The Nuclear Worrier

Daniel Ellsberg
Daniel Ellsberg; drawing by Siegfried Woldhek

Daniel Ellsberg in his youth and Daniel Ellsberg in his age are the same man—a born worrier quick to spot trouble, take alarm, and issue warning. He is best known for worrying about the American war in Vietnam, which time in the war zone convinced him was a crime, and for doing what he could to bring it to an end. In that case he copied and illegally released a huge collection of secret documents about the war, first published in June 1971 by The New York Times, which came to be known as the Pentagon Papers.

But Vietnam was not the first or the biggest thing that worried Ellsberg after he went to work in his late twenties as an analyst for the RAND Corporation in 1959. His first and biggest worry was the American effort to defend itself with nuclear weapons. When Ellsberg finally got a look at the plans for such a war he realized immediately that the Strategic Air Command had built a military instrument that not only could but in his view probably would break the back of human civilization.

It was Vietnam that got in the way of his plan to do something about the nuclear war plans. In his new memoir, The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner, the second about the big things that obsessed Ellsberg in his youth,1 he does not try to explain why he set aside worry about the bomb to tackle America’s hopeless war in Southeast Asia, then in its sixth year. The probable answer is that he had gone to see it. Arguing about nuclear weapons with other supersmart young analysts and Air Force colonels was dismaying but not horrifying in the way of war itself. In Vietnam hundreds of Americans and thousands of Vietnamese were dying every month, and sometimes every week, with no end in sight. The commitment of American policymakers to go on killing peasants rather than confess failure was the crime that Ellsberg felt impelled to expose and denounce.

But he never stopped worrying about nuclear weapons. He was far from alone, of course. The horror of the bombs dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was immediately apparent to all who did not refuse to see. What separated Ellsberg from ordinary civilian worriers was his access to the actual war plans for doing it again. By the time he received his first clearances to know official secrets about types and numbers of weapons, the handful of first-generation bombs, assembled one by one by hand at Los Alamos, New Mexico, had been replaced by more and better devices. Fat Man, the fission bomb that destroyed Nagasaki, was blimplike in shape, weighed about 10,000 pounds, and exploded with the energy of 20,000 tons of TNT. By the late 1950s the first few fission bombs had been replaced by ever-expanding numbers (soon…

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