Daniel Ellsberg Is Still Thinking About the Papers He Didn’t Get to Leak

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Daniel Ellsberg. Photo: Jake Stangel

“Keeping secrets was my career,” Daniel Ellsberg says. “I didn’t lose the aptitude for that when I put out the Pentagon Papers.” This might come as a shock, considering that the former Defense Department analyst is best known for leaking classified information nearly half a century ago, thus bringing about a landmark legal precedent in favor of press freedom and, indirectly, hastening the end of both the Vietnam War and the Nixon administration. But for many years, even as Ellsberg beat prosecution, became a peace activist, and wrote an autobiography titled Secrets, he still had something remarkable left to disclose.

It turns out that Ellsberg also took many thousands of pages of documents pertaining to another subject: nuclear war. Ellsberg, a prominent thinker in the field of decision theory, had worked on the military’s “mutual assured destruction” strategy during the Cold War. Once a believer in deterrence, he now says he was a collaborator in an “insane plan” for “retaliatory genocide.” He wanted to tell the world decades ago; with nuclear threat looming again, he’s put the whole story into a new book, The Doomsday Machine.

“I expected to be in prison for the rest of my life,” Ellsberg says. Instead, at 86, he lives in a mid-century-modern home in the hills above Berkeley with his wife of many years, Patricia. When I visit him one sunny Sunday morning, he leads me onto a deck with a stunning view of San Francisco Bay and carefully descends some wooden stairs, leading to an old outdoor hot tub and the door to his basement office. He says the acoustics there are better for his hearing. The office is, naturally, crammed with papers: boxes labeled with terms like FIRST USE THREATS, and books arranged into categories: CATASTROPE, ETHICS, BOMBING CIVILIANS. Ellsberg’s face, always brooding and hawkish, is now deeply lined, and his hair is white and tousled. He makes a good doomsday prophet. At his age, there are no short conversations. A single question inspires an excursion through decades of experiences, and a trip back into a warren of rooms filled with even more boxes and file cabinets, where he knows just where to find, say, a 1961 national intelligence estimate of the Soviet Union’s missile arsenal.

“I’ve had a nice life, but I would rather have gotten this out,” Ellsberg says. “I shouldn’t have waited.”

The Doomsday Machine is being published at an alarmingly relevant moment, as North Korea is seeking the capability to target the United States with nuclear missiles, and an unpredictable president, Donald Trump, has countered with threats of “fire and fury.” Experts on North Korea say that the risk of a nuclear exchange is higher than it has been in recent memory. Ellsberg, as one of the few living members of the generation of theorists who devised our nuclear strike doctrines, has been grappling with such possibilities for much of his life. “It is kind of astonishing,” he says, “that people will put up with a non-zero chance of this happening.”

Ellsberg is famous today as a dissident, but much of his new book concerns his life as a young analyst operating inside a government bureaucracy, a classified realm where knowledge is currency and status is determined by your clearances. “There is no one person who even knows what all the clearances are,” Ellsberg says. “Definitely not the president.” In the late 1950s, after graduating from Harvard and serving as an officer in the Marines, Ellsberg went to work for RAND, a think tank with close ties to the Pentagon, where his colleagues included the physicist Herman Kahn, one of Stanley Kubrick’s models for Dr. Strangelove. Ellsberg writes that he and his colleagues thought they were “working to save the world,” though he was so skeptical they would succeed that he didn’t bother paying into RAND’s “extremely generous” retirement plan.

As a self-described “Cold Warrior,” Ellsberg tried to work within the system through the early 1960s, advocating for a strategy that might make a nuclear war survivable by focusing a first strike on military targets, not cities. (His hope was that if each country’s leadership survived, they might decide against total war.) “For several years, one of my highest objectives,” he writes, “was moving a few pieces of paper from one level of authority to a higher one.” Ultimately, he hoped to reach President Kennedy.

Ellsberg believed that his bureaucratic opponents — mainly the military brass — were not thinking through the consequences of nuclear war. Then, in 1961, he was allowed to see a piece of information previously unknown even to Kennedy, the death count the military projected for theoretical strikes: some 600 million, not including any Americans killed in counterattacks. (That was still an underestimate.) Ellsberg writes of being gripped with a feeling of revulsion, realizing that the document “depicted evil beyond any human project ever.” The planners weren’t heedless — they intended to inflict maximal civilian casualties. “The shock was to realize that the Joint Chiefs knew,” Ellsberg tells me. “I was working for people who were crazier than I had thought. I had thought that they had inadvertently constructed a doomsday machine, without knowing it.”

The better Ellsberg came to understand the workings of the nuclear command-and-control system, the more danger he felt. He writes that the idea that authority to launch a nuclear war rested solely with the president was a myth, and that the nuclear “football” carried by a military attaché to the president is just “theater.” Working for the Defense Department, Ellsberg traveled throughout Asia, where he discovered there were many plausible scenarios in which officers might feel authorized to launch a nuclear attack in the absence of presidential orders. Safeguards were easy to circumvent. (For decades, purportedly, the eight-digit code to launch a Minuteman missile was set at 00000000.) Visiting an air base on Okinawa, Ellsberg touched a hydrogen bomb, and noted the “bodylike warmth” of a device capable of killing millions.

