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The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner by Daniel Ellsberg

Where I read this book several years ago, it still resonates clearly — amid new instability between now Russia and the US, cancelling Open Skies Treaty, investing in orbital missile systems or supersonic delivery mechanisms of nuclear weapons. This coincides with literally no communication via channels built to de-escalate tensions as they rise — and no reliable channels to verify malign intent vs coincidence.

Such a situation, defused via international treaties, communication channels, contribute to rapid, costly and dangerous build-up of weapons of massive force and little room for error and virtually no recourse of action — and they happened countless times in the past:

  • Exacerbated by steps wrongly assumed, translated or misread, told briliantly by Graham Alison in Destined for War
  • Fueled by hubris or miscalculation of adversary’s available powers: Alistair Horne told of several examples, including Tsushima (Imperial Russia vs Japan, Mukden (Japan vs. Soviet Union) or Dien Bien Phu (French vs. Viet)
  • Damaged by bad decision making and lack of proper analysis of facts, their collection, preparation and argumentation (a reknown general and lately Trump NSA, HR McMaster did a study on decision making process during JFK — pointing to bad decisions made a lives lost.

Ellsberg, a briliant analyst, tells a story of massive nuclear triad build-up by Kennedy to compensate the estimated and projected advancement of Soviet rocketry. In every system, multiplication requires not just resources to manufacture and install the systems but manage and control them. Infighting between Air Force, CIA, traditional military Navy created crisis of their own.

In terms of control and oversight, Ellsberg tells of Curtis Le May, US Air Force general and developer and implementor of strategic bombing campaigns in WW2, who shared his indignation with President’s Kennedy meddling in military planning — “who needs a President at times of war? Nobody! All we need him for is to tell us there is a war!” — raising stakes in overall planning of missile choice and its deployment as the overall national security apparatus was formed to advise the Executive branch at times of crisis.

Where a potential deterrent strike requires closer to 1 missile (and no more than 10), as NSA during JFK and LBJ, McGeorge Bundy, shared when participating in talks at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Where the US saw and could not at first verify the claim of Khrushchev that Soviets were capable of producing hundreds of nuclear rockets, and where at the height of Berlin Crisis in 1961 US seriously considered accelerated build-up of nuclear shelters, Soviets in reality had only 4 land-based rockets that could have been “dismantled” by conventional strike.

Still, the build-up of hostilities around the Berlin crisis only fuelled development of delivery means of nuclear warheads: in a simulated 1966 nuclear war Soviet and US both suffer 25 million deaths each, and Europe somewhat less, in worst-case scenario with cities targeted the US loses 75 million, the Soviets — over 125 and Europe somewhat 115 million people.

Lack of proper communication nearly sparked the nuclear flame — during Cuban Missile Crisis a nuclear torpedo equipped sub — B130, nearly fired when it came under depth bombardment by US cruisers — but the locally originated order was stoped from being implemented.

Careful balance checked and triple checked by informal connections that remained and overall sense of reason could have been foiled once again in 1983, brilliantly told by Taylor Downing in a book with a fitting name.

Andropov’s era was closing, with the Soviet leader bed-ridden, while the US on the offensive and planning to launch a military exercise, that paranoid leadership of the Union saw as a cover for a rocket assault — and was preparing to respond without any alert (will do a separate post about this later)