By Ken Stone
The world risks 600 million lives lost and nuclear winter from the “Doomsday Machine.” Defense contractors still hold sway — in Russia as well as America.
“Our survival isn’t guaranteed.”
In a 2-hour appearance Tuesday night at San Diego State University, the former military analyst got standing ovations at entrance and exit.
In between, about 600 people heard Ellsberg reflect on what might have happened had President Kennedy not been slain (no Vietnam War) and whether Donald Trump is the worst presidential liar (not really; others lied in secret).
- Listen: Professor Mark Wheeler interviews Daniel Ellsberg at SDSU
- Listen: Daniel Ellsberg answers audience questions at SDSU
He hailed whistle-blowers Edward Snowden and Chelsea (as Bradley) Manning, saying their acts were in fact less serious than his since they revealed “secret” materials but not “top secret” data.
Nearly 50 years after leaking the secret government history of the Vietnam War, Ellsberg gave a master class in how politicians — even the communist leaders of North Vietnam — erred and brought tragedy.
But the issue that animated him most was the continued risk of nuclear war.
His 2017 book “The Doomsday Machine” assails the large U.S. stockpiles, possibly growing bigger under Trump.
Tuesday, he noted that a mistake could trigger silo-based ICBM launches — even though such missiles aren’t even needed anymore, since submarines can do the trick.
But only recently did he discover that others shared his sense of urgency.
He gave a shout-out to the folks behind preventnuclearwar.org and listed their five demands of U.S. policymakers:
- Renounce the option of using nuclear weapons first.
- End the sole authority of any U.S. president to launch a nuclear attack.
- Take U.S. nuclear weapons off hair-trigger alert.
- Cancel plans to replace the entire nuclear arsenal with enhanced weapons.
- And actively pursue a verifiable agreement among nuclear-armed states to eliminate nuclear arsenals.
“I’m hopeful about this for the first time” since the nuclear-freeze movement of decades ago, he said.
Until he discovered the site, he said, he wasn’t aware of anyone pressing this agenda — “not even damp tinder” of activism.
Amid this, Ellsberg said, Boeing and Lockheed are locked in a battle to win a $1.7 trillion nuclear-arms modernization contract.
“It transcends words. Killing everyone — is that immoral? Hmmmmm,” he said to laughter in Montezuma Hall. “I call that immoral and insane.”
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Along with climate change and other concerns, Ellsberg said he wants nuclear war made a key issue in the 2020 presidential election.
“Where we are now as a country, and as a species, is not good enough,” he said of corporations and governments “preparing doomsday and the jobs and the profits in the protection racket we give to alliances.”
The world is headed for near extinction, he said.
“We’ve got to have a Congress that’s not bought by the arms makers,” Ellsberg said. “That will be difficult. The chances of getting it … [are] small. But it can be made larger. That’s what I’m up to. That’s what my life is about.”
Ellsberg, who lives with his wife in the Berkeley suburb of Kensington, returned again and again to the theme of “us vs. them.” He framed that mentality historically (as in Vietnam) and his childhood affection for cowboy movies (“the only good injun is a dead injun.”)
“We don’t value the lives of the other,” he said.
He wondered why people can be so easily trained in physical courage — even willing to give up their lives as service members or first-responders — but aren’t being taught to show bravery on behalf of truth and justice.
He said moral courage (also called “civil courage” in its original notion under German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck) is needed, especially when it comes to obeying the oath to defend the U.S. Constitution.
“We aren’t trained to risk our jobs or careers” for the sake of others, he said.
And he cautioned not to assume some journalist will save the day.
“The idea that everything gets in The New York Times eventually is a myth,” said Ellsberg, who first leaked the 47-volume Pentagon Papers to the Times. (Later The Washington Post published the entirety.)
Quizzed by SDSU philosophy professor Mark Wheeler (who had the same role with Chelsea Manning six months ago), Ellsberg said he continues to grow in understanding.
Since Charlottesville, and its deadly neo-Nazi rampage, he says he’s learned more about the depth of racism in America than he knew even at age 85 or 86.
“I think we have an attorney general who would prefer to have legalized segregation brought back,” he said of Jeff Sessions.
(Ellsberg also said he believes Brett Kavanaugh’s accuser Christine Blasey Ford as he did Anita Hill in her 1991 testimony against later-confirmed Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. The audience applauded.)
Ellsberg was introduced by SDSU history professor Pierre Asselin, who made a pitch for students to take courses in the liberal arts. (“We make the world a better place, and so will you,” he said.)
Later, the famed whistle-blower showed his own literary bent, reciting from the Robinson Jeffers poem Cassandra, “doomed because she complained of sex harassment.”
The mad girl with the staring eyes and long white fingers
Hooked in the stones of the wall….
Truly men hate the truth, they’d liefer
Meet a tiger on the road.
Therefore the poets honey their truth with lying.
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