“It did give me a feeling — an eerie, an uncanny feeling, a feeling of dread to some extent,” Ellsberg says. “But not the feeling that this should not exist.” That came later.

At lunchtime, we climb into Ellsberg’s car, a weathered Mazda Miata convertible. “I live on a fault line,” he remarks, steering up his steep driveway toward an all-day breakfast spot he likes. “It makes the resale value of the house not so high.” I tell him that, a few days before, I had been talking to a military expert who had expressed a fairly sanguine view about the nuclear crisis in North Korea. Then she breezily mentioned that her house, in Sonoma County, was currently surrounded on three sides by wildfire, which caused me to reassess her tolerance for risk. “It’s like living on Vesuvius — that’s what humans do,” Ellsberg said. “That’s why I think we’re likely to go.”

Over eggs, Ellsberg and I talk about a lecture he once gave to Henry Kissinger’s class, back when Kissinger was teaching at Harvard, entitled “The Political Uses of Madness.” In it, he proposed a version of what has come to be known as the “madman theory” — the idea that unnerving behavior can be used as a tool of diplomacy, making an adversary less likely to risk pursuing a hard-line position, for fear of an unbalanced response. Trump’s advisers sometimes say that this is what the president is up to when he lobs puerile insults at Kim Jong-un, or uses Twitter to tell his own secretary of State that he’s “wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man.” Of course, the madman theory only works if neither party is actually a madman. “Trump has made people more worried,” Ellsberg says. But in his view, having an erratic president only highlights the inherent instability of the system of deterrence. “What is real craziness?” he says. “Everything we’re doing here is crazy, but it’s a consensual craziness.”

In his book, Ellsberg gives a first-person account of what he reckons was humanity’s closest brush with annihilation. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, in October 1962, he was called into emergency duty at the Pentagon. (He crashed some nights on a leather couch belonging to Paul Nitze, a top Defense Department official.) At the time, Ellsberg thought there was little chance that the confrontation would go nuclear. What he didn’t realize until many years later is that the Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev was more reckless than he presumed, and had actually given his commanders in Cuba the authority to use nuclear weapons at the first sign of an American invasion. “He wasn’t an insane person,” Ellsberg says. “He just did insane things from time to time.”

The Cuban Missile Crisis was just of many watershed moments that Ellsberg witnessed during the 1960s. He seems to be one of those people who have a knack for showing up places just as history is happening: He left RAND to go to work for Robert McNamara at the Pentagon in 1964, and on his first day, a courier rushed in with a telegram from a Navy captain, claiming he was under attack in the Gulf of Tonkin. Ellsberg soon became a Vietnam specialist, and went there to figure out what was happening, riding around in a jeep with Colonel John Paul Vann. He befriended Neil Sheehan, the reporter who would immortalize Vann in his book A Bright Shining Lie. He returned to America and met Bobby Kennedy, who enlisted him to be “his man on Vietnam” for the 1968 campaign. One morning, he dropped by the Ambassador Hotel and ran into Kennedy in the hall, in a bathrobe, and wondered about his security. He went to Vietnam protests, saw Tom Hayden speak. After the election, he met Kissinger — at the time a peer, but later his great enemy — at the Pierre Hotel, and told him his view of the world would change once he had access to classified information. One day, he got tear-gassed with Noam Chomsky in the morning, and saw McGeorge Bundy at the Council on Foreign Relations at night.

Ellsberg ultimately became so disillusioned by the government’s lies and miscalculations in Vietnam that his life as a secret keeper came to an end. In August 1969, he went to an antiwar conference where he broke down in tears listening to a draft resister, and felt as though his “life had split in two.” By this time, he was working back at RAND, in Santa Monica, where he had a big black safe filled with top-secret materials, which he says was “something of a status symbol.” He began spiriting the contents of the safe out of the building, taking them to the office of an advertising agency run by a sympathizer, which had a Xerox machine. There, he would copy documents all night. He enlisted help from his son Robert, then 14 — much to the dismay of his first wife, from whom he was divorced. “It turned out later, which surprised me, that she thought what I was doing was treason,” Ellsberg says. “She later cooperated with the FBI very significantly, in hopes, she said, that they would not call Robert to the stand in the trial.”

