This is the transcript of a talk given by Daniel Ellsberg at the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation’s symposium “The Fierce Urgency of Nuclear Zero: Changing the Discourse” on October 24, 2016. The audio of this talk is available here. For more information about the symposium, click here.


I think each speaker has, understandably, started by saying what a privilege it is to be here. Let me define that privilege as I feel it, very much very specifically. I don’t believe, in my lifetime, I have been in a discussion group for one day or two days with as many knowledgeable people about nuclear war, nuclear policy, nuclear. If others have been more fortunate, fine. But I see this as a group that is unprecedented for me, and I’m 85. Just saying… A question of age here. We were just a little interested. Noam is the senior person here at 87, I have a senior here, six months more than I am, I’m 85. How many people here are over 64? Okay. You were 10 years old at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which I’d say is close to being old enough, and if you’re 70, you’d be 16. That was the last time the American people were conscious of being close, possibly close, to nuclear war. If you’re under that… Let’s say if you’re under 25, you were born after the Cold War, the first Cold War. They’re going to see another one. The people who are in college now are going to understand what ‘Cold War’ means. I’m sorry, ’cause we’re on the way, if we’re not in it already.

But they have no consciousness of what the first one meant, they couldn’t have. My understanding of… I think that the American public’s understanding and elite’s understanding of nuclear war is almost non-existent. When somebody mentioned earlier whether they knew the difference between an A-bomb and an H-bomb, I’ve asked many audiences that over the year. And I expect to get one, two or three people out of 500 or 1,000 who know that difference. In other words, they know almost nothing. So, let me ask, why aren’t the young involved in this? No American government and no other government has ever taken an effort to educate its people, and that includes non-nuclear states, as well. Eisenhower actually went through a brief period, in the very first months of his administration, on an op… What he called Operation Candor. Capital C-A-N-D-O-R, Candor. It was 1953, we had just tested a thermonuclear weapon in the last days of the Truman administration, having decided not to postpone that ’til Nixon. And he was actually tempted to tell people that the group worked on it in the White House, actually. On telling them of what fallout meant and what difference it made to have H-bombs over A-bombs.

I think Steven pointed out on your picture the difference is a thousand. In 1954, the first droppable H-bomb was tested. It was one thousand times the Hiroshima weapon. Very few people have a sense of what that means, or what it means right now, that India and Pakistan don’t have H-bombs, and will shortly if testing resumes, which many Republicans and others have been favoring for a long time, and what difference that would make. And I’ll go into that in just a moment. So, that’s sort of not knowing the first thing about the situation we’re in today. I was actually, I have to say, physically dizzy and fainting from the last two talks today by Steven and Hans. Not because I was unfamiliar, I am one of those who actually did know probably most, though far from all, of what each of them had to say. But seeing it all together in one place, and as of today, I was fainting. And the reason was this. Here’s something where I differ from the other people here, who are comparably knowledgers to me, but I’m the one who was part of the problem. No one else here, I suspect, has to think about or deal with the fact that they were on the side of the nuclear arms race at any point in their lives.

But I wasn’t just, say, designing nuclear weapons, which I know nothing about, or looking at weapons effects specifically. I’m not a scientist, I was an economist. I’m not a scientist. My work was on war plans. And what I was hearing was, “It’s back.” The insanities that I was dealing with, insanities that I was dealing with at that time, and was part of, are coming back. And let me make a little distinction there, my job was to try to somehow edge away, or more than edge away, from the insanities of the Eisenhower war plans. And I was to devise new… I was given the job under the Secretary of Defense McNamara to do new guidance for the operational war plans, that would be a major, major revision of the Eisenhower plans. Which I won’t even take time… I’ve sent my manuscript, by the way, to everybody here. I didn’t expect any of you to have time in the couple of weeks to really look at it. I’m going to talk about a couple of things today that actually aren’t yet dealt with that much in the book. But you will get in the chapters the nature of the Eisenhower proposals. And you know, it was mind-boggling.

