Review by Bill Roller of Daniel Ellsberg’s book The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner
It’s Midnight in America
There was a game that children in the southern Midwest played
during the early days of the Cold War. It was called, “What Time is it Mr. Fox?” It was a version of “tag” and went something like this.
We children gathered at the brick wall in the school yard. One of us was given the role of “Mr. Fox”, and that child faced the brick wall, hands on the wall and eyes closed. As the rest of us approached the wall slowly, one step at a time, we asked, “What time is it, Mr. Fox?” Mr. Fox replied
“Five-thirty” and we took another step forward. We asked again and Mr. Fox replied “Seven-thirty” and we took another step. So it continued.
The idea was to get as close to the wall before Mr. Fox announced in a booming voice, “MIDNIGHT!” Then all the children screamed and fled before Mr. Fox caught one of us—that child then becoming the new Mr. Fox. We repeated the game again and again, the repetition of questioning and the exhilaration of flight. We reveled in the ritual of coming very close—but always escaping being caught at midnight.
Years later it became clear to me that we were enacting the anxiety we felt as our nation approached the likelihood of thermonuclear war and the oblivion of midnight. I remember the thrill of getting so close and then escaping at midnight. Each Mr. Fox helped us indulge in the fantasy that no matter how close we came, we might always get away.
Now, with the publication of Daniel Ellsberg’s new book, The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner, we must all admit that it’s midnight in America. Ellsberg gives one example after another of how close we’ve come to thermonuclear war across the last seven decades—and still we’re here, defying the apocalyptic consequences of midnight. Do we revel at the thought we have gotten away so many times by the “skin of our teeth”, as Thornton Wilde would say? Or have we sunk into denial of the impending catastrophe?—which means we have slowly become habituated and socialized to the idea of our inevitable destruction of our species.
Ellsberg traces how we got ourselves into this deadly game. Each step builds on and reinforces the last step until we approach the final step,
which Ellsberg calls “omnicide”—the annihilation of all humans and sentient beings we share the planet with. The first step was the gradual acceptance of killing civilians en masse as a war strategy. This idea took hold after World War I with the development of airpower capable of such mass killing. The second step was the urgency the US government felt to develop a nuclear bomb in the early 1940’s in order to thwart the greater evil of the Nazis. The third step came with the erroneous but widely held US belief that we won World War II by using a nuclear weapon, drawing the false conclusion that nuclear war was “winnable.” The fourth step was the accommodation of the US economy to a permanent state of war readiness and dependence on the production of more and more expensive weapons of war.
Ellsberg also indicates the steps we can take to end the terror of living under the threat of Nuclear Winter. First, Citizens must demand their representatives in Congress conduct hearings on the consequences of Nuclear Winter—following a thermonuclear war. Hearings on the subject have never taken place, although the fact of Nuclear Winter has been known for decades. Nuclear Winter is the inevitable result of thermonuclear explosions that drive smoke far into the stratosphere where rain never falls. Therefore, the smoke is left to circle the earth, blocking the light of the sun for years and causing the death of all human life and all
animal life by starvation.
Second, citizens must demand that Congress initiate debate on the current U.S. thermonuclear war strategy—that measures our safety as a people on the basis of more thermonuclear weapons not less and which advocates greater dependency on the economic benefits that derive from the manufacture and maintenance of thermonuclear weapons. These topics ought to be the subject of on-going scrutiny and debate within the public at large. At present, the facts presented in Ellsberg’s book are hardly known by the U.S. public and even less discussed as a national conversation of urgent concern.
The Doomsday Machine is a sober assessment of our current thermonuclear strategy and a call for citizen engagement to challenge the authority of the political leadership that perpetuates it. Don’t read this book unless you’re willing to be disturbed. And don’t be disturbed unless you’re willing to take action to stop this madness. Otherwise, we’re just playing another round of “What Time is it, Mr. Fox?”
Bill Roller is the author of several books, including a novel, The Dead Are Dancing, and other works of fiction, texts in psychology, and films in the public interest. Go to berkeleygrouptherapyinstitute.com/ellsberg/
to stream his interview with Daniel Ellsberg.