• Kevin Elliott

Ellsberg: Cranbrook, Pentagon Papers, book


Deemed "the most dangerous man in America" by former United States Secretary of State and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger for leaking a top-secret defense study now known as The Pentagon Papers, Daniel Ellsberg risked his freedom to reveal government lies that started and escalated the war in Vietnam. Raised in metro Detroit and graduating from Cranbrook Schools in 1948, Ellsberg's later studies led him to work as a consultant on the country's war strategy, including nuclear plans still in use today. His most recent book, set to be released in December 2017, "The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner," promises to release new secrets about the country's nuclear war policy. Ellsberg recently spoke to Downtown reporter Kevin Elliott about the book, as well as his life before and after the release of the Pentagon Papers in 1971.

How did you come to Michigan, to Cranbrook Schools? How did that come about and what were your plans at the time?

I didn’t have a lot of plans when I was 12. Actually my mother had very specific plans for me to be a concert pianist, and I had been working on that since I was 5. I had gone to grade school in Highland Park, Michigan, at quite a good public school. I’ve always regretted what I heard about our country and the decline of its public schools in my lifetime.

My mother arranged for me to go to school only half-days, which was the time that I was about 7 or 8. I took an I.Q. test, I don’t know the results of it, but they allowed me to go only in the mornings so I could practice in the afternoons. I spent all of my time, essentially, from basically 5 to 15 when my mother died, and even a couple of years after that, doing nothing but playing the piano, as I recall it.

I had recitals every year. My teacher was an accompanist to the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, and we had various recitals, but one big one every year that I had to practice for all year. By the time I was 8 or 9, and certainly 10, I was practicing for four hours a day, then I got up to six hours a day. She wanted me to go to a good school, and she heard about Cranbrook somewhere. I took another test for Cranbrook, and was accepted when I was 12, I think, for the 7th grade. I started that year in February in grade school. They started me in the beginning of the year, so I actually went back half a year in the 7th grade at Cranbrook as a full-scholarship student.

My father had been an engineer at Albert Kahn, in the Fisher Building in Detroit. He worked during the year as the chief structural engineer on the Ford Willow Run plant, which built B-24s on an assembly line, hanging from hooks. As a little boy, he took me out to Willow Run when it got into operation, and there were B-24 bodies in a line. Altogether, the line was a mile-and-a-quarter long. It was a very impressive sight, and I was very proud of my father. He went on to be chief structural engineer on the Dodge Chicago plant, which made engines, for I think, for B-29s. When these planes would come off the line, by the way, they would just be lowered to the ground and filled with gas, and fly away. It was an impressive operation – Detroit, the arsenal of democracy.

My mom, she just wanted me to go to a good school, and Cranbrook was a very good school, and as far as I know, still is a very good school, really excellent. When I went to Harvard, I found the classes relatively easy in a way because I had five years of quite strict academic upbringing, and a lot of homework. I was very well prepared for that.

The future that stretched before was that of a pianist, even though I became aware, I didn’t think I was going to have the career of my hero, Vladimir Horowitz – I just wasn’t up to that. My impression then was that it is hard to make a living as a concert pianist unless you were in the very top, and I didn’t expect to be there. In my last years at Cranbrook, my brother, who was 11 years older, my half-brother was quite radical, introduced me to economics. He actually bought me an economic textbook for my Christmas present in my junior year at Cranbrook. I got very interested in economics, especially in labor economics. I read books about the labor movement in Detroit. Walter Reuther was my hero, as a matter of fact. I remember very well being just thunderstruck when he was shot in Detroit during that period by what turned out to be, later, a coalition of manufacturers who hired several gunmen from Canada to come over and shoot him with a shotgun. It didn’t kill him. It wounded his arm, forever.

I actually was regarded as pretty radical, for my interest in the labor movement, at Cranbrook. The non-scholarship students were nearly all children of auto executives from Bloomfield Hills or elsewhere, and were quite Republican or right wing. So, when I was interested in Henry Wallace, for example, my senior year there, they regarded me as very leftist. I also wrote a humor column for “The Crane,” the Cranbrook newspaper, and I wrote a column every week anonymously, and loved watching people read it and laugh, and not know who the author was until our graduation. I was the class valedictorian.

Oddly enough looking back on it, I was voted “most likely to make a contribution to human welfare,” which was interesting.

