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Daniel Ellsberg: Putin Is Already Using His Nuclear Weapons

Pentagon whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg argues the Russian president may not be deploying his nukes but is using them effectively as a threat.
Daniel Ellsberg in Dresden on February 22nd 2016.
Daniel Ellsberg in Dresden on February 22nd 2016. [Photo by Dr. Bernd Gross]

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Nuclear brinkmanship is reaching a boiling point as the war in Ukraine enters its third month. Although the US. and NATO have refrained from putting troops on the ground in Ukraine to fight Russia’s invasion of the European nation, American involvement in any shape pits two nuclear powers against one another in the most direct way since the Cold War. With every day that goes by, the threat of nuclear war looms large, as any wrong move by the US or Russia could lead to a point of no return. Daniel Ellsberg, the whistleblower who leaked the Pentagon Papers to the media, took part in planning a US response to a nuclear attack during the Cold War, an experience that provides him with a unique perspective on this dangerous moment in history. 

On this week’s “Scheer Intelligence,” Ellsberg joins host Robert Scheer to discuss just how close the world is coming to annihilation in the context of the Ukraine conflict. While the two disagree on certain nuances relating to US officials’ eagerness or “giddiness” to actually deploy nuclear weapons, throughout the lively discussion they arrive at stark warnings about what direct conflicts with Russia over Ukraine, and China over Taiwan, would mean to the future of the human race. The whistleblower’s most recent book, “The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner,” illustrates just how precarious the US hold over its own nukes is, highlighting that weapons with the power to cause the extinction of mankind belong in no country. Upon rereading Ellsberg’s book, Scheer, who reported on the nuclear disaster in Chernobyl and interviewed President Ronald Reagan about his perspective on nukes, says he has become even more terrified of the prospect of nuclear war than ever before. 

To Ellsberg, however, the rationale that US and Russian leaders use when sabre-rattling is clear: the threat of nuclear war justifies obscene military spending and lines the pockets of arms dealers in both countries. The ethics of gambling with humanity’s existence for the sake of anyone’s bottom line should be viewed as repulsive from any perspective or political ideology. Unfortunately, Ellsberg and Scheer recognize, there are people even within the Biden administration who seem unphased by this sort of immorality. As far as Putin goes, the whistleblower argues, although he hasn’t deployed any nuclear weapons, the threat of doing so has effectively kept the US from intervening further in Ukraine. In this sense, the Russian president is already “using” his country’s nuclear arsenal to his advantage.  

Listen to the full conversation between Ellsberg and Scheer as they discuss the chilling possibility that either Russia or the US will launch its nuclear weapons in the near future.



Robert Scheer


Joshua Scheer


RS: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where the intelligence comes from my guests. In this case, probably one of the most intelligent individuals we’ve ever had commenting or involved with American politics: Daniel Ellsberg. He was kind of a genius sort at Harvard, actually was a student—or not a student, but Henry Kissinger or what have you, worked in the Pentagon. Of course famous internationally as the person who leaked the Pentagon Papers, gave it first to the New York Times and then the Washington Post, and exposed the inherent deceit of that war. 

And he wrote five years ago—because when he was in the Pentagon, nuclear war planning was on his desk. And he wrote a book that deserved more attention than it got. It’s called The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner. And it really is a reminder of something we’ve tended to forget: the possibility of destroying all life on this planet in a very short amount of time with the use of nuclear weapons, the prevalence of nuclear weapons around. 

And we are now in a situation where there’s in effect a horrible war developing over the Ukraine as a kind of surrogate outpost of the United States and Western Europe, and advanced weapons are now being put in. The Russians obviously invaded; they’re involved deeply. And there’s all this talk about arresting Putin as a war criminal, pushing them into a corner, the humiliation—regime change, President Biden is talking about. And we seem to forget, but Putin has occasionally reminded us, that Russia has a nuclear arsenal equivalent to that of the United States, and we’re back actually in the worst days of what used to be called MAD—mutual assured destruction. 

So I wanted to turn to Daniel Ellsberg, who was written really the most important, still current, book on the existence of nuclear weapons, the threat, and the possibility of our ending it all over this, over the Ukraine. You want to take it from there, Dan? 

DE: We’re approaching an armed conflict between the U.S. and Russia for the first time ever since we put troops in Russia to put down the Bolsheviks in 1919 or so. And in all that time, both sides have avoided actually shooting at each other—and for a good reason, which applies right now. We have what we didn’t have 50 years ago: two doomsday machines, as I call them—that is, systems that are designed and readied and rehearsed to destroy most life on Earth. Because they target military targets in cities, and the firestorms in those cities would put up smoke into the stratosphere, where it wouldn’t rain out, around the globe, killing all the harvests for years up to a decade, and starving nearly everyone on Earth within a year or so. Either side—carrying out its present alert capabilities, ready to go in minutes if a warning comes that the other side may be attacking—either side can destroy, or will destroy, most life on Earth. 

So it would seem suicidal to launch that under any conditions. And it would be. It would be more than suicidal; it would be what you might call omnicidal, or near omnicidal, in that it’s killing nearly everyone. Why, then, do we buy these weapons, and why would there ever be a possibility of their being used, as there is this year? Well, I said we’re approaching direct conflict, but up till now, we have just been carefully supplying weapons to the target of Russia’s aggression, to the Ukraine. We haven’t put troops in, we haven’t put air power in directly, U.S. air power; we’re just supplying them. If we did come in directly under current circumstances, with the Russian forces so greatly depleted from what the USSR used to have with its Warsaw Pact—now dissolved, now essentially on our side—we would have a pretty good chance of winning a conventional war in Ukraine with our air power and our cruise missiles, with or without troops.

That would be very dangerous, because we can’t really afford for the U.S. to win such a war against Putin. Because with his perhaps 1,500 tactical nuclear weapons, the temptation for him to reverse that defeat, to avoid that defeat, by using a nuclear weapon or more—a number of them—would be very great. And in the current world, with two doomsday machines poised at each other, each on a launch-on-warning status—in intercontinental ballistic missiles that means, “use them or lose them”—that any indication that they might be attacked by the other side in the near future is a very strong incentive given our doctrine and our training and our readiness to launch first. To preempt, as they say, and avert that first strike by the other side.

