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20180316 – Doomsday Machine



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The main idea of this book is to use author’s experience as top secret analyst of American chain of command for nuclear weapons in 1950s and 60s to inform everybody in the world that this chain in unreliable, is far different and far less sophisticated than it is shown in the movies. Author also seems to intend to scare people into action against nuclear weapons by informing them that real control over such weapons is not in the hand of presidents, but rather in the hand of medium or even low rank field officers. Finally, even if author does not believes that anybody would really implement his suggestion, he provides recommendation on how to decrease American nuclear options.



Here author presents his credentials as the special assistant to Assistant of Defense secretary in order to establish that that he did had access to the top-secret information and really knows what he is writing about. After that he present a graph of expected casualties of nuclear war that runs into hundreds of millions. He claims that when he understood it he decided to prevent this from happening at any cost.


Here is a narrative of how he, as RAND consultant, was one of the main developers of guidance for the operational plans for general nuclear war and then was involved in handling Cuban crises. Then he describes how his conscious made him to copy what become Pentagon papers and lots of other classified documents in regard to nuclear planning that he kept separately with intention to disclose them later. Then he explains that reason for failing to do so was the loss of stolen top-secret documents by his brother. At the end he discusses his learning about American nuclear posture in 50s and 603, states his believe that nothing seriously changed, and presents a number of specific points that he would make in his briefing for president:

  • Basic element of American nuclear posture did not change since 60s, especially hair-trigger alert
  • USA strategic capability designed for the first strike
  • US nuclear weapons in reality regularly used as pointed gun, even if trigger was not pulled since Hiroshima.
  • US reject idea to forfeit the first strike, which in author’s opinion promotes proliferation
  • American attack could be triggered by wide range of factors not limited to retaliation
  • History of Cuban crisis is incorrect because it underestimates the level of danger of all out nuclear war at the time
  • Nuclear command and control systems are unreliable and false alarm or some coincidence still could lead to massive nuclear attack
  • All these facts are systematically concealed from the public

Part I: The Bomb and I

1: How Could I? The Making of a Nuclear War Planner

Here author narrates his story of growing in the family of professionals, his father’s involvement with development of nuclear weapons, and his refusal to continue this work after the end of WWII. It had no impact on authors career, since father kept it a secret, so author kind of independently moved through academia, then to RAND Corporation as analyst, and, eventually, as RAND consultant got involved in the decision-making theory application to making decisions in regard to nuclear weapons.

2: Command and Control: Managing Catastrophe

This chapter is about author’s research on vulnerability of command system for nuclear weapons. It describes really unreliable early warning systems, which had multiple false alarms and author describes one of the most dangerous when system defined with 99% probability that USA are under attack. At the time only presence of Soviet leader in New York prevented mass retaliation to non-existing attack. After that author discusses in quite a details his assignment to Pacific fleet and processes and deficiencies of nuclear posture of American forces such as: pilots trained to get to the plains daily, but never trained for massive take off, planning deficiencies when such as technically impossible flight plans and schedules, absence of contingency planning for accidents like collusion of planes with nuclear weapons, which could explode, creating false impression of being under nuclear attack and correspondingly mass retaliation, unreliability of communication, that made authorization from president problematic, and such. Overall author seems to encounter culture clash when military culture encouraged people to act aggressively and independently when not sure what is going on because failure to act could lead to the lost time and eventual defeat, while author’s academic culture encourages thorough deliberation with failure to act being not really that significant.

3: Delegation: How Many Fingers on the Button?

This chapter is about authority delegation from president down to lower levels to initiate nuclear strike. Author describes here that the common believe that only president can initiate a nuclear strike is incorrect. Since communications between president and multiple far away bases and fleets is not perfect and it is not unusual that communications interrupted so this power delegation was necessary if US were to avoid the first disarming strike against its forces.

