Preventing Nuclear Winter is Easy, Sort Of

This is a speech for the OMNI Center’s Hiroshima Nagasaki Remembrance 2018. Event video here:
In the The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner, legendary whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg describes a far more alarming danger from nuclear weapons than is commonly understood. He tells the story of how he came to be involved in nuclear planning at the beginning of the Cold War. Ellsberg ultimately became a very high level expert within the government, with access to some of the biggest secrets.

As many know, he copied and leaked volumes of Top Secret documents about the Vietnam War, known as the Pentagon Papers, a story told in his book Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers, and also in the documentary The Most Dangerous Man in America. Edward Snowden cites this powerful film as a primary inspiration for his decision to be a whistleblower.

Ellsberg also copied thousands of pages of Top Secret nuclear war plans too, and planned to leak them later, but he gave them to his brother for safekeeping during the government’s manhunt for him. His brother buried them in the town dump, but they were permanently lost after a large tropical storm. With this book, Ellsberg tells the story he has waited so long to tell, after much of the information was declassified through FOIA requests, in addition to his own sharp memory.

Ellsberg opens the book by exposing Top Secret plans for a thermonuclear first strike attack on every major city in the Soviet Union and China, which would kill 600 million people. This estimate included not just direct bombing of cities full of civilians, but also killing hundreds of millions in neighboring European nations from fallout, including allies and neutral nations. All the genocidal collateral damage was perfectly acceptable to our military leaders. Ellsberg writes, “This piece of paper…should never have existed… It depicted evil beyond any human project ever.”

(As a side note: The U.S. has many 25 megaton thermonuclear warheads, which are each equal to 25 million tons of TNT, over 12 times all the explosives we dropped in WWII, and more than all the explosives in all wars of human history. One bomb.)

Ellsberg also tells of his experiences investigating weaknesses in the command and control of nuclear forces. Many believe the President alone has the authority to launch nuclear war, but this is not the case. The authority to start nuclear war is delegated to high level and low level commanders, which greatly increases our peril. Nuclear war can be started by false alarms, unauthorized attacks, and by accidents. Additionally, Russia offers parallel danger with their Dead Hand system, which automatically triggers full scale nuclear launch, which could occur after a single nuclear terrorist attack on Moscow. Both Doomsday Machines threaten all humankind.

A key idea that was not understood by early nuclear war planners until 1983 is nuclear winter and nuclear famine. Those plans for killing half a billion people were vastly underestimated; they would have killed closer to 3 billion then, and 7 billion now. If the U.S. or the Soviets launched thermonuclear attack, it would cause ferocious firestorms in the bombed cities, sending massive amounts of smoke into the upper atmosphere, blocking out sunlight and lowering temperatures worldwide for a decade or more. Within a year or two, this would destroy nearly all plant life and the humans and other animals that require plants for food. The book and film “The Road” is one of the most terrifying horror stories because it shows a nightmare vision of what nuclear winter could be like in a world devoid of sunshine, green leaves, flowers and food.

Ellsberg also details that this constant omnicidal threat has continued without interruption by every presidential administration since large numbers of thermonuclear weapons were constructed. Every President since Truman has actually used these weapons, with explicit and implicit threats, as tools for coercion, such as “all options are on the table”. Thousands of bombs remain on hair trigger alert, and the primary U.S. plan has always been full scale first strike decapitation, to obliterate Russia’s ability to respond. This would trigger nuclear winter. Too many rationalize this danger, but as Ellsberg writes, “No policies in human history have more deserved to be recognized as (criminal, immoral, insane and evil).”

He also chronicles how this policy of “strategic” bombing and burning cities full of civilians came to be rationalized during WWII. It is a demented thinking that concludes virtually everyone is involved in war, and therefore a legitimate target, especially for destroying enemy morale. This is the dark logic of terrorism, and Ellsberg concludes presidential threats of nuclear attack are terroristic threats.

In the final chapter, titled Dismantling the Doomsday Machine, Ellsberg leaves us with a sober set of solutions to the omnicidal nuclear threat. He asks if there is truly any national interest justification for either Doomsday Machine? What right does anyone have to possess such a capability or terroristically threaten to destroy most all life?

He writes that arguments for some nuclear weapons for deterrence in no way justifies maintaining first strike doomsday arsenals. No, “you cannot eradicate the knowledge of how to make nuclear weapons…But you can dismantle a Doomsday Machine. And that, at a minimum, is what we must hasten to do.”

The good news is that dismantling the Doomsday Machine would be relatively simple physically and could be accomplished in one year. However, the difficult challenge is political and institutional resistance because it would require giving up the illusory notion that it is possible to limit damage to the U.S. or Russia with a “decapitating” preemptive first strike on missile bases, command centers, etc. In light of understanding nuclear winter, “damage limiting” is revealed as “self-Assured Destruction (SAD)”, a suicidal hoax.

Total abolition of nuclear weapons must still be the long-term goal, but the first step is at the very least removing the capability for two nations in particular to threaten near extinction of all life. Dismantling the Doomsday Machine means “totally discarding…the present strategic nuclear war plans and…dismantling all the land-based (Minuteman III) missile forces…strategic nuclear bombers, (most) Trident submarines, and most of the (SLBM) warheads on the remaining (Tridents).” He states, “The sole purpose of U.S. nuclear weapons should be (deterrence)…and this should be accomplished with radically lowered numbers of…weapons, almost entirely SLBMs….This shift would not totally eliminate the dangers of nuclear war, but it would abolish the threat of nuclear winter.”

Politically, Ellsberg believes we need a powerful motivational force for a broad and urgent movement. Past experience shows that Congress will not hold real investigative hearings without major change in public awareness and mood, which is the purpose of the book, and massive pressure from citizens, which will require courageous whistleblowers.

He concludes with Dr. King’s words, “Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world.”

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