– Daniel Ellsberg is the author of four books: The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner (2017); Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers (2002); Risk, Ambiguity and Decision (2001); and Papers on the War (1971).

– After returning to the RAND Corporation in 1967, Ellsberg worked on the top-secret McNamara study, U.S. Decision-making in Vietnam, 1945-68, which later came to be known as the Pentagon Papers.

– In 1969, he photocopied the 7,000-page study and gave it to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. In 1971 he gave it to the New York Times, the Washington Post, and 17 other newspapers.

– Ellsberg’s subsequent trial on twelve felony counts, posing a possible sentence of 115 years, was dismissed in 1973 on grounds of governmental misconduct against him, leading to the convictions of several White House aides and figuring in the impeachment proceedings against President Nixon.

– Since the end of the Vietnam War, Ellsberg has been a lecturer, scholar, writer, and activist on the dangers of the nuclear era, wrongful U.S. interventions, and the urgent need for patriotic whistleblowing.

This meeting is part of the Intelligent Cooperation Group and accompanying book draft.


Nuclear Risks: Doomsday (Still) Hiding in Plain Sight

  • What was my thinking leading up to the release?
    • The war in Vietnam could have been dragged on indefinitely in not for the Watergate scandal removing Nixon from office. Nixon very reasonably feared that Ellsberg had damning information about Nixon.
    • His interest was not to shame Nixon but to help end the war in Vietnam: it did not have this effect. The only thing that ended the war was Watergate.
    • The Pentagon Papers did *not* imply that the US didn’t think the Vietnam War was unwinnable. It was winnable but under much more violence. The President was not willing to take the Joint Cheifs suggestions to go all out, and this was probably fortunate.
    • Meeting conscientious objectors to the draft heading off to prison for objecting to the war was a big influence on Ellsberg’s decision to release the documents that he did.
    • It caused him to ask: what could I do beyond what I’ve done to get us out of this war?
    • The message of the Pentagon Papers was the message that these Americans who went to prison for refusing the draft were trying to send: the war was WRONG.


  • The ability for humans to collaborate and coordinate did not keep up with our ability to do harm technologically.
  • In school, Ellsberg heard about a hypothetical: a bomb 1000x more powerful than the biggest at the time. The Manhattan Project was already ongoing but was not known to anyone (never even leaked to the Germans, amazingly). He was asked: would this be good for humanity?
  • We’ve had 70 years of no nuke war since the first drop, and the same issues are raised today about nuclear weapons as well as new technologies: Genetic engineering, climate engineering, artificial intelligence.
  • His thesis was on decision making under uncertainty / decision theory, which led to being hired at RAND to look at command and control of nuclear weapons.
  • The primary concern of pacific control: “go” order would go out correctly for a strike against China, the only target in range at the time. If Russia was destroyed, China had to go to ensure they wouldn’t be the successor state.
  • The US plans at the time called for no limited war with Russia: must be all-out and we had to get the first drop. Any military engagement above the platoon with Russia would call for every city in Russia and China be launched against.
  • Ellsberg got interested in this question: “might these planes be launched without presidential order?”
  • It’s always been false that the president has sole control over nuclear weapons. There must be redundancy in case the president was taken out of course.
  • At the time, communications were interrupted between DC and the Pacific command and between the Pacific Command and the fleet all the time. They could could have thought to be under attack, so could reasonably have launched.
  • The whole philosophy was (and is): the US will be better off striking first rather than second. We’re poised on a hair-trigger.
  • On Dr Strangelove: “When I saw that in ’64, I felt I’d seen a documentary.”
  • Current war games suggest the Chinese can usually beat us in Taiwan. War with China will probably result in nuclear war since we still have a president who refuses to confirm a “no first use” condition for nuclear weapons (unlike China).
  • A technical aside: the process for authenticating use of nuclear weapons in the Pacific.
    • A sealed envelope, inside of which was another envelope. Inside the inner envelope was a card.
    • The first envelope was opened when a certain ~6 char code was received. If the second envelope had the first 3 characters, and the inner card has the last 3 chars, that’s a “GO”
    • Naturally we have digital means to do this now.
    • The problem raised by Ellsberg: Suppose somebody in the plane is out of radio comms, and they sent out the GO code to everyone? “They can’t: they’d have to open the envelope”… relying on the pilot not ignoring this and just wanting to start war.
    • There was no STOP program, because the Russian’s might get it.
    • The real concern: the President might get cold feet while the planes are on the way. Once the order is out, there’s no turning around.
    • A technical solution was eventually developed called Permissive Action Locks using remote codes… but by order of the Air Force all the codes were 00000000 😆
    • Where are the codes actually held? Not at with the upper leaders! They’re at lower levels so they can actually be used in time.


