Noted gadfly Ellsberg (Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers, 2002) returns with a sobering look at our nuclear capabilities and the likelihood that they’ll one day end in tears.
When the author hurriedly copied the contents of his RAND Corporation safe to reveal, in time, what would become known as the Pentagon Papers, that was just the start of it. He had other documents, even more jarring. The good news is that the world didn’t come to an end during the Cuban missile crisis or a dozen other nuclear flashpoints before and since. The bad news, much in abundance, is that it’s rather amazing that we didn’t all go up in cinders. As fans of Dr. Strangelove knew all along, there really was a doomsday machine, still operational, by which a president could order nuclear Armageddon. The worse news is that this power is much more broadly distributed than the president, so that even more or less minor area commanders can send the missiles flying. What is more, writes the author, American policy is not really premised on retaliation in the event that a foreign power attacks first, but instead on our striking first. That would make us the bad guy in any future history of the world—and it’s something that Ellsberg worries about given Donald Trump’s blustery musing aloud about why we don’t use all those beautiful weapons we have, “in the delusion,” as Ellsberg writes, “that such an attack will limit damage to the homeland, compared with the consequences of waiting for actual explosions to occur.” Striking first would also mean abandoning the much-vaunted principle of “just war.” True deterrence is possible, Ellsberg urges, while at the same time reducing the nuclear arsenal—especially that doomsday machine—and imposing tighter limits on its potential use here and elsewhere.
Especially timely given the recent saber-rattling not from Russia but North Korea and given the apparent proliferation of nuclear abilities among other small powers.