To say that the New York Times made history in 1971 when it published the “Pentagon Papers” would be an understatement for many reasons. In addition to telling the world how the U.S. government had consistently lied about the reasons for its invasion of Vietnam, the publication of the “Papers” also ignited an epic struggle to preserve freedom of the press to report the truth in spite of the efforts of the government to promote its “fake news”.
Most importantly, the courage of the people at the Times and the 18 other newspapers which defied the Nixon administration played a critical role in ending the carnage in Indochina – where over 3 million human beings were slaughtered, in addition to over 50,000 U.S. troops killed, not to mention all the people who were wounded and traumatized by the war.
Washington dropped around 7 million tons of bombs on Indochina (Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia), while the bombing of North Vietnam alone surpassed the total tonnage of bombs dropped by the U.S. in the entire Second World War.
When the Vietnamese refused to yield, the primary reason that Nixon did not proceed with his plan to drop nuclear bombs in 1969 was his fear of the growing power of the peace movement.
And yet – while former Defense Department analyst Daniel Ellsberg was preparing to release the Pentagon Papers, he copied other secret documents that he considered even more significant. As he explains in his most recent book, The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner: “…it was even more important to release the other contents of my safes: those bearing on the…peril that U.S. nuclear policies…had created.”
Ellsberg released the Pentagon Papers first because, “Vietnam is where the bombs are falling.” It took him more than four decades to gather all the documents to write this frankly terrifying look at the growing threat of nuclear omnicide.
In brief, Ellsberg shows that the deliberate targeting of civilians in mass bombing campaigns – a central element in U.S. nuclear war plans – actually began during the Second World War, when the governments of Britain and the United States adopted the same tactic as initially used by fascist Germany and Japan. For instance, around 25,000 innocent people were burned to death in the horrific fire-bombing of Dresden. It was ever worse in Tokyo, where people, “became blazing torches unable to move in the melting asphalt.” Approximately one-hundred thousand people perished in that firestorm. And these were non-nuclear attacks.
Contrary to the U.S. government position, there was no military justification for using nuclear weapons on the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, as Generals Dwight Eisenhower and Douglas MacArthur confirmed - the Japanese government was already trying to surrender. About 185,000 people died in those unnecessary bombings. (One of the true motives for using nuclear weapons on Japanese civilians was to let the Soviets know who was the lone superpower in the post-war world).
Ellsberg shows how the current nuclear war-fighting plans of the U.S. and Russia also target cities, with casualties expected to be literally in the billions, all around the world. Any survivors of the nuclear bombing would probably envy the dead, as they would have to not only cope with the trauma of their devastating experiences, but also with the effects of the smoke that would rise into the atmosphere, “forming a blanket blocking most sunlight around the earth for a decade or more.” This “nuclear winter”, according to Ellsberg, “would reduce sunlight and lower temperatures worldwide to a point that would eliminate all harvests and starve to death” nearly everybody who survived the nuclear war itself.
He also explains that, for various strategic reasons, it is not just Trump or Putin who might launch a genocidal nuclear war. Not only could lower ranking officers order a first strike (as General Jack D. Ripper did in the classic film, Dr. Strangelove), but there is always the possibility of misunderstandings, errors, and other situations which could accidentally trigger a nuclear war that nobody intended. We have come too close to such a catastrophe many times over the years.
During the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, for example, the determination and diplomacy of U.S. President Kennedy and Soviet Premier Khrushchev was critical in preventing a nuclear war - but just barely. In spite of their intentions, there were several unexpected events which could have turned into an apocalypse. In one case, a Soviet submarine came under attack from U.S. destroyers and two of the three ranking officers wanted to respond with a nuclear-armed torpedo. But as Ellsberg reports, the third officer, Vasili Arkhipov, vetoed that option – saving humanity from disaster.
The danger is even greater now, as there are more nuclear powers (France, Britain, Israel, Pakistan, China, India, N. Korea), and today’s nuclear weapons are many times more powerful than the one that destroyed Hiroshima.
And the potential for unintended escalations in places like Syria, Iran, and Korea only increase the chances of a nuclear confrontation that nobody intends.
