I am half-expecting an invalid to turn up. Daniel Ellsberg’s publisher had e-mailed a week before to say he had been suffering from laryngitis, needed rest and that his energy tended to flag early. They asked if I could bring the lunch forward to before noon. I could hardly blame Ellsberg, now 86, for wanting to cut our engagement short. Shortly after I take a seat at our table, a sprightly, besuited man wanders in. The only hint of infirmity is a large pink hearing aid protruding from his left ear. I rush to help Ellsberg with his coat. It takes a while to disentangle him. “I got this in Moscow when I visited Edward Snowden,” he says, as if apologising for the garment. The moment we are seated, he asks a waiter for chamomile tea with honey. “I need it for my throat,” he says. Several times over lunch he explains he cannot talk for long. “My voice is going very fast,” he says. It begins weakly but grows steadily more animated. Two hours later, he is still talking.
The venue is The Oval Room, an upmarket modern American restaurant the other side of Lafayette Square to the White House. The reason is Ellsberg’s new book, The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner, which came out recently decades of gestation. Ellsberg is best known for having leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1971, revealing that America’s generals had known for years that the best outcome in Vietnam was a military stalemate. Yet they, and successive White House commanders-in-chief, had pressed on for fear of sacrificing US credibility.
The 7,000-page leak, which Ellsberg smuggled from his office at the Rand Corporation and spent nights Xeroxing, helped destroy whatever remaining case there was for the Vietnam war. Two weeks afterwards, Ellsberg turned himself in to the authorities. It was later revealed that Richard Nixon, the then president, who had done his best to stop publication of the Pentagon Papers, had promised the presiding judge that he would appoint him as the next head of the FBI. It was the judge’s lifelong ambition, but the gambit failed. The espionage trial, which could have resulted in a 115-year jail term, was declared a mistrial. Ellsberg walked free.
Less well known is that Ellsberg was one of Cold War America’s most senior nuclear planners. First at the Pentagon, then at the Rand Corporation, he helped devise the nuclear doctrines that still hold today. Ellsberg went from being a brilliant Cold War hawk to becoming an advocate of nuclear elimination.
He has been trying to sell this book on and off since 1975. Nobody wanted to read about nuclear weapons. “My previous agent, who was very good, said he would not represent me on a nuclear book,” says Ellsberg. “Even five years ago, this same book was rejected by 17 different publishers on commercial grounds.” Then something changed. Perhaps it was Russia’s annexation of Crimea, or North Korea’s nuclear advance, or Donald Trump’s candidacy. Why was it snapped up now when no one else had wanted it, I ask? The world got scarier, he replies. “The only silver lining to today’s world is that people now want to read my book,” he says.
We order our starters. Ellsberg chooses beet salad and I opt for lobster bisque. Ellsberg is keen to avoid anything with salt in it. The waiter promises to oblige. Ellsberg’s salt aversion reminds me of the botched attempt to mess with his state of mind before he addressed an antiwar rally in 1971. Nixon’s aides hatched the idea of putting LSD in Ellsberg’s soup, hoping to depict him as a deranged hippie. The operatives charged with executing the plan failed to get the instructions in time. Ellsberg is something of an expert on bungled hatchet jobs. His psychiatrist’s office was burgled on Nixon’s instructions, with the goal of finding doctor’s notes that would raise doubts about Ellsberg’s sanity. His case file turned out to be innocuous. “They tried all sorts of tricks on me,” he recalls.
I was keen to go further back in Ellsberg’s life than that. When he was 15, his father crashed the car that was carrying his family. Ellsberg’s mother and younger sister were killed. Ellsberg nearly joined them. He was in a coma for almost four days. How has that affected him? “The car crash alerted me to the possibility that the world can change in a flash for the worst,” he says. “That is the story I have been telling myself for more than 70 years.” But in the past few months, he has been revising what he thinks of the tragedy. “Was it really an accident?” he asks. His new answer is complex. It also goes some way to explaining why Ellsberg is more worried about human fallibility than most people.
