Far into this book, Ellsberg quotes a commission report which unanimously recommended against pursuing the H-bomb (1,000 times more destructive than the A-bomb used on Hiroshima): “Any military advantage would be completely trumped(!) by the threat to humankind posed by the proliferation of these terrible weapons. They are necessarily an evil thing considered in any light.” The commission’s recommendation was, of course, overruled by the usual fear mongerers and profiteers and “these terrible weapons” were indeed developed, the chief source of the curse of apocalypse that hangs over our every moment.
Daniel Ellsberg, Ivy League whiz kid, was hired by the RAND corporation in the 50s, a mostly Defense Department-funded think tank. He was given a “go anywhere, talk to anybody about anything” mandate in a project to review U.S. nuclear policy. Ellsberg was shocked by much of what he encountered as he traveled from site to site, missile silos and far-flung bases across the world: the numbers of predicted casualties, in the millions, blithely noted; the communication problems and trigger points that could start an accidental nuclear exchange; the fact that China would be targeted and destroyed, with again, millions dead, even if it had nothing whatever to do with whatever conflict; that every city over 25,000 in the Soviet Union (and China) would be annihilated and that Western Europe, including all of Scandinavia, would become “collateral damage” from fallout. The realization came later, that Nuclear Winter would expand the collateral damage to the entire planet, essentially ending civilization, perhaps life on earth. This information, predictably, has not slowed the Doomsday Machine in the slightest.
An astonishing fact stands out in the narrative, that Ellsberg found very few, almost zero, moral objections to policies that amount to unprecedented genocide. This across over 7,000 pages of official documents. Add to this the near zero politicans willing to point out the actual threat, to candidly discuss the insanity and criminality of possessing these weapons. Instead candidates for high office strut and fret their macho hour upon the stage… a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing… as if their personal ambition, ideology, power and position were more important than that life continue on this planet. It is the peace activists and “fringe” politicians like Dennis Kucinich and Bernie Sanders who are willing to address these issues and who are marginalized by a mainstream media that seems to place the privilege of wealth above all other considerations. “Better dead than red” was an actual slogan in the 50s, part of an establishment effort to dampen a growing awareness among the population, of the nuclear danger. It is discouraging also to note that among the whole discussion in those official documents, of millions horribly vaporized, billions really since few if any would survive a full nuclear exchange, that among those documents there was virtually no discussion of disarmament, of summoning the energy and creativity to find a way around this terrible monster – of examining the obvious necessity, as MLK and other “radicals” attempted to point out, that we end war or it ends us.
Ellsberg risked his freedom to release The Pentagon Papers, a secret and unflattering history of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Only the bungling of the Nixon crew saved him from prison. He intended to release secret papers about the insane nuclear policy but events conspired against that plan. The integrity and courage he displayed in the Marine Corps and his early RAND days did not wane as his point of view shifted from a patriotic commitment to the status quo to a realization of the threat to life that view entailed. The book details the careerist bureaucratic and ideological obstacles that stood (and stand) in the way of his effort to sound the alarm, how the frustration of those obstacles led him to risk all, in the case of the Pentagon Papers, and with this book, a renewed, urgent effort to reach the public in a time as, or perhaps more, dangerous than the cold war. I like to share a phrase I heard in my early activist education: Those who call for an end to war are dismissed as hopeless dreamers, but the only dreamers are those who think we can survive if we don’t.