This evening, I listened to an interview with Daniel Ellsburg, who released the Pentagon Papers in 1971. He is currently promoting a book, The Doomsday Machine, about nuclear weapons, including his time as a planner of nuclear strategy in the 1950s and 1960s.
Among other topics Ellsburg addresses in the interview, he recalls an incident from 1961. In the 1960 election, John Kennedy’s supporters savaged then vice president Richard Nixon for being part of an Eisenhower Administration that had allowed a dangerous “missile gap” to grow. The theory went that the Soviet Union, fresh off the success of launching the first satellite, Sputnik, in 1957, was on its way to producing hundreds—maybe more—of intercontinental missiles of the same design capable of delivering a nuclear warhead to the United States. Air Force intelligence and the service’s brass believed—perhaps self-servingly—that their evaluation was accurate, while Army and Navy counterparts proved more skeptical.
And rightly so.
In reality, Nikita Khrushchev and the Soviet Union were engaged in minimal deterrence. They possessed only 5 crude missiles, which Khrushchev talked up into a credible counterpart to American superiority. The US, of course, had, in addition to thousands of warheads deliverable by bombers and intermediate range missiles, 40 such intercontinental missiles, and was building more every day.
Ellsburg recounts that he drafted a question for the president—given his reference to 1961, I’m assuming Kennedy, although he doesn’t say specifically and it could have been the waning days of Eisenhower—to ask the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Presuming that they hadn’t thought things through and would struggle to name a figure, Ellsburg prompted the president to ask how many people their detailed, in place, plan for all-out war with the Soviet Union. It turns out, they had, and they quickly gave an answer, in writing:
Including 100 million in countries allied to the United States.
And another 100 million in countries of Eastern Europe, who were portrayed as “captive nations,” victims of Russian aggression in the Cold War rhetoric of the time.
And 300 million between the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China, which was to be attacked regardless of whether it—then increasingly distancing itself from Moscow—was party to the conflict.
They had in place, ready to execute, a detailed plan to kill one-third of humanity within a few hours, consigning the rest to die in nuclear winter.
Although I’ve long known this from studying the history of the period, there’s something about this new, here, today, that has struck me.