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Daniel Ellsberg

The Legendary Whistleblower Speaks on Whether Humanity and Nuclear Weapons Can Coexist


Daniel Ellsberg isn’t good at keeping secrets. Well, not nasty, covert governmental ones, anyway. Working as a military analyst for the RAND Corporation in 1971, Ellsberg went from a White House insider to one of the nation’s most wanted when he released top-secret information regarding the United States’ escalation plans for the Vietnam War to national newspapers, including the New York Times and the Washington Post. His decision to disseminate the “Pentagon Papers,” as they were called, set Ellsberg on a life track that has, for the past 40 years, kept him at the forefront of political activism. In 2003, Ellsberg warned of the folly of going to war with Iraq for trumped up reasons. In March 2011, he was arrested during a peaceful demonstration at Quantico protesting the imprisonment of whistleblower Marine Bradley Manning, who provided WikiLeaks with restricted Iraq War military data. Last November, Ellsberg showed solidarity with the Occupy Cal movement by camping at UC Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza.

Currently, Ellsberg is tackling the daunting task of helping to educate the public regarding worldwide nuclear weapons proliferation, which, according to him, is as real a threat today as it was during the Cold War. To that end, Ellsberg will be in town speaking about “Nuclear Weapons and Humanity’s Future” as a guest of the Santa Barbara Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. Last week I spoke with Ellsberg via phone from his home in the Bay Area about the difference between A-bombs and H-bombs, the outrageous number of nuclear bombs still at the ready, and whether or not humans will destroy all complex life on the planet.

So, do you think there is a future for humanity? I think that the existence of nuclear weapons has made contingent whether there will be a human future or not. That’s been true for a long time, especially since the invention of the H-bomb, which came almost 10 years after the atom bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. … The early A-bombs were 1,000 times more powerful than the most powerful high explosives, the most powerful “block busters” as they were called because they destroyed a plutonium bomb that was 20,000 tons. The first H-bomb that was tested, by us, was 15 million times the equivalent of TNT — 1,000 times stronger than the Hiroshima [bomb].

India and Pakistan do not have H-bombs. India is believed to have tested an H-bomb, which fizzled. An H-bomb takes a lot of tests to know that you’ve got one that works, and without testing, you don’t get H-bombs. That’s not true of A-bombs anymore. India and Pakistan threaten each other now within the neighborhood of 100 A-bombs — the Hiroshima-type bombs, not H-bombs. If we start testing again, which the Republicans in general have been pushing for for a long time, Pakistan and India will definitely acquire H-bombs. It would take several A-bombs to destroy New Delhi, but an H-bomb would take out the entire New Delhi metropolitan area. It would kill millions of people. Not only that, but it would create fallout … the radioactivity coats the particles of earth, buildings, people, [and what goes] into the atmosphere is equivalent to the bomb’s megaton, so a one-ton bomb produces 10 million tons of radioactive particles in the air.

It sounds completely mad. How can countries even consider nuclear weapons as an option? There is an insanity to it. At the height of the arms race we had about 60,000 H-bombs between us and the Russians. Those have been greatly reduced in number, but a number of them still remain to be dismantled. We still have about 10,000 H-bombs and the Russians have about 12,000. … We have enough explosive power to kill humanity 10 times over. What Obama has [proposed we] reduce our alert forces to is to 1,500 weapons. That [still] means that the leader of Russia and the leader of the U.S. have the power to end life on earth. What does one say to a situation where we permit all life on earth to be hostage to one of these two men?

For 60 years the world has been living with two doomsday machines: the U.S. and Russia. Not only is each capable of destroying life on earth, but they are on a hair trigger that is prone to accident and false alarm. There have in fact been false alarms from electronic wiring that said we were under attack, or the Russians were under attack, that got the systems well into the 5- or 10-minute process of deciding if it was real. In 1983, the U.S. had a series of several false alarms because somebody had put an exercise tap into the system, and it wasn’t realized that this was an exercise and we seemed to be under attack from Russian submarine missiles, ICBMs, and bombers all at once.

It’s a miracle we are still alive, if you think about it. It’s a miracle that humans are still alive, but miracles happen. The end of the Cold War was totally unforeseen and miraculous. And likewise the nonviolent shift in South Africa; these positive miracles do happen. We need a miracle like that to survive nuclear weapons. It’s not impossible, but we need a change in attitudes and doctrines and policies and deployment as great as took place in the ending of the Cold War.

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Daniel Ellsberg will speak on “Nuclear Weapons and Humanity’s Future” Thursday, February 23, at 7 p.m. at the Lobero Theatre (33 E. Canon Perdido St.). The event is free. For more information, call the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation at (805) 965-3443 or visit wagingpeace.org.

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