Daniel Ellsberg at 90 - “It’s Still Possible to Save Humanity”

It will take a miracle to avoid catastrophic climate change and nuclear war, but it’s still possible we can create such a miracle. Daniel Ellsberg on theAnalysis.news with Paul Jay.

Paul Jay

Hi, I’m Paul Jay, and welcome to a very special edition of theAnalysis.news on the occasion of the 90th birthday of Daniel Ellsberg.

Ninety years ago, Daniel Ellsberg was born and he has lived a life of meaning, many of us strive to change the world, but few have the opportunity and the courage to change the course of history. Dan’s release of the Pentagon Papers at great personal risk helped end the Vietnam War. His book, The Doomsday Machine Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner, reveals the institutional madness of American nuclear war strategy. Dan continues to fight for truth and to awaken people to the existential danger of nuclear weapons.

I interviewed Dan’s friend, historian Peter Kuznick, about the importance of Dan’s life’s work. And I encourage you to watch that.

But now, in his own words, is my interview with Daniel Ellsberg on the occasion of his 90th birthday. So at 90 years old, why don’t you just take it easy? What keeps you fighting? How do you summon the strength when sometimes it seems many are just not listening?

Daniel Ellsberg

Hope, hope that we can surmount the challenges that are facing us, the challenge of ceasing a moral catastrophe that we’re already involved in, which is that we have allowed doomsday machines to exist in our country and elsewhere in the world and that we’re on a course toward climate catastrophe as well. And the problem is to avert the physical catastrophes, not probably full extinction on either case, but catastrophic results for humanity. If we go on the way we are, if our policies continue as they are, my hope is expressed in action.

As a friend of mine, Joanna Macy says hope isn’t a feeling or an expectation, it’s a way of acting, and it’s a way of acting as if we had a chance. And I think that’s what we do have. We really do have a chance to change this and to allow a more humane future to evolve.

Paul Jay 

And to what extent is that hope, an act of faith rather than rational analysis? Because I know you’ve told me you’re not all that optimistic when you think about it rationally.

Daniel Ellsberg

I think, by the way, to say that I don’t that one has faith suggests that you’re sure you feel secure in the belief that something will save us either human or external. I don’t have that kind of religious faith as some do, and I don’t have that faith in humanity or in my own country as much as I used to in the case of my own country. So I don’t think it’s a question of any sort of guarantee that we’ll get through this without absolute catastrophe of a kind that has not been seen in human history or prehistory. I think that’s not only not guaranteed, it’s not even likely, but I don’t think it’s impossible.

And given that I think the way of acting that’s appropriate in that possibility that we can eliminate the doomsday machines and change the course of putting fossil fuels into warming to the atmosphere of the earth, causing it’s a question of either nuclear winter with the doomsday machine ice on our lakes and killing all our harvests or fire in effect with the climatic rise in temperature that will make large parts of the world uninhabitable for humans, even though it doesn’t lead to extinction. So I think both of those are actually likely, but not certain.

And if we act in a way to explore as much as we should to explore, search and invent, imagine ways of changing this course, it is possible to do it. I have seen let me go on that. The notion of faith is often always associated in religious terms, especially with miracles. Well, I’m old enough to have seen some miracles, secular miracles in the world. I was 60 when one of those occurred, actually. You know I’m ninety, namely as of say about nineteen eighty one, eighty three, is what, forty years ago.

If anyone had asked what is the chance that the Berlin Wall will be down in 89 in eight years, or if they do that in 83 or 85, pretty much the same, the answer would not have been that it was unlikely. It was impossible. It’s not really thinkable. So the question wasn’t asked, but it did happen, actually. And then a few years later, actually, Nelson Mandela, black Nelson Mandela had been in isolation for I don’t know exactly perhaps twenty seven, twenty nine years, something like that, became the president of South Africa without a violent revolution. I remember my friend Tony Lewis of The New York Times reading a column saying in words that were very unusual for a columnist, it’s impossible that there will be political change in South Africa without a violent revolution, and that’s what was recorded, but it did happen. So that’s the good news. Miracles of that sort, and I could name others that I’ve experienced in my own life, in the life of this country.

