‘To those who struggle for a human future.”
Those eight sobering words make up the succinct “dedication” with which author Daniel Ellsberg kicks off his gripping, disquieting and surprisingly entertaining 2017 book “The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner.” According to Ellsberg — best known as the whistleblower who leaked the infamous “Pentagon Papers,” a story told in last year’s Oscar nominated film “The Post” — his strikingly blunt dedication was intentionally crafted to suggest the very real possibility of a dire future for humankind.
“I do think, with the combination of a changing climate and the high likelihood of nuclear winter taking place over the next century or so, that the question of whether humanity has any real future is necessary to contemplate, though it’s not a question with a very positive or optimistic answer,” says Ellsberg, reached at his office in Kensington, in the East Bay. “I do think that it’s unlikely that human civilization will continue for very much longer — not that I’m all that keen on human civilization at the moment.”
Ellsberg will be appearing this weekend at the Veterans Memorial Building, discussing his book (and more), in conversation with actor-activist Peter Coyote. The event is part of the ongoing Literacyworks Lectures series sponsored by Copperfield’s Books and Literacyworks, a Petaluma non-profit dedicated to lifelong learning as a path to opportunity, meaningful employment, and individual fulfillment. Though the afternoon conversation is certain to include Ellsberg’s recollections of the historic Pentagon Papers incident, and the aforementioned recent film in which he was portrayed by actor Matthew Rhys (“The Americans”), the primary focus of the event will be “The Doomsday Machine.”
The book reveals for the first time that when Ellsberg — while working as an analyst for the RAND Corporation in the 1960s — famously photocopied thousands of pages of classified documents about the Vietnam War, he also copied thousands and thousands of additional pages concerning the U.S. government’s strategies for engaging in nuclear warfare with another government, specifically the U.S.S.R. Early on in the book, Ellsberg describes a classified memo he was shown in the White House, in the spring of 1961. The memo was a response to a question from President Kennedy to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as to the number of casualties that could be anticipated should the U.S. actually engage in a nuclear exchange with Russia, a possibility that many in the government were actively considering, and in some cases, strongly advocating for.
The answer to Kennedy’s query — which Ellsberg was allowed to see because he’d been the one to draft the original question at the behest of the President — came in the form of a short, simple graph, with lines and numbers, indicating that the expected casualties would range between 275,000,000 and 325,000,000.
“I very clearly remember my emotions as I read those numbers,” Ellsberg says. “It was absolutely stunning, particularly as there were those in our government who evidently considered such numbers to be acceptable.”
It was that moment, he says, when he decided to do whatever was necessary to reverse what he then saw as the world’s reckless march toward self-destruction. Asked if he’s surprised that anyone on Earth is still alive today, nearly 60 years later, Ellsberg admits that he’s often doubted civilization would make it this far.
PLANNING TO GO?
What: Daniel Ellsberg, in conversation with Peter Coyote, discussing his new book ‘The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner.’ The event is a benefit for Petaluma’s Literacyworks non-profit.
When: Sunday, June 10, 4:00 p.m. (doors open at 3 p.m.)
Where: Petaluma Veterans Memorial Building, 1094 Petaluma Blvd. S.
Admission: $35 (plus fee) admits one person and includes a copy of Ellsberg’s ‘The Doomsday Machine’ - $45 (plus fee) admits two persons and includes a copy of the book.
Tickets: Purchase tickets in person at Copperfield’s (140 Kentucky St.), or online at www.copperfieldsbooks.com/event/ellsberg-coyote, or at www.literacyworks.org/events
Upcoming Literacyworks Lectures: The next event in the series is an onstage interview with novelist Isabelle Allende, in conversation with KQED’s Michael Krasny, on July 1, 4 p.m., at SRJC’s Carole L. Ellis Auditorium, in Petaluma.