war planners discussed extinguishing hundreds of millions of human lives. He describes (p. 99 et seq.) a top-level briefing on nuclear war fighting plans, near the end of the Eisenhower administration, in which among other things the general making the presentation said that the American attack would kill 300 million Chinese. Someone in the audience asked (p. 102): “What if this isn’t China’s war? What if this is just a war with the Soviets? Can you change the plan?” Some in the audience were stunned by the response: “Well yeah,” said General Power resignedly, “we can, but I hope nobody thinks of it, because it would really screw up the plan.” Only one voice was raised in protest at this, the Commandant of the Marine Corps, who said (p.103): “All I can say is, any plan that murders three hundred million Chinese when it might not even be their war is not a good plan. That is not the American way ....” Ellsberg comments: “It was, however, the American plan. Though President Eisenhower was distressed when his science advisor... reported to him the tremendous amount of overkill in the plan, Eisenhower endorsed [it] without any modification and passed it on to John F. Kennedy a month later.”

 In the early 1980s, when the number of nuclear weapons in the world was approaching its Cold War peak of almost 70,000, scientific research began to appear about the climate effects which would result from the smoke which would be generated by nuclear fire storms. Climate models then available indicated that smoke lingering in the atmosphere, and thus blocking sunlight, could cause drastic drops in temperature and severe disruption of world agriculture. The resulting publicity about what came to be called “nuclear winter” came to the attention of both Ronald Reagan and Soviet President Gorbachev, and they took it seriously. Both have said that it was one of the motivations for their joint declaration that: “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought,” and for subsequent agreements sharply reducing the number of nuclear weapons. However, with the end of the Cold War and the lowering of international tensions, the concept of nuclear winter largely dropped out of public consciousness.

About a decade ago, motivated by increasing concern about nuclear risk and worsening relations between the US and Russia, a number of scientists reopened the inquiry into the climate effects of nuclear war. This time, of course, the climate models and computer resources available to them had improved enormously since the 1980s. The results of the new research showed that the early concerns about nuclear winter had, in fact, been greatly understated. The smoke generated by a nuclear exchange between the US and Russia, even at the lower number of weapons permitted by the New START Treaty, would linger in the upper atmosphere for a decade, dropping temperatures to levels not seen since the last Ice Age, and causing a collapse of world agriculture. One scientist reviewing the new data commented that the Cold War concept of “Mutually Assured Destruction” (MAD) had been replaced by Self-Assured Destruction, because any country initiating a nuclear war would literally be committing suicide.

The scientific findings further indicated that even a much smaller nuclear exchange, for example a regional war between India and Pakistan, would cause global disaster. If India and Pakistan were to each use 50 Hiroshima-sized bombs on cities- that is, a very small fraction of one per cent of the world’s nuclear arsenal- the resulting climate impact on agriculture would put two billion people at risk of famine.

One might reasonably wonder how the world’s nuclear powers have reacted to this information. So far as the public record indicates, they have simply ignored it, continuing to refine and modernize nuclear arsenals which none of them could use without committing national suicide. Efforts to call governmental attention to the crucial data have so far met no success. During the waning days of the Obama administration, two arms control groups were able to get a meeting with White House staff, and urged that the President should call attention to the nuclear winter findings in a major speech; the staff seemed receptive, but nothing came of it. On one occasion several U.S. Senators sought to offer an amendment to the defense appropriations bill, calling for a study of the data by the National Academy of Sciences, but the Senate leadership said there was no room for the proposal on the legislative calendar.

 This information about nuclear winter, in large part, is what provokes Ellsberg’s rhetoric about insanity. He describes several earlier incidents in which the United States and Russia have already come within minutes of accidental nuclear war, by human or computer error. In one case, for example, a defective computer chip at the North American Air Defense Command falsely reported incoming Soviet missiles. The mistake was discovered just as the National Security Advisor was about to call the President, informing him of an attack and recommending a retaliatory strike on the Soviet Union. Several times Ellsberg mentions the incredible fact that, despite these experiences of near-catastrophe, the U.S. and Russia still maintain hundreds of nuclear missiles on hair trigger alert, ready to be launched on a few minutes notice.