The cache included not only the 47-volume history of Vietnam that became known as the Pentagon Papers, but also thousands of pages pertaining to his many years of work on nuclear deterrence. Eventually, Ellsberg passed the material about Vietnam, which seemed most timely, to Sheehan, who was by then working for the New York Times. When the newspaper, later joined by the Washington Post, began to publish the Pentagon Papers, the Nixon administration sought a court injunction, causing a First Amendment battle that ended up in the Supreme Court. (The Post, a Steven Spielberg film about the epic case, will be out in December.) Ellsberg, meanwhile, went on the lam, operating as a sort of fugitive Johnny Appleseed, planting other sections of the Pentagon Papers with smaller news outlets and liberal members of Congress. Eventually, he was charged with violating the federal Espionage Act. Even after he was arrested, Nixon and Kissinger — who supposedly called Ellsberg “the most dangerous man in America” — were terrified by what else he might still have to reveal. A group of former CIA operatives known as the “plumbers” were sent to find discrediting information on him.

One of the documents in his safe, as the FBI surely knew, was a classified nuclear study commissioned by Kissinger. “It’s the same old Dr. Strangelove stuff: 90 million dead, 120 million dead,” Ellsberg says. “But I was going to put that out, of course.” Ellsberg stashed that memo, along with all the other nuclear materials, in a box and gave the lot to his brother, Harry, who later wrapped them in plastic and buried them in the compost pile behind his home in Hastings-on-Hudson. Harry, who is now dead, told his brother that the FBI came poking around the compost pile. But he had already moved the box to another hiding spot, beneath a big iron stove in the garbage dump in Tarrytown.

Ellsberg intended to arrange for the nuclear papers to be leaked after his trial in Los Angeles, where he was sure he would be convicted. But then he was vindicated through a chain of events he calls a “miracle.” The Watergate investigation revealed the activities of Nixon’s plumbers, including the burglary of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office. The case against him was dismissed. Afterward, though, Harry gave him some bad news: A tropical storm had flooded the dump in 1971. The nuclear papers were lost.

“It was unbearable to me,” Ellsberg says. It is afternoon, and the softening light is filtering through redwoods out his office window. “That was a shadow over the next 40 years, thinking I fucked up, you know?” I ask whether it was possible that Harry, out of fear for himself or his brother, might have actually destroyed the documents. “No,” Ellsberg replies, firmly. “It was very clear that he was anguished by it. Later in his life, before he died, he said that had been something agonizing at him for all this time.”

The Doomsday Machine represents Ellsberg’s attempt to reconstruct, via his memories and now-declassified documents, the knowledge that was washed away. The book examines many close brushes with nuclear war. He says that at least twice during the Cold War — once aboard a Soviet submarine during the Cuban Missile Crisis, once inside an air defense bunker outside Moscow in 1983 — a single individual came close to triggering a nuclear war because of a false alarm. “There is a chance that somebody will be a circuit breaker,” Ellsberg says. “What I conclude is that we’re lucky, very lucky.”

Ellsberg doesn’t think that luck will hold forever, though, and like many people, he has spent a lot of time over the past year thinking about Donald Trump’s small finger on the nuclear button. Earlier this month, Senator Bob Corker — a respected Republican who has warned that Trump’s instability could lead to “World War III” — held hearings on the question of whether the president’s authority to launch nuclear weapons should be limited. Some nuclear arms experts have called for eliminating ICBMs, which can’t be called back in the event of a false alarm, unlike bombers and submarines. Ellsberg thinks such partial measures are good ideas, but not sufficient. Even after many disarmament treaties, Russia and the United States still possess enough weaponry to destroy the world many times over. “There is no essential difference between having 1,500 weapons, each side, on a hair trigger, pointed at each other, and having five or ten thousand,” he says.

For this reason, Ellsberg is happy that Trump has shown a deferential stance toward Russia. “Why is he that way? I don’t know. Probably, I think, because they’ve got blackmail on him,” Ellsberg says. “I don’t care what the reasons are.” On the other hand, facing North Korea, Trump has been willing to make explicit nuclear threats — although Ellsberg says Trump’s predecessors have all used their arsenals much the same way, by inference, like a gun that bulges conspicuously beneath a jacket. “This is my speculation,” he says, “but in Trump’s mind, the fact that they can kill enormous numbers of our allies and even some American troops, it is very, very different from fearing that they can kill Americans in the homeland.” But even if their missiles can’t reach us quite yet, Ellsberg the game theorist believes that Kim Jong-un has probably devised some sort of strategy to assure that he isn’t destroyed alone.

“Just a small boat, that’s all it takes,” Ellsberg says. “You can put a warhead in it and sail it to Long Beach or L.A. Harbor or San Francisco Harbor.” The view from his house suddenly feels less enchanting.

Ellsberg says that the world’s survival, so far, has been “something like a miracle.” He’s a pessimist, but he believes in surprises. Nixon’s impeachment, the end of Vietnam, the fall of the Berlin Wall, his own freedom — they’re all miracles to Ellsberg. “For me to be doing what I’m doing doesn’t take a whole lot of hope,” he says as evening falls. “A little uncertainty here is enough to keep me going.”

*A version of this article appears in the November 27, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.

Daniel Ellsberg on the Papers He Didn’t Get to Leak