Analysis: The Doomsday Machine, by Daniel Ellsberg

With the possible exception of Edward Snowden, Daniel Ellsberg is probably the most famous whistleblower in American history, responsible for leaking the Pentagon Papers that revealed the extent of the US government’s deceptions regarding its involvement in Vietnam. No one aside from a few of Ellsberg’s confidants, however, knew that while he was risking his liberty and reputation to give the public the truth about Vietnam, he was actually sitting on yet more revelations gleaned from his time working as a government contractor—revelations of apocalyptic importance.

The Doomsday Machine is Ellsberg’s part-memoir, part-jeremiad about what he learned working for the RAND corporation as a nuclear planner, why he decided it was important enough to share with the public, and what he believes can be done about it. Many go about their lives blissfully unaware of the precarious history of the world’s collective nuclear systems (the “Doomsday Machine”); others may fancy themselves rather enlightened about the subject. The unsettling truth, though, is that however bad you imagine it to be, the reality is almost certainly worse. The Doomsday Machine is a nonfiction cosmic horror novel, a tale of humans flying too close to the sun and very nearly burning not just themselves, but all life on earth.

My own commentary will be able to add little to the central points Ellsberg makes, so much of this analysis will be comprised mainly of extended quotes from the book.

Top 5 Key Concepts

Looser control and faster responses have been prioritized over safety

Page 63: “Throughout the Cold War such priorities reflected a command environment in which…it was regarded as overwhelmingly more important to assure a Go response when required than to prevent a false alarm or an unauthorized action; and there was a tremendous emphasis on a fast, immediate response to warnings of a nuclear attack and to a high-level Go command…

“…Effective safety catches, whether in the form of rules or physical safeguards, meant potential delays in response. And delays were anathema, dangerous to the mission—of disarming the enemy—and to the survival of the weapons, the command system, and the nation…In the face of an enemy believed to be Hitlerian in savagery and armed with a nuclear force believed (incorrectly) to be superior to our own, all these concerns and considerations of safety and high-level control gave way.

“And there was a further reason…for the Joint Chiefs of Staff to tolerate the shortcomings of the control system, to put up fierce and prolonged resistance to measures that would tighten control of nuclear weapons up and down the line. That was their distrust, above all in a crisis, of the judgment of civilian commanders and their staff and advisors, especially their willingness to launch nuclear attacks when military commanders believed them to be urgently necessary.”

Many hands hover over the Doomsday button

Page 69: “It seemed obvious once I thought about it. The public’s impression of exclusively presidential or even high-level military control, which I’d shared up until that moment, could not be valid. That applied all the more to the notion that only the president himself could ‘push the button.’ Could a single assassin’s bullet, or a temporary separation of the ‘football’ from the president…open a window of total inability to respond to a nuclear attack?

“Not really. The theatrical device represented by the president’s moment-by-moment day-and-night access to the ‘football,’ with its supposedly unique authorization codes, has always been exactly that: theater…Whatever the public declarations to the contrary, there has to be delegation of authority and capability to launch retaliatory strikes, not only to officials outside the Oval Office but outside Washington too, or there would be no real basis for nuclear deterrence.

Page 73: “…it was clear that the same incentives that influenced the president existed for further delegations by lower commanders [emphasis mine].

“Each level of command had reason to worry that during a crisis, an outage of communications, whether due to atmospheric or technical difficulties or an enemy attack on that command headquarters, could paralyze the nuclear capabilities of subordinate units unless they’d been delegated authority to act under such conditions…”

Page 75: “I accepted, as inescapable, the idea of Eisenhower’s delegation of authority to execute war plans to a handful of four-star admirals and generals outside Washington. But I had growing unease, to put it mildly at the prospect that this delegated reverberated downward in a widening circle that permitted authorized launch by more and more subordinate commanders, not to mention the physical possibility of unauthorized action by control officers or by crews of alert nuclear vehicles, whether planes or submarines.”

