Excerpts from The Doomsday Machine

Daniel Ellsberg of Pentagon Papers fame recent published a book about his days as a nuclear war planner, The Doomsday Machine. Below are just a few of the bits I found interesting. (There were many others, but they were more difficult to excerpt.)

My first summer [at RAND] I worked seventy-hour weeks, devouring secret studies and analyses till late every night, to get up to speed on the problems and the possible solutions. I was looking for clues as to how we could frustrate the Soviet versions of RAND and SAC, and do it in time to avert a nuclear Pearl Harbor. Or postpone it. From the Air Force intelligence estimates I was newly privy to, and the dark view of the Soviets, which my colleagues shared with the whole national security community, I couldn’t believe that the world would long escape nuclear holocaust. Alain Enthoven and I were the youngest members of the department. Neither of us joined the extremely generous retirement plan RAND offered. Neither of us believed, in our late twenties, we had a chance of collecting on it.

Just one of many stories on how unreliable Ellsberg found command and control procedures to be:

To prevent unauthorized action by a single duty officer with access to Execute codes in any particular command post, there was a universal and supposedly ironclad rule that at least two such officers must be on duty at all times, day and night, and they must both be involved in, and agree on, the authentication of an order to execute nuclear war plans from a higher authority and on their decision to relay this order to subordinate commands… One way or another, each post purported to have arrangements so that one officer by himself could neither authenticate orders received nor send out authenticated Execute commands.

But in practice, not. As various duty officers explained to me, oftentimes only one man was on duty in the office. The personnel requirements for having two qualified officers sitting around in every such station at literally every moment of the night were just too stringent to be met. Duty rosters did provide for it, but not for backups when one officer “had” to be elsewhere—to get some food or for a medical emergency, his own or, on some bases, his wife’s. Did that mean that all subordinate commands would be paralyzed, unable to receive authenticated Execute orders, if the one remaining duty officer received what appeared to be an order to commence nuclear operations during that interval?

That couldn’t be permitted, in the eyes of the officers assigned to this duty, each of whom had faced up to the practical possibility of this situation. So each of them had provided for it “unofficially,” in his own mind or usually by agreement with his fellow duty officers. Each, in reality, had the combinations to both safes, after all, or some arrangement for acquiring them. If there was only one safe, each officer would, in reality, know the full combination to it. One officer would hold both envelopes when the other had to be away. Where there were more elaborate safeguards, the officers had always spent some of their idle hours late at night figuring out how to circumvent them, “if necessary.” They had always succeeded in doing so. I found this in every post I visited.

On the difficulty of doing useful analyses without access to the most highly classified information:

Two of the top Soviet experts at RAND were Arnold Horelick… and Myron Rush… In 1959 they had co-authored a Top Secret memorandum… that warned with unusual urgency that the Soviets were probably conducting a crash program on ICBMs that would give them a significant first-strike capability as early as 1959 (i.e., right then). Their main basis for this was a close analysis of all Khrushchev’s statements on the subject. Their premise was that Bolsheviks did not bluff. On that assumption, the sequence of his allusions to rockets and sausage making told them that he had already arrived at the capability he had earlier predicted and now claimed.

They were wrong. Khrushchev had been bluffing. That was what the new estimate [based on higher-classified material] was saying…

More important, the [new] estimate contradicted and essentially invalidated the key RAND studies on SAC vulnerability since 1956…

To recognize that was to face the conclusion that RAND had, in all good faith, been working obsessively and with a sense of frantic urgency on a wrong set of problems, an irrelevant pursuit in respect to national security. That is not a recognition that most humans in an institution are quick to accept. It was to take months, if not years, for RAND to accept it, if it ever did in those terms. To some degree, it’s my impression that it never recovered its former prestige or sense of mission, though both its building and its budget eventually became much larger. For some time most of my former colleagues continued their focus on the vulnerability of SAC, much the same as before, while questioning the reliability of the new estimate and its relevance to the years ahead.

Some self-reflection:

For decades after my work in the sixties on nuclear planning, I would have said that I had never proposed or been party to a threat of a nuclear first strike or first use in a crisis. I’m confident I could have passed a lie detector test on that assertion. Yet that would have been false. What else was I saying in my draft passages for the Gilpatric speech but that if the Soviets blocked our enlarged patrols along the Berlin corridors with some of their armored divisions in the neighborhood, they would have been taking an unacceptable risk of U.S. first use of nuclear weapons against those forces. Moreover, I was implying that we could do so in confidence that the Soviets would not respond with their own plentiful short-range nuclear weapons, because we would then exploit our “nuclear superiority” in strategic weapons to disarm and destroy the Soviet Union itself.