4: Iwakuni: Nuclear Weapons off the Books

This is about US violating treaty with Japan that no nuclear weapons would be situated on its territory. Iwakuni was a base in Japan where American ships with nuclear weapons were based on permanent basis, technically violating the treaty.

5: The Pacific Command

Here author discusses military culture, specifically in the area that he was most familiar with – Pacific command. He especially was concerned that brasses did not see such a big problem in delegation power down, which author believes was unacceptable. Another issue very disturbing to the author was that the planners did not differentiate between China and USSR so attack by one of them would initiate retaliation against both. Author thought that it is a local problem with Pacific command, but later understood that it came from the top where leadership had no intention of leaving someone untouched when USA would experience huge loses.

6: The War Plan: Reading the JSCP

This chapter is about detailed plans of nuclear war that civilian leadership of country including secretary of defense were not familiar with. Author uses it to discuss overall relationships between elected civilian leadership and permanent military leadership, which generally were strained all the time. In author’s opinion military tended grossly overestimate Soviet forces and ability and correspondingly created plans and forces using great overkill.

7: Briefing Bundy

Bundy was Kennedy’s national security assistant and author briefed him on American war plans and his discoveries about command and control on Pacific. He stressed what he thought was the problem with delegation, only to find out later that it was consciously done by Eisenhauer, rather than being a product of unauthorized military overreach. It turned out that author findings that he considered unacceptable were pretty much in line with policies established from the top.

8: “My” War Plan

This describes author participation in development of the new National Security policy for Kennedy administration. Kennedy did not like Eisenhauer’s “mass retaliation” policy. He wanted “flexible” response to attack, so to minimize damage on both sides. Author describes his proposal that would meet this objective, such as instead of immediate use of all missiles use only partial forces and keep “strategic reserve” in order to slow down escalation, not attack enemy cities at one, remove automatic retaliation, everywhere were it was possible use non-nuclear forces, and so on.

9: Questions for the Joint Chiefs: How Many Will Die?

This is about response to Kennedy’s request for damage assessment based on JSCP plan. Author discusses questions that he prepared with clear objective to demonstrate deficiencies of military planning and incompetence of military leaders. Actually, the main point author makes is that for American president risk of all out nuclear war was acceptable in order to save USA as it is, but for author it was unacceptable doesn’t matter what consequences are. Author believed that Joint staff would come up with lowball estimates, but they told the truth about consequences of war – hundreds of million dead. Moreover, military was prepared to deliver the first strike if situation was clearly leading to the war. For author it was unthinkable.

10: Berlin and the Missile Gap

This is the story of Berlin crisis of 1961 when Soviets decide that they would not tolerate mass defection of Germans from East Germany via open West Berlin and demanded peace treaty and transfer control over the whole of Berlin to GDR. USA refused and it brought world to the brink of war. Eventually crisis was resolved by Soviets’ building the wall, but meanwhile military preparations and pressure was on both sides. Based on Soviet success in use of intercontinental rockets US estimated Soviet capability in hundreds of ballistic missiles, constituting a serious gap in missiles. Author claims that since surveillance identified only 4 intercontinental missiles, that gap did not really exist.

11: A Tale of Two Speeches

This is about perception that existed at the time that Soviets believe in their ability to deliver the first disarming strike and could be enticed to do just that. As result author claims that he and other developed speech for Kennedy that highlighted American power overall and demonstrated that first strike would not disarm USA. It caused direct response from Soviets, who were also afraid of the first strike against them. The big part of the problem was that politics of US democracy required reassuring population that current administration maintains or even expands American superiority, but it scared Soviets into believing that the first strike could be coming. Author believes that it caused Soviets to look for countermeasures and Cuba was one of them.

12: My Cuban Missile Crisis

This is retelling of pretty much well known story, only with some details from inside. However, it contains nothing significant.

