The Doomsday Machine

I have been hit like a ton of bricks by Daniel Ellsberg’s new book, The Doomsday Machine, Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner.[1] It reminds me of another testament I read over ten years ago, John Perkins’ Confessions of an Economic Hit Man.[2] Perkins had been trained in a fascinating discipline — development economics — and then used his abilities to sell disastrous loans to developing countries in the service of what turned out to be corporate greed and neo-colonialism. While local elites and financial corporations benefitted, the countries could never pay the loans off, and their governments were forced to bow to United States foreign policy. Perkins got his courage together as he grasped what was happening and ended up writing a scathing indictment founded on gritty details of his own experience.

Ellsberg’s current book is in that tradition. His preposterously brave exposure of the Pentagon Papers — with all it taught about governmental lying — will probably be his most lasting contribution. (He literally had his life on the line then; thank God for the plumbers’ break-in of his psychiatrist’s office as that set him free by tainting any evidence against him.) But it seems to me that his latest and probably last revelation of governmental lying and malfeasance — his final star turn against The Machine — is even more disturbing, startling and compelling. And as in Perkins’ stories, the I-was-there details add up to ton-of-bricks compelling.

A little intellectual background (you can skip this as an aside if you want, that’s why I’m putting it in italics). After FDR’s Presidency and the WWII experience, the field of public policy and policy studies emerged, melding economics, decision-making analysis, political science, sociology, and organizational theory and behavior.  (Given our current administration, of course, it seems they should have invested more heavily in personal psychology and psychopathology, but perhaps that will come.) Classic texts from this discipline relate directly to what Ellsberg has done in his “Confessions.”

The most celebrated of these books is Graham Allison’s “The Essence of Decision.”[3] Allison looked at the Cuban Missile Crisis from three viewpoints: (1) rational decision making, (2) the political theory of interest groups, in this case within both American and Soviet governments, and (3) organizational theory.  

(1) You can look at the crisis as a sequence of chess moves by unitary players — the U.S., the U.S.S.R., and Cuba.  We have missiles here, they have them there; if we move here they will want to move there; they are trying to pressure us, we them, and then checkmate! That’s rational theory.

Or, (2) you can look at individual moves during the crisis focusing on the how they were influenced by interest groups within each government. Khrushchev, for instance, knew he lacked political support and thus allowed the Russian military to make moves that amplified their power. On the American side, Kennedy had to hide his concession to Khrushchev — the removal of the U.S.’s Turkey-based missiles — from his own military lest he look weak, after having embarrassed the security Establishment (CIA) at the Bay of Pigs by refusing to double-down with further forces, thus letting the invasion fail.

Or, and this is my favorite, (3) you can look at the nature of organizations as an important determinant.  For example, when Kennedy tried to manage how the Soviet ships headed to Cuba would be blockaded (the administration came up with the less bellicose term, “quarantined”) to make sure the Navy didn’t engage in hostile or provocative actions, the admiral in charge of the Navy told Kennedy to back off, saying, “Mr. President, the Navy will run the blockade.” or words to that effect.  The Navy had standard operating procedures, the modus operandi, and fine-tuning was not possible. When you deal with organizations, you can try to get them to make fine distinctions, but you will probably fail. See,  for instance, the difficulty of having trained killers in the marines or regular army become peacemaking nation builders in Iraq or Afghanistan.  It may work with some personnel to some extent but it’s probably not sustainable.

A second book, “Implementation: How Great Expectations in Washington Are Dashed in Oakland” by Wildavsky and Pressman[4], examined programs that looked great on paper, but turned out to be unrealistic. You can draw up your plans, but real people and real organizations with real personal incentives — the stuff of political interests and organizational theory and behavior — will tell the tale.  Everybody in an organization has dual objectives: what the organization wants you to do, and what you want to do for your own good. And every organization has multiple constituencies that want something from the organization.  Any organization amounts to a vector of all these desires and forces. The goals of planners may be no more than pointless abstractions if they fail to take account of conflicting forces in the real world of real people.

Finally, “Inside Bureaucracy” by Anthony Downs — a great book on large organizations which drives home truths about information, conformation to orders, and chain of command that are particularly relevant to Doomsday.[5]Think about a CEO or high official giving an order to his or her subordinate.  How much of that order is understood and accepted? Never 100%. Maybe 80% would be an average? Then the subordinate passes on that order to his or her own subordinate.  As you go down the chain, you should expect less understanding, more shading, so at the second level it’s maybe 70%.  By the time you get to the fourth level down, what’s going on?  80% times 70% times 70 % equals about 40%.  This means if an order requires just three levels down, less than half of it’s likely to be understood and enacted. The best example I can think of to illustrate this principle is exactly what Ellsberg horrifyingly portrays in his book.