Now, actually, looked at realistically in the light of nuclear winter, there is no benefit to going first rather than going second. Either side actually will shed enough smoke into the stratosphere, which we only learned in 1983—but that was 30 years ago. And our plans don’t reflect that at all. The truth is that given that consideration, going first does not have any benefit at all. But to recognize that would stop the sales of new weapons on each side, actually, which is a very profitable process for our military-industrial complex, preparing for a war that would be omnicidal and insane, actually—but again, it’s very profitable. And actually, their side too is a capitalist system, where the profits occur on that side as well. No doubt getting skimmed off at the top various places.

So both sides have been buying weapons which, if launched, would end most human life on Earth. And there’s not only the profitability in doing that, but it has certain political benefits as well in the short run, as long as they don’t get launched. And I have to keep saying, we’re in a situation now where it’s possible—with the Russians doing as poorly as they are in the conflict, unexpectedly—where Putin in particular might actually try to reverse the effects by actually starting, by launching a nuclear weapon for the first time ever since Nagasaki, and thus causing a precedent for other people to use them, other people to get them so as to deter the use against them. 

And this is a real possibility. People in Congress and elsewhere, in the Pentagon [unclear] are calling to do what Zelensky has actually requested. And for him, it’s very understandable—desperate mood, facing this overwhelming invasion. He’s called for us to have a no-fly zone, put a lid, put a ceiling over the attacks on him. And we’ve done that in the past, elsewhere, and very natural of him to want it. Except that in this case, it would mean armed conflict between two large nuclear-weapon states. A situation in which Ukraine would almost certainly be annihilated, and possibly nearly everyone else. [overlapping voices]

Biden has not so far gone to that, but why not? Why is it not that we’re—how can we not be doing what Zelensky asked Congress and many other parliaments to do, which is to get directly involved with our own forces in this war? And the answer is, Putin is using his nuclear weapons. Using them very effectively, the way you use a gun when you point it at somebody in a confrontation. If you get your way without pulling the trigger, that’s the best use of the gun. And you couldn’t do that without having it. Well, Putin in this case is making it clear that if we confronted him with defeat, even with conventional weapons, in Ukraine—whether via our support to Ukrainians, which he’s threatening against, or our direct involvement, which Zelensky has called for, which we haven’t yet done—he might use nuclear weapons against us. 

And with the knowledge on both sides that that risks blowing up the world—not the Earth, not the planet, but human civilization—that thus shields him, so far, from having us confront his aggression in conventional terms directly. It’s working for him at this point. We’ve used those threats in the past repeatedly, in maintaining our sphere of influence around the world, right up to the borders of the old Soviet Union or of China. He hasn’t in the past because in Europe, Russia had an overwhelming conventional superiority which it no longer has.

So almost since the fall of the USSR, the Russians have gone back to Eisenhower’s old New Look doctrine, massive retaliation doctrine, or reliance on nuclear threats, to compensate for the shortcomings of their conventional forces. They’re doing what we did in the fifties and the sixties.

And neither side has been willing to take a no-first-use policy or declaration—that is, a commitment never to initiate nuclear war. On the contrary, both sides have promised that they will initiate nuclear war if they find it necessary. It really is essential that we don’t make Putin believe that it’s necessary for him to do that. That puts enormous incentive for a negotiated solution of some sort, with concessions on both sides. The only way that you could get a negotiated end to this war. Unfortunately, there seems no sign that either side is willing to do that. So the world is hostage to the development of this conflict, which may go on for a long time.

RS: Well, maybe not. Maybe it’ll have an abrupt and horrible end. And you know, you and I—you were a nuclear war planner, you were in the government. I was something of a critic, ah, writing about it. And we both know that under Ronald Reagan there was a whole idea of defenses on nuclear weapons. The whole idea, more recently, of modernization of these forces. There has been a growing view that these are usable weapons. And that in the case—for instance, we’ve already seen delivery systems used by Putin for conventional, you know, cruise missiles that could have a nuclear warhead. We know modernization is supposed to give you that capacity. And after all, the United States is the one nation that has used nuclear weapons in war time, in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 

And it seems to me there is a giddiness right now of, you know, you can push this guy and push this guy, and somehow those weapons will not come into play. And I suspect there is, just as there was on the U.S. side in the Cold War, and there was on the Soviet side—there’s a side there, and Moscow says, look, we built these weapons, and there are some that can be used tactically. And if that’s all we’ve got, and they’re talking about that we’re war criminals and we’re going to be tried and, you know, and this is the end of it–you could see people arguing for that. 

And the other thing we haven’t talked about is the first-strike capacity. How good are the Russians now at figuring out whether there’s been a submarine launch from the United States or some kind of preemptive first strike. And then of course the illusion about a defense against it, and that you could even win such a war. And there’s almost no discussion of that now. There’s a giddiness—you know, let’s push Putin up against it. And there seems to be an inappropriate feeling of sort of confidence that the nuclear weapons will not be used. 

DE: Bob, I hear a lot of people talking that way and preparing that way and spending that way. Does that mean they actually believe it? Not necessarily. Because the threats are potentially useful diplomatically, if they work, if the other people back off. And buying the material for them is very profitable all the time. So you don’t have to believe what you’re saying. As a matter of fact, I would say our forces have been built up almost from the beginning on the basis of a hoax.

Let me not go back right to the beginning, but to the period since the mid-sixties, 10 years into the nuclear era—20 years into the nuclear era, when we were confronting another heavily armed nuclear-weapon state, the Soviet Union. They didn’t really come anywhere near matching us in that until the mid-sixties, but that’s a long time ago. And during that period, carrying out any of our threats against Russia—or another nuclear weapons state, even North Korea with a tiny fraction of what the Russians had—would be insane. And most people understand that. As you say, there are a few people now—and that’s new, for the last generation or so—who really do think of using small tactical nuclear weapons. Not only buying them, which Trump was for and Biden is continuing.

