Andrew Rice interviewed Daniel Ellsberg for a profile in New York Magazine.
Here are some passages:
“Keeping secrets was my career,” Daniel Ellsberg says. “I didn’t lose the aptitude for that when I put out the Pentagon Papers.” This might come as a shock, considering that the former Defense Department analyst is best known for leaking classified information nearly half a century ago, thus bringing about a landmark legal precedent in favor of press freedom and, indirectly, hastening the end of both the Vietnam War and the Nixon administration. But for many years, even as Ellsberg beat prosecution, became a peace activist, and wrote an autobiography titled Secrets, he still had something remarkable left to disclose….
The Doomsday Machine is being published at an alarmingly relevant moment, as North Korea is seeking the capability to target the United States with nuclear missiles, and an unpredictable president, Donald Trump, has countered with threats of “fire and fury.” Experts on North Korea say that the risk of a nuclear exchange is higher than it has been in recent memory. Ellsberg, as one of the few living members of the generation of theorists who devised our nuclear strike doctrines, has been grappling with such possibilities for much of his life. “It is kind of astonishing,” he says, “that people will put up with a non-zero chance of this happening.”….“It’s like living on Vesuvius — that’s what humans do,” Ellsberg said. “That’s why I think we’re likely to go.”….
Even after many disarmament treaties, Russia and the United States still possess enough weaponry to destroy the world many times over. “There is no essential difference between having 1,500 weapons, each side, on a hair trigger, pointed at each other, and having five or ten thousand,” he says.
For this reason, Ellsberg is happy that Trump has shown a deferential stance toward Russia. “Why is he that way? I don’t know. Probably, I think, because they’ve got blackmail on him,” Ellsberg says. “I don’t care what the reasons are.” On the other hand, facing North Korea, Trump has been willing to make explicit nuclear threats — although Ellsberg says Trump’s predecessors have all used their arsenals much the same way, by inference, like a gun that bulges conspicuously beneath a jacket. “This is my speculation,” he says, “but in Trump’s mind, the fact that they can kill enormous numbers of our allies and even some American troops, it is very, very different from fearing that they can kill Americans in the homeland.” But even if their missiles can’t reach us quite yet, Ellsberg the game theorist believes that Kim Jong-un has probably devised some sort of strategy to assure that he isn’t destroyed alone.
“Just a small boat, that’s all it takes,” Ellsberg says. “You can put a warhead in it and sail it to Long Beach or L.A. Harbor or San Francisco Harbor.” The view from his house suddenly feels less enchanting.
Ellsberg says that the world’s survival, so far, has been “something like a miracle.” He’s a pessimist, but he believes in surprises. Nixon’s impeachment, the end of Vietnam, the fall of the Berlin Wall, his own freedom — they’re all miracles to Ellsberg. “For me to be doing what I’m doing doesn’t take a whole lot of hope,” he says as evening falls. “A little uncertainty here is enough to keep me going.”