Before Daniel Ellsberg became the iconic whistleblower of his time with the 1971 release of the Pentagon Papers, which revealed the history of the United State’s involvement in Vietnam, he had a decision to make: Should he also reveal the insanity at work in the nuclear war planning of the United States and the Soviet Union? In his job as civilian consultant regarding decision-making theory, he was privy to the top-secret madness of it all, but he chose to focus first on the debacle that was the Vietnam War, with the hope of shortening it. His brother-in-law tried to help by burying Ellsberg’s notes on nuclear planning in a landfill for future disclosure – and then that part of the landfill was unexpectedly emptied and the notes were lost. The Doomsday Machine disclosures would have to wait.
Now, reconstructed and bolstered by declassified sources, Ellsberg draws a wide historical arc, going back to the time when wars were fought by mercenaries and civilians were spared the brunt of their brutality, and forward to today, when “collateral damage” could be the entire human race. His incredibly detailed observations tell a horrific tale of competing egos, deliberate deceptions, human error and near-cataclysmic disasters, as in the Berlin Crisis and the Cuban Crisis. Given the current crises, both domestic and international, the timeliness of Ellsberg’s exposures—and warnings—is unnerving.
The downfall of the Berlin Wall and the end of apartheid in South Africa—both of which Ellsberg calls “unimaginable thirty years ago”—gives him hope in his admittedly quixotic quest to upset the bleak status quo. The Doomsday Machine is not for the faint of heart, but its sense of urgency should make it required reading, and—more importantly—a call to action.