Ellsberg on Milley, China and the Danger of Nuclear War

In a commentary, Daniel Ellsberg explains that Gen. Milley’s call to China may have prevented a near catastrophe, as happened in 1983 when the Soviet Union believed Reagan had gone mad and planned a first strike. He calls for a fundamental change in U.S. nuclear strategy.


Daniel Ellsberg

Apparently, our intelligence in this year, the beginning of this year, told us that the Chinese were concerned that President Trump, in attempting to lash out and derail the process that was going to remove him from office after the election, that he might want to create a war as a distraction. We haven’t heard, and I doubt that if it is the case, that the Chinese were concerned that President Trump would, in the first instance, launch a nuclear attack. We haven’t heard that. I think it’s doubtful they believed it, and it’s doubtful that it would have occurred, especially an all-out nuclear attack.

What we have heard is that the Chinese were concerned and discussed this with Gen. [Mark] Milley, that he would take some military action that will result in armed conflict, which could escalate to all-out war, and that in Milley’s eyes, he was concerned that the action they were afraid of might be serious enough that they would want to preempt it, in some case.

Let me, just off the top of my head, give an example of that. If the President announced that in our commitment to defend Taiwan, we planned to return to Taiwan with a military base, a Marine base, or fighter pilots, or whatever is part of that, that could very well prompt a preemptive attack, not a nuclear attack, of course, but an attack that would preclude the possibility of Taiwan again becoming a base. And that would be an attack probably involving U.S. casualties, which could obviously quickly escalate.

Now, Milley took the Chinese concern seriously, and as something not neurotic, crazy, and it could not be dispelled by any reassurance, but as something based on recent events and their reading of the situation that could be calmed by his assurance. His assurance was that the President could not take any action, I think, without the participation of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other members of the military. And the implication was they would be a calming effect; they would not allow anything precipitate to be done.

Now, as a number of critics have pointed out, and in this case, correctly, he was, to the extent that he was implying he could prevent the President from doing this. He was predicting an unconstitutional and illegal action by himself or the others. Under a Constitution, no military man, including, and no Secretary of Defense, can override the decision of the Commander in Chief; that the defense of the United States, the national security of the United States, demands a particular kind of military action.

The President does have the power to do that. Constitutionally so far, that includes nuclear weapons. Some people have pointed out, when the founders put the declaration of war in the hands exclusively of Congress, back more than 200 years ago, they did not foresee nuclear weapons. Nevertheless, the Constitution remains that way. The President on his side can repel an attack or can decide what to do militarily.

Milley is telling us, in effect,  it has come out through Woodward and others. I think that he was prepared to go against that and to protect the nation from a mad or absolutely dangerous action by his commander in chief. It would be insubordination. And it was a case that called for insubordination. He could, of course, be fired instantly and replaced by somebody who would obey the Constitution and carry it out. We can imagine that person, in turn, refusing and having a kind of Saturday Night Massacre effect. But the fact is that the President does have that ability.

Specifically, though, what Milley has not said is that he told Gen. Li [Zuocheng], or the Chinese, that he would prevent this, simply that he would participate in the decision. That’s not really called for. But it does not imply that he would not, in the end, have carried it out or that his successor to him would not have carried it out.

Now, he, in other words, saw this as an extremely dangerous situation, and we’ve been through this before. It was indeed a dangerous situation. As Li worried, the Chinese and the others, yes, a chain of events could have occurred that would have, under current planning and current commitments, have resulted in a catastrophic nuclear war between the U.S. and China, which could have been short-circuited at one level or another by one side or the other backing off. And experience shows that could be possible, but not that it’s guaranteed that we’d have a process of escalation.

Now we’ve actually been here before in the most dangerous way. Most Americans imagine, even historians, when they write about it, that the single time that the world has been in really serious imminent danger of all-out nuclear war was the last stage of the Cuban Missile Crisis. They didn’t know that for a long time. When they learned how close subordinates were to attacking each other’s submarines, airplanes, in the process, they say that we were indeed close to nuclear war. And they think of that as the only time. That’s definitely not true.

