Home > Columnists > The Need to Defy the Suicidal Logic of Nuclear War | Stanley Heller

The Need to Defy the Suicidal Logic of Nuclear War | Stanley Heller

About The Author

Stanley Heller Administrator of and writer for Promoting Enduring Peace and hosts “The Struggle” TV News, at www.TheStruggle.org. He can be reached at stanley.heller@pepeace.org.

There was a deeply sad, Washington Post article recently about a man in Hawaii who heard the alert about the supposed incoming missile. He tells about his minute by minute decisions. – Take shelter? Where? What do you say to your kids? To whom do you text goodbye? Then he tells of his anger toward the people who made the “mistake.”

Unfortunately, there was no anger in the article at the terrifying situation we’re in, with two nuclear-armed “tough guys” pretending they’re crazy and threatening to launch nuclear weapons. There was no fury against the plans to wipe out whole cities, no rage against the possibility that the next “accident” might not be a mistaken warning, but a mistaken explosion. The Post even had another story about nukes, how we need more nuclear war “preparedness.” Sure, normalize genocide. TINA. There is no alternative.

You must watch the interview with Daniel Ellsberg on “Democracy Now!” Long before he gave the “Pentagon Papers” out to the world, Ellsberg was a nuclear war planner. A brilliant college graduate and former Marine commander, he became in 1961 part of the Kennedy Administration working on plans for nuclear war. Now at age 86, he writes about it in a book “The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner.”

To me, his most dramatic revelation was about Eisenhower. “Ike” was president when I was a kid and I always had a sentimental liking for him. People talk about his farewell address where he spoke against the military-industrial complex. It practically made him a peacenik. Yet there was a much darker side to Ike. When Ellsberg, in 1961 with top secret clearance, looked over U.S. contingency plans for war with the Soviet Union he found to his shock that Eisenhower had only one plan, a monstrous one. If the U.S. went to war, the U.S. would immediately use nuclear bombs to annihilate the entire Soviet bloc. That plan called “in our first strike, for hitting every city—actually, every town over 25,000—in the USSR and every city in China. A war with Russia would inevitably involve immediate attacks on every city in China. In the course of doing this—pardon me—there were no reserves. Everything was to be thrown as soon as it was available.”

The military had precise plans on what to bomb, but Ellsberg couldn’t see any casualty estimates. So, he asked for them. The answer came quickly, 600 million people would die from our attacks. 600 million people. Ellsberg realized Eisenhower had made plans for 100 Holocausts.

And no one screamed out that this was horrific, impossible, wrong. World War II with its 50 million deaths had brutalized our leaders beyond measure. That is part of the legacy of the “greatest generation.”

More important for us today is Ellsberg’s revelation that the decision to use nuclear weapons is not just up to the top leader of the country. In the U.S. and almost certainly in other countries, the power has long ago been delegated to military commanders, and not just one or two, but scores of officers. In a world where a decapitation strike might wipe out those on top, it’s only “logical” to allow other officers to act on their own. If communications get cut off (as happens all the time), the officer has to decide whether it’s a screw-up or World War III. So when Trump and Kim brag about who has the biggest button, they are lying to themselves and all of us.

Vasili Arkhipov (circa 1962), Daniel Ellsberg today

Vasili Arkhipov (circa 1962), Daniel Ellsberg today

Ellsberg relates that now well-known incident when an Accidental Armageddon came within a hair’s breath of happening during the Cuban missile crisis. At one point in the confrontation, the U.S. Navy was tossing dud depth charges to try to force Soviet subs to the surface. The Navy didn’t know the Soviet subs had nuclear-armed torpedoes. The commander of one sub thought his vessel was under attack and about to be sunk. He decided to use a nuclear torpedo. His co-commander agreed. However, there had to be one more person to say, “yes.” To his glory, Commodore Vasili Arkhipov disagreed. There was no attack. Wargasm was averted.

