Ellsberg, Daniel (2017) The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner. London: Bloomsbury. 421 pp.

​ISBN: 978-1-4088-8929-9

Nils Petter Gleditsch


​This is a profoundly disturbing book by an economist and former military analyst for the RAND and the US government. Best known for leaking the Pentagon Papers on the Vietnam War in 1971, Daniel Ellsberg was centrally involved in the study of nuclear weapons decision-making from the late 1950s. When he copied the Vietnam papers, he also secretly collected documents relating to nuclear weapons, intending to publish them later. Those papers got lost, but he has now reconstructed the story they told using his notes, Freedom of Information Act requests, other published accounts, and interviews. Ellsberg shows that, despite public statements to the contrary, the use of nuclear weapons has always been delegated far down the line and that there were no credible plans for limiting nuclear use. Once a superpower starts using these weapons, a doomsday scenario is unavoidable. An estimate from 1961 foresaw 600 million dead in a general nuclear war; Ellsberg argues that ‘nuclear winter’ would make the actual number much higher. Despite an 80% reduction in nuclear warheads after the Cold War, there are more than enough warheads to set off the doomsday scenario. Ellsberg is not reassured by 73 years of nuclear non-use, nor does he believe that the extreme secrecy of the nuclear threat is lessened because ‘everything leaks’. However, he believes that the danger of nuclear disaster can be drastically reduced if the superpowers agree on a more substantial reduction of nuclear stocks as well as a credible non-first use policy. A highly personal account, this book serves as a useful antidote to more optimistic accounts of the nuclear threat by John Mueller (2009) and others.

(Additional documentation can be found at www.ellsberg.net/.)