I think that happened. I think they were right.

Thank you. Anyway, I did what I could.

I took an SAT for a competition run by the Pepsi Cola Corporation, which had a foundation for sending two students from each state on the basis of tests to a college of their choice anywhere with all expenses paid. The Pepsi Cola Scholarship. It was based on two SATs, one for the state or one nationally, or something like that. I did well on both of those and was one of the two from Michigan who could go anywhere they wanted. I chose Harvard.

The summer that I graduated from (Cranbrook), 1948, I did two things. I thought I was going to have a career in the labor movement as a labor economist. Or, a labor organizer, romantically. That summer, between Cranbrook and Harvard, I actually spent all summer at the Dodge Hamtramck plant on the night shift. The day shift was entirely occupied by Polish Americans, and southerners, blacks and acolytes like me, were on the afternoon shifts. It was very, very hot in the summers in Detroit. That was a very interesting summer. It permanently damaged my hearing. I worked in the press shop of a car manufacturer, and if you’ve never been in a press shop, it’s very noisy. You open the door and you go into this huge loft-like building where they have several-story high presses that press out the entire top of the car. Then others press out the fenders and sides and so forth. I think its three or four stories high, and the press would come down: eeeeeyra – crash! Stepping into that building was like diving into a pool of sound. We didn’t, in those days, have something for our ears, that was something the union brought in later. So, my high-pitched frequencies got cut off at that age, and I’ve been wearing hearing aids now the whole time.

It was the next year that I worked on a ranch in Wyoming stacking hay. Very, very hard work. The hardest work I ever did, physically. I haven’t had a life of hard physical work. I’m a very white collar person, but that was very hard.

Your work in economics and the Ellsberg Paradox, did that transition well into your work with Rand?

I was working on labor economics my first few years at Harvard, then my academic advisor said I should write a better thesis in theory. I wrote an honor’s thesis on that subject. I got summa cum laude at Harvard, and people that read it, the Harvard Society of Fellows, which is an alternate to the PhD program, but in between there, I did get a Woodrow Wilson scholarship, which I could take anywhere. I went to Cambridge University in England, following a professor of mine who moved over there. I spent that year with my wife. I had got married in the middle of my junior year, so we went back to England in ‘52-’53. Meanwhile, the Korean War was still on, or the Korean Emergency, and I had been deferred on a student fellowship in 1951. So I had a couple of years of deferment and felt that I would eventually pay that by going into the service. I chose the Marine Corps.

My wife, who I married when I was 19, had a Marine colonel for a father who became a brigadier general when he retired. She’d grown up on Marine bases, and loved the Marines. I thought it would please her to be back on a Marine base. I went in the Marines in ‘53 for two years, then extended for a year because my battalion was going to the Mediterranean and we had indications, including from the Alsop Brothers columnists, that we would be at war with Egypt over the Suez Canal. I couldn’t stand the thought of being back at Harvard for the Society of Fellows while my battalion was fighting possibly in the Middle East.

We were there for six months during the Suez Crisis. We evacuated all of the Americans from Alexandria at one point while the British and French were attacking Egypt. Then I came back to the Society of Fellows.

To answer your question, I had written this thesis on game theory. I wrote several articles based on that, and I remember I was correcting proofs by torchlight, flashlight and moonlight in a foxhole in Vieques during several months of maneuvers in the Marines.

When I was back in the Society of Fellows, I got interested in an off-shoot of game theory. I have been a critic of game theory, almost the first one, and one of the few up to this day to criticize the foundations of game theory. But that spun off into a field called decision theory, which deals with decisionmaking under uncertainty – not only against an advisory, like game theory, but against nature, in effect. Decisions like, do we evacuate Houston in the face of uncertain warning of a hurricane coming along? A hurricane isn’t a conscious adversary, except in the case of about a third of our country who can only understand that in terms of divine will. But just any kind of decision under uncertainty.

I wrote my PhD thesis at Rand (Corporation). I took six months off from my work at Rand and did a PhD theory on decisionmaking under uncertainty.

I concluded in that thesis that the reigning theory at that time, which was that people should act as if they assign precise probabilities to events; like say, it’s 35 percent likely that the hurricane in Houston will make landfall on a certain day, or something like that – I felt that was unrealistic, not only in terms of their expectations, but everybody admits they were more vague than that. They even act as if they assign post-probabilities to events, and I had a different theory of how that worked, which I called ‘situation ambiguity,’ which is where you don’t know enough to assign even close probabilities to events.

