Daniel Ellsberg says nuclear winter is a very real possibility, unless we act now

Daniel and Patricia Ellsberg in the living room of their Kensington home. Photo: Daphne White

The “most dangerous man in America” is now 86 years old and lives in a modest mid-century house in Kensington, a stone’s throw from Berkeley. Daniel Ellsberg achieved notoriety when he released the Pentagon Papers (depicted in Steven Spielberg’s movie The Post), and helped bring about the resignation of President Richard Nixon and the end of the Vietnam War.

His objective all along, however, was to release then-classified information about what he considers the “omnicidal” nature of nuclear weapons, and the genocide that would result from their use by either the U.S. or Russia. It has taken him almost 50 years, and dozens of rejections from numerous publishers, but he has finally succeeded in publishing The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner.  

While the book contract was signed before Donald Trump was elected president, the conflict between Trump and North Korean president Kim Jong-Un made the topic — which elicited only yawns before — seem suddenly timely. And the nuclear attack warning mistakenly issued in Hawaii a couple of weeks ago only brought the subject closer to home.

“I have known for 60 years now how dangerous the situation is. It was a big secret I had to live with,” Ellsberg said, sitting at his dining room table, with views of fittingly gray skies looming over the Bay. “People are living in denial about the possibility of nuclear war. They are living in denial because they are lied to by the government as to what the risks are, and what the scale of destruction would be.” People are in as much denial about nuclear war as the Republican Party is about man-made climate change, he added.

“What the people of Hawaii discovered with the false alarm a couple of weeks ago is what has been true for half a century,” he said. “A false warning or escalation of a war can end everything in 30 minutes from the time of launch. I was reading that people were ducking into basements and driving fast on freeways to nowhere. None of that would have done them any good.”

The chance of us “getting through another century is small, maybe 1 or 2%,” Ellsberg warned. While he has no illusions, he hopes his book might double our chances (raising them to a full 4% or so) by bringing activism and attention to this danger.

“We are on the Titanic going at full speed on a very dark night,” Ellsberg said, “but we haven’t hit the iceberg yet.”

The Titanic was not doomed to sink, he explained: as it turns out, many other ships were in those same icy waters on that same dark night. But other captains made different choices regarding the route, and they managed to arrive home safely.

Ellsberg is spending almost every waking moment trying to wake people up to the dangers ahead, and to motivate them to demand a change of course. He doesn’t claim it will be easy, and points out that Democrats have been as tone-deaf to this issue as the Republicans over the decades.

Ellsberg is not alone in his concerns. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists just advanced the symbolic Doomsday Clock a notch closer to the tipping point, so now it reads two minutes to midnight. Bulletin president Rachel Bronson wrote that “to call the world’s nuclear situation dire is to understate the danger and its immediacy.”

The Bulletin was founded by veterans of the Manhattan Project concerned about the consequences of their nuclear research, and now has 15 Nobel laureates on its board. They believe that the nuclear situation now is “as threatening as it has been since World War II.”

Building a movement

Ellsberg and his wife Patricia — who has been an active partner in his work — are hoping that because of the extra dangers posed by Trump and North Korea, a kind of #MeToo movement might coalesce around the nuclear issue.

“The war between two mad macho men has brought this to awareness,” Patricia said. “There was always a danger of accidents, false alarms and threats of first use — but it didn’t catch the attention of the public until now.”

Patricia added that she hopes this will become a women’s issue, too.

“It’s always been the ‘experts’ and the men, and women have deferred, just like we deferred on the issue of sexual abuse,” she said. “This is an abuse of macho male ideology that has lost its connection to sanity and to life. I am hoping this might change.”

Patricia said she and her husband would like to connect with all the candidates running for office in the next election, many of whom are women, and raise this as one of the key election issues in 2018 and 2020.

“We women have been very dormant and silent on this,” she said. “It’s not been on the radar, but it’s as significant as global warming and the environment. We have to wake up and get active.”

In Doomsday Machine, Ellsberg notes that “we humans almost universally have a false self-image of our species. We think that monstrous, wicked policies must be, can only be, conceived and directed and carried out by monsters, wicked or evil people, or highly aberrant, clinically ‘disturbed’ people. People not like ‘us.’ That is mistaken. Those who have created a continuing nuclear threat to the existence of humanity have been normal, ordinary politicians, analysts, and military strategists.”

