David Edgerton

Now it can be told

David Ellsberg reveals the relative ease with which a nuclear attack might have been launched in error in the 1950s – with no recall button

Now it can be told
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The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner

Daniel Ellsberg

Bloomsbury, pp. 420, £

Armageddon and Paranoia: The Nuclear Confrontation

Rodric Braithwaite

Profile, pp. 387, £

Deployed in vastly exaggerated numbers, nuclear weapons were maintained in place not just by secrecy, but by banalities and lies. The atomic bomb has been, from the very beginning, both extraordinarily public and secret. Everyone knew about what was regarded as a momentous development in human history. It kept many clichés in circulation for decades — humanity as scientific giants and ethical infants; the desire for international control; the idea of moral scientists who did, or should, reject the sweet blandishments of the bomb. At the same time, insiders knew and did things which were the deepest and most troubling secrets of the deep state. For those few in the know, and assiduous critics, there was a huge mismatch between rhetoric and reality.

Sir Rodric Braithwaite and Daniel Ellsberg, both in their late eighties, were once insiders. Both were the products of first-class education (Ellsberg was a member of the super-elite — the Harvard Society of Fellows), and both served as military officers in the 1950s before taking up elite careers — Braithwaite in the British diplomatic service, ending up as chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee; Ellsberg among the economic theorists in the RAND corporation, as one of the ‘wizards of Armageddon’.

Ellsberg became famous in the early 1970s as the man who leaked the Pentagon Papers, a huge internal report on the failing war in Vietnam. He did not go to prison because the US government acted illegally to discredit him, actions which were of a piece with the Watergate break-in. Both men have now written compelling books which are deeply critical of their peers and the system they worked for, one with British understatement, the other with ruthless limpidity.

Ellsberg’s main work from the late 1950s onwards concerned nuclear strategy. He reveals here that he stole far more nuclear documentation than the Vietnam material, and proposed to release both, fully expecting to go to prison for life. The nuclear papers were lost in a tropical storm, and thus remained secret and Ellsberg free. He now tells, in the form of a memoir which takes up the first part of his book, what exactly he was doing in the Pentagon: how he discovered it was possible for a conscientious officer to, in effect, launch a nuclear attack by mistake; how it could escalate; and how there were no recall messages for bombers once ordered to bomb.

He found the armed forces were not keen to make controls stricter, because that meant delay, and they distrusted civilian willingness to go through with Armageddon. They in fact had delegated authority which could reach down to theatres to start a nuclear war if the president were out of contact (which was surprisingly often), despite this not being either in the plans or in the public realm. It was a great internal as well as external secret. Furthermore, in 1960, the plan for war with the USSR was for an all-out first strike against the USSR and China, leading to (it was calculated) 600 million deaths. In short, the plot of Dr Strangelove, down to the details, was utterly plausible. In effect there really was a Doomsday Machine, and there soon would be a Soviet Doomsday Machine too, and a military-industrial complex which was amazingly keen to bomb, to assume worst-case scenarios and to produce extraordinarily erroneous intelligence, believed by the brightest and best.

Those of a different view had to keep their view secret. Ellsberg reveals that Robert McNamara hinted strongly to him that he was against the launch of nuclear war in any circumstances, and that he was told it was the president’s view also. McNamara only spread the word in his memoirs decades later. Ellsberg’s book extends, intelligently and lucidly, to an account of nuclear policy written as a historian. He shows the extent to which nuclear weapons were in fact used, though not since 1945 actually exploded, to force others to give ground. The nuclear threat, the first strike threat, was used: in Korea, against China in the 1950s, against Vietnam and against the USSR. This is a highly intelligent, witty, precise and hard-nosed book.

Braithwaite’s book is broader in geographical and chronological scope and directed to a more general readership. It is a history of the atomic age, compellingly well told, and especially revealing in the Soviet case. The conclusion is that there was never a coherent argument for nuclear deterrence on either side of the Iron Curtain. It was intellectually discreditable but good politics to rely on crazy worst-case scenarios. Detachment and realism were not career-enhancing. The result was acceptance of, say, grotesque overestimates of Soviet bomber strength and then missile strength in the 1950s and 1960s, and of the precision of Soviet ICBMs in the 1980s — the window of vulnerability.

The British case is dealt with appropriately briefly, given its marginality, yet one wishes for more. Braithwaite is a gentle critic, but he is clearly not sold on British policy, except to say it was more realistic in its simplicity. He makes clear that the British bomb since the 1960s has been not an independent deterrent, but as Macmillan called it, an interdependent deterrent. (Harold Wilson declared it was not British, not independent, and not a deterrent.) He points out that British plans to blast Moscow straight off were contradicted by US plans for a graduated response.

Another delicious point is that the British scoffed at the French because, in their genuine independence from the USA, their bomb did not have the capacity to hit targets. Little is what it has seemed.