They are possible. The bad news is it will take a miracle like that for us to escape the consequences of what we’re actually doing and programing right now in nuclear weapons, in the possibility of wars between nuclear states like the US and Russia, for that matter, India and Pakistan, and in reducing to zero by 2050, less than 30 years from now, fossil fuel emissions into the atmosphere. That’s the goal, to keep this as habitable a planet as it is now.

That’s not happening. The emissions are going up. They show every sign of going up now. So, it will be a very great transformation of our country. And I’m working on the assumption at 90 that I perhaps wouldn’t have had at 50 that it is possible to see change like that.

Paul Jay

I’ve got an eight week old grandson. What can you say to kids that are coming into this world now? What might the world look like when he’s 90?

Daniel Ellsberg

You know, when you ask that question, it makes me feel almost like the wicked stepmother or the fairy godmother or something in the fairy tales who comes and curses the newborn child some way. And I certainly don’t mean to curse them. Quite the opposite. I think you as a grandparent and I know actually you were following the advice I’m about to give, but I think I have to say to the grandparents. This child will grow up into a world much, much less hospitable to human life than exists right now or has existed for millennia.

If humanity exists at all in numbers greater than a hundredth of something of the current population, the result of nuclear winter, these are very bad prognostications, and I think that you won’t change that future unless you, as you are, Paul, but not everyone, not every grandparent, unless you are willing and able to face the difficulty of this and which are the forces and the interests that are invested in keeping things on the course that they are, in other words, toward disaster. Because I don’t think unless we name those forces to some extent and recognize them and find ways to organize and enlighten people and to challenge them, they will have their way and will stay on our course as it is.

Which let me sum up, I’m saying I think your grandchild is born on the Titanic and we haven’t yet hit the iceberg, but we all of us at this time are, of course, on that same ship or what Nikita Khrushchev called our arc during the Cuban Missile Crisis, aptly,  and we’re heading into ice, and indeed, the captain of the ship has been warned of the ice ahead, as was true on the Titanic historically and so far has chosen to go full speed ahead on a dark night into that warned ice instead of as other ships in the same vicinity did with the same warning, stopping dead in the water for the night so as to have daylight when moving or to move ahead very slowly.

So it would be sure to see any obstacle in the way or simply to go south and extend the voyage, which was acceptable for virtually every ship except the Titanic, which wanted to set a speed record and couldn’t afford to go south if it were to do that or to stop in the water. And so full speed ahead.

What was needed then was a kind of mutiny by the captain against the wishes of the head of the White Star Line, who was on that ship and wanted a speed record, or against the captain who wanted to be on the board of White Star and made these foolish, reckless choice of moving ahead, the first mate did have theoretically actually a power to say that’s not acceptable we can’t have that. A kind of mutiny, saving the lives of the people, knowing, by the way, that they did not have lifeboats enough for even more than a third of the passengers, because for many reasons, the first-class passengers needed patios outside their cabins from which lifeboats had to be removed in the design.

Exxon, Chevron, Aramco are inducing our politicians who they pay with campaign donations and other ways and their influence on the president in terms of jobs and again, campaign donations and whatever to allow them to continue exploring for oil that should remain in the ground if our current civilization is to continue and to get it up, and without a mutiny in Congress and pressure on Congress and the president to change that policy, the basis for hope would disappear. I’m assuming that there is a possibility of doing that difficult as it is. On the nuclear aspect, Northrop Grumman, which has just won a contract to develop a ground based strategic deterrent, new intercontinental ballistic missiles, which should not exist and have been a danger to humanity for at least the last half century, an inexcusable, unconscionable danger of bringing about the nuclear winter if used.

And it’s not only Northrop Grumman. They beat out Boeing for that contract. They are subcontracting, of course, to Lockheed, and we have General Dynamics and Raytheon, Big Five, actually, who were pushing the idea of a $1.7 trillion modernization, revitalization, as they say, of a doomsday machine that can destroy not all life on Earth, not even all human life, probably, almost surely, but 90 percent of it, seven billion people, if we exercised our current war plans in a war against Russia.