Deterring strikes against civilian targets counterintuitively requires preserving the enemy’s cities and command/control structure

Page 122-123: “This latter goal required both deterring—if possible—an opponent from launching strikes against the cities of the United States and its allies, even if nuclear war was initiated by one side or the other, and at the same time inducing the opponent’s command authority to stop operations short of expending all his weapons.

“Both of these sub-goals called for three characteristics in our own planning and operations. First, it meant avoiding enemy cities altogether in our own initial strikes: what came to be known as a ‘no cities’ approach. We would have to announce that intention long before hostilities began. Right away, this would be a marked departure from a policy of indicating beforehand and then carrying out our intent to destroy cities in all circumstances, a policy that removed any restraint on the enemy from targeting our own cities.

“Second, it required maintaining protected and controlled US reserve forces under virtually all circumstances, thus preserving a threat capability in order to terminate the war. That might also deter enemy preparations to destroy our cities as an inevitable and automatic wartime strategy.

“Third, it called for preserving on both sides a command and control system capable of both controlling reserve forces and terminating operations. We would need a survivable command system capable of more than a simple ‘Go’ decision; and we could not afford to deprive the Soviets of the same cabability.”

Page 305: “Each side prepares and actually intends to attack the other’s ‘military nervous system,’ command and control…This has become the only hope of preempting and paralyzing the other’s retaliatory capability in such a way as to avoid total devastation; it is what must above all be deterred by the opponent. But in fact it, too, is thoroughly suicidal unless the other side has failed to delegate authority well below the highest levels. Because each side does in fact delegate, hopes for decapitation are totally unfounded. But for the duration of the Cold War, for fear of frightening their own publics, their allies, and the world, neither side discouraged these hopes in the other by acknowledging its own delegation.”

The Pentagon’s presumed nuclear war plan predicted one hundred holocausts would result

Page 136-137: “…275 million would die in the first few hours of our attacks and 325 million would be dead within six months…this was for the Soviet Union and China alone…

“…Another hundred million or so would die in the Eastern European satellite countries from the attacks contemplated in our war plans…

“Fallout from our surface explosions in the Soviet Union, its satellites, and China would decimate the populations in the Sino-Soviet bloc as well as in all the neutral nations bordering these countries…These fatalities from US attacks, up to another hundred million, would occur without a single US warhead landing on the territories of these countries outside the NATO and Warsaw pacts.

“Fallout fatalities inside our Western European NATO allies from US attacks against the Warsaw Pact would depend on climate and wind conditions. As a general testifying before Congress put it, these could be up to a hundred million European allied deaths from out attacks, ‘depending on which way the wind blows’…

“…The total death count from our own attacks, in the estimates supplied by the Joint Staff, was in the neighborhood of six hundred million dead, almost entirely civilians…And these were solely the effects of US warheads, not including any effects from Soviet retaliatory attacks on the United States or US and Allied forces in Europe or elsewhere.”

Intent is not enough to avert nuclear damnation

Page 201: “The fact is that on Saturday, October 27, 1962, a chain of events was in motion that might have come close to ending civilization. How close? A handbreadth.

“That is despite the fact, as I have come to believe, that both leaders, Khruschev and Kennedy, were determined to avoid armed conflict—that both, in fact, were prepared to settle on the other’s terms if necessary, rather than go to war. And yet they hoped, by threatening war, to achieve a better bargain. For the sake of a better deal they both were willing to postpone by hours or days the settlement that each was willing to make. And meanwhile, during those hours, their subordinates (unaware that they were supporting a pure bluff in a game of bargaining) were taking military actions that could unleash an unstoppable train of events, ultimately pulling the trigger on a Doomsday Machine.”

Page 219: “Yes, the world of humans came very close to ending in October 1962…This was not because the two opposing leaders were rash or reckless or insensitive to the potential danger. Both, in fact, were cautious to a degree that neither could know, more cautious than the world or most of their associates could realize. Furthermore, they both shared an extreme abhorrence for the idea of nuclear war, which they recognized as potentially the end of civilization and even of humanity.”

“What a true history of the Cuban missile crisis reveals is that the existence of masses of nuclear weapons in the hands of leaders of the superpowers, the United States and Russia—even when those leaders are about as responsible, humane, and cautious as any we have seen—posed then, and still do, intolerable dangers to the survival of civilization.”