And as I say, that’s good for Northrop Grumman. Fine, just threaten them, they’re for threatening, and they’re for making profits. But there are people—Elbridge Colby, who worked under Trump, and Brad Roberts, who worked under Obama, and others can be found, high officials—who do talk about using small tactical nuclear weapons to achieve our ends, using them in battle, not only threatening them. That’s a threat of an insane action. And if they really believe that can be limited, they’re exhibiting a kind of institutional madness that does occur. But I would say with the new ICBMs we’re buying—and now, I’ve been trying to avert that for years now, to eliminate ICBMs—I see no chance of doing that now, in this new Cold War mode. There wasn’t really much chance even a year ago, because of the profits and the jobs and the campaign donations and the executive in-and-out of the Pentagon. So Northrop Grumman was likely to get that contract as it is. Likely; now, it’s almost certain. And what has that meant? With those ICBMs, if they went second—well, first, not many of them would go second, because they’re very vulnerable. They can be attacked, and will be attacked, in a major nuclear war. Unlike our submarine-launched ballistic missiles which can’t be targeted and can’t be attacked. 

So these things are in a use-them-or-lose-them mode. And if there’s any warning, if the other side is about to attack, they will be used. To what effect, as I say, it won’t make any difference. Their own use will be suicidal or near-omnicidal in the world. There has been a hoax, which has been a very profitable hoax, for the last half-century and more, that bad as it may be to go first, as our ICBMs are built to do, it’s less bad than going second, where we lose them.

And it’s very plausible to people. It happens to be a total hoax, a delusion, and as I say, a very profitable one. Can countries really buy trillions of dollars worth of weapons on the basis of a hoax? Well, look, how many Americans right now—how many Republicans, official people running for office, nearly all of them—assert that they believe that Trump won the election last time? A total hoax. 

In Russia, how much of the Russian public believes what they’re getting from the state media, which is almost all there is now, that there is no war? They can’t mention the word “war,” there’s a special operation going in there to prevent genocide in the Donbass—which wasn’t happening. There was conflict going on; to call it genocide is as crazy as, by the way, for Biden to use the word genocide with respect to Ukraine. Yet the Russians haven’t come close to doing yet in Ukraine what they did in Afghanistan for 10 years, where a million people, perhaps a million and a half, were killed. That may still happen.

But we’re not there yet. What we did to Iraq or Afghanistan involved millions of deaths, and we’re not there yet. And to call even that genocidal was wrong. It was a war crime; these were all crimes against the peace. These were all huge massacres. But again, to call them genocide, and thus meaning anything goes when it comes to avoiding it—there’s no limits, you’ve got to stop this—is, you know, we can’t make any concessions of any kind, like control over the Donbass, to a side that’s genocidal. 

And all of this portends a very long war, unless it blows up, which would be even worse. Unless it goes nuclear. But if it doesn’t go nuclear, we’ve been preparing since 2015—I won’t go into the chronology on that, why that is—but just since Russia took the Crimea actually, and put Russian troops into Eastern Ukraine in the Donbass. Ever since then, we’ve been training Ukrainians in this country and elsewhere, and in Ukraine, for a prolonged guerrilla war. The kind the Soviets had for 10 years in Afghanistan with our encouragement, by funding the insurgents, the Islamic right, the mujahideen. We gave the Russians, as Brzezinski put it, we gave the Russians their Vietnam. I think the intent right now is to give—that was the Soviets—to give the Russians another Afghanistan. To bleed them—to make them, as we say very openly, weaker, more isolated in the world, at the cost of Ukrainian lives. In other words, kill Russians indefinitely, to the last Ukrainian, because what that means in terms of historical insurgencies is for every Russian who gets bled, who gets killed, there are five to 10 Ukrainians who are killed in retaliation. So this prospect of doing this—instead of negotiating, instead of trying to negotiate, which we’re not doing as far as we can see seriously—is a vicious policy with respect to Ukraine.

RS: Admittedly. But what I’m here to discuss, Daniel, is something that you were once involved in planning, ah, to inflict on the world, which is the possibility—

DE: Let me correct that a little bit, Bob. What I was involved in was trying to deter and avert what seemed to me and my colleagues at that time the only real way that a nuclear war would occur. And that was with a Soviet surprise attack. That was based on a total mythology, a hoax; it didn’t occur. And I was planning, in other words, for the possibility of retaliating. I was always against –as you may or may not know, but inside the system, I was always not just a critic, but you know, totally opposed to the idea of initiating nuclear war. 

RS: I understand.

DE: There were others who did believe in that. I was not one of them. So let’s be clear. There are different kinds of planning. The planning that I was doing was in fact totally unnecessary at that point; the Russians had no capability whatever to launch a surprise attack. And I learned that in 1961, that was a delusion. But my colleague Herman Kahn—the model for Dr. Strangelove, who invented the term “doomsday machine” as a conceptual idea used by Stanley Kubrick in his film, Dr. Strangelove—he felt that the threat was necessary, and to make it credible, you had to prepare to survive it by civil defense, by antiballistic missiles and so forth, and actually carry it out if necessary. It has never been possible to be able to survive, really, as a society, even as a population, from nuclear war. 

That was his delusion. But it reflected the thinking in the defense department ever since. When Reagan and Gorbachev agreed—and it’s been reiterated now by Putin, even this year—nuclear war cannot be won, and it must not happen, it must not occur. And yet neither side has ever rejected the idea that nuclear war can be prepared for and rehearsed and threatened and risked. And that’s what we’re doing—again, only on the rationale that, not that you could do well, not that you won’t be devastated, even, by nuclear war, but that you’ll do better if you preempt, if you go first. And that is a cult-like belief, which persists because it’s so profitable.

RS: Yes. But what we’re leaving out is the assumption of that debate always was that the other side would be rational. And that—or they would be pretending to be mad men, and have more of a threat. But the fact is, first of all, let’s be clear: the United States, under the leadership of actually big thinkers at the University of California at Berkeley, who were involved with the Los Alamos lab, used Fat Man and Little Boy, the first atomic bombs that killed civilians on a mass level in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, OK. When it was not absolutely necessary, and one could argue not at all necessary. 