13: Cuba: The Real Story

I guess the key point of author’s revelation is that top leaders risked a lot to avoid war and it was much more dangerous for Khrushchev, who eventually lost his position partially because of this. Another important part of the narrative is how little understanding is of how much it all depended on lower levels military commanders on both sides, who could use nuclear weapons without any authorization. Especially it applies to commanders of Soviet submarines who at great career risk decided to rise to service when pressed by American Navy, rather than use nuclear torpedoes, as it was required by standing orders.

Part II: The Road to Doomsday

In this part author looks at development of mass destruction weapons and tactics from before WWII and all the way to nuclear weapons and MAD strategy.

14: Bombing Cities; 15: Burning Cities; 16: Killing a Nation

These chapters are about strategic bombing in WWII, that started as impossibility and ended as routine. While initially intended as a method to undermine resolve of enemy population, it actually only increased it, at least until bombing was somewhat tolerable. Eventually it moved from psychological and narrowly military objectives to the objective of annihilating enemy population without much differentiation between combatants and non-combatants.

17: Risking Doomsday I: Atmospheric Ignition

This is about an idea of some possibility that explosion of nuclear device could ignite atmosphere and completely annihilate everything alive. Calculations that were conducted pointed to the very small probability of such event, but it still existed. Author obviously believes that at this point all work should stop and humanity should move away from producing nuclear weapons.

18: Risking Doomsday II: The Hell Bomb

This is about hydrogen bomb, which is not only much more powerful than nuclear, but also has no limit on its power. There were some people who were either against its development or wanted it to be conditional on competition. The main supporter of H-bomb development was Edward Teller and author obviously does not like this man. At the end author claims that it was done under incorrect assumption similarly to believe in Nazi’s advances that were a big driver of Manhattan project.

19: The Strangelove Paradox

The paradox here is between secret development of powerful weapons that are actually doomsday machines and their objective to prevent attack because if adversary does not know power of such weapons, these weapons would not stop this adversary. Author also discusses various scenarios around decapitation and validity of the first strike. Eventually it came down to the “dead hand” technology. Author goes into some details about Russian “Perimeter” system that would initiate nuclear strike automatically if it defined that the attack against Russia already occurred. Author assumes that similar systems were developed by all powers.

20: First-Use Threats: Using Our Nuclear Weapons

Here author discusses the use of nuclear weapons as not retaliation against use of these weapons, but as tool to achieve some objectives. He considers it hugely immoral and demands USA denounce such use regardless of what others like Russia and China would do.

21: Dismantling the Doomsday Machine

Author starts this chapter discussing quite ridiculous idea of slowing down earth movement so that Russian missiles would miss their targets. He uses this as example of insanity and then tries to prove that the very existence of such weapons is insanity. He provides a list of what measures he would like to see implemented, but at the end states that there is no real hope for this to happen. Here are his suggestions, which for some reason apply only to USA:

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It is interesting to read about this staff from somebody who actually worked inside of this machine. The levels of organization and safeguard of nuclear weapons is pretty consistent with what I would expect based on my long experience observing control and command system in many other areas of live. However it does not cost me sleepless nights because I believe that normal people are actually more responsible than top-level politicians, because unlike politicians they do have habit of being responsible. The only thing that would really disturb me is if somebody as traitorous as the author of this book would really implemented author suggestions, creating impression for Russians, Chinese, and other enemies that USA is weakened enough to make their first strike an acceptable risk. However real live experience demonstrated that even such president, as Obama, who would probably agreed with author 100%, still was not able to disarm USA and open it for attack, probably to separation of powers implemented in American system. This kind of safeguards gives hope that this dangerous, but tolerable position of nuclear standup will last for next 50-60 or whatever it takes years, before everybody in the world would join Western civilization with its Democracy and market economy. When the whole world join civilization, the worldwide strict control with no exclusions would make it possible to move nuclear weapons to the dust been of history next to Nazism, Communism, Islamism, Chinese supremacism, and whatever other ism history will come up with before that.

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