Top 5 Disagreements

Page 219: “A primary lesson I draw from [the Cuban missile crisis] is that the existential danger to humanity of nuclear weapons does not rest solely or even mainly on the possibility of further proliferation of such weapons to ‘rogue’ or ‘unstable’ nations, who would handle and threaten them less ‘responsibly’ than the permanent members of the Security Council, nor does it rest merely on the vagaries of the smaller and more recent nuclear weapons states of Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea (though these do enhance the dangers).”

Ellsberg’s belief that nuclear weapons are just as dangerous (or even more so) in the hands of superpowers as in the hands of terrorists and rogue states is plausible, but could be disproven should a rogue actor strike first. This could occur due to a few reasons:

To start, a nuclear deployment by a state by any legs of the nuclear triad will leave that state with almost no deniability whatsoever, while a rogue actor (either working independently or with the surreptitious support of, e.g., North Korea) could act with some measure of anonymity, at least in the short term. Additionally, the size and cohesion of a nation like the US or Russia makes nuclear retaliation plausible, while a decentralized group would almost certainly have to be dealt with using more targeted methods, meaning the risk of escalation to all-out nuclear war decreases when the initial detonation results from rogue/secret actors rather than directly from a nation-state’s nuclear arsenal.

However, as Stalin said, quantity has a quality all of its own; the sheer number of nukes possessed by the world’s nuclear powers increases the surface area for accidents (of which there have been many), cowboys, and ideologues within those nations’ militaries. Also, as Ellsberg points out, crises can escalate due to internal pressures on the leaders even when external incentives (deterrence) and the leaders themselves are pushing for de-escalation. Nations can’t be trusted to act in a collectively rational way.



  • Should a nuclear detonation occur at the hands of a rogue group or state, it would deal a severe blow to Ellsberg’s claim that they are a less severe threat than the more stable superpowers and other members of the Security Council.
  • I am unaware of any factually incorrect statements made by Ellsberg, but by his own admission most of the documentation for his claims was washed away in a flood decades ago. Most of his claims are dependent on his honesty and memory.
  • Increased communication between powers may lead to a situation where the benign intent of the leaders does translate more clearly to policy and decision-making. Part of the reason the famed ‘red telephone’ connecting Moscow and Washington was set up was to avoid a situation like the ones Ellsberg describes in the book and allow the two leaders to communicate more rapidly and directly, avoiding some of the game-theoretic traps inherent in a situation like the Cuban missile crisis.


Connections to Other Works

  • The Black Swan, by Nassim Taleb:
    • “No other formulation of a decision problem—this one, the most important in human history!—could have caught my attention so forcefully. ‘Ambiguity’ was not a term then used in academic discussions of risk and uncertainty. I was especially struck to see it in a classified study, because I was in the process of introducing it academically as a technical term, referring to subjective uncertainty when experience was lacking, or information was sparse, the bearing of evidence was unclear, the testimony of observers or experts was greatly in conflict, or the implications of different types of evidence was contradictory. (I conjectured—as was later borne out in many laboratory experiments—that such uncertainty could not be represented by a single, precise numerical probability distribution, either in subjects’ minds or as reflected in their behavior, even though they did not regard it as ‘totally uncertain.’)” (pg. 42)

Closing Thoughts

Scott Alexander opens his essay Meditations on Moloch with an excerpt from Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, a free-form lamentation on the destruction that Moloch, Canaanite god of child sacrifice, brings upon humanity. “What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination?” the excerpt begins. “Moloch!” Ginsberg answers himself. Moloch the “loveless,” the “heavy judger of men,” whose “poverty is the specter of genius,” in whom “I dream angels.”

Alexander goes to work untangling Ginsberg’s metaphorical language and contradictory imagery to find what Moloch is, at the very bottom. Moloch, he concludes, is essentially why humans do what they do even when they don’t want to—the perverse incentives created by distrust, competition, and fear; one hypothetical example cited is Nick Bostrom’s “dictatorless dystopia” in which there are just two rules:

“First, every person must spend eight hours a day giving themselves strong electric shocks. Second, if anyone fails to follow a rule (including this one), or speaks out against it, or fails to enforce it, all citizens must unite to kill that person. Suppose these rules were well-enough established by tradition that everyone expected them to be enforced.

