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Daniel Ellsberg talks U.S.-Russia relations, criticizes nuclear weapons

CHRIS DEMBIA/The Stanford Daily

Daniel Ellsberg — author, anti-war activist and whistleblower best known for his role in releasing the Pentagon Papers — spoke on Wednesday to an audience in Cubberley Auditorium about his views on nuclear weapons and his experiences as a military analyst during the Cold War.

The Distinguished Speaker event was sponsored by the Symbolic Systems Program, and, Ellsberg was joined in conversation by Professor Ken Taylor and Professor Emeritus John Perry from the Philosophy department respectively. The program will eventually air as an episode of Taylor and Perry’s popular radio show and podcast, Philosophy Talk.

The Pentagon Papers

In 1958, at the age of 27, Daniel Ellsberg began work at the RAND Corporation where he focused on nuclear strategy and the control of nuclear weapons. Ellsberg was motivated by the question of how to deter the Soviet Union, which was quickly gaining enough nuclear power to destroy the United States, from launching a nuclear attack.

He also worked with the State Department and Department of Defense during the Vietnam War and contributed to the documents that would become known as the Pentagon Papers, a study commissioned in secret by then Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. In the late ’60s he grew disaffected with the war and started attending anti-war protests. In 1971, he leaked the top-secret Pentagon Papers, which detailed United States military involvement in the Vietnam War, to national news organizations including the New York Times. According to The Times, the Pentagon Papers, which detailed information about the Vietnam War that the government was hiding from the people, showed that the Johnson administration “systematically lied, not only to the public but also to Congress.”

Ellsberg was charged in 1971 under the Espionage Act of 1917 for leaking the documents. However, all charges were eventually dismissed.

After rising to public attention for leaking the documents, Ellsberg became an anti-war activist and critic of nuclear proliferation.  

Morality of nuclear weapons

Perry and Taylor began the program by discussing the positives and negatives associated with nuclear weapons and nuclear proliferation. Perry highlighted the benefits of mutually assured destruction, thought to make it unreasonable for any country to launch a nuclear attack. Taylor, however, argued that nuclear weapons were only good for intimidating enemies and of limited utility because no reasonable actor would employ them.

Ellsberg also spoke about nuclear policies during the early Cold War era. He claimed that during the Truman and Eisenhower administrations, under which the U.S. had a monopoly on nuclear weapons for many years, the U.S. government was willing to use nuclear force against Russia.

“The strategy was, if the Russians go into West Berlin or West Germany or anywhere else, Yugoslavia or Korea, we would hit every city in Russia — and China because there was a Sino-Soviet block,” Ellsberg said. “So any attack by the Russians, under any circumstances, we intended to destroy all aspect[s] of the Sino-Soviet block and as many people in that block as we could.”

If this had happened in 1961, according to Ellsberg, it would have resulted in 600 million deaths in the Soviet Union and China.  

During the Truman administration, the U.S. had over 1,000 atomic weapons. By the time Eisenhower left office, the U.S. had more than 27,000 thermonuclear weapons, according to Ellsberg.

Ellsberg stressed the difference between an atomic bomb, which the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during WWII, and a thermonuclear bomb. A thermonuclear bomb uses an atomic bomb as a detonator.

“We have never seen thermonuclear war,” said Ellsberg. “Every thermonuclear bomb uses an A-bomb to set it off. If you are looking at a picture of Hiroshima, you are looking at what happens to a city when you drop the detonator of a modern thermonuclear weapon.”

Nuclear weapons today

Ellsberg spoke about the consequences of the modern of use of nuclear weapons.

“Could a nuclear war be limited and won?” Ellsberg asked, referring to a scenario in which a nuclear war would not destroy the whole world. “Absolutely. Attack with nuclear weapons a country that doesn’t have any, that doesn’t have an ally. That would include Iran. North Korea could retaliate, but we could eliminate them. We would have won the war.”

Russia, in his opinion, is a different matter. He claimed that a nuclear war between the U.S. and Russia would lead to the annihilation of nearly all life on earth.

While agreeing with Taylor that nuclear weapons are mostly used to intimidate, Ellsberg disputed that this fact makes them useless.

“Threatening to use a weapon is using a weapon,” Ellsberg said. “We have used our nuclear weapons. It works. In West Berlin, that worked.”

He also mentioned that the impetus to make nuclear weapons is often financial, citing the lucrative defense contracts held by Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

“Almost no one that I know of has wanted to initiate a nuclear war,” Ellsberg said.“They’ve prepared for it. They want to have the ability to threaten.” “We had to build — Lockheed and Boeing said we had to build up — to have the ability to disarm Russia in case we got close to a nuclear was so we wouldn’t get retaliation.”

But Ellsberg said this was not a reasonable strategy.   

“Can we disarm Russia? Can Russia disarm us?” he asked. “No, but we can pretend we can.”

Throughout the talk, Ellsberg criticized the stockpiling of nuclear weapons and the ability of the U.S. and Russia to continually threaten nuclear war.

“Hardly anybody would say that doing something that will end up killing everybody is a rational or sane thing to do,” Ellsberg said. “But to threaten it? Is that moral? Is that acceptable? The fact is the public, the Congress, the services, on both sides, have acted for 70 years now as though it were reasonable, rational, necessary, justifiable to threaten, prepare for, build, rehearse, train to initiate war that would result in the death of nearly everyone.”

Ellsberg also highlighted the potentially disastrous effects of a nuclear war.

“It wasn’t until 1983, 40 years into the nuclear era, that it was realized that the smoke from burning cities would go into the stratosphere, where it wouldn’t rain out and would cover the earth and lower the sunlight reaching the earth causing ice age conditions and killing all harvests,” Ellsberg said.

Alluding to concerns surrounding the judgment of President Donald Trump, an audience member asked whether there are any safeguards in place to prevent the president from starting a nuclear war. Ellsberg replied that not only was there “no way” to prevent the president from launching the U.S.’s nuclear weapons, but that many other people, including generals and other military personnel, also had the authority to launch the nuclear weapons if something happened to the president or if Washington was out of communication.

Another audience member asked whether Stanford should divest from companies like Boeing and Lockheed Martin for their involvement in the production of nuclear weapons. Ellsberg emphatically advocated for divesting from these manufacturers, calling them “evil” and comparing investing in these companies to investing in tobacco companies.

In response, Taylor said that Stanford’s endowment was very complicated and that no one knows whether the University is invested in these companies. He also emphasized the fiduciary responsibility of the board of trustees, to which Ellsberg replied, “bullshit.”

Ellsberg left the audience a call for the end to nuclear proliferation and the stockpiling of nuclear weapons.

“There never has been a moment’s justification for having the capability to destroy humanity, which we do have. That is unjustifiable, immoral, evil by any ethical standard that has ever existed,” said Ellsberg. “It must stop.”

Contact Sophie Regan at sregan20 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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