It’s a general problem, not just an issue for military and government bureaucracies. Remember the Hubble telescope disaster? They spent $1.5 billion to put a grand telescope up in space and it wouldn’t focus. Why?  Despite premium quality control and the very best people working to maximum capacity at the respected Perkin-Elmer company, way down the production chain of command, skilled workers found there was a small focus flaw, and instead of reporting it up the chain of command, they fixed it on the spot the way they were used to fixing things, their SOP, by putting in a small shim. It worked at their level, but when integrated at a necessary higher level, it didn’t. People do things the way they are used to doing things, and it’s impossible to coordinate complexity in large organizations with 100% fidelity. It just can’t be done.


So, back to Ellsberg’s ton of bricks. He looks not just at the theory of nuclear war, to which he contributed as a decision theory analyst, but what the abstractions came down to in practice. That turned out to be analogous to the real deal in Implementation, and Inside Bureaucracy, and the Navy quarantine. Plan it one way — imagine, say, the chess-like choices and counter-choices of Herman Kahn and Albert Wohlstetter. OK, but what really happens?

That’s precisely what Admiral Harry T. Felt wondered, what was reality? He sat at the top of CINCPAC, U.S. operations in the Pacific. He knew what should be — the rational theory — but he also knew what he didn’t know, which was what was happening down there, down many levels of command in the bowels of the organization, out at the forward bases.  This is where the 29 year old Ellsberg came in. A former Marine and then Rand employee with clearances way beyond Top Secret, Ellsberg was young, energetic, and very smart — think Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, think the young Alex Baldwin, think the Hunt for Red October. He was the perfect person to do an investigation. He became Felt’s agent, with dispensation to go everywhere and do anything, knowing Felt would always back him up.

So Ellsberg visited the forward bases, in Okinawa, in Korea, and in Japan where nuclear weapons were — and are — attached to planes close to China and ever-ready to achieve airborne alert status.  Felt was right to be suspicious of the imperatives of on-the-spot commanders, especially those trained in the American way — trained, that is, to improvise when necessary, to take responsibility on themselves, to act in a way that had worked so well when local commanders had to get over the hedgerows after the Normandy invasion. Given those officers and their American instincts, Felt was right to think his information in command headquarters in Hawaii might be incomplete.

It was, in fact, very sketchy. For one thing, Ellsberg found that the airmen charged with responding to attacks from our enemies rehearsed their roles constantly, and no matter the time of day or night, planes were gunning their engines ready for takeoff with their nuclear loads within ten minutes of hearing the klaxon. Amazing — ten minutes.  But, being no dope, Ellsberg wanted more dope. The battle plans called for planes to take off, rendezvous with other squadrons from other bases at a forward point in the air, then await radio signals which would order them forward if there were to be a real honest to goodness attack.  If they were ordered back — or, if there were no communication at all at that time — they were to return to base.  It was, of course, crucial to avoid striking by mistake.  So Ellsberg asked, “Is the rest of it — the takeoff, the rendezvous, ever practiced?”

Answer — no, it was never practiced. Rehearsing take-offs was impractical. The bombs were not well enough secured to ensure takeoffs would be safe time and time again.  It would be very expensive to rendezvous repeatedly. So only the initial step was practiced. What to make of that?

Ellsberg reasoned that part of practicing was to make processes routine. That, in turn, would minimize mistakes (See Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.[6]) In the absence of such a routine, Ellsberg realized that if the planes ever actually took off and made it to a rendezvous with other squadrons, everyone was likely to be extremely edgy. Even if it was all a mistake or a rare full rehearsal, many of the aviators might figure that this time it must be the real thing.

To reiterate, their instructions were, once they got to rendezvous and no signal came, to return to base; a positive signal was required for them to proceed. Ellsberg then asked, how often were communications down? Good question. It turned out that communications were regularly out part of every single day! Ellsberg’s respondents cited weather conditions, other problems. So, once the planes had rendezvoused, they very well might not receive a signal to return due to bad communications. Ellsberg wondered about the state of the pilots’ minds then. Never having practiced before, and having to remember under stressful conditions that they were supposed to return to base, and believing that if they got no signal it could well be that a capitation event had occurred in Washington and/or Hawaii, what would they do?

Ellsberg posed this question to a forward base commander in Korea and here’s his chilling account of their colloquy (pp. 55-56):

I asked, “How do you think that would work?”

The major said “If they didn’t get any Execute message?  Oh, I think they’d come back.”  Pause. “Most of them.”

The last three words didn’t register with me right away because before they were out of his mouth my head was exploding. I kept my face blank but a voice within me was screaming, “Think?  You think they’d come back?”

This was their commander, I thought, the one who gave them their orders, the man in charge of their training and discipline.  As I reeled internally from that response, the next words, “most of them,” got through to me.