And yet I’ve come to realize that the plans that I, and later, the Kennedy administration worked on, were infeasible modifications of the Eisenhower plan. The actual experience of a nuclear war would’ve been virtually unchanged then and now from the Eisenhower plans, mad as they were. And the subtitle to my book might be the title in the end, Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner, started out in my mind as somewhat ironic, an attention-catcher. But as I worked along, realized no, they’re real confessions. I have more to confess of being on the wrong track and taking too long to learn it and so forth. They really are confessions. Now, I do think that that background, when I say that I see it coming around again, is based on a understanding of what nuclear weapons were and have been for that is shared by most anti-nuclear activists or specialists, few of whom I think have had real exposure to the actual plans. They’ve heard about them, but they haven’t actually held a plan in their mind or been part of it and so forth. For instance, the word “deterrent” was and is deliberately ambiguous and little understood by most people.

The purpose of US nuclear war plans and preparations has always been primarily, and at first exclusively, to deter conventional attack by communist forces, by US first-use of nuclear weapons. Let’s remember that between ’45 and ’49, late ’49, when there were plans, nuclear war plans. We had a monopoly which we expected to continue. It was not to deter a Soviet nuclear attack, they didn’t have any and they weren’t expected to for quite a while. And actually, they were slower than we expected to build up their stockpile, especially when it came to ICBMs, but even early on. So that as long as a decade into the nuclear era, we had close to a monopoly. Not literally a monopoly after ’49, but something close to a monopoly. That’s where our policies and our planning were based on that period, essentially where we did not have to fear, especially in the US, putting aside Europe later, but for the US we didn’t have to fear a nuclear weapon landing on us, any more than when we firebombed Tokyo we had to worry that we would be firebombed in return. It was not an issue. And by the way, the plans were started in a period when the initial A-bombs did not, of which we had a very limited stock, again we had three by the end of the month, maybe 10 by the end of the year, did not affect the level of destruction we were already inflicting on Japan.

Oppenheimer and the others did not expect the first A-bomb to kill as many people as Tokyo in March 9th and 10th, and it didn’t come close. So it wasn’t changing the level of destruction, it was simply a more efficient, cheaper way of doing it with one bomb instead of 300 bombers, but we had 300 bombers and we were using them every day, so it wasn’t changing. And really, the level of expected casualties in Europe or Russia or anywhere, did not reach World War II levels in our estimation. And none of you… That really hasn’t come out very much, what the expectations were. But I can tell you that as late as the early 50s, even mid 50s, you were talking about 15 or 20 million, big figure. But compared to 60 million dead in World War II, so you haven’t gone beyond World War II. From one year to the next in the planning, the casualties went from 15-20 million to 150 million and 200 million, up by 10 times. The mega-tonnage went up much more than that, but for a variety of reasons the damage is in proportional. But you’re going up to hundreds of millions instead of tens. Now that’s something different.

Okay, the purpose, though, what was the purpose of those weapons? The purpose was almost exclusively to deter. We weren’t anxious to fight, except for a very few individuals. Curtis LeMay was probably correctly perceived as having wanted to get rid of the… Final solution to the Soviet problem, to the communist problem. And there were a few others like that, but they could be named mostly in the Air Force on a hand or two hands, something like that. No, it was to deter. To deter by exterminating the Soviet Union, by the ability to do it. Now, Dick mentioned that… Dick Faulkner, just now, that the Soviets perceive us, and most people, maybe we perceive us, as the one country that’s actually used these weapons. I wish that were true. Actually, we’ve used them dozens of times and to some degree continuously ever since 1945, and some other countries have, too. Why do you think Israel or Pakistan have gotten nuclear weapons, so as not to use them? They are using them the same way we’ve used them every year we’ve had them, which is the way you use a gun when you point it at someone’s head in a confrontation, whether or not you pull the trigger.

