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Paul is interviewed by Andrew Van Wagner, and in this segment, he talks about working with Daniel Ellsberg on a documentary film based on the book Doomsday Machine.
Hi, I’m Paul Jay. Welcome to theAnalysis.news. Andrew Van Wagner has emailed me over the years several times on different issues. He has a Substack column now, he asked to interview me, and I said sure. So this is now going to be his interview. He mostly works in text, so you’ll find his version of the interview on his Substack, but he’s going to say a few words about who he is and how to find his Substack, and then he’s taking over the interview. So, go ahead, Andrew.
Andrew Van Wagner
Fantastic! So, my name is Andrew Van Wagner. I write the Join Activism Substack, and you can find it at join.substack.com; that goes to my personal Substack, so it’s a funny URL. I write about politics, science, and philosophy, all sorts of other topics too. I’m really excited to interview Paul here, I’ll transcribe it, and then Paul will put the video on his website. It’ll be great. So, I just wanted to start with my first question Paul, what are the most exciting projects that you’re currently working on?
Well, other than theAnalysis.news, which people know, and I find exciting because I get to talk to great brains all the time, but the other project I’m working on is with Daniel Ellsberg based on his book Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner. We hope to turn this into a four or five-part series for one of the major platforms. I’ve already done 15-20 hours of interviews, and I’m about to go back to Berkeley to do some more. Exciting, yes, but also it’s terrifying, and I don’t know if depressing is the word, but he has me quite convinced that it’s quite a miracle that humans are still living on this planet.
His book is about when he worked for RAND [Research and Development] Corporation advising the Pentagon on American nuclear war strategy, and something he came to realize and calls institutional madness. It captures the harrowing tales of how close we have come to blowing the Earth up. I shouldn’t really say we because most of us have no say in the matter, but the elites, certainly the United States, who have been the principal drivers of nuclear weapons. To a large extent, this is what Ellsberg discovered pushed the Soviet Union into a big investment of nuclear weapons. They weren’t planning to do it, and it was one of the big lies of the Cold War; that the Soviets were way ahead in ICBMs [Intercontinential Ballistic Missle]. Ellsberg found out that wasn’t true.
I can talk more about it, but I would say it’s exciting because I get to work with Ellsberg, one of the great people of our time. He’s a great brain and was on his way to becoming a Nobel Prize winner in economics before he went into this military strategy and later Pentagon papers. As I say, he also makes me quite convinced that nuclear weapons have to be treated at the same level as climate crisis in terms of an existential threat. It’s really a dual-threat.
Andrew Van Wagner
Wow. I think there is a common perception that things aren’t as bad as they used to be with nuclear weapons — I mean, we all know that the Cuban Missile Crisis was extremely close. Everyone agrees on that, but people have a perception that it’s not as big of a threat today. What do you make of that?
Yeah, it’s as bad as climate denial. It’s the same phenomenon as climate crisis denial. It is as dangerous, or perhaps, more dangerous than it’s ever been. At least in the Soviet Union and the United States, as batshit crazy, as much of the military leadership in the United States was, on the whole, they were rational people and did do their best, in fact up until now, succeeded in not blowing us up. One of the great lessons of the Cuban Missile Crisis is that we came very close to being demolished despite the fact that [Nikita] Khrushchev and [John F.] Kennedy were both rational people who didn’t want to blow the world up.
I don’t know if you know the story of the Soviet submarine that was underneath the American ships, but they had instructions that if they were ever out of touch with Moscow, if they thought they were under attack by American boats, warships, they should assume a nuclear war had broken out. They were armed with nuclear torpedoes. The Americans didn’t know that one, the protocol was if they were out of touch with Moscow and if they think they’re under attack, the Americans didn’t know that it would start a nuclear launch of, as I say, nuclear-armed torpedos. Well, the Americans started dropping depth charges on them, trying to force them to the surface, thinking it was all relatively harmless, and they broke out the documents in the Soviet submarines to launch the nuclear torpedoes. The Captain signed off, and the deputy in charge, I don’t know what his title was, signed off. It was only because the Admiral, who was the Communist Party representative on the boat — because he happened to be on the submarine his signature was required, as he was the ranking officer, and he refused to sign it. He said, well, what if we’re wrong? He actually got in shit for it when he went back to Moscow.
