Peace Train: Dismantling the Doomsday Machine

Unilateral disarmament action is a strategic advantage, not a liability

A Doomsday Machine is an apparatus which, if set in motion, would lead to the extinction of all human life on Planet Earth. The nuclear weapons possessed by the United States and Russia — and possibly by a few other countries — together with the policies for the use of these weapons constitute Doomsday Machines.

Daniel Ellsberg, of Pentagon Papers fame, has written an extremely important book on the origins, development and rationale of the Doomsday Machine possessed by the United States, titled “The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner” (Bloomsbury, 2017).  The concluding chapter of Ellsberg’s book presents a plausible strategy for dismantling the U.S. Doomsday Machine. Ellsberg’s dismantling strategy would not endanger people of the United States. It would, on the contrary, greatly increase our collective safety and the safety of all other people on planet Earth.

The military industrial complex peddles nuclear weapons to the public by pretending these omnicidal devices are necessary for deterrence and international stability. But Ellsberg establishes that the Doomsday Machines are actually unrelated to the practice of deterrence:

“[T]he current danger of Doomsday could be eliminated without the United States or Russia coming close to total nuclear disarmament, or the abandonment of nuclear deterrence, either unilaterally or mutually (desirable as the latter would be),” Ellsberg writes on page 342.

Strategic thinking about the use of nuclear weapons revolves around three different weapons delivery systems known as the nuclear triad:

  • Intercontinental ballistic missiles based on land (ICBMs)
  • Submarine-launched ballistic missiles based in the ocean (SLBMs)
  • Strategic bomber-transported nuclear weapons delivered from planes

The most pernicious component of the nuclear triad is the land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). These nuclear delivery missiles are highly vulnerable to attack and destruction while still on the ground. Hence, they must be launched on any warning of assault; i.e. they must be on hair-trigger alert. The Russian ICBMs are also on hair-trigger alert, and Ellsberg shows that such a dual hair-trigger system is — to put it mildly — catastrophically  perilous:

“These two systems … risk doomsday: both are still on hair-trigger alert that makes their joint existence unstable. They are susceptible to being triggered on a false alarm, a terrorist action, unauthorized launch, or a desperate decision to escalate. They would kill billions of humans, perhaps ending complex life on earth,” Ellsberg writes on page 339.

A small number of submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) would be entirely sufficient for deterrence and would not constitute what Ellsberg considers a Doomsday Machine. But military planners are often obsessed with the fallacious notion of winning a nuclear war. These self-proclaimed nuclear gurus think victory could be achieved by a sufficiently powerful first-strike attack that totally disarms the enemy. ICBMs, with their greater accuracy and penetrating force, are necessary for this profoundly criminal delusion. In reality, a hideous first-strike assault, no matter how formidable, is guaranteed to fail. Moreover, it would probably generate a nuclear winter with climatic consequences far more drastic than those that destroyed the dinosaurs.

Yet Doomsday Machines were created by human beings, and human action can also demolish these monstrous fabrications.  Ellsberg urges the United States to unilaterally dismantle its Doomsday Machine.

For this purpose, our government should expeditiously take five bold but politically viable steps:

  • Eliminate all of our ICBMs
  • Adopt a no first-use of nuclear weapons policy
  • Publicly reject the idea of a preemptive damage limiting first strike
  • Stop producing all first-strike nuclear weapons delivery systems
  • Initiate a probing Congressional investigation (and critique) of Pentagon war plans with their attendant menace of nuclear winter

Unilateral disarmament action is a strategic advantage, not a liability. Unilateral action makes possible rapid dismantling of the Doomsday Machine. It demonstrates an unyielding commitment to preventing nuclear calamity. It has a powerful impact on global public opinion. It eliminates the fears that drive nations to acquire nuclear weapons. And unilateral action motivates other countries to dismantle their own Doomsday Machines.

Initiatives, like the five advocated by Ellsberg, are obviously necessary for long-term human survival. We can only hope that such initiatives are sufficient as well as necessary for the survival of humanity.