However, they were used. And there’s always been a school of thought that says they can be used in some way or another. And then there is a rationality enters; fear enters, you know; being held accountable for other things enters. And at the end of the day, the only thing that defines Russia now as a major power is its possession of nuclear weapons. They have a relatively small population. They have an unsuccessful economy. And we know nationalism produces monstrous possibilities. That’s the evil of nationalism, national concern, aggrieved assaults, and so forth. We felt that about Japan, and we dropped those bombs. I don’t want to get into that whole discussion. 

But we’re talking about a situation now where, for whatever historic reasons or what have you, there is a Russian leadership that feels besieged. It feels that NATO, which was supposed to be abandoned, has somehow been extended right up to its border. And one card it has to play here is the nuclear weapons card. And there is talk of being able to use that on a limited basis. And it seems to me the brunt of your work in The Doomsday Machine is that accidents can happen; overassessments can happen of survival. I know, because I interviewed Ronald Reagan and the first president Bush and others about the possibility of winnable nuclear war. And, you know, you mentioned Herman Kahn, but he wasn’t alone in thinking there was a use. And so I wonder if you’re not underestimating the danger of the moment now. 

DE: Well, I don’t think I am, because I am frankly very depressed about it. I think that there’s really very little that will be done to change that very real danger that you’re talking about. There’s no prospect of eliminating our ICBMs on either side, no prospect of ending the launch-on-warning policy that could blow the world up on a mistake, and has come close to doing so several times. How about eliminating that? It’s not going to happen. I think that ship has sailed. And into iceberg waters, where it is proceeding at full speed on dark nights. 

So it’s very dangerous. Take the climate problem. What’s the chance now with the—we’re actually increasing madly, desperately, the production and emission of fossil fuels right now, oil in particular. And to compensate for Russian sales, which we’re trying to avoid. But even beyond that, what’s the prospect—at this point, in this world, where the world is divided, especially with this crisis now in the last two months, divided into at least two halves that don’t negotiate, don’t trust each other. What’s the chance of the collaboration that’s necessary to save civilization from climate catastrophe? I would say on this ship, we’ve hit the iceberg. I don’t see that collaboration happening. That’s been a casualty of this war. 

But to come back to the nuclear problem, the U.S. is acting cautiously to a degree in the face of Putin’s nuclear threats. What would cause him to do that? Would he have to be insane, actually [unclear] as to where this is going? It could work. Is it likely to work? No, it’s likely to blow up. But he could take that chance, just as we have gambled in the past that the other side might back down when we’ve made our threats. Remember when you talk about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that’s a different world. We weren’t launching those against a nuclear power. We had a monopoly, and in terms of our willingness to kill hundreds of thousands of people, which we did with those two bombs. We killed more than that with firebombs in the preceding five months. We killed a hundred thousand people in one night, burning them alive on the night of March 9th and 10th, 1945, with firebombs over Tokyo. So I think that history of what the U.S. will put up with, in the way of killing other people, enemies, has made it possible for us to be threatening nuclear war ever since, and preparing for it. 

But the threats can work. Look at—I keep coming back to the fact, we’re seeing the demonstration—in the eyes of the non-nuclear people in the world, we’re seeing a demonstration of what Putin can do with his nuclear weapons. He’s keeping us out of that war so far. And if it doesn’t, if it ceases to work, and we give—he’s even threatening an unimaginable increase, I think unpredictable increase if we give more weapons of the kind we’re now giving this week and further. In effect he’s saying, I could go to nuclear war; would that be sensible? No. But the threat can work. He can believe, as people on our side have argued for a long time, they’ll back off. And the likelihood is they won’t. So it blows up. 

And we can’t afford—he doesn’t feel, I think you said, Bob, he doesn’t feel as far as we know that he can afford to lose this war, but we can’t afford to defeat it. We can’t afford to win it exactly, because that could well press him toward nuclear weapons. He would see it as rational. It’s the only way he can keep his job or avoid a great loss or something. And we’ve been making these threats all along, which are threats of carrying out an insane, criminal, evil action, using nuclear weapons for the first time here, and building it up would be insane.

RS: Well, it’s not the first time. We keep saying it’s the first time—

DE: Bob, Bob—it’s the first time against a nuclear state. 

RS: Ah.

DE: It’s the first time when retaliation is possible. The first time when escalation is possible. So when we did it against Hiroshima, it was ruthless, but no more so actually than the Tokyo bombing, or the 64 other cities we’d hit. There was no retaliation from that. So it wasn’t insane in the same sense as it would be to use the same tactics if the Japanese had had a nuclear weapon, or if Hitler had had a nuclear weapon. But the Russians have had it. And we keep making the threats. I’m saying that remains—the threat of doing something, it would be insane, because we would die from it too. And others, every other people in the world would. It’s a different order of insanity, if you like. 

But how about the very preparation of these threats? Making them rely, making our alliances rely as they have ever since NATO was formed, rely on an assurance we would blow the world up if they were facing a conventional major aggression. That’s what we’ve lived with for over half a century. I would say from a human point of view, from a species, from the point of view of human civilization, that policy is insane. But it’s held by all of our presidents. It is now prepared for entirely by the Russians; to a much lesser extent seven other nuclear states. And 30 states in NATO go along with that threat. 

So it’s an insanity that’s kind of bred in the bone, as far as I can see it. It’s accepted by our civilized leaders, by our educated, intelligent—they don’t have to be clinically mad, I mean, to get elected and to pursue this policy. And yet in a longer-run sense, I would say, it’s a fatal, disastrous policy. And I don’t see, currently, any prospect of changing that. Ah, I hope I am wrong, and that’s not a slim hope, because I’ve often been wrong in the past. So I hope that my firm expectations of a prolonged guerrilla war, disastrous to the Ukrainians, as the best outcome there, with negotiation being put off the table, and the possibility of nuclear war—I hope that’s wrong, if something comes along that I can’t foresee. But I have to say, I don’t see it. 