Now, as I say, it’s a moral catastrophe that this country built such a machine and it was a moral catastrophe for the world and for Russia when they imitated it about a decade later, two of them poised on hair triggers, the hair trigger being the ICBMs on both sides that are vulnerable to being attacked by the other and subject to warning, tactical warning that each side has invested billions and billions to achieve that has often proved false, that they are about to be attacked, and therefore, the president [of the United States] and president of the Soviet Union, Russia now, has to decide in minutes whether to use them or lose them. Use them to do what? To hit the other side’s ICBM. The warning is telling us they are already on the way not to quit. Or to do it earlier. If we had a war in the Ukraine where it’s likely to escalate, nuclear war is coming. Do we use our ICBMs now before they’re destroyed or later? That is a question that is wrong for any human to be asked, you know, to have the circumstances.

Abraham Lincoln said if slavery is not wrong, then nothing is wrong. If the existence of a doomsday machine, I again, I’m talking about an elaborate system developed by major corporations that profit from it and politicians that profit from it in jobs and a general ideology that endorses this, including media, if that’s not wrong, then nothing is wrong. It is wrong. It is wrong for us to maintain that, and that is what we’re doing, Democrat and Republican alike on this issue, there’s no major difference between the parties.

It’s a bipartisan policy to be prepared, ready, totally ready to the order of a president or someone else who has succeeded, a president who’s just been killed somewhere or put out of action. Many fingers could launch this. It’s impossible to paralyze by human attack, to paralyze the system, and it’s a system, as I say, which we’ve known for 30 years now, will have the effect, if launched, of destroying about 90 percent, perhaps 99 percent, probably not 100 within a year from starvation because the harvests have been killed for years, perhaps a decade, and the river system dies and the lakes and whatever else.

And yet there’s hardly any discussion of this. I’m reminded really with the fire on the one hand which will be the cause of the smoke that will cause the nuclear winter. For up to this time, the amazing fact has been revealed that the Joint Chiefs of Staff never calculate the effects of fire from their attacks, that they’re planned and readied because it’s too hard to calculate. Supposedly not really true, but it depends on wind. It depends on the load of the cities that will be set on fire, that particular target.

So, it’s too hard to calculate compared to fallout or blast or prompt radiation, but actually another thing, they then failed to calculate for 40 years into the nuclear era was smoke, the effect on smoke, where there’s fire, there’s smoke, And in the case of nuclear weapons causing fire, they will cause firestorms of of a kind we tried to produce very widely in firebombing by the British and the Americans in Germany and then the Americans in Japan.

We only achieved it three times. Hamburg, Dresden and Tokyo, a firestorm that would cause intense temperatures on the surface, and kill everyone within a given area, 100,000 people in one night in Japan, in Tokyo, March 9th and 10th. They tried to create firestorms in 60 other cities after that, but didn’t get it, killing about 900,000 Japanese civilians before Hiroshima, but Hiroshima caused the firestorm that you can do every time.

The firestorm has the unanticipated effect, they didn’t calculate it, of causing the smoke to rise into the stratosphere, to launch it upwards into the stratosphere where it won’t rain out. Do it to one city, effect of that, like Tokyo or even Hamburg and Dresden, the effect is not really perceptible on the earth. Do it to 100 cities. 

When I started working on war plans fifty years ago, 60 years, 1961, the Joint Chiefs intended to hit every city in Russia and China, over 100,000 and many less than that, hundreds of cities. The effect of that would be to put enough smoke and soot into the stratosphere where it would go around the globe very quickly. Within days, or a week or so, it would cut out 70 percent of the sunlight and cause Ice Age conditions on the earth.

So fire followed by ice. So Frost. I actually saw Frost recite his poem in 1961 at the inauguration of John F. Kennedy, the wind blew the leaves, the leaves of his speech, away, and I remember this is a little embarrassing because he was old, but of course, he had already written the poem Fire and Ice. I don’t think that’s the title of it, but it goes.

Some say the earth will end in fire, some in ice, from what I’ve tasted of desire. I tend to favor fire, but from what I know of heat, ice is also great and will suffice. For destruction. Ice is also great and will suffice. 

Anyway, that’s what we’re building toward, and that existed in 1961, and really it’s existed as a U.S. capability for about 10 years before that. So I say again, there’s no excuse for the continued existence of this. For one man or one nation to have the capability to do that, and the climate issue is very much the same. So at 90 and finally the answer to your question, I’ve learned a good deal of disillusion about my country and about my species, as well as learning how wonderful it is to live here, to be alive, and I’m still never less conscious of that than I ever have been. Wonderful here with my wife of 50 years and our children. My son lives in the house and look at this in California, and yet in a world where most people do not have the privileges and the luxury that we have.