You are using the gun and you could not make that threat whether it’s successful or not if you didn’t have it. And we’re not pointing it. It’s been very conspicuously on our holster on our side. Which, as USAF, as Air Force will point out, is a continuous use. And so it is, indeed. So, that use has been not only by the United States. I’ve been recently reading stuff from the Soviet archives now that’s come out in the last 20 years, and realized, for example, that Khrushchev believed that his threats in Suez, which I must say I thought at the time, everybody thought were ridiculous and may have been ridiculous, he believed it got the Suez War ended. So, he used it over Kuwait, a crisis which I’m sure almost none of you are aware of. The so-called Lebanon-Iraq crisis in Kuwait. Khrushchev made nuclear threats then, as he did later after the Bay of Pigs, which looked pretty ridiculous. And it was certainly bluffs, except that the Soviet specialists say now, “But he believed they worked.” And that encouraged him, then, as soon as he got ICBMs, to make threats over Berlin in 1958, which didn’t get him what he wanted.

Now in short, this is using the weapons, and using them to what? To deter nuclear attack? No. Not in any single case. And I could give you a list. Berlin, South Vietnam in the 50s, Dien Bien Phu, when we offered, and so forth. Let’s come up, because I don’t have much time here, let’s come right up to the present.

How many of you had ever heard the name Kaliningrad more than a year ago? How many of you heard it before today? Not so many, right? Look it up on Google. I just found, by the way, that it was originally called Königsberg, which rings in my memory a little bit, under Prussia. But it changed that name in 1946. So we’ve heard of Kaliningrad. Hans mentioned that it’s on the Polish border, right? And when I heard you say that, I thought, “There’s a little better way of saying that.” It’s between Poland and Lithuania. Those are both in NATO. It is part of Russia. It has no land access to Russia, to the rest of Russia. It’s an enclave. It has sea, it’s on a seaport, so they take that seriously.

It’s now surrounded by NATO, like West Berlin, which had 22 Soviet divisions around it, between it and the rest of NATO. First of all, there’s only one way for the Russians then militarily to defend. It can’t defend, protect. Can it protect? Deter an attack on Kaliningrad, in the area of Kaliningrad. It can say, “Well, we’ll attack you elsewhere if you go into Kaliningrad.” There’s only one way, and that’s to threaten nuclear war, first use. That’s what they are doing. And not implicitly, but explicitly. Putin has said publicly, more than once, “Go into Kaliningrad… ” Which has a population of 400,000, it’s 86 square miles, and so forth. “Go into Kaliningrad, it’s nuclear war. It’s the same as invading Russia, okay?”

Iskander missiles, dual-capable, in Kaliningrad. Now, do they have nuclear weapons? Warheads? We don’t know. They’re dual-capable. But I say again, you know, he has no other way of doing it, and he is doing it. And the NATO exercise we heard about earlier, had us, NATO, us, going into Kaliningrad. Now, maybe he wouldn’t start a nuclear war. He’d be insane to do it, of course, wouldn’t he? And so, should we assume that’s silly, it’s a bluff? It probably is mainly a bluff. Should we assume, then, that no problem, going into Kaliningrad, now why would go into Kaliningrad? Well, because NATO has just accepted the Baltics into the… If you look at the map on the Baltics. We have no more way of defending the Baltics locally with our divisions that we’re putting… Not divisions, brigades, we’ve been putting there in exercises, than they have of defending Kaliningrad. So what is the NATO answer to that? First use, which it’s always been. When I say, are we… It’s all coming back, let me go back to one little bit of history. Possibly the first use of our nuclear weapons, which was a bluff after the World War, Second World War, was sending publicly described nuclear capable bombers, B-29s, over to England for possible use with the Berlin Blockade, when I was 17. The Berlin Blockade.

