Daniel Ellsberg letter to Congress about ICBMs

July 22, 2019

Representative _____   _______

____ House Office Building

Washington, D.C.


Dear Representative ______:


During the last six decades, since drafting Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s guidance for U.S. general nuclear war plans, I have been deeply immersed in the quest to understand nuclear-weapons dangers and how to reduce them.  From that perspective, I am concerned that the public, most members of Congress, and possibly even high members of the Executive branch have remained in the dark, or in a state of denial, about the implications of rigorous studies by environmental scientists over the last dozen years.  These confirm that using even a large fraction of the existing U.S. or Russian nuclear weapons that are on high alert would bring about nuclear winter, leading to global famine and near extinction of humanity.


Fierce firestorms in hundreds of cities in the vicinity of military targets would loft more than a hundred million tons of black smoke and soot into the stratosphere, where it would not rain out.  It would quickly envelop the entire globe and block most sunlight for a decade or more, lowering year-long global temperatures to the level of the last Ice Age, killing all harvests and most vegetation worldwide.  Within a year or two, long before vegetation recovered, nearly everyone on earth would starve to death.


That means the preemptive “damage-limiting” function that is the actual intended mission of the vast majority of strategic weapons in our current arsenal—and of those now proposed to replace them—is entirely infeasibleIn the light of these scientific findings, “damage” to humans (and all other large animals) from a U.S.- Russian nuclear war will inescapably be unlimited. 


First strike, second strike, preemption, counterforce, decapitation, “withholding” against cities: none of these strategies or tactics would have made any difference a year or so after the war.  Executing any of the supposedly alternative major “options” in the president’s “football”/ briefcase would lead to the same end: death by starvation to all those in America and Russia—and everywhere else in the world—who survived the immediate effects of thermonuclear explosions, the blast, prompt radiation and radioactive fallout that have been the only effects considered in Pentagon estimates and force planning up until now.


The same would be true for Russian attack options: apparently likewise ignored in their own plans for “modernization” of a nuclear force structure essentially like ours.  It is even true on a smaller, still catastrophic scale—threatening a third of global population with starvation rather than all of it—for nuclear attacks by India or Pakistan against each other that would be less than a tenth of ours or Russia’s in size.  To eliminate the danger of nuclear winter resulting from our own attacks—which is a minimum responsibility to humanity—will mean cutting the number of warheads in our arsenal not by a third or half but by a factor of ten or more.  


**  An immediate step in that direction should be to eliminate entirely our redundant, vulnerable and destabilizing land-based ICBM force.  As a result we will have stronger deterrence and more security from nuclear war than in the present situation of two coupled Doomsday Machines on hair-triggersEach is poised to launch its ICBMs on ten-minute warning signals that may be—and have been, on both sides—false alarms, which press leadership to “use them or lose them.”


**  It is in the power of Congress to decouple the hair-trigger on our system by defunding and dismantling the current land-based Minuteman missiles and rejecting funding for their proposed replacements.  The same holds for lower-yield weapons for first-use against Russia, on submarines or in Europe, which are detonators for escalation to nuclear winter.


**  This grotesque situation of existential danger has evolved in secret in the almost total absence of congressional oversight, investigations or hearings.  It is time for Congress to remedy this by preparing for first-ever hearings on current nuclear doctrine and “options,” and by demanding objective, authoritative scientific studies of their full consequences including fire, smoke, nuclear winter and famine.  Classified studies of nuclear winter using actual details of existing attack plans, never yet done by the Pentagon but necessarily involving its directed cooperation, could be done by the National Academy of Sciences, requested and funded by Congress. 


**  Eventually, open hearings (following closed ones) could educate not only the Congress itself and the public, but also the Executive branch.  Almost surely, no president has ever been briefed realistically on these full consequences of major nuclear “options,” nor have the leaders of Russia and other nuclear weapons states.


I accompany this letter with a copy of my recent book, The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner—which is being hand-delivered to each member of Congress—along with a summary memo.  The book enlarges on our nuclear policy and its background, with full references.  I’d be glad for the opportunity to discuss these issues further with you or members of your staff.


With great respect,

daniel ellsberg signature

Daniel Ellsberg




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