When we initially spoke, we thought we would talk about the Pentagon Papers, of course that was before the presidential election and the completion of your book “The Doomsday Machine.” In light of that, we wanted to ask you how from your own life the importance of the Pentagon Papers and your work as a defense analyst at the Rand Corporation led you to write a book about the country’s nuclear war strategy from the 1960s to today, what that strategy involved then and where you believe we are today?

I went to Rand one summer when I was in the Society of Fellows. It was sort of the Vatican of decision theory. So, I was drawn to Rand not because of their defense work for the Air Force, but because their mathematics department, in particular, and their economics department, had done a lot of work in decision theory and game theory. I went as an economist, which was my field at that point. The economics department was working on nuclear strategy a great deal for historical reasons I won’t go into.

I was drawn to the particular problem of a decision, which was the president’s decision whether to go to nuclear war or not on the basis of uncertain warning. We had, and have, an elaborate warning system of radars and eventually satellites – infrared satellites and communication satellites – to give us warning of the Soviet, in those days, attack. Or Russian attack, now. Or, anybody else. Big radars in Alaska and Greenland and elsewhere. The problem was though, that this warning would never be certain. It would never say an attack is on the way – it would say here are the indications, that it may be, and how many missiles and so forth. It turned out that these were subject to a great deal of mistakes and errors; say mistaking a flock of geese for a flock of planes, for example. Or sunlight glinting off clouds as being the infrared plumes of missiles rising. That happened exactly in 1983.

In 1983, the Russians had exactly that experience, and a colonel in the Soviet Union was faced with the question of whether to tell his superiors that an American attack was on the way, which is what his satellite warnings were telling him. He wasn’t sure, and rightly so. It was a false alarm. He chose not to reveal the full degree of evidence to his superiors because he suspected it was not right. Fortunately, he was right, and his decision was right, so we are still here. Soviets at that time were poised, in the same way that we would have been at that time, for a pre-emptive attack based on that, to get their missiles off the ground before ours arrived. This is very close to the subject of my book. Also, to get our remaining missiles before they got launched. The assumption being that there weren’t just empty holes for them to get, but that some missiles were on the way but others hadn’t yet been launched. They would have launched that to limit the damage, supposedly, to their country from the oncoming attack, and to prevent their retaliation from being destroyed on the ground.

That was an exact imitation of our plans from the late ‘50s on, from the time they had nuclear weapons to threaten us with. Our countries have always been fixed on the idea of pre-emption, even though they try to be very foggy about this to the public. It’s what’s called “launch on warning.” You press the button here before the enemy warheads have arrived. That is the basis of our planning, and always has been. That is extremely dangerous because if false alarms continue as they have until not too long ago, that means potentially, the world as we know it can be destroyed by that effect.

Since the Russians imitated our own strategic forces in the mid ‘60s, really after Khruschev under Brezhnev, after the Cuban Missile Crisis had humiliated them, they spent an enormous amount of money buying what amounted to a strategic air command of their own based mainly on missiles, where ours started with bombers. Until that time, they had very little that could hit the United States, just as North Korea doesn’t have that now in its missile capability, and is striving to get it so they will have the retaliatory ability against the US.

When I went to Rand and got top secret clearance, I was working on deterring a Soviet surprise attack that would wipe out our strategic air command and leave them essentially with a monopoly of nuclear weapons. That was an entirely illusory problem, which I was working on night and day. I was working 70 hours a week at Rand to deter or pre-empt a Soviet attack, which could not have happened. The Soviets in 1960 and ‘61 had exactly four ICBMs (Inter Continental Ballistic Missiles) that could hit the United States, which could have been wiped out by a single plane on our part, compared to thousands of warheads on planes and missiles, and submarine missiles within range of the Soviet Union. They essentially had nothing. It was like the Germans in World War II, where the Manhattan Project had worked night and day to deter a German capability of nuclear weapons, which didn’t exist because they had stopped their program in June of ‘42, about the time we started ours. They had nothing. And, North Korea today has nothing against the United States, but will as things go on, unless we launch a catastrophic war against North Korea.

During that period, there were false alarms that could have led us to attack the S