Still Worrying about the Bomb


Not since the Cuban Missile Crisis has the world heard the sort of nuclear bombast that has been flying recently between Washington and Pyongyang.

It began on December 12, 2012, when North Korea successfully launched a satellite into orbit. The United States then urged the UN Security Council to clamp new sanctions on the country, arguing that the satellite launch was a “covert ballistic missile test.” The UN sanctions, imposed on January 22, prompted North Korea to announce a “high-level nuclear test.” Two weeks later, the US and South Korea began a massive “war game” along the North Korean border. In response, President Kim Jong-un threatened to attack US bases in Japan, South Korea, Guam, and Hawai‘i. The UN announced new sanctions, further infuriating Kim, who vowed “all-out war.”

The US followed with a second massive military exercise – this time dispatching nuclear-capable B-52 and B-2 bombers to drop “dummy” bombs on an island in the Yellow Sea. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel insisted the US was ready for “any eventuality.”

What part of “mutually assured destruction” do we still fail to understand?

Let us now turn to Daniel Ellsberg, the Washington insider who leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1971. Forty-two years later, Ellsberg is still spilling secrets.

In February, Ellsberg addressed the twenty-fifth anniversary celebration of the Western States Legal Foundation in Oakland, California. He brought the audience to a state of shocked silence as he shared a chilling memory.

Ellsberg told the audience that in 1961, while serving on the Kennedy administration’s nuclear war-planning team, he grew concerned about the Pentagon’s war strategy, which included a pre-emptive nuclear strike against Russia. Ellsberg had a question: “How many would die?”

The answer came back stamped “Top Secret. Classified. For the President’s Eyes Only.” Because Ellsberg asked the question, Kennedy handed him the paper. Standing in the Oval Office, Ellsberg read the report.

“It concluded that 600 million would be killed. The equivalent of 10 World War Twos – in the course of a single day,” Ellsberg said.

Ellsberg recalled Dr. Edward Teller’s response to the potential carnage from an all-out nuclear war. So what, Teller shrugged, it would kill “only one-quarter of the world’s population.”

“I heard him say it,” Ellsberg told the stunned audience.

“By 1961, the US had built a Doomsday Bomb that would have extinguished most life on Earth,” Ellsberg recalled. For their part, the Russians had created an automatic missile retaliation system that could respond to a US strike even if the Soviet high command were destroyed. The system was called Mertvaya Ruka – Dead Hand. These weapons and war plans “remain unchallenged and unchanged,” Ellsberg charged.

President Obama’s Nuclear Posture Review foresees cutting America’s current nuclear arsenal 33 percent by 2017. That may sound like progress, but it would merely cut our nuclear missiles from 1,550 to 1,000 – a reduction Ellsberg called “totally meaningless.” The remaining 1,000 missiles, after all, would remain on hair-trigger alert.

What You Can Do: Support the US Conference of Mayors’ call for the Global Elimination of Nuclear Weapons. Visit

The President’s Fiscal Year 2012 Budget Request calls for spending $213 billion over 10 years to maintain and “modernize” nuclear bombs and missiles. As the US Conference of Mayors recently observed, in a resolution calling for the elimination of nuclear weapons, “more than two decades after the end of the Cold War, nearly 20,000 nuclear weapons, over 95 percent of them in the arsenals of the United States and Russia, continue to pose an intolerable threat to cities and people everywhere.”

“The Doomsday Machines are still here,” Ellsberg warned. “We are traveling on the Titanic – traveling very fast, in the dark, surrounded by icebergs.” But the Titanic provides an important lesson, he added. “There were other ships sailing in those waters that day,” Ellsberg explained, and those other ships survived. Why? Because they stopped sailing east when night fell and turned south. The Titanic continued to plow towards its destruction because the captain was under orders to aim for a transatlantic speed record.

“We need Congress to hold hearings on these weapons!” Ellsberg concluded. “We need a nuclear glasnost.”

And we need more than Washington’s call for a “nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.” We need a nuclear-free Asia, a nuclear-free Middle East, and a nuclear-free planet.

Gar Smith is editor emeritus of Earth Island Journal and author of the new book Nuclear Roulette: The Truth about the Most Dangerous Energy Source on Earth (Chelsea Green).

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