And needed why? Well, if they had interfered with our air access, which they could easily have done, very easily, stopped our air access, we had no other plan than going to war or NATO plan, at that point. How, against the overwhelming Soviet armed forces? No, impossible. So, anyway, Truman believed, by the way, rightly or wrongly, as Gregg Herken has brought out in his book, definitely believed we were successful on that. We kept them from interfering with our air, by fighter pilots in the Axis, it made it possible to stay in West Berlin and get committed there. So, it was a success, which encouraged us to base NATO and other, make all the other uses, I’ve talked of here, that as our first, useful success. Even though it was, in the short run a bluff, the bombers weren’t even configured for nuclear weapons, those B-29s. But they could have been, within weeks. We only had, at that point, a relative handful, a dozen, or a couple dozen, of nuclear weapons.

Russia is today… There was only one way ever to defend West Berlin ’til the end of the Cold War. Granted, it got less acute after Ostpolitik with Willy Brandt, for which he got the Nobel Prize in ’72. Cold War lasted another 14 years, 15 years. But, in principle, from beginning to end, Berlin was defended by the threat of first use of nuclear weapons. And then by the way, the Kennedy administration came in and, contrary to Eisenhower, Eisenhower’s attitude always was, “Don’t talk about limited nuclear war, especially with Russia. Out of the question. It’ll get big, so go big from the beginning. Go first.” That was Eisenhower’s policy.

The US didn’t think that looked so good. What’s the alternative? Well, Kennedy, I believe, and the others, the civilians I knew inside said, “You don’t want to initiate nuclear war. But how do you deter it? How do you deal with and how do you reassure Adenauer and reassure the rest of Europe and so forth?” Well, by making the commitment and making the threat. And so what do we try to fill NATO on, with some success? Demonstration strikes. Have you heard that? You heard it earlier this morning. Escalate to de-escalate. A demonstration to show that, I’m sure, Noam, you’ve read stuff on this, if I’m not mistaken, those who were in charge of Berlin planning, you don’t want to go all out. So throw one or two nuclear weapons at them to let them know the risks. So they’ll pull back. Right? Crazy, it was crazy. Crazy then, and crazy now.

Is it possible for anybody to believe in that? Well, a lot of people seemed to believe in it. The Russians are talking as if they believe in it. Do they really? Who knows? Let me extend that just a moment more.

The Russians are now defending Kaliningrad by the same threat that NATO used for 50 and more years to defend West Berlin. We are now openly and explicitly defending the Baltics the same way we defended West Berlin or the Russians defended Kaliningrad. And I put to you, there is no other military way to do these things. Let me come back to the last time we came really close, in our knowledge, to nuclear war. It wasn’t the last time, but the public doesn’t know that. Noam made some examples, and others, as late as 1995, actually, with Yeltsin, well after the Cold War. 1983, Andropov, false alarms in his countries, serious ones in 1979, 1981. Serious ones.

Okay. But the public doesn’t know of any of those. The last time was the Cuban Missile Crisis. How did that come about? Very quickly in one word. Khrushchev knew something that I didn’t know, and I worked for the EXCOM, the Executive Committee, NSC, I was on two of the working groups for the EXCOM, or the NSC during that. And then, a year later, no that was ’62. And two years later, with high clearances, higher than top secret, I studied the Cuban Missile Crisis for most of the year inside the government.

I still didn’t know that Kennedy had, for a year prior to that, been making every preparation for an invasion of Cuba, which the Russians knew. Exercising it, including an exercise against the Caribbean dictator Ortsac, O-R-T-S-A-C, Ortsac, which as Khrushchev recognized was Castro spelled backwards. And that was the public description of this. And we had been making covert operations into Cuba on an enormous scale. The man who burglarized my doctor’s office, Eugenio Martinez, had as a boat captain made 300 visits, covertly, into Cuba, before the Cuban Missile Crisis, as part of Mongoose. 300, okay.