First of all, the 1958-59 crisis in Taiwan was believed then by the Acting Secretary of State, Christian Herter, to have been the first nuclear crisis and comparable to that of the later one, the Cuban Missile Crisis. That’s from his point of view. The U.S. thought themselves that close, and yet they were going ahead. In retrospect, we know that was not that dangerous because China and Russia had no intention of allowing it to get that far, but we didn’t know that. And so, we were taking actions that our leaders thought might well lead to nuclear war.

But in 1983, I would say we came the closest — closer than the Cuban Missile Crisis, even — to an all-out nuclear war. And very few Americans are aware of it, although there are several books on the subject now that go into it in great detail, the 1983 war scare or alert. I could spend a lot of time going into the dangers of that; it’s extremely relevant historically. But let me just give the essence,  which applies today as well.

We knew years after that; we learned from our analysis of our intelligence sources that what a defector had told us earlier was right. That [Yuri] Andropov, the President Chairman, in the Soviet Union at that time, a former KGB head — and in the last year of his life, actually, I think that’s not irrelevant to his mood or his expectations, but he was on a dialysis machine in a hospital carrying out his decisions and died a year later. He was convinced that Ronald Reagan was planning a first strike, that his talk about an evil empire and the need to deal with the Soviet Union on the basis of strength, accompanied by something that Andropov knew, and most Americans did not; that Reagan was conducting extremely provocative exercises along and inside the borders of the Soviet Union, sending surveillance planes into the coastland or near the coastland, interfering with their planes, doing various things, quote, to put the Soviets, make them tense, put them off balance one way or another. Efforts that were so secret that most people in the government didn’t even know of them at that time. But they did look like reconnaissance for a first strike.

And, of course, Reagan was at that time involved in the then-largest buildup of nuclear weapons that had ever occurred. There were buildups under [Dwight] Eisenhower, buildups under [John F.] Kennedy, and later buildups under recent presidents. But this was, for the time, the biggest buildup there had ever been. And it was very largely in weapons that were designed for first strike, highly accurate weapons designed and intended to attack Soviet hardened missiles, which could only be done effectively striking first. They would have no effect striking after the Soviet missiles had left their silos. So either they would go first in an expectation that the Soviets were about to strike preemptively or out of the blue.

And although that was very far from the mind of any president that is actually coming, that I know of,  Andropov was not sure of that at all. Andropov, in fact, believed that an exercise in NATO — Able Archer exercise (in 1983) — was, in fact, a cover, possibly for a first strike. That was far from the reality. And yet, we were acting as if we were preparing for a first strike. When Reagan found out about this at the end of it, he was astonished: How could they have believed this? And he did draw the inference of how dangerous it had been that they had believed it.

In any case, believing this, Andropov had set up the largest intelligence, world widest exercise effort, that had ever been done in world history by anyone. In order to get intelligence of a possible immediate, imminent U.S. first strike. So all over the world, he had agents pursuing an endless number of possible indicators, including in the D.C. area, were lights on at night, in the State Department and the Pentagon, and cars, even on weekends, things like that. An enormous number of [inaudible 00:12:22], anything that appeared to be any kind of alert or special exercise he was alerted for. Nothing could be more dangerous in the nuclear era, since especially both sides had doomsday machines from the mid-60s on.

So the purpose of this intelligence exercise, then, which had no other purpose than to prepare for a preemptive attack. Otherwise, why know? If you’re going to be attacked, it’s not going to make any difference, in fact, but both sides believed that warning could serve worthwhile if it led you to preempt this attack. That situation is, of course, already extremely dangerous, but above all, it is prone then to a false alarm of a kind that’s occurred many times on both sides from tactical warning systems, electronic radar, satellite reconnaissance that we have insist. They will tell us that enemy vehicles are on the way. They’re not just going to come in a day or a week, but they’re on the way. It’s really virtually too late to do anything about that. We are planned to respond to that by getting our missiles off the ground before the enemy warheads occur and getting as many of their warheads as have not yet been launched. Both sides, I say, are on this delusional, dangerous preemptive system. Each side has had false alarms repeatedly that said enemy missiles were on their way, but they’ve been disproven before an actual preemption occurred.

