Ye Olde Natural Philosophy Discussion Group

Reviews and comments on
Daniel Ellsberg:
The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner [2017]

This is a very alarming book about the past and present risks of nuclear war. Our group took it very seriously, and because of its importance, rated it very highly. On a scale of 0 to 10 our average rating was 9.56, one of the highest ratings we have ever given a book.

Rosie commented that the book is well written and well sourced. The information in it “is just unbelievable” she said—not in the sense that that she doesn’t really believe it, but in the sense that the actual truth about the past and present situation with regard to the risks of nuclear war is so terribly outrageous. She added that “it is a very important book and that everyone should read it.” She rated it 10.

Barbara rated the book an 8. She rated it that low only because it was emotionally difficult to face up to the horrible situations that the book discussed. Nevertheless, Barbara said that it was surprisingly easy to read, and a good history lesson. She said the scientists are partly at fault for having invented such horrible bombs in the first place.

Vicki rated the book a 10, and said that everyone should read it. She listened to the audio version in the car on the way to work, and said she was lucky that one of her carpool friends didn’t “go rogue” when he heard about all the outrageous things Ellsberg reports. Vicki adds: “The book really got to me... with the feared possibility of igniting our very atmosphere (which at the time they couldn’t rule out) these insane people actually went ahead with their nuclear test! Somehow this entire social machine has to die for this danger to end.”

Kevin gave the book a 9. He remarked that it is strange just how close reality is to the movie Dr. Strangelove. “Given the horrendous dangers over the past 70 years, we’ve been inordinately lucky even to have survived.” He commented on the vast numbers of nuclear weapons the U.S. and the Soviet Union had aimed at each other, to the absurd point that many new falling bombs would be inevitably destroyed by the explosions of earlier bombs. Kevin wondered if this is how capitalism will end, in a nuclear world war. But he sees no solution to the problem; no way to get rid of nuclear weapons: “We’re just going to have to learn to live with this situation.”

John rated the book a 10 and agreed with the comments of other people. But he also commented that he had not previously realized just how bad the fire bombing of German and Japanese cities had been during World War II. With regard to the Cuban Missile Crisis, he (like most people) did not really understand just how close we all came to being killed in nuclear war at that time. And John hadn’t previously understood just what a “heavyweight guy” Daniel Ellsberg was in nuclear war planning. John also said that decades later not a lot has changed. “The Dr. Strangelove scenario is still in play.” He also found it interesting that the nuclear war planners have never been willing to factor in the problem of “nuclear winter” arising from a major nuclear war. John said he like the book a lot, and that everybody should read it.

Kirby also gave it a 10, and also said that everybody should read this book. In some ways things are even worse today than they were during the Cold War, what with the rise of China and the ongoing India/Pakistan contest in South Asia.

Ron rated the book a 9. He commented that it is well written, and like everyone else in our group he said that everybody should read it. However, he already knew about many of the near disasters and mistakes that could well have led to nuclear war. Ron thought that there are only two ways of dealing with this problem of possible nuclear war: 1) Every power just deciding not to use nuclear weapons, even in outright war; and 2) A total change in social attitudes, so that no one would ever think of using nuclear weapons. But he felt that neither possibility was ever going to happen.

Rich missed the meeting and hasn’t given us his rating yet. But in an email he remarked, “I loved the movie Dr. Strangelove because I thought it was fiction. Little did I know it was very close to reality, gulp.”

Shel didn’t attend the meeting but liked the Ellsberg book very much. He rated it a 10.

Scott’s review, which he wrote up before the meeting:

“In my opinion Daniel Ellsberg’s book is by far the most important of the 150 books that our Science Book Club has read over its entire 30-year history. It is important not so much for its scientific content (though there is some of that too), but for its social content, and specifically for its extensive exposures of the utterly blood-thirsty militarism of the U.S., including not only the worst pro-nuclear war monsters in the Pentagon like General Curtis LeMay of SAC, but of the capitalist class generally, including virtually all of their hired politicians of both parties.

“The focus of the book is on exposing the extreme and completely outrageous threat to the lives of billions of people—and quite probably all of humanity—at the hands of the indifferent, genocidal and outright insane ruling classes of the United States and Russia. These two capitalist-imperialist superpowers have come oh-so-close to killing us all, not just on one occasion, but repeatedly, time after time, on at least a couple dozen separate occasions. And after decades of desperately close calls they are still at it, even after the Cold War, and having learned nothing and still as criminally stupid and indifferent as ever. Ellsberg brings this all out at length, especially in the later chapters of the book.

“However, the book starts off on a rather different tone written mostly from the less enlightened perspective that Ellsberg once had decades ago, when he himself was one of the maniac planners of nuclear war (as he now ruefully admits). These early chapters also have many points of interest and should merit their own attention. But with the detailed discussion of the Cuban Missile Crisis in chapters 11 through 13 the essence of the truly dire situation humanity has come to be in starts coming into sharper focus. We, all of us today, are damned lucky even to be alive! It is only from pure dumb luck that we are.

