Thanks to the critically acclaimed movie “The Post,” which opens this weekend, the story of whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers is again part of the public discourse. But there is much more to it than the movie shows, Ellsberg tells WhoWhatWhy in this recent podcast.
Ellsberg sought to make public those documents in 1971 to help bring about an end to the Vietnam war. But they were not the only files he had carried out of the Rand Corporation that he hoped to release later. Certain other papers he had taken could possibly have ended the Cold War, reduced the global threat of nuclear annihilation and stopped the development of what he saw as “The Doomsday Machine.”
For more on that, below is WhoWhatWhy’s podcast with Ellsberg, conducted just a few weeks ago.
Long before Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning and Wikileaks, there was Daniel Ellsberg. Forty-six years after the release of the Pentagon Papers, he is once again front and center in the issues we are talking about. Ken Burns controversially chose not to include Ellsberg in his look back at Vietnam. Steven Spielberg has made the Pentagon Papers the ultimate macguffin of his new film The Post, with Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep.
But Ellsberg, when he left Rand Corporation in 1971, took with him more than the Pentagon Papers. He carried out a whole additional set of documents on America’s nuclear policy and its command and control in the 1950s and 1960s.
The papers were the result of Ellsberg’s work as a military analyst at Rand. At that famous defense think-tank, his work focused on how presidents could better understand when and how to launch nuclear weapons using disciplines like decision theory and the study of ambiguity.
After leaving Rand, Ellsberg held the papers back, planning to release them when the war in Vietnam ended. Unfortunately, in a remarkable side story, the papers were hidden so well by Ellsberg’s brother that they were never found. Nonetheless, while the original papers were forever lost, using his notes and memories Ellsberg has virtually reconstructed this history, which he reveals in his new book The Doomsday Machine.
That’s the subject of this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, in which Jeff Schechtman talks with Daniel Ellsberg.
As the North Korean crisis once again elevates nuclear war to the realm of conceivability, Ellsberg explains how his early work in economic decision-making was applied to ideas like “launch on warning” and “use them before you lose them.” He also discusses the cold calculations that measured the utility of a “first strike” against how many hundreds of millions of civilian deaths could be considered “acceptable.”
Ellsberg shatters the myth that only the president can launch nuclear weapons. He offers chilling insights, showing how President Dwight Eisenhower set the stage for the delegation and even the sub-delegation of the power to launch nuclear weapons. This policy continued for decades and probably still exists today.
For the title of his new book The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner (Bloomsbury USA, December 2017), Ellsberg borrowed the phrase “The Doomsday Machine” from Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 film Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.
In a sobering look back at the dawn of the nuclear age, Ellsberg offers both a clarion call for change and a reminder that what is past is prologue.
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