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A Talk With Whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg

The Zero Hour recently interviewed whistleblower, activist, and author Daniel Ellsberg, who released the Pentagon Papers more than half a century ago and has remained a voice of conscience ever since. A national security analyst in the 1960s, Ellsberg's most recent book is "The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner."

Ellsberg spoke about the ongoing threat of nuclear annihilation, the move to build more world-threatening ICBMs, and the need for a renewed anti-war movement. Some excerpts from the conversation are below (they have been lightly edited for clarity):

Richard Eskow: After all these years, I am utterly flabbergasted that we are still living under the threat of nuclear annihilation. And far from it being at the forefront of the public consciousness, I would argue that people are thinking of it less now than they were in the 1970s or 1980s. Does that track with your perception?

There wasn't the slightest basis to think that anyone in power would be ready to lose 20 million people, or 10 million people, or 1 million.

Daniel Ellsberg: No question about it. We had a movement in the early 80s, the freeze movement in particular, that was calling for both sides, US and Soviet Union to stop producing new weapons. It had enormous public support. And more importantly, people really understood the problem. There were a lot of teach-ins about it and, demonstrations. That's not been true for 14 years now. People thought that with the ending of the Cold War some years later, at the end of the decade, the problem had gone away. But the weapons didn't go away at all. And the plans have changed have not changed significantly.

Since that time, as people have noticed, we've reduced our overall nuclear arsenal by some 80 percent. That sounds very impressive. But it makes no change at all in the risk of annihilating nuclear war ... the US, in particular US ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles) remain in their silos ...

Striking first will not be better than striking second or not at all. Either way, nuclear winter will probably result from the smoke from burning cities being lofted by firestorms ... reducing most sunlight suddenly by about 70 percent, which will kill all harvests worldwide. (Most) people will starve to death within a year at the most ... near extinction 90 to 98 percent. Some people in Australia and New Zealand eating mollusks and seafood will probably survive.

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Richard Eskow: So, let's talk about Northrop Grumman for a second big. And let's talk about the so called "GBSD," the "ground based strategic deterrent." First of all, it strikes me that in 65 years or however long it's been, Cold War nomenclature has not evolved at all. This sounds like a name that could have been drafted in 1959. Ground based strategic deterrence.

The idea is that this is a new contract for launch on warning missiles. Is that it?

Daniel Ellsberg: Yes, it is. And you're absolutely right, Richard, you're very well informed on this stuff. The word "deterrent" is just a branding name, some marketing name. It has nothing to do with deterring nuclear annihilation. With 700 submarine missiles don't need an ICBM to deter nuclear attack. So the idea of calling it that, as opposed to a jobs program, or a profit program, it's a better selling point.

Eskow: About a second strike—even if in the highly unlikely event that we were subjected to a nuclear attack from Russia or any other country, to retaliate with the full force of our nuclear arsenal would harm us in measurably more than any other response, wouldn't it? Or am I getting something wrong?

Ellsberg: Richard, in my experience of discussing this over the last 50 years, you're the first person to raise that issue. I've, I thought about it a lot. And I don't usually raise it, because we keep the discussion within the framework that everybody has been taught to accept: that deterrence requires an assurance that we destroy the other country, which was based on essentially nothing. It was a good selling point for buying a lot of weapons ...

But the point raised is a very unique one. Does it make sense to respond if you have the capability to respond? And I believe, like most people, that that makes some sense not to give another side a monopoly of weapons. That wouldn't be good for peace, I don't think. But what do you do if the deterrence fails? If it actually comes? Well, it could not possibly benefit you (to) send those weapons over, to add to the nuclear annihilation to the nuclear strike that's going to be caused by the other guys ...nearly everyone's gonna die anyway ...

(My national security mentor's) axiom was that you had to assure the Soviet Union that they would lose more people than they did in World War Two, which we now have calculated at 27 million. He said, "After all, they lost 20 million—we used to say 20 million—and now they're doing fine. So they would be willing you know to do it again, basically, to control the world."

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That was crazy. There wasn't the slightest basis for (thinking) that there was any human in power in the world who was ready to lose 20 million people, or 10 million people, or 1 million people ... But that was a good basis for saying we needed hundreds and thousands of nuclear weapons.

The entire interview is " target="_blank" rel="noreferrer noopener">here.

RJ Eskow
Common Dreams