The tragedy occurred on the 4 July holiday in 1946. Ellsberg’s mother wanted to drive to Denver from Detroit, where they lived. She forgot to book a motel for the first night, so they slept on the dunes of Lake Michigan. Ellsberg and his father shivered under blankets on the beach for most of the night. His mother and sister slept in the car. “I remember my father hardly got any sleep,” Ellsberg recalled. “I also remember waking up in the middle of the night and seeing falling stars, this shower of meteors – I’d never seen so many.”
The next day, Ellsberg’s father kept saying he was too tired to drive, and suggested they pull over. But his mother said they should press on. At some point in the middle of Iowa’s cornfields, Ellsberg’s father must have nodded off at the wheel. They veered calamitously off the road. “‘Accident’ is the wrong word,” says Ellsberg. “It was an accident in the sense that nobody intended it to happen. But both my parents knew the risks and they took the gamble anyway.”
Ellsberg relates this calmly but sadly. He also draws the natural parallel. “Nuclear war is also an accident waiting to happen,” he says. “The world has been preparing for nuclear catastrophe – for the end of civilisation – for 70 years now. I know: I have seen the plans.” The incident taught Ellsberg that leaders whom you trust and even love – like his father – can gamble for little upside with everything they hold dear. “He should never have been driving,” Ellsberg says. “My mother should have listened to him.” It was a straight road. There were no other cars. “It was not as if we were hit by a meteor,” he adds.
Our waiter interrupts to say that Ellsberg’s choice of entrée, the pan-roasted Amish chicken, is too salty – it has been brined for three days. “Oh, that’s off the menu then,” says Ellsberg. He substitutes it with a crispy skin salmon and lentils. I have ordered a magret duck breast with bok choi. “That’s a pity,” Ellsberg adds. “Amish had a good ring to me there. I’m more appreciative of all the peace religions than I was before, including the Christian Scientists.” Although Jewish by ethnicity, Ellsberg was raised a Christian Scientist. After the car crash, his father refused Ellsberg any medical treatment, in keeping with the sect’s practice. Relatives managed to remove the injured boy to another hospital. “If they hadn’t reset my knee, one of my legs would be an inch-and-a-half shorter,” he says. “Anyway, it put me off Christian Science.”
Could Ellsberg imagine he would have been a whistleblower without his tragedy? He ponders for a while. He has become a friend both to Snowden, who is in exile in Moscow after having dumped mountains of data from the National Security Agency, and Chelsea Manning, the former US soldier who was jailed for having released troves of US diplomatic cables. Ellsberg has also made a point of befriending corporate whistleblowers. In each case, he quizzes them about their motives. “We all agree on three things,” he says. “First, what we know about what is happening is wrong. Second, people should know about it. Third, I will tell them.”
The only part neither Ellsberg nor his fellow whistleblowers can explain is the third. Why them? Why don’t more people come forward? Ellsberg says Snowden has the best answer. “People have careers, jobs, security – they don’t want to risk that,” he says. He then tells me that he once read that whistleblowers divorce on average within 18 months of speaking out. Their spouses did not sign up for the change of location, the pressure or the condemnation from their peers. “Perhaps that is the most important thing,” says Ellsberg. “It’s something about humanity – the fear of ostracism. People will go along with almost anything, including risking the end of the world, to avoid being ostracised.”
I ask if Ellsberg hopes his new book will inspire nuclear personnel to become whistleblowers. “Well, you know, nuclear warheads can’t read,” he says. “But the people working in the silos have a lot of time on their hands: they tend to apply to work in these bunkers so they can complete correspondence degrees and such like. They have time to read. I hope my book triggers a lot of resignations.” I tell Ellsberg that I was at a conference in Halifax last month when General John Hyten, head of the US strategic command that controls America’s nuclear arsenal, said he would refuse an “illegal order” from the president to use nuclear weapons.
