The Doomsday Machine in 2017

Nukes are on people’s nerves again, for good reason.  Our tremors, though, could be a symptom of sanity.  What do you mean: fire and fury, the incineration of nations, on one man’s decision? What they never told us was that the Cold War could end, but the worst thing about it—the Age of Nuclear Anxiety—could keep right on going. Why is the worst of all weapons still out there, 25 years later?  

Daniel Ellsberg after releasing the Pentagon Papers (Wally Fong / AP)

Daniel Ellsberg knew he was risking life in prison for leaking the Pentagon Papers about the Vietnam War. But even then, most of 50 years ago, he was compiling a more awful story he wanted to liberate. And now, at the age of 86, he’s done it with the publication of The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner. His latest book gives us the official and documentary version of our nuclear nightmare. The real story strangely resembles the black-humor script of Doctor Strangelove.  Hearing Ellsberg’s stories, you may be reminded of the War Room scene from Kubrick’s film with our president and the Russian ambassador talking total world destruction, on autopilot:

The strangest part of Daniel Ellsberg’s Confessions is his argument that the movie parody is still running in real life: the doomsday machines are still on hair-triggers.

Elaine Scarry is a literary scholar who happens to be an expert on what nuclear weapons have done to democracy. Her book, Thermonuclear Monarchy, is an essential guide to this terrifying power.  In October, Elaine Scarry, helped convene a huge conference of citizens and experts around this mystery of presidential authority over nukes.

Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts is the lonely-looking Democrat in Congress who wants to contain the president’s nuclear authority. He announced recently that he was filing a bill to prevent President Trump from launching a first strike on North Korea without first getting a congressional declaration of war. 

William Perry helped build Silicon Valley as the tech capital, then ran the Pentagon in Bill Clinton’s presidency.  He was one of four old establishment figures who ten years ago called for “a world free of nuclear weapons”—alongside George Shultz, Sam Nunn and Henry Kissinger. Time Magazine called them “The Four Horsemen of the Nuclear Apocalypse.”  Today, William Perry, at age 90, says the danger of nuclear catastrophe is greater than it was during the Cold War and that most people are blissfully unaware of it.

Vincent Intondi takes on a lot of unconventional angles in his book, African Americans Against the BombHe reminds us that black American artists and political leaders—from Langston Hughes and Charlie Parker to Bayard Rustin and MLK— have long been on the front lines of the disarmament fight. Today, he says, it’s still people of color—primarily in the global south—leading the charge for nuclear abolition.


Guest List
Daniel Ellsberg
author of The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner and former United States military analyst
William Perry
former Secretary of Defense under President Bill Clinton and author of My Journey at the Nuclear Brink
Elaine Scarry
professor of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value at Harvard University and author of Thermonuclear Monarchy
Senator Ed Markey
junior United States Senator of Massachusetts
Vincent J. Intondi
professor of African American history at Montgomery College and author of African Americans Against the Bomb

Related Content

  • Like my grampy said: when people are not afraid, they like that better.

  • Potter

    Our leaders have bought and sold the MAD game. Nuclear winter is so unimaginable we have over time turned away from knowing ( ingesting) the reality, and have maybe become inured to it (?). Ellsberg thankfully brings this back into view: the numbers, projections descriptions, the need for horror and alarm. Instead we have heard and bought “non-proliferation” while seeing creeping acceptance. We want don’t want to give up ours.

    That is hopefully causing some awakening as Trump waves his threats, taunts. He seems to believe or has been told we could have our way with nuclear weapons and survive, as if this would not be suicidal, as if we could win. Ellsberg is not saying this would be suicidal, but (merely?) dangerous and millions dead. I am in disbelief that this would not be suicidal, at least ultimately so.

    Thank you for focussing on this one of two of the most important issues facing us as a planet..the other climate change.

    • Potter

      Bravo..our Senator Markey!

  • A in Sharon

    Are Nukes really the most dangerous weapon? More generally, are the weapons we classify as capable of mass destruction still the most dangerous? Chemical/Biologic weapons have been around for a century. Nuclear for half that. Any talk of weaponry has to begin with the wielder. A suicide bomber is the wielder of a weapon that accepts being destroyed by the weapon. A wielder of a Nuke has to accept that they personally will be harmed by its use, which squarely puts non-state actors as the most likely to try and use that weapon. That is difficult to do. This conversation focuses attention on nation-states, not independent lunatics. MAD only worked because of the mutual part. Why would a rational war maker choose a weapon that will likely result in their own demise? I admit I am discounting stupidity here. A discussion of mass destruction weapons has to factor in targeted lethality. It then leads to a discussion of technological capabilities. Mass weaponry depends on technology. What would be the nature of a truly fearful weapon of mass destruction? That which only destroys what the wielder wants to destroy. Say, for example, something that could target a very specific genetic marker. A genetic marker for racial characteristics. A genetic marker for intelligence. A genetic marker for gender. The marker determined only by the malice of the wielder. Add to this the requirement for stealth. It’s difficult to defend against the wielder when you can’t tell who or where they are. This is why the ROS discussion on CRISPR is scarier to me than this one.