Part of the problem is that most people have no idea how dangerous a situation we are now facing, and some entertain the dangerous idea that it is possible to emerge victorious after a nuclear holocaust. Actually, this question was answered in the TV sitcom, “Happy Days”, when the Cunningham family was trying to decide if they should build a bomb shelter in their backyard. When his father said that nuclear weapons were needed to prevent the U.S. from finishing last in a war, his son Ritchie (Ron Howard) sagely replied, “In an atomic war, does anybody finish first?”
Another cause of the arms race, of course, is the power of what President Eisenhower rightly called, “the military-industrial complex” which profits to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars every year, and is not shy to make contributions to its allies in both political parties.
It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the nuclear arms build-up that was started by President Obama is continuing under President Trump - a plan to modernize the three legs of the nuclear triad - submarines, bombers and land-based missiles - at a cost of over $1 trillion.
Michael T. Klare, professor of peace studies, writes, “the US military has…committed itself and the nation to a three-front geopolitical struggle…in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East…What appears particularly worrisome about this three-front strategy is its immense capacity for confrontation, miscalculation, escalation, and finally actual war…”
This January, The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists “moved its Doomsday Clock ahead…to 11:58 pm — the symbolic time of civilization's destruction,” adding: “The danger of some sort of nuclear catastrophe is greater than it was in the Cold War."
The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) was awarded the 2017 Nobel peace prize for the organisation’s efforts to abolish nuclear weapons globally. Its founder, Tilman Ruff, says America’s aggressive new nuclear policy is “a blueprint for nuclear war”.
ICAN sponsored a prohibition treaty which was adopted by the United Nations general assembly last July, when two-thirds of the world’s countries – 122 nations – voted in favour of the treaty outlawing nuclear weapons. The treaty will come into force when 50 countries have ratified it.
None of the nuclear states, including the US, signed on.
Humanity is now at its most dangerous moment in history.
We do, however, have alternatives.
For starters, Ellsberg makes a very convincing case for a drastic reduction in the numbers of nuclear weapons, which would significantly reduce the risks of an apocalypse.
The good news? The 70,000 nuclear weapons that were in existence thirty years ago have been reduced to “only” around 15,000 – so progress is possible.
To go further, we must heed the advice of Henry Kissinger, Sam Nunn, William Perry and George Shultz. “In 2007, these four leading Cold Warriors, who served at the highest levels of government under Republican and Democratic presidents, endorsed the goal of ‘a world free of nuclear weapons’ and outlined an agenda to achieve that goal.”
And as we observe the 50th anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King, we should remember that he was not only fighting for civil rights, but that he understood the connections between the “triple evils of racism, economic exploitation, and militarism. The great problem and the great challenge facing mankind today is to get rid of war …”
Around $2 trillion goes to world military spending every year, and the illegal invasion of Iraq alone will cost the U.S. around $5 trillion. When we finally put an end to militarism, think of all the good that we could do when the money and resources that now go to war is invested in such common goods as eliminating poverty, cutting taxes, funding health care, and creating millions of jobs in renewable energy, reforestation, and other “green” projects.
We must also create situations that bring out the best, not the worst, in us. One of the important insights in The Doomsday Machine is that the people Ellsberg knew who planned for nuclear war were, in his words, “not evil…They were normal Americans, capable and patriotic.” This “banality of evil” has been explored by social psychologists like Philip Zimbardo (“Stanford Prison Experiment”) and research has shown repeatedly that good people will collaborate with evil - in the wrong situations.
The ultimate solution, as former Soviet leader – and Nobel Peace Prize winner - Mikhail Gorbachev recently wrote: “A world without nuclear weapons: There can be no other final goal.”
When will we actually have a “world without nuclear weapons”? Again, President Eisenhower had the answer: “I like to believe that people, in the long run, are going to do more to promote peace than our governments. Indeed, I think that people want peace so much that one of these days governments had better get out of the way and let them have it.”
We should follow the lead of Daniel Ellsberg by “speaking truth to power” and creating a global peace movement that will have the vision and strength to demand that governments “get out of the way” and finally rid the world of nuclear weapons - before our luck runs out.
(Note: Daniel Ellsberg will be the keynote speaker at a “Hero Round Table Conference” organized by Philip Zimbardo on April 21-22 in San Francisco. More info here.)