There’s a lot of talk of madness these days. Pundits speculate about Donald Trump’s mental state. Psychiatrists debate the merits of the Goldwater Rule. Commentators wonder whether presidents should undergo intensive mental health examinations. Keith Olbermann hawks a book called Trump is F*cking Crazy.
The issue of nuclear weapons is a common element in this chatter. Concerns about Trump’s rash behavior and even his grip on reality have sparked more discussions about nuclear war today than any time since the 1980s. Even before the electoral college elevated Trump into office, the topic became grist for one of Hillary Clinton’s most influential quips of the 2016 campaign: “A man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons.”
As long as nuclear weapons exist, it’s fair to say that erratic, racist plutocrats shouldn’t be anywhere near the football. But if anything is “mad” it is putting weapons capable of destroying human civilization under the exclusive control of a single individual, keeping them on a hair-trigger alert, and reserving the right to strike first at any moment. Trump did not create this madness. It was there for the taking.
It is this structural approach to madness that informs Daniel Ellsberg’s new book, The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner. Equal parts memoir, institutional history, and radical policy critique, the book is a timely intervention into today’s excessively personalized debates about Trump and the bomb. Ellsberg, who knows a thing or two about dealing with petty reactionaries, resists the impulse to cry “this is not normal!” at Trump’s every nuclear-related move. Instead, his answer is that this is normal, or at least, has become so — and therein lies the problem.
The title of the book is not hyperbole, but a reference to the research of climatologist Alan Robock, who has essentially vindicated the once-controversial “nuclear winter” hypothesis. Popularized in part by International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War’s studies on “nuclear famine,” Robock’s work suggests that even a “minor” nuclear war could result in the deaths of 2 billion people from global crop failures brought on by an atmosphere blacked out with smoke and soot. A major war involving thousands of warheads — a level of destructive power that only the US and Russia possess — could threaten the existence of humanity and, conceivably, life on earth.
The climatic effects of such a war would be so extreme that initiating one would be suicidal for the belligerent — even if the country somehow managed to prevent a retaliatory strike. Robock, in a twist on the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), dubs this situation SAD — Self Assured Destruction — and in a sane world, it would prompt our ruling class to question the rationality of stockpiling thousands of nuclear weapons.
That elected officials and the military are perfectly content to maintain a literal doomsday machine, even at the risk of their own lives, speaks to a pervasive irrationality regarding nuclear weapons in the halls of power — or what Ellsberg calls “institutionalized madness.” The Doomsday Machine is the story of his life within this madness — a “chronicle” of how seemingly rational decisions can metastasize into dangerous delusions and, finally, into a domineering, structural insanity that jeopardizes the very survival of human civilization.
From World War to Nuclear War
In an early section of The Doomsday Machine, Ellsberg reminds readers that the Manhattan Project was spurred on by fears of a Nazi monopoly on nuclear weapons. Scientists who would later come to abhor the bomb, such as Leo Szilard and Albert Einstein, initially advocated for its production to counter this horrific possibility. They regarded the development of the bomb — disastrous though it may seem in hindsight — as an antifascist project.
What these scientists didn’t know was that the Nazis’ nuclear weapons program hardly moved beyond preliminary stages and was dropped entirely in 1942. As Ellsberg notes, Polish physicist Joseph Rotblat resigned from the Manhattan Project in 1944 when he learned the Germans had halted their program, a testament to how closely some scientists associated the crash effort with the fight against Nazism. Threatened with deportation by the powers-that-be — who feared a mass exodus from the project — Rotblat kept quiet about his discovery. The work went on, and ultimately the bomb would be dropped — gratuitously, horrifically — on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Szilard tried in vain to prevent the attack.
This origin story is important to recount, because it shows that however well-intentioned and “rational,” the decision to develop the bomb quickly gained a momentum of its own, one increasingly oriented toward its use. Later decisions followed a similar trajectory.
President Dwight Eisenhower’s predelegation of launch authority to field commanders, for instance, made “sense” in that a sudden nuclear attack on Washington might kill the president and others in the line of succession, preventing or delaying a retaliatory order. Predelegation solved this problem by granting certain officers the right to order nuclear strikes without presidential authorization (the rationale being that in the thick of nuclear war, it might be impossible to seek permission). But as Ellsberg discovered while studying Pacific command and control for the Office of Naval Research, that logic made so much sense that high-level officers then used it to delegate launch authority even further down the line — increasing the chances of an erroneous launch.
Additional factors in the Pacific compounded these already substantial risks. Base-to-base communication was disturbingly spotty, and lax bomb safety standards made an accidental detonation a real possibility — both of which might, in a crisis, cause an officer to conclude that a general attack was underway and that he must retaliate in case his base was next. Needless to say, the mistaken (but “rational”) nature of such a decision would hardly be taken into account as the situation spiraled into global nuclear war. It is a slippery slope between the rational and the mad.
The Descent of Man
Ripostes to fears about accidental nuclear war often stress the presence of humans in the command and control apparatus. The process is not fully automated, the argument goes, and the human element prevents a calamitous error by allowing for rational deliberation and cautious restraint. Even disarmament advocates like myself venerate figures like Vasili Arkhipov and Stanislav Petrov, the two Soviet officers who quite literally saved the world by blocking nuclear attacks during the Cold War. Their cases are attractive for hawks and doves alike because they lend credence to the idea that humans aren’t simply cogs in the nuclear machine — they’re independent agents capable of disrupting the exterminist churn.