They’ve gotten as high —  after the Cold War in 1995, with [Boris] Yeltsin being told that enemy missile was on its way to Moscow, and fortunately, he did not preempt until he had time to discover that it wasn’t, in fact, on its way to Moscow. It was a weather missile that had been misinterpreted.

In 1983, then, in the midst of Andropov’s belief that a soon-to-come NATO exercise might be a cover for a first strike. [Stanislav] Petrov, a colonel in the Soviet side, who was in charge of monitoring warnings from satellite warning systems, was in the control booth near midnight. He wasn’t supposed to be there that night, but somebody else had fallen ill, and he took that position. Red lights began shining. Alarms were going off. Missiles were on their way: first one missile, two missile, several others. There were missile trajectories from the U.S. towards the Soviet Union. Eventually, I think at five, he got up. Meanwhile, all of his subordinates were telling him to assure his superiors that an attack was underway. Petrov was not sure. For one thing, he was waiting to see indications from ground radars leader whether those missiles were on the way, as the satellite warning appeared to show. They weren’t showing that but which one was right? The ones that were not showing or the ones that were showing?

Petrov was religious, and one thing he said later, he believed it would be against God’s will to blow up the world if it were not necessary. He never indicated that if he believed the attack, he would have refrained from passing on that warning. As it was unsure that it was a true attack, he told his superiors a falsehood in his eyes. He said it is a false alarm. He didn’t know that. Had he told him, and he conveyed this to me when I had a communication with him, had he told him what he really believed, that it was 50/50, it might be, and it might not be. He believed that in that state of alert that they were, and warning, and alarm, they would have preempted on a 50/50 basis, and he didn’t want to do that. When it turned out that no missile attack occurred — he was waiting himself, in ten minutes he heard, see what happened. He was reprimanded for not having told his superiors what he had really believed. There was a back and forth on that as to how he was treated. He was finally forced to retire early with something like a nervous breakdown. He ended up living on potatoes in his own garden; as a matter of fact, he’s described in a BBC documentary as the man who saved the world, and that’s true he did.

Just as another Russian in the Cuban Missile Crisis has also been in a documentary with the same title. [Vasily] Arkhipov on a submarine who did save the world in his case. So we have a world that is dependent on just the right unusual Russian, or perhaps American commander in the right spot at the right time to short circuit this process.

Now, when we hear about — by the way, Andropov thought Reagan was mad. Andropov thought Reagan was deranged with his talk about — and many people in America would have agreed with him, rightly or wrongly. That was in the context of this major buildup. 

Right now, our past President, of course, was rather widely regarded as deranged. According to Milley, the General, it has come out now in the last days that he believed that the President — he was the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, working with the President constantly. He believed President Trump had mentally declined significantly since the election. If that were true, it would be understandable, would it not? Whatever he’d been before the election. That election is an extremely depressing event, as it was for Hillary Clinton, for example, four years earlier. How could it help but be?

In any case, it’s not amazing that the Chinese were worried that they were facing an unstable, deranged President in Donald Trump. Not total disagreement — well, as a matter of fact, let’s talk about an exchange that has just come out. Remember, President Trump was still the Commander in Chief at this time, on January 6th. On January 8th, I believe it was; the speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, is now reported as agreed to have had an exchange with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs saying he’s crazy, you know that you can’t say otherwise. He is crazy. Milley said to her, I am in total agreement with you. Now, that is a dangerous situation for the world and could happen again with another President.

By the way, not to spend time on it, but with the studies that I’ve been making for 50 years now, the pattern of at least occasional President instability is much greater than the American people have ever been told. I won’t go and spend the time on it now. Even President Kennedy, including during the Missile Crisis, was getting amphetamines at that time, seriously, that his brother was quite concerned about.

