Saturday, February 10, 2018

Ellsberg and the Garbage Dump

The other day, I caught part of a conversation with Daniel Ellsberg that was broadcast in the evening on NPR. I can't find the show now, but this article in New York magazine covers the topic I want to mention.

Ellsberg has a new book out, called The Doomsday Machine, about the nuclear arms race during the Cold War period. It turns out, he had more Pentagon Papers on that subject that were never released to the press. This is why:

The cache [he took from Rand Corporation] included not only the 47-volume history of Vietnam that became known as the Pentagon Papers, but also thousands of pages pertaining to his many years of work on nuclear deterrence....

One of the documents in his safe, as the FBI surely knew, was a classified nuclear study commissioned by Kissinger. “It’s the same old Dr. Strangelove stuff: 90 million dead, 120 million dead,” Ellsberg says. “But I was going to put that out, of course.” Ellsberg stashed that memo, along with all the other nuclear materials, in a box and gave the lot to his brother, Harry, who later wrapped them in plastic and buried them in the compost pile behind his home in Hastings-on-Hudson. Harry, who is now dead, told his brother that the FBI came poking around the compost pile. But he had already moved the box to another hiding spot, beneath a big iron stove in the garbage dump in Tarrytown.

Ellsberg intended to arrange for the nuclear papers to be leaked after his trial in Los Angeles, where he was sure he would be convicted. But then he was vindicated through a chain of events he calls a “miracle.” The Watergate investigation revealed the activities of Nixon’s plumbers, including the burglary of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office. The case against him was dismissed. Afterward, though, Harry gave him some bad news: A tropical storm had flooded the dump in 1971. The nuclear papers were lost....

The Doomsday Machine represents Ellsberg’s attempt to reconstruct, via his memories and now-declassified documents, the knowledge that was washed away. 
So that's incredible, right? If it weren't for a tropical storm, maybe there would have been a move toward disarmament, or Reagan would never have been elected...

A few things Ellsberg covers in the book, which I heard him describe on the radio, were that it's not (and never has been) just the president who can launch a nuclear attack. Since Eisenhower, that ability has been delegated to top-level generals and admirals, and they in turn have empowered the next level down. So there are dozens of people who could do it. And the commander of any nuclear-enabled facility (whether a submarine or land-based unit) is allowed to launch if they are out of contact with command and believe there is military necessity.

Lyndon Johnson, Ellsberg said, stood up and told a bald-faced lie during the 1964 election, saying the president was the only one who could launch the nukes, and that therefore you shouldn't vote for Goldwater because he couldn't be trusted. Johnson had himself reaffirmed the chain of command that allowed dozens of other men the right to launch the missiles.

That the president who was behind the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution lied shouldn't be shocking to me, I know. And yet. I can still be shocked about nuclear war.

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