  • Ellsberg’s major undertaking in 1969: copy all the top-secret notes he’d taken on these problems and copy them along with the Pentagon Papers. He had the intention to put them out once the Pentagon Papers had their time in the spotlight.
  • Copies were lost where they were stored in a trash dump, tropical storm Doria scattered the dump and they searched for a year. Of what survived, 3/4 was declassified in 2008.
  • Why is this stuff still classified?
  • “Classification itself is no indication of relation to national security.”
  • The National Security Archive tries to get things declassified, but the government says “they can’t find it.” Ellsberg had it, so leaked it into the Pentagon.
  • The absurdity and abusiveness of the classification system will maybe get this issue of using the Espionage Act against folks like Snowden and Manning brought to the Supreme Court.


What should we have done instead of Mutually Assured Destruction?

  • A: It’s regrettable that some really wise physicists took a wrong turn.
  • Shortly after Germany surrendered, they got a group together (including Leo Szilard, who had first figured out the “chain reaction”)
  • Szilard drafted the letter for Einstein to send to Roosevelt urging a Manhattan Project was needed to begin with.
  • They were obsessed that the German’s might get this first: they had a head start on the physics, but Hitler chose to concentrate on other things.
  • The first atom bomb test in 1954 accidentally irradiated Lucky Dragon, a ship full of tuna, causing a huge tuna recall in Japan and spurring the modern Japanese anti-nuclear movement.
  • Fermi had been worried up to the day of the test that they might have screwed up and they would burn the atmosphere and kill the planet.
  • “This won’t blow up everything excepting a miracle: the chance of a miracle is 10%.” He made bets on it the night before, while the president probably had never heard of the possibility.
  • Given the Frank Committee questioned testing without the soviets there, they suggested not to use the bombs against Japan out of fear of an arms race with the Soviets that would lead us to using much, much bigger bombs.
  • This is the advice that should have been taken, but it’s not clear that this report ever got to Truman.
  • If the Nazis would have used this bomb, it would have been their biggest war crime and everyone involved would have been hanged.
  • It would have come into the world as what it is: an evil weapon, not for good people to use. Instead, it came into the world as the opposite, the harbinger of freedom.
  • We know from the Japanese: if we had not made it clear we would allow the emperor to avoid the war crimes trials, the army would have kept the war going until the bloody end.
  • We had killed 900,000 Japanese civilians already, so the bomb deaths weren’t the main issue: it was the arms race and the much more destructive use of bigger bombs later they were trying to avoid.
  • How much destructive power do we want one person to be able to launch? To kill 60 million (the WWII death count) would take 100 bombs. If you want to kill 100 million people, it’s hard to do without using enough bombs to cause nuclear winter that kills 5 or 6 billion.
  • We should have cut off earlier in the arms race, we should have had a test ban.
  • Is there an example of someone who’s done it smarter?
    • Yes, China. In the 70s, China had about a dozen weapons. They can afford more, but have chosen to go for minimum deterrence.
  • The Navy suggested the minimum for the US but the Air Force wanted more: Eisenhower gave them both what they wanted so the Navy stopped warning about the danger. RAND didn’t push back because they worked for the Air Force.
  • Without the nuclear weapons they developed in ’64, China probably would have experienced a nuclear attack in the next ten years.
  • Now, we are building up because China is building up, even though they have way fewer than we have already.
  • “There is unwisdom on every side.”
  • Reagan was against nuclear weapons, but had the crackpot notion that he could build a shield. Many billions of dollars went to companies pursuing that phantom (and still are).


Based on what you said, we got lucky that we survived the Cold War (no more nuclear weapons since Nagasaki). What odds would you give nuclear war occurring if you re-ran the history many times?