There are quite a few examples of how close we’ve come, and now the arsenal of nuclear weapons is getting bigger. The Americans are in the midst already, and so are the Russians, of spending a trillion dollars over the next 30 years on new weapons. Most of that money is going to be spent in the first 10 years. The Americans have a whole fleet of [Gerald R.] Ford-class aircraft carriers that will have nuclear-armed weapons. China now feels very pushed to enhance their nuclear ICBMs. Up until now, they’ve been very modest. Perhaps, the estimates may be 200 ICBMs compared to the several thousand American and Russian. Because of the aggressive character of U.S. policy towards China and this massive new expenditure by the Americans and the Russians, now China’s off to the races to try and catch up. So, there’s a new nuclear arms race. The rivalry and the tension between the United States and China are very serious.
There’s a section of the American elites, the American military, that simply don’t want to accept a world where there’s, at the very least, an equal superpower, but the writing’s on the wall. The Chinese economy is likely to get larger than the American. They have all the ability for innovation, including on the military side. So, it’s a very dangerous situation; all the saber-rattling over Taiwan could easily get out of control. Then the other thing that adds to the danger of all this is the phenomenon of nuclear winter. If there is a nuclear war, and it doesn’t have to be too big of one to cause a nuclear war — although I don’t know if there’s any model of a limited nuclear war. Generally, the thinking is that if it breaks out, all hell breaks out. A nuclear war between India and Pakistan is enough to create a nuclear winter. The ash from all the burning cities envelops the Earth and essentially wipes out agriculture and with it, certainly organized human life and much of larger mammal life.
So you know, this idea that it’s not as dangerous as it used to be, it is the prevailing idea; which is one of the reasons, in some ways, it’s more dangerous than — at least there used to be massive — one of the largest protests that ever took place in New York was against nuclear weapons. Now, you barely hear anyone raise their voice. Just a little bit of the odd groups here and there, but nothing on a scale that’s having much impact. So, we’re hoping the series with Ellsberg helps to wake people up.
Andrew Van Wagner
Does your series with Ellsberg have a title?
Probably a variation on his book, probably Doomsday Machine: The Confessions of Daniel Ellsberg, perhaps something like that. Daniel was a real cold warrior when he joined RAND Corporation and was very involved in developing a nuclear war strategy for the United States. He never was in favor of the first strike, which was the American, and is still the American nuclear war strategy. That if conventional war breaks out, at the time it was with Russia, but it’s also, he thinks, with China. If it reaches the point where the American conventional armies look like they’re going to lose, the strategy is first strike, and it’s insane. With nuclear winter, there doesn’t need to be a second strike to demolish human life—the first strikes enough with nuclear winter.
Andrew Van Wagner
Do you know on which platform your series with Ellsberg will be released?
No, we haven’t made a deal yet. We’re talking to a few of the bigger streaming services and broad cable channels. There’s interest, but we haven’t gotten to that point yet.
Andrew Van Wagner
Apparently, Donald Trump shredded some long-standing nuclear weapons treaties. What effect did that have, and do you know if the Biden administration will reinstate those treaties?
Well, they did reinstate; I guess it’s called START II [Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty]. They did that very soon after Biden was inaugurated, but there’s a crying need for a new round of treaties that have to include China. There has to be honesty about who has nuclear weapons. It’s just ridiculous that this narrative continues that Israel doesn’t have nuclear weapons. Everybody knows it does. Even Jimmy Carter came out and said Israel has nuclear weapons, but it’s still part of the ridiculousness of the narrative about Israel that they don’t. There has to be a new round of treaties, certainly amongst the big three, and all the other nuclear powers, including France and the U.K., Pakistan, India, Israel. There has to be a serious reduction.
The message of Ellsberg is that these massive numbers of weapons have very little to do with deterrents, especially when you’re talking at the levels of the United States and Russia, especially in ICBMs. ICBMs, he says, and he’s not the only one, a lot of experts on this say, are actually kind of useless when it comes to being a real deterrent. More or less, the big powers know how to find each other’s ICBMs, so they become targets. The effective deterrent is really from nuclear submarines, and there’s no need for these kinds of numbers because there’s no defense anyway.
Again, with nuclear winter — a far more modest amount, probably under 100 or something, it could even be 10 or 15. Assuming one accepts the logic of the need for nuclear deterrence, and while it’s so dangerous that I would think the logic is, there shouldn’t be any. Ellsberg thinks this too, and he’s persuaded me. It’s an unwinnable position in today’s geopolitics to think you could get to the point of zero. Still, the logic, if you’re serious about deterrence, then get it down to a number that at least mitigates the danger of accidental nuclear war. It seems so logical and rational that it’s beyond belief that isn’t the policy, but you don’t make money out of that if that’s the policy. If you make weapons, you make nuclear weapons. You make defense systems and all the paraphernalia that goes with that. It’s not just the American military-industrial financial complex that makes a lot of money out of nuclear weapons; it’s also the Russian military-industrial complex and the growing Chinese. I would say recently, of the 15 largest arms manufacturers in the world, five are now Chinese.