He added, “Of course, if one of them were to break out of that circle, I think the rest would follow.”  He paused again, and then he added reflexively, “And they might as well. If one goes, they might as well all go.  I tell them not to do it, though.”

What we are hearing here is exactly what we knew before, though only in generalities: there could be an “accident.” But now we have it in specifics, ton-of-bricks specifics. And it’s just one case. Imagine all the others there must have been, and still must be — all the specifics, all the organizational difficulties and misunderstandings and mal-structuring and miseducation and just bad luck and perfect storms. Some of which we have heard of now and then, from the isolated ICBM bases in North Dakota where everyone gets bored and cold.

Another ton-of-bricks hit involves the nuclear football, which we all think is carried by an aide who goes with the President no matter where he goes (presumably everywhere since he now no longer frequents a bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel). We all think, we are told repeatedly, that the President has the power, and only he has the power, to order a nuclear strike.  But was that ever really true? It’s not exactly logical, after all. What if there is a decapitation strike, taking out the President and his entourage? Wouldn’t all of the U.S. retaliatory forces be launched then?

It makes more sense to assume others have the command ability as well. In his Jack Ryan role, Ellsberg asked Admiral Felt about that and was put off.  There were rumors all over CINCPAC about a letter sent from the President authorizing CINCPAC Commander to order a nuclear strike on his own. There were rumors that others had that prerogative as well. Ellsberg couldn’t find evidence of such a letter at the time, and Felt hedged about it. But years later Ellsberg did find the evidence. Not only did Felt have the ability to order nuclear strikes, but so did others, since Felt could theoretically be eliminated at the same time as the President. The idea we have of unitary command over our nuclear arsenal is false.

Then there is the issue of competition among actors within the government — bureaucratic politics of a sort.  The chief concern of the civilian sector of the nuclear project was that there be no accidents and no mistaken strikes based on false reports we’d been attacked. That was the civilian focus. The military, however, had a different focus. Their priority was to ensure there’d be a nuclear counterattack if we were struck first. The prospect of an accidental attack from our side was less worrisome to the military. Anyone who has worked in a bureaucracy knows where this leads. The civilians wanted to make sure bombs were only dropped with full authorization. So they gave each plane a unique code that was required to access any incoming orders — something like the codes texted to our phones that we now use to get to our accounts. But the military’s priorities being what they were, they knew codes get lost, you can’t find your code sheet, etc. So they made every single code the same, 0001, or something like that. You don’t need to be an organizational theorist to know this would happen. You just have to have worked in a large institution. It took a close examiner like Ellsberg to discover what we all need to know.  In short, our control over bureaucracies is limited, especially when one faction’s priorities are at odds with another’s.

Such competing priorities also shaped war plans.  Ellsberg discovered that the details of those plans were a closely guarded military secret. And it wasn’t just the enemy who were meant to be in the dark. The civilian masters of DOD, and the President himself, were not privy to these plans!  In the estimation of the military, there was no need for them to know! As in, “The Navy will run the blockade, Mr. President.”  In fact, the plans were so closely guarded that it was forbidden for anyone to mention their names!! That way, there was less chance of generating troublesome requests to read them.

What was in the plans developed by the military?  (Consider Curtis LeMay, if you want to mull over the mindset that produced them.) They could not be too intricate.  Large organizations are ponderous by their nature; they cannot be otherwise. So many logistics, so many details, so many people. So, when it came to war plans, as a consequence of their being so difficult and expensive to construct, Ellsberg discovered that there was only one. If we were attacked, we would retaliate by taking out the Soviet Union and China’s hundreds of millions of people What if China were not involved in the attack? Well, too bad, said the military, we can’t do more than one plan, and the Chinese would just have to pay the price. What would set the war plan in motion? Conflict between the U.S. and U.S.S.R.  What would constitute “conflict?”  Undefined. Forces fighting somewhere in the world? Maybe. Depends who was judging, maybe. Ton-of-bricks maybe.

This is just the way organizations and people work. A few weeks ago Hawaii experienced the incoming missile alert fiasco, a half-century after Ellsberg’s investigations. What caused it?  A worker who had had difficulty previously differentiating practice from the real thing, and had been counseled (or not) and had been kept on. When the call came in from the U.S. Pacific Command secure line to the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, the worker who received it didn’t put the initial part on speaker phone — the part that said “exercise, exercise, exercise.” What went on speaker was the part that said, mistakenly, “This is not a drill.”  The AP relates: “the agency had a vague checklist for missile alerts, allowing workers to interpret the steps they should follow differently. Managers didn’t require a second person to sign off on alerts before they were sent, and the agency lacked any preparation on how to correct a false warning.” And the Governor forgot his Twitter password. There’s no excuse for believing people and large organizations will function differently in the future, whether they’re making infant formula in France (rolling recall with infants dying, corporation delaying and denying) or trying to control life-destroying armaments.