RS: Well, it is an optimistic view, but there’s always that counter-argument: why do we have these weapons? And there’s also that illusion that they can be contained. That’s what, you know, again, as a journalist, I wandered into—

DE: You have to be kind of a nut, actually, to believe that. And unfortunately nuts are, do persist. It would be wrong, I think, Bob, to say that a large number of people in any administration have actually believed that. But acting as if they believed it—oh, our whole policy is based on that.

RS: Let me just conclude this, though. What happened to arms control? I mean, there was an understanding between Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan—and Ronald Reagan is the man I talked to, interviewed about the possibility of winning a nuclear war. And he was of the view the Russians might believe that because they were monsters—well, he changed that view when he met Gorbachev, and really seemed to believe, at least temporarily, that we could get rid of these weapons, that they could not be used and so forth. Well, we haven’t made much progress. And in fact in the recent decades we have expanded the presence of nuclear weapons, and we’re not alone in it. Nuclear weapons figure very much in calculations about security, where they’re placed, who has control of them. And, frankly, I’m really quite surprised in this conversation; you seem more sanguine about the role of reason here—

DE: No, I’ve given a totally wrong impression, then, if that’s the way you read it, Bob. And no one is more intelligent than you, Bob, so that’s a little dismaying if I haven’t communicated that. I am in not the slightest sanguine, because if we differ, it’s only on one thing—and I am speaking as an insider, a former insider on this. I get the impression that you think that a lot of people believed what they were saying and acting on at that time. And that’s—I do disagree. You don’t have to believe this stuff to obey your orders, to go for orders from Northrop Grumman and the others. And they like the orders, and they make you a board chairman if you were given the orders and then—or you come from Raytheon and then you give orders, in the other sense directly. It’s been very profitable and good diplomatically, because it’s kept us as the supposed protector of Europe all this time. It’s a protection racket. 

There is nothing sanguine I’m saying here, because this thing can very well blow up. And we are increasing the chances of it by many aspects of our policy. And I don’t see anything that’s going down. I don’t believe there’s a lot of Curtis LeMays left, who did believe, when I was in the Pentagon, I think he did believe that a nuclear war—at that time, before they built up more than they did—would be a good thing. That was very rare. I could name a couple other people, mainly acolytes, that may have thought that. The army didn’t think that; the Navy didn’t think that, really. And very few people did, but they all went along with it, because to take the Navy point of view, as long as they got their submarines, they didn’t care if the air force got a lot of ICBMs, which the Navy knew perfectly well were only dangerous, ah, not necessary. But they didn’t fight them once they got what they wanted. What I’m saying is, humans in power are very dangerous. To say that I’m sanguine, I don’t know what you’re referring to there. I don’t yield to you in pessimism about what the future holds for this species.

RS: OK, we’re going to wrap this up, but let me just tell you my—and we’ve known each other for a long time, and I have obviously great respect for you and your knowledge of all these things. But let me tell you my concern. I see nationalism as the great threat—national arrogance, the notion that—and this is what I see in Russia right now, and why Putin has much more support than many people in this country think. And why, by the way, Gorbachev lost a lot of support, because he basically ended up challenging Russian nationalism and talking about, you know, giving it all up. And Putin’s strength has nothing to do with communism; it has a lot to do with nationalism. You know, Crimea is Russia; Ukraine is an invention; Khrushchev gave away everything, you know, Khrushchev, the Ukrainians. I’ve been witness to that on both sides, all sides; there’s Chinese nationalism, there’s American nationalism and so forth. 

And when these people, when these disputes come to be defined as the other side are monsters, they’re all criminals—which is what is happening right now. The language that has been used to describe Putin’s motives and his operation means negotiations are almost impossible. Nixon did go to China; he did negotiate with Mao Zedong; [unclear] I’ll grant you that. But the fact of the matter is, if we’re saying that the people on the other side are going to be treated as Nazi war criminals, and they’re going to be tried and they’re going to be, you know, treated in this way, there’s very little room for negotiation. And if we say they have no validity whatsoever to their concerns about NATO expansion or anything else, you know, you leave people with very little in the way of an exit strategy. And, you know, and if you cut them off from any kind of economic activity—and this, by the way, applies to our policy towards China, increasingly; a total denial of any legitimacy to Chinese concerns or Chinese nationalism. 

And it seems to me, ah, you do have these weapons; and this is of course one reason why North Korea wants one, because they think it’s the only reason they’re still in business. And maybe why Pakistan feels the need for them. Maybe it’s why Israel feels the need for it. These are developed as ultimately usable weapons, and this goes beyond the game-playing of major powers. It’s just a reality that in moments of desperation, these are things that can be used. And we showed that. Even when we weren’t desperate, we were willing to use them. We were willing to use a weapon that we should have never thought about using. 

DE: Bob, do you really think that I disagree with anything you’ve said here? Because I don’t. So I could have said [unclear] everything you just said. In fact, I believe I did on a number of points, such as the danger of defining Russia now and China as some kind of monsters unlike us who can’t be negotiated with. Unfortunately, in their worst characteristics, they’re like us, the way they have been. They’re not doing anything worse. And that was terribly bad. And we did interact, as you know, in Vietnam and the others. But to emphasize that right now and to block negotiations is desperately wrong. If we disagree just on one thing, is all I hear: the credibility of using nuclear weapons against the non-nuclear state, like Japan or Iran now, Japan in ‘45 or Iran now—is a very different issue from establishing credibility against the Russians or the Chinese, or between Indian and Pakistan right now, nuclear weapon state. 

But if you hear that as me being sanguine, then I haven’t communicated, because unfortunately it doesn’t have to be totally credible to initiate that war, and it unfortunately—humanly, corporately, institutionally—it is credible enough, we are crazy enough. One way of establishing that credibility is by spending trillions of dollars to enable yourself—this is the U.S., or Russia—to use nuclear weapons, or even launch them. And even India and Pakistan, when you spend that much of national resources on something that can only be suicidal if used, you can’t be confident it won’t be used. And that’s, as you say, why they do get them. It does give them some deterrence, but that’s at the cost of signing on to a world, and not opposing it, that really offers a risk of killing not only your adversary and not only yourself, but everybody. And that’s true for all these. 