So Castro was saying, as he said in his memoirs and later, and we now know very well, “How am I going to keep from losing Cuba? The only country that is going communist without Soviet forces there?” They felt very romantically, almost sentimentally, and also, their foothold in the Western hemisphere and so forth. “I’m going to lose Cuba.” And then he had a brainstorm. And almost nobody in the whole literature describes that brainstorm in the following terms, “I’m going to defend Cuba the way the US defends Berlin.” The only way it could be defended from the Soviet Union, by threatening nuclear weapons. But, he only had, in ’62, still going on, 10 or some say 40 ICBMs. He had threatened to use those over the Bay of Pigs, but that was silly. No. Put nuclear weapons in Cuba.

That was the only way he could do it, and it would have worked. It wasn’t that crazy, if you could get them there without being stopped. So he had to do it secretly, and he succeeded. He did get them there without being stopped, and once they were there, had he revealed them, I would say, nobody says this, had he revealed them, simply said, “They’re there, just the way your weapons are in Turkey. They’re there. Live with it,” there would have been no question of invading Cuba. It would be out of the question. He would have defended Cuba as long as he wanted to, or if he wanted to trade the weapons, he could trade them not just for Turkish weapons, he could make a big trade if we had to get those out of there.

So what we see now is then we are currently preparing… I’ll sum it up. No one, no civilian that I know of, put aside LeMay and a couple of others, have wanted to see us in a nuclear war. No president has found himself able or willing to back off from threats of initiating nuclear war and preparing to do it. And the only way that threat can be made they thought plausible, even remotely, in the early years, decades, against the Soviet Union was to have some ability to limit the damage to the United States by hitting all of their hard targets, hitting all of their ICBMs, hitting their command and control, everything else. That was your only way supposedly of surviving. That’s why we had 10,000 weapons, 20,000 weapons, and so forth. It was not to deter a Soviet nuclear attack. It was to make credible a US first strike, and it still is. And that is what it’s for today.

But now, and I have to take… I’m sorry, but here’s the last 60 seconds. Steve Star today, to my surprise… I mean I hadn’t planned on it, gave you the talk that I had planned to give about nuclear winter, because I think it’s of extreme importance. I know most of what he said, though I was still startled by some things. Of how many of you is that true? How many of you felt you knew most of what Steve Star said today? Really, can I see the hands? Well, it’s more than I would have thought, and we’re talking now about not nuclear winter as it was in 1983, but the studies of the last 10 years since 2007. Let me just ask again. How many of you have read studies by Alan Robock or Toon? Okay. Now you’ve published several. Okay. Meaning that no one has drawn from them that I’ve seen in writing. It’s not just that we’re talking that a nuclear war with Russia of the kind we’re threatening and preparing as in the past would lead to the death of not just most humans, but 99% of humans at most, 98%, 99%. Okay. People understand that if they’ve read the studies.

I see no one draw the following point, which is very simple. Counterforce, striking first, makes no difference compared to striking second. Most of our warheads, our counterforce, are for striking first. They are for preemption, they are for damage limiting, which is if you believe the studies, which I do, is totally infeasible. Everybody dies, whether you go first or second. So all of these weapons we’re now modernizing and building, actually we are preparing nothing other. They still make credible threats. Credible why? Because humans are crazy, and nations are crazy. It’s credible to make a threat of omnicide, I’m sorry to say, but people don’t realize that’s the threat they’re making. It is the threat we are making. We are in the position of threatening to be a suicide bomber? No. A mutual homicide bomber? No. An omnicide bomber is what we’re threatening to do, not because we want to do it. And I think if that were known, it would at least change the discourse, shall I say. And it certainly is not known.

As I was saying to my wife, finally, last night… Patricia was saying… I said, “Immoral,” and she said, “Immoral. Immoral is what? Masturbation, adultery, gayness, and so forth. It’s not the right word, somehow, for this.” And I said, “Alright. What is the right word?” We were up late discussing this kind of thing. “What is the… ” There’s no language. Humans never faced precisely this until let’s say 2007, except that who’s heard of it? Nobody knows it, and so forth. We’ve never in our lives faced what we are threatening on either side. It’s not a concept in humans. Can humans relate to this? Well, that remains to be seen, but we haven’t tried.