Ellsberg tells a much more disturbing story. More often than not, he shows, humans have used their rational faculties to make nuclear war more likely — even going so far as to countermand orders and intentionally circumvent basic security procedures.
Take the “two-man rule,” which was implemented so that no single person could authenticate and execute an order to launch nuclear weapons. In theory, it was a foolproof way of preventing an unauthorized launch. In practice, officers found a workaround to make sure that if only one person was physically present, an execute order could still proceed.
Officers shared safe combinations, gave each other envelopes containing their half of the codes, or established other procedures in case one of them was away when an order came. “Where there were more elaborate safeguards,” Ellsberg writes, “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.” Rational deliberation? Absolutely. Cautious restraint? Hardly.
In fact, the officers volunteered this information to reassure Ellsberg that the system would work regardless of potential snafus. The entire structure, he learned, was weighted toward “go” — even when maintaining this posture required violating orders. At one point, Ellsberg refers to such violations as “conscientious insubordination,” a deft encapsulation of both the free will involved and the actors’ subjection to a wider mode of understanding that might reasonably be called madness.
Humans within the system made these decisions because they felt they were true to the spirit of the enterprise — and The Doomsday Machine demonstrates that, frankly, they weren’t wrong. The US’s nuclear posture has always been far more aggressive than the doctrine of deterrence implies, a point Ellsberg hammers home in an alarming chapter on the country’s long history of making first-use threats. The officers he interviewed were simply acting in accordance with this fact, and employed their mental faculties to shore up a war-fighting stance in the face of a perceived threat to permanent apocalyptic readiness.
The core of The Doomsday Machine details Ellsberg’s attempts in the 1960s to reform nuclear war planning as a RAND analyst working inside the US government. Having learned the military’s nuclear war plan was essentially nothing but a single, massive attack on the USSR and China, Ellsberg proposed alternatives as part of the Kennedy administration’s shift away from MAD and toward “flexible response.”
His policy prescriptions included not targeting cities and leaving Soviet command and control intact to allow for “pauses” and communication between the belligerents. The hope was that even if war broke out, such measures might keep it “short of mutual annihilation.”
But a key actor did not view Ellsberg’s reforms as progressive or even harmless. When Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara floated the possibility of NATO only targeting military facilities, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev interpreted it as an increased willingness to fight a nuclear war. In Khrushchev’s eyes, a “no-cities” pledge treated nuclear conflict more like a conventional war, and sought to acclimate Americans to the possibility of a US-first strike. What seemed to Ellsberg like a deescalatory measure ended up further inflaming US-Soviet relations.
And then came the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The lessons of that near-catastrophe, outlined in two critical chapters of the book, are equally pessimistic about humanistic agency in the face of structural madness. Kennedy and Khrushchev, Ellsberg notes, shared a personal aversion to nuclear use so strong they were each willing to concede to the other’s demands to avoid the possibility of open conflict. “And yet,” he rightly observes, “the world came close to nuclear war.” It simply wasn’t enough to have rational nuclear stewards at the top of a fundamentally deranged machine.
Rarely do memoirs by former analysts or officials admit that their policy impacts were misguided, let alone dangerous. But The Doomsday Machine suggests that when madness reigns throughout a structure, individual rationality and internal reforms are at best inconsequential, at worst actively harmful. Ellsberg’s horror at the all-or-nothing mass murder of the military’s existing plan inspired his successful crusade to rationalize nuclear war planning — but only in the service of continued irrationality. While his motivation may have differed, he ultimately served the same reproductive function as the winking officers he interviewed in the Pacific.
We’re All Mad Here
One might object that Ellsberg’s call for “a human perspective” on nuclear weapons clashes with his pessimism about individual agency. But he makes clear that this “moral reality” must come from outside the structural madness — and it must be collective in form. The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), passed by the United Nations in 2017 after years of collaborative work by disarmament activists, nuclear weapons–free states, and international NGOs, is one such answer to this call.
Treaty proponents have placed the human impact of nuclear war (including the actually-existing effects of nuclear weapons production) at the center of their advocacy, and have consciously eschewed the language of defense intellectuals in making the case for a global ban. There is little patience for “deterrence” or “strategic stability” in this framework, but plenty of concern with justice.
Much has been made of the fact that none of the nuclear-armed states are currently expected to sign the treaty. Yet it was precisely the point to establish a stigma against nuclear weapons from beyond the nuclear-armed states, who have made little progress on disarmament and simply cannot be trusted to regulate themselves. The hope is that outside pressure and a new global norm — backed by international law — will force the nuclear-armed states to dramatically reduce their arsenals and, eventually, comply with the TPNW.
The treaty is an attempt to cut through the prevailing madness — not by lashing out haphazardly but by establishing an alternative ideological regime in which nuclear weapons are regarded as tools of genocidal power, no matter who controls them.
Worrying about who sits atop the doomsday machine is understandable, especially with someone like Trump in power. But a restoration of rational leadership is, ironically, precisely what the inherited madness needs to survive. Few things would better ensure the system’s reproduction than its passage into the hands of a calm and seemingly legitimate steward.
The risks of the present moment, though terrifying, have opened up opportunities to expose the inhumane structures beneath Trump. He may not be mad, but he is a personification of the madness below, a living embodiment of why it all needs to be torn down. The Doomsday Machine never lets us forget this radical prescription — a compelling bit of rationality in a world gone mad.