Johnson, in the very decision making of 1965, which the more you know about it, and I know a lot about it, the more crazy it seems. It seems hard to understand when you know the actual calculations that were being made. At that time, two of his closest aides, Richard Goodwin, his speechwriter and Bill Moyers and almost [inaudible 00:23:53], each came to the conclusion that at that time in the spring of ’65, their boss, President [Lyndon B.] Johnson, was clinically paranoid and was crazy. They felt they simply wouldn’t be believed if they put this out earlier. There’s a lot of evidence for it.

[Richard] Nixon, of course, especially in his later days, showed symptoms that led his Secretary of Defense to do exactly what General Milley just did. In fact, Milley and his aids describe it as pulling a Schlesinger, referring to Secretary of Defense [James R.] Schlesinger, who told his military commanders not to accept an order from the President that did not go through Schlesinger. I repeat that is against the law, his obligations, his oath, and the Constitution to do that. In this emergency, he felt it was right to do it, and nobody has really ever contradicted that. Nixon was drinking heavily and showed extreme depression as he faced the impeachment. Again, understandably, but that he was Commander in Chief. Just as Johnson had in the spring of ’65.

So we come to this situation now with a president feeling that nothing other than a war can keep him in office. A small war, but with China, that could become a big war.

Okay, so I am saying, I believe, I will infer from what we now know, which is minimal. I haven’t even got the book yet. It’s going to arrive next week — by Woodward on this subject. I think looking back on this, we may very well conclude, not that we were close to nuclear war because it seems that the Chairman of Joint Chiefs and other officers were prepared to be fired, to resign, to be court marshaled, perhaps, to disobey this. They were alert. We could say there wasn’t a big chance, except that the President had actually assigned people like [Mark] Esper and others Secretary of Defense, on the basis of his belief in their thorough loyalty to them, which could have been the case.

In other words, I’m saying yes, we have a highly nuclear-armed world now in which, A, instability by a leader, there’s no guarantee will be prevented from launching a war that kills most people on Earth. Second, that we — it shows a perfect example that the kind of buildup we are now pursuing, including new ICBMs, new submarines with highly accurate missiles, as accurate in killing in a preemptive attack, Russian suicidal missiles, as our own ICBMs. We can do the same job with sub-launch missiles as with ICBMs. They just add to it, and new air-launched cruise missiles, extremely accurate. Again, for really no other purpose than destroying and disarming the other side. All of this, and the Russians are doing much the same. All of this in the context we’re disarming the other side cannot go to a point that saves humankind from destruction because the submarines at sea cannot reliably be destroyed by either side to a point that will save civilization from destruction if they’re used.

No, you can’t disarm the enemy. China is not attempting to do that. Neither are any of the other six nuclear-armed States attempting to do that. The U.S. and Russia still — and why the U.S. because it is highly profitable to make those weapons. That means not only that CEOs of corporations and stockholders get fortunes, but the jobs in nearly every district in the country depend on those weapons. They’ve been deliberately distributed by contract around the world, so that there is a war as countrywide lobby and constituency to keep building the same kinds of weapons which are first-strike weapons that have no relation to the deterrence of nuclear attack. They do have a relation externally to our alliance relationships in that we claim a protector, hegemonic relation to our West European and other allies by virtue of our willingness to protect them with these weapons. So those are reasons. They are not reasons that justify risking the world.



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  1. Agreed, Trump was likely mad or reckless. But how do we know some rando military guy would not also be mad or reckless?

  2. Other side of “Murder Most Foul” is to cling to certain♥Peace. Strengthen your grip on PEACE and don’t let go. Love Peace like you love your children. –SD

  3. You can only be so lucky for so long . . . And hardly anyone knows.

    Entertainment – That magical distraction.

    Just a matter of time, really.

    After all, Pre-Emptive Strike Doctrine guarantees it.

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