80,000 Hours Podcast with Rob Wiblin

#43 - Daniel Ellsberg on the institutional insanity that maintains nuclear doomsday machines

80,000 Hours Podcast with Rob Wiblin

In Stanley Kubrick’s iconic film Dr. Strangelove, the American president is informed that the Soviet Union has created a secret deterrence system which will automatically wipe out humanity upon detection of a single nuclear explosion in Russia. With US bombs heading towards the USSR and unable to be recalled, Dr Strangelove points out that “the whole point of this Doomsday Machine is lost if you keep it a secret – why didn’t you tell the world, eh?” The Soviet ambassador replies that it was to be announced at the Party Congress the following Monday: “The Premier loves surprises”.

Daniel Ellsberg - leaker of the Pentagon Papers which helped end the Vietnam War and Nixon presidency - claims in his new book The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner that Dr. Strangelove might as well be a documentary. After attending the film in Washington DC in 1964, he and a colleague wondered how so many details of their nuclear planning had leaked.

Links to learn more, summary and full transcript.

The USSR did in fact develop a doomsday machine, Dead Hand, which probably remains active today.

If the system can’t contact military leaders, it checks for signs of a nuclear strike, and if it detects them, automatically launches all remaining Soviet weapons at targets across the northern hemisphere.

As in the film, the Soviet Union long kept Dead Hand completely secret, eliminating any strategic benefit, and rendering it a pointless menace to humanity.

You might think the United States would have a more sensible nuclear launch policy. You’d be wrong.

As Ellsberg explains, based on first-hand experience as a nuclear war planner in the 50s, that the notion that only the president is able to authorize the use of US nuclear weapons is a carefully cultivated myth.

The authority to launch nuclear weapons is delegated alarmingly far down the chain of command – significantly raising the chance that a lone wolf or communication breakdown could trigger a nuclear catastrophe.

The whole justification for this is to defend against a ‘decapitating attack’, where a first strike on Washington disables the ability of the US hierarchy to retaliate. In a moment of crisis, the Russians might view this as their best hope of survival.

Ostensibly, this delegation removes Russia’s temptation to attempt a decapitating attack – the US can retaliate even if its leadership is destroyed. This strategy only works, though, if the tell the enemy you’ve done it.

Instead, since the 50s this delegation has been one of the United States most closely guarded secrets, eliminating its strategic benefit, and rendering it another pointless menace to humanity.

Strategically, the setup is stupid. Ethically, it is monstrous.

So – how was such a system built? Why does it remain to this day? And how might we shrink our nuclear arsenals to the point they don’t risk the destruction of civilization?

Daniel explores these questions eloquently and urgently in his book. Today we cover:

* Why full disarmament today would be a mistake and the optimal number of nuclear weapons to hold
* How well are secrets kept in the government?
* What was the risk of the first atomic bomb test?
* The effect of Trump on nuclear security
* Do we have a reliable estimate of the magnitude of a ‘nuclear winter’?
* Why Gorbachev allowed Russia’s covert biological warfare program to continue

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The 80,000 Hours Podcast is produced by Keiran Harris.

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