It has been more than an hour and we have yet to talk about President Trump. Given that we are a stone’s throw from the White House, this must rank as something of a milestone. Ellsberg is dismissive of Hyten’s reassurance. “No president ever believes he is doing anything illegal,” he says. “Trump is different in that he talks about that openly. He says whatever he does is legal, just like Nixon said. Of course, Trump is much more unbalanced than most presidents, but Hyten was talking nonsense. Which American officer has ever been sent to jail for obeying orders? Name me one. Besides, if the general refused the president’s order, Trump could fire him and replace him with someone who would.” At this point, Ellsberg’s publicist approaches to remind him that his voice will go if he carries on talking. “I’ll be a few more minutes,” Ellsberg replies amiably. “I am enjoying this.”
So is Trump no better or worse than his predecessors, I ask. Ellsberg confesses to having voted “reluctantly” for Hillary Clinton. But Trump is only publicly declaring what many presidents do privately, he says. “Do you think Trump is the first president to grope a woman? Do you think he’s the first racist in the White House?” No, I answer. But surely he’s the least stable. Ellsberg agrees. But first, he reminds me of Nixon’s anti-Semitism, something that was captured on the Oval Office tapes in the context of a discussion about Ellsberg. “Most Jews are disloyal,” said Nixon. “You can’t trust the bastards. They turn on you.”
Ellsberg then turns to North Korea. He believes Trump has largely created the crisis by saying North Korea will not become a nuclear weapons state on his watch. “‘I won’t let it happen,’ according to Trump,” says Ellsberg. “But it already did happen before he took office.” The result is that the US is now, for the first time since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, threatening to attack a country equipped with nuclear weapons. “We are talking openly about assassination teams, about full-scale invasion exercises, about the decapitation of North Korea’s leadership. This is insanity. HR McMaster (Trump’s national security adviser) says we’re moving closer to nuclear war every day. It’s crazy.”
The result of Trump’s words is to accelerate Kim Jong Un’s missile programme. Trump has convinced Kim that North Korea’s ability to obliterate South Korea and parts of Japan would not deter the US. Only the capability of hitting the US mainland would suffice. As a result, North Korea has stepped up its intercontinental ballistic missile development. It is only a matter of time – “perhaps weeks” – before Kim tests a hydrogen bomb in the atmosphere, which he needs to do for his ICBMs to be credible. At which point, all bets are off, says Ellsberg. “Trump is at least pretending to be unstable and crazy,” he says. “At the moment, he’s fooling me.”
By this point I am drinking an espresso, although profoundly regretting not having ordered a large cognac. Ellsberg is back on the chamomile and honey. Does anything give him cause for optimism? He mentions Mikhail Gorbachev and Nelson Mandela, and others who improved the world, but keeps returning to his abiding theme: humans control nuclear weapons and they are fallible. Leaders in the US and Russia have delegated the authority to use them to underlings. The US alone possesses an arsenal large enough to destroy the world hundreds of times over. Barack Obama could not cut America’s nuclear capacity in spite of wanting to. Instead, the Pentagon persuaded him to spend another USD1 trillion modernising America’s arsenal. “The chances that we can get off the Titanic are vanishing,” says Ellsberg. “But in spite of all this, I am an optimist,” he adds. My ears prick up. It sounds like Ellsberg is going to end on an upbeat note. “The human race would not go extinct from a nuclear winter,” he says. “One or two per cent of us would survive, living on molluscs in places like Australia and New Zealand. Civilisation would certainly disappear. But we would survive as a species.”
Buoyed by this slim chance of reprieve, I hint that it is probably time to leave. It has been two hours since we started talking, though it has sailed by. To my amusement, we spend 10 minutes chatting by the coat rack. It takes another five to get him out the door. “Give me your card,” says a full-throated Ellsberg as we finally take our leave. “I want to continue talking.”
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