How could I have failed to notice or recall, over the years, these implications of my own speech-drafting in the fall of 1961? Well, I have to conclude, the same way most humans manage not to recognize or remember discordant or unpleasant aspects or consequences of their own behavior. Like everyone I worked with… I wanted to hold on to West Berlin. At the same time, like my closest colleagues, I would have been appalled to achieve this goal by initiating nuclear war on any scale. Yet—without making a deal with Khrushchev to recognize East Germany, something not within my ken—there was never any way to safeguard Berlin from Soviet conventional and nuclear-armed forces in East Germany except to threaten nuclear weapons and express a readiness to escalate to a nuclear first strike.

So far as I was concerned, that ought to have been a total bluff. But in the giddy euphoria of the new intelligence, it seemed to me a bluff that was sure to work. That made it easy for me not to notice, or to forget, that it was, after all, a first-use and first-strike nuclear threat.

On the diffusion of information:

Moreover, the U.S. public had never been given any real hint as to how limited that Soviet capability was in 1961–62, with respect to the U.S. homeland. Although the Kennedy administration had acknowledged in late 1961 that “there was no missile gap,” and the Gilpatric speech (with my input) had even implied that we were significantly superior to the Soviets in strategic nuclear power, the public had never been told either officially or unofficially just how small the Soviet ICBM force was in those years. In fact, the real terms of that disparity have never entered public consciousness to this day. A scholar as authoritative as Richard Rhodes was still writing in 1995 that the Soviets had over forty ICBMs in 1961, ten times more than they actually had.

On the reality of doomsday machines:

Here, then, is the actual situation that has prevailed for more than half a century. Each side prepares and actually intends to attack the other’s “military nervous system,” command and control, especially its head and brain, the national command headquarters, in the first wave of a general war, however it originates. This has become the only hope of preempting and paralyzing the other’s retaliatory capability in such a way as to avoid total devastation; it is what must above all be deterred by the opponent. But in fact it, too, is thoroughly suicidal unless the other side has failed to delegate authority well below the highest levels. Because each side does in fact delegate, hopes for decapitation are totally unfounded. But for the duration of the Cold War, for fear of frightening their own publics, their allies, and the world, neither side discouraged these hopes in the other by acknowledging its own delegation.

The only change in this situation has been that in the first weeks of the Trump administration, Russian news reports have begun acknowledging that the Perimeter system persists. In a February 2, 2017, article, Pravda revealed that the commander of Strategic Missile Forces Lieutenant-General Sergey Karakayev said five years ago in an interview in a Russian publication, “Yes, the ‘Perimeter’ system [i.e. the doomsday machine, aka ‘dead hand’] exists. The system is on alert. If there’s a need for a retaliatory strike, the command for an attack may come from the system, not people.” The Pravda report explained, “Nuclear-capable missile will thus be launched from silos, mobile launches, strategic aircraft, submarines to strike pre-entered targets, unless there is no signal from the command center to cancel the attack. In general … one thing is known for sure: the doomsday machine is not a myth at all—it does exist.”

On the American option of first use:

The long-secret history of this period, extending throughout the Cold War and beyond, reveals that the assumption of a legitimate and available presidential “option” of first use—American initiation of nuclear attacks as an escalation of conventional armed conflict—is far more than purely symbolic or rhetorical. In reality, every president from Truman to Clinton has felt compelled at some point in his time in office—usually in great secrecy—to threaten and/or discuss with the Joint Chiefs of Staff plans and preparations for possible imminent U.S. initiation of tactical or strategic nuclear warfare, in the midst of an ongoing non-nuclear conflict or crisis.

This general proposition is, I know, unfamiliar, startling, on its face highly implausible. To make it less so, I list below most of the actual nuclear crises that can now be documented for the last half of the twentieth century; this is followed by a discussion of more recent instances of nuclear threats from George W. Bush to Donald J. Trump.

[Here, Ellsberg lists 25 examples.]


  1. says

    In 1985 I saw a TV depiction of two keys used simultaneously to launch a USAF ICBM. The keys had an elaborate grooving along the side that made them look very high security and made their brand immediately recognizable to this lock obsessed New Yorker: American Eagle. In 1975 I had read a Consumer Reports judgement that the lock was less secure (easier to pick) than your everyday 5-pin apartment lock — was just a side wafer key.

    No one to tell then. No internet. Saw same thing recently. E-mailed info around — don’t know if it made any diff. :-O

    Actually the protection of West Berlin from the Soviet view happened in 1953 in East Germany and in 1956 in Hungary and Poland. Any massive (but ineffectual) attempt by NATO conventional forces to relieve West Berlin could have (probably would have) sparked a completely ungovernable outbreak against Russian domination across the entire Eastern Europe. If you were in charge of the Kremlin would you have taken the chance?

    What you would have done was what Khrushchev did: rattle sabers about taking poor, defenseless West Berlin (K was pretty good at that) and then just put up a wall to stop the hoards passing to the West — your real strategic concern.

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