He begins The American Doomsday Machine by discussing these war plans, also known as the Single Integrated Operational Plan. In the 1960s, the SIOP called for the US to respond to Soviet aggression by simultaneously launching over 3,200 nuclear warheads against numerous Soviet and Chinese cities and military sites. The plan was to be implemented in the event of a Soviet attack—either nuclear or conventional, real or imminent, occurring against American civilians in the continental US or against American forces in Europe.
Although US officials believed the mere existence of the SIOP would deter the USSR from ever attacking, Ellsberg knew that the plan was hardly foolproof. “It might fail. That applied both to deterrence of nuclear attack and to deterrence of a conventional Soviet attack in Europe. In either case, it was not impossible that the Soviets would attack despite our threats and our best efforts to dissuade them.” Moreover, as he told JFK’s national security advisor in early 1961, there were a number of ways in which a US first-strike might be triggered accidently—“by false alarm, miscalculation, miscommunication, or actions not directly authorized by the president or perhaps by any high-level commander.”
Later that year, Ellsberg asked the Joint Chiefs of Staff to estimate how many people would die if SIOP were implemented. Within a week, he received his answer: 600 million. He recalls: “I myself at that time was neither a pacifist nor a critic of the explicit logic of deterrence or its legitimacy. On the contrary, I had been urgently working with my colleagues to assure a survivable U.S. capability to threaten clearly unacceptable damage to the Soviet Union in response to the most successful possible Soviet nuclear attack on the U.S. But planned slaughter of 600 million civilians—10 times the total death count in World War II, a hundred times the scale of the Holocaust? That aimed-for accomplishment exposed a dizzying irrationality, madness, insanity, at the heart and soul of our nuclear planning and apparatus.”
As staggering as this figure is, Ellsberg now knows that it was a major under-estimation. First, as Dr. Lynn Eden revealed in his 2004 book, Whole World on Fire, the Joint Chiefs’ estimate did not include the number of people that would have likely been killed as a result of fire. Ellsberg writes, “Given that for almost all strategic nuclear weapons the damage radius of firestorms would be two to five times the radius destroyed by blast, a more realistic estimate of the fatalities caused directly by the planned U.S. attacks would surely have been double the figure on the summary I held in my hand—a billion people or more.” Second, at the time the Joint Chiefs didn’t know about nuclear winter, where nuclear-caused clouds of smoke would cover much of the earth’s surface, causing temperatures to plummet and destroying crops worldwide. This, too, would cause millions, perhaps billions, of additional people to starve to death.
Put into place under President Eisenhower, it’s now known that Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon all kept these nuclear war plans. And, Ellsberg notes, there is substantial evidence that these plans remain intact today . Which, of course, means that the nightmarish possibilities envisioned by such films as Dr. Strangelove are not a thing of the past. As Ellsberg writes: “The U.S. and Russia currently each have about 10,000 warheads, over 2,000 of them operationally deployed. (Each has several thousand in reserve status—not covered in recent negotiations—and an additional 5,000 or so awaiting dismantlement). Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev have agreed to lower the operational warheads to between 1,500 and 1,675 by the year 2012. But the explosion of 1,000 warheads together by the U.S. and Russia could trigger a full-scale nuclear winter.”
Needless to say, we should all find this utterly horrifying. Therefore, following Ellsberg’s lead, I urge you to join one of the following movements and do your part to urge Congress to bring America’s currently nuclear plans to light and to make the world free of nuclear weapons:
- Abolition 2000
- Global Zero
- INESAP (International Network of Engineers and Scientists Against Proliferation)
- Middle Powers Initiative
- Nuclear Age Peace Foundation
- Peace Action
To read Ellsberg’s essay in its entirety, see below.