In 1964 two savvy Pentagon consultants, Daniel Ellsberg and his boss Harry Rowen, stumbled out of a showing of Stanley Kubrick’s magnificent satire, Doctor Strangelove and morosely agreed that what they had just seen “was, essentially, a documentary.”

Everything they watched going deliriously haywire on screen to the point of igniting nuclear obliteration already had happened in reality or very well could happen, given all they knew about the defects, miscues and conceits riddling the bureaucratic control system over the use of nuclear weapons.

The planet is incredibly lucky that nuclear weapons have not detonated in anger or by accident since World War II. Such luck cannot hold forever unless serious changes are made, but since then, Ellsberg reckons, nothing much has changed.

Ellsberg is the courageous true patriot who, along with Anthony Russo, risked a lifetime in prison to disclose the secretive Pentagon Papers, spilling in 1972 a multitude of official lies that instigated the Vietnam War. In doing so he hastened the end of that indefensible conflict.

What few people appreciated at the time is that Ellsberg had also worked intensively on nuclear war strategy at the Air Force-funded RAND Corporation and as a Defence Department consultant. His new book, The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner is as profound a contribution by a former insider to public enlightenment as the earlier Vietnam episode for which Ellsberg is justly celebrated. Citizens in any nation possessing nukes ought to read this harrowing chronicle.

The Pentagon in the 1960s daintily avoided blunt terms such as “nuclear war plan,” and labelled the key document more disarmingly, so to speak, the Joint Strategic Capabilities Plan. The innocuous title was artfully chosen to avoid attracting scrutiny outside Pentagon walls, and even the Secretary of Defence was for a long time kept in the dark.

Ellsberg also writes of the case of an admiral deceiving the Secretary of Defence about the treaty-violating presence of a nuke-laden ship regularly moored inside Japanese waters. Ellsberg in his sleuthing also discovered, unlike the nice fiction that only the President can order nuclear use, that local commanders as a matter of policy exercised real autonomy over nuclear decisions. The nuclear “football” with launch codes that a Presidential aide totes around is just theater.

Ellsberg confirms along the way of a gripping narrative that the Air Force typically inflated Soviet ICBM capacity to win budgetary battles over the Navy and Army. (In 1962, approaching the Cuban missile crisis, the Air Force and the CIA estimated Soviet ICBMs at between one hundred and three hundred when the Soviets really possessed a grand total of 4, though they certainly had many short range nukes.)

Ellsberg also learned that the “2 man rule” of agreement for firing nukes was easy to sidestep. So the scary and absurdist Doctor Strangelove spectre of one neurotic in the lower command chain starting a nuclear war was entirely possible.

Ellsberg ascertained upon visiting air bases that vaunted “fail-safe” measures were rarely practised because of the hazard of accidents, meaning accidents were all the likelier to occur in a genuine flight scramble.

Contrary to widespread belief, no code exists for recalling strategic bombers once committed to attack, still less so recalling launched missiles (as Reagan initially believed).

All of this is perfectly, if crazily, logical. What if the President were killed? What if communications were disrupted? What if the enemy transmitted misleading messages to the attack force? Decisions then fall into the hands of nervous gung-ho local commanders.

Ellsberg advises that we be acutely appreciative of the abiding military mindset to accomplish any given mission, no matter what, which can overrule common sense.

Sobering common sense seems awfully urgent when confronting titanic forces such as a 25-megaton device that alone can unleash “more power than all wars in human history.”

When Ellsberg asked the Pentagon how many dead would ensue a US nuclear exchange with the USSR and China (which US planners did not differentiate), the number crunchers replied six hundred million, with a third of humanity afterward endangered by toxic after-effects.

Actually, the horrified Ellsberg adds, few would survive ensuing “nuclear winter,” and the survivors, as Khrushchev remarked, would envy the dead. Under no circumstances then should a nuclear war be started, but as we know one very nearly was in October 1962.

The US military was “itching to attack Cuba,” yet an aggressive blockade, recon flights, and invasion preparations ordered by the Kennedy Cabinet also stirred a high risk of nuclear Armageddon.

Unknown to the US, Soviet troops in Cuba had at least a hundred operational tactical nukes to throw against any invasion. The now renowned restraint of a Soviet sub-commander averted a nuclear torpedo launch. Ellsberg reveals several incidents demonstrating the crisis did not end until a month after it was officially declared over.

Ellsberg notes that at the 1945 Alamogordo bomb test there were two major fears ~ (1) the bomb would fail; and (2) a vastly miscalculated explosion would incinerate New Mexico and perhaps the planet. The chance “was very small, but not zero.”

They went ahead. Since then US strategy has been the deluded one of improving first-strike capability when all this aim does is inspire paranoia (and an arms buildup) in the enemy camp. Ellsberg lays out proposals for getting nukes off hair-trigger alert.

The wider public morality is at stake here too. Prior to the Cuban missile crisis, Defence Secretary Robert McNamara told Ellsberg that neither he nor JFK would initiate nukes under any circumstances, but that this stance actually had to be kept secret for fear the Congress would impeach JFK for it. The childish bellicose mentality governing these weapons needs to be tamped down at every level.

The writers are well-known commentators and the authors of Parables of Permanent War, among many other books.