One day in the spring of 1961, soon after my thirtieth birthday, I was shown how our world would end. Not the earth itself, not – so far as I knew then, mistakenly – nearly all humanity or life on the planet, but the destruction of most cities and people in the northern hemisphere. What I was handed, in a White House office, was a single sheet of paper with a simple graph on it. It was headed "Top Secret – Sensitive." Under that was "For the President's Eyes Only."
The "eyes only" designation meant that, in principle, it was to be seen and read only by the person to whom it was explicitly addressed – in this case, the president. I had never before seen one marked "For the President's Eyes Only." And I never did again.
The deputy assistant to the president for national security, Bob Komer, showed it to me. A cover sheet identified it as the answer to a question that President Kennedy had addressed to the Joint Chiefs of Staff a week earlier. Komer showed their response to me because I had drafted the question, which Komer had sent in the president's name.
The question to the Joint Chiefs was this: "If your plans for general [nuclear] war are carried out as planned, how many people will be killed in the Soviet Union and China?"
Their answer was in the form of a graph. The vertical axis showed the number of deaths, in millions. The horizontal axis showed the amount of time, in months. The graph was a straight line, starting at time zero on the horizontal, with the vertical axis indicating the number of immediate deaths expected within hours of our attack, and then slanting upward to a maximum at six months – an arbitrary cutoff for the deaths that would accumulate over time from initial injuries and from fallout radiation. The representation below is from memory; it was impossible to forget.
The lowest number, at the left of the graph, was 275 million deaths.
The number on the right-hand side, at six months, was 325 million.
That same morning, I had drafted another question to be sent to the Joint Chiefs over the president's signature, asking for a total breakdown of global deaths from our own attacks, to include not only the Sino-Soviet bloc but all other countries that would be affected by fallout. In sum, another hundred million deaths, roughly, were predicted in Eastern Europe, from direct attacks on Warsaw Pact bases and air defences and from fallout. There might be a hundred million more from fallout in Western Europe, depending on which way the wind blew (a matter, largely, of the season). But regardless of the season, another hundred million deaths, at least, were predicted from fallout in the mostly neutral countries adjacent to the Soviet bloc and China, including Finland, Sweden, Austria, Afghanistan, India, and Japan. Finland, for example, would be wiped out by fallout from U.S. ground-burst explosions on the Soviet submarine pens in Leningrad.
The total death toll as calculated by the Joint Chiefs, from a U.S. first strike aimed at the Soviet Union, its Warsaw Pact satellites, and China, would be roughly six hundred million dead. A hundred Holocausts.
I remember what I thought when I first held the single sheet with the graph on it. I thought, This piece of paper should not exist. It should never have existed. Not in America. Not anywhere, ever. It depicted evil beyond any human project ever. There should be nothing on earth, nothing real, that it referred to.
From that day on, I have had one overriding life purpose: to prevent the execution of any such plan.
Despite my knowledge of the war-planning process and the plans themselves, which was extensive and virtually unique for a civilian, I had never seen such an estimate. Others had told me they had never seen one either, and they believed it did not exist. And it was easy for someone familiar with the military bureaucracy to imagine bureaucratic considerations that would have blocked it from ever being investigated, having to do with a fear of leaks to the public, but also with the use that internal military critics of the plans could make of realistically horrific figures.
So I thought that the Joint Chiefs of Staff would probably have to admit that they didn't know, either. Or they would have to ask for more time to calculate an answer. Either response would put them off balance in defending their current plans against our proposed alternatives. "What, you don't even know the consequences of your own plans for human fatalities?" It was to make that as embarrassing as possible that I drafted the question to cover the Soviet Union and China alone, so that they couldn't pretend they needed extra time merely to calculate answers for fatalities in Albania. I thought it was also possible that they would turn out a hasty answer, which could probably be shown to be absurdly low. If they came back with any estimate at all, I expected that it would be comparably unrealistic in the era of thermonuclear weapons, H-bombs. New underestimates would serve the same purposes in the inner bureaucratic bargaining over the plans as no estimates at all. The possibility that the JCS would come up quickly with a realistic estimate was one I barely considered.