  • Examples of nukes preventing a change to the status quo:
    • West Berlin: Without nukes on our side, the Soviets would have taken a chance to take West Berlin (Kruschov committed himself to it).
    • Putin said recently of an incident involving a British battleship in Russian waters: even if we had sunk the British ship, there would be no World War 3 because the Brits know “they can’t win that war” implying there’s no winning a two-sided nuclear exchange between super powers.
  • It’s not a question of a precise probability, but in terms of betting odds: Too great. We shouldn’t have the right to keep it above 0.
  • We’re building toward crises: we are viewing the Russians and Chinese as people so bad we can’t even talk to them. Biden and Putin wouldn’t even have lunch together at the latest summit.
  • The probability of the making it through the next 100 years without a nuclear issue: very low.
  • There was study after study that a category 4 hurricane would overwhelm the levees in New Orleans, including the year before Katrina: nothing was done.
  • We realize we can’t solve the human rights issues in Russia and China with our military, but how will we protect Taiwan? Ellsberg’s prediction: Biden will threaten nuclear first-use against China over Taiwan.
  • Putin’s statement that there won’t be a war because people know better: this is stupid!
  • There are smart fools, then there are fool fools. You’re all very smart “but that is no protection to the world that you will not participate in disastrous choices and risk-taking. That includes me.”


It was Freeman Dyson’s opinion that it would’ve been better if the Nazi’s got the bomb first. They would’ve bombed London, then the weapons would have been banned forever.

  • A: Dyson is an interesting example. I quote him quite a bit in my book. He wrote a very candid memoir, one of the best.
  • He was always getting himself into situations through curiosity or following orders that violated his previous values. In this he was an exemplar of an entire professional scientific class.


What can the next generation do better in the face of existential threats like nuclear weapons?

  • Firstly, face reality: smart guys can pursue insane policy, extremely murderously. They don’t care about other people as much as you’d think human leaders would.
  • We should not trust our leaders to make decisons in secret. We should be prepared to say NO to a President.
  • In some respects, the constitution really is worth defending. Julian Assange should be cleared because he hasn’t done anything that the NYT hasn’t done.
  • Szilard knew his petition to not use the bomb would be blocked, which was just as good as not reporting it.
  • We don’t have an inalienable right to tell the truth and speak up, we alienate it in every group we join, from the PTA to the Manhattan Project.
  • Hitler was told that nuclear weapons could ignite the atmosphere and the oceans, which influenced his choice not to pursue it. Hitler was not happy with the thought that he might bring down the curtain on humanity.
  • Compton (of the Manhattan Project) hears this and decides they need to consider this with Oppenheimer. Compton says if there’s any chance of ignition they can’t go forward: if Hitler is worried we should be too.
  • Fermi estimated the odds of ignition at 1-10%. They still went ahead with the tests. Fermi even gave odds the night before and took bets: would all of Nevada be incinerated, or the whole world?
  • Hitler said to his scientists, “You scientists, one day you’ll figure out a way to burn up the world, but it will not be in my lifetime.”
  • Let’s be as smart as Adolph Hitler: let’s not do things that will destroy most human life on Earth.


We see some of the kind of courage you’re talking about in some parts of the world. But we see so little of this courage in the national security state.

  • I’ve puzzled on this for 50 years.
  • Bismarck said something like “physical courage is commonplace in our people, but civil courage is very rare even among people who are otherwise very decent and responsible.”
  • I saw this kind of courage in Vietnam.
  • Civil courage though…
  • We can try to learn a different ethic.
  • I think it’s misleading to think that the whistleblowers have more conscience than those who kept their promises of secrecy.
  • It’s a human characteristic to keep your promises even when lives depend on your breaking them.
  • I had been exposed to draft dodgers that revealed to me that there was a choice.
  • What I’ve learned at 90: humans will do almost anything to avoid being ostracized from the groups they’re part of. Human leaders are just like other people.
  • Citizens, leaders, subordinates will go along with any act of cruelty and inhumane action against people who are “other”.
  • Can we transcend this? Not impossible.


Who in the present generation is able to keep up political thinking at that level? Most of the thinking I encountered at Harvard had idealistic thinking, while there are many of your generation that have this global political thinking.

  • I have the impression that young people look better in polls and in expressed opinions than the older folks, but the young people are not running the country.
  • After WWII, German generals were interviewed: they thought Hitler’s attacks were reckless but they kept succeeding. When it came to Russia, they thought it was impossible but went ahead with it to keep their jobs (and heads)
  • Can we demand of our officials to take some chances of their career for the truth?
  • If the young don’t do it for us, it probably won’t happen



Seminar summary by James Risberg.