Ellsberg says that 30 years later it came out that Soviet Premier Khrushchev and the Politburo had the idea that they could use nuclear weapons to kill 100,000 Americans invading Cuba and it would stop there. According to Ellsberg when Robert McNamara (who was Kennedy’s Secretary of Defense) heard about this he said “That’s insane. To think that we could lose 100,000 men and not go to all-out war against the Soviet Union?” Ellsberg says this same logic appears to be what Supreme Leader Kim is toying with when he thinks he can keep a nuclear war limited to Korea.

Now the words “insane” and “mad” are frequently used by critics of the nuclear deterrence system, but that’s not really right. As far as we know none of the top planners were mentally ill. The knew the consequences of their actions, but they had been trained that the deaths of hundreds of millions were a legitimate act of national defense. Everybody around them agreed with this “strategic” thinking. To those caught up in the system, it all was necessary. These were clever people. Some were brilliant. McNamara was one of Kennedy’s “best and brightest.” The problem was weaponry had gotten out of hand. They were so immense that if used they killed the user. It’s not madness, but a cold suicidal logic.

The title of Ellsberg’s book is “The Doomsday Machine.” It refers to an idea of a nuclear war theorist named Herman Kahn. He thought up a novel plan that would “deter” nuclear war. The way it would work is that if any nuclear bomb were exploded special super-radioactive H-bombs would automatically blow up all over the world destroying all human life. Faced with this no one would ever drop a nuke. Kahn wasn’t serious. It was a mental exercise. This all was satirized in the film “Dr. Strangelove.” However, Daniel Ellsberg says that in a sense the Doomsday Machine does exist now because of all the delegation of authority to explode the bombs, the launch on warning plans and all the nuclear bombs still on hair-triggers and a nuclear war effect that was unknown until the 1980’s. This is the “nuclear winter” that massive smoke and soot would cause as a result of burning cities. Farming would fail massively, and survivors of the wars would starve. Competing nuclear arsenals are in reality such an unstable system that human life could be wiped out without intent. Things would just get out of hand.

He didn’t have time to get into it on Democracy Now, but Ellsberg has ideas on how we could climb down from this clear-headed suicidal rationality.

According to James Heddle in Counterpunch, he has a Six-Step Program:

  • A U.S, no-first-use policy;
  • Probing investigative hearings on our war plans in the light of nuclear winter;
  • Eliminating our ICBMsForgoing the delusion of preemptive damage-limiting by our first-strike forces;
  • Giving up the profits, jobs, and alliance hegemony based on maintaining that pretense;
  • Otherwise dismantling the American Doomsday Machine.

Incidentally, Daniel Ellsberg appears as a character in the fine new movie “The Post” about the gutsy decision of the Washington Post to print the Pentagon Papers. Ellsberg who had been in Vietnam for two years in the mid-60’s for the State Department then worked on a project for McNamara. It was to collect documents about the inside story of Vietnam, something McNamara made top-secret and which he expected historians would look at decades in the future. Many of the papers showed how Americans were lied to time and again by their leaders for no better reason than didn’t want to be the ones that “lost Vietnam.” They were willing to expend tens of thousands of American lives on behalf of their reputations.

To his glory, Ellsberg finally had enough of suicidal logic. In 1971 he sent copies of these “Pentagon Papers” to major newspapers. A court stopped the New York Times from publishing, but when the Washington Post got its copy, the Editor-in-Chief Ben Bradlee and Publisher Katherine Graham overruled the very serious objections of their advisors and went ahead with the story. Ellsberg eventually turned himself in and admitted leaking the documents. He expected to spend the rest of his life in prison. But this was the height of the anti-war movement, and government legitimacy was in question. Judges were more open to questioning authorities and holding them to account. It came out that Nixon’s men had broken into Ellsberg’s psychiatrist office to get dirt on him. Then Nixon’s people tried to bribe the judge with an offer of a high government appointment. Instead, the judge threw out all the charges.

As I write these lines the New York Times says that even though the two Koreas are now talking about the Olympics and other matters, Trump is having the military train, train, train for a war officers and troops “hope will not come.” It’s the logical thing to do. Hopefully, new heroes will defy this suicidal logic.

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