So there’s a madness in not just the nine nuclear states, but in the 30 states that rely on a so-called umbrella. Do they really want it used? Does Poland, let’s say—did Germany before really want it used, as they said, if they were attacked by the Soviets? Maybe they did, but that was crazy, because they would be annihilated. Did they really fully understand that? I’ve never known. Did they understand what they were asking for? 

Let’s go right to the present. Isn’t Zelensky sincere when he asks for us to attack, with our air power, Russian ground-based anti-aircraft? In other words, to clear the skies and to allow our planes to come in there and dominate the situation? It’s understandable for him to ask. He’s no crazier than so many other people have been in the past. And yet he is a heroic figure. I have no question about that. But in his desperation, he is asking for something that if we carried it out would actually lead to the destruction of his own country. And—but it might work. And he’s willing in his desperate situation to—truly desperate, existentially—to take that chance. It might, the others might back off. 

We don’t have that excuse, and yet we are making those threats. In Taiwan, the situation is different; there we can’t carry out our defense that we talk about, our commitment, rock-solid commitment to the integrity and sovereignty, which is not official, but the independence of Taiwan. We can’t do that without being prepared, and really very prepared, to initiate nuclear war, which would be catastrophic for Taiwan and others. For us to encourage Taiwan to declare official independence and get recognized is, I would say, as, not just misguided, but as criminally irresponsible policy as our long-term policy of trying to get Ukraine on the border of Russia into NATO. That was incredibly irresponsible, and it has led to where we are right now, which is a catastrophic situation, and can get much worse. 

Same would be true in Taiwan. We’ve got to stop—at this point we have time to stop, they haven’t yet been attacked—doing what every Chinese leader since Mao has said would lead to their invasion of Taiwan. And that is recognizing Taiwan as an independent state. Pelosi is about to go to Taiwan; as far as I know, the first visit by a speaker of the House. A high-level visit that looks very much like recognizing them as an independent state. I doubt if she’s made a visit to any other province of China on the mainland. Biden is getting people over here, officials over here; ah, Trump was the first president to take a phone call from the president of Taiwan. Which other province of China, which is what China sees Taiwan as being, did he take a phone call from? Very like looking at them as independent. That’s virtually asking for invasion of Taiwan, not because it would be sensible and longer-term rational or necessary. 

These instincts of nationalism and of who is in your country and who isn’t, whether they’re, ah, however well-based those are, are characteristics of highly organized humans over the last several millennia of empire, and have caused in the past innumerable casualties. In the nuclear age, and the age that requires a global cooperation on climate, those are not just lethal to large numbers of people; they’re lethal to human civilization. And that’s new. And we’re not a species to be trusted with nuclear weapons, but we have them. 

And I am very sensitive to being called sanguine about that situation, because I would say that my life, even back when I was in the Pentagon, was devoted to trying to avoid a nuclear war. By means that were wrong. I was mistaken. People I was with were mistaken. It was a terrible delusion that that was the way to avoid nuclear war, by building up our nuclear capability. But it’s been a long time since I believed in that. And, you know, I’ve spent the rest of my life trying to avert what we’re risking right now. And without success, I would say. 

You asked about arms control; the arms control has a great reduction of numbers of warheads. Meaningless. That has not reduced the risk of nuclear war by an iota. Not at all. With the vulnerable ICBMs on both sides on launch-on-warning, the risk of nuclear war by mistaken calculation, by wrongful nationalistic cult-like obsessions. By a false belief that first strike remains or is preferable to second strike, very profitable delusions. It’s likely to blow up. And at 91, that is not a sense of success in my life, or in arms control. Hasn’t happened. 

RS: So, let me end this also with a—first of all, I have great respect for you, Dan. And the reason I wanted to do this interview is I re-read your book, The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner. And I would recommend it to people. But what I came away from reading your book is that we should be very, very concerned now about the possibility of these weapons being used, whether by calculation, accident, hubris, demonstration effect. Because your book goes through how fragile the control system is. 

And I want to offer just a personal note here. I did go into Chernobyl. I was one of the first print reporters to go in; I went in a year after, and I went in with Soviet scientists and American scientists and political people and so forth.

And the fear—this was a peaceful plant designed to not damage the environment and so forth. But the fear then, and the lack of calculation, and the possibility of just drunken workers or people not knowing what they’re doing or why were things shut down when they were shut down—the, you know, how fragile the system, how dangerous the technology under the best of circumstance. 

And I just think that there’s a horrible—what you describe in your book, a human factor; there’s emotion, there’s nationalism, there’s madness—imagined, feigned, but also real. And I just personally think that we’re very much—that we’ve lost—yes, some people still talk about it a lot, but we’ve stopped paying attention to the nuclear threat. It’s just not that fashionable anymore. And it’s just, even though we say the things about the other, unless it’s North Korea, we just assume that people are going to be rational. And when they’re pushed up against the wall, it turns out rationality doesn’t have much of a chance. I’ll let you have the last sentence.

DE: I used to believe in rationality as a helpful phenomenon. The trouble is that at 91 I discovered—and long before that—that you can be very rational in terms of your instruments conforming and being consistent with your expectations and your values and your desires. The trouble is that those premises can be terribly flawed. Take the people who went into the Capitol on January 6th. Now there are those who say, well, that was just a holiday outing [unclear] normal visitation; not really, but they did believe sincerely that the election had been lost. That was crazy in a sense, and yet could it have been true? Is it possible there would be a hoax like that? I have to say there’s really no limit to the conspiracies that are conceivable, and the kinds we’ve had in the past. They believed that the election had been stolen. Given that, how excessive was what they did? If they actually believe that, they were acting in that sense rationally? That gives me no reassurance at all. Their beliefs were crazy. And I can only say that because there have been 80 court tests of them. There’s been a lot of auditing and so forth. 