“Part II of Ellsberg’s book (chapters 14-24) better reflects his more recent and more rational perspective, and along with the chapters on the Cuban Missile Crisis is definitely the most important part of the book to read and ponder. The chapters on the bombing of cities, the burning of cities and the killing of nations all bring out the long-developing and intensifying indifference of imperialists to mass murder and genocide even before the advent of nuclear weapons.

“Of course Ellsberg has no idea what to do to end this now apparently interminable threat to the continued existence of humanity through inter-imperialist thermonuclear war. This is only to be expected; liberals never have any real solutions to basic problems, whether they be the continued exploitation of workers and the poor by the rich; gross and growing inequalities; the deep and essentially permanent racial hatred characteristic of bourgeois society; jihads by religious fanatics directed against Western imperialist domination of their countries; global warming and other forms of worsening environmental damage; or anything else. The reason liberals have no solutions is that all these problems are inherent in the modern imperialist form of capitalism, and liberals are so deeply indoctrinated in capitalist ideology that they simply cannot conceive of any alternative to it, let alone approve of and participate in actually overthrowing capitalism through social revolution. And that is in fact the only way to really get rid of capitalist-imperialism and all its hideous problems and dangers.

“But though Ellsberg himself is unable to offer any solutions, he is at least to be commended for powerfully reminding us of the danger of ‘omnicide’ [the murder of everybody] brought about by the current rulers of society. It remains for those of us who learn, or are reminded, of these terrifying threats to our collective existence to bring it to the attention of the masses who might then actually be able to do something about this. And specifically, in my view, a new mass campaign against nuclear weapons and the threat of human annihilation must soon become an important part of the overall revolutionary struggle to overthrow these vicious enemies of the people. While it is true that people are only capable of struggling against problems they recognize and understand, it is the job of those of us who do recognize the nature and seriousness of these problems to bring them to mass attention and seek to organize them in struggle on that basis.

“Ellsberg’s book is indeed still written from a liberal bourgeois perspective, though from a perspective which is close to vanishingly rare within the bourgeoisie at present. Of course there are the occasional ridiculous slams against Marxism and revolutionary leaders. As only a liberal himself, Ellsberg is not at all able to understand that the regime he despised in the Soviet Union from the 1950s on was no more “Marxist” or “revolutionary” than the present Putin-led fascist regime in contemporary Russia. But I’m ignoring Ellsberg’s occasional bourgeois tirades; the book is too important to get distracted by them.

“There are some other defects in The Doomsday Machine too. Ellsberg’s argument about the genuinely extreme danger of the extermination of humanity in nuclear war depends in part upon the validity of the “nuclear winter” thesis. But while he states several times that recent research has fully established the validity of that thesis, he does not really discuss this research. There should have been a full chapter on this important topic, and an exposure of the long and continuing attempt by the warmongers to pooh-pooh the whole idea.

“The imperialists do not wish to believe that the nuclear wars they promote will really wipe out everybody—including themselves. So they refuse to believe it, and refuse to even take a serious look at the evidence. And, worse yet, they do everything in their power to fool the people about this too. And, unfortunately, as Marx pointed out, the prevailing views in any society are those of the ruling class.

“It is something of a miracle that the capitalist-imperialist ruling classes of the world, and the very worst of them in particular—that of the United States—have not yet brought an end to human existence. But the Doomsday Machines still exist, and unless they are dismantled fairly soon humanity is just not going to make it. I’ll be dead soon myself, most likely from natural causes. But I would think that those who hope to live some additional decades, and who have children and grandchilden who they care about, might just get off their asses and try to do something about this problem. Something more effective that voting for some “anti-Trump” (but still pro-imperialist) politician in the next election, I mean. The only really effective thing to do is to overthrow this fucking insane capitalist-imperialist system once and for all.

“Ellsberg’s book is not itself a plan of action to deal with this desperate problem. But it is an alarm-ringing wake-up call. So despite some weaknesses, I must give it our highest rating: 10. —Scott”

At the end of everybody’s individual comments on The Doomsday Machine we had a short group discussion about what can be done about this continuing looming threat of the annihilation of humanity through nuclear warfare. Most people in our group felt that really nothing can be done about this threat. This really upset Scott, who started going off again about how socially bankrupt liberalism is. (Most people in our book club are liberals or progressives of some sort.) Finally Scott asked, “What if Ellsberg, together perhaps with some other activists like Noam Chomsky, were to call for the formation of a new organization to campaign against nuclear weapons? Would you join?” Many people said they would. But Scott also complained, “Of course, such an anti-nuclear weapons organization led by Ellsberg and people like him would likely end up doing little except searching for some Democratic Party candidates to support who agreed with them.” Kirby immediately commented, apparently approvingly, that “Yes it would!”.

Scott summarizes this as showing that liberals really do think that little if anything of importance can be done even about a problem so desperate that it threatens humanity’s very existence. The only thing ever to be done in this milieu is to look for some politicians to be our saviors, even when all elections are clearly rigged by the capitalists and the media they own and control. The thought of actually organizing themselves, holding demonstrations, and raising total hell about anything is just too alien to their perspective to even be contemplated. Imagine that! Liberals won’t actually do anything even when their very lives are at stake, along with those of their families and everybody they know! Wow!

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