Would any of our nation’s leaders have been willing to order a nuclear attack, if it were up to them? There is compelling evidence to think the answer is “no.” Eisenhower knowingly substituted nukes and first-strike capability and “brinksmanship” to avoid the expense of large standing armies (and used the saved money to fuel the economic expansion of the 50’s), but it was a bluff. Kennedy wouldn’t have done it, McNamara wouldn’t have, etc. On the other hand, if the militarists could’ve they probably would’ve. True believer militarists had the temerity to experiment with air power in WWII, when they tried to find out if decimating fire bombing of civilian targets would demoralize a population or reinforce the popular will to fight. They performed this experiment, first the English and then the Americans, and determined it didn’t demoralize, at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives. Luckily for the experimenters, the Japanese militarists kept the war going long enough for them to see what Little Boy and Fat Boy would do. Seriously. I read elsewhere that LeMay told McNamara at one point during the Viet Nam War, “If we lose, we’ll be hung as war criminals.” And McNamara nodded assent. C’est la guerre.

Scientists turned out to be ready for risky business too. We are used to pictures of mushroom clouds now, but prior to Los Alamos no one knew what to expect. Some in the Manhattan group thought that it was possible, just possible, that instead of a mushroom cloud and a relatively enclosed explosion, a chain reaction might consume the atmosphere of the entire world. Life, then, would be back to anaerobic microbiota, a rather major setback. While it was unlikely that this would happen, the chances seemed more than zero. The Manhattan Project’s scientists, as they awaited the first experimental explosion from miles away, took that wager. No one blinked.

But Ellsberg is blinking. He was blinking in real time back in the day, not just now. During the Berlin Crisis, when a nuclear exchange with the Soviets was contemplated, he wondered: if we use nukes on each other and we look back after all is said and done, will we ask, was Berlin worth it?  And now we know the stakes are even higher than we thought they were then. The discovery that Nuclear Winter would be the likely result of a firestorm (since debris would block out the sun for decades) means that destruction of civilization is no longer the end game. What’s at stake now is the extinguishing of most life forms. We are talking about life starting from scratch. Forget the extinction of the dinosaurs when mammals survived. We’re talking back to microbes.

Amazingly, what Ellsberg’s book tells us — and there is so much more in it than I have touched on — is that Dr. Strangelove was not a fantasy, but a work of hyper-realism. It was, at its core, a true story. How and where Stanley Kubrick and Terry Southern got their information I don’t know (some came from Herman Kahn). The horror, the horror.

Tom Lehrer’s song was also true, I guess: “When the rocket goes up who cares where it comes down, that’s not my department says Werner von Braun.” Both Strangelove and Lehrer remind me of the legendary gallows humor of medical trainees as we saw our patients sicken and die.

One of the effects of Ellsberg’s ton-of-bricks revelations is to make me zero in on where I stand. Exactly ten years younger than Ellsberg, when his structural engineer father was in charge of the Ford Willow Run plant and the Dodge Chicago plant that produced B-24’s and B-29’s, I was jumping off the railing of our porch on Osage Avenue in Philadelphia with arms outstretched, pretending to be one of those planes. When Ban the Bombers marched I agreed with them to a point, but what was the alternative, I wondered? Large standing armies? Evil and imperial expansionism exist. I was struck by the clock of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, but again, what to do? I agreed with the wise men of aggressive military strategy — McNamara, Nunn, Schultz et al. — who resurrected Ban the Bomb, but saw it come to very little, at least up to now. Mostly, I have stuck to my knitting, and have chosen avoidance of a sort, or rather passivity.  I do my work and vote right, I try to be a good person, but mob forces and ignorance exist, human nature exists, and it is all very frightening. In the dailiness of life, I’m in denial of the prospect of my own death as well as the death of the planet. Maybe that’s too harsh. But when one sees what needs doing, it’s very hard not to be self-lacerating.

Meanwhile, all honor to Ellsberg. He has received some criticism for getting involved in hawkish pursuits in the first place, for not speaking up early enough, for staying inside the system, for being complicit. This is hogwash. We discover ourselves and our missions — and we criticize received wisdom — in stages. The myth of sudden political awakenings tends to trivialize learning processes in a democracy. Ellsberg started removing the scales from his eyes remarkably early. Yet the power of the militarist establishment remains essentially unabated. What he has delivered in the details and the overall perspective in his book is as fine a gift to citizens of the world as could be imagined.  We do what we can do, and this is what he can do. It’s up to others to assert leadership in this country and the world to remove the nuclear threat from our planet (even as we address the other great threat of climate change).  What this book provides are heavy facts that we keep avoiding at our peril. It will hit you like a ton of bricks.

Ban The Bomb. Armies aren’t all bad. Universal service has much to commend it. But that’s an entire other subject.