After all, I was party to, knowing party to a real hoax conspiracy in 1964, when president Lyndon Johnson said “we seek no wider war.” And he got elected on that basis, particularly. And I knew at that point that that was untrue, and I didn’t reveal it any more than anyone else did, of the thousands who knew it. I’ve regretted that, of course, for over half a century. How could you have a better demonstration than that people rationally voted for LBJ in the belief that, unlike Goldwater, LBJ was not going to enlarge the war? It happened to be false. They’d been lied to, they’d been deceived. Unfortunately, it is so easy for humans to be deceived by others, and to deceive themselves, and to join what are in effect cults. You see—I won’t go into some of it—QAnon, which looks absolutely crazy. The belief that Trump won the election is as false as the QAnon beliefs, and yet it’s asserted by every Republican seeking office. Now, do they all believe it? Almost surely not. How can they all believe that? But they say it, and they act as if it’s true in order to get funding. 

So what I’m saying is that they’re acting rationally, from their point of view, and voters who vote for them may be deceived. So rationality per se gives me no reassurance at all. It says nothing about concern for other humans, concern for the future, concern with realism. What about the climate? You know, the science of climate and the number of people who believe that there’s not really a human-made climate crisis. Well, they act rationally, given that stupid—I mean, unscientific belief. But if I—we could talk about COVID. But unfortunately, what you need as well as rationality—that is, as well as being consistent with your values—you need to re-examine those values and change them. If we don’t change our concern about climate and nuclear war, which as you say people aren’t worrying about, because they’ve been lied to and kept in the dark—but even the ones who aren’t lied to find reasons to pursue that in their personal lives, or obeying other people. Those are the reasons. They’re being personally rational, and yet leading toward human destruction. They don’t care that much about avoiding a disastrous nuclear war, climate change, whatever.

So it’s not a matter of trying to be more rational. It’s a matter of trying to care more about what happens to other people and to our grandchildren and people in the world, and having more realistic beliefs. And as you say, the belief that a nuclear war can actually be won—well, actually, we do disagree slightly on the number of people who actually believe that. But a vast number of people act as if it’s true, because their jobs depend on it. As I used to say, anyone can be as dumb as he has to be to keep his job. And to keep your job, Republicans have to pretend they believe that Trump is president, and people in the Pentagon or politicians who are confronting right-wingers have to pretend they—have to be dumb, have to act dumb. I know that you yourself, I think, got the quote from Bush, if I’m not mistaken, that yes, nuclear war can be won. Wasn’t that you who revealed that? 

RS: Yes, the first President Bush.

DE: OK, how much did he believe that? I think that he had a very limited sense in which he thought that might be true, we might have more weapons at the end of the war, by his policy, than they did. To what effect, you know, that’s a purely misleading notion of the word “win”—did he really think we could survive it? I doubt it. If he did, he hadn’t thought about it at all, it wasn’t his problem. In terms of getting ready for it, though, he was very committed to that. I don’t go on the assumption that what Bush, President Bush said to you, even to you, Robert, or to people like my friends Sy Hersh or others. I used to say, Sy, for all of your skepticism and cynicism and hard-boiledness, I don’t believe you can understand how much you were lied to successfully. And I said that as a former insider. And I’ll say to you, Robert, no one is a better investigative reporter; you are the one who discovered the truth of the Tonkin Gulf, ultimately incidents that there had been, that even the captain who thought there had been an attack on his ship, Captain Herrick, you discovered and convinced him that he had been wrong. And I would say even you, Bob, could be fooled as to how much these people actually believe the bullshit they’re putting out. 

RS: OK, but I mean, we’ve gone on long, but I’m going to push just one last idea here. You’re absolutely right. You know, it would be difficult to believe, you’d think, you or your culture could survive an all-out nuclear war, obviously. The reason I keep bringing up Hiroshima and Nagasaki was the idea that you can use these weapons somehow in a limited way to remind people that you have them. And this is what Putin has been talking about for a long time now, because he kept saying, you know, as he did in I thought a very good series that Oliver Stone did interviewing him, he talked about what happened to arms control? What happened to the promise between Reagan and Gorbachev not to rely on these weapons? What happened to the idea of restraints? Why have you been pushing us this far? Why NATO expansion? 

And going along with that, you know, people then say, well, what do we have? We have the threat of nuclear weapons, but they don’t take it seriously. The next step is, what, a demonstration. Maybe you have one explode in the ocean, or maybe you use them in some kind of tactical way. Maybe you get their attention that way. And this whole notion of modernization of these weapons, still having them, is because they—and this is why other nations like Pakistan or Israel want to have them—is that there is a use for them. And when it’s the only card that you have to play, if that turns out to be the case, and you are Russia and you are overwhelmed and your army is depleted and they pushed you against the wall, and they’ve said anyone who backs you or is with you is going to be considered a war criminal, you know, and we’re going to have Nuremberg trials for you, et cetera, et cetera—you know, you’ve got these weapons and a lot of money and effort was spent on them. Do you not try a demonstration effect? Do you not use them? 

That’s the scenario that caused me to want to interview you today. And I’m really basing it on having re-read your book, and I recommend it to people, The Doomsday Machine. Because that’s the danger of it. And there’s a giddiness now about this, that somehow oh, it’s all about just the Ukraine, or it’s all about human rights. No, it isn’t. It’s about great power struggles. It’s about realignment in the world. It’s about fear of China’s economic power and success, and its hookup with Russia. There’s a lot at play. And in that environment, if you think you’re on the wrong end of finally—and you’re not going to just take a pill and kill yourself. You know, you might try one other gambit, which is to show, wait a minute, you better back off because we can do this. And we did it. Hopefully you just kill a lot of fish in the ocean with that kind of thing, which is what the Berkeley scientists recommended for Fat Man and Little Boy, and you don’t kill hundreds of thousands of people as we did in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That’s my concern in the current situation. 

DE: Well, Bob, I know we’ve gone over your time limit here, and you don’t have to use this. But I mean, can I just answer that or comment on that? Let’s just go ahead since we’re on here. OK. First of all, I just, as I keep saying, do not have less concern than you. I’m very concerned; in fact, as I’ve said to you, depressed about the prospects for nuclear war and the prospects for proliferation, et cetera. I’m very pessimistic, fatalistic almost, except that I know that when I’ve been certain before that things were going to go wrong, they didn’t always do it, or right. 