And the news gets even worse. Rapid developments in nuclear weapons technology, including delivery systems which are faster and harder to detect, are increasing the risk of accidental war. In 2015 an international panel of retired military experts, chaired by a former Vice Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, found that “warning and decision times are getting shorter, and consequently the potential for catastrophic human error in nuclear control systems is growing larger.” This warning was echoed in a 2017 report by the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research. The UN report noted that, in some earlier nuclear close calls, erroneous automatic warnings had been overridden by human judgment, and it cautioned that increased reliance on automated systems “can lead to misplaced confidence while introducing new points of vulnerability.” This year, after Ellsberg’s book appeared, the RAND Corporation issued a report on a conference of researchers and national security experts on the increasing application of artificial intelligence (AI) to military technology. The summary of the RAND report notes that “participants appeared to agree that advanced Artificial Intelligence could severely compromise nuclear strategic stability and thereby increase the risk of nuclear war.” (Please refer to original document accessible above for citations).

As to the issue of cyber hacking… In 2018, after Ellsberg’s book was published, a report on nuclear cyber security was issued by Chatham House, the think tank sponsored by the Royal Institute for International Affairs in the United Kingdom. The Chatham House report noted that: “Nuclear weapons systems were first developed at a time when computer capabilities were in their infancy and little consideration was given to potential malicious cyber vulnerabilities. Many of the assumptions on which current nuclear strategies are based predate the current widespread use of digital technology in nuclear command, control and communications systems. There are a number of vulnerabilities and pathways through which a malicious actor may infiltrate a nuclear weapons system without a state’s knowledge... At times of heightened tension, cyber attacks on nuclear weapons systems could cause an escalation which results in their use.”

The danger of accidental nuclear war further increased in February 2018 when the U.S. Administration released the new Nuclear Posture Review, i.e. the declassified summary of the nation’s nuclear strategy. Among other things, the Review calls for the development of new low-yield nuclear weapons, intended to give the President more flexible options. This could lower the threshold at which nuclear weapons might actually be used, breaking a taboo which has lasted (despite the close calls) since 1945. The Review also raises the possibility of a nuclear response to a non-nuclear attack on military communications systems; experts have warned that this increases the risk of unintended escalation, because of the extensive entanglement of nuclear and non-nuclear communications networks.

Photo of Hiroshima, Japan after the nuclear bomb was dropped

The Hiroshima Chamber of Industry and Commerce was the only building remotely close to standing near the center of the atomic bomb blast of August 6, 1945. It was left unrepaired as a reminder of the event.

Readers are encouraged to check previous blogs for information also included in Guy Quinlan’s article:

Nuclear Weapons: Averting a global catastrophe

Sorting Out Important Nuclear Arms Treaties

Security and the Human Condition

But note some good news from the Disarmament Times: Thursday, December 6, 2018

UN: General Assembly Adopts 67 Disarmament Drafts, Calling for Greater Collective Action to Reduce Arsenals, Improve Trust amid Rising Global Tensions Aligning itself with the recommendations of its First Committee (Disarmament and International Security), the General Assembly adopted 63 resolutions and 4 decisions today, bringing to a close its consideration of the current arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation issues on its agenda alongside emerging cybersecurity and information technology threats. Renewing the determination of all States to take collective action towards ridding the planet of atomic bombs, the Assembly, by a recorded vote of 162 in favour to 4 against (China, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Russian Federation, Syria), with 23 abstentions [including the United States], adopted the resolution “United action with renewed determination towards the total elimination of nuclear weapons”, which endeavors to ease international tensions and strengthen trust between States. Prior to passing the resolution as a whole, the Assembly decided, by separate recorded votes, to retain a total of 13 paragraphs. These included provisions which, among other things, expressed deep concern at the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons use and urged all States possessing them to undertake all efforts to address the risks of unintended detonations. (UN).

This writer hopes that one of your New year’s resolutions will in fact be to Put Disarmament on the Agenda of Your Affiliations for Immediate Attention. In the meantime, best wishes for a Happy New Year!

About the Author

  • Joanne Dufour is a Volunteer for the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office completing a circle of connection with the office since 1968. She was introduced to it in her second year of teaching back then, maintained connections over the course of her career in education,...

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