I was mistaken. The answer was in the form of the graph depicted in the prologue (page 2) that showed 275 million would die in the first few hours of our attacks and 325 million would be dead within six months. (I had only asked for fatalities, not for casualties, which would have included wounded and sick.) While this was for the Soviet Union and China alone, the speed of their response suggested that they had an existing computer model and probably had estimates on hand for other areas as well.
Another hundred million or so would die in the Eastern European satellite countries from the attacks contemplated in our war plans, many of which were on air defences and military installations in those countries, most of them near cities (even though Eastern Europe cities were not targeted as such). To open "air corridors" for subsequent bombers advancing toward the Soviet Union through Warsaw Pact territories, the first wave of bombers would "bomb as they go," dropping megaton weapons on radar stations, anti-aircraft installations, and surface-to-air missile sites as they came to them in Eastern Europe. Although population destruction was not regarded as a "bonus" in the "captive nations" – as it was in the Soviet Union and China, where it was deliberately maximized – most warheads in Eastern Europe, as elsewhere, were ground-burst, maximizing fallout.
Fallout from our surface explosions in the Soviet Union, its satellites, and China would decimate the populations in the Sino-Soviet bloc as well as in all the neutral nations bordering these countries –Finland, Sweden, Austria, and Afghanistan, for example – as well as Japan and Pakistan. Given prevailing wind patterns, the Finns would be virtually exterminated by the fallout from surface bursts on Soviet submarine pens near their borders. These fatalities from U.S. attacks, up to another hundred million, would occur without a single U.S. warhead landing on the territories of these countries outside the NATO and Warsaw Pacts.
Fallout fatalities inside our Western European NATO allies from U.S. attacks against the Warsaw Pact would depend on climate and wind conditions. As a general testifying before Congress put it, these could be up to a hundred million European allied deaths from our attacks, "depending on which way the wind blows."
As I had intended, the JCS had clearly interpreted the phrase "if your plans were implemented as planned," to mean "if U.S. strategic forces struck first, and executed their planned missions without disruption from a Soviet pre-emptive strike."
These figures clearly presumed that all or most U.S. forces had gotten off the ground with their weapons without having been attacked first. That is, it was implicit in these calculations – as in the greater part of our planning – that the United States would be initiating all-out nuclear war: either as escalation of a limited regional conflict that had come to involve Soviet troops or in pre-emption of a Soviet nuclear attack of which we had tactical warning. Before enemy warheads had arrived or, perhaps, had been directed to launch, we would be striking first.
The total death count from our own attacks, in the estimates supplied by the Joint Staff, was in the neighbourhood of 600 million dead, almost entirely civilians. The greater part inflicted in a day or two, the rest over six months.
Holding the graph in my hand – the answer to my initial query, covering only fatalities from the Soviet Union and China – looking at it in an office of the White House Annex on a spring day in 1961, I realized, "So they knew."
The graph seemed to me the depiction of pure evil. It should not exist; there should be nothing real on earth that it referred to.
To see it in print was startling, despite the fact that I had long privately thought, while reading war plans during the previous two years, that I was looking at the way the civilized world might end. These were plans for destroying the world of cities, plans that someday might be carried out. But I had thought that none of the others reading or writing them had faced up to that.
Far from being accompanied by any offers to resign, there was no evident embarrassment, no shame, apology, or evasion: no apparent awareness of any need for an explanation of this answer to the new president. I thought: this was what the United States had come to, sixteen years after Hiroshima. Plans and preparations, awaiting only presidential order to execute (and, I'd discovered, not requiring even that in some circumstances), for whose foreseen consequences the term "genocidal" was totally inadequate.
I liked most of the planners and analysts I knew: not only the physicists at RAND who designed bombs and the economists who speculated on strategy (like me), but also the colonels who worked on these very plans, whom I consulted with during the workday and drank beer with in the evening. What I was looking at was not simply an American problem or a superpower problem. With the age of warring nation-states persisting into the thermonuclear era, it was a species problem.
Excerpted from The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner by Daniel Ellsberg published this month by Bloomsbury USA. Copyright 2017 by Daniel Ellsberg