“So you shock yourself for eight hours a day, because you know if you don’t everyone else will kill you, because if they don’t, everyone else will kill them, and so on. Every single citizen hates the system, but for lack of a good coordination mechanism it endures. From a god’s-eye-view, we can optimize the system to “everyone agrees to stop doing this at once”, but no one within the system is able to effect the transition without great risk to themselves.”

Moloch is all the wicked traps the universe laid for humanity before it ever evolved; in a way, it would be comforting to take all the things Moloch is responsible for and say human nature caused them instead. That way, we could say that if we could just change some piece of ourselves—our genetics, our institutions, our cultures—Moloch could be overthrown. But there was nothing that could have been done in the past to avoid him, and nothing in the future; Moloch is necessary, not contingent, in any universe with evolving, competing organisms. It was Moloch that gave rise to human nature, not the other way around.

Moloch is why this book is so critical; as Ellsberg and many others have repeatedly pointed out, we already have one glaring historical example where every decision-maker involved desperately wanted to avert Armageddon but crept ever closer anyway. The Doomsday Machine, it seems, is Moloch’s handiwork.

I finish with yet another extended quote from The Doomsday Machine that sums up the central message better than anything I ever could, and leave you to consider its implications:

“What is missing—what is foregone—in the typical discussion and analysis of historical or current nuclear policies is the recognition that what is being discussed is dizzyingly insane and immoral: in its almost-incalculable and inconceivable destructiveness and deliberate murderousness, its disproportionality of risked and planned destructiveness to either declared or unacknowledged objectives, the infeasibility of its secretly pursued aims (damage limitation to the United States and allies, ‘victory’ in two-sided nuclear war), its criminality (to a degree that explodes ordinary visions of law, justice, crime), its lack of wisdom or compassion, its sinfulness and evil.

“And yet part of what must be grasped—what makes it both understandable, once grasped, and at the same time mysterious and resistant to our ordinary understanding—is that the creation, maintenance, and political threat-use of these monstrous machines has been directed and accomplished by humans pretty much the way we think of them: more or less ordinary people, neither better nor worse than the rest of us, not monsters in either a clinical or mythic sense.

“This particular process, and what it has led to and the dangers it poses to all complex life on earth, shows the human species—when organized hierarchically in large, dense populations, i.e., civilization—at its absolute worst. Is it really possible that ordinary people, ordinary leaders, have created and accepted dangers of the sort I am describing? Every ‘normal’ impulse is to say ‘No! It can’t be that bad!’ (‘And if it ever was, it can’t have persisted. It can’t be true now, in our own country.’)

“We humans almost universally have a false self-image of our species. We think that monstrous, wicked policies must be, can only be, conceived and directed and carried out by monsters, wicked or evil people, or highly aberrant, clinically ‘disturbed; people. People not like ‘us.’ That is mistaken. Those who have created a continuing nuclear threat to the existence of humanity have been normal, ordinary politicians, analysts, and military strategists. To them and to their subordinates, Hannah Arendt’s controversial proposition regarding the ‘banality of evil’ I believe applies, though it might better have been stated as the ‘banality of evildoing, and of most evildoers…’

“…Perhaps reflection on these political, social, and moral failures—preceding though amplified by current premonitions of disastrous decision-making during the tenure of Donald Trump—will lend credibility to my basic theme, otherwise hard to absorb: that the same type of heedless, shortsighted, and reckless decision-making and lying about it has characterized our government’s nuclear planning, threats, and preparations, throughout the nuclear era, risking a catastrophe incomparably greater than all these others together.”



Moloch the vast stone of war! Moloch the stunned governments!

Moloch whose mind is pure machinery! Moloch whose blood is running money! Moloch whose fingers are ten armies! Moloch whose breast is a cannibal dynamo! Moloch whose ear is a smoking tomb!


Final Score: 5/5

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