Last week, I finished negotiating a contract with Bloomsbury Press for a memoir by Daniel Ellsberg tentatively titled: The American Doomsday Machine. There is a good article announcing the deal in The New York Observer. This is the story that Dan wanted to tell at the time of The Pentagon Papers affair. But he felt that the Viet Nam War took precedence.
It is a pretty shocking story, never before told, of the American nuclear plan developed in the early Sixties; a plan that the Department of Defense knew by their own calculations would kill 600,000,000 people. It was a fairly inflexible plan that, in fact, came rather close to being implemented. The DOD’s estimates were probably low. There was no understanding of nuclear winter back then. And the numbers did not take into account any additional deaths that might be caused by a retaliatory attack.
At the time, Dan worked at the highest levels of the national security system as a nuclear planner. In 1961 he drafted the top secret guidance from the Secretary of Defense to the Joint Chiefs of Staff for the operational plans for general nuclear war. As you may have read once or twice over the last 40 years, Dan’s access to the national security apparatus has become, well—uh—somewhat attenuated.
Most of us have a feeling that we already know all this. But we don’t. We take it as conventional wisdom, because we all saw a movie that has become a classic. It was called: Dr. Strangelove. It turns out that movie was more a documentary that a work of artistic imagination. It turns out, in fact, that it was actually a little restrained.
I love to read history. I studied it in graduate school. And I am always looking for book projects on historical subjects. Dan’s book is a lot more than that. Yes. It is history. But also a book that will change our whole understanding of an historical period.