Now I will repeat, it’s the Americans that are more aggressive in all of this. They push Russia and China into more nuclearization, but the profit motive exists amongst them all. For the sake of money-making, these weapons manufacturers, and in Congress, and the whole mindset that goes with this culture, they are willing to risk the apocalypse. It’s really mind-boggling that if they do know how close we’ve come and they do know that the safeguards are so far from foolproof, but they continue to do it. It’s maybe, other than climate — but there’s probably no better example of the complete irrationality of global capitalism.
Andrew Van Wagner
So what exactly is the pathway towards major reductions? The issue seems to be that countries need to be able to trust one another. That’s the key factor. You can’t ratchet down your arsenal unless you trust that your enemies will do so at the same time. So how can you create a framework in which all these different countries can have some kind of transparent inspection mechanism or some way to have that actual trust?
I don’t think that’s what’s stopping. [Ronald] Reagan worked it out with [Mikhail] Gorbachev. What was Reagan’s famous line, trust but verify? They have very good intelligence. They have ways to inspect. They can use the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] to inspect. I don’t think that much goes on that’s so secret. I don’t think it’s about trust as much as it is about the momentum, the strength, the power, and the logic of massive military expenditures. The United States, even though they haven’t used nuclear weapons since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, they do like being able to blackmail people and threaten them.
You know, Donald Trump was — and he’s not the only one, he was reflecting very senior military leadership certainly sections of it, about the use of tactical nuclear weapons. They talk about it in all seriousness, and to think; I guess they would only consider using it against a non-nuclear country, like Iran, for example. However, as soon as you talk like that, god, if you’re Iranian, you’d think you better become a nuclear weapons country if the Americans are serious about the use of tactical nuclear weapons. There’s a logic to the military culture that’s driven by the extent of the militarization of the American economy, and that’s not new. That really starts with World War I. It takes an enormous leap in World War II. After World War II, the American economy, which had been in deep Depression in the 1930s — well, the New Deal and the spending in the New Deal helped alleviate the Depression, to some extent. It was really the spending on war that became the real stimulus, and they decided to keep that kind of stimulus going. They didn’t know what would happen with the American economy without mass military expenditure, so they developed this Cold War based on a complete lie.
This was the thing about Doomsday Machine, the book by Ellsberg, that attracted me so much to it. He started off as a cold warrior, and then he started to find out that this — in 1959 and ’60, when Kennedy and others were talking about a missile gap, the American Air Force and the Strategic Air Command were saying the Soviets had a thousand ICBMs. The Americans only had something like 200. They were saying the Soviets were getting ready for the first strike to blackmail the United States.
Well, as Ellsberg found out when the [Lockheed] U-2 spy plane started flying, he found out that they actually discovered how many ICBMs the Soviet Union had. It was four, not 1000, four. One, two, three, four. It was the United States that actually had the first strike capability, but they used that propaganda, as well as the idea that the Soviet Union was getting ready to invade Western Europe. It was total bullshit. The Soviet Union was always in a defensive posture and always feared a first strike from the United States.
Curtis LeMay was the guy who dropped the atomic weapons on Japan and led the firebombing of Japan with others around him. He was the Head of the Strategic Air Command for quite a while, and his number two [Colin] Powell, who took over from him. These guys wanted to first strike. These guys wanted to invade Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis. A section of the military has always thought that the only long-term way to maintain American dominance is through the annihilation of any major power that threatens to become an equal. The roots of this, and this is why it’s a complex process. It’s not just about arms companies that want to make money. It’s a process of how American capitalism has developed. Two processes at the same time: financialization and militarization; they go hand in hand. The growing strength of the banking sector and the financial sector certainly came out of World War I. Then especially after World War II, the financial sector became absolutely more dominant, to the extent that now the arms companies are primarily owned by the financial sector. You can’t really divide these as separate sectors of the economy.