Or the security, I could think, although actually what I’ve described it’s not a whole lot of security looking toward the future, but from day to day, no comparison with most people in the world, and yet with all that harm and oppression and inequality going on, I do choose to want to keep it going, to keep it going, to postpone at least until we evolve in some cultural way in a way that will make it possible for us to make the world less insecure, less inhumane for everyone.

Paul Jay

Denial of the threat of nuclear war is very comforting. Facing up to it. It’s very disturbing. You are the least in denial of anyone I know. Yet you maintain a sense of joy. You always have a twinkle in your eye. You laugh and you smile easily. Most people when I start talking about this, they say ah this is too depressing. How do you keep your sense of joy throughout all of this?

Daniel Elllsberg

Well, here my wife of 50 years here now being married and being with her, lying with her at night is heaven on earth. So, I know what heaven is, and the other side of that is that. Hell, it’s possible on this earth, as a matter of fact, all the people doing these things, I think hardly any of them do not convince themselves that they are making things less bad than they otherwise would be if other people were running it, that they have good intentions, but they are the kind of intentions that pave the road to hell.

And that’s the road we’re on. Well, how do you smile on that road? You know, and curse me? One of my favorite books. Very much so. When I was a kid was a book called Scaramouche by Rafael Sabattini.

And I always remember the first line of that about a Frenchman in the 18th. He was born with the gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad. Well, what we’ve been talking about here is he was not wrong. 

The epigraph from my book recently chosen from Nietzsche, one of them two epigraphs. Madness in individuals is something exceptional, but in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it’s the rule, and again, I think that’s what we’re seeing, the sort of availability of humans to madness in any way.

It’s capable we’re all capable of it, I think all humans are capable not only of participating in something mad out of a sense of group teamwork going on, delusional beliefs generally and being obedient, being loyal, being patriotic, being courageous, all things that we generally regard as virtues, but they all have a dark side in that they can be put to work serving very bad interests in general, and that’s where we are. So for many of us, obviously, life is simply, as I said earlier, very privileged.

My life, has always been a life of privilege compared not only to most people in the world, but most people in America, and it’s a privilege and my family to have my wife with us together, to have friends who are also joining me in this effort is joyous, and there’s a lot of things to laugh about. At the same time, I can’t let go of this feeling, the belief I have, that it’s not impossible to avert these catastrophes that we’re facing and that it’s possible even to challenge the hoax that entraps so many people.

The Ro Khanna and Markey effort to stop the ground based deterrence, the continuance of which I think would mean that we were doomed to have a hair trigger on the Doomsday Machine indefinitely, and I don’t think we would survive that indefinitely. The programs of the new administration need improving actually in terms of climate, but they are an immense change and really offer hope, an actual visible basis for hope that the emissions will go down. My hero Greta Thunberg, who enlarged a vigil at the Swedish parliament with Patricia and I actually participated in one very snowy, very cold morning once in Sweden with about 50 or 60 people had encouraged millions, actually a million or so in a couple of weeks later, a couple of months later and a year later, several million, many million people protesting in a strike on a school day, going from school, basically and striking.

But she could not be clearer in saying success is not measured in these numbers of people or even in her ability to speak to parliaments and to the U.N. and to Davos and so forth. She said the emissions are going up and that is that what we’re looking at, and that’s failure so far, a willingness in words. She’s shown this amazing moral courage and willingness to face not only the possibility of failure, but the existence of failure of very many times and yet to keep at it, as she does with the others.

And that’s what that’s what I’m privileged to be able to do. To keep at it. It’s possible and if it’s possible, it’s worth devoting one’s life to trying to bring that about.

Paul Jay

Thanks for joining us, Dan, and happy 90th birthday and thank you for joining us on theAnalysis.news.


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  1. I’m coming to believe more and more that the only truly informative news today is that only which strikes terror. Thanks Dan Ellsberg for still being around at 90 to strike terror.

  2. As I enter my mid-80’s, I see so little hope. Madness reigns. Foreign wars are often over oil–Venezuela, Syria, Libya, to name a few. Profit is everything. There is so little vision, so little rationality. Everything is tribal.

    Hats off to Ellsberg for his hope, his fight. And to you, Paul, for your caring and your fight.

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