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One More Thing About Daniel Ellsberg
He was a comedic genius
I’ve read a few books and papers about nuclear weapons, and if you have a dark sense of humor, they’re all pretty funny. But Ellsberg’s writing on this topic in particular could make me laugh out loud.
He died last week of pancreatic cancer, at age 92. People have been remembering him for the classified documents about the Vietnam War that he smuggled out of the Pentagon — more than 50 years ago!
As soon as those so-called Pentagon Papers began to appear serially in print, an infuriated U.S. government indicted Ellsberg, and ordered The New York Times to cease publication. Ellsberg had every reason to believe he’d be spending his life in jail. He’d been charged under the 1917 Espionage Act, a draconian law that does not allow a public interest defense — meaning, you can’t explain why you did what you did and hope to get some leniency. (The same law would be used decades later against whistleblowers Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange, for revealing lies and crimes of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.)
All seemed lost for Ellsberg. Then suddenly, the indictment collapsed (along with the entire scandal-plagued administration of President Richard Nixon); the Supreme Court also ruled that The New York Times had a right to publish; and everyone lived happily ever after.
But there’s more to the story. As Ellsberg recounted decades later in a classic memoir, he had been first and foremost a nuclear war planner at RAND, a non-profit corporation set up in the 1940s to do classified military research and analysis. So, back when he was photocopying, page by page, those secret Pentagon documents revealing the lies and crimes of Vietnam, he had also copied many thousands more about the insanity and immorality of nuclear weapons.
Ellsberg divided the nuclear weapons documents and the Vietnam documents into two separate troves. In fact, he felt the nuclear documents to be by far the more important and shocking. He wanted to share it all — with Congress and the American people — but reasoned that, since bombs were dropping now in Vietnam, it was more urgent, and also a better media tactic, to start with the Vietnam documents. That done, he could follow up with the nuclear revelations.
So, he gave the Pentagon Papers (about Vietnam) to the newspapers — and gave what we’ll call the Nuclear War Papers to his brother, Harry.
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The Vietnam revelations were a political sensation. The FBI launched a nationwide manhunt for Ellsberg and his wife Patricia. (After a couple of weeks, after putting his affairs in order, Ellsberg turned himself in to face trial).
Harry, seriously alarmed, started moving the Nuclear War Papers. First they were in the basement of his Hudson River Valley home. Then, he put them in a cardboard box, inside a green trash bag, and buried them in his backyard compost heap. Soon, he moved the papers again (right before G-men searched his compost pile). This time, he buried them in the side of a small, steep hill, just off of a dirt road that bordered the town dump; they were still inside the cardboard box, inside the green trash bag. As a marker, there was an old gas stove on the hill just above the burial spot.
Enter Tropical Storm Doria. A near-hurricane, it roared through the town and caused the small hill to collapse, spilling over the dirt road and down the slope below it, into the town dump. When Harry returned, the entire landscape was changed, and the old gas stove marking the spot had blown over and rolled more than 100 feet away.
Harry and his friends dug through the rubble and trash for weeks, even renting a backhoe and bulldozer. Harry tried to keep his brother Dan, then on trial, reassured that all would be well. But even as he and his friends frantically scoured the dump — opening up countless green trash bags — the dump itself was being scooped up and trucked off to a nearby landfill, which was then going to be covered with concrete to form the foundation of a new condominium.
In the end, the Nuclear War Papers were lost to history. Probably they are cemented forever beneath a residential property in or around Hastings-on-Hudson, NY.
Six years ago, Ellsberg partially reconstructed his Nuclear War Papers. He relied upon a combination of memory and of corroborating documents that have become unclassified in the decades since (he has particularly cited work by the journalist Fred Kaplan and the historian William Burr at the National Security Archive).
His resulting “confessions of a nuclear war planner” is filled with eye-popping revelations and anecdotes (I treasure a copy of it I had him sign in 2018 when I met him via Physicians for Social Responsibility). But my favorite is Ellsberg’s account of working at the Pentagon in the 1960s for the RAND corporation, and being asked to review Project Retro:
[Project Retro] had already gone through a number of Air Force offices. That was indicated by check marks and initials on a routing chart that was stamped on the first page, recording that it had been seen and in some way acted on by many of the agencies on the chart … It was a classified proposal to deal with the possibility that a Soviet attack with ICBMs could eliminate our capability to retaliate with land-based missiles, primarily Minuteman ICBMs …
This scheme proposed in some detail to assemble a huge rectangular array of one thousand first-stage Atlas engines — our largest rocket propulsion engines, except for Titans, of which we had only a few — to be fastened securely to the Earth in a horizontal position, facing in a direction opposite to the rotation of the Earth.
The officer originating this proposal envisioned that if our Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (BMEWS) radars detected … a large flight of missile warheads coming across the North Pole from the Soviet Union — aimed at our missile fields in North and South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana and Missouri — the array of Atlas engines would be fired, as near simultaneously as possible, to stop the Earth’s rotation momentarily.
The Soviet missiles, on their inertial path, would thus bypass or overfly their intended targets. Our land-based retaliatory force would be saved, to carry out — presumably, when things had settled down and Earth was again spinning normally — a retaliatory attack …
You didn’t have to be a geophysicist, which I wasn’t, to see some defects with this scheme. An awful lot of stuff would be flying through the air. Everything, in fact, that wasn’t nailed down, and most of what was as well, would be gone with the wind — which would itself be flying at super-hurricane force everywhere at once. Cities on the coasts and beyond would be wiped out by giant tsunamis as the oceans redeployed onto the continents … All structures would have collapsed, with the rubble along with all the people joining the wind and the water in their horizontal movement across the face of the Earth, into space.
My first thought was: “Pretty funny.” It was the only piece of paper I had seen from the Air Force bureaucracy that showed a sense of humor. Even better, it was done perfectly straight, with no hint that it was anything but an ordinary secret official document. It looked absolutely authentic. I gave whoever had originated it (a RAND jokester?) credit.
Then I looked again at the routing slip from the Air Force. It really did appear to have gone through a number of relevant official agencies and been passed on. Half the boxes were unchecked — it hadn’t gone through those divisions — but half acknowledged receipt. The signed initials were all different and looked real. No one had stopped it before it was sent to RAND, and I realized it was not a joke.
I remember sitting at my desk, looking at that document, and asking myself, for the first time: Could I be in the wrong line of work?
Ellsberg showed Project Retro to a couple of his RAND colleagues. One, an engineer, did some calculations — literally on the back of an envelop — and told him after a few minutes: “One thousand Atlas engines wouldn’t do it.” (Ah. So the problem is we need more rocket engines. There’s a Missile Engine Gap!)
Another colleague, a physicist, noted that if you could muster up enough power to check the Earth’s rotation as suggested, the planet would probably break in half.
A photocopy of Project Retro is no doubt among the thousands of pages tucked in a cardboard box, wrapped in a green trash bag, and buried under that Hudson River Valley condominium. But just think of what other dark hilarity we’ve missed out on with this loss! As Ellsberg summed it up, Project Retro was bonkers — but then again, “most of the documents I read in my national security work, including many I wrote myself, were only marginally, if at all, less unbalanced than Project Retro. ‘Unbalanced’ being a euphemism here for crazy, criminally insane.”