Ellsberg should know. He used to be one of those analysts, first at the RAND Corporation, then at the Pentagon and even the White House. He worked closely with Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (who worked under presidents Kennedy and Johnson), and Nixon’s Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

“One day in the spring of 1961, soon after my 30th birthday, I was shown how our world would end,” Ellsberg writes in the first sentence of his book. What he had just seen was a piece of paper with an answer to a question he had asked, but which was sent out under Kennedy’s signature. The question to the Joint Chiefs was: “If your plans for general [nuclear] war are carried out as planned, how many people will be killed in the Soviet Union and China?”

The answer that came back shocked Ellsberg: 600 million people would die from a U.S. first strike. That would mean 100 Holocausts.

“I remember what I thought when I first held the single sheet with the graph on it,” he wrote. “I thought, This piece of paper should not exist. It should never have existed. Not in America. Not anywhere, ever. It depicted evil beyond any human project ever. There should be nothing on earth, nothing real, that it referred to.” And from that day on, Ellsberg wrote, he had “one overriding purpose: to prevent the execution of any such plan.”

The Pentagon Papers were just the beginning

Some of Daniel Ellsberg’s files, now being digitized. Photo: Daphne White

That was the motivation for copying 7,000 pages of classified documents now known as the Pentagon Papers. Ellsberg released selected documents related to the Vietnam War first, because he felt that ending that war was a more immediate life-saving measure. His intention was always to publish materials related to the nuclear danger soon afterward.

But things did not go according to plan. The Pentagon Papers were supposed to be just the appetizer, but things very quickly got out of control. The papers were “just history,” said Patricia, who said she had urged her husband to stop complaining and start making copies after he showed her some documents.

“He said he didn’t really know if it was worth it, he wasn’t sure at that point,” Patricia said. “So he gave me 100 pages to read. We were living in a studio attic apartment in Cambridge at the time, and we had put our bed in this large closet. So I went into the closet and read the papers. It was just horrendous — the cynicism and the duplicity! I came out in tears and said to Dan, ‘This is the language of torturers’.” The analysts used phrases like “one more turn of the screw,” and “ratchet up the pressure” and “water drip technique.”

“I saw that they were trying to torture a country into submission through bombing,” Patricia said. “It was really a form of terrorism in its way. Killing civilians. I was thinking this should come out, and I told Dan I would support him if he was willing to take the risk.”

Patricia is Ellsberg’s second wife, and they got married in 1970. So they were still newlyweds when Patricia began cutting “Top Secret” stamps off thousands of pages, for hours on end, because copy shops wouldn’t copy the documents otherwise. She took small batches to different copy shops in Cambridge, so as not to arouse suspicion by copying everything at once.

The couple did not expect the government to prohibit The New York Times or The Washington Post from printing the documents. “It was just history at this point,” Patricia repeated. “The papers only covered the years until 1968, and this was 1971. We were somewhat naive in thinking that because these documents contained no troop movements, nothing to do with current security, it was not that dangerous for Dan to put it out. We just felt it was so wrong, and it was the kind of thing the public had a right to know about.”

Ellsberg had tried to persuade Sen. William Fullbright to publish or hold Congressional hearings on the Papers, and had also asked Sen. George McGovern to put them in the Congressional Record. Both refused, probably out of fear for their political careers, Patricia said. So Ellsberg decided to take the risk on himself.

“Nixon had no problem with my making Democratic administrations look bad,” Ellsberg said. But Nixon actually had secret plans to use nuclear weapons in North Vietnam, and he was afraid Ellsberg might release those plans. As it turns out, Ellsberg didn’t find out about those nuclear plans until years later.

He writes in The Doomsday Machine, “Henry Kissinger’s fear that I did know about Nixon’s nuclear threats and plans, and might have documents to back it up, was sufficient reason for him to regard me as ‘the most dangerous man in America’ who ‘must be stopped at all costs’.” It was that fear — the fear that Ellsberg would reveal “documents from the Nixon administration, beyond the period of the Pentagon Papers — that led to Nixon’s resignation facing impeachment, making the war endable nine months later,” he wrote.

Shades of Alice’s Restaurant

Some of Ellsberg’s many books, neatly categorized. Photo: Daphne White

There were several reasons those further documents —which would have revealed America’s first-strike plans and their attendant costs in human life — were not revealed. First, since Nixon had Ellsberg indicted on espionage charges, Ellsberg was busy fighting a court case (which was ultimately dismissed) for three years.

