In a March 25thtalk at Washington’s Cosmos Club, former nuclear analyst Daniel Ellsberg said a complacent public must be educated to the horrors of nuclear war. A nuclear exchange involving any of the nine nuclear powers would kill hundreds of millions. Referring to decades of global apathy, he said “we have accepted a nightmare.”
Dan Ellsberg and the author
Ellsberg, 88 in April, is best known for releasing in 1971 a secret 7,000-page U.S. government analysis of the Vietnam war. A hero to the potent student-led anti-war movement, Ellsberg was charged with espionage but not convicted. He is a former Marine officer with economics degrees from Harvard including a PhD. He held senior positions at the Rand Corporation and in the Pentagon specializing in nuclear strategy. The Doomsday Machineis his 2017 memoir on nuclear matters.
Ellsberg says then Soviet leader Yuri Andropov nearly ordered a pre-emptive nuclear strike in 1983 when an early warning system falsely concluded that the Soviet Union was being attacked by US ICBMs (inter-continental ballistic missiles). The risk of catastrophic error is small, said Ellsberg, but always possible.
Even in the 1960s, said Ellsberg, American defense planners estimated that a nuclear strike on Russia would kill up to 375 million people. At that time, he said, U.S. strategy targeted all major Soviet and Chinese cities. One hundred million people in Eastern Europe would die, “and depending on the wind,” he continued, 100 million lives would be lost in western Europe.
In his presentation Ellsberg asked how many in the audience knew the difference between atomic and hydrogen bombs. Only a few could answer. In fact, hydrogen bombs have over 100 times the explosive power of the atomic bomb dropped by Hiroshima in 1945, a blast that killed 200,000. An estimated 15,000 nuclear bombs are in existence, most in the arsenals of the United States and Russia.
Ellsberg called attention to Russia’s Poseidon project announced recently by President Vladimir Putin. Poseidon, the world’s largest torpedo is actually a drone and would be the most lethal nuclear weapon ever developed. These ever more powerful bombs, said Ellsberg, would cause a nuclear winter in which radiation blacks out the sun causing food crops to vanish. Nearly all of mankind, he said, would starve.
It is essential, said Ellsberg, that the United States and Russia reach agreement to scale back their arsenals, the kind of prospective deal discussed by presidents Reagan and Gorbachev in the 1980s.
Asked what ordinary citizens can do to call attention to this life-threatening crisis, Ellsberg said the key is public education.