If you go look at who owns the major shares of Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Raytheon, and you go through it, the majority of shares are owned by financial institutions, of one kind or another, with the big index funds like BlackRock, Vanguard, and State Street. The three of them and some of the other index funds, asset management companies, amongst them probably control the majority of the voting shares, but if they don’t, the other bank with them do. Just to add, I have an article on my website about this. It’s that same group of financial institutions, who not only own the arms manufacturers, and who not only own the makers of nuclear weapons, they also own the majority of the media. In fact, all the major media, with the exception of the Washington Post, which is owned by [Jeff] Bezos, and Bloomberg, which is privately owned by [Mike] Bloomberg, but — the New York Times is 93% owned by financial institutions, and it goes on and on. The same institutions own fossil fuel companies and have dominant positions in just about everything on the stock market.
So, this process of how capitalists have developed, because of historical and geographical reasons, the United States emerges from World War II as the only big power still standing, not destroyed by the war. The Brits are demolished. The Soviet Union is badly damaged. Germany is demolished. So, it creates an enormous opportunity for the United States. Just to sort of cut to something very recent is the situation in Afghanistan. The roots of that are found in [Franklin D.] Roosevelt’s deal with [Former King of Saudi Arabia] Ibn Saud in 1945. When it became clear that the United States was emerging as the global hegemon Roosevelt made a deal with the Saudi Royal family.
The reason I’m telling the story is not just because of what’s recently happening in Afghanistan, but it’s not an evil empire, the United States; it’s the way global capitalism works. They see an opportunity, and they take it. It’s true for a small business, a big Corporation, and a state. If that state has the opportunity to become the global hegemon, it takes it. I mean, if Canada had a chance to be the global hegemon, they’d jump at it. So, I think because of geography, history, population, we can be a junior partner to the global hegemon, and so they take it. The deal with Ibn Saud and the Saud family, you can draw a direct line to the Al Qaeda, [Osama] Bin Laden, and the Taliban.
So, the problem with nuclear weapons is the American military is convinced, and enough of the elites are convinced that part of their global dominance depends on nuclear weapon dominance. It’s insane because you can’t use them without destroying yourself, but there’s money to be made in it, and this insane logic somehow prevails. I don’t know. I can’t understand the mindset that you would risk annihilation.
Andrew Van Wagner
It’s strange because shouldn’t one submarine or a couple of submarines have ample deterrence against any country?
Yeah, maybe five, 10? I don’t know. Yeah, it doesn’t take very much. I mean, part of it is that the Pentagon doesn’t want to accept the concept of nuclear winter. It’s very much like climate denial. The leading climate scientists, as much as one can prove it without blowing the world up to find out, the way they examined it is they’ve looked at what happened to climate after the fire bombings in Germany and Japan. They’ve looked at what happens when volcanoes — when you get a massive amount of ash. American nuclear war plans call for demolishing every major city in Russia and China. It’s not like they’re not going to fire back. I mean, the radiation is going to kill most of the Northern Hemisphere anyway. It’s the ultimate insanity of a system that, at its heart, has reached the point of complete irrationality. The climate crisis is going to wipe out global capitalism. Maybe rich people think they’ll be okay for one generation, two, but it won’t be long before most of the global south is uninhabitable. So, where do these millions of people go? North, to countries that are also going to become uninhabitable.
Capitalism was a rational system for a few hundred years. It was very rational. Capitalism was a necessary and natural, you could say, development out of feudalism. It was vigorous. It was resilient. It embraced science and innovation. Of course, it had horrible, always horrible aspects to it. It always depended on its growth. On the plunder of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. On modern slavery in the United States and other places, but still, there was a certain sense that capitalism was the next, sort of, stage for humanity. We’ve reached a point now where the irrationality of capitalism as such, that because of climate, and I would say because of nuclear weapons, but if you just take climate, the system itself is not going to survive this. The profit-making imperative is such that even though they know what’s coming, even though they know what has to be done, they simply won’t take the measures, at least so far, that are necessary.
Andrew Van Wagner
Are countries so tied together economically that there’s another form of mutually assured destruction in a way? If the United States was nuked, I mean, what would happen to the global economy? Even if Russia was nuked, if any major country was nuked, what would happen to the global economy?
Well, I don’t think you can frame the question that way because if nukes begin, there is no global economy. There’s no humans. The organized human society ends with nuclear war. There’s no limited nuclear war.
Andrew Van Wagner
Because of the nuclear winter?
