John Gittings

Nuclear Winter

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A disturbing new book by Daniel Ellsberg on the danger of nuclear conflict and the likely consequence of a "nuclear winter" which would end life on earth: a danger which was there in the past and is still with us today.


Daniel Ellsberg, famous for having leaked the Pentagon Papers during the Vietnam War, has delivered a darkly seasonal present for the New Year: a reminder in his new book of the consequences of “nuclear winter”, and a warning that existing nuclear weapons systems could still deliver it — all the more to be feared with Donald Trump in the White House. And he introduces us to a grim word which should be part of our discourse as we campaign to abolish those weapons — Omnicide.

   When working in the Pentagon on nuclear strategy in 1961, Ellsberg asked the Joint Chief of Staffs this question: how many people would die if their plans for general nuclear war were carried out. “Three hundred million in the Soviet Union and China”, the answer came back, and double that number through "collateral damage elsewhere.

    But this estimate did not take into account the phenomenon of nuclear winter, only fully researched later, in which the smoke injected into the stratosphere by the nuclear explosions blots out the sky and destroys the means of existence: in reality a nuclear war then, says Ellsberg, would have led to the death of  almost all the world’s population.

    And today? There are fewer weapons now, but they are more powerful and could be just as devastating, and would result in Omnicide, the term coined by the America peace philosopher John Somerville, at the height of nuclear confrontation.

    “In other words, first-strike nuclear attacks by either side very much smaller than were planned in the sixties and seventies—and which are still prepared for instant execution in both Russia and America—would still kill by loss of sunlight and resulting starvation nearly all the humans on earth, now over seven billion".

    Ellsberg's book, published this December by Bloomsbury USA, is called The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner, (and for those who have Kindle, his Introduction can be downloaded for free).  Its sub-title indicates a complex back-story about Ellsberg's career working on nuclear strategy in the 1960s and on how he had originally planned to release a cache of secret documents on this subject after the Pentagon Papers.  But I hope that his personal narrative will not get in the way, when the book is reviewed, of the message he now seeks to convey, namely that

    "The present risks of the current nuclear era go far beyond the dangers of proliferation and non-state terrorism that have been the almost exclusive focus of public concern for the past generation and the past decade in particular. The arsenals and plans of the two superpowers represent not only an insuperable obstacle to an effective global anti-proliferation campaign; they are in themselves a clear and present existential danger to the human species, and most others".

    Ellsberg bases his argument on three counts: the most familiar one is that of nuclear war by false alarm or accident, and this is not the first such warning. In 2013 Eric Schlosser's Command and Control provided a shocking picture of the nuclear accidents and near-misses over past decades. Schlosser concluded with the warning that the weapons systems that may be so fallible are still there -- "every one of them is an accident waiting to happen, a potential act of mass murder".

    But Ellsberg explores another significant dimension: the doctrine of "first-use" which means that the US (and also Russia) insist on retaining a capability to strike first with nuclear weapons -- not a "bolt out of the blue" but pre-emptively.  The scenario would be one where it is feared that the "other side" is planning to attack, and here too there is obviously ample space for mistakes and miscalculation.

    Ellsberg also draws our attention to a less well-known problem -- the system of delegating the "power to launch" to other military or even civilian authorities in the case of crisis: this, he says, has been "one of our highest national secrets".   He suggests too that the same system of delegation may exist in all other nuclear weapons states, including the newer ones. "How many fingers are on Pakistani nuclear buttons?", he asks. "Probably not even the president of Pakistan knows reliably."  So we may need to be worried by more than the single finger in the White House and the other one in Pyongyang.


Column for Oxford CND Newsletter, Jan-Feb 2018.