OK. Here’s where my own perspective, I’ve had to adjust to some extent here from early on. I never believed we would get through the last 70 years without a nuclear war. I thought that was so unlikely as of 1959, when I joined RAND, that I didn’t join their insurance campaign, TIAA-CREF, a very generous retirement plan. So I have no retirement money, because I didn’t think there was any chance I would live to cash in on it. Ah, nuclear war could be postponed, and that’s what I was trying to do—but not that long. 

Now, how come it has been that long? And as I say, a first reason was the Russians really weren’t racing with us at that time, but later they were. And for a long time they have. I would not have predicted that either the U.S. or the Soviet Union would allow themselves to lose a war without actually firing a nuclear weapon, of which they had many. And I wasn’t alone in this. I think many, many people thought, ah, that’s just not going to happen; that’s why the war is almost certain. Actually, we allowed, both sides allowed a stalemate to occur in Korea without launching their nuclear weapons. Although we did use them by threatening them. And for that matter, the Soviet Union was using them by threatening them. Neither side—of course they only had a very few at that time; we had plenty—we didn’t actually launch them, even though Eisenhower was quite open to doing it, and he did threaten them. 

OK, then you go to Vietnam. I think that if China had not had nuclear weapons as of 1964, we would have launched nuclear weapons in Vietnam before allowing ourselves to lose it as we did. But the possibility of Chinese reaction was a key factor there in our not actually doing things for which we actually had plans for, all written out in 1969, 1972—but they weren’t actually carried out. What I’m saying is—then we have the Soviets in Afghanistan. They had neutron bombs then, as we do now; you think they couldn’t have used those with any effect? But they didn’t. They lost the war. We lost the war in Afghanistan without using them. 

Now, what is one to draw from this? One would be, but I think it’s mistaken, they’ll never get used—people are so cautious it turns out that they’ll never use them. I think in effect you’re accusing, or asserting, that I think that; I don’t think that at all. But I do see that they’re a little more cautious than I expected them to be. Does that mean they won’t get used? No. In the Cuban missile crisis, I concluded—by participating in it, and then more than 40 years of studying it ever since, I think I have a different understanding than almost anybody else, right or wrong. And my understanding is that neither Khrushchev nor Kennedy believed they could win a nuclear war. Neither of them believed that they could contain a conventional war. So both of them, in threatening war, were bluffing, in my opinion; they were determined not to go to any armed conflict, like today in Ukraine. 

And yet they were determined to make threats in such a way that the world came within a hair’s breadth of blowing up. Despite the fact that they were not, ah—LeMay was not in charge. Yes, he did perhaps send a U-2 over the Soviet Union at one point, or he may not; Kennedy thought he had. But they didn’t cause a war because both sides did not want a war. And yet they almost caused a nuclear war. Unless Arkhipov on the submarine B-59 on the Soviet side had not vetoed launching a nuclear torpedo, you and I wouldn’t be here. It would have ended. 

And then later, in 1983, Andropov looked at Reagan—Reagan wasn’t about to launch a first strike–but Andropov thought he was. And so he prepared an intelligence system to tell him, when is the hour, when will this happen? Biggest intelligence operation probably in history, so that he could preempt. To what effect? What if we were about to attack? Just like us, he would have wanted to get the first strike in. Fortunately, that didn’t happen, for various reasons, one of which being that Stanislav Petrov in Russia chose not to report what may have been an incoming U.S. attack. Which it wasn’t, but he wasn’t sure that it wasn’t. And without that, again, you and I wouldn’t be here. 

So what I’m saying, you know, on the one hand, the key thing is I do believe it’s more than possible in some circumstances for the thing to blow up. As you say, even more possible that a limited original attack will occur, and maybe blow up or not, because of this belief that maybe they’ll back off. How stupid is that? How reckless is that? Can people, however, believe it, this escalate to deescalate? That’s our NATO policy. What they keep talking about as a Russian idea of a demonstration weapon was our NATO policy for Berlin for many years. And very highly educated and experienced people said, well, that’s what we’ll have to do. It would be crazy to do it. Might they have done it? Yes. However crazy, in a desperate situation. 

So what I’m saying is now it doesn’t require people to be actually giddy about actually believing this stuff. I do believe that the war is very dangerous. And by the way, what should we do if, as you say, if Putin does in fact what we’re warning of: use a nuclear weapon? Should we respond to it? Actually, not. That could only increase the chance of an overall escalation. Would we? Maybe yes, maybe not. Probably yes, I think. So the risks would be taken. And if they weren’t, one way or another, the experience of the last 70 years, Bob, does tell me that both sides might back off from escalating totally. They might. That’s a real possibility. They are worried about it. It’s far from a certainty. It’s at best like a 50/50 or less. 

But supposing they don’t blow the world up. Then what happens? Mass proliferation. Everybody sees, ah, the precedent has been broken; now we should have our nuclear weapons so we can deter others, so we can do what Putin just did and got away with it. If he did get away with it. If he didn’t get away with it, then nobody would have decisions to make. But if somehow it does get limited, ah, then people can say, OK, we need these things to make our own threats. And we may have an era of limited nuclear wars before the U.S. and Russia blow the whole thing up. 

That’s not a wonderful future either. But that’s what we’re facing, I think. And for the last time, I’ll say, you don’t have to be as crazy as LeMay to make this world a very dangerous place. Every president we have had has made it a dangerous place. And Putin now has clearly joined them. 

RS: OK. On that note, let’s scratch a little bit of optimism from it.

I want to thank you, Danielle Ellsberg, for a lifetime of calling our attention to things that we didn’t know about and needed to. Ah, there it is. I want to thank Christopher Ho at KCRW and thank the station for posting these programs, the great staff there. Joshua Scheer, our executive producer. Natasha Hakimi Zapata for writing the introductions. Lucy Berbeo for the transcriptions. I want to thank the JKW Foundation in memory of Jean Stein, a terrific writer, for helping support the show, and T.M. Scruggs for providing really decisive support. Thank you. See you next week with another edition of Scheer Intelligence.

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