Well, because you can’t control it. I mean, most of the military strategist’s people I’ve talked to in the literature — they all think that once it breaks out, you just can’t stop it. It has its own logic. That once stuff starts flying; certainly, the American war strategy is you have to try to wipe your enemy completely out in order to have any chance of averting a second strike. Nobody frankly, at least nobody at first strike, except anyone by the Americans, the Russians, the Chinese, note they have nothing to benefit from by a first strike. The Americans certainly have a massive second-strike capability, and there’s nothing in it for them. There’s really nothing in it for the Americans either so, I doubt this would happen in a planned, organized way, but shit happens.
What are the Americans going to do if there’s a real confrontation over Taiwan, and the Americans have a President that thinks — mostly because of domestic politics; they’re going to look tough, they’re going to send an aircraft carrier, and they’re going to tell the Chinese to back down. Well, the Chinese won’t back down. They have their own nationalist and domestic public opinion and military culture as well. So, what happens if they sink an aircraft carrier? Well, do the Americans just back off? I mean, it’s nuts. Any rational mind would say the Americans will never go to war with China over Taiwan. They can huff and puff, but are they going to risk annihilation?
As I say, I was someone who was completely convinced that the Americans would not invade Iraq. Every person that knew the situation said it would be a disaster, of course, for the Iraqi people, first and foremost, but it would be a disaster for the Americans. That there’s no way they’re going to control the outcome of Iraq after the invasion. Oh, no, no. It’s going to be a cakewalk.
I do this show called Reality Asserts Itself, and it came from an interview this guy did, [Ron] Suskind, I think was the author. People think it was [Donald] Rumsfeld, but he never said who it was with. He says to a senior Bush-Cheney official, everyone says this is going to be a disaster invading Iraq; you guys just aren’t being realistic about Iraq. The answer was, we’re America; we make our own reality. Well, actually, they didn’t, and Iran probably has more influence now in Iraq than the Americans do. China has probably got more of the oil than the Americans do.
The reason Obama opposed the Iraq war was because he said it was stupid, and he was right. It wasn’t that he was against wars or empire. I didn’t think for all those reasons they would invade Iraq, but you can’t underestimate the power or rationality, banality. They didn’t control the outcome of Iraq, but boy did the military-industrial complex and the Halliburton’s of this world; did they ever make a lot of money out of the invasion of Iraq. So, maybe it turned out to be a geopolitical mess for the Americans, but there were shit loads of money made out of it.
I was just reading today about a woman named Bunny Greenhouse. She was in the contracts section of the Pentagon, and she blew the whistle on the Halliburton contract, which was signed not long after Cheney had left Halliburton. A no-bid contract for $7 billion to restructure the Iraqi oil industry after the invasion. This was just shortly before. Cheney, we know, had stock options, and who knows how else he got paid off. He had a big severance payment. I interview Larry Wilkerson a lot, who worked with Colin Powell, and this was when- the Iraq thing is what really opened his eyes. How much of it was just about straightforward money-making? It wasn’t even great strategic thinking. It was just like, well, what an opportunity to make money.
Andrew Van Wagner
Right, thanks so much for joining us, and I hope you enjoyed the interview.
There’s some confusion that’s worth clearing up in the details about the Soviet sub and its nuke “fish”. The sub was one of a 4-sub “wolfpack” prowling the Caribbean during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The command structure of the wolfpack was unusual. The commodore of the wolfpack was Captain/1st class Vasilij Aleksandr’ich Arkhipov, who was also serving as the Exec of his flagship, B-59, under Valentin Grigor’ich Savitskij, also a Captain/1st.
All 4 subs were armed with nuke torpedoes in case the balloon were to go up. They had all been running submerged deeply enough that they had had no comms with Moscow in several days when one of the US ships found them and started dropping “toy” depth charges to get them to surface. Captain Savitskij flipped out. He was sure WW3 had started and wanted to begin launching so as to take as many of the perfidious Americans with him as possible. Ivan Semen’ich Maslennikov, the political officer (zampolit) was also spooked by the depth charges and agreed with Savitskij.
Captain Arkhipov, as the commodore, had the deciding vote. In 1961 he had already survived –barely–the nuclear disaster aboard the badly-built K-19, to recover from which many sailors had heroically chosen to sacrifice their own lives. He had also been XO on that boat, and the experience had made him unwilling to rush into things. So he talked Savitskij and Maslennikov down instead. When everyone had calmed down, they surfaced, made contact with Moscow, discovered that there was no war after all, and sailed home.
They did get a lot of crap from various politicians and even Grechko who should have known better, but Vasilij Aleksand’rich eventually retired as a Vice Admiral and died of kidney cancer only 9 days before his boss from K-19 also died, also from kidney cancer, also at age 72.