Burdick on Ellsberg, 'The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner'

Daniel Ellsberg
Jonathan Burdick

Daniel Ellsberg. The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner. New York: Bloomsbury, 2017. 420 pp. $30.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-60819-670-8.

Reviewed by Jonathan Burdick (Air University, Air War College) Published on H-War (February, 2019) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air War College)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=53601

A Familiar Whistle Sounds against Nuclear Weapons

To most Americans, Daniel Ellsberg is best known for leaking The Pentagon Papers (1971) to the New York Times during the early 1970s. The Pentagon Papers revealed that the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations continued the Vietnam War despite internal analysis showing minimal prospects of victory. In the legal proceedings that followed, Ellsberg’s case shaped legal protections and public acceptance of whistle-blowers and made Ellsberg a fixture of the anti-war movement. His recent book, The Doomsday Machine, follows Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers (2002), which reveals his broader involvement in US nuclear defense planning during the Cold War.

Ellsberg’s memoir is an effective reminder that nuclear weapons and their control structures involve significant dangers including the potential to destroy humanity. Just as Thomas C. Schelling noted in Arms and Influence, “It is not in the number of people they [nuclear weapons] can eventually kill but in the speed with which it can be done, in the centralization of decision, in the divorce of the war from political processes, and in computerized programs that threaten to take the war out of human hands once it begins.”[1] Ellsberg’s book engages many of the ideas pioneered by Schelling, Bernard Brodie, Herman Kahn, Lawrence Freedman, Scott Sagan, and Kenneth Waltz, to name a few. Furthermore, The Doomsday Machine falls in line with recent books by L. Douglas Keeney, Eric Schlosser, and David Hoffman describing how the United States and Soviet Union developed and employed complex command and control structures to ensure each respective state could quickly launch nuclear strikes against the other. The superpowers’ nuclear capability has not been risk-free as the history of the Cold War includes accidents, false alarms, and weapons mismanagement. Those risks serve as Ellsberg’s motivation to advocate for nuclear weapons reform.

The Doomsday Machine advocates for reform in two parts. First, the author establishes his credibility as a RAND consultant working on nuclear plans during the 1960s and describes his emerging understanding of US and Soviet command and control infrastructures—informally called doomsday machines. Ellsberg’s job gave him highly classified access to US nuclear plans and policy and opportunities to influence national-level decisions that shaped the potential use of nuclear weapons. Despite the author’s detailed accounts of meetings with Robert McNamara, Curtis LeMay, and other defense department leaders, Ellsberg’s inability to reference thousands of top-secret documents copied from RAND vaults and lost in a local landfill blemishes the credibility of the book.

Regardless, Ellsberg draws much of his information from respected scholars, and the depth of his argumentation proves his thorough knowledge of Cold War doomsday machines’ architecture and doctrine. He convincingly describes bureaucratic competition among US government departments, friction between military and civilian leaders, and the ways in which presidential pragmatism molded the evolving US nuclear command and control system into one that intended to positively control thousands of nuclear weapons but paradoxically delegated nuclear launch authority to theater-level military commanders in certain circumstances. Ellsberg also describes how the US counterforce strategy required a dangerous and constant mobilization of nuclear forces to strike the Soviet Union before it could attack targets in the United States and allied countries. Equally worrisome to Ellsberg, the Soviet Union designed its nuclear command and control system with similar features. Thus, the evolved command and control structures of the Cold War superpowers served as doomsday machines with many agents capable of moving them to action.

The second part of Ellsberg’s memoir effectively links airpower theory, the precedent of targeting civilian populations, and the destructiveness of nuclear weapons to explain how doomsday machines became progressively more powerful and dangerous. The book then examines how superpowers use nuclear weapons and concludes with recommendations for nuclear reform. Ellsberg uses a familiar argument that nationalism and industrialization increased population centers’ role in states’ war-making capability, thus early airpower theorists deemed them justifiable targets. By targeting enemy populations, the adversary’s war-making capability and morale could be shattered to speed victory. Given the precedent of fire-bombing cities in World War II, the massive destructive effects of nuclear weapons were accepted by US military and civilian leaders as a logical extension of previous strategies. The advent of hydrogen fusion weapons further increased the destructive potential of airpower, thus doomsday machines incorporating airpower weapons, such as nuclear missiles and bombers, threatened human survival to a larger degree.

After describing the evolution of doomsday machines, their use becomes Ellsberg’s focus. Chapter 20 proves to be one of the highpoints of the book as its discussion of the United States’ first-use option provokes the reader to consider whether America’s moral standing and prestige have been damaged by its nuclear coercion. In the final chapter, Ellsberg recommends “a U.S. no-first use policy,” “probing investigative hearings on our war plans in the light of nuclear winter”; “eliminating our ICBMs”; “forgoing delusions of preemptive damage-limiting by our first-strike forces”; “giving up the profits, jobs, and alliance hegemony based on maintaining that pretense”; and “otherwise dismantling the American Doomsday Machine” (p. 349).

By the end of the book, there is no doubt that Ellsberg seeks the elimination of doomsday machines and all nuclear weapons; however, his approach is less effective than other proponents of the Nuclear Zero Option. At times, his emotional appeal distracts from his argument and his simplistic proposal for nuclear reform leaves out important discussions of how the international system might be affected by significant changes to the nuclear balance of power. Despite these criticisms, readers of The Doomsday Machine will be better positioned to decide whether the security gained by nuclear weapons has been worth the risk of disaster, or if the risk is intolerable and the weapons should be abolished. To this end, Ellsberg has again proven his capability to kindle an important debate.


[1]. Thomas C. Schelling, Arms and Influence (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008), 20.

Citation: Jonathan Burdick. Review of Ellsberg, Daniel, The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner. H-War, H-Net Reviews. February, 2019. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=53601

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