During that time, he couldn’t hold onto the documents, because he was afraid the FBI would seize them. So he gave them to his brother to keep. His brother, also afraid of FBI seizure, came up with the idea of hiding those papers where they would indeed never be found: in a cliff overhanging a garbage dump. The papers were in a box covered by a plastic bag, hidden under a green metal stove to mark the spot. However, a hurricane collapsed the cliff soon afterward and the stove slipped off the cliff. Despite repeated searches by his brother and their friends, those documents disappeared forever.

But as those documents were declassified over time, Ellsberg still found himself unable to write a book about America’s nuclear arsenal and first-strike plans. That’s because he had a serious problem: writer’s block. It turns out that this is the problem that led Ellsberg to consult a psychoanalyst 50 years ago. And again, Nixon’s fears transformed those benign consultations into a now-famous piece of the Watergate scandal.

“My living as a consultant was writing,” but writing for a general audience was excruciating, Ellsberg said. “I had friends at RAND who had writer’s block, and they had luck with psychoanalysis. So I tried it for a year and a half, but nothing was accomplished. It worked for my friends, but it didn’t work for me.”

That didn’t stop Nixon’s plumbers from breaking into Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office, though, looking for dirt.

“Nixon was looking for stuff to blackmail me with, stuff he hoped I had confessed to,” Ellsberg said. “Back then, I think they hoped to find I was a homosexual, or had lurid dreams.” It was reported that nothing was found, but Ellsberg said his psychiatrist found his file open on top of the filing cabinet. Its contents were probably photographed, and must have created much disappointment for the Nixon crowd. That filing cabinet is now in the Smithsonian.

Ellsberg said the The Doomsday Machine had to be “pulled out of” him by his family.

“They said, ‘if you don’t write this book, you will feel unfulfilled, you will feel like a failure’,” he said. “I thought my family would think less of me. It was very hard, as with my other book, but we did manage to get it out, at great challenge to my health.”

The Ellsberg Archives

A basement full of files. Photo: Daphne White

While Ellsberg may have had writer’s block, he is a prodigious collector of information. His basement is filled with hundreds of boxes and thousands of painstakingly collected files about Vietnam, nuclear policy, government lies, and much more.

“My wife Patricia was in my office one day, and she saw my secretary putting labels on my files,” he said. “The labels said things like, ‘nuclear winter,’ ‘disaster,’ ‘torture.’ I have been interested in all kinds of massacre and inhumane behavior, to try and understand how we got to where we are today. But my wife said, ‘How can I be married to someone with labels like these on their files?’

“So she told her friends about this, and in a very Berkeley way, they came with sage to exorcise my office. I’m not sure how well it took. Those subjects are still gruesome.”

And 30 years later, those files are still there, stacked haphazardly in every nook and cranny of the long and narrow basement. They are currently being archived by the nonprofit Internet Archive, in a process that will take months.

It was because of Patricia that Ellsberg moved to the Bay Area from the East Coast.

“After the trial, which ended in 1973, I realized that Patricia had been living my life since we got married in 1970. I told her that when it was all over, we could go wherever she wanted. She wanted to come here to work on a PhD on transpersonal psychology.” The couple moved first to San Francisco and then to Kensington when Patricia was pregnant with their first child. They have lived in the same house — which would be called a rambler on the East Coast — for the past 40 years.

Ellsberg, who trained as a concert pianist until he was 14, has a grand piano in his living room. Photo: Daphne White

After decades of activism and countless protests against nuclear proliferation, including more than 70 arrests, Ellsberg is still speaking truth to power. He is still vibrant and passionate, bounding up and down the outside steps to his basement office. He says he missed celebrating his 85th and 86th birthdays, because he was too busy working on the book. He is hoping to celebrate his 87th birthday, coming up this spring, in relative peace and quiet.

Even though it was rejected by 17 publishers, The Doomsday Machine is now in its fifth printing only six weeks after publication. There are now 30,000 copies out there, Ellsberg said, and he is still fielding interview requests multiple times a day. He received a call from Japan during the interview with Berkeleyside.

“Forty years ago, a big publisher told me we could only sell 1,400 copies of a book with ‘nuclear’ in the title,” he said. “I told her that was OK, it would be enough for every member of Congress and academics. But she said no, that means we don’t publish. And nobody else will, either.”